Why We Look
Fifteen years ago we lived in a small village in England frequented by tourists and vacationers. People flocked there for the theatre, the river, and I suppose to see how the other half lived. It was a rather affluent community, quaint and picturesque. We lived in what the British called terrace houses and what I think of as row houses.
I loved the history contained in the mortar and brick walls, the tiny English garden at the back, the meandering staircase to the small landing on the second floor and the two equally snug bedrooms. And when I soaked in the claw foot bathtub, I wondered about those who had come before me, what they were like, what this house must have been before it was updated with central heating, electricity, indoor facilities. Being the wimp that I am I doubt I would have liked the reality of the past. Much prefer fantasizing about it, romanticizing it.
On weekends, we walked along the river, up and down hills and always through the narrow streets. Blocks and blocks of terrace houses, some painted different colours, others with bay windows or adornments to shake up convention, make the familiar unique. Living room windows sat directly on the sidewalk (or as the British call it, the pavement). Lace dressed these windows and gave peering eyes a perfect view into each home. And I must admit some of those eyes were mine. I love seeing how other people live. It stirs my imagination. Without this, I’d be dead as a writer.
I like making up stories, finding hints in how people live. It doesn’t take much for me to make up whole lives. The stories come from observing the type of furniture a person owns, the way they place that furniture. Are the chairs big and comfy or narrow and hard? Are they placed close together or far part? Is the living room a mausoleum kept for special guests or a gathering place? Are there toys or books on the table? Have they picked up their breakfast dishes? What’s that empty scotch bottle doing behind the sofa?
I peek into cars too, picture an overstressed, single father trying to place his babies in the twin car seats in the back seat. Why did his wife leave him? What will happen next? A story comes into place in my mind, and eventually may make it to paper.
Watching people in a café, at the grocery store, in a parking lot, or as I pass them in the street, I wonder about the intertwined hands, the hands in pockets, the strained smiles, the loud laughter, the subtle quips, the arm around a shoulder. I think about the gum a person worries in his mouth. I’m convinced there is a story to be found in the most elusive clue.
I observe in order to find drama, a story I want to tell.
So perhaps it’s simply drama that has raised Robin Doolittle’s book Crazy Town to best seller status and prompted a film company to buy the book’s film rights. As with train wrecks and car accidents, we seem to be mesmerized by the over the top, salacious antics of our politicians, sports heroes and stars. Except I’ve seen this story played out far too many times in Vancouver’s downtown east side, in the jails I used to work in, in the houses and cars I’ve glanced into, and in the hotel rooms of the wealthy who couldn’t cope with the excesses of their lives. As a storyteller, I’m looking for something different, something more subtle. I want to find the extraordinary in the familiar. This is why I look.
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