ExperimentI let strangers make all my decisions for a week and wound up sobbing in an Uber
We challenged a writer to ask complete strangers to make her decisions for her. This is what happened to her vacation.
I'm debilitatingly indecisive. Like, I'll spend an hour in the drugstore debating which brand of shampoo to buy. I'll linger around in the aisle until the sales associates start throwing me suspicious glances, or it becomes apparent that I'm blocking another customer's way. It's pretty bad.
But I also love talking to new, random people. So when Hopes&Fears challenged me to have strangers make all my decisions for a week, I jumped at the chance. To me, it sounded like a win-win situation, but it wasn't without its compromises—and, possibly, consequences.
Graveyard of gulls
I began the experiment the week I visited some other friends in San Francisco, a transitional period between leaving New York and moving to Vancouver to start grad school. I showed up with few plans and even fewer inhibitions.
I've forgotten how beautiful San Francisco is. I arrived in Oakland last evening, and spent the night at my friend V.'s house, comfortable and charming, with two great dogs. Late morning, I head out to the city to meet a friend. On the BART, I realize this is my first chance to ask a stranger to make a decision or me. What should I with my time in transit? Read? Listen to music? Sketch? The train is quiet, not densely packed like the subways in NYC. I can't actually muster the courage to ask, so I decide to do nothing as the stops pass.
I face another small dilemma as I exit the station: should I take the escalator up, or the stairs? I hesitate, and finally ask an Asian woman, sensibly dressed and toting groceries. "Um… I'm taking the escalator, so…" She trails off.
She hasn't explicitly told me what to do. I plead: "Please pick one for me!" "Escalator?" She says. I jump on, grateful. She walks up the escalator, rather briskly, and glances back, as if to make sure I'm not following her.
I meet my friend at a trendy liquid nitrogen ice cream shop. The barista is a golden-haired boy with an adorable smile. I ask him to surprise me with something, but give him a budget. It takes a while for my order to come. It's a lovely concoction: chocolate ice cream, whipped cream, cookie chunks. But it's nothing I would have ever ordered myself, and it's very sweet.
My friend and I sit outside, where my ice cream soon melts into a muddle. We talk about the lost art of conversation and emotionally crippled men and our society's technology addiction. Then she helps me pick out a stranger to ask about my afternoon's plans: a girl in a blazer and glasses, sitting alone, and studying her phone.
I'm feeling bolder, so I walk right up to her and get her attention. I tell her I'm visiting, and ask her what I should do for the afternoon. She's quite friendly, and asks me a lot of questions like where I've been and what I've seen. She tells me to go to Land's End. It's a beautiful beach, she says, though it might be foggy and cold. I thank her, part with my friend, and head off.
It takes an hour to get to Land's End, on the Northern tip of the city. The sky is dense with fog, and the ocean is a cold steel green. I take off my shoes and walk in the sand. There's a big circle of what I guess to be baby seagulls on the beach, with bright orange beaks. When I walk towards them they trill and rise in arcs. There are more birds on this beach than people, and there are stray feathers everywhere. Here and there, too, are bird carcasses, half buried in the sand.
I go for a long walk. I watch a black dog chase seagulls, bounding and barking ecstatically. I'm getting hungry. My friend had mentioned a diner nearby—there's a booth where the view is all ocean, every way you look, she said.
I find it, at the top of a hill. The menu is overwhelming, full of unappealing diner fare. I narrow it down to the soups and ask the waiter, a no nonsense-looking guy, to decide. He's totally nonplussed, and brings me a red clam chowder in a tiny bowl the size of a teacup, with a slice of bread on the side. "It's what we're known for," he explains. It's definitely not enough food. Still, I'm energized after eating, and go for a hike. Thenk I return to V.'s house for the day.
I go to a yoga class in the morning, and feel very hungry after. I step inside a colorful coffee shop that only serves pastries. I ask the barista for a place to get breakfast, and she suggests a spot called The Vault down the street. It's a roomy, timeless kind of place, with lots of solitary older diners. It's the sort of scene I'd expect to find in a forgotten town, Hopperesque, with elevator jazz playing softly in the background.
My waitress is a stooped and sinewy woman with a face full of makeup. She willingly picks my breakfast after I fend off a volley of questions about my preferences. This makes ordering in restaurants a breeze!
My breakfast is fried eggs, chicken sausage, toast, and home fries. I like it except for the chicken sausage, which is cloying. The waitress comes back and asks: "Do you like it so far?" I nod and smile enthusiastically. What would happen if I answered no?
