The sign is simple, but provocative: “Talk to Me.” And it has now taken Bill Wetzel and Liz Barry all over the country and through a wide range of experiences, “from euphoric to deeply disturbing, hilarious to sobering,” according to Wetzel, a student at the School of General Studies. In the summer of 2002 Bill began displaying his sign around New York City in an attempt to engage passersby on “a complete whim,” he recalls. People responded, so much so that Bill and Liz, who joined him a few weeks into the project, held parties in Bryant Park to bring all their new acquaintances together and eventually set off on a coast-to-coast bicycle tour of the United States.
The tour is chronicled on their website, http://www.nyctalktome.com. While every day begins in the same way—with finding a place to sit, setting up the sign, and waiting for people to approach—there is no such thing as an average experience. “I’ll get invited to people’s weddings having met them on the street, prison guards will take us into maximum security prisons to talk to folks, and they even let us into the Pentagon to talk to strangers there!” Bill said. “A person I met on the street in the Bronx called me up about a year later and said, ‘Hey, I’m having a baby. Will you be my birth coach?’ The best parts are when so many people stop by and talk that it basically becomes a chat room among strangers, and it isn’t about me or my bizarre sign anymore. “Some days can be on the heavy side, but a lot of times people just need a bit of information, community resources, or a listening ear, and they’re on their way. I would still say some of the hardest conversations to take repeatedly are the agenda-pushers, or as we call them, the monologuers.” Not having an agenda is one of the project’s underlying ideas—though not everyone can be convinced, and it can make them the objects of nonstop suspicion. “The initial skepticism can be really hard, not only the people who do stop and think I’m a Mormon/researcher/undercover cop/shrink/fundraiser/guerilla marketer, but also the eons of people who assume I’ve got some agenda cooking and don’t even bother to stop,” Bill said. “As far as the hard parts—i.e., what does one do when they’re pinned at the bar with someone who’s recounting the 43 different methods of making chicken stock?—they’re basically a brief training in public assertiveness.”
The project has also made Wetzel’s classroom experience a little different. “It’s made class more engaging and slightly more frustrating at the same time. On one hand, theory isn’t just theory anymore—there’s dozens of different life stories that will randomly pop up in my head when almost any topic is being discussed. With that said, you start to realize how sheltered some aspects of the school can be, and you want to start pulling people in from the sidewalks, parks, and subway cars to join your discussions now and then!” This cultural cross-pollination is what Bill and Liz strive for—and effect—in “Talk to Me.” “When you talk to enough people in and around the country, you start to realize how easily like-minded people like to surround themselves with other like-minded people,” Bill said. “It happens in South Dakota and it happens at Columbia. You really see it comparing rural and urban America. You see it in New York City’s neighborhoods. Sure, cello players are stimulated by hanging out with other cello players, but I think there’s a lot to be learned by sharing diverging opinions and life stories with each other, without any agenda, without any pretense of one side ‘helping’ or ‘educating’ the other side.”
For Bill and for “Talk to Me,” the future remains open-ended. A transnational “Talk to Me” is one possibility. “There are no formal arrangements at all right now, but I’m beginning to think about it,” Bill said. “I’m starting to get e-mails like, ‘If you ever come to Seoul, I’ll be your translator!’”
For more information, including how you can help Bill and Liz and to see a slideshow of their trip, visit http://www.nyctalktome.com.