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Reviving the Art of Conversation

E Okobi

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Welcome to the Free Conversation Booth
(Ekene Okobi)
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Most people in the Los Angeles area rarely interact with strangers -- too much driving, too much traffic, and the lack of a proper public square makes it hard to connect. Andrew Simmons grew up in rural Idaho, and when he moved to Southern California, he couldn't get used to the anonymity of big city life. So he created a space where all types of people can strike up a conversation.

Every other Saturday, he sets up a tent, tables and chairs on the sidewalk in the quaint village of Belmont Shore near Long Beach, where there's plenty of foot traffic. His pitch is simple. He asks passersby to sit with him for a spell and enjoy his Free Conversation Booth.

Weekend America's Ekene Okobi spent a day with Simmons to find out why getting strangers to talk about their lives is so important to him.

One of the first things Andrew Simmons realized is that clear boundaries were needed to ensure a good experience at the Free Conversation Booth. So he came up with a list of rules:

-- No drinking alcohol at the booth.

-- Don't be creepy (includes sexual advances towards other conversationalists.)

-- Conduct yourself positively towards other people passing the booth.

-- Don't abuse the free soda offerings.

-- All contributors have the power to remove any person from the booth, for any reason.

Two more are actually written in pen -- these are recent:

-- No selling any products, especially pyramid schemes.

-- No religious preaching.

"So those are the rules, all made for reasons," Simmons says.

One of Simmon's co-conversationalists this day is Dawn. She says she participated in the very first Free Conversation Booth. "When I first came, he had a paper sign. And I see that he's moved up in the world, because he's got a nice, printed sign, all professional."

What motivates Simmons to do this? "When you see somebody walking down a street, I always wonder what their story is," he says. "I wonder what do their kids think of them? What are they doing right now? What's going through their mind? What are their ambitions in life? And to actually be in a venue where you can figure that out from complete strangers is something really empowering."

Simmons' first foray into the world of conversation was in 2007. "And it was scary! I'm not going to lie," he says. "I came out here and I sat here for something like 20 or 30 minutes, just sitting here, just looking at people. And no one was stopping. So I kind of had to start calling on people. I was like, 'Hey, free conversation!'"

What Simmons likes most about the booth is the window it provides him into other people's lives. One evening, a man named Mark came by and shared his experiences working on the oil pipeline in Alaska: "You'd wake up and you'd hear: 'Can you see stars?' And if they came back cussing and cursing, you knew they could see stars. That meant that it was going to be a cold, cold day -- 'cause if you had clouds, you knew that you were not going to be that cold."

Simmons says that many visitors to his booth have difficulty believing that he has no ulterior motives. "A lot of times, they'll try figuring out what the scam is, that's like the big game. A lot of people just can't accept the fact that there isn't an angle, that it's really just to get to know people."

Dan McGinnis, somewhat of a regular visitor to the booth, says he first took a chair "because I was very curious. I just wanted to see if it was something that he was selling, or if this was his thesis."

Simmons calls the regulars to his booth contributors -- "Because they directly contribute to the Conversation Booth, and I want to make sure they know that this Conversation Booth is as much theirs as it is mine.

"I put up a tent and I put up some chairs, but they have the right to say 'You know what? I don't feel comfortable here, and this guy should get out and this would make the Conversation Booth better.' I'm completely open to that," Simmons says.

Gino is one of those contributors. He's a high school senior who says the booth has helped him gain more confidence in certain social situations. "I'm not exactly the best person with girls," he says.

For Simmons, the booth is more than a chance to meet strangers and strike up a conversation. "When you can actually hear someone else's story and hear what they're going through, and see how similar it is to your own trials, it's really empowering," Simmons says. "You say, 'Wow, this person made it, and this person's doing fine.' It gives you a different kind of perspective on all your problems."

Dawn says the Free Conversation Booth has changed the way she approaches interactions with strangers. "One thing I've learned is that there is a lot of people out there who just don't talk to each other. There's no alcohol here, it's not like a club. You can just sit down and talk."

Simmons sets up the Free Conversation Booth on every other Saturday from about 2 in afternoon until as late as 2 AM the following morning. But Simmons says he doesn't see the time that he puts into it as a sacrifice.

"I don't see it as giving up a Saturday -- I see sitting at home and watching TV as giving up a Saturday," he says. "But going down somewhere and actually understanding people, and actually giving people a way to communicate what they're feeling and what they're going through. That's definitely not giving up a Saturday to me. That's something that I look forward to."

  • Music Bridge:
    May
    Artist: So Percussion
    CD: Amid the Noise (Canteloupe)

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    By Rick Blankenship

    From Belmont Shore, CA, 09/14/2010

    I haven't seen Andrew in the Shore in a while and I regret never having taken more time to chat.

    Does anyone know what he is up to these days?

    By NADA TRZAN-HERMAN

    From Ljubljana, 05/16/2010

    Hi, Simon can you imagine that me and my daughter just now discussed to start with "a corner of free talk with coffee". We think that there are many people who do not have a partnr to take a nice chat ... and that we start to serach if something like this already exist...and we find you...congratulations ! We came on the same idea (not exactelly the same) and we would like to inform you how our experience will be...of course we need a few months to start... Best wishes and kidn regards, Nada and Jana

    By Katy Mack

    From Melbourne, 10/28/2008

    Yes-have you seen the game/book The Art of Converstaion? It is amazing and relates to this.

    By Mike Kirsch

    From Newport Beach, CA, 06/18/2008

    I've been to Andrew's booth and I love it! I even shot a little mini documentary about it, (You can find it on YouTube.)

    He's doing a great thing with his conversation booth and I hope he keeps doing it for a long time to come. I've been a few times and I really like the interaction with random people.

    By Amanda Seibel

    From DC, 05/16/2008

    I really like this piece. Though I've never spent much time in L.A., I like the idea of what Simmon's doing. Take back casual conversation for conversation's sake! I also like the variety of people that "contribute" to his booth. Nice photos.

    By Maurisa T.

    From San Francisco, CA, 05/15/2008

    Forget Disneyland--this would definitely be one of my top attractions while visiting L.A. Better yet, it would be fun to start one here. Great story! Thanks, Simmons, for reminding us that connecting on a person to person level is the first step to breaking down barriers and keeping us human. Cheers!

    By Shoshanna S.

    From Silver Spring, MD, 05/12/2008

    I appreciate this story as someone who does talk to strangers (especially on the Metro in DC). I always follow the rules though... Great pictures!

    By Markette S

    05/12/2008

    this is such a cool story. I think that city life is more lonely than life in the burbs or rural areas because everyone in the city is busy or crazy or respecting others' privacy. also the background sound was REALLY good. i felt like I was standing on that street.

    By Chris T

    From Sherman Oaks, CA, 05/12/2008

    People are rightfully sceptical when others approach them to talk. Usually they want to sell something or draw you into their religious, political and spiritual world. Too bad - the world needs ongoing discussions and talk which is the fiber of a free society. Kudos for Simmons!

    By Jesse Overman

    From Glendale, CA, 05/12/2008

    I moved to LA from the Midwest about a year ago, and the anonymity amongst people out here is still unsettling for me. It's great to hear someone is making the effort to engage the strangers around them.

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