When I need to recharge the creative batteries I go to a part of my metropolitan area that I have never been to before and either walk or drive for several blocks, dictating notes about what and who I see. I started doing this several years ago, when my two sons were in short pants. One Christmas break I had pretty much broken the bank while assisting Santa Claus and, as will happen with children between the ages of 5 and 40, they were bored and looking for something to do. I don’t know why or how I thought of it, but I suggested that I would take them down some streets that they had been past frequently, but never been down. I also offered to take them, if possible, into buildings they had seen, but never entered. We had a lot of fun doing it. We went to recording studios and old hotels and down streets that had houses that had been built in the 1870s, where people had lived and died and procreated and slept and waken thousands of times over decades, their lives strange and unfamiliar layers that others would later walk upon. And I started imagining what had happened in each one, to this teenaged girl or that widowed husband or those families for whom the term “living in quiet desperation” had undoubtedly be coined.
My sons are older and have lives of their own but I still take those walks and make those drives when the page is blank and the well seems empty. A few months ago I noticed a small house set back off a street, between a twelve-unit apartment building and a duplex, like a small child trying to unobtrusively hide behind two much bigger siblings. The house has apparently been there for a while — the auditor’s office lists its date of construction as “old” — and looks to surely be haunted. It figures prominently in a project I’m working on. There are others buildings and people like that house, full of stories, just waiting to be opened and read. There are storerooms without signs that are barred with new locks during the day and where parking lots fill at odd hours of the night. And there are people who were someone’s son or daughter who sit, reliably as the USNO Master Clock, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee on benches and in alleys, some of whom know secrets that would curl your hair, if you were but to ask.
Each person, each building, is a book, some humdrum and common, others almost — almost — beyond imagination. Do you look? Do you ask? Have you ever opened a door not your own and been surprised by what you found? Or asked a stranger a question and been shocked by the answer? All of the stories will never be told, but many are there for the asking.