"You do WHAT?" asked the businessman sitting next to me on a flight to Florida. This was twenty-plus years ago, a short time before I made the transition from journalism to nonfiction book author, and long before I became a novelist. I had endured this fellow flirting relentlessly with me for two hours. He bragged about how much money he made (so what) and all the reckless business deals he'd made, a few of which sounded vaguely illegal. Finally, it occurred to him that I had said perhaps three words on the entire flight, and he asked me, "So, do you work?" This is one of the most clueless questions a man can ask a woman. I replied yes. "Oh, what do you do?" he persisted. "I'm a writer," I said simply. "Oh? What do you write? Children's books?" I paused before answering. "No," I said. "I write for a newspaper." He suddenly looked worried, no doubt thinking of all of the secrets he had spilled. "You do WHAT?" I refused to elaborate but he persisted. "You mean you write about cooking, stuff around the house, things like that?" I don't like making people squirm, even a jerk like him, but it was unavoidable. "No," I said. "I'm a reporter. I write news stories." Beads of sweat began to sprout on his forehead and upper lip. "You don't write BUSINESS stories, do you?" He looked terrified. "Yes," I said, "sometimes." Now he was freaking out. "What else do you write?" he asked. I shrugged. "Oh, all kinds of things. Police stories, for example." He was deathly quiet for a few moments. "Well, which paper do you write for?" he asked finally. "The New York Times," I said. Clearly, this was not the answer he was hoping for. He fumed for the rest of the flight but at least he had shut up and I was able to read in peace. As we left the plane, he took a parting shot: "You should have told me," he said in a threatening tone, and stalked away. Really? I was obligated to talk about myself? I wondered why some people who blab to others seem to think the rest of us are obliged to reciprocate. But the encounter has stayed with me for another, more important reason, too: A reminder of the assumptions people make about one another, and how often they are wrong.
One Author's Life
October 22, 2013