The Untold Stories

May 6, 2008

Humanity is like a large quilted blanket. The people are the threads that hold it all together, the thousands and thousands of separate little strands that are intertwined and woven to form one intricate, complete piece. Each thread has its own unique story, its own experiences and joys, its own secrets and private sadness.

If everyone and everything is connected, sewn together into something bigger and greater, why is it that we sometimes feel so alone, so isolated?

Every person has a story to tell.


Joan Smith was ordinary, in every sense of the word.
Walking past her on the street, she wasn’t the sort of woman one would gawk at or glance at twice. Seeing her, you would never have called her “pretty.” It wasn’t that she was ugly; she was just, quite simply, ordinary. Her hair was of a nondescript, almost mousy shade, the kind of color that is neither brown nor blond nor anything in between. She was only forty-five but looked much older, somehow. Maybe it was the undignified way she carried herself, hunched over resignedly, shuffling forth like a tired old lady. She had not aged gracefully, the wrinkles already deeply etched onto her face like the crackled lines of a porcelain teacup. Her eyes always had a tired look about them, perhaps from lack of sleep, some private sadness, or both. She was of medium height, a little on the plump side, and her clothes were dowdy, outdated remnants of some long-gone decade.
On the whole, this woman was thoroughly unremarkable. Strolling down the streets of New York City, a tour book tucked under her arm, a mauve-colored fanny pack fastened snugly to her waist, Joan Smith was nothing but another ordinary face in a swarming sea of humanity.
It was Joan’s first trip to New York City. Even after five days, the buildings didn’t cease to amaze her. She would crane her neck up in wonder, watching the shiny buildings stagger precariously to the sky, their utmost tips obscured by a ring of fog, giving the illusion of bursting straight through the heavens. And the city noises, too, were overwhelming; Joan had never heard so many honking horns or wailing sirens or barking dogs in her life. She loved it, the feeling that the city was alive, pulsating and throbbing, a large thumping heartbeat of culture and music and excitement.
Joan walked over to the curb and waved her arm about, trying to hail a cab. She was finally getting a hang of it, all of these small urban nuances. But the yellow vehicles whizzed by, as if they didn’t even see the stout woman on the curb with the mousy-colored hair. At last, a cab driver caught her eye, nodded to her in acknowledgment, and steered his yellow vehicle to the side of the road. Joan climbed in.
“Where to?” the driver asked. He had a distinct Caribbean accent.
“Central Park, please,” Joan said politely.
The man turned up the dial on the radio and sped off into the distance, veering through traffic with all the aggression of a New York cab driver. The remainder of the cab drive was spent in utter silence but for the muted gospel music streaming softly from the radio. Her hands folded in her lap, Joan stared quietly out the window, watching the tall buildings whiz past in a colorful blur. The driver began humming along ever-so-softly to the music, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel. But then, as quickly as he began, he stopped with a sheepish clearing of his throat.
“Here you go, ma’am,” the driver said after a few minutes, bringing the cab to a stop.
“Thank you,” Joan said, procuring a neatly-folded twenty dollar bill from her fanny-pack and handing it gently to the driver before climbing out of the cab into the warm sunshine. The cab sped away with a squeal of wheels, leaving Joan alone again.
For the rest of the afternoon, Joan wandered through the park, strolling along the tree-lined lanes. It was a beautiful summer day; overhead, a lazy afternoon sun lolled mindlessly, its dappled light filtering through the canopy of crowned tree branches, bathing the wooded park in vibrant green tints. Wispy clouds floated idly in the expansive blue sky, tendrils of white that stretched like soft trails of snow. A lone pigeon puttered about on the ground, pecking at a discarded piece of bread, reminding Joan she was in a city rather than the untamed wilderness. Joan couldn’t help but marvel at the inverted world she was walking through. Here she was, admiring green foliage and moss-covered tree trunks, when enveloping her on all sides was a bustling urban city. Joan sighed contentedly. It was nice, sometimes, just being alone in nature.
After awhile, Joan’s legs began to grow weary and her feet began to ache. Her stomach growled, reminding her that she hadn’t eaten since breakfast. Joan got a hot dog from a stand and wandered to a park bench to sit and eat it. It is so peaceful outside, Joan thought as she unwrapped the hot dog slowly, watching the park scenery with an easy grin on her face.
Smiling, Joan watched a group of children on a distant expanse of grass, screaming and shouting, running crazily about in a good-natured game of tag while their mothers looked on. Arm in arm, teenage girlfriends rollerbladed past, laughing. On a patch of grass, couples sat down to a picnic, sipping wine and eating baguettes. Joan swallowed the bite of hotdog she was chewing, and then set the remaining half beside her on the bench. For some reason, she no longer had an appetite. She continued to watch the scene in front of her, but more thoughtfully this time, the smile on her face beginning to shrivel. She saw young mothers pushing strollers, wherein round, rosy-cheeked infants burped and giggled, pressing their tiny fists into balls and wriggling their toes in glee. Elderly couples sauntered past, their wrinkled hands clasping one another’s tightly, reassuringly.
She couldn’t take it anymore. Quietly, Joan stared down into her lap. It was all too difficult to watch. There was a certain sadness in her heart, a sadness that took root and grew, slowly and surely, like a noxious weed. Somehow, the beauty of nature, the excitement of the city was utterly lost on her.
Somehow, in a city of ten million people, Joan Smith had never felt more alone in her entire life.
Slowly, Joan got up from the bench. She crumpled up the half-eaten hotdog and tossed it disinterestedly into a trash can. Alone, the ordinary woman continued along her way, an unspeakable sadness filling up in her throat like a clump of gravel.


