Coffee & Conversation

My friend Anh said to me once, “Jamie, how do you always meet these crazy characters at Starbucks?” Honestly, I have no idea. I usually sit in a corner with headphones in, but I often gaze off into the distance lost in thought so perhaps people think I’m staring at them? Anyway in the past, I have met: an electrical engineer, Lebanese refugee, homeless woman, architect, schoolteacher, aspiring rapper, and a self-made business woman who ran her own clown company (that’s right I said clown). Today, it was an Ethiopian Filmmaker.

I had been working for about 6 hours staring at a computer and trying to jump back into the world that I meticulously created yesterday (the chapter I am currently working on happens to take place in Petra, Jordan), when the gentleman across from me asked how to spell “courageous.”

I am a writer, so though I was uncertain of how to spell it (I fully admit I rely heavily on spellcheck), I wasn’t about to admit that to him. C-o-u-r-a-g-e-o-u-s I spelled out slowly, before asking him to show me the screen so that I could double-check his spelling.  Turns out I had spelled it correctly (talk about saving face!) and up popped the movie “Courageous” which he was looking for.  He thanked me and then asked me point blank what it is that I do. I hate this question.

In fact, I moved out of Los Angeles for the sole purpose of avoiding this question. But today my answer was very succinct. I am a writer (a currently unpaid and unpublished writer, but he needn’t know that – less is always more when describing ones occupation).

“Oh you are a writer!” he exclaims and I know this conversation is about to go on for about 20 minutes longer than I care to stay. However, the conversation that transpires surprises even the most cynical part of me. And believe me the cynicism runs deep in my veins.

Abraham, whose name I did not learn until the very end of the conversation, is a filmmaker from Ethiopia who is working on a story about a guy who takes the charitable actions of others and somehow always manages to muck it up. “It’s about having opportunity and doing all the wrong things with it.  Imagine a man who lives in the middle of light of dark, always seeking the peace of light but easily sucked into the mess of the dark,” he explains. It was a universal idea centered in the heart of the human condition – nice. I told him he should submit it to Sundance and Cannes. Of all the bullshit ideas I’ve heard over the years for “the greatest movie” this was one of the better ones. However, seeing as how he was a guy I met at Starbucks in Houston, TX, I was still full of skepticism with regards to the execution of this self-proclaimed fantastic film. He laughed when I told him this.

He told me that the very basic difference Americans and Ethiopians was that they do not have a reluctance towards meeting other people. His example was this: “If I asked you right now to hop in the car with me and go for a ride, you would immediately say no based on the assumption that I must want something from you; we are not like that in Ethiopia, we act on a whim all the time.” I must admit that even as he asked his hypothetical question I heard my inner monologue shout, “uh hell no, I’m not going anywhere with you.” So he was right. But was I wrong?

“You are a writer,” he says. But without the financial backing of bigwigs who have money you have a book without distribution and therefore no audience. Now, I don’t believe that this is true of books, but I do believe it is true of films so I let his faux pas slide and allowed him to continue. He was Ethiopian after all. I was born in the US and I still don’t have a handle on how the industry works. He went on to explain that just in the last 5 minutes by starting a conversation with me, I had already given him information that he didn’t know about (Sundance and Cannes) and so in an indirect way I was a stepping stone towards his success. He’s a charmer this one.

Since he seemed like a pretty direct guy, I decided to go for the punch and ask him the question all filmmakers hate to be asked. “Where do you plan on getting financing?” To which he laughed and said, “That is a good question. Where does one get 4 million dollars to shoot a multi-language independent film?” sliding a business card over to me he continues, “I work with very wealthy people. We’re having a conference tomorrow at the Crown Plaza; you should come by and check it out for yourself. Who knows maybe you will find someone who can help you publish that book of yours.”

That inner distrust of other human beings kicked in yet again and I heard myself saying, “Well I’m not even close to finishing this book yet so…”

“It doesn’t matter,” he says, “You have the drive and the heart and that is all you need, to know that you’re going to finish. If you have a desire or passion for something your going to do everything you can to see it come to life.” At my core I wanted very badly for this to be true, so I wasn’t about to argue with it. I smiled in agreement, my mind already preoccupied with thoughts of my book and how much work lies ahead.

Looking at his watch, he realized he had a meeting in about 4 minutes so he left, but not without a promise that this would not be the last that I saw of him. Whether or not that was true, I was certain that this would not be the last time I thought of this conversation. He left me pondering whether or not opportunities were passing me by because I simply couldn’t get past the inclination that people are inherently only looking to screw me over. Was I standing in my own way?