Talk to Me!
Written by Bwog Staff
For the past five years, Bill Wetzel has been perusing the streets of NYC wearing a bold-print sign that reads, “TALK TO ME.” Thousands of people from every borough have talked to him. Now he talks to B&W staffer Sarah Eberle.
How did you originally get involved with “Talk-to-Me”-ing?
I attended NYU for a year after spending a few years teaching in North Carolina after I graduated from high school. I guess when you hang out in New York long enough, you start to wonder who all these people are and why they’re here. So I made a sign that said “Talk to Me” and started walking around the city wearing it. People talked, and the more I did it, the more interesting it got. I started going to different neighborhoods or I’d put on a tie and go to the Waldorf. At this point, I’m pretty much hooked.
Do you ever get embarrassed?
There was definitely a good one-month period where I was feeling like an ass most of the time. When I first started doing it, I felt so dumb that I would actually start sweating. It’s like you’re on a really bad blind date. After a while you just get used to it. It’s like permanent foolishness. Now it’s just like, you ride the train, someone laughs at you, and five minutes later you’re hearing about their third divorce and how it involved Barbados.
What kinds of things do people talk to you about?
Some people talk for hours, some people rant on about how they left their favorite purple sweatshirt on a park bench, and other people just say hello and keep going. People talk about what it’s like to kill someone, they talk about farms that have been in the family for six generations, and they tell bad bar jokes. It literally ranges from child abuse and incest and war-ravaged countries to muffin recipes and 90-year-olds falling in love at the nursing home.
When you decided to take time off from school and take up “Talk-to-Me”-ing full time, how did you support yourself?
Well, actually it was just very low-budget. I set it up so that I’d never have to pay rent in New York. I started pet-sitting at different people’s houses every other weekend. I didn’t charge money and the people trusted me. Once you get in the loop, you start to get calls from different people all the time.
And what did you do about food?
When I first started this, there were two of us doing it—myself and my friend, Liz. Someone heard about what we were doing and donated a bunch of money for us to keep going for a year. After that, we set up a website and started fundraising through that. We actually just got done doing a whole tour of the country.
Really? Where did you go?
You know, a few dozen bars, restaurants, and Wal-Marts. Pretty much anywhere with lots of people. It was basically a clockwise loop of the country. We went from here to D.C., D.C. to New Orleans, New Orleans to El Paso to L.A. to Chicago. Along the way, we stopped off at random small towns. People outside of New York have more time to talk. You’re more likely to get one person telling their life story for eight hours, versus dozens of people saying hello and running.
Do you have a favorite time or place to talk to people?
You can’t beat a New York subway at 10PM on a Friday night. There’s this wonderful mass suspicion that occurs. I walk onto the train, grinning, and of course, everyone has their own private reaction to me, wondering who this goofy guy is with a “Talk to Me” sign around his neck. Either someone starts laughing so hard that they have to ask about it or someone gives me a weird look and the whole car just goes silent. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
Do people ever miss their stops?
Yeah, I’ve been known to make people miss their stops. And I’ve missed mine.
Do you ever make friends with the people you talk to?
All the time. We meet people, we get invited to events. On almost any train ride, I recognize at least one person. Other people make friends too. The sign often serves as a real-life chat room or “Craig’s List.” A group of people will start talking to me, and then they will start talking to each other. A lot of boyfriends and girlfriends have met this way, business deals have been set up, and people have gotten jobs.
Have you met any other people who wear “Talk to Me” signs?
Actually, other people will see me and then ask me for a sign, so I’ve been giving them out. There are people wearing “Talk to Me” signs throughout New York and all over the country. There are even a few people who are trying it out overseas. I don’t even know what this weird thing I do is going to turn into!
So you just started taking classes at Columbia this semester. What has your experience been like so far?
Columbia is completely different from the rest of New York. My first few weeks here were full on stares, snickers, giggles, and gossip. High IQs and a “Talk to Me” sign don’t necessarily go well together. Sometimes my sign literally makes students grimace, but I think the campus is warming up to me. It’s so different being in such an intensely academic environment because people have to think before they converse, and then rethink about what they want to say, and so it seems as if there are like eight mechanisms in every student’s head that have to be working before a single word comes out.
Are there times when you don’t enjoy being the “Talk to Me Guy”?
Yeah, but I don’t even think about it anymore. I just wake up, brush my teeth, and put on the “Talk to Me” sign. For me, its like 3-D people watching, and I’m completely intrigued.
So when don’t you wear the sign?
Family functions, bed, and public bathrooms. Public bathrooms would just be awkward.