Some years ago, in conversation with two close friends, I proposed what I thought was a unique idea – set up and offer advice on the streets of New York City. They loved the idea and heartily agreed to give it a whirl. I felt confident in the venture primarily because of the experience and background of my two friends, a married couple. One of the couple, Leslie Gold is not only an old friend from my college days, but also an avid reader of this blog and subject of one of my stories (White By Design).
Coming from a quite unsophisticated background in New England, I always felt privileged to know her and her family, who were well educated, steeped in the world of psychotherapy and Manhattanites. Leslie’s grandfather, Fritz Perls, along with his wife Laura (with a doctorate in Psychology), founded the school of Gestalt Therapy.
Laura had a classic 6 room apartment on the Upper West Side near Central Park. I stayed there a number of summers while Laura toured Europe and gave lectures. My first exposure to classical music was that which Laura played for us on her baby grand piano. She was a concert level pianist. Leslie had been born in Manhattan, daughter of an art director. She would later become a graphic designer and would have a profound influence on the imaging of my company, now in its 39th year. In fact, she designed my company logo, the subject of another New York Story*. Knowing the Perls family was a formative experience for me, for which I will be forever grateful. That is how, at 19 years old, the son of a Maine woodcutter was delightfully catapulted into the upper crust of New York City and was privileged to have a bit of it rub off.
In planning our advice giving venture, we agreed that it was important to charge something believing that people would take the advice more seriously. We settled on $1 per question on any subject, but favoring interpersonal relationships, the strongest suit of my companions. And so, sometime in the late 1990s, at Bleecker Street and 6th Avenue in the Village, we set up shop. I had made signs with our biographies which I displayed on a music stand. Our first client asked where he could find a bathroom – not exactly the type of “advice” we were looking to give, but we made a nearby recommendation and waived our $1 fee. The first evening was a learning experience and we promised to continue the venture, which we never did.
I later found out however that the idea of dispensing advice on the streets of New York City had already been done and done quite well by three women who authored a book about their experiences and toured. The book, Free Advice – The Advice Ladies on Love, Dating, Sex and Relationships, by Amy Alkon, Caroline Johnson and Marlowe Minnick, was published in 1996. Amy now does an advice column, syndicated in over 100 newspapers.
On November 16, 2013, advice and conversation hit critical mass in Washington Square Park. Here we had the folks from freeconvo on their inflated couches just a stones throw from a group of offering free advice and another seated with signs asking for $.25.
Freeconvo was featured in Forbes Magazine in an article, The Lost Art Of Conversation And Connection. The writer, Donna Sapolin, sees the phenomena of things like freeconvo, free hugs, etc. as a forced effort:
The fact that the founders of FreeConvo find it necessary to force engagement in this bustling metropolis is a true sign of the times — there’s no shortage of opportunities to encounter and talk with others here but, evidently, authentic connection is in short supply.
It seems the younger generations are deeply hungry for meaningful face-to-face interactions but feel they have to devise a new approach in order to get beyond shallow chit-chat. This isn’t exactly surprising considering that the bulk of Gen X and Y communication takes place via texts, social media posts and email, and camaraderie takes the form of things watched or played together on screens. We’ve deemed these generations to be the most connected, but they may, in fact, be the most disconnected.
Of course, they aren’t the only ones living virtual lives. These days, many of us are swapping out true friendship for superficial fans and followers and substituting short typed comments for full-blown conversations.
Sapino goes on to discuss the Free Hugs Campaign of Juan Mann. She sees his activity as more desperate than anything else and concludes about these various contrived efforts:
Personally, I only welcome hugs that express true caring and affection. I prefer spontaneous, unstaged interactions — genuine, unprovoked acts of kindness …
To some extent, I agree with Donna, however, I see any campaign or project to engage people face to face, be it conversation or advice, to be a good thing. A bit forced perhaps, but who knows where the encounters or efforts will lead. Try it in any form, would be, for whatever it’s worth, My Advice
*Note: In an ironic twist of fate, my logo was modeled after Bloomingdale’s. I never dreamed that 39 years later I would find myself awarded top 10 classic businesses of New York City and that I would share that honor with Bloomingdale’s itself!