I head to the coffee shop after to do some work. The barista makes me a golden latte, with oranges and molasses. I kind of hate it. I drink half anyway.
I work fanatically for a while, and feel a little crazed. I ask a coffee shop patron: should I go for a walk or power through and keep working? He suggests method writing: do jumping jacks or sit-ups, talk into a Dictaphone while running. It's funny until I realize I might actually have to do what he says. I press on, hoping he'll offer something else. Finally, he does: "I'd take a walk." Phew.
I pass by a hat shop on my walk. Incidentally, I've been on the hunt for a boater hat (my old one has become too misshapen to wear). I get into an involved conversation with the saleswoman about the difficulties of finding the perfect hat. She helps me pick three to try, and I ask her to decide which (if any) I should buy. She narrows it down to two: one for cuteness, one for practicality. In the end, she opts for the cute yet flimsy option, and advises me to always keep an eye out for a better hat.
I buy the hat, and feel great. No more buyer's remorse! In the evening, I meet up with V. and another friend, A., at a bar. V. suggests that I ask a man wearing a t-shirt that reads "Horrifying Vegetarians Since 1988" on the back to select my drink (it turns out that he's the plumber). He refers me to a woman working in a notebook, one of the bar's owners. She picks the Stone's Throw, which is a nice whiskey cocktail.
My friends decide where we go to dinner, and do all the ordering. It's really nice, not having to think or plan. We have a delicious meal. And so far, disappointment has been little, and utterly manageable.
Pray for chicken
I'm hungover—that, and the residual jet lag means I'm completely unmotivated today. I hangout with her V. at her house. We venture out, late, to get lunch at a taco truck, and I ask the lady to surprise me with two tacos. I get beef and carnitas, I think. They are delicious, though if it had been up to me, I'd have picked lengua and tripe. The thought of not being able to pick my own food for the rest of the week is becoming more daunting. I never get exactly what I want.
I head to the city for dinner and to go to the symphony with A. He's a foodie, so when I try to persuade him to let a stranger pick where we go for dinner, he adamantly refuses. He does ask his friend for a recommendation, though, and we go to a Greek rotisserie place.
I tell the handsome, Apollo-like man behind the counter to make my order for me. He pauses and sizes me up, narrowing his eyes. A. and I sit in front of a display of golden, crispy, delectable roasting meats to wait for our meal. I'm starving, and I pray for chicken.
Our orders arrive, and: I get the veggie wrap. This is the worst thing ever. I want to cry. At a place known for its rotisserie meats, this is what you get me? Fuck you, hot waiter. Fuck you. I steal bites of A.’s rotisserie pork salad, which is delicious. I'm pretty full after eating my sweet potato vegetarian bullshit sandwich, but equally resentful. The waiter does gift us a free Greek yogurt dessert, because A. accidentally told him about my experiment—and my longing for chicken.
I've never been to the symphony before, and it's great for people watching. Lots of old, rich, white attendees, dressed to the nines. A.’s enthusiastic about the bill, so I try and be enthusiastic too. During intermission, I spot a well-appointed old lady, with tanned skin and painted-on eyebrows: a wealthy benefactress from an '80s paperback romance. She seems the person to ask for a cultural recommendation. I approach her and her more subdued lady friend, and ask them which museum I should go to while here.
They tell me to go to the Legion of Honor, which I haven't heard of. I'm a little worried that it's some kind of war museum, but they speak of it glowingly. There's a lovely organ concert there on Sunday afternoons, they tell me. "Are you going to go tomorrow?" Her friend asks. I guess I am! I thank them for their advice, and head off. "Thank you for asking," the benefactress tells me, "That's very sweet."
I'm glad they were flattered, and glad for the recommendation. In the second half of the symphony, I decide to do some sketching. I hold up a handful of pens to the woman next to me, and she picks one for me to use. I draw crappy sketches. A. and I go for drinks after the symphony, and he orders for me. It's a lovely evening.
A. makes almost all the decisions when we're hanging out. Our first stop in the morning is the coffee shop where he works, and there we run into T., an eccentric, fascinating man. He's a regular here and A.'s friend. "I always wear my most uncomfortable clothes on Sundays," he says. He's wearing a suit jacket and wingtips. It's a habit he picked up, he says, from his grandfather, who always wore his Sunday best in Taiwan. A. invites him along for breakfast, and we head to a Mexican place I didn't choose.
