Searching Again and Landing in Sugar Hill

sugar-hillI’ve discussed internet research before and, in particular, searching. I am 20 something years into using the Web, several years more into availing myself of Usenet, and a few more years beyond that into using electronic bulletin boards–oh the warm, sweet sounds of a modem, no matter how slow, chattering and finally connecting. (Oh, and a side note, some people conflate “the internet”,  and “the web,” but the distinction is both correct and useful.) Anyway, I should be jaded but I still marvel what is out there, a few keystrokes away.

Just to establish my bona fides in the physical world, though, let it be known that I have been doing some research offline lately as well. I have picked up a few of these things called “books.” I even took one out of the library using this miraculous, interstellar-like thing called “inter-library loan” (look it up sometime, it’s kind of amazing).

Still, I am amazed at the knowledge at my fingertips and how I can think of something, type it in, and read about. So as I worked on a short story recently, I found my way to:

  • Cerebral spinal rhinorrhoea
  • Arch (adjective)
  • River bank
  • Ice floe (after typing it as “ice foe,” perhaps a more interesting idea)
  • Hell is other people
  • Opposite of furtive
  • Famous crooked noses
  • Sugar Hill NYC
  • Man’s inhumanity to man (see “hell is other people,” above)
  • Jokes stinking drunk

I should weave my research history in more with the actual drafts of my writing–perhaps I can create a version of the story with the research threads I followed. I used much of what I looked up in the draft of the story, though Sugar Hill was left on the cutting room floor. “Hell is other people” and “man’s inhumanity to man” must have been more about my mood than the story. Indeed my character does break his nose (well, someone break it for him) and he ends up near an icy river (OK, enough with the spoilers!).

As everyone knows, there can be a serendipity in search. So when I imagined my character as a law student at Columbia, I decided his budget would put him well up in Harlem when Harlem was affordable. So as I searched for neighborhoods in and north of Harlem I found Sugar Hill. I knew a little about Sugar Hill because of the talents of Nick Bloom, the son of my friends John Bloom and Amy Farrell. Nick was in a writing workshop I taught, had been living in Sugar Hill, and wrote a song–a sweet farewell to the neighborhood he had lived in before moving to Austin for graduate school.

When Nick played the song to the workshop, it took all my composure to not fall to pieces. It was the first time someone wrote a song in a workshop I taught and it’s a wonderful song. It was a gift to us all, but whether Nick intended it this way or not, it was a special gift to me. My brothers had both gone to Columbia and my oldest brother had gone to the law school as well. I visited him there often, and he’s been out of NYC for decades but that part of the city still holds a special place for me, all the more so because we have been estranged for almost as long. When he left New York City, a small part of me left with him. I’ve been there at least 100 times since and I love the city but it’s never quite been the same.

Ultimately, because the character’s place in the world wasn’t central to the story, I decided, at least at this point, to leave Sugar Hill out and save it for another day. Perhaps I don’t know enough about it, or perhaps it deserves more than a passing reference. I saved the paragraph I wrote. Who knows? It could turn into something.

Character Sketch


I really enjoy Marc Maron’s WTF podcast. His interviewing style is disarming, usually warm, and always very revealing. They are long form interviews that many of the subjects seem to enjoy, especially when they are on publicity junkets and are asked the same stupid questions over and over again. If you don’t yet listen, I recommend them.

Marc interviewed Kristen Wiig recently. I certainly know some of her work, including Saturday Night Live, and she was delightful–interesting, thoughtful, funny. She was open and candid. At one point in the interview, Marc asked her about how she approached sketch comedy and some of the characters she created. I don’t have her exact words, and I hope I at least captured the gist of what she said, but she talked about embodying the character’s physique and idiosyncrasies (or perhaps she said mannerisms) . If you can understand how they inhabit their world, you can then build on that and bring them honestly and realistically into the sketch.

I latched onto that and did two exercises, first writing brief character sketches focusing on a small number of characters and their physicality, then focusing on a different set of characters and their mannerisms. This is what I got.

Start with a character’s physique


Tony had learned, over many years, to let his massive gut lead him into rooms, and across parking lots, and down flights of stairs. His shoulders were still square, his back still straight. But there the gut was, bigger and firmer every year. He was only self-conscious of it for a summer when he was much younger. Now it was just there, part of him.


They got five liters that morning. Maureen lay on the table, the gown pulled up to her breasts and her panties pulled down to let the nurse work on her. Maureen concentrated on the nurse’s steady expression. The nurse—Marcy, all quiet efficiency—had to watch for when the line slowed almost to stopping, then she would withdraw the needle and Maureen would hold the gauze to it. It was only then that Maureen would close her eyes, breathe deeply, and try to wipe from her mind all thoughts of what was happening and why.


The last ten pounds frustrated Scott. He knew he was 40 and would never be as lean as he was at 17 and 21 and 25. He was carrying 185 pounds on his 6’2” frame, despite now running almost 50 miles a week, sometimes 14 and 16 miles at a time. He was walking up and down Main Street, cooling down after what had been a fast nine miles from him. He had taken his first steps at 6:30 and it was a little before 8:00 but the son was already beating down and he peeled his shirt off. There it was, that little paunch layered over what he hoped was a six pack.

Julie was 28 and they had run together over four and six and eight miles during club runs. He had taught her to run at a pace where her breath was easy and she could still keep up a conversation. So they had run and talked. Three times now when the runs were over and the club had met back at the pub, she had stayed at his elbow and talked. She was new in town and she seemed to like having a friend.


DeAndre was face down in the gutter now, his hands gathered under the shirt. He wasn’t sure where to grab first. He had felt four stabs, maybe five, but his whole belly was warm and wet, and he wasn’t sure, but something seemed to be sticking out. He touched it, expecting it to hurt. It was soft and as big as his pinky finger. He found where it probably belonged and pushed it back in.

Above and somewhere behind him, people were screaming and someone was getting kicked and punched. He heard the thumps and the cracks, heard someone groaning and crying out. He