Tag Archives: Rochester writing

The Voyeur…continued from “Get Your Story Started” by John Smolens

The following is taken verbatim from The Writer magazine article, “Get Your Story Started.”


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Step 2- Get out of the house (60 minutes).

Go someplace different, someplace with a lot of people–preferably people you don’t know or seldom see.  Restaurants, bus terminals, train stations and airports are excellent sites.  Find a spot and observe the people around you.  Describe as much as you can.  You may use lists, narrative passages, fragments of overheard conversations recorded as dialogue.  Catalog what you see; gather as much detail as you can.

Here is my response.  Some of it might not make much sense.  We went to dinner at Park Ave Pub, thinking we would find lively conversation and people from a large spectrum of life.  This is a fine dining restaurant.  The service was wonderful, but I can’t help thinking that the fact I kept a mini legal pad and a pencil to the left of my place-setting made them think I was writing some sort of criticism of their restaurant.  It’s not a pub.  Don’t be misled by the name.

Much of what I have recorded is in portions of conversation.  There was only one booth behind me, and since we were seated by the window, we were on the outskirts of the floor.  Not to whine, but I’m whining.

The Restaurant Itself

A dark, intimate space–the paint gold and taupe in an almost-argyle pattern.  The bar was lined with people, very organized and polite in their own spaces, like dolls surrounded by clear plastic cases.  From the ceiling were strings of crystal discs that caught an ethereal glow from the Christmas lights hung along the perimeter of the room.

Our table had a candle that cast a pumpkin-colored shadow across the grain of the butcher-block.

The ceiling resembled a cedar-shingled wall hung above us.

Behind Cory a pair of mirrors in a medieval shape were framed and surrounded with brick veneers.  He kept looking across the restaurant, and hissing that the plants surrounding the sconces were plastic.  “I hate plastic plants,” he said at least three times.

I kept shushing him because I was trying to hear the businessmen behind us.  To everyone else, we must have looked like the couple in the restaurant that didn’t speak to each other.

Across the restaurant was a really beautiful painting.  The whole place was neutral, so I shouldn’t have been surprised that the painting was in muted golds and taupes, too.  The image was of three men scraping hard at hardwood floors.  From my seat, the floors in the painting resembled toothpicks, the way they cozy up next to each other like planks you could walk on.  Cory called the men “planers,” which was interesting to me.  In the corner of the room in the painting, was a dark mass I couldn’t make out.  Cory mentioned maybe it was a dead body.  He’s reading too much Dexter.

Loud conversation from the bar.  Debating Aphorisms.

“So you mean you don’t know ‘See you later alligator?'”  Man said.

“No, I suppose I haven’t heard it,” Woman said.  “Is it like ‘what’s good for the goose is good for the gander?'”

Snippets of dialogue from the businessmen doing business at the booth behind me.

“Yeah it’s cold out there.  I’m used to it though.  I’m from the Adirondacks.  We keep the house at 60 degrees, so we don’t do a lot of entertaining,” said Waiter to Airport Owner.

“I own a little airport in Lake Placid.  You know we land, some single engines, some twin engines, mostly small, ten-passenger planes,” Airport Owner said.

“How did you get to owning an airport?” Waiter asked.

“The same way you go into the restaurant business,” Airport Owner said, chuckling.

“So you have a teaching degree, too?”  Waiter said.

Finally, the Fuel Salesman showed up to dinner, and Waiter offered the men wine.  They must have been shy to order, because Waiter prompted again, “Red or White?”

“Eh, red,” Airport Owner said.

“Well there’s the red wine list,” Waiter said.  “Then there’s the list that’s off the list.  And if you still don’t find something to your liking, there’s the list off the list off the list.”

Other random snippets heard from the businessmen.

“I used a hair dryer to melt the snow.”

“Another dealer went bankrupt a couple days ago.  I said I’ll wait for the Chapter 11 until…”

“…in today’s day and age…”

Loud talker at table across the restaurant

A brown-haired woman said to the table of five, “Didn’t you think the dogs were miserable?”  she laughed, and that made me think she was being nasty, like Cruella Deville or something, but the rest of the table laughed too, so maybe she was just being honest.  Or funny.  She didn’t look like a funny person.  She just looked average in her navy blue, cable-knit sweater that I imagined was from Coldwater Creek or Dress Barn or Fashion Bug.

The last diner  This is a sketch of the woman I saw most clear.

