Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Inspirational Strangeness of Strangers

Before I begin this tale, you need to understand how absolutely beastly hot Washington, D.C. is in the summer. 

By mid-July, you swear that if you hear the words hazy, hot, and humid strung together by a weather forecaster one more time, you’re going to pull a grenade pin with your teeth, cross yourself, and wait for the sweet release of BOOM.  

And, sure, lots of places are hot in the summer, but even the hottest, steamiest of places, places where men catch gators off the sides of canoes with chicken legs for bait, offer an advantage over D.C. because the folks who live in them typically enjoy the freedom of a casual, more shirtless lifestyle. In D.C, dressing down at the office is not an option. You’ve still got be in work attire no matter what the thermometer says. So pretty much, once you’re three steps out the door in your nicely pressed suit, you’re wilting over like an unwatered tulip -- your head lying on the pavement, your tongue hanging out, your hair frizzed out so you look like a clown that’s been electrocuted in the bathtub (that last part may pertain only to me).

I mention this hot beastliness because it’s important you know this when I tell you about the woman I used to see as I walked to the subway.

Oh, and OK, there’s one other thing you should know: I was one of those dorks who used to wear sneakers with my work clothes as I commuted. Yeah, yeah, I know. It’s the height of unstylishness, but listen, I had to walk 10 blocks to the subway and then another 10 blocks from the subway to my office and no way was I going to make it in heels, but judge me if you must. I accept your scorn as a fair and just punishment.

Anyway, nearly every day I saw this woman – she was probably in her late-forties – and like me, she also wore the sneakers with the work clothes. She invariably had on a suit – often a wool skirt and blazer – with a silky blouse and earrings and pearl necklace. Her hair was always styled and she wore a face full of make-up -- lipstick, eyeshadow, the works. She also carried this huge, fargin’ backpack. The kind of overstuffed backpack you see people trying to ram into overhead bins so they don’t have to check their luggage even though they’re traveling to New Zealand for six months.

And now here’s the kicker: she jogged to the subway every morning. Yes, jogged. In her suit and silky blouse and pearl necklace. In the Washington, D.C. swelter.  Carrying a backpack the size of a Neapolitan mastiff.

The first time I saw her I figured she was late and rushing somewhere. But then I saw her day after day and realized that she was doing this jogging with a backpack and pearls thing on purpose.

“What the hell” didn’t even begin to describe my reaction to this woman.

I found this behavior so inexplicably odd that here it is, more than 10 years later, and I STILL wonder about that lady. Why was she jogging? What was up with the backpack? What kind of sweaty mess did she become by the time she arrived at her office each day? I’m assuming this behavior was a misguided effort at multi-tasking. Or maybe she was performing some kind of religious purification ritual. Alas, I’ll never know the real story.

There is a truism in writing fiction that if you insert something real, something nonfiction, in your story, it will somehow ring false. This is why I’ll never be able to use the jogging, pearl-wearing lady in anything I write. (Except for in this blog post, of course.)

I wonder all the time why people do what they do, and if I can’t get at the real story, I can’t stop myself from making one up to fill the vacuum created by my unsatisfied curiosity. Some days I think writing is just another form of nosiness. Either that or I’m justifying my nosiness with this whole, “I’m a writer” thing. I’m not sure which is more accurate.

How about you? Has any strange(r) behavior ever inspired your creativity?