Noah weaved his cab in and out of traffic. Now that the woman was gone, he turned up the radio and began singing along, bopping his head to the pulsating rhythm.
“Blessed are those whose strength is in You,” Noah belted. “Whose hearts are set on our God.”
For him, the music brought him home. It took him out of this grimy world of discarded cigarette butts and screaming sirens and austere faces. It summoned images of palm leaves whispering in a balmy breeze, of unspoiled white sand beaches and gyrating island beats on hot summer nights. But most of all, it made him remember his mother. He could see her now, her wrinkled black face staring off into the distance with far-away eyes, her lips curled into a reflective smile.
“God has great plans for you, Noah,” she would say, rocking back and forth in her rocking chair. “You just wait.”
Noah was still waiting.

With a groan, Noah noticed a tall man on a curb, a briefcase in one hand and the other waving wildly in the air. Noah sighed. He could easily just drive past, continue on, pretend his preoccupied eyes had merely failed to see the madly-gesticulating man on the corner. No one would know, really. But as always, whether it out of guilt or instinct or both, Noah decided to stop, maneuvering his cab to the side of the road. The man got in. He was clad in an expensive-looking fitted business-suit that, combined with the unpleasant expression plastered across his face, loudly screamed “I’m-a-successful-Armani -wearing-Manhattan-asshole.”
“1345 Park Avenue,” the man barked. His voice was cool, without a hint of gratitude or thankfulness.
“Yes sir,” Noah said, and dutifully embarked on yet another mundane ride.

That’s all there was, rides. Thousands and thousands of them. His life was nothing but a series of strangers, one right after another, entering his life for a few minutes and leaving silently without a single word. He was nothing but a constant transition, a transporter for the busy lives of others. He took the strangers from one place to the next, dropping them off at their well-paying jobs or their lavish homes, and meanwhile he remained where he was, never going anywhere or doing anything meaningful himself. By no means did he embody the ideal of success; he merely shipped it around, like a truck driver hauling cargo, watched it dangling before his eyes, tantalizingly, a constant reminder of his failure.

On every street in every city, there's a nobody who dreams of being a somebody.

“It’s just down the block,” the man said from the backseat, breaking the brooding cab driver from his reverie.

“Yes sir,” Noah said softly.

In a few minutes Noah had pulled up in front of an ornate apartment building. The man counted out fifteen dollars and shoved a crumpled ball of money into Noah’s outstretched hand. Then, just like that--silently, without so much as a single word--the man opened the door of the cab and left Noah’s life forever. Noah watched him go, unable to help but feel a tinge of envy for the immaculately-dressed, polished businessman whose fate had overlapped with his humble one for a brief five minutes. The man was most likely going home to a luxuriously furnished apartment building, to an attractive wife and beautiful children.

