Characters and Caricatures

As a fledgling writer, I try to see characters and stories everywhere I go. I also try to say words like “fledgling” without sounding like a jerk every chance I get. So whether I’m writing about an indie band I just discovered or a Baltimore artist who’s waiting to be discovered, it’s my job to find what makes their stories unique and worth telling. But sometimes I do it just for fun, people-watching style.
Take Saturday night for example. I go with John and his brother to see Trey Anastasio Band at Rams Head Live in Baltimore. TAB’s namesake is also the frontman for Phish, and his following is made up of a pretty interesting collection of people to say the least. Hardcore fans separate themselves from the rest of the crowd by loudly proclaiming how they just drove up from Asheville where they saw last night’s show, and then they proudly apologize for smelling like they haven’t showered since. The guy standing behind you feels the need to sing all the lyrics to the newest song because, you know, he figures he’s helping you out. Concert-goers roll their eyes at the overbearing security guards, and one couple busts out their swing dancing moves during a jazzed-up version of a ’90s Phish song as if they were ready to start a flash mob. With persistent wanderlust, the crowd seems like an odd bunch of misfits, but the goofy smiles on their faces each time Trey hits a defining note in a solo indicate that they’re more than happy to remain that way.
Just a few feet outside the venue is a totally different scene. When the band takes a set break, we step outside to cool off. If you’ve never been to Power Plant in Baltimore, I can describe it to you in four words: Disney World for Drunks. Which actually sounds cool now that I think about it, but the guys and I couldn’t get back inside fast enough. But during the moment or two we spend outside, I happen to notice a tearful fight break out between a guy and a girl. She yells at him as he walks away, cell phone to his ear. A loud group of colleagues just a few feet away are having a good time, clearly oblivious to the drama unfolding next to them. To my left, a trio of mismatched forty-somethings dance to the pounding club music in an awkward spot not intended for dancing as the doorman standing next to them watches with disapproval. One woman looks a bit lost wearing day clothes and carrying a shopping bag as if she’s spent the entire day in the mall and lost track of time. Female bartenders start trickling in for their shifts– they avoid eye contact and walk with a purpose wearing short black shorts, coffees in hand.
It’s interesting how scenes unfold in front of you and so easily turn into something worth writing about. And it’s not just the sold-out concerts with uncontainable energy or drunken outdoor parties with 20 bars to choose from that get my attention. More often it’s the woman sitting alone in a restaurant looking disappointed as she drums her fingers on the table, or the mother riding bikes with her family while simultaneously chatting on her cell phone. But my favorite story of the year? When I visited my grandpa a couple weeks ago in West Virginia, we were sitting at a red light on the way to a musical. We were chatting when he looked straight ahead, let his jaw drop a little, and said rather plainly, “That’s a raccoon.” I turned to look and sure enough, inside the car in front of us was a live raccoon sitting on the head rest of the driver’s seat. You. Can’t. Make. That. Up. Well, you can, but it’s so much better because it’s true. What kind of person drives with a raccoon on his head that ISN’T a hat, and more importantly, where was he going with said raccoon? After a good laugh and a few jokes (“only in West Virginia”), my grandpa asked, “Are you going to blog about that?” He knows me well.
I don’t always have the easiest time with writing. Sometimes I torture myself by becoming distracted and working dangerously close to my deadline. Other times, technology fails me. This happens more than I’m comfortable with. But while I’m far from being the perfect storyteller, there’s nothing like sending off something that’s been revised a million times and letting it speak for itself, however imperfect it may be.
We ended our Saturday evening in the city with tired feet and ringing ears sometime after midnight. The concert was excellent, and I could’ve easily fallen asleep in the car. I’m glad I didn’t– on the way home, we saw three elevated Chevy Impalas with speakers on the exterior and rims on the oversized tires, painted with Smurfs (“For the Kids”), Bubblicious (“Yum-Yum”), and Angry Birds respectively. I could ONLY imagine what they were up to in the middle of the night. Only in Baltimore, right? I’m keeping that weird little tidbit in the back of my mind for future reference. And if I ever write a novel, the guy driving around with a raccoon in his car just might have to make an appearance.