Since T. is an unexpected encounter, I decide to ask him to pick my breakfast. I get arepas with beans and eggs and chiles and guacamole and it's amazing (but I have a feeling anything I ordered at that place would have been). After, I stop in Alleycat bookstore with T. to look for a title he recommended. It's not in stock, but I do still want to buy a book. I ask the booksellers for their top picks. Bookseller #1 suggests three books that all look terrible. One is a pamphlet—criticism about some obscure film director. Another is speculative anarchist sci-fi. And the third one is something I'd already read. I consult Bookseller #2. He shows me White Girls by Hilton Als. "I think it should be required reading for everyone," He says. It's about race and queerness and love, I think, and it looks great.
But I'm not allowed to override Bookseller #1's recommendations on my own, so I ask a woman browsing at the table to help me pick. She flips through and carefully reads the back of each book, and decides on White Girls. I'm relieved, though Bookseller #1 seems mildly uncomfortable at checkout, disappointed, perhaps, that his suggestions were dismissed.
I carry my new book to the Legion of Honor, which is a lovely space with some cool art. I spend a lot of time looking at the Impressionists, as I usually do. I'm there in time there for the organ concert. I can't get into the organ: its dreariness is thick and inescapable, and I feel like I may be coming down with a cold. I'm low on energy, but too tired to ask someone for a restaurant recommendation. There's a Burmese/Thai place down the street from the museum, and a bowl of noodle soup sounds like just the thing to revive myself. As a self-care thing, and because today feels especially hard, I ask the waiter to recommend a noodle soup from the menu's extensive list. When he narrows it down to two, I cheat and pick one. It's the only thing I can do. I have a long bus ride back to Oakland.
Breakfast of champions
Conundrum: I'm at V.'s house, and I don't know what to do today. I can't decide unless I ask a stranger, but I'm not motivated to leave without a plan. I sit around all morning until I get very hungry and restless. Then I head out to find an oracle.
I come across a group of guys smoking in front of a corner store. I try and ask them if I should go to the climbing gym in Berkeley, but they misunderstand and tell me that there's a skating rink they redid recently in the neighborhood. "Should I go there?" I ask. They say yes. It's called Iceland. I google it, and despair. I imagined a graffiti covered skate park. But it's like: an ice skating rink. Yelp says it's closed, and I hope Yelp is right. To stall for time, I ask the man inside the store to help me choose what to have for breakfast.
"Pancakes?" He says.
"Where should I go?" I ask.
"I usually go to iHop," he tells me. My heart sinks.
I repeat to make sure I heard correctly: "What's it called?"
"Ihop?" he says. "I think it's inside a CVS. There are other places to eat around there if you want to have lunch."
It's past noon, which means it's lunchtime. I think about ways of getting out of this: asking someone else if I should have breakfast or lunch? But no, fuck it. Ihop it is.
I ask my waitress to pick anything for me as long as it includes pancakes. She asks the usual questions: How do you like your eggs? Bacon or sausage? What would you like to drink? I shake my head and defer. "You pick," I say. She says okay, amused.
I get pancakes and fried eggs and hash browns, and, I love this: one piece of bacon and one piece of sausage. There's also orange juice. I eat about half of my meal. I'm full and feeling kind of queasy. My breakfast comes out to be nearly $20. Why does anyone come here? The good news is, V. tells me that the skating rink has been turned into a sports store. I'm going to the climbing gym. Given my predilection for hippie boys with long hair, it seems like a good place to fulfill my next mission: to find a stranger who will help me pick out a date.
While I'm waiting for the bus, I ask the lady for advice on whether I should go climbing despite my potentially recovering wrist injury. "That's an interesting question," she says. She suggests that I try and see how it goes. Since she seems so game, I also ask her: "What time should I go to sleep tonight?"
"Oh, around 10:30." She says, and laughs. That settles that.
I do some easy bouldering problems at the gym and get tired quickly. I'm trying to scout people around me for potential matchmakers, but it's a little awkward when they all seem so focused on climbing. It's getting late, and I think about giving up. A girl approaches me and asks if I need a climbing partner. I tell her I'm exhausted, but then, reconsider. She seems bright and bubbly and a little weird, the perfect person to help me pick out a date. I ask if she'd help me pick out a person to ask out if I act as her belayer.
