Tell it to a perfect stranger

by Jamie McKenzie

© 1993


She figured that this fad, like most fads, would probably die down after six or seven months, but for now it was sure a boomer.

She took her place in line, pulled out her New Yorker and began the long shuffle forward. Like most lines in New York, people left you alone. No idle chatter or intrusiveness. And she liked that. It gave her a chance to catch up. A few more visits and she would be reading this year's issues.

The idea for the franchise had started with a cartoon in the New Yorker , she remembered. The founder had blown it up to display it billboard size in every "exchangery." She glanced up on the wall with a smile. Two lines much like the one in which she stood wound back and forth until they each arrived at the same counter and the same window. The first person in one line faced the first person in the other line.

"Tell it to a perfect stranger!" became the motto for the VIRTUAL THERAPY exchangeries which had popped up across the city like the nail salons of the late '80s. Exchangeries, though, were usually located in what used to be bank lobbies. Banks were perfect once you ripped out the junk where the employees used to stand or work. The counters and windows were in place and people were already familiar with the locations. When the ATMs made human tellers obsolete, people just traded their branch bank for a branch exchangery.

But local branches soon grew passé as members found themselves seeking ever more intriguing strangers. VIRTUAL THERAPY, or "VT" as the company was affectionately called by its devotees, quickly established a travel service to aid members in their search for the "perfect stranger." Or you could line up for the booth if you wished to travel electronically.

The booth had a curtain like the photo booths Fran used to climb into at the Jersey shore with boy friends. Insert a couple of quarters, smile and out would pop a strip of pictures. Except now you sat down, inserted your credit card and picked a city, town or foreign country. In a few seconds you sat face to face with a stranger who might be some dancer, truck driver or lawyer coming via video from across the ocean.

Some people preferred the booth because it combined virtual travel with virtual therapy and brought them one level closer to their ultimate goal of virtual intimacy, but Fran had not graduated past the VT novice level and had no need for anything more than the run-of-the-mill, local stranger. She was content to share her troubles with the relatively safe parade of investment bankers, bus drivers, secretaries and homeless who frequented her branch, and she took comfort from speaking to someone "in the flesh."

It didn't bother Fran that the person on the other side of the counter usually acted bored and impatient while she shared her problems. She was used to that. Her husband - her ex -husband - had perfected the rattling newspaper, rolled eyes, "uh-huh . . . oh, is that so?" routine so that she expected nothing more from strangers. She actually grew uncomfortable when someone perked up and showed interest or concern.

At the first sign of comforting, empathic behavior, Fran would immediately start protesting. "Actually, it's nothing," she would proclaim. "I'm sure your troubles are far more serious than mine."

And, much to her satisfaction and relief, the empathic stranger would usually nod in quick agreement, launching into protracted tales of woe which did, indeed, seem far worse to Fran than her own troubles. Even though she was divorced, lonely, unemployed and wondering why she bothered any more, her story was kind of boring, she had to admit.

Every once in a while, she would get caught up in the story she was hearing and start asking questions or offering advice. Big mistake. She quickly learned they just wanted someone to listen and nod, listen and nod. It was as if speaking the troubles aloud set them free.

Fran remembered nights in bars with bartenders who would nod sympathetically and shrug philosophically. When she imitated their style, she met with good response. A number of people complimented her when their sessions were over.

"Thanks so much. You've been a great help."

"One of my best sessions ever. Thanks."

Reinforced for her neutrality, she took to practicing in front of a mirror. She even visited the Metropolitan in search of Buddha's bland smile. Even that, she realized was a bit too strong.

Was this some form of automated confession? she wondered, not having been Catholic, herself, and always having felt a bit mystified by that process.

But where was the absolution? Where was the penance? Shouldn't they be assigned some Hail Marys or a month without alcohol or a year without shopping or a night with the homeless or something of that sort?

It was silly, she knew, of course, to draw any connection with religion, since VT was a for-profit enterprise. You could tell that just by noting the pickets lined up in front of the exchangeries . . . the city's newest vanguard of unemployed, the casualties of the latest social progress.

In the '90s it was all those Wall Street types who watched their champagne bubbles burst. Now it was all the psychologists, social workers and psychiatrists who had been replaced by VT. Why pay for the real thing, after all, when it cost you $125 or more per session and seemed to drag on for ever, never resolving any essential issues. VT cost a mere $10, the equivalent of a few drinks after work, and the homeless were allowed free passage because their stories inevitably made the other clients feel better just for the listening.

