“I’m telling you this for your own good and you need to pay attention.” Jeff paused to take another bite of his breakfast before continuing. “New York City is different from back home. When you go out on the street, people don’t make eye contact. They look down or straight ahead, never at anyone. Never.” He took a sip of coffee and continued. “There’s a reason for this. There are crazy people out there. There is this guy who buys a sandwich at the deli every morning. He takes it out and pounds it on the sidewalk for about fifteen minutes before he eats it.”
“What’s he doing?” I asked.
“I don’t know and it doesn’t matter. It’s crazy, that’s all you need to know. And if you make eye contact with him, he will then follow you, trying to talk to you about whatever.”
“Yeah? Maybe he’ll explain why he’s pounding his sandwich on the sidewalk?”
“No. He won’t. And if he did, it wouldn’t make sense. Why? Because he is crazy.” Jeff pointed his fork at me across the table. “Do not make eye contact. If you do he will follow you, and I’m not talking about a block or two. He’ll follow you all the way to wherever you are going. You get on the subway, he will too. He’ll be a crazed piece of gum on your show you won’t be able to scrape off.”
So we left the hotel and started our walk, some nine blocks to the convention center in Manhattan. The streets were packed with yellow taxis and the sidewalks were crammed with people, all walking very fast and just as Jeff said, not making eye contact. It’s very different from Texas, where everyone says hello as they pass.
When I saw a guy, hunched over, slamming a submarine sandwich down on the pavement repeatedly, Jeff reminded me, “Do not make eye contact.”
I didn’t and we walked past him, just like everyone else. Three blocks later, I saw a guy with a clipboard and a pencil, and he would point at the top of a building and then intently write something on the clipboard. Curious, I looked up where he was pointing. It was just a building, not unlike any other building. I then looked back at him and made eye contact.
“Dumbass,” Jeff whispered and quickly crossed the street, abandoning me as Clipboard Guy approached.
“The windows are glass,“ Clipboard Guy said. He showed me his clipboard, which I now saw had no paper on it. The chewed-up pencil he was writing with wasn’t even sharpened.
I looked down and started walking at a brisk pace. Clipboard Guy was on my heels, sometimes walking backwards and moving in front of me to show me… whatever… on his clipboard. After a block of this, I ducked into a store front. It was some sort of upscale shoe store, and I browsed the short aisles, never stopping, Clipboard Guy right there with me, babbling on about glass and buildings and saying it is illegal. The store clerk didn’t make eye contact with me. She knew what I was doing and also how futile it was; no way she was getting involved. I left the store and continued on, stopping once to say I’m not interested and so on, but it didn’t work. Finally I arrived at the convention center where Clipboard Guy couldn’t enter without a badge. I had a badge and I breathed a sigh of relief as I stepped into the lobby, where Jeff was waiting for me.
“What did I tell you?” It was an accusation more than a question.
I know, I know.”
“No. Say it. What did I tell you?”
“Don’t make eye contact,” I said sheepishly.
We worked at the convention the entire day and when it closed and I was getting ready to leave, there was Clipboard Guy. I saw him through the glass doors and opted for an exit on the other side of the building. It added two more blocks to my walk, but I was fine with that. I didn’t make eye contact the entire walk back to the hotel, or for the rest of the week I was there.
Moral of the Story: Just because someone appears intelligent doesn’t mean they aren’t crazy. Engaging them is risky, and logical actions to dissuade them or reason with them are usually futile and can just make things worse. Don’t make eye contact.
copyright 2011, Mitch Lavender