I am not in the habit of chatting up young men at bus terminals: I never talk to strangers, no matter how cute they are,


Talking to Strangers

I am not in the habit of chatting up young men at bus terminals: I never talk to strangers, no matter how cute they are, unless absolutely necessary. But I'd just watched the fellow standing next to me at the Washington, D.C., Greyhound station miss his coach to Philadelphia by minutes (the gals behind the ticket counter were apparently having a contest to see who could help customers more slowly), and for some unfathomable reason—perhaps my biological clock was screaming at me to find a mate before my looks expire completely— I asked him how long he'd have to wait for the next departure.

Suddenly, my new acquaintance, Paul, and I are having a full-blown conversation. He tells me he's a teacher—math, computer science, and music—and that he calls Toronto home, but wouldn't mind living in the United States if teachers here actually pulled in decent salaries. "And what do you do?" Paul asks. "Are you a student?" After restraining myself from kissing him and making a mental note to wear a baseball cap more often, I divulge my sordid line of work.

Lo and behold, Paul Manchin, foxy Canadian schoolteacher, is also a musician. It turns out Paul has released four CDs via a tiny independent, been favorably reviewed in a major trade publication, and even played some big-ass New York clubs. He describes his sound using the unfortunate acronym SREHD, which he explains stands for Soul, Pop, R&B, Electronica, Hip-Hop, and Dance.

Just to be professional (and because it's an excuse to slip him my phone number), I fish out a business card and ask him to send me a CD. Paul sheepishly says he has a few in his suitcase, if I'd like one now. Opening my bag, I slide the slip-jacketed disc, entitled Natural, between the pages of my journal for safekeeping. As Paul boards his bus to Philly, I wonder if I'll ever listen to the damn thing.

The next day, I awake at my parents' home in Boones Mill, Va., 15 miles south of Roanoke. Mom is working, subbing for someone on vacation, and Dad's gone out, too. Before getting dressed, I decide to enjoy my morning coffee on the back porch, which boasts a spectacular view of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and write in my journal about my torturous Greyhound odyssey along the back roads of Virginia.

As soon as the patio door clicks shut, a wave of panic washes over me. I try the knob, but it doesn't budge. I am locked out. Calmly, I circumnavigate the entire house, checking every door and window. No luck. It's the height of summer, and with the A/C on inside, everything is shut tight.

With no cell phone and no idea where to reach my folks regardless, I decide to make the most of the situation. I came out to the mountains to write, so that's what I'm gonna do. When I flip open my journal, Paul Manchin's CD slips out. Over the course of a 20-plus-pages longhand meltdown, I keep looking at Natural, wondering what the hell it sounds like.

He has that unsmiling look on the cover of his CD, which means he takes his music very seriously, I scrawl at one point. Later, I turn sentimental: Paul Manchin, you and the coffee mug are my only friends. As the mercury rises, the prospect of hearing Natural becomes my reason to live. Three and a half hours later, Dad comes home. As soon as I'm finished unlocking the windows in the guest bedroom, I grab my Discman and consummate my relationship with Paul Manchin.

In his review of Natural, Billboard magazine critic Larry Flick likens Manchin's voice to George Michael, a comparison that's dead-on. I also find myself thinking of Thatcher-era U.K. white soul boys like Paul Young and ABC's Martin Fry while listening—and not just because of Paul Manchin's sexy singing style, punctuated with the requisite pants, yelps, and growls; the arrangements and production on Natural, courtesy of Brent Bodrug, are so steeped in late-'80s pop and club music that I feel like I'm practically a student again. When I get to "Phobia," a condemnation of categorizing people according to sexual preference, I give myself a pat on the back for being so unusually forward at the bus depot.

That evening, Mom inquires why I didn't just go ask the neighbors for help when I locked myself out. Why didn't I wander across a field, wearing nothing but a pair of boxer shorts, to ask some people I've never met if they knew how to find my family? Who do I look like, Anne Heche?

Besides, you never know what you're getting yourself into when you talk to strangers.


For more info on Paul Manchin, visit www.bgroupmusic.com/pmanchin.html.

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