Good writers listen; bad ones never shut up. If this sounds like common sense you'd be amazed how often, in how many differing circumstances, I've watched journalists, writers and even world famous poets steer a perfectly captivating discussion aground over their refusal to pay the slightest bit of attention to anyone other than themselves.
I don't know why they do this. Listening helps you learn things. Listening allows you to uncover the hidden nuggets that make for a good story.
Listening gets you out of the way of yourself. It's powerful.
This morning I was reminded of the great power of keeping my trap shut on a seemingly endless subway ride into town. In front of me, on opposite sides of the subway car, sat two tall women in their late 60s who were very, one might even say ostentatiously, made up.
“It's you,” said the first woman to the second woman, then adding, “Do you still working in Bloomingdale’s?”
The first woman had an Eastern European accent, the second woman sounded local and wore huge dark sunglasses. Both were dressed entirely in black, even their shoes.
“It is me,” said the second woman, nodding. “I do still work there. Where are you going?”
“I'm going to Bloomingdale’s too,” replied the first woman, mentioning the name of the famous makeup company located on the ground floor that was her destination. After a five-year hiatus she was finally returning to hawk more expensive lipsticks, powders and face creams she said.
So now I knew why they were so dramatically made up this early in the morning. “I just have a quick blow out appointment before I go in this afternoon,” said the first woman. “I know I can't just show up with my hair looking like this.”
That detail interested me. The first woman would pay out of pocket to look salon fresh on the work floor later. She would put her best face forward to the thronging crowds. She wouldn't dare show up like this, she explained.
The second woman mentioned that there had been some changes during her hiatus. There were vending machines with sandwiches in them now, but the prices had gone up, they were more thorough about the searches to check you hadn't lifted any merchandise, the coffee was cheap but still lousy, she added.
For some reason I began to feel like I was listening to two magicians reveal the tricks of their craft. Their candid conversation was letting harsh sunlight in on dreams, it felt like.
I should explain. Since coming to New York I've had a ritual for when I feel down or when the world has gotten to me. I like to saunter through the glittering ground floor makeup department at Bloomingdale’s and watch the dramatically made up women and gay men sell potent fantasies of glamour, youth and beauty to unsuspecting passers by.
It's the most American thing in the world, really. The idea that you can purchase a cream or a perfume or a lipstick that will reveal your hidden essence. Buy it and be transformed.
For some reason I find it genuinely cheering to watch these persuasive myth makers at work, taking another startled suburban housewife as their blank canvas and then revealing hitherto unknown aspects of their inner lives to them as people mill past their glass tables in the middle of the afternoon.
If you haven't been receiving all of the attention you should have from your husband or partner -- as it often looks to me like many of these woman may not have been -- it must be quite a pleasure to have the contours of your face thoughtfully explored by someone who is observing you more keenly than the man you share your life with.
Gay men seem to have an intuitive understanding of this and what it means, and I have watched them coax these women out of themselves, delighting them and making them laugh, simply through the great power of shutting up and paying attention. By looking at what is already there and highlighting the best parts. It's a kind of magic gay men possess because unlike others, life has taught them that they are not the still center of the universe.
They see more of the back of the hand in life, women and gay men. It can make them instant allies.
For me the Bloomingdale’s ground floor has always been a place where they can commiserate with each other, rediscover what is best about themselves, and perhaps buy some new war paint for the coming battles.
Later the two women I had been eavesdropping on mentioned that a Canadian company had bought out the store. They planned to move cosmetics from the ground floor to the second floor next year, one said. That'll make things harder because who wants to take an escalator on their lunch hour, the other agreed.
If this plan turns out to be true then it proves the new owners don't really grasp what that ground floor is all about. It's selling more than fantasy, it's offering consolation.
But getting people to listen to all that is the hardest thing you can do.