After a couple of hours of talking in circles with Sam, about whether or not he wants to be in a relationship (“some people do want a relationship, and some people don’t want a relationship”), about his dating experience (“I don’t know how you define that”), and about whether or not he’d like to just have some sex—OK, that one was my question (“That’s hard to answer because the answer has a lot of implied meanings”), Irenstein leads him out into Union Square to talk to some real live women.
We stand outside Barnes & Noble, watching the people pass. Irenstein points to a woman sitting nearby, engrossed in her BlackBerry, and starts feeding Sam lines: “Tell her you’re waiting for somebody and that it looks like she’s waiting for somebody,” Irenstein suggests. “Say you can babysit each other for 5 minutes.”
With his relaxed posture and easy smile, Irenstein could pull off a line like that no problem. But Sam hesitates. With his hands shoved deep into his pockets, his refusal to hold eye contact, and his man purse, he’s likely to bomb.
“If you think so much,” Irenstein says, “she’s gonna be gone. Go.”
Sam wanders toward her, stops, loops back around and returns to us to report that she’s wearing ear buds.
“She’ll take them out!” Irenstein says, pushing him back toward her.
Sam approaches the girl again, and says something to her that causes her to look up briefly before returning to her phone. Sam stares at her for a second, his arms hanging at his sides, before sitting beside her and gazing into middle distance, as if he’d always planned to sit right there because where else would he sit? Eventually, Irenstein walks over and rescues him.
Of course, approaching a stranger and engaging her in conversation takes a degree of self-certainty, a sense that you’ll remain basically intact if rejected. But Sam is a man who, half an hour earlier, couldn’t tell Irenstein what his favorite color is, what his favorite food is, or what kind of weather he likes. “Do you exist?” Irenstein shouted at him. “You need to exist!” When Sam started to argue with him, Irenstein interrupted, “Don’t argue with me! Do you understand? I was like you!”
But Irenstein is not giving up: “People who leave the religious community are very strong,” he tells me. “It’s very hard to do. But once they’re out, they use that strength to move on. To move forward.”
“You’ve got a lot going for you,” he tells Sam. “But you have work to do. It starts here,” he says pointing to his head. “You have to fix what’s in here.”