Saturday, May 31, 2008

rainy day people

Today Tom and I went on a bus ride to the most saddest of places: the Harrisonburg Valley Mall.

Actually, we were out there to buy spices from an Indian Food shop, but since the bus only comes every hour, we had to wait somewhere--and somewhere cool, because it was crazy humid. So, we went, cruised the stores full of stuff no one really needed but somehow I felt the need to buy anyway. I know, I know. Liberal hippie green elite beliefs. I know. We finally sat in the food court near the bus stop and smelled the tempting smells: fresh-baked pretzels, MSG Chinese food, coffee and an aroma that's usual for all malls: a kind of cross between that new car smell and something going a bit sour. The whole place just seemed sad. Everyone in their looked tired and shell-shocked and dressed in tight shirts and short shorts whether they were ten or fifty.

When I was in high school and middle school, the mall was The Place to Go. The Wichita Towne East (yes, that's not a typo--maybe they've dropped the e by now, who knows) mall had everything one could desire: clothes, food, books and the hope that some cute boys would notice us. The mall got even cooler when one of my friends got a car. Then we could go alone to Wichita, the biggest city in most of Kansas. It was an hour away, but that didn't seem much. Gas and space didn't cross minds. Rock Road was the main drag as far as shopping went. Downtown was pretty much a ghost town, though I remember a Christian coffee shop I went to a time or too. I can't recall the name--The Rock or something. But Rock Road was where the hipness was. It also was populated by these row houses and apartments that seemed so cosmopolitan to me. I figured the people who lived there had it all: good looks, a great boyfriend/girlfriend/husband/wife, money, a car, and maybe a swimming pool.

I think that may have been part of my fascination with New York. Almost everyone lived in apartments. Living in an apartment mean something I couldn't quite verbalize. Even now, as I look at my house that is at least five times as big as our apartment in Harlem, I feel a little less cooler than I had been during those years that are now past and gone until something happens that will resurrect it.

Anyway, the mall in Harrisonburg had nothing of the glamour of Wichita's mall. The East Mall, at least. There was (perhaps still is) a Towne West Mall, but no one ever went there. It was in a "bad" part of the city, and when you did go there it was barren and full of people that seemed so sad. This is how Harrisonburg's mall felt to me today.

The bus came and we rode it to Food Lion, a big grocery chain in Virginia, and walked home. We did stop at Jess', a local greasy spoon downtown with the best fries around and the only place I can eat a hotdog without shame. We began to walk home. It started to sprinkle just before we came to 42. Then it started pouring. And blow some serious wind. Just as we crossed 42 it hit hard. I'm from Kansas, so I know wind. I often pooh pooh wind in Virginia, but this was a serious wind. My umbrella (they'd talked about rain on the radio before we left) was totally destroyed. At one point I was literally pushed back a few feet. I was sure there was a tornado approaching. We stumbled on, and I kept trying to look for a funnel cloud, but the rain was too blinding. As we approached our house, the sun came out. By the time we walked up the steps the light was blinding, the wind simply playing in the trees. Tom was soaked. I was soaked. The only part of my body that was dry was a patch on my backside. It glowed in the bathroom light as I peeled off my sticky skirt. My skirt was hand-dyed, so my legs were a pale pink from the russet that had played with my ankles before the rain pelted it against my legs and feet like a dog that circles you again and again, so happy to see you it doesn't understand your discomfort as its body sweeps and swirls around you.

Saturday, May 03, 2008


It's only these last few years that I've really gotten a sense of place. The stories I sent in for grad school attempted to have stories that were good but have no place in particular to ground them in. I realized at Sarah Lawrence that exactly the opposite is needed to really engage the reader. I think it's a bit funny that now all my writing (on this blog and otherwise) depends on the place, that place is a character in the plot, not just an empty stage in a cheap off off off offff Broadway production. At least with the aforesaid cheap production, the writer can pull the audience in with words (if he or she has an ounce of talent) and make them truly see a setting. In prose of any kind, if you don't pull a reader in with a few words telling them where they're at, getting them to stick around is tough.

One of my teachers at Sarah Lawrence, the glorious Carolyn Ferrell, said the importance of place can be valuable in making a story not only entertaining, but in making it timeless. She gave the example of Seinfeld. In Seinfeld, New York is a part of the story. It is something to be dealt with, not ignored. That's how it differs from, say, Friends. Although I am a fan, Friends doesn't have the same power because the setting, though also in New York, doesn't interact with the storyline. It could just as easily be Chicago, Seattle, San Fransisco, etc. I have a feeling that Seinfeld episodes will still be airing after Friends has gathered dust in the DVD bin at Goodwill.

It really does all come back to Seinfeld.

It seems strange that I'm just beginning to realize this, since my life these last ten years have been wrapped in place. I grew up in Kansas, moved to Virginia for college, then moved to New York as a volunteer (a place I have written way too many posts about), then back to Harrisonburg for a job. I guess it partially is because age (I say this at the ripe age of 29). When I went to college, EMU was a insular little place that seemed like a ship rather than a place. Though I lived there, I still returned to my dock of Kansas for long periods of time. Though I stayed there a year after graduation, I was dealing with my surgery and had a lot of friends who were still at EMU, so it felt like I was still in college. When I moved to New York, it seemed a bit transient place to me, because as far as I knew, we wouldn't be there for more than a year or so. It wasn't until I realized through my workshops and moving from white white downtown to Harlem how much a place totally changes things. And now that I'm back in Harrisonburg, it's really reared its uncomfortable head again.

I believe Willa Cather didn't write about Nebraska until she'd moved away. She needed space from that place. I've felt the same about my writing. It wasn't until I wrote one story set in Kansas and saw how people were eager to know more that I realized that place was so important. I never wanted to write about Mennonites or Kansas until I was at school in Westchester County, a thirty minute train ride from New York.

So, in five or so years I'll write about New York beyond my blog. But then, I don't know if I'll want to be away from it that long. There I go again, pining for New York.