Everyone in the city smoked cigarettes, the orange-bright ends illuminating every stoop, park bench, and window. If we shut out the lights, cut the electrical lines, we might still be able to read by the glare of a million burning cigarettes, their ashes spilling into the crease between the pages. Many treated their cigarettes with ritual superstition—practicing traditions passed down from the Great War, from the Native Americans, and from the study-abroad semesters in Bulgaria. Each secreted upside down sticks in their packs—the lucky cigarette—absconding white lighters and lighting up with the ends of each others’ cigarettes. When finished, they tapped out the cigarettes in overflowing ash trays, some plastic, others glass.
The smoke, meanwhile, floated above their heads in lazy spirals—smoke took on a life of its own, an animated beast rising and swaying like a drunk ballerina in flats not yet broken in. The bearded man with glasses, reading Kant with a mix of pretentiousness and a sincere desire to understand, the freckled girl with a glinting nose ring—hell, the Catholic Father with his black shirt unbuttoned in the simmering summer heat. Here they sat, sharing communion: rather than a reminder of life, they acknowledged death, welcomed it into their lungs with breaths deep as love.
The priest took a drag on his cigarette, and I wonder why he smokes, if there is reason at all or if it seemed something to do when there was nothing else to do. Some of the people in the city, they rolled their cigarettes. The heathens of the Holy City smoked everything they could stuff into rolling papers, fitting their filters sloppily to the end.
Perhaps he liked smoking for its symbolism, its thematic properties. Cigarettes reflected the American desire for death, the necessity of it with our lives, because without death, we would not be able to justify our wasteful lives. If we were to live forever, then we would be forced to do something, but death had become our ultimate cop-out, our greatest excuse for failure. We could try, try to do something good and impactful, but then too late—you died too soon, oh well.
The embers died out, crackling like a campfire in the jumble of ash trays, and the city grew dark as the smokers fell one by one to sleep.
The Hot Dog Man stands down the street from the Hobo Chiropractor, practicing his legitimate business of selling students hot dogs. Each year, students from active political alliances ply the school for healthier options, for vegetarian entrees, for clean facilities, and for a balanced meal plan. Meanwhile, the hot dog man roosts in a plastic fold-up lounge chair, hawking hot dogs for $2.00 a piece. For $3.50, you can get a deal: a hotdog, a bag of chips, and a soda.
Each morning, he arrives on the corner, his hotdog cart rattling behind his truck. Attached with a hitch, it bounces into each pothole, threatening to collapse. A picture of a hotdog displayed in bright colors on its side, the cart stands on a small raised area, the resident chiropractor crouched on the steps below. He pops open his yellow umbrella and sits in its shade. Students approach throughout the day, haggling for drinks or plastic-encased mystery meats.
I often wonder about hotdog man, whether he lives a solitary life. Does he love hotdogs or does he see this enterprise as purely business? When did he decide to open a hotdog stand near the College of Charleston, and what great racket has he tapped into now that he is selling his meat via transportable cart? Does he have a hotdog wife (Hot Dog Woman) with whom he has had little hotdog babies?
On Sunday afternoons, does he grill up delicious, fresh hotdogs and serve them to his Oscar-Meyer-obsessed relatives?
My theory is a darker one, on that can only be proved by shining a light into his childhood. In my venerable imagination, this hotdog paladin began his quest with The Hamburger Incident…
Five years old, Hot Dog Boy has grown up in Brooklyn his entire life. One day while drawing chalk dragons on the cracked sidewalk, a lunch cart rolls by. The children rush the cart for their lunches: pizza and hotdogs and hamburgers and fries. Behind this vender stands a great billboard exclaiming “Best Hamburgers East of 87th Street and West of 89th!”
This superimposed over the biggest burger he has seen in his life. A juicy patty dripping grease, the tomatoes still wet with condensation. The lettuce green and crisp. The bun steaming and slightly browned.
While Hot Dog Boy stares up at the sign, waiting to order his food, a terrible gust stirs down the street. The sign topples, the boy crushed underneath. Three hours and four hotdog venders later, they drag the boy from under the sign. Forever scarred.
Now he sells hotdogs in protest, settled into his chair under the yellow umbrella. Waiting patiently for the day to use his hotdog finesse to strike out the wicked reign of hamburgers. To one day rule the street-food world. First, hamburgers will fall, then falafels and rotten sushi, powdered crepes and single-sliced pizza, roasted nuts and gyros, kebabs and burritos, tacos and Panini. One day only the Hot Dog Man will remain.
So you think your son or daughter or older brother is a writer? Is he or she exhibiting signs of seclusion, spending an inordinate amount of time reading literature, or making hieroglyphic and mysterious marks in a notepad of any kind? It is possible that a writer might have been born into your family, which can sound quite shocking at first.
Either, you’re not sure if you’ve been gifted a genius or should you rush the little scribe off to the orphanage immediately.
After all, writers’ lives are spotted with calamity, and rather he/she be a supposed orphan than you soon die of cholera and he/she become a true orphan. That’s what happens to writers’ families right? They’re always being murdered or killed in storms or dying of some Victorian-era disease.
