The Curator of Human Experiences *

Chapter One

You are reading, dear Reader, the first chapter of The Curator of Human Experiences, a story that has been widely-publicized as a “cornerstone of neoclassicist literature” - something you automatically assume is important. Automatically, because the words have a feeling of weight to them, as if they seem to say that everything that preceded this piece of fiction was either not new enough, or was terribly outdated already. And though you do not understand the terms, you recognize their importance for you - they have the perfect texture that rolls off your tongue like a ball of cream, and that lands in the ears of a listener like a siren-song; and with enough practice, you would be able to utter them with the confidence of an expert, over a glass of wine and fine hors d’oeuvres, surrounded by a captive audience. You are smiling, dear Reader, and that is a good sign.

So here you are, armed with a cup of coffee, or a bowl of pistachios (salted, but with shell on!), or your favorite snack/beverage, ready to read the story with a vicious purpose, or perhaps you have merely stumbled upon this page when the search engine you typed into returned a random combination of results (or did it?) that did not appear to be related, except that every link on that list led you right here, to this page, and you have spent two paragraphs reading the preamble to this story that you are now thinking “it had better be worth it!”

As with any story, it is the title that we begin with - the title of a story matters the most, for it instantly opens a vista into a faraway land, hands us a ticket to jump through the window, and provides us with a faded map of what the landscape could be. The landscape of imagination, that becomes recognizable with a little effort. You may surmise, dear Reader, that most authors do not think much when they name their progeny, but rather, on the contrary, most authors, if they are guilty of anything in this case, it is of overthinking a problem that never is! How easy it is to name a story after what it says, or what it wants to say! After all, did not the ancients successfully manage to convey the depth of their stories with simple titles? So why do the authors of this generation try to be smart about their titles, really? Does the name matter over the meat of the matter? And what does the title of this story point us towards?

Take a moment, dear Reader, and imagine, if you will - the person, or rather, the persona, behind this title. Being the curator of human experiences - the article is most important here - for the entire mankind appears to be a formidable task, and you expect that the person wearing this hat is for intents and purposes of appearances, wearing a literal hat large enough for the position, one that covers their face from prying eyes (such as yours, dear Reader!) A veritable sage, or Gandalf,  a grandfather who loves to collect odds-and-ends and then takes utter delight in making up stories for grandchildren. A kind soul with deeper, kinder eyes that have weathered a passage of a millennia of human traffic on this planet, and whose eyes reflect the joys and sorrows of the souls that it curates. Your imagination also adds a voice to this character, maybe a deep baritone, in keeping with the prevalent media image of a serious voice. Naturally, you assume, this person is robed in the finest silks befitting the station, or simple hand-spun robes of a monk consistent with the function of the wearer, or maybe a tropical shirt with shorts and sandals to go with the large hat! There, a few finishing touches with the wardrobe and you can see the titular character peering out of the screen towards you, examining you, maybe looking for ways to curate you. The image feels satisfying, and so very familiar, that you could possibly not think about any other way to describe this person. 

So it should come as a bit of a surprise when the author of the story starts the story, and his description of the Curator (surely, you have implicitly named the character with a capital-C in your mind by now?) by using the word “Her.”

Chapter One

Her train was late, again. It was the second time this week, and she could do nothing except fidget inwardly as she thought about the late start to her work. She was moving briskly through the gates and the sea of bodies painted with different shades of deodorants and perfumes and eyeliners and colognes and dressed up like a particularly colorful graffiti - the ones she had seen on the way to work. The platform was crowded, mostly familiar faces that she encountered daily, with a few new and irregulars who had also perhaps, missed theirs. She chose a spot near a young man, his face hidden under a hood, his eyes and fingers talking to the screen of his smartphone in an earnest conversation. She looked around her and noticed that almost everybody  sported an earpiece, blinking blue, the universally recognized color of distance and longing. She wondered if any of them were aware of this irony. Probably not.

The train journey was nothing exceptional to write about, she always got out a few stops earlier - because the station closest to her workplace was perpetually crowded, and she needed a walk to refresh herself, stock up on her caffeine levels, and do a mental inventory of things to-do once she started working. Her morning walk took her along a neighborhood park where she sometimes stopped briefly, for a moment or two, before moving ahead. Today, she saw the couple on the bench, sitting silently, holding hands and the woman was gently speaking something in the man’s ears. They were both smiling, but somehow, she sensed that it was not a smile for this morning. The scene broke her train of thoughts, and as usual, she chose not to go running after it. She could always climb it later.