Alone again, Noah clutched the fifteen dollars to his chest. It wasn’t much, but it was something. A few more months, he told himself as he deftly steered away from the curb and continued his solitary, aimless wandering through the city streets. A few more months and I will finally have enough money to bring my family over. We will finally all be together. It will all be worth it, then.

But for another day, Noah was condemned to live his life with more strangers, a trunk-full of broken dreams weighing him down.


Peter Vanderbilt got out of the taxi, leaving without so much as a friendly nod to the driver, and entered the lavish foyer of his Upper East Side apartment building. He strode diligently across the marble floor, briefcase in hand, an especially grim expression on his face. The desk manager called out a polite “How do you do, sir?”, but Peter was in no mood for petty formalities. He simply cleared his throat, signifying to the desk manager that yes, he had heard him, but no, he did not give a damn.
When Peter finally reached his penthouse, he chucked his briefcase carelessly across the floor and turned on the light. The opulent room before him—its overstuffed chairs, its Persian rugs, its breathtaking view of the city line—did little to lift Peter’s mood. He poured himself a glass of Grey Goose and sunk into the leather chair by the marble fireplace, releasing a big sigh.
Peter stared down at his drink, swishing the glass, hearing the ice cubes clink together. It was a familiar sound, a comforting sound. He brought the glass to his lips and, closing his eyes, took a long swig. The liquid, warm and burning, coursed down his throat like fire but he didn’t even grimace. He just wanted the feeling to wash over him as quickly as possible, wanted the effects of the alcohol to work its magic, liberating his weary bones and loosening his tired soul. Vodka, his temporary release in a glass. Vodka, the medicine that dulled the pain and replaced the darkness with an indifferent gray void.
Peter rubbed his temples slowly. His head pounded and throbbed. He turned on the TV, trying to fill the empty silence of his apartment with the artificial yet comforting presence of cellophane entertainment. Peter sat for a moment, gazing absentmindedly into the dying embers of the fire, hearing them sputter and crackle softly. Ashes rose up the chimney like black butterflies.
On a small table beside him was a framed black-and-white photo showing four smiling, blond-headed faces. Peter set his drink down for a moment and picked up the picture slowly, studying it with sad, despondent eyes. There he was, ten years younger, grinning ear to ear. Next to him was the woman, a beautiful woman with sparkling blue eyes and a delicate nose. His hand was rested on her shoulder lovingly, protectively. Longingly, Peter trailed his finger across the shiny photo, tracing the soft features of her face, trying to absorb her every contour and seal it into his memory forevermore.
Sometimes, in his dark office late at night, slumped tiredly in front of a computer screen while he struggled to keep his eyes open, he would suddenly begin to panic. He realized he could no longer remember her face, her voice, her touch. The small details of her were slipping slowly from his memory like sand. The scent of her lavender soap, trailing after her softly like a final music note; the graceful, swan-like curve of her pale neck—such details were small joys he hoarded greedily, like tokens locked away in a treasure chest. Once they were gone, there would be nothing left of her, nothing but a smiling black-and-white photograph.
But the photograph did no good. It only showed the outward appearance of her, her basic image. But did it hint at any of the lovable, tiny things no camera could possibly capture? How she would bawl every time she watched “It’s A Wonderful Life”? How she every morning would work on crossword puzzles, biting intently on the eraser of her pencil, her eyebrows knitted in concentration? How she sang “Blue Skies,” off-key, in the shower?
Peter turned the picture over. He downed the remainder of his drink, but no amount of alcohol could ever make him forget, could fill the emptiness he felt inside of him. He would never be able to erase her face from his mind, sending chills up his spine, haunting him.


Every person has a story to tell.
So why is it we seldom stop and ask them to tell it?

Maybe, if we knew everyone’s story, we would

sit down next to the lone woman eating a hotdog on a park bench

strike up a conversation with the foreign taxi driver

smile at the business man after his long day at work

Every person has a story to tell.
What’s yours?

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