"I've kicked the habit!" many of Fran's friends announced to her after their first few sessions of VT. "I called up Lorraine and told her I was finished with therapy," explained a former co-worker at the travel agency.

"But, Peter, you have so much more work to do before you have laid the ghost of your mother to rest," the therapist had warned.

"Fran," he had confided, "I couldn't admit to her that I was using VT to handle all that baggage, so I just said that I was the best judge of when my work was done and that as my therapist she was trying to control me even more than my mother had. That left her little choice but silence."

"You aren't thinking of going to one of those exchangeries, are you?" Lorraine had pursued, despite his confidence that she would acquiesce.

"Of course not," he had lied. "You should know me better than that after three years."

"I do," she had replied, and a few weeks later she had accosted him at the entrance to the 86th street exchangery, her picket sign resting against her shoulder. "You lied to me, Peter," she had accused.

"Of course, Lorraine. That's because you were beginning to act more and more like my mother, and I always lied to her."

Fran, by now, had perfected her less than Buddha-like smile and offered no comment or judgment whatsoever as Peter described his separation from Lorraine, his therapist.

"You know, Fran, you are a great listener!" he had enthused.

"I try," she had replied, trying to keep her pride from showing.

At one time a third of the people living in Manhattan were said to have therapists guiding them through life, she had read once in New York Magazine or the Voice . It had taken an army of shrinks to keep the city running, and now they had as much significance as the Pentagon at the end of the Cold War. Just as the Pentagon had taken to providing humanitarian relief, trading in tanks for mobile soup kitchens, the therapists had to find a whole new way of life.

The CEO of VT, taking pity on the mass of highly educated picketers, many of whom were starving for work, began hiring them, not as therapists but as ushers.

"Your job is to welcome them and to keep them in line," the training video explained to the new employees. "No judgment, no criticism, no advice and no questions."

A few thousand accepted the jobs rather than join the homeless, but quite a few of the others ended up on the street shaking coffee cups. By the time they hit the street, all the good spots were taken by the truly homeless (the busy corners and the doorways of convenience stores), so the therapists were forced to wander up and down in the spaces in between.

"I just gave to that guy back there," they were often told.

Little by little, the more aggressive types began to challenge the original panhandlers for their spots, often having to fight and punch their way into opportunity.

It soon turned racial, as did just about everything in the city. Most of the panhandlers on the upper West Side had been black or Hispanic. Most of the therapists were white. As the therapists began fighting for prime spots, someone noticed the changing racial balance of the neighborhood and complained to the city. Next thing there were pickets on street corners complaining that panhandling had been gentrified.

As if that were not enough, Fran noticed one day that a fresh crowd of picketers had shown up. This second group was led by Peter's therapist, Lorraine, who had organized a group to complain that only the male therapists had been able to fight their way into opportunity. Women therapists were forced to panhandle in "no man's land."

Lorraine, Peter's former therapist, tall and proud, shorn of her fur coat, had blocked Fran's passage, standing there in red wool, in order to force a leaflet into her hand.

"It's a crime," she had complained in acid tones.

Fran, who had met Lorraine at one of Peter's parties, had listened for half an hour, assuming her vague smile and nodding her head in apparent support for Lorraine's tirade. As the half hour passed, she noted that Lorraine was growing calmer and beginning to slow down. She finally reached the end of her material and smiled at Fran with relief.

"Thanks so much for listening," she had finished. "I feel so much better now."

Fran had just nodded, but inside the wheels were turning. This woman used to get paid $62.50 for a half hour, she mused, and now she gets it free from me.

Even the bars started losing business when the VT people installed stools and TV screens at some counters. That way you could keep one eye on the Knicks and the other on the person sharing troubles. The TV screens also made the waiting in line a bit more endurable, but New Yorkers were pretty much numbed to lines and had learned long ago to carry a book, newspaper or CD player wherever they went. The one thing that saved the bars was the inability of the VT organization to win liquor licenses for the exchangeries. Even if they had been able to serve nothing more than beer and wine, the neighborhood bar would have surely faded into antiquity, one more casualty of progress.

After several weeks of VT, Fran discovered she was developing tolerance, as if this were just some new kind of drug. What started as a couple of visits each week became a daily and then twice daily need. If she skipped these sessions, she became irritable and restless, disgruntled and uncooperative. She would stare at the word processor and find it impossible to draft yet another job letter. The mail would arrive with a half dozen important-looking envelopes from all around the country and she would just sit there immobilized. They were all rejections, she knew.

