Recording Strangers: 3300 Greenmount Ave., Baltimore, Maryland
We all are raised not to talk to strangers. But what if it wasn’t that way? What if we just naturally wandered around talking to strangers all the time? What if you could just walk up and down the street and it was totally natural to just talk to everybody, and if was equally as natural for all those people to talk to you and tell you something real.
A while ago I gave myself an assignment: I was going to meet and interview everybody who lived and worked on one city block in Baltimore. I was going to record all these disparate, simultaneous realities, all these lives and hopes and fears and goals and regrets, all these human existences separated from each other by nothing more than the adjacent walls of this one city block.
So we chose the 3300 block of Greenmount Avenue. I spent four months hanging out there pretty much every day, asking complete strangers to tell me their life stories. I can report to you that it is, in fact, not always easy to talk to strangers, namely because strangers are also raised not to talk to strangers. And on the 3300 block Greenmount Avenue, I was the stranger.
So I took a leap of faith. But really more importantly what all these other folks did entrusting their stories to me that was an even bigger leap of faith. And this little seed of an idea, this social experiment, totally founded in mutual trust, turned into something important to me, meaningful and kind of beautiful.
Giving is all those things...
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When it aired on WYPR it clocked in at 48 minutes and 30 seconds. It was distilled down from 25 hours of interview tape. A couple quick thoughts about what I learned making this this kind radio:
When people tell you a story, it’s like they’re singing you a song. Every voice has its own musicality, Just a little half-sentence fragment can tell you something profound about a person’s soul.
- When you can convince people that you really just want to listen to what they have to say, that person will open their heart to you every time. When you listen to people you’re giving them a very rare and special gift.
- When people tell you a story, it’s like they’re singing you a song. Every voice has its own musicality, its own tone and timbre. And even just a little half-sentence fragment can go in through your ear and tell you something profound about a person’s soul.
- The public radio airwaves can be an echo chamber for predictable voices saying unsurprising things about familiar topics. But those same airwaves can also be a blank canvas for something different, for something a little more impressionistic, something abstract, that achieves its effect through tone and mood and juxtaposition, and honors listeners’ powers of inference and empathy.
- Finally, it might make you nervous. It might feel awkward. It might be very counter-intuitive, the last thing you’re inclined to do, but if you talk to strangers, it’s a guaranteed way to improve your day and theirs.
My thanks and gratitude go to Baltimore electronic musician Wendel Patrick. He created all the original music for this project (and the photos below). He custom-tailored the music to the audio flow, with elements of the natural environment becoming parts of the soundtrack. He helped elevate this thing to a whole new level of artistic merit.
Photographing Strangers: 3300 Greenmount Aveenue
Photographs © and courtesy of Wendel Patrick
Interview with the Interviewer
Third Coast International Audio Festival:: Why did you focus on the 3300 block of Greenmount? Why not the 3200 block? 3400?
Aaron Henkin: Once I picked a block, I knew the rest would be pretty much out of my control. So I was very methodical about which block I chose. I walked for many miles around Baltimore, block by block, taking notes. I wanted a block that was a commercial block, but with independent, homegrown businesses, not franchises. I wanted a block that was one of those invisible, utilitarian, self-contained, unglamorous blocks that are the real backbone of a city. I wanted a block full of people whose voices would otherwise never be on the public radio airwaves. I wanted a block where people’s workplaces would give us a great palette of sounds. 3300 Greenmount has it all.
TCIAF:: How did you collaborate with the sound design and scoring? The music/SD are as prominent characters as the people we hear from.
Wendel Patrick: Aaron conducted all of the interviews on site, usually at the interviewees place of business, so there was a wealth of wonderful audio surrounding each interview at my disposal. As a result, many of the tools our subjects used for their every day work became instruments in the piece. At one point, for example, you can hear a barber’s clippers as the musical anchor for his segment.
Everyone was skeptical at first. Wouldn’t you be? But once I was able to make it clear that I had no agenda other than to share their stories on the radio, people put their trust in me.
TCIAF:: Did everyone on the block agree to participate? Did some need more convincing than others? Did any outright refuse?
AH: Everyone was skeptical at first. Wouldn’t you be? But once I was able to make it clear that I had no agenda other than to share their stories on the radio, people put their trust in me. Twenty five addresses are in the finished piece. Three addresses are missing. One is a wig shop run by a Korean couple with whom I couldn’t get over the language barrier. One is a Chinese carryout run by a nice young guy who always politely told me he was too busy to ever talk to me. And one, ironically, is a non-profit community mediation center whose director was simply never in the office when I’d come by.
TCIAF:: How did you gain the trust of the block? Presumably you didn’t exactly blend in — walking around with a microphone, headphones, asking questions, etc.
AH: Add to the mic & headphones the fact that I am a tall, skinny, white dude with no logical reason to be hanging out on Greenmount & 33rd, and no, I did not blend in. But I spent every afternoon on that block for two weeks before I ever brought a microphone. I made sure to introduce myself to everyone who’d hear me out. I just kept visiting, checking in with people, asking them about their lives and their friends and neighbors, talking about how great I thought the block was and what an excellent radio story it was going to make, and pretty soon, people just expected to see me around. That’s when I started bringing the mic & headphones.
WP: After about a month I began to join Aaron down on the block on a regular basis, showing the folks down there some of the photographs that I had taken of them and sharing some of my music which I think also helped to earn trust, and which was reciprocally a wonderful experience for me as well.
Talking to Strangers: TED Talk
Thanks to the Knight Prototype Fund for supporting this Transom Online Workshop resource.