A left turn at the next light, and she could smell the freshly baked croissants from a block away. The smell reminded her of her grandmother’s kitchen, which always had the appearance of a wartime kitchen, an army of extended family members working at all hours to keep an even larger battalion of family “fed and healthy” - her grandmother’s words. She steps into the coffee chop, and even manages to catch the eye of one of the baristas scurrying and scuttling from the counter to shelves of baked goods and brewed concoctions. The barista recognized her, obviously, and waved back. She had her usual - a cup of latte with a piping hot croissant. After she paid for it, she decided to wait at a table in the corner for it to arrive, not stepping into the line of people who had to be somewhere in a hurry. She exchanges a quick smile with another young woman seated quietly at the table, wearing dark shades. The woman was reading something on her laptop, and almost immediately glanced back to her screen after the showing the merest flicker of interest.

She continues on her daily path, and briefly stands next to a young man in a blue cap at the traffic light. He seems to be new to the city, drinking in the sights of the tall buildings and green trees and neon-colored traffic with the wide eyed curiosity of a child. 

“Have a nice day,” she cannot help but say to him. He smiles back at her, touching his cap once in acknowledgement. “You too, ma’am”

She is distracted by this exchange that she almost runs into a mother jogging with her two kids in a stroller. They share an amused laugh about her absent-mindedness, and go about their own ways. 

A few minutes later, she is standing in front of an imposing, academic looking building, that is where she gets to work everyday. The train catches up with her now, and taking a deep breath, she steps in a revolving door and into the lobby.

Chapter One

By now, the banality of this everyday exchange has left you wondering what the big deal with this story was all about (there isn’t, and it wasn’t.) As the protagonist makes her way through the crowd of familiar faces, you realize that she is in fact a perfectly ordinary human being like yourself. 

What you (and by extension, the C.) may have not noticed was that as she made her way along the platform, she passed by a young boy in a hood, whose friend tweeted him C.’s post about the importance of art and expression - seventeen years later, he would direct a film that would launch him into a career that would end with more than a handful of awards, and a legion of million fans; she did not know that the couple seated on the park bench were regular readers of her newsletters — married for forty years, and dealing with an imminent loss due to a terminal illness; or the young woman in dark shades, all alone in the crowded coffee shop, who was contemplating ending her life, until a chance social media feed opened a new door for her; or that middle-aged man seated a few tables away from her, reading the Financial Times, but really, thinking about where his life was taking him, for the first time, because his wife mentioned C.’s blog and they had a good post-dinner discussion about it last night; or the tourist-who-really-was-not, he was born and raised in this city, but often liked to explore it as if seeing it for the first time, with the eyes of a newly arrived immigrant, like his forefathers; that she merely smiled at a mother of two as they passed each other, striding purposefully in a sea of business suits, unaware of the effect they had on each other’s lives; or that retired East-ender who had taken up poetry once again, after fifty three years, because his grandson had showed him how to “use the Internet,” and the C.’s blog was one of the sites that popped up as a recommended destination; or that flower-seller in a far flung location across the globe, who religiously read the articles to her blind sister; or that teacher in yet another corner of the world, who not only reads them, but even loosely translates them into his native tongue for his students to understand; or another woman from a land where women were not supposed to read such stuff, but she and her friends did it anyways; or by a scant margin of a few feet, missed the man who deep down, finally understood from her musings, what he had merely written into his class report all those years ago; or the red-headed girl who was now determined to bleed herself dry in her notebooks and loose-leaf pages, the essence of her transient thoughts; and thousands of other lives that were connected irreversibly by the mere extension of her thoughts, as if she was a welcome guest in their homes, every moment of their lives!

But the C. does not have the luxury to dwell on such matters, she has a full day’s schedule ahead. There are fifty six emails, seventy nine Twitter notifications, and twelve voice mail messages that she has to sift through before even beginning her day! Not to mention the stack of books that she has to devour because, let’s face it, she does not know of any other way to exist. The books, the articles, the messages - they are an integral part of her existence, and although she likens her journey to foraging for interestingness, the reality of her search is more profound in structure and dissemination than she can imagine. 

There is one particular email that catches her eye - it is from an acquaintance who also likes to spend her time scouring the web for glimpses of interesting bits of life. You may like this story. It’s a bit weird, but I guess that is right up your alley! 

She smiles as she clicks on the link and starts reading -

* Inspired by, and indebted to, Italo Calvino and Maria Popova