Friday, May 05, 2006

Sebastian Junger, writer

I read of this article over at, on the left in my links list. I can't access the site today but popped over to National Geographic and cut these extracts from a superb piece written by Sebastian Junger, titled Welcome Stranger.

As an introduction he writes, 'First impressions are often wrong—and other hard-won lessons from the road'.

An old friend of mine once observed that the arrival of a stranger in a rough town often presents locals with two options: Feed him or kill him. He was referring to some ancient time when the dilemma was literally that stark, but his larger point was that all societies must choose whom they let in and whom they keep out, and letting someone in entails more than just opening the city gates. Once you do that you become to some degree responsible for the stranger's welfare. Travel, then, at its crudest, is the art of convincing people to take care of you rather than spurn you—or worse. It's a knife-edge that makes a life spent at home feel not fully lived.

... Since every person I've interviewed has lead a life unique to them, they have something to say about the world that I couldn't get from anyone else. That gives them a value that transcends any job or social rank they might have. I began to see that you could divide up the world in many different ways, and some of those ways actually put a homeless man from Wyoming at the top. He might not have known it, but I do, and the point of much of my work has been to communicate that.

... Many years later I confronted the daunting task of walking into a fishermen's bar in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and asking the bartender — a woman named Ethel Shatford — about the death of her son. A local boat, the Andrea Gail, had gone down in a massive storm in 1991, and the book I wrote about her was eventually published as 'The Perfect Storm'. The Crow's Nest was the sort of bar where everyone turns to look at a stranger as soon as he walks in. I ignored the stares, took a seat at the bar, and ordered a beer from Ethel.

I had no idea how to begin, but I had help. They were all still with me, I realized—the man in Wyoming, the insulted Mexican vaqueros and the rest—they were still there, guiding and informing me, whispering their lessons in my ear. And in one way or another they all had something to tell me about how I should approach Ethel Shatford.

Just tell her, I finally thought. Tell her she knows something about the world that a lot of other people might need to hear.

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