As Taylor Baldry let a tablecloth settle over the card table he'd set up at Lake Calhoun, passersby looked quizzical. Nattily dressed in an argyle vest and corduroy sport coat, he added a small brass reading lamp, then opened three folding chairs. More sidelong glances. Then came the sandwich board: "Free Conversations."
Within seconds, Jennifer Mills of Chicago and Jan Andreasen of Crystal -- strangers themselves -- took Baldry up on his offer, and the three of them proceeded to discuss famous American Indians, a topic Andreasen chose from a menu of options. Snatches of dialogue carried on the breeze and, after a while, even a bit of laughter, suggesting that the conversation had evolved.
After about 20 minutes, Andreasen left to continue his walk around the lake, unexpectedly invigorated.
"I'm trying to break out of my comfort zone," he said, explaining why he sat down in a public park to chat with two people he'd never laid eyes on before. "If you never stop to try something new, you'll never experience more than what you're already doing."
Baldry beamed when he learned what Andreasen had said. He calls his project "The Conversationalist," a sort of performance-art piece meant to remind people how satisfying it can be to talk with someone face-to-face. "We're so engrossed in the Internet that we're in danger of forgetting what it's like to have a conversation with a friend," he said. "Or a stranger."
Over several weeks this fall, Baldry conversed with all sorts of people, offering them a literal menu of topics. "Starters" were just that: a book recently read, or the weather. "Main dishes" were meatier: Politics, religion, love. "Specials" provided a personal glimpse: Advice, dinosaurs, brainstorming, famous American Indians, weird dreams.
And on this particular afternoon, a special du jour: Things you can do with an egg.
For more than 2 1/2 hours, the folding chairs were never empty.
The heart of the matter
"The Conversationalist" had somewhat selfish beginnings. "I was conversation-starved," said Baldry, 28, who returned this fall to Minnesota after two years in Japan teaching English. Most of the English conversations he had there were, not unexpectedly, "fairly simple and very slow." He craved banter and substance.
Yet while reconnecting with friends, he realized how much he was e-mailing, texting, calling. Even Skype fell short. "You don't get the full experience."
So he resurrected "The Conversationalist," which he'd once done at an art fair, refining the concept. Offering topics helps people relax by giving them a framework, he said, and lets everyone leapfrog over the small talk -- helpful, since he considers himself an introvert. "You get right to the heart of the matter." The menu was on an easel placed far enough from the table that passersby could check him out without feeling committed.
Mills never hesitated. "I'm an art teacher, so I feel open to this kind of thing," she said. After Baldry briefly explained his purpose in sitting there, she was sold. "I think about this all the time, how there is this sort of truncated conversation happening where we think we can say things without the consequence of being physically there for a response."
Texting and e-mailing heighten the potential for misunderstandings, she said, "because I assume you know my imagined inflections."
Baldry isn't against technology, only against an unthinking dependence upon it. That puts him more in league with Jean Ross, who'd bicycled up for a quick chat. She loves Facebook for how it's enabled her to reconnect with high school classmates from 40 years ago. "That never would have happened otherwise," said Ross, of Minneapolis. "But I do like to talk to people in person. It is the best way."
'Admire little, hear much'
Some people pass by and laugh, which he expected. Some wait in line, which he hadn't expected. Then there was the couple who turned around and came back after having asked themselves, "Are we being good sports?"
"I liked that, the idea that they wanted to be good sports," Baldry said, smiling. He does his best to reward such bravery, asking questions, seeking insights, behaving as a sort of curator of conversation, and, indeed, he sometimes "feels like a museum exhibit where conversation is the artifact."
Because we all know how to talk, conversation may be undervalued as, well, just talk. But there is an art to having a compelling, provocative or simply delightful exchange of ideas. Ben Fields, of Minneapolis, and Kenna Finnemore, of Brooklyn Park, are both studying to be emergency medical personnel, and so are learning the importance of communicating in a way that elicits information but also puts people at ease.
They'd chosen to talk with Baldry about ghost stories. "We first thought he was a psychic, but he's just a really nice guy who likes to talk to people," said Field, after they resumed their walk. Learning more about Baldry's broader goal, he nodded. "I kind of picked up on that. In fact, I wished I would have asked him more questions, but he kept it centered on us."
That is the art of conversation, as Baldry himself is learning. "I'm not saying I'm good at it, but I'm improving."
For guidance, he looks to Benjamin Franklin, who was revered as a brilliant conversationalist, perhaps because he was an astute listener. As Franklin once wrote: "The great secret of succeeding in conversation is to admire little, to hear much; always to distrust our own reason, and sometimes that of our friends; never to pretend to wit, but to make that of others appear as much as possibly we can; to hearken to what is said and to answer to the purpose."
A conversation revolution
Baldry jots down the first name of each person, and how long they talked. If there's a lull, he'll add a few more impressions. He isn't sure what will come of being "The Conversationalist," "but there's something there." He'd like to continue in some indoor venue through the winter, and is waiting to see if someone is game.
He's currently unemployed but full of ideas, many of which are displayed on his website, www.projectcentaur.org. It's also the best way to contact him. So, yes, we are all inextricably linked to the Internet and its marvels of communication.
Just don't mistake communicating for conversing -- a distinction he happily admits to sounding old-fashioned.
"There's a sense that conversation seems to be this old-timey thing, and it doesn't have to be," he said. "I don't want it to go the way of the record and have it become something that only purists enjoy. I'd love to take this further and fuel a conversation revolution.
"But for now, it's me at a table in a park."
Kim Ode • 612-673-7185