Street Corner Selling (Issue 854)

In which we experience the power of questions and curiosity to engage. 

At roughly 1:00 pm on a brightly sunny November-in-Texas Friday afternoon, after a full morning of meetings, I was standing on a street corner, waiting for the traffic light to change so I could cross the street to the parking garage. Daydreaming about the morning, I was vaguely aware that two men had joined me on the corner. We stood in silence for a few seconds.

“That’s a great bow tie you’re wearing,” one of them said to me. “Did you tie that yourself?”

“Thank you and, yes, I did.”

I turned to look at them. One, probably 40 years old, bearded, baseball cap, Kelly green T-shirt, rumpled khaki pants. The other, probably in his late ‘20s, T-shirt and jeans.  They looked pretty ship shape.

“Do you know the word ‘posh’? Do you know where that comes from?”, the bearded one asked.

Thinking he was making a reference to my appearance, I responded, “Yes, I do. Port Out, Starboard Home… Instructions to well-to-do travelers from England to India on ships so their staterooms would be away from the sun.”

He smiled widely and raised his arms in a congratulatory gesture.  “Very good!” he said.  “Yes, that’s right!”

“But…”, he said, challenging me again, “do you know where the term ‘highfalutin’ comes from?”   I didn’t. He explained…

… and then continued: “Do you know why pirates wore an eye patch?”   I didn’t.  [He covered one eye with his hand and, in his best pirate voice explained, “So we can see  in the dark when we ransack below decks.” ]

“Huh!” I said… and he went on…  “Do you know the origin of the tradition of clinking drinking glasses? … Do you know why pirates used peg-legs? …Do you know where the term ‘high roller’ came from?”

Entertaining and quick…. we were still waiting for the light to change.

And then he said, “Look, we’re just a couple of homeless guys looking for some financial help.  Could you help us out with a few bucks?”

By that point, I wasn’t completely surprised. I could connect the first couple of questions to my natty threads. After that, his questions seemed more random…. thoroughly entertaining but random. After the fifth or sixth question, I prepared for the pitch.

Although I gently replied “no” to their request for cash and “no” to their request I withdraw money from an ATM for them, I completely dug their act.

They picked a great starting point – an ego-stroking, enthusiastic complement about my bow tie. They distracted me from their primary ‘call objective’, challenging me with a half-dozen snappy trivia questions and encouraging me (and educating me) with their animated  replies.  And, their pitch was clear and “quid pro quo” – We brightened your afternoon, please pay us.

Now that I’ve thought about it for a bit… if I see them again, I will pay them a few bucks. They were relaxed, warm, playful, creative, congratulatory, and immediately informative.  They drew me in. They amused me.  And I’ll remember them.

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