Her name is Arlene, and she walks with a cane.  Her hair is so frosted that if it were snowing, you wouldn’t see the flakes nested on her strands.

The owner or manager greets her by name, Arlene, and she is happy to see him because she holds her cane away from herself to give him a hug.  She seems tired in her gray turtleneck sweater, as if she might want to pull the knit up to her forehead and nap.  Or lay her head down on the manager’s shoulder.  She says to the manager, “I feel pregnant with these shots I’ve been getting.  I can feel the stuff in my legs.”  The manager steps away from the booth and gestures for her to sit down.  When she does, her companion (husband? brother? friend?) enters my view.  The manager addresses this man as Andrew.  He is perfectly suited to Arlene, a gentle person, with the color of steel wool, but the touch of felt.  Andrew pats Arlene’s head and sits across the table from her.

So there’s Step 2.  Tomorrow night, I will post Step 3.

What’s Beneath Our Happy Faces

…inspired by Mary Anne…

Another shopper accused Mary Anne of shop-lifting a knitted hat she bought for her daughter’s birthday at the Rochester Public Market.  While she told me this, she sat across from me in our adjunct space and bit her apple.  Her legs were crossed politely, yet her gentle eyes were both livid and hurt.  She approached that shopper, and spat her words angrily at him, a grubby man darkened with scum so much that it made her shudder, even then.

I often confided in Mary Anne, complained about the mundane things, and when I ended every story with, “I was like…” she would say, “What did they say when you said that?”  I would look down and say, “I didn’t actually say that because…”

She always smiled.  That exchange is a sad refrain in my brain.

Mary Anne offered validity for the rumor that once you hit a certain age, you “come into your own,” and I always wondered what that meant, if it meant anything except, “So sorry you’re thirty-something (or whatever), but the good thing is, now you’re you!”  Mary Anne’s gestures carried such ease, and she ate her apple without covering her mouth to chew.  I had other friends who did this, but it didn’t hit me until then, that there was a reason.

Today I am rebelling.   This is reminiscent of late nights as a shot girl in college, my once-pierced tongue or the tattoo on my hip (that resembles a worm and a fish-hook, but is not supposed to be either of those things).  This time, it might actually work out for me.  Today, I am skipping a meeting.

Why now?  Because for the majority of my day,  I do mostly for these two little people, who, at one time, depended on me for blood, oxygen, the very essence of their lives, and now, cry out just for a bottle, a hug, or string cheese.  So, because these two wonderful boys were sick and awake all weekend, I’m skipping a meeting during one hour of the sixteen hours of peace I have this week.  I am claiming myself.

In high school, I was voted “friendliest.”  I took a photo with my classmate, Kevin, who was “friendliest,” too.  We were showcased in a glossy 4×6 in our senior yearbook, all perky and awkward next to the other superlatives, the more desirable titles, like “Class Clown,” or “Best Eyes,” or “Best Looking,” or “Cutest.”  My  husband was voted “Best Buns.”   It seems too un-PC that they would still have these superlatives.  My aim in life until this point has been to be PC.

In my family, I tried so hard to please, to do the right thing because I always knew what that was, though I didn’t always feel it.  If (when) I was ever wrong, I wouldn’t have known because I was too busy being “right.”  I gave myself credit for having been diplomatic or flexible or even sorry when I shouldn’t have been.  I might have reluctantly unleashed my feelings in an email if provoked, I might have complained to my husband, I might have acted so young, so unable to feel the sting of a needle, that I was never tempted to apply its sharp sting myself.

So that’s why I’m offering this confession, all brought on by a knitted hat:

I am not going to the meeting.  I am not sitting with others who would happily pass me an unopened bottle of water, a plate of crackers, and act as though what I have to say is any different from what they are thinking.

Instead, I am writing a rant that makes me normal, admits that we are all little confessors, vulnerable beings of flesh that can be bruised.   I won’t wait for others to defend me (if they choose to), but I will defend myself, all shields, some band-aids, and perhaps a needle, if need be.  Maybe I should have learned this in middle school with the other adolescents, or maybe I’m right on schedule with many other timid late-twenty-somethings.

Mary Anne told me, “Oh, Sarah, I wish I had asked him for a public apology.  I was so humiliated.”  Though she had said so much to this man, after all the practice she’s exercised in her life, she still had need for more.

In class today, I will tell my students to do what I was able to do in my writing, but not in life: to make their character venture towards conflict when it’s necessary–that they should prod at what’s beneath our happy faces.