By Mike Crawmer
Monday morning’s commute took me past a bus shelter in one of the city’s transition neighborhoods. Walking toward the shelter was a kid, maybe 17, 18 years old, wearing ghetto-wannabe attire: baggy, multi-pocketed pants that clung precariously to narrow hips and an oversized t-shirt.
I wouldn’t have given him a second look--nothing about his dreary clichéd uniform merited special notice--but for what he did as he reached the shelter: He looked down and, self-consciously, smoothed out his t-shirt.
That little detail almost caused me to run a red light. Such fastidiousness was unexpected. He wasn’t like any of the legions of kids I see every school day outside the local high school. They are completely comfortable in their look, whether wrinkled or ironed.
This kid was trying for that “look,” but for some reason he still felt a need to look neat. Why? Was his mother’s complaint that he looked like a slob still ringing in his ears? Or did I misread his action totally, and he was actually just trying to get his t-shirt to hang even lower toward his knees? His choice of clothes told me he wanted to fit in. That one action told me that he really cared how he looked, and a lot more.
As you can see, one action was enough to jump-start my early-morning grey cells. It’s often that way: An unexpected detail--the speed walker stopping to pick up a quarter, the seemingly happily married coworker who shows up one day without his wedding band--sparks the imagination and before you knows it, a story is a-borning.
Finding the right details that makes fictional characters believable creations is not easy. At least for me. Only recently did I come up with a detail that helps describe one of my characters--and the fact that I can use that detail as a clue makes it all the more valuable. As for my other characters, some have endearing, memorable (I hope) quirks--one 70-something neighbor wears hand-knit shawls even on the hottest summer day--some don’t. Not yet. But I’m working on it.
The kid at the bus shelter has given me an idea I think I can use to good effect. In the meantime, I’ll keep looking.
(It’s only appropriate that I saw this kid where I did. Telling details abound in neighborhoods in transition. There you’ll find a vibrant, boisterous mix of people, as the community makes the transition from hard-scrabble, worn-out blue-collar to energetic rainbow-collar--artists, techies, gays, old-house renovators and young professionals and the shops and restaurants that cater to them. Check ‘em out sometime.)