L.A.’s Side­walk Talk lis­tens to passersby who might want to chat

Los Angeles Times - - LOS ANGELES - By Eryn Brown eryn.brown@la­times.com

Brooke Doo­ley looked around, not quite sure how to pro­ceed.

She and a small group of vol­un­teers had just ar­rived at the North Hol­ly­wood Metro Sta­tion to par­tic­i­pate in an event called Side­walk Talk — ready to lis­ten to any passersby who wanted to chat, of­fer­ing An­ge­lenos the sim­ple gift of be­ing heard.

The task seemed easy enough, but lo­gis­tics were get­ting in the way. The wind picked up, mak­ing it hard for Doo­ley to hang up her “Free Lis­ten­ing ” signs. Se­cu­rity guards at the sta­tion had strong opin­ions about where the group could and could not stand.

Even­tu­ally she was able to set up two plas­tic chairs on a stretch of heav­ily traf­ficked side­walk along Lanker­shim Boule­vard, wedged be­tween a bus stop and a coin-op­er­ated public re­stroom. A man on a bi­cy­cle ped­aled by, back and forth, hawk­ing pep­per spray for $5.

“We’ll see how it goes,” Doo­ley said. “This is an ex­per­i­ment.”

Side­walk Talk, the brain­child of Bay Area ther­a­pists Traci Ru­ble and Lily Sloane, or­ga­nizes groups of vol­un­teer “lis­ten­ers,” train­ing them and send­ing them into the streets. The first event took place May 7 in San Fran­cisco, where about 30 lis­ten­ers chat­ted up strangers in 12 lo­ca­tions.

The Los An­ge­les Side­walk Talk, or­ga­nized by Doo­ley with Ru­ble’s and Sloane’s sup­port, sent a some­what smaller col­lec­tion of lis­ten­ers — mainly ther­a­pists and ac­tors — to eight spots around the city last week: North Hol­ly­wood, Uni­ver­sal City, Echo Park, Hol­ly­wood, Bev­erly Hills, Santa Mon­ica and two lo­ca­tions down­town.

The idea was to get peo­ple talk­ing and see what hap­pened.

“This is not ther­apy,” Doo­ley stressed. “It’s sim­ply lis­ten­ing.”

For Ru­ble and Sloane, a pri­mary fo­cus of Side­walk Talk is des­tig­ma­tiz­ing ther­apy — help­ing peo­ple who might feel strange about un­bur­den­ing them­selves to open up.

Doo­ley brings an ad­di­tional mo­tive: She’s pro­duc­ing a film that deals with kids’ men­tal health, “seek­ing to spark self-re­fec­tion among youth, adults, ed­u­ca­tors and par­ents,” Doo­ley said.

Side­walk Talk fit in nicely with that ef­fort. But the movie didn’t re­ally come up that af­ter­noon. Doo­ley was in the mo­ment.

It took a while for peo­ple to warm to her pitch. Many thought there must be a catch — that the lis­ten­ers were sell­ing some­thing or pros­e­ly­tiz­ing. In time, peo­ple started ask­ing what the group was up to and con­ver- sa­tions got go­ing.

Doo­ley talked for 20 min­utes or so with a woman named Teri, who lives on the streets and preaches. She wouldn’t share her last name or where she slept at night, but Teri told Doo­ley how grate­ful she was for the at­ten­tion.

Af­ter­ward, she said she felt their en­counter was meant to be.

“For her to come out here and take her time to talk to a to­tal stranger is re­ally, re­ally touch­ing,” Teri said. “We live in a place where ev­ery­one is dis­tracted — the busier you are, the more rel­e­vant you are. In­stead of go­ing out there to do, do, do, this is slow­ing down and show­ing you care.

“Whether it will fix my prob­lem or not...” She shrugged, her voice trail­ing off.

A few feet away, 18-yearold Ar­rieiana Cowan talked cheer­fully with Ben Mathes, an ac­tor, pro­ducer and founder of Ur­ban Con­fes­sional, an L.A.-based group whose mem­bers en­gage in a sim­i­lar sort of public lis­ten- ing ev­ery week, in part to hone their the­atri­cal craft.

Cowan, like Teri, spoke of God. Many who stop for free lis­ten­ing do, Mathes said.

Friends Kay Hamp­ton and Chan­ice Ed­wards, col­lege stu­dents who had grown up to­gether in Ohio, talked to Doo­ley about dance, fam­ily, “life turn­ing points” and their spe­cial bond.

“You never think about how far you’ve come un­til you talk about where you’ve been,” said Ed­wards, 21.

Doo­ley loved their youth, and their en­thu­si­asm about be­ing heard. She de­cided meet­ing them was the per­fect way to end the day.

In all, Doo­ley’s crew in­ter­acted with a dozen or so talk­ers. At the other posts around town that day, re­sults were mixed.

Some vol­un­teers had stayed busy chat­ting, while oth­ers couldn’t per­suade any­one to stop. But ac­cord­ing to Doo­ley, all said the ex­er­cise made them feel con­nected to the city. A few asked to lis­ten again.

She con­sid­ered the day a suc­cess. “That was won­der­ful, the whole thing,” Doo­ley said as she packed up her chairs and signs.

Pho­tog raphs by Jay L. Clen­denin Los An­ge­les Times

BROOKE DOO­LEY, left, a vol­un­teer with L.A.’s Side­walk Talk, lis­tens to Mar­i­ana Ar­van­ites of Bur­bank out­side the North Hol­ly­wood Metro Sta­tion. “This is not ther­apy,” Doo­ley stressed. “It’s sim­ply lis­ten­ing.”

MARY CLARK, a Side­walk Talk vol­un­teer, works to se­cure a hand­made sign of­fer­ing “Free Lis­ten­ing.”

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