In 1988, I was slinging hash in a diner down on I-65. If you’ve ever been through that long, lonely stretch between The Tennessean Truck Stop and the dubious virtues of the Shady Lawn’s Boobie Bungalow, you might’ve stopped for a spell.
God knows, if you had any sense, you weren’t stopping anywhere else.
A diner is a fine place to watch people. We had our regulars, but what I liked most was listening in on the conversations between travellers passing through. There were bankers, bartenders, street musicians, sailors. Mostly they were just people talking about other people. Gossiping, really. The thing about gossip is that you reveal more about yourself in doing it than you do about the person of whom you are speaking.
One afternoon a large man was holding forth at a table of women. He was loud, and he liked it. His voice carried. He went on about his job as a professor at one of the state universities: how hard it was to get anything done, how much the students got in the way. How one young woman came crying to him, wanting taking a test late because she’d just had an abortion, that she was still cramping and couldn’t sit for the full two hours. He laughed.
He used her name.
He said something about dogs and about knees, and about justice. The women next to him avoided his eyes. They were silent.
The young woman at the next table wasn’t. I had watched her face get redder and redder, her mouth more firmly set. She stood up, and this I will never forget.
“You have no right. That was said to you in confidence. You have no right. I have your name, and I know where you work.” With that, she walked out, leaving a twenty on the table to cover the waffles and coffee. It was more than enough.
I don’t think she was the student in question; the guy didn’t seem to know her. He did get quiet after that, though, and I never saw him there again. That was fine with me.
Having been raised a good Catholic, I was pretty strongly anti-abortion at the time. But even then I felt uncomfortable about someone with privileged access to a private life using that information to tell a public story. As a story, it wasn’t a particularly good one. It didn’t illuminate any deep truths, and it wasn’t funny. All it did was say quite clearly, “Look at me. I have power. Being powerless is shit. Remember that.” The women at his table already knew that. Somehow the other young woman did not, at least not yet.
I wonder what she is doing now and who she became. I was nineteen at the time. She couldn’t have been much older. Maybe she stays silent now, too. Maybe she still speaks truth to power every day. I don’t know.
What I do know is that my life is full of intimate confidences. I spend my time listening to private stories. Those stories I never tell a soul. You won’t hear me on the road at a truck stop holding forth, and you won’t find me writing about them, not even with the names changed. It’s not because I’m afraid someone will find out my name and where I work.
Quite simply, I don’t do it because I don’t want to be him. I don’t want to be the guy who says to the other people in the room, “You are shit. You are dirt. And if you tell me something, I will use it to remind you and everyone else who can hear it.” Breaking confidence has a way of doing that. It silences not just those who confided but those who might confide. This is how power reproduces itself. This is how people get silenced.
Another person’s stories are not the fulcrum on which you raise yourself. They aren’t tools in the game of one-upmanship, especially not stories that were closely guarded and painfully told. They don’t belong to me. They don’t belong to you.
I’d like to think that if I ran into that woman again, the one who stood up, she’d be comfortable sitting next to me. We could chat a bit, talk about the weather. Maybe she’d tell me who taught her to become who she was. Like the rest of us, she was probably just an average person toiling away in the salt mines of life. Most of us keep our heads down.
Isn’t it beautiful when someone stands up?