Making Up Stories

Saturday night, as I was walking out of the pizza place, I saw a beautiful young brunette standing on the sidewalk talking on her cell phone.

As I walked past, I heard, “I could pay my rent if they’d just give me my last paycheck!  They owe me like $200.”

That’s it.

Have you ever heard a tiny piece of a conversation and used that to build a back story in your own mind?

I do that all of the time.

In fact, I’m going to do that now.

First, what  can I know from those two sentences?

  • She was unemployed.   She was more worried about her last paycheck than her next one.
  • She had worked for a scummy, fly-by-night, something-or-other.  Good companies don’t withhold paychecks.
  • She had no emergency fund.   If she had one, $200 would be an inconvenience, not a disaster.
  • She rented, and had roommates.  This conversation occurred in the parking lot of a pizza place in a reasonably affluent suburb.   For $200, she wasn’t living alone.  Whether she rented a room or shared an apartment would be a mere guess.

Those items can–I believe–be taken as fact, given the evidence at hand.

Now for the conjecture:

  • She was a waitress.   A $200 final paycheck probably means her hourly wage was low.  Besides, pretty, young, unskilled girls often become waitresses.  It’s one of the few ways to make good money without a degree of any kind.
  • The restaurant wasn’t a chain.  Chain stores have lawyers and procedures.  They don’t withhold final paychecks.
  • She invites drama into her life.   When you work for a company that makes a habit of shady practices, like withholding final paychecks out of spite, you know it happens.  It’s not a surprise.  If you continue working there, you are just waiting in line for your turn to have problems.
  • She wasn’t close to her family.   In an emergency, $200 from Mom & Dad is nothing.   In my mind, she only has one parent and isn’t close to that parent, but that’s purely invention.
  • Her friends are in the same boat.   Short-term planning, no reserve cash, no room to let a friend couch-surf for a couple of weeks.
  • Next month, she’ll be having the same problems, but she’ll find someone else to blame.  Her ex owes her money, or her roommate stole the last of her cash.

That’s my entirely unsupported guess of a young stranger’s life story.  My opinion isn’t flattering, but how could it be, when $200 is enough to make the young woman panic?

Have you ever played this game?

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    1. “In an emergency, $200 from Mom & Dad is nothing.”

      Ouch. That’s a pretty big assumption to make, even when it’s just fueling a made-up person story (and, yes, I’ve played the same game). Plenty of parents of kids who are old enough to rent apartments by themselves have trouble making ends meet. $200 can be a hell of a lot, even in an “emergency” like being short on rent. (I’d also argue in my story that her rent was higher than that in total, but she had been counting on her paycheck to make up the difference.)

    2. I have often felt myself run into assumption mode but I quickly try to spin myself around. I hate prejudging and assuming. People deserve more. If I really want to know what is going on I just ask.

    3. I make up stories about people all the time! I can’t help it. I love to people watch and my brain just goes there.

      I’m so glad I’m not the only one.

    4. I haven’t generally made up stories about snippets of conversations but when I was in high school our literature teacher had us make up and write stories based on interesting pictures. It was actually quite fun and you wouldn’t believe the differeneces the students came up with in their stories!

    5. I love eavesdropping on others conversations. It is so interesting. Last night I heard a college guy talking about how he was sure that his parents didn’t have wills and won’t leave him anything when they kicked the bucket anyway. Very interesting snippet of conversation.

    6. I’m afraid I do this as well, especially in airports as I’m waiting for my flight. I people watch and try to build a backstory based on clothes, travel accessories, physical type, mannerisms, etc.


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