IN a tent, on the sidewalk, under the fluorescent lights of a Washington Mutual bank building in Long Beach, six people sit huddled around a space heater discussing the Eliot Spitzer scandal on a recent Saturday night. Behind them, a sign reads "Free Conversation Booth."
Someone poses a question: "What can you get for $4,500 from a prostitute that you can't get for a lot less?"
Throughout the night, the discourse continues, covering such matters as problems with dating a neighbor who's twice your age and creationism versus evolution. The crowd expands from five to 15. Most appear in their 20s, aside from three teenage girls stopping by after a toga party. Picture a lively, democratic version of Lucy's "Psychiatric Help" booth in the "Peanuts" cartoons.
"It's a lot nicer than going to a bar," says Jeffryn Leung, 22, a student at Cal State Long Beach, who stayed for a few hours and is a regular at the booth. "It's a lot more chill."
The booth is the brainchild of Andrew Simmons, 25, who works in technology marketing and lives in Costa Mesa. Several years ago, when he first moved to California, he had gone through a bad breakup and didn't have anyone to talk to about it.
"Whenever I went to stores I thought about what was happening in other people's lives," he says. "Are they going through the same things I'm going through? There was no platform for me to figure that out."
Second Street in the Belmont Shore area of Long Beach offers the kind of diverse crowd and walk-by traffic he desired. He got approval from the Washington Mutual, and last September, he opened for business.
After about 15 minutes, he had his first customer.
"Anything going on in your life?" he asked. The conversation wasn't going anywhere. "I thought it would be a lot more organic," he says. "Eventually it clicked with me. I have to be the one to drive this thing." He learned to ask more specific questions.
Nowadays, about half of the customers are passers-by and half make the booth a destination, with about 10 regulars.
One time, a middle-aged man captivated the booth with the story of how he urged his brother to go off to fight in Vietnam, only to see him die. One person having trouble with his bills found someone who worked for the government who could help him out.
So what's wrong with talking to friends and family?
"There's no mystery," Simmons says. "I know what they've been through." When you open up to strangers, he says, you're more likely to find someone who's feeling exactly what you're feeling. "Even if it's just small things -- 'you like that band too.' "
After starting the booth, Simmons soon found that he was quick to talk to strangers elsewhere.
In line at the grocery store, for instance. "I'm like, 'Did you used to eat that when you were younger?' " he says. "I couldn't shut up talking to people." He asked his regulars about it. "They said, 'Oh my God, I have the exact same problem.' "
WHERE: Outside the Washington Mutual building, 2nd Street, between Corona and Nieto avenues, Long Beach
WHEN: 3 p.m. to 1 a.m. Saturday (and every other Saturday)