Fresh from the exchangery, she could grind out a dozen letters in no time. The mail was a breeze. "F___ you, too!" she would croon deliciously, as she scanned the standard "a person with your excellent qualifications" rejection letter. Sour grapes seemed more like fine wine after a good session of VT.

After three months, Fran was still unemployed, but feeling quite well adjusted. Even though the VT telemarketers were hot on her trail, trying to convince her to upgrade and extend her search for the perfect stranger to include the full array of VT services, including virtual travel, Fran resisted the pressure, convinced that she had reached some desirable plateau. She was sleeping better and actually experiencing moments of calm and serenity. It took her several weeks to recognize these interludes for what they were, because she had experienced very few in her life time, but she eventually named them.

"Solace," she whispered one day. "I have found solace."

When the telemarketers persisted, offering her all manner of special packages, including one which would convert her cable subscription to include at home VT, she explained that she had already found "solace" and did not need anything more.

"But lady," the insistent voice cautioned. "This isn't about finding solace. There is no final destination here, no resting place, no end goal. This is a process, not an end. Today's feelings of calm and satisfaction are sure to dissolve if you do not keep seeking the perfect stranger to tell all your troubles. We've seen it happen time after time. Just when you think you've reached some great plateau of inner peace, life smashes you down and sets you straight. Your only hope is to keep moving, seeking, searching, using your restlessness as a defense against Fate."

"That's nonsense," Fran argued, not entirely sure if she believed her own words. "It's just a sales pitch. You just want me to buy the services."

"Suit yourself, Ms. Holcombe. I was going to offer you our latest service for one year at absolutely no cost to you, but you seem very sure that you don't need anything more than what you have now."

Fran was curious, of course, especially hearing that it was going to be free.

"And just what is this new service?" she asked impatiently.

"Virtual truth," the voice explained. "Virtual truth is the obvious missing element to elevate the practitioner of virtual therapy to the state of mind we call virtual intimacy. We call it VT2."

Even though Fran had grown used to the pyscho-babble so popular in VT circles, this sales pitch was leaving her cold.

"How does it work?" she asked.

"Remember the mirror in Snow White ? Whenever the queen asked the mirror who was the fairest of them all, the mirror always reassured her, until one day the mirror messed up and gave the wrong answer."

"Well, our VT2 program, Yes-Man or Yes-Woman , depending upon your gender preference, is based on an artificial intelligence system which is guaranteed never to fail like that mirror did. Yes-Woman is available on a cable channel and works interactively with you. When you ask questions, Yes-Woman tells you what you want and need to know. It carefully sorts through what it knows and selects only those truths which are right for you."

"The mirror should have known better than to tell the queen that Snow White was the fairest of them all. Any mirror with a half decent AI program - that's short for artificial intelligence - behind it would have calculated the odds of survival as very low, heeding the 'kill the messenger' algorithm which would predict broken glass all over the floor after the deliverance of such major negative truth free of gloss or little white lies. The mirror should have given the queen what she really wanted . . . Virtual Truth."

"Like what, for instance?" Fran asked.

"Employ the 'beauty is in the eye of the beholder' algorithm to protect the old truth which had worked for so long. The queen was obviously insecure and in need of reassurance. The mirror should have told her what she wanted to hear, not slam her with raw, new, questionable truth. Besides, our concepts of beauty really are culturally biased and a whole bunch of folks would say that Snow White was a creepy wasp type with little warmth or real beauty at all. They might prefer someone of color. So it wouldn't really be lying to tell the queen what she wants to hear. It's that way with most questions people ask. It's the nature of truth."

In the privacy of her bedroom Fran shook her head, wondering where all this nonsense would stop.

"I know you're probably shaking your head," the sales person continued, but you can try out this service for a full year free of any commitment or obligation. We think you'll come to love it so much you'll want to sign up for the second year."

Fran asked the cost.

"It's the equivalent of one year's membership in one of those swanky health clubs like the one you used to belong to before you lost your job."

Fran was accustomed to this kind of intrusive sales strategy since the databases had all merged in the past few years and salespeople had access to half your life history.

"It might even help you to find the perfect new job."

