Sharing Stories

Why I talk to people is why I write.


Before the covid-19 hammer came down on eating out, my husband, Karl, son, Leo, and I were having dinner at a local burger joint. When Karl got up to order for us, I noticed a woman a few tables over, looking like the saddest person I had ever seen.

As her tablemate poked at her fries (a relative, I presumed, since they both shared the same wild tangle of hair), this woman faced away from the table, ignoring her food and crying openly. Since the restaurant was across from GW Hospital, I devised a story to explain the scene: These women were sisters, I told myself, and had just left their beloved father in the I.C.U. to eat their first meal in days.

All through our meal, I kept watching this sad woman dabbing her eyes and looking mournfully down at her hands. As Leo colored next to me, I tried to involve Karl in the saga of the sisters.

"What do you think is happening over there?" I asked him.

"Don't get involved," he warned (his usual reply because, a writer always, I absolutely, 100-percent DO want to get involved).

To me, and hopefully to you, people are endlessly fascinating. Everyone has a story, and as a journalist, I always — however heartbreaking, however uproarious — want to know it. And to know it, you have to ask about it. My urge to talk to people is irresistible.

When Karl got up to clear our trays, he said, "Don't do it. Don't you go over there."

I didn't listen. Instead, I walked over to her, bent down eye-level, and said, "I don't know what's happened to you, but I am so very sorry." And then I gave her a hug.

By the time Karl returned to the table, I’d learned that this woman, not a family member, was the one in pain. She told me she had suffered a miscarriage, a devastating experience made more poignant by the happy families dining all around her.

I left the restaurant in tears. It's quite something to bear witness to another's story, to be held in confidence and to earn someone's trust so quickly. I've always been this way — a shoulder, a confessor, a safety net (a doormat, according to my mother). It's why I tell other people's stories.

And it's why, at this particular joint in history, I am finding it impossible to write. How can I tell someone's story without being there to hear it in the flesh?

As a long-form journalist, I need to fully imbed myself for weeks (usually months, sometimes years) in the lives of others. The good, the bad, the completely bonkers (look no further than “Tiger King”).

There's something about sharing the same airspace day after day that lends itself to veil-dropping. Now with social distancing, the gap is even greater, impenetrable through the Zoom screen.

An interview, if you think about it, is an artificial construct, both parties there for a reason. Now it's even more unnatural. And limited. How long, I wonder, before I can get out to the post office, a coffeeshop, a burger joint and continue the conversation?

Cathy Alter is a member of the Independent’s board of directors and author of CRUSH: Writers Reflect on Love, Longing, and the Power of Their First Celebrity Crush.

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