About a month ago, I was walking with a friend at Seattle's Green Lake Park when I saw two teenagers holding signs that read, 'Tell us a story!' They said they just wanted to chat with strangers and hear any stories they might want to tell. On Friday, when I was walking Green Lake, I saw a man holding a different sign. It read 'Free Listening.' I stopped to ask him why.
"About three years ago I was running around Green Lake," Thomas Common told me. "I was running because I was having a really hard time in my life and I was trying to think through some problems. As I was running by, there was a woman sitting there with a sign that said FREE LISTENING. So I sat down and I kind of spilled my guts to her, told her everything that was going on."
The woman didn't say a word. She just listened. And Thomas never forgot that day. So three years later, on a warm summer evening, he decided to pay it forward.
"I think it really helped me out, at least at the time, it helped me work through some problems. So I decided just to come back here and start doing it for other people. I figure that everyone else probably needs it too, at some point in their life, and maybe I can be there for somebody else."
Thomas is not a therapist, he works in food service, but he's offering an open ear and he's not a part of your friend group, so he can't spill your secrets.
I met Thomas two hours after he took his post, and he says five people had already stopped to talk to him, including one guy who vented for 25 minutes. What did they talk about?
"I kind of already promised myself I wouldn't say anything confidential about anything anyone has said. But I can say that the one parallel that I found is that the things that everyone had to say had to do with communicating to those that they were closest with. Those that they loved or those they were getting out of a relationship with. And they didn't know what to say or how to approach the situation, often."
I was sort of surprised that so many Seattleites opened up to Thomas.
"Some people are a little nervous, like, they're not sure exactly what free listening is. But after I elaborate on it, most people are ready to sit down and start talking. They're like, 'So you'll listen to anything?' Yeah, yeah, whatever you have to say. 'Okay!' And then they'll sit down and go for it."
Seeing two sets of people holding COME TALK TO ME signs really got me thinking. Many articles have been written on the Seattle Freeze, single women here complain that men never approach them and whenever I walk by a bus stop every single person is nose down into their phone. Have we become so disconnected from each other, that it takes a sign to break the communication barrier?
"This has taught me that people really do want to talk to each other, they're just not sure whether or not it's okay. They don't want to bother somebody else's day because they think, 'Oh, I'm having a horrible day. I don't want to bother them.' But really I think we all do want to help each other. That's really what we're programmed to do, essentially, is to be communal. The most evolved organism on the planet is a family unit that can accomplish so much more than a single person ever can."
Thomas says he'll pop down to Green Lake with his sign whenever he has some spare time. So if you've got something on your mind, you might be able to find him near the boat rental building some sunny afternoon.