Since I have nothing to do for the better part of an hour, I usually take a book to read, but this last Tuesday was different. Actually, I did have a book. It's Josip Novakovich's Fiction Writer's Workshop (the first edition, not the second...I checked it out of the local public library). I'm finishing up the exercises from the first chapter, "Sources of Fiction." This assignment had me going to a public place and taking notes on the people present, what they were doing, what I could tell about them from my observations...and particularly what was puzzling or curious about them that might make a story.
The story below is a thinly disguised version of the exercise, the casual observances of a writer who does this sort of thing all the time in order to build up a collection of potential characters for his fiction work. I know writers actually do this sort of thing, but for me, it was amazingly difficult to come up with anything coherent let alone interesting. To the best of my ability, these are the people I witnessed (some of them anyway) and these are the mysteries I came up with.
Looking around, I kept thinking about Billy Joel's song "Piano Man," how the song describes not only the appearance of everyone in the lounge drinking and listening to the piano player, but their lives, their losses, and their tragedies.
It's harder to figure out the background or mystery of people in real life just by looking at them in a public place, especially if you need to pretend you're not looking at them, let alone taking notes.
But I'm a writer and that's what I do. I observe people, I listen for useful dialog, I make up stories about people based on not only what they say, but how they stand, what they wear, anything I can see about them that strikes me as odd or interesting.
For instance, when he first walked into the office and casually greeted the two women behind the counter, I thought he was the doctor. He had a thoroughly professional appearance, from his close shorn red hair, to his crisp, white, button down shirt, and his freshly pressed dark slacks.
But then I saw him walking around the side of the counter to use the console to check in. Like any other patient, the receptionist, or technician, or nurse, handed him some paperwork to look over. When he sat down, I noticed a flaw in his otherwise white collar uniform; scuffed shoes.
It's not as if he stubbed his toe in the parking lot and scuffed the tip of his otherwise finely polished dress shoe, these shoes were habitually abused, as if the man made his living walking, not in a carpeted corporate environment, but on the floor of a warehouse.
I had a job once, one I held very briefly, thank God, at the local convention center working operations or "ops". I had to wear black, polished work shoes that scuffed the same way as this gentleman's, but my work clothes were equally as durable and took the same punishment, as I manhandled all sorts of equipment from stage parts, to booths, to partitions, to tables. I spent an uncomfortably long amount of time around large garbage dumpsters.
What sort of job (no one dresses like that at home) does this fellow have that requires he look so good from the ankles up but make him punish his shoes so severely?
By the time I managed to jot all this down, he was called back to one of the therapy rooms and I only saw him briefly again when he left.
She didn't bring in her purse or her wallet as I've have expected, but just had cash. I could see a ten-dollar bill but I wasn't actually able to hear how much her co-pay for $129.13 happened to be.
Some people were absolutely quiet, such as the African-American girl (she couldn't have been older than 18), who came out of the therapy area and sat directly behind me, never saying a word as she sat, got up, went back into the back, and then returned and walked out the front door.
Others were very loud, such as the fellow, who looked like a construction worker or other blue collar laborer, dressed in a bright orange t-shirt and camo cut offs, laughing and joking with various women on the staff. He showed up from the back just long enough for me to witness this and then disappeared again. He must have still been there when my son and I left.
There was an elderly woman named Rebecca or Becky, who entered the office with the most remarkable smile, a smile like she knew a secret, a dangerous secret that gave her power.
Probably the most mysterious couple I saw was a woman and the girl who I can only believe is her daughter, though they made a strange pair. I know it's getting on towards Halloween, but October 13th isn't close enough to start dressing in costume yet.
But both the woman and girl were wearing replicas of what seemed to be 19th century "old west" dresses, as if they had just been a part of some "frontier days" presentation at a local school or park. Outside of the less than professional quality to their apparel, what ruined the effect was their rather modern casual footwear and the cuffs of the woman's jeans peeking out from below her hemline.
But that wasn't the odd part. The woman entered the office a good ten or fifteen seconds before the girl (I'd guess the girl's age between 8 and 10 years old). The thing is, the girl never went near the woman. The woman sat down a few seats to my left, but the girl moved right toward the water dispenser. Even though the woman told the child she could have a drink, she all just about ignored her and moved away from the dispenser, but never closer to the woman.
Oh, the woman's name is Camille. It seemed to go with her faux old fashioned appearance somehow.
There were a lot more people there, including the all too young Dr. Kurt (who looked much less like a doctor than the man with the scuffed up shoes), and I took notes on them as best I could, but I'm writing about the people who made an impression, who made me ask questions and wonder who they were and what their non-fictional stories were really about.
All things end including my son's traction. I'll never know who these people are or what their lives are actually like. But that's the beauty of fiction. I don't need to know. I can just make it all up.