NewsNews Features

Behind the Writer’s Desk

Quite possibly, Everyday People is important. Sure, it’s the light, closing feature of each week’s Flagpole, a good-natured farewell until next week, an invitation to please come again. No matter how contentious the other columnists might have been in a particular issue, Everyday People seeks to please on some level. But that’s not all it does: behind the gentle facade of the Q&A format, Everyday People strikes right to the heart of our age and the people who live in it. I’ve been lucky enough to write the column over the past year. The experience has been a gift from Athens, and by describing my time with the column, it’s a gift that I hope to share.

Everyday People is both new and old. It is rooted deeply in the career of the monumental Studs Terkel. While all of his work is relevant to this enterprise on some level, the 1974 Working is closest to the column. A prostitute, a stone mason, a baseball player and many others: on every level, as the book’s subtitle suggests, people talk about what they do. That’s it. The hand of Terkel, as an editor, is noticeable on every page, but his voice is nearly absent. Instead, each everyday person speaks for him- or herself. It’s a magic book that has a strange way of picking at stereotypes and showing that their truth and falsity are all rolled into one in a strange and variable bundle. Read it. The world will look different afterwards.

Even as it is grounded in the influence of Terkel, Everyday People is fresh. It is a small member of a vast family tree of new media. It has its cousins in Youtube, the blogosphere and reality television. It is a part of a great wave of formats that seek to inspire personal connection between distant individuals. In the case of Everyday People, the scope is simply much smaller. The idea is to connect Athens, to envelop the community in a vast web of fellow-feeling.

I recently perused Richard Lanham’s The Economics of Attention, and I was thrilled to be able to conclude that, viewed on Lanham’s terms, Everyday People is a substantial source of positive social change. Lanham’s basic premise is that attention—the focus of the public eye—is beginning to take the place of capital in contemporary society. That is, money and stuff are less important than having others pay attention to us (and our money and stuff). For example, the brand of an item is more important than its quality or substance. He laments the uneven distribution of the scarce commodity of attention: “Concentrating all the attention in a few hands, a world of celebrities, brings the same misfortunes of maldistributed wealth we know so well from good economics… If attention makes life real, if self-consciousness about experience enriches us as we pass through it, then the centripetal structures of modern fame should make us equally vexed.â€

Everyday People helps even the score. It focuses the collective eye of Athens on a gem it might never have noticed otherwise. In its way, Everyday People makes the world a better place.

But perhaps I am making too much of my humble column. While I can only offer conjecture as to its greater sociocultural impact, I can say definitively how transformative it has been for me. I have been both a reader and writer of Everyday People. When I moved to Athens three years ago, I knew no one. In my initial isolation, I began to notice how much brief moments of genuine communication meant to me, no matter how small. Some light banter with a friendly store clerk could change my day for the better.

I also looked forward to reading Everyday People. It reminded me that life was rich and that all it would take for me to meet someone interesting was to leave the house. Two years later, long after my initial solitariness had ended, I jumped at the chance to write the column that had meant so much to me.

Within weeks of beginning, however, I began to notice some very unflattering things—things about myself. Searching for interview candidates, I realized how limited my scope of interaction was. I always shopped at the same places, walked or drove the same routes, went to the same bars, talked to the same friends. To make matters worse, everyone I knew was just like me on some level, and there were large swathes of Athens in which I had never spent any time. I began to joke that Flagpole readers could trace the column back to me simply through the interviews I had set up. I realized I had to expand my experience if I wanted not just to write a good column but to really get to know Athens.

Everyday People has shown me, most importantly, that I have a tendency to limit myself. It’s not just me, though; everyone who has ever been busy or tired or preoccupied does the same thing. It seems easier to live habitually than to make the simple maneuvers necessary to have a richer life. I am the first to admit that I have no shortage of self-love, but Everyday People has shown me that being myself is not enough for me. I want to be my community, too.