I had an odd encounter on the bus back from Hamilton last week. Well, I say I did, but it wasn’t my encounter at all. It actually happened on the two seats in front of me on the bus, and I only watched it.
No, it was nothing like that and get your minds out of the gutter. It actually gave me an idea for a short novel. Just the barest idea right now – it’ll take me a while to flesh it out, given the work, activist, and creative commitments I have now.
And I want to find a prospective publisher for this kind of idea before I get down to the details of writing it in the first place. I think one of the reasons A Small Man’s Town will probably never be published* is that I conceived and wrote it with no input from anyone who knew anything about how to market books. And now its moment is largely gone.
* The two years I spent writing the original manuscript weren’t a total waste, though. I at least got my most self-absorbed writing project out of my system at a young age and found greater success with different kinds of stories. So I now have no incentive to keep returning to my ego for story ideas, unlike most of the popular male authors of the 20th century.
So I'm sitting on the bus at the Hamilton GO station, waiting to get moving back to Toronto. And I see this tall surfer-style woman – she couldn’t be more than 22 or 23 – sit down in front of me. Long blonde hair, big round purple sunglasses that could have been plucked off John Lennon’s face. And a rainbow-coloured skateboard.
About a minute later, I see another woman come on the bus. She’s maybe 45, but could just as easily be a really bad 35 when I hear the rasp in her voice. Dressed in all black or laundry-faded black – cutoff shirt sleeves and jeans, black hair tied up in a messy high ponytail. The skin of her face is wrinkled but tight, like she was aged by the desert or by trauma. And piercing blue eyes.
She sits down next to the skater-surfer and immediately starts up a conversation. Well, it was more like an extended rant. I barely heard the younger woman get more than a couple of words in for the entire hour’s drive, and the older woman’s story is free-associative. She drifts from one topic to another, sometimes a disjointed story of the distant past, sometimes a conspiracy theory.
But they like each other. They seemed like kindred spirits of a sort, especially as I saw them hugging each other goodbye on the platform in Toronto. And I realized that a very good book could come out of the collision of these stories.
The structure would look like this. We’d begin with the young woman, a daughter of left-leaning professionals who grew up in the suburbs. She’s taking advantage of her summer away from college to start some travelling.
Maybe she’s getting away from a crap situation back at her school. But it’s the kind of crap situation that makes for consequence-free drama. A boyfriend who cheated on her, friendships collapsing in one of those tornadoes of intensity that early-20s friendships tend to create.
She’s on the bus into the city when this older woman sits next to her. Tells her a disjointed story of her own life, interwoven with conspiracy theories, dreams, and beautifully sad images.
And that older character is largely a broken person. A former punk rocker who left a more comfortable living, like her young friend has right now. Maybe it was a traumatic event like family or relationship violence, or maybe just the growing ennui of social isolation.
But this old punk, when she was a young punk, found herself in a wonderful community of musicians and artists who were also pretty intense drug users. Some on the run from the police, some with HIV, many with habits tearing them apart. All of them dedicated to an ideal of art and music that circumstances keep them from ever reaching.
And when they say goodbye, we see the start of this young woman’s travelling vacation. We see conditions eerily similar to the situations that started her new friend’s downward spiral 20 years ago. Our surfer-skater makes a different kind of decision at a critical moment, but we’re not sure if it will keep her life from collapse or simply spin it into a different kind of eventual disaster.
We’re all fragile.