Sometimes I think that the odder parts of fiction—the bizarre elements in stories by writers ranging from Flannery O’Connor to Charles Dickens—are probably true. Everyone has weird stories, and if you pay attention to what is going on around you, you start noticing the weird and wonderfully human strangeness that is happening every day.
Here are a few of mine. Maybe someday they can be fit into the framework of a short story or novel, but for now they remain fragmented memories that drift to the surface now and then.
Around fourteen years ago my friends decided to go camping in Big Sur. We drove down along the coast, wheeling along the sickening drop to the ocean. I’m no good with heights, a fact that I let slip at one point, so the driver took delight in faking a jolt here and there. After our camping weekend, we headed back. As we neared the highway we came across a makeshift flea market on the side of an embankment, so we stopped to take a look. I wandered over to look in a series of boxes, all of which held identical novelty license plate holders reading “THE HELL WITH THE HOUSEWORK, I’M GOING TO BINGO”.
“Sir?” A middle-aged woman tapped me on the arm. “Sir? Want to buy some of these? My dog is sick. Come see.” She grabbed me by the hand and dragged me down the slope to a rusted truck. Inside an ancient dog grunted and pulled itself upright. A huge tumor was on its backside.
“Want to touch it?” She pointed into the window and jabbed at the tumor. “It’s real. I gotta get it cut off.”
“Uh, that’s okay.” I backed away a bit. “I’ll get some plate holders.”
I bought five or six holders. The woman told me that if I threw in an extra five dollars she would read my palm—she said she had gypsy blood and could see the lines others could not. I declined and ended up giving the plate holders away as gag gifts to several friends and acquaintances.
In 1999 I went on an almost completely unprepared trip to Rome along with another young man, intending to photograph churches for a catechetical project that ended up never coming to fruition. I didn’t sleep on the flight over; I’ve always hated flying and my height means sitting in coach seats can be intensely uncomfortable after a period of time. Groggy from lack of sleep, we arrived in Rome at the Termini station with no hotel reservations prepared. We tried calling a few hotels from a pay phone, and then were approached by a man with slicked back hair.
“You need a place to stay? I can help.” He introduced himself as “King Cobra”, the first sign that we should have just said no thank you, and led us down a side street to an ancient building with worn stairs. He led us up to a small room with beds whose sheets bore visible mildew stains. “Very nice, very classic.”
We rejected the offer, and he huffily led us next door. “This is a private residence, very nice, very clean.” The room he ushered us into was just that: a room. Nothing in it, no beds, no furniture.
“Where would we sleep?”
“With the girls. There will be girls here.”
“Um, no thanks.”
“Oh! You are….”
“We’re here to photograph churches. Kind of a pilgrimage.”
“Religious?” King Cobra seemed flabbergasted. “Rome is a PARTY CITY. Why come here for religion?”
Though he seemed rather angry about us backing out of his offers, we retraced our path to the train station and managed to track down the phone number for a pilgrim center in the home of Saint Frances of Rome. And after 38 hours without sleep, it was a blessing to crash into a tiny pilgrim bed on jangly springs.
When I used to ride the Richmond line instead of the Pittsburgh / Bay Point line on BART, I would often see an elderly man who would get on board during the ride back from San Francisco. Carrying an enormous display Bible, he would walk up and down the aisle, calling out “Gospel of John! Gospel of John! Word become flesh, and the flesh shall not fornicate. Are you a fornicator, ma’am? Are you a fornicator, sir?”
One day a somewhat inebriated man decided to engage the preacher. “I fornicate every chance I get.”
The Bible man sat down next to him and they engaged in a spirited debate for several stops. Eventually agreeing to disagree, they departed with a fist-bump.
Late one night on the MUNI bus line in San Francisco, I got on board and found a small old man wearing a bus driver’s uniform from the 1980s sitting up near the front.
“Guten tag! You look German,” he said to me. “I know how to say hello in all the languages spoken in this city, and I can usually tell what ethnicity you are. Are you German?”
“No, mostly Norwegian and Scots.”
“CLOSE ENOUGH.” He turned to an elderly Asian woman who had just boarded. “Ni hao, my dear!” She glared at him and took a seat in the back.
“I know Spanish, Polish, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, French, and Tagalog,” the man declared. “I used to drive this line. Retired now. Just riding it these days.”
“Do you know how to say hello in dog?” I asked.
He responded by barking furiously until he was red in the face.
He was an old Chinese-American man with gnarled fingers named Joe, and he owned a video rental shop near my apartment. I would go there occasionally and he would rant to me about this and that. He wore a pigtailed wig which looked strangely like a Revolutionary-era hairpiece. And he would yell at people who stared at him too long. One of my friends was shouted at for this reason.
Standing behind the counter under a sign reading “I Know I’m Special Because God Don’t Make No Junk” and photographs of himself standing with various celebrities, he would tell stories from his life. If you listened for a few minutes, you’d start to realize that he was actually retelling the plots from various movies he had seen. Like the time he was on the police force and two of the officers on the force crashed a car off of the skyway into an apartment (Freebie and the Bean) or the time he witnessed a serial killer being chased through the Hyatt at the Embarcadero (Time After Time). He seemed perfectly lucid other than this tic. He would also attempt to sell me a stun gun every time I visited, telling me that the city was full of thugs.
I miss going there.
There’s a lot more where these vignettes came from. But they’re good reminders to keep looking and listening to the things going on around you. There might be a good story there.