The Gas Station Project

Okay, you ready?  This is how it will go:

You will drive/walk/bike/whatever out to a gas station.  It doesn’t really matter where it is, that’s up to you.  Personally, I’m going to choose one that’s out in the country, in a rural place that I have never seen before.  I’m going to try my best to get lost, and actually, I would suggest that you do this too.  The further away you are from your own recognizable environment, the better.

Then, ditch your car/bike or whatever at the gas station, and hang out for a while.  How long you hang out is up to you.  What’s important is to get a feel for the people who are passing through.  There will be a lot of them, transient people in the middle of where they came from and where they are going.  You’ll be looking for an approachableness in them, though this depends on your comfort level.  Hopefully, you’ll know who you’re looking for when you find them.

So, approach these people.  Let’s say, for instance, that they are goth teenagers who’ve stopped for cigarettes and 20oz bottles of soda.  Now you have to work up your courage, and you’ve got to strike up a conversation.  One idea is to ask them for directions, or for the time, it doesn’t really matter.  Just open up an avenue, and see where it leads.

You may strike out at first, and that’s okay.  Not everybody is going to be receptive to a stranger approaching them, and that’s okay – we want to weed those people out.  It’s important for the final outcome.

So say you strike up a conversation with these fictional goth kids.  You ask them their names, you tell them yours, you tell them you’re from out of town and don’t know the area very well.

You do not lie to them, in all things you must be genuine.  You do not choose them because you find them funny or amusing, you do not look down on them.  If you are brave enough to approach someone or someones who do not share your life experience – say rednecks for instance, or gansta-type black people – you treat them with respect and a healthy curiosity.  If you look down on them, you may as well give up then and there.  You’re not going to get anywhere in life or in this project.

While you are talking to them, try to envision their lives, try to imagine where they are headed, what they are doing, who they are.  These people exist in your world, but at the same time, they don’t – they have their own worlds, which we want to know about.

Now, here comes the tricky part – you somehow need to integrate yourself into their evening.  I’m not totally sure what they key is to doing this.  I imagine it will be easier for some people (and with some people) than it will be for others.  Drugs might be a good way – tell them you have a joint, or a blunt, and you’re wondering where a good place to smoke it might be.  Tell them you’re in town for the night, you’ve got a case of beer in the car and you’re looking to get fucked up.

These are sneaky ways, and if drugs aren’t your thing, you could try an approach that may be more admirable, and may even yield better results:  tell them the absolute truth.  Tell them who you are, and that you are interested in them as people, and you would like to know what their lives are like.  Tell them it is for something you are writing (and resolve to make that true, afterwards), that it is an experiment, that you don’t want anything from them, that you aren’t around to cause trouble, that you just want to observe.  See where that gets you – if it works, I think you’re in for an incredible night.

So you somehow get in with them.  Now, sit back and enjoy the ride.  Observe, but don’t judge – watch, but don’t be a voyeur.  Participate.  Let them know who you are.  Let your curiosity run amock.  Maybe they’ll think you’re crazy.  Maybe they’re crazy.  Maybe it’ll get bad.  That’s a risk you run, but hopefully you should be able to determine dangerous types during the initial contact.

Where will you go?  Out onto a country hillside in the dusk, smoking from somebody’s bong they just picked up in the big city?  Out to a club you’ve never been to before, or invited into somebody’s home?  These are adventures – you are an explorer, really, an explorer into other people’s lives, and it’s just as valid as somebody who would dive to study the ocean floor or fly into outer space.  You’re exploring the inner space, the inner lives of people you see everyday but never know.  And your purity of spirit in this operation is critical – it is the only thing that will see you through.

Now comes an interesting part – seeing how your initial fantasy of their lives stacks up to the reality.  My personal fantasy is of kids who live fully, wildly, with no thought for tomorrow, with rules and rituals all their own.  Maybe some of this is true – savor this, but let it go – do not try to hold on to any beauty, it’s slippery and dangerous.  Do not let your fantasy get in the way of what is real.

Similarly, observe the harsher truths of their lives, but don’t dwell on them.  They may be poor or sad, they may live in ways that make you uncomfortable, ways that are fundamentally unhealthy or even abusive.  There may be sadness, even fear, but there is sadness and fear in every life – it is no more the truth of their lives than what is good.  What we need is the entire picture.

Live it, live to tell about it.  Lose yourself in the process.

But before you go, invite them into your life.  Inform them of the party, which we will have at the end of the month, when you have hopefully completed at least four of these explorations.

We will all gather in a large hall, all of us will get together, and we will share what we’ve gained.  Not in formal terms – we won’t sit down and introduce each other.  But we will know each other, and our new friends will, by extension, know all of us.  We’ll create a network, a self-contained thing.  Most likely, there will be impossible connections between completely disparate people.
We will have created a new world that night, something that will live on in the experiences of all of us.  And if we’re willing and open to this, it could be a beautiful thing, a life-changing thing.