A Human of Galway meets a Human of New York

Siela Zembsch, EMC Staff Writer

Say a stranger comes up to you in the street in NYC, introduces themselves, and then asks you a random question. How would you respond? Would you be comfortable enough to say anything personal?  

Now let’s reverse it. You’re the interviewer, and it’s your job to find an interesting person on the street and ask them a couple of questions. How would you choose the person? What would you say or do to make them open up?

These are some of the questions I was asked to think about, at EMC’s yearly Columbia conference. To test how well we could put our new interviewing skills to the test, one of the speakers gave a challenge: find a random person to interview, snap a picture, and collect a cool quote to go along with it. “Put all that on Twitter by midnight tonight, and we’ll choose a winner!”

Interviewing people, even those I know, has always been kind of stressful. I’m always afraid of a bad interview or awkward silences. But when she discussed how our interview should mimic one from “Humans of New York (HONY)”, I was more inspired.

HONY is a photograph/interview project that was started by a man named Brandon Stanton when he lost his job as a bond trader in Chicago. It was a huge hit, and today he travels the world interviewing people of all ages, races, and walks of life. He snaps a photo of each person and includes a quote from their interview. Even though the quote’s usually pretty short, some of them have almost made me cry and others have made me laugh until I cried.

But who would I interview?

We met Clyde during our lunch break, when a group of us walked to the Peace Fountain by the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine after getting yummy Mediterranean food. Natalie Zembsch and Josh Rumsey started walking around, looking at the plaques surrounding the statue, when a guy came up to them and started giving an impromptu tour of the statue.

“Look and see which leader has the most plaques dedicated to them,” he said, pointing at the plaques created by K-6 kids about the person who inspired them. It was Gandhi.

This was his intro to what turned out to be a very practiced tour, one that he had been giving to people at the statue for almost nine years.

We all listened to what he had to say about it, and he ended his speech with some inspiring words about his life. “You know, I’ll tell you somefin’. I used to be homeless. . . Then one day a guy came up to me when I was lyin’ on the benches around this statue and started tellin’ me about it.” It turned out that the tours he gives today are to pay it forward, to teach others about the statue that inspired him when he was at a low point in his life.

I wanted to interview him right then and there, before our next conference, but I didn’t have the guts. So we all headed back to Columbia for our last two conferences of the day, with varying levels of inspiration from our impromptu tour guide. Natalie started crying after hearing his story, while others were unsure about its validity. Was it just for more donations, or was his life story accurate?

Nonetheless, he still had some really interesting things to say that could make for a great interview. Nat and I spotted Mrs. Decker on the way to our next conference, raced up to meet her, and explained the Twitter contest and the potential interviewee. “Well, if you really want to  interview him, you could skip this conference and do it right now!”

We raced off and saw him again at the statue, giving another tour. Soon I had my phone out to record and he was discussing exactly what the statue meant to him.

“What part of it I can relate with most,” he said, “Is the way how he combines Jesus Christ, and the lion and the lamb… Everyone is that lion, and everyone is that lamb. And everyone is Jesus Christ!… You have the good door, and the bad door, you have the door to bein’ a mentor. And that’s why that really rips me. That part right there really rips me.”

He stuffed his hands into his black parka, the only thing he was wearing that wasn’t Nike, and looked almost reverently up at the statue. It was obvious that the lion/lamb/Jesus Christ part was most significant to him, especially as he described the annoyance he felt when people would walk by it without really taking in what it meant.

“They don’t take time to actually look at this and say, “Hey! Hold on, hold on, ya pullin’ my leg? Is that a lion and a lamb? What’s that guy’s hand doin’ up there?”

He also loved the way a part of the statue could mean something different to each person.

“When he made this statue he made it from an artist’s perspective. It’s what you see. That’s what a good artist does. He puts somfin’ out there and it’s what you see. Just like abstract art, or whatever.”

It was a really cool experience to actually interview a stranger in NYC, something I didn’t think I’d be brave enough to do. (And I did end up winning that Twitter contest!) It taught me more about the technical aspects of interviewing, like how important it is to have a smile on your face and turn the interview into more of a conversation than an interrogation. Natalie’s favorite part about interviewing Clyde was the realization that everybody around you has something to say, maybe even an entire life full of experiences that they’ve never talked about.

“When we interviewed him it just reinforced the fact that everybody has their own story,” she said, “and sometimes it’s just so easy to forget that when you’re part of the hustle-bustle of NYC.”

I encourage you to interview somebody, too, when you get the chance — somebody you don’t know at all, a person at school you’d like to know better, even a family member you’re really close to. Who knows what stories you could uncover?