Yesterday we took a walk with my family’s dog Daisy, down a path near my house, visiting a pretty lake. We passed two people, each of whom were walking dogs as well – as we held Daisy back (she’s not very friendly with her own species), I smiled and spoke to the dog owners, “Hi, how are you – sorry, she’s not very friendly –” and was surprised to get no response from them. Not a word, not a smile. I don’t think they were perturbed by the dogs’ relationship. They just didn’t seem very friendly.
I don’t want to analyze each of my interactions with strangers based on their friendliness. We did that for forty-eight days and I don’t think it’s fair to do in every situation. Maybe I have a sympathetic nature. Every time we got brushed off by someone, and as our statistics built to show 45% of people we approached declined to speak with us, it was easy to describe those experiences as unfriendly. Neither Sarah nor I believe that to be the case – we acknowledge that people are busy, people are shy, people are worried they’ll be asked something that makes them uncomfortable (and asking for a stranger to take us in sure made some people uncomfortable). So we learned a lot about tone.
In Atlanta, dozens of people declined to speak with us, and most were extremely polite about it – surprising given the stigma of unfriendly cities. We didn’t find a place to stay, but we agree that Atlanta was one of our most positive days. We recently got an email from a couple in Wells, Nevada, who had read our blog post about Wells and were fairly enraged. They believed we were biased and rude, and their email was full of venom. In fact, it only furthered our interpretation of Wells, where we met plenty of people who were busy or disinterested, but whose tone made their cold shoulder truly chilling.
And our tone with people was probably the most influential factor in our good luck finding a home. We were always smiling, always friendly. When we were stressed or unconfident, we either had an unsuccessful interview, or we were very grateful that someone else’s energy could lift our spirits too. Our experiments with appearance had almost no direct effect – and although we discussed race with most of our hosts, and heard some racist comments, I think our friendly nature had much more to do with our luck than our white skin. And we often considered the discrepancy between the needy who are deserving versus those who are not deserving – some people didn’t help us because we weren’t deserving, as we were clearly not poor or truly homeless. But many people don’t actually help the homeless because they don’t want to fuel bad habits, including panhandling as a career detour. I hope even a homeless person could have the luck we had, as long as they did it with a smile and clear motivation.
I want to feel more surprised. I think I’ll find surprises while we’re editing – as I grow more distant from our experiences, and as I look at different experiences next to each other, I am sure new lessons and perspectives will arise. After a couple days, it felt so natural to be in a stranger’s home, to be in a new bed, or new floor, around new smells.
But the part of a stranger’s home that I found most interesting was their shower. Something about showering is so much more personal even than sleeping in someone else’s home – maybe the fact that you’re naked. But seriously, every time I showered somewhere else, or was even just offered, it was kind of a rush. And very exciting. Some people have amazing showerheads. But I also had a few stretches of up to four days when I didn’t shower, which hasn’t happened since I was a kid. While four days ended up feeling pretty gross, I think it’s an interesting new comfort level for me. And that’s kind of a goofy example in the context of cleanliness-comfort throughout this project: lack of showering, or staying in a messy home, or sleeping on a floor, or in the car, all of these are a lot less clean than how I normally live my life. My house in New Jersey is extremely clean. I am very comfortable walking around barefoot. My room in New York is cleanish, but I always wear my flip-flops. I am not high-maintenance or hoity-toity, so it wasn’t like a lesson, or a release – but I definitely appreciated living in different environments, if only for a night. This is kind of a silly way of getting to the fact that the messy houses were exciting because they opposed what so many said to us: “I would let you stay, but my house is just a mess right now.”
There is definitely a pressure of hospitality, of being a host, of having guests. Fearing that your guests will be judgmental. Or disappointed? It’s a fair pressure. But a little bit sad. And part of why our messy homes were so comfortable – and even exciting. Those hosts were often the most open. The most comfortable with themselves and with us. I’ve generally considered myself an open person, not much to hide. But many of our experiences have inspired me to be more open. We made seemingly close relationships with a number of the people we stayed with, over the course of just a couple hours. We’ve stayed in touch with some; others, we’ll talk to only about the progress of the movie. The definition of “friend” is very nebulous in the context of our film, because we often refer to our hosts as new friends, even some of our shorter interviews as friends. We also stayed with someone who would outright tell us that we are not friends: for him, it’s a process that takes years. I love the idea of calling people friends after just a couple minutes. Connections aren’t something tangible, they are felt. I believe we can feel the connection of friendship almost instantaneously, and I only believe that because of this project. It’s a feeling that has no age barriers either – we often stayed with people who could be our parents, or grandparents, who have children our age. But to have open conversation, to call them by their first names, to eat a meal with them – it makes the feeling of friendship come alive.