Don’t fear. There are simple steps you can take to usher the scribbler onto glory without being inflicted by biblical plagues or suffering sudden and coincidental depression. Remember, you’re dealing with a crazy person. As in, someone who hears voice in his/her head, someone who maps out entire separate lives “for the fun of it.”
Certainly, do not take this task lightly. Writers are given to madness, bouts of emotions only word-minced poems in middle school will fix, and terrible vices ranging from alcoholism to drug abuse to Wikipedia surfing. It ain’t no easy path to hear the incessant scribbling of pen to paper, like the hand is making a bad dash for life or limb. The pendulum swings ever closer down, slicing at the knuckles as the modern-day quill moves.
Simply, allow them their crazy.
Let them scream through the house, sobbing because a character died (in the most epic way, but still).
If the door is closed and fingers whizz at the speed of antelopes, do not interrupt with trivial stories or requests to clean the
dishes. The writer is a violent creature, prone to creative paroxysms of rage when wrenched from the writing process. They may attack when called upon, caught up in the carnal need to tell stories. Seriously, blood could be spilled.
And indulge them their rants, their vast explanations. Before writers can ever make a story make sense to an audience, we must make it make sense to ourselves. Ignore us if need be, but pretend to listen like an overpaid therapist. Allow the writer to think aloud all his craziness, he’ll eventually shut up and begin writing again.
He will ask for your advice. Probably best to lie to him and tell him you don’t know diddly squat about writing or books, though your opinion might be good or bad. Writers are brash, foreign people who won’t really take your advice or criticism seriously. And if you scrutinize a character, remember that for the writer, the character is a real person and– “how dare you? She has feelings!”
But most of all, let him fail and fail again, and let him climb the grueling ladder of learning to tell stories, from the mechanics to the finer methods of sustaining suspense in a story about stationary sea crabs. Every writer fails at writing, but those that give up there don’t become writers. They become people who wish they had become writers. So encourage them no matter what drivel they produce, because eventually they’ll churn out something decent and then later on something incredible. Only with time can a person understand life and death, the only two things a book can be about.
Seriously, don’t freak out. They’ll write weird stuff, but they’ll probably end up fine unless, you know, they don’t. But a lot of people don’t end up fine, and that’s most people, so maybe they’re doing better than we thought. If you have any inclination to help them, give them your favorite book and leave it at that. The universe, generally a fan in my opinion of human success, will do the rest.
When life begins to roar, deafening who you are, it helps to seek solitude, retreat into yourself. Remind yourself beauty exists all around you– there are reasons for the things you do, reasons bigger than you. Poems clang around in your head like men with pinball hammers, ice picks, and dynamite trying to break out.
I am happy to report I have been writing regularly, though disjointedly to fit my schedules into schedules– school has recently swollen to consume much of my time. Between trying to write fiction and trying to complete school work and trying to have a semblance of a social life, I haven’t written many blog posts. I will try to remedy that this weekend, as I have been working on a multi-part post which may interest many of you.
In the meantime, I am producing fiction I might actually get paid for, which I’ll attempt to publish. While editing “In Lickskillet,” I have also written two short stories– one is not done yet. I have, however, for both a supreme confidence that you will either find them enlightening or comical or both. When (yes, I mean WHEN, not IF) I publish these somewhere, Word Salad will be the first place I post up links and information. All of this, of course, is quite exciting. I’ll report more after my Fall Break begins.
I have been pondering the strings that tie us together, the things that bind us and keep us together, how we affect one another, one human to another.
We’re a lot like thumbtacks on a pegboard, each of us tied with many strings that connect us to all the other thumbtacks on the board we call life. Of course, we’re all moving, so the strings are tightening and getting loose and stretching, changing colors, length, thickness. Our relationships change as these strings do; the connections evolve over time.
And everything we do, we’re sending sound waves along the strings, pulling them and changing them. Once we change one of the strings, we change other strings, the ones that everyone we’re connected to holds. Then other strings move, shift, change because of our changes meaning we’re all affecting each other, and in different ways, we’re all connected. Somehow, we are all connected via this mass network of strings criss-crossing the globe, and with the advent of the internet, e-mail, Skyping, Facebook, we find more and more strings.
The connections may not be particularly strong, but they’re there. We are changed by all of the people we have known, seen, and heard of.
These people: we’ve met, we’ve inspired, we’ve loved, we’ve read novels by, we’ve despised, we’ve broken bread with, we’ve battled against, we’ve drank with, we’ve prayed over, we’ve bumped into on the street, we’ve taught, we’ve tripped, we’ve enlightened, we’ve made love with, we’ve fed, we’ve stared at in public but never actually spoken to, we’ve known more than we can know anyone else.
Just reading this on the outskirts of the internet, you are tying off a string. My thumbtack to yours. And maybe this is just wishful thinking, but maybe these strings keep us sane, alive. Because with the board changing so often, the pegs all moving, we could fall off, slip from our places. Fortunately, we’re tied together, part of this huge safety net.
It is the people in our lives that keep us from falling.