"Why?" She exclaims, repeatedly. This the first time anyone's actually questioned what I'm doing, and I improvise. I tell her just because I'm visiting and I want to do something different. She refuses, at first, but we keep talking, and she softens. "Well, I do want to do one route… " she says.
We climb for a while, and then we wander around the gym, scouting men. She points to a guy in glasses (she likes glasses), and I look over, disappointed. He doesn't look like my type at all. Perhaps she hears the hesitation in my voice when I ask, "Is that your final decision?" She looks around, and spots a boy walking towards the changing room. "What about him?" She says. "He has trustworthy hair."
From afar, he looks cute. I guess he's the one. We climb a little longer, then I track down my potential date. He's resting on a bench with earphones in. "Should I ask now?" I ask her, suddenly nervous. This is much more nerve wracking than I thought. But the longer I hesitate, the worst it'll get. I swallow my fears and sit next to him.
I tell him I'm in SF for a few days more, and would he like to get coffee or a drink? "Umm… " He says, with that hesitation that forebodes a rejection. Then, to my surprise, he says, "Sure."
We small talk a little, pick a time and a place, text our plans. "I can’t believe that actually worked." I tell my matchmaker. I really can't. If it's this easy, I should go up to strangers and ask them out all the time!
"I'm psychic!" She says, excitedly. There's just one more decision to be made before the day's over. I stop a woman outside the gym to ask what time I should wake up tomorrow. 7:30 AM, she decides. That night, I read until 10:30 PM, my designated bedtime. I fall asleep promptly.
The mornings are cold and gray here. I wake up at 7:30, but it's hard to get up early when I have no reason to. I look at my phone until it's almost 8:00. Okay. I'm up.
I meet my date in the late morning at a coffee shop a short walk away. The barista picks my drink, as usual. When he asks for preferences, I say "something simple." I get an iced tea. Yes!
My date is gay! Go figure. Things I learn during our conversation: his boyfriend recently broke his clavicle while bodysurfing. Mark Zuckerburg works in a glass office to be "transparent." All boy scouts are pyromaniacs. We have a nice chat, then he goes home to let in the cleaning lady. I have a new friend, but no luck in finding love.
At the coffee shop, a hippie couple advises me to get nourishment before I work, and don't work while I eat to practice "mindful eating!" Someone else helps me pick a beet sandwich for lunch, and while I give my order, I ask the barista what time I should go to sleep that night. He asks about my morning plans, and then sticks with his initial suggestion of 11:00 PM. I try and eat my beet sandwich mindfully.
I take BART into the city in the afternoon. I'm determined to do what I couldn't do on day one: ask someone what I should do during the ride. By now, chatting up strangers has become second nature. I'm not at all nervous when I ask the serious, soft-spoken man behind me. He asks me where I'm going, tells me how long it'll take, and then, when pressed, finally decides that I should listen to music.
While I wait for a friend, I go try on a tank top at a boutique. It has a pocket with a graphic of a bunny sticking out of it. It comes in black and white. I try on both and ask the salesgirl which she prefers. "It’s so hard to decide!" She exclaims. I agree. "That's why I'm asking you," I tell her. She picks the white one, though she still hesitates to say whether I should buy it. Ultimately, she says yes, though I'm starting to realize that I probably shouldn't ask the person selling things whether I should be buying them…
My friend and I go to a cafe that the beats used to frequent, where, at my now standard "pick for me" request, the barista exclaims: "I'm not used to this much autonomy!" He makes me his signature drink, an Africano. It's delicious for a sip but I hate coffee and can only drink half. I feel high and hopped up on caffeine.
Later, I wander into the Beat Museum and start talking to a bookseller. He points me to a book: Memoirs of a Beatnik by Diane di Prima, a fun, sexy read for the road, he says. I buy it. We talk poetry and writing and San Francisco. When he gets off his shift, he gives me a walking tour of the neighborhood.
We part ways, and I walk to Chinatown in search of dinner. A pensive man inside a deli gives me the name of a restaurant in Chinese, a block away. I'm a little concerned about all the white people I see inside, but now it's too late. I ask the waiter to pick something delicious and not too expensive. I get a wonton beef noodle soup, and it's satisfying enough, though not extraordinary.