I decided about two years ago that I wanted to wake up just before sunrise every day – I had written to a friend that “a sunrise is the most nutritious breakfast,” but the joke inspired me. I felt more energetic and excited when I started my day when the day really started. But it also only lasted for two months. So now, I want to proclaim that I’ll smile at everyone I see, that I’ll engage in conversation with people at the store, on the street, that I’ll be perpetually open and excited about everyone around me – and while it’s nice to have that attitude, I don’t imagine it being quite as consistent as all that. But more outgoing, more invested and interested in the stories behind the faces around me, those are attitudes that can always be “more,” that I’ve always had, but that I have now in a brand new way, in a directly inspired way.
And when I introduce myself to new people, I have a feeling that this summer will be one of the first things I talk about. It was the most exciting and dynamic experience of my life. Inside and out – personal growth often through public experiences. An adventure of discovery – maybe rediscovery – of broad ideas I had about Americans. Rediscovery because I had some sort of general open optimism and faith in humanity that this project created a solid foundation for. Discovery because I explored the country and a random assortment of its people. And people sure are complex: we’d hear contradictions as people invited us in and later described how much crime there is going around, how they have to fear for their space. Or people who would be incredibly positive about their town, their openness, and then be taken aback when we said we were relying on strangers for a place to stay. We heard a lot of opinions that I don’t agree with: in conversations of politics, or religion, or tolerance, or diversity. But I don’t agree with them in a personal way, and I can appreciate individuals as a bittersweet mixture of positive and negative, respectable and distasteful. I think this summer helped me encounter some of that for myself. Sarah and I had arguments; I rediscovered some of the darker parts of my personality, and regretted some of my words and actions. Halfway through the trip, I had a brief breakdown: frustrated at Sarah, frustrated at the camera, the pressure of filming our experiences, the disappointment of being behind a camera rather than experiencing something firsthand, and above all, frustrated at how this film might portray me. What if I come across as a jerk? What if I’m captured being rude or short with Sarah? What if I’m the cautious, lame so-called “adventurer,” paling in comparison to Sarah’s energy? Strange to be self-conscious while hoping to meet people who are open, who will welcome a camera into their home without warning. Strange to doubt my good nature and personality because a camera is around. But maybe it also made me more sympathetic to the people who decline to be on camera. It’s another contradiction.
This is the first sizeable documentary I’ve ever made. In one of my classes last year, we discussed the potential impossibility of “nonfiction filmmaking.” Documentaries are supposed to present reality, but there’s really no such thing: in an abstract way, nothing is reality but our own minds and our own interpretation of direct experiences. In a more concrete way, there’s no nonfiction in film because people are generally conscious of the camera, conscious of the future audience – and people are usually conscious of what is considered taboo. The racism we encountered was for the most part tangential, mentioned briefly, revised later in the conversation. Everyone wants themselves portrayed positively – everyone wants to be liked. Many people who declined to interview with us probably had this subconscious motivation. Sarah and I discussed our fear of ending up in a house of domestic violence – but everyone knows domestic violence is wrong, and I don’t think we would have ever been invited into such a home, for fear of it being seen. Many people took us in and believed it was simply “the right thing to do.” I bet there are just as many people who think it was the right thing to do, but still said no. We often defy our own morals, and we often don’t treat each other as we’d like to be treated. Our footage captures many people telling personal stories, personal opinions, engaging in personal activities – but where do some of those things lie on the scale of white lies? That goes for the conversations Sarah and I had on camera as well.
And yet one of the most exciting parts about this film, exciting from the planning stages, and most exciting while it was actually happening, is the freedom. Another contradiction, as it was very stressful to be concerned with filming everything, but this is a film without walls. A film in which the camera and the person behind the camera are main characters. A film around the country, inside homes, inside heads, inside beds. The film fueled the adventure, and the adventure fueled the film. Someday, my memories of this summer will be warped into images from the film and stories created by the film, by putting different experiences in conversation with each other. Another way film extends reality. Maybe the most important part is the feeling, just like the way we trust each other and the way we experience friendship hinges on a feeling – I know that this project, this summer, this movie, this adventure, feels pretty damn good.