Last week I was in New Orleans with students for a conference, as I mentioned in my last post. However I left out one of my encounters from that night – a conversation I had with a man named Koolio, which started over a simple question: “How are you doing?”
‘How are you doing’ is an intriguing question, interesting enough that a friend of mine asked me to write this blog post about it. I don’t want to brag or anything, but the idea that anyone asks my opinion about anything is pretty flattering. I hope that this lives up to their expectations. (Yes, I realize this is a weird thing to say for someone who is professionally employed to communicate information to other people for money called ‘tuition’).
Anyway, back to the question at hand. Whether you say “How are you doing”, “What’s up”, or even in some cases give a slightly longer than usual smile, your message is usually met with a pleasant response. “Fine”, or “Not much”, or a smile in return. It’s one of those things that humans somehow tend to do, forming fleeting bonds with others over moments in time, not relationships or shared interests. You and I are here, we acknowledge each other as a person, and we move on. It’s politeness in a nutshell. It’s nodding to our shared species. It’s nice.
But what about that situation we all dread – when someone goes ‘off script’. They don’t follow the pattern. They buck the trend. That’s what Koolio did when I met him last week. But to be honest, I probably threw him for a loop first.
Koolio was sitting nearby his overturned, white, 5 gallon tub. Other containers and plastic bags littered his area, however he had temporarily rolled away toward the small information booth near the bench I decided to sit on. When he returned to his stuff, he spied me as I looked out at the water, as sun set over the French Quarter.
“Hey man…. Hey….How you doin?”, he yelled out in slurred speech through a tight jaw. I looked over at home and replied “Fine, how about you”. Koolio sized up his conversation partner and replied “You want da truth?”. My reply: “Whatever you’re comfortable with, man”. Koolio then rolled over to the bench that I sat on and proceeded to tell me about his life. He’d recently been in the hospital, as evidenced by the fresh wristband on his right wrist, with a “Falls” warning on it. He told me his full name, but said he was more comfortable with Koolio. “With a K”, he made sure to tell me. Koolio had, according to his awkward stilted narrative, a pretty rough life. But he wasn’t worried. He had a friend in God, who looked out for him. After 3-4 minutes of conversation, he revealed that he wasn’t doing too well right at the moment, his pain medication needed a refill. As we finished our 5 minute conversation, a passing local, in a uniform polo, gave Koolio the last few drags on his cigarette. I peeled off $10 and told Koolio to be well, and he thanked me profusely, telling me he now had the money to buy his medication.
For the record, I don’t really care with Koolio did with my money. Koolio might really need medication, he might need alcohol, he might need food, and (since it’s New Orleans and I’m a tad bit cynical), there is always the chance he’s a professional hustler who really doesn’t have it as bad as his wheelchair and missing teeth led me to believe. The money could have just as easily be spent by me on a trinket or a fancy coffee or at the addictive beignet place a stones throw away. And while engaging strangers in conversation is something I feel comfortable doing, I don’t recommend it to those out there who are not physically intimidating – it can be a dangerous proposition (But as we established, I looked like a bouncer or security guard that night!).
The point of the story isn’t about the money – in my mind the point is about human connection. I don’t know what’s going to happen to Koolio. I don’t know if I’ll ever know. All I do know is that human connection spawned by “How are you doing” benefited us both that night. Koolio received $10, and I received a moment to consider human behavior in the most pure form. As a psychologist, I get to wax philosophical about humans every day, but from time to time, I need grounding in reality just like anyone else. “How are you doing” grounds us, especially when the reply is “off script”.