There are stories everywhere, and anywhere can incite stories in people who write. The slant of light on a building or a hydrangea in a yard can trigger the conception of a story, and the process is sometimes heightened by new and unfamiliar locales. And sometimes not. There are places in which I see stories forming in every shadow, doorway, window and street. And places in which stories are for some reason locked down, inaccessible.
I spent much of June in Portland, Oregon, a delightful city, green in every sense, literate and liberal, the home of Powell’s Books! I’d been there several times before, but this time I intended to go deep, research the place and set a story there. One of the Mandy Drus, or maybe a historical or something about immigrants. Maybe horror. Horror might be fun.
So I prowled the parks and streets, read histories, took tours and ate in atmospheric restaurants. I observed that otherwise intelligent, open-minded people may become as rabidly fanatic as fundamentalists if obsessed by bicycles, but had not the slightest inclination to write about it.
“Fleet Week” occurred while I was there, various ships of the naval fleet in port, and cute young sailors in their dress whites were on every street downtown. Eagerly pursued by cute young women in elaborate outfits and stage makeup at ten o’clock in the morning, passing out business cards. The oldest profession and probably rife with stories, but I wasn’t in the mood for the gritty, wrenching reality behind the healthy young hucksters on the street. They were just advertising and probably went home at three, leaving the hardened pros to greet all the nervous boys in white, eventually drunk in the Northwest dark, clutching business cards. Too grim.
Portland is the birthplace of the term “shanghaied,” meaning to be conscripted on a merchant ship bound for Shanghai against one’s will. From 1850 to the 1940’s, able-bodied men were, supposedly, plied with booze and occasionally drugs until they passed out, then shoved through “deadfalls,” or trap doors, in the countless saloons. There they were kept in cages until ushered through a system of tunnels beneath the city to the Willamette River where they were sold to ship’s captains as unpaid crew. This practice probably didn’t happen as often or as dramatically as the tour hype suggests, but it did happen. Great stuff for a story! Except I kept wondering why, since Portland’s vast array of saloons were widely known for this danger, any “able-bodied man” in his right mind would sit around getting drunk over a trap door. (Look at the floor, you idiot!) Getting shanghaied seemed a sort of poetic justice, but not much of a story.
And then there were the irises. Our hostess took us to Salem to Schreiner’s Iris Gardens (http://www.schreinersgardens.com/) where I snapped eighty-five iris photos I have no idea what to do with. Gorgeous, I loved them all and ordered a couple of bulbs that will almost certainly perish in San Diego’s inhospitable ground, but no iris story occurred to me.
Then, alone at LAX on the way back, I watched a large, somber woman in a too-tight maintenance uniform and plastic gloves load trash from trashcans onto a cart and replace the plastic liners. The most mundane, uninteresting, quotidian activity on earth, and yet I knew she had a story! It hovered in the gloves, her forehead, the way all the airport noise seemed to bounce off an invisible shell surrounding her. She was thinking, and not about trash. Something serious but not necessarily tragic. I imagined her thinking of mathematical formulae, old mining maps or some puzzling line from Hannah Arendt. I made her an American Renée, the dumpy concierge in The Elegance of the Hedgehog, who reads philosophy while hiding behind a stereotyped façade.
This is normal; I do this all the time; this is what writers do. 99.999% of these imaginings vaporize and are forgotten long before a first word is written, but they’re ceaselessly around. Except when they’re not. Why? How is it possible to spend weeks amid obvious, glaring, rich and complex stories and not see their little ghosts, especially while intending to see them?
I think maybe places choose those to whom they’ll loose their stories, and those to whom they won’t. I think maybe it’s love at first sight, or permanent, wordless indifference.