My grandfather, Sebastian (see, No. 10.3, Archives), was the ultimate urban scavenger. After he died it took weeks to throw out the accumulation of decades of his stopping to pick up anything—and I mean anything —that he thought might be put to some good use. I’ll give just a couple of numerous instances I can recall. Once, I asked him if he might have key, one of those old types that had a little barrel hole in them and were used to lock desks and pianos (my purpose). He came up with a 4-inch diameter ring of just those types of keys, and three fit my purpose. Another time he just picked up a gnarled piece of wood about a foot long. By the end of the day it had been affixed with two found teddy bear eyes, given a mouth with a hacksaw, and the other end stuck into a small bell that was filled with cement. Ecco! A sculpture, a work of art, by Sebastian Bianchi. I still, as you can see, have it. It’s weird, but it’s a treasure to me.
Since I began writing fiction I have developed a deeper appreciation for the magpie impulse. Fiction uses experience the way a Hummer uses fossil fuel, so the writer needs to keep collecting, looking and listening and, of course, jotting down all sorts of experiences and circumstances. Fiction writing is often described as permissible “lying”, but it’s also stealing. I’m referring to stealing glances, quickly making notes of things overheard in restaurants, on subways, or on the street, grabbing a facial feature, or a walk, or texture or aroma, all to be squirreled awa for some possible fictional element.
Then there are people themselves. In various notebooks that I keep, especially when traveling, I have what I call “sketches” of people that I encounter. Some I have actually met, like a French guy with those skewed eyes like Jean-Paul Satre, others that I have just sat near at a café, or seen on the street. Much in the way an artist might make a sketch (this is reputed to be the way that some artists, particularly after Giotto, began to put real people into their paintings. There is a scene in the film of the Agony and the Ecstasy, where Michelangelo makes quick sketches of patrons in a taverna of people who end up as saints and such on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. I recall sitting on a park bench in Paris opposite an elderly Frenchman, complete with beret and cane. He was impassive almost a statue for the longest time, as though he were sitting for the portrait I tried to paint, in words, of him. After describing him as meticulously as possible, I then decided to give him “life,” and proceeded to imbue him with a past, where he was born, who he married,, what his work was, what he did during the war, what his passions were, and his disappointments and regrets, and looking for features in his face, and his posture, to give tem physical referents. I would go on as long as I could, stealing his appearance, and lying about his biography. Maybe I would never use him in a story, but the very practice of ”sketching” him honed my descriptions. I remember writing that he had “cowrie shell eyes,” because the looked puffy and slitted, and deciding that I would make him a “collaborateur,” with the Nazis during WWII who betrayed his best friend, who was a Jew, and now he sits with the weight of that regret—stuff like that. Later, I might take his features and stick them on a priest, or some other character. It’s like making a Mr. Potato Head; you can mix and match.
Locations are another element I collect. Being an urbanist I have an eye that is drawn to the way in which cities are places that are articulated by all aspects of human experience, from the towering penile edifices of huge corporate office buildings, to the way in which the most mundane elements of a streetscape might betray the aesthetics of a grocer, or the paint floor preferences of the owner of an apartment building. In a part of Hong Kong called Shau Kei Wan if saw a building that combined two colors (sort of a purple, but not quite, and sort of a yellow, but not quite) in a manner that produced a chromatic effect that I had never seen before, and was strangely arresting. Was this the work of someone who had an unusual aesthetic sensibility, or just happened to have two leftover colors from some other project (or two “found” paint colors such as Sebastian might drag out of a trashcan.) It doesn’t matter, of course, but it might be used to enliven and give a location in a story something that makes it more real, and more memorable. In one story I wrote I tried to put life into tall apartment buildings in Hong Kong at night.
Back in my flat I opened a cold beer and sat on the ledge of the little bay window that afforded a fifteen-degree view of the harbor. Around me the lights in a few flats in the towers of flats made like the holes in those old computer punch cards signifying the thousands of little urban dramas played out in the tiny cramped flats every day. Over in those darkened flats and those which always seem to have bare bulbs of illumination, almost surely a couple is making love with sweat-glazed bodies; another couple ignores each other, taking with them to sleep their day’s angry words; a young boy flips the pages of a porn magazine as quietly as he can in a bathroom; a young girl is cramming for an exam because someday she wants to live in a place that is not smaller than a walk-in closet on the Peak; a glitzy Cantonese television program plays to an already sleeping amah; a woman is crying into her pillow; and a sick, old man is falling asleep for the last time.
Cities have their own smells and sounds. I believe that I can identify them with a few sniffs—the smell of a New York subway; the moldy scent of Hong Kong in its wet seasons, the hint of incense in Bangkok, the exhaust of a London bus, the wooden brakes on a San Francisco cable car, the musty ancientness of Rome early on a Summer morning, or the pungent curried atmosphere of the hawker stalls in Singapore. Finding ways to turn aromas into words can be as challenging as turning sounds in to words. I don’t need a picture to imagine the sound that the Paris Metro makes when the doors are about to close; or the slosh of a Star Ferry through the chop of Victoria Harbor, or the whirr of its trams; the distinctive call to prayer of a muzzeinin Marrakesh or Cairo, or the symphony of traffic of a LA freeway.
As with many things experiences are best preserved from when they are fresh, and for me that means making notes. However, in the end you still have to have a story. And that’s what makes it art—it is synthesis. If we put things to together in ways in which they never were or seem they couldn’t be, then we have something that is truly our own creation.
When I used to rummage through Sebastian’s magic basement of collectables when I was a kid I was always wondering what kinds of things I could fashion from them. Like a child Dr. Frankenstein I imagined them coming alive as vehicles, weapons, and robots. Many years later I rummage through my experiences and notebooks. Having lived a good part of one life I imagine that these “collectables” might be cobbled together lives that might have been, or is yet to be.
©2006, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 10.11.2006)