“So..why are you doing this?”
Before we can even ask anyone questions, every person had the same one for us. They’d ask if it was for a school project, a psychology experiment, and often times people initially thought we were homeless. If we were already with a group the answer will be short and sweet:
“We love getting to know new people and experiencing another person’s point of view, it’s not for school or anything like that.”
Sometimes people would leave, some would linger for a moment trying to decide if they should stay. Group think affected our day a lot. The more people we had around us, the more additional people came by. Sometimes people just took pictures of us, usually without permission, and then moved on back into the sea of faces that surround the nation’s mall. Others, the ones whose stories you’ll hear now, sat down. Sometimes for five minutes, sometimes for hours.
We began our day with a runner, broad shouldered and covered in sweat. He tells us he needs a dollar for water, and we hand him one of our extra water bottles. He told us his story anyways.
“Why are you running?”
“I’m training for a marathon.”
“Are you in the army?”
“No,” he said, “I’m a cop.”
When we asked him about his greatest achievement, both personally and professionally he cracked a small smile.
“I saved one of my fellow officers when we were in a gun fight. A few days later I stopped a woman from jumping in front of a train. Then I was given an award for good service all in that same week.”
“Why did you decide to become a cop?”
“I just wanted to help people.”
Next we met several waves of student groups spending the day in D.C. Kids from Canada and all over the US including Mississippi, Maryland, Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania, and Texas all stopped by. We discussed underage drinking and its dangers, the importance of family, and post college dreams. One girl shared a story of a moment that changed her life.
“I go to India a lot, and there’s always been poor people, they always bang on our car doors asking for money. I never really paid too much attention to it before, you get kind of used to it. But this last trip I did. I made up my mind that I wanted to spend my life helping the poor.”
We met young people, from the states and from China. One seven year old had already began writing his auto biography. One young girl and her brother told me about an amazing fireworks show, one sang to us, we got a whole lesson on Air Soft guns, and discussed ADHD. One boy told us about his experience living in Italy for middle school.
“Italians drive way better than Americans.”
“No they just drive better.”
One girl shared her experience of being cyber bullied with me. I could feel the pain in her voice and she began to confess to me what had happened. I couldn’t believe it, this girl so sweet and articulate, was being attacked online.
“Whatever they do to you has more to do with them than it does with you,” she smiled and gave me a hug.
Things like that make sitting in the sun for hours worth it. They make the dirty looks people passing by give you worth it. Because you get the chance to reassure someone, to tell them they’re a good kid and they’re special. Sometimes when I tell people that, I wonder if anyone has ever really told them how significant they are. Most people sit down and claim they aren’t interesting or exciting, but everyone we met was. I think people can sell themselves short sometimes, the world can beat them down until they think they don’t have anything to offer. Part of why we do this project is because we need to remind people that their stories have significance and people will listen.
On the other hand, we met a man who demanded ten dollars for his story. We decided to take him up on the offer. He had had a very interesting life. He fought in Vietnam and Korea, telling us a war story from each. Money well spent.
We met a man who is working for the Pentagon who helped start an outreach program that helps the homeless back in Texas.
We met a man who served in 82nd airborne division, and when asked about his greatest achievement he said: “one day I jumped it was so beautiful, the sky was so clear and the day was so perfect, it was serene,” he said. He was talking about launching himself from a helicopter but he said it with such a calm, nostalgic, disposition.
“What’s your greatest achievement?” We asked one man.
“Obviously that would be me!” said his son.
Next we met two friends who we had seen earlier. I had been hoping they would stop, and luckily they had decided to turn around and talk to us.
“I bet you haven’t ever heard a story like mine.”
He was right.
“I was born in Bulgaria. I was put up for adoption and spent the first few years of my life in an orphanage, then I was adopted to American parents. I’m actually in town for an adoption convention.”
He told us his mom was part Turkish and at that time it was punishable by death to have a child without being married. He had to be kept a secret. He’s recently began the process to meet his real mother, even though most of her family doesn’t even know he exists.
"How did your parents tell you you were adopted?"
"They never kept it a secret. They told me right off the bat. At first I was confused. I didn’t understand why my mother didn’t want me. But as I got older it all made more sense. I really want to raise a kid the way my parent’s raised me, they just raised me on really good values and I want to do that for someone else.”
His friend sitting next to him also had a story.
“I went shooting and some of the shells fell into my bag. I went to work the next day and the metal detector went off. Apparently you can get fined up $1,000 or go to jail for six months for empty shells. Make sure you tell your followers that!”
We donated $20 to help keep Street Sense, a newspaper that helps the homeless but letting them write articles and share their stories. We met a journalist and a man who runs http://weareallhomeless.blogspot.com/ and buys signs off homeless people to make a documentary about their lives. He thought our signs were something he could add to his documentary at first, like many of the other people who thought we were asking for money.
We met three friends, two from Spain and one from America who met through a study abroad program and still keep in touch. We met people from Mexico, Italy, Brazil, and Colombia, all here to take a class on law. They all spoke English and were acting like old friends, even though they had only known each other for a few weeks. Obviously we discussed the World Cup, which brought back some disappointed feelings for all the fans. We discussed one man’s crazy experience with a girl who would not stop hitting on him (we were informed that not ALL Brazilian women act that crazy).
The woman from Mexico told me she was three days late for her law class because her VISA got lost at the airport.
“Did you cry?”
“Yes,” she laughed.
“Yeah, I would have too. But you’re here now.”
There is a silence as we take in the Washington Monument just a few hundred yards away from us. The most amazing thing is seeing D.C through a tourist’s eyes, especially a tourist from another country.
“What’s your least favorite thing about America?”
“You guys can literally sue each other for anything, and you do,” said one of our Norwegian friends. He and his other friend were visiting DC and stopped by. We spent hours with them and ended up piling into a cab together to go to Georgetown. They were so excited, it was their first cab ride in America. They thought the TVs in the cab were completely ridiculous.
“It’s America. We have TVs at our gas stations. We have this need to always be entertained.”
We got out of the cab and they stopped to admire a squirrel.
“They get so close!”
This project truly hits hard. You meet people from all walks of life and initially you’re just thinking:
“What could I possibly have in common with this person?”
And the answers are endless. People, including myself, get so caught up in our own lives that we forget that strangers on the street have emotions and feelings as well. People who don’t look like us or talk like us have souls and they have stories to tell. When you meet people from different walks of life and you keep an open mind, you will become a well-rounded person. We’ve met people of all races, sexual orientations, and socio-economic classes. Each person has made an impact on our lives, and when we would get multiple groups together, they made an impact on each other.
“I’m glad you guys are doing this. The art of storytelling is so important, yet it can be forgotten.”
*not everyone we met felt comfortable having their picture taken, and we never asked anyone for their names. The people’s stories you’ve heard and the photos are not all from corresponding people.
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