I meet A. for a drink, after. We have beer at a pizza shop, then walk to an historic bar, where the bartender makes a great mystery cocktail. We talk late into the night. I know I have to head back to Oakland soon to make that 11:00 PM bedtime, but it's my last night in San Francisco, and it'll be a while before I see A. again. Can I ask another stranger to override an earlier decision? I ask the bartender (who, moments earlier had downed an entire full-size bottle of Smirnoff Ice) for advice. He considers. "Have another drink," he says. I would still have time to go back to Oakland and pack in the morning.
The night goes on. I drink another lovely mystery cocktail (the name and ingredients of which I can't recall). A. and I reminiscence about the past, our earliest years in New York. We leave the bar and are walking towards BART when, all of sudden, it hits me: tomorrow morning, I'm leaving behind my dearest friends in New York and San Francisco for a place I've ever been. I have nowhere to stay and I don't know a soul.
I bite my lip, and start to cry. A. tries to calm me, but everything's spinning and everything hurts. Above us the moon glows white behind the haze of fog. "You'll see that same moon in Vancouver tomorrow night," he says, and I cry harder.
By the time I recover, it's very late. There 's maybe one last train to Oakland. My friends must be asleep. I could go back now, or I could stay with A. in the city, and leave on the first train tomorrow morning. I don't know what to do—A. wants me to decide for myself, but I won't. I pull myself together, and ask a stranger.
There very few of them out and about at this time on a Tuesday night, but I spot a crew of guys working on road construction. A can't believe I'm doing this, but I do it. I ask two dudes standing on the side for their advice. They wave over the rest of the crew, a group vote. I explain my dilemma. "I'm rooting for this guy," one man says, of A. "I hope you two become intimate."
I spent the night at A.'s. (We do not, however, become intimate.)
The wrong way
Early morning, I wake up, and it's impossibly difficult to leave the bed, pull on my clothes and walk in the dark to BART—back to Oakland to pack, to go off again. I am exhausted, and still haven't recovered. I'm fighting back tears again when I say goodbye to V. in Oakland. Then, in the Uber on the way to the BART station, I start crying.
My driver freaks out a little. "Don't cry!" he says. He thinks I should take the car all the way to the airport. It's only $30, he says, $10 more than what the BART and Airtrain would cost me. I'm not sure I believe him, but I'm not in a state to make any decisions—and anyway, I shouldn't be. So I let him drive me to the airport. "You're the most sensitive person I ever met!" He says.
He asks if I'm going somewhere by myself for the first time, and I start to laugh. I tell him I've traveled all over the place, even hitchhiked in countries where I didn't speak the language, always alone. I'm not that sensitive, and not that weak. But this morning, I can't stop crying.
We're crossing a bridge, now, and it's beautiful. "What bridge is this?"
I ask him. He tells me: the Trans Bay, perhaps. Then it hits me, another hilarious, tragic realization: we're going to the wrong airport. I'm flying out of Oakland, but he's driving towards San Francisco, and we're already halfway across the bridge. By the time I explain this to him I'm in such despair I think about quitting this enterprise all together. Forget grad school. Forget Vancouver. It's much easier for me to stay in the States. Start a life in San Francisco. Go back to New York. Even just travel. Everything feels like a mistake. "Go to Vancouver," He says. "You'll like it there, you'll see. It's very clean. Canadians are very nice."
I'm too weak to protest. My fare, after my long ride, is extravagant. But I get to the airport, and get on a plane. The flight takes off. And then the flight attendant arrives. She asks: "What would you like to drink?"
I can't have someone else make another decision. I can't face another thing going wrong.
"Tea," I say. And it feels funny, that moment. It feels like waking up from a dream.
I read Memoirs of a Beatnik in the very long wait for my Canadian VISA in the airport that afternoon. The bookseller was right: it is a fun, sexy read (in fact, it's pretty much just pornography). On my last day, I planned to ask strangers to help me make even bigger decisions. Where should I live in Vancouver? Should I end my period of celibacy, or not? I had not anticipated the whirlwind of my last two days. Did leaving my life in the hands of other people make things worse? Did it add to my general sense of helplessness? I don’t know.
Over the course of seven days, I asked 38 strangers to make as many decisions (plus some). I spent way more money than I should have, and made some unexpected friends. It's liberating to leave the thinking to other people, but a little suffocating too.
I think I'll keep asking strangers for advice, especially when I travel (but I'll stick to picking my own orders at restaurants). I don't think I've become any less indecisive. The big decisions I have to make now feel just as daunting. And I'm still questioning, actually, if grad school in Vancouver is a good idea. If all else fails, I can always leave things in the hands of fate, and ask another stranger.