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The Seattle Times | Pacific Northwest
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First Person Jeff Brown

Blank Stares

Playing man on the street gives new meaning to 'nothing ventured, nothing gained'

"You know you're handing out blank sheets of paper?" the man said to me after I handed him a blank sheet of paper. I knew, of course. My plan was to give blank sheets of paper to people on Seattle sidewalks, to see what would happen. Innocent bystanders are often given religious, political or promotional material. What reaction would I get if I handed out nothing? I don't put bumper stickers on my car, and I don't own T-shirts with messages on them. I don't believe in shoving my beliefs down someone's throat, which itself is a belief I'm shoving down your throat.

Saying nothing is nothing new. Politicians, long-married couples and criminal defendants often have nothing to say.

On a sunny Wednesday afternoon I handed out sheets of white printer paper, cut in half, at three Seattle locations. Approaching my first stop on the University of Washington campus, I was nervous. Will I look like a fool? Will I be able to find a restroom? I stood on the sidewalk between the HUB and the Allen Library, 50 feet from several booths of students handing out printed papers.

I was immediately pleased by the reactions: "Cool," "Sweet," and "That's awesome." Of course, a few were baffled at the blankness, saying, "Wha . . ." as they continued walking. One woman half turned to look at me with her shoulders scrunched and her palms facing up. Another walked on, saying, "Okaaaaaaay . . ." If anyone asked what I was doing, I told them, "I don't have anything to say," or I'd tell them this was an experiment to see what would happen. When I told one guy I had nothing to say, he said, "So join the Libertarian Party. I'm serious."

Among some students, there seemed to be a sense of relief. I didn't want anything from them. Upon getting a blank sheet, one man said, "It's about time." Another guy pumped his fist in the air and said, "Yes!"

Several people said they'd use it for scratch paper. One guy wrote "Have a nice day" on the sheet, then gave it back to me. When I gave the "experiment" explanation to three men who stopped to face me, their jaws dropped in unison, and after three seconds they simultaneously closed their mouths and smiled.

I gave a sheet to a woman wearing a long, lightweight coat with feather-boa edging. She asked, so I told her about my "experiment." She stopped in mid-breath and gave me a long, silent, almost intimate gaze. Such was the intensity that for a fleeting, foolish moment I thought she was going to lean in and give me a kiss. Wishful thinking or the power of art?

Often I silently handed someone a sheet, and as they kept walking they would look at both sides, then look back and smile at me. No words exchanged. Look back and smile. All day long, this was my favorite reaction.

At my second stop, on Pine Street just east of Westlake Center, enough people avoided me that I felt like I had a skin disease. This was a noticeably different crowd than the mostly young (and less jaded?) people at the UW. It didn't help that four days earlier there was a fatal shooting down the block. I'd probably avoid me, too. Only about 5 percent of the people took a sheet, compared to about 15 percent at the UW.

One guy declined a sheet, saying tightly, "Visitor." But there were reassurances. One young woman in a trio took a sheet. The three kept walking, watching the middle woman as she turned the sheet over. Simultaneously, they all looked back and smiled.

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It was a busy block. A (homeless?) guy set up 10 feet from me and pulled out a cardboard sign. I moved down the block, then moved again to avoid being associated with another man digging through a trash can. Farther east was a guy handing out political information, and then at the end of the block there was a guitarist. But I had the monopoly on blank paper.

I handed a man a sheet, gave him my "experiment" explanation, and he said, "So, you're trying to test a few things and see what happens. That's good. That's the way it works." A man in his mid-20s went on a small, non-threatening tirade: "People are stupid. Look at them. Walking around with blank looks on their faces . . ." He said my idea was, "clever . . . interesting . . . get people to use their brains." In defense of my fellow humans, I said something innocuous like, "Well, people are busy, and I sometimes avoid people who hand out things, too."

I offered a sheet to a guy who told me, "I said 'No' to you once, dude." Whoa.

A street performer named Emery asked what I was doing. He held the paper and said, "You know what I see in this? Opportunity." He gave me one of his CDs (no charge) and said, "Sometimes I can't give these away."

At my last stop, near the pig at the Pike Place Market, about 10 percent of people took a sheet. The mood was lighter, and there were obvious tourists. I offered a sheet to a woman who politely refused, touched my shoulder and asked, "Where do they throw the fish?"

As the day wore on, I became less enamored of saying, "I have nothing to say." It seemed like a joke at people's expense, and mostly I told the bare truth about this being an experiment.

A man declined a sheet, saying, "I got lots of those." Another asked, "Do you supply pens, too?" A few people took a sheet with their eyes pointing straight ahead, without looking at me or the sheet.

Altogether, I handed out about 400 sheets. I enjoyed the direct contact with people. Many of those who took a sheet looked at me openly, without offense or defense. There wasn't a cash register or a dogma separating us. I've had this idea for several years, wondering about the results. This experience didn't change the way I see people, but I was glad to move from theory to experience.

Jeff Brown is a Seattle freelance writer. Susan Jouflas is The Seattle Times is the assistant art director.

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