Fran slammed down the receiver at this and tried to regain the calm she had felt prior to the telephone call, but her stomach was rolling with turmoil much like she used to feel at breakfast each morning as she and her husband rushed off a quick fight before dashing off to their respective offices.

After pacing back and forth across the bedroom for several minutes, she reached into her closet for a coat and headed for the elevator, knowing that the exchangery would solve her problem.

By the time she reached the counter, she was still feeling angry and upset, but much of the turmoil in her stomach had subsided.

She could not help but notice that the man facing her in the window was attractive. He had the kind of tall, dark, imposing presence which she had always thought Humphrey Bogart lacked in Casablanca. She fell into a tiny group of people who felt Bogart was miscast. This man's eyes burned with a kind of passion and depth which betrayed his status.

He was obviously a first timer. She wondered at the fact that the ushers had allowed him to get in line. He was giving off an aura which should have set off some kind of alarm. She wasn't quite sure what was wrong with him, but she knew he didn't belong sitting in an exchangery.

"Why are you here?" she asked, forgetting for a moment her rule against questions.

He smiled. "I was just curious," he said. "I have so many friends who swear by this stuff that I wanted to see it for myself."

"Oh," she responded. "Then this is your first time?"

He nodded.

"Well, you might as well start off then," she suggested helpfully. "Tell me your troubles, and then I'll tell you mine."

He smiled again, a bit embarrassed. She noticed that he was dressed casually like some slightly aging model in one of the many catalogues she used to receive before they were banned and replaced by cable shopping.

"Well, that's the trouble," he explained. "I really don't have any problems worth mentioning," he said. "I guess that sort of disqualifies me, don't you think?"

Fran was half tempted to slam him with a few probing questions to dredge up some good solid neuroses, some childhood wounds that she was sure everybody shared. After listening for months to other people's problems and troubles, she had realized that the whole world was dysfunctional. Wherever she walked she imagined hurt children lurking inside the harried adults who surged past along the sidewalks.

But looking into his eyes, she found herself half believing him. If he had convinced himself, who was she to . . ."

"What's your name?" he asked.

"Oh, that's against the rules," she replied, looking around to see if the ushers had overheard this transgression.

She had personally witnessed a pair of VT members being ejected with their memberships cancelled on the spot for this very same offense. Anonymity was basic to the treatment process, the VT management had explained, and it was hoisted to the same privileged status that confidentiality had held when therapists had reigned. The positive benefits of sharing troubles only existed with strangers, they argued. This was no dating service or place to make friends. Every VT encounter was a one night stand without sex or physical contact, a welcome relief to many who viewed AIDs as too great a threat to risk any more touching relationships.

"OK," he said, obviously a bit disgusted. "Then why don't you tell me your troubles."

She smiled in relief as he seemed willing to follow the rules, after all. She immediately launched into a tirade about the sales pitch aimed her way earlier in the evening, but she was only part way through her story when his face turned redder and redder and he finally began shaking his head in disbelief.

"You've got to be kidding," he said loudly.

Fran looked around to see if anyone was noticing his outburst, but the Knicks were in the playoffs and all eyes were on the screen.

"That's the stupidest thing I've heard in a long time," he continued. "Don't you think this whole thing is just a charade?"

Fran looked down at the button on the counter. It was red. She knew she should push it now before he got any worse, but she hesitated. She could picture the ushers descending and dragging him out to the door and she didn't want to see him humiliated in front of all those people, but she also knew that he was dangerous and likely to drag her into trouble along side him. They might both be thrown out onto the street.

"What is your name?" he asked again.

"Lara," she replied, thinking that an alias might protect her.

"Well, Lara, I think this whole operation is kind of sick, and I think we should hit the road right now."

She watched him stand up and shove back the bar stool. She watched, but she did not move.

"What do you say we go find us a real bar, Lara? My name's Henry and I'd like to talk with you about something other than troubles. In fact, I think I'd like to go dancing or something old fashioned like that. What do you say?"

He did look a bit like Omar Shariff in Doctor Zhivago. Back in her bar scene days, she would have considered him a great catch, would have refused to sleep with him until a second date, and would have hoped for a lasting relationship, but VT had cured her of that kind of perpetual search for intimacy. She looked at him now with a kind of wisdom which had eluded her back in those days.

She pushed the red button and assumed her Buddha-like smile even as his own expression, supremely confident and courageous, began to crumble.

A few weeks later, passing by her on Columbus, he showed no sign of recognition. They had become perfect strangers.

- The End -