Phil Luciano: A simple lesson in listening

Phil Luciano

Killing some time. Waiting for a concert. Going for a beer.

Pop into a new place. Lots of people. Lots of laughter.

Two seats at the bar. Take one, order a Pabst. Life is good. My life, at least, right now.

Guy takes the other seat. We nod at each other, the universal guys-who-are-too-cool-to-actually-say-"hello" greeting.

Time slides. No bartender.

"What does someone have to do to get a drink in this place?" the guy says with a tight grin.

"Well," I say, prying my lips from my bottle, "I could offer you a sip of my beer. But I have a head cold."

He smirks. "Nah," he says, "I don't like sharing beers with dudes. Besides, I hate Pabst."

Philistine. Anyway, he offers that he's from Bloomington. His group - three guys, three gals - have come to Peoria for the same rock show.

Finally, he gets the barkeep's attention: three frou-frou cocktails and three Bud Lights. "Wait," he says, "make it four Bud Lights." He winks at me. "I better order me an extra, what with the wait."

The bartender hands him a beer but needs time for the specialty drinks. So the guy starts talking.

In the next five minutes, I learn his entire life. Not happy.

Bad childhood home. Dad runs off. Mom doesn't care much about anything.

Juvenile problems. Lots of weed. An arrest or two.

Gets a girl pregnant. She takes off. He raises the kid. She comes back. Now she wants custody.

He gets a DUI. He can't work. He might lose the kid.

And there he is, waiting for me to say something. His grin has receded a bit. And his eyes look vaguely scared.

I think about making a crack about his life sounding like a crazy-bad country-western song. That's what guys do in bars, make a joke and move on, as if to say, "It'll be OK."

But humor seems out of place here. I don't want to trifle with this man's emerging melancholy.

Still, I really have nothing of value to offer him. How can I say, "Things will work out"? I don't know this guy at all. But he has this look as if to plead, "Tell me something, buddy. Please. Anything."

Moments pass. Before I can untie my tongue, he snaps out of it as the barkeep brings the long-awaited drinks. He nods at me, grins again and yells to his buddies, "Hey, you deadbeats! Here's your booze!" And off he goes with a tray of drinks, smiling broadly.

I start to wonder. He is surrounded by friends, yet he felt the urge to seek solace (or something) with a total stranger. Maybe he can't open up to those close to him. Maybe their lives are as haywire as his. Maybe maybe maybe.

And I start thinking. How many guys do I know like that? How many people might we know who feel just like that guy? Maybe their problems aren't as apparent or dire as his. But who knows what emotions roil the hearts of those closest to us?

So for the past few weeks, I've tried something different. When I ask friends, "How ya doing?" - I really mean it. I try to sound sincere. And I listen.

I don't know if that approach makes the world one bit better. But I do know that I'm paying more attention. So maybe next time, when someone - a friend, a stranger, whoever - is looking for help, maybe I'll be better plugged in, ready to step into the breach in a world desperate for human connection, if only for a moment or two.

Phil Luciano can be reached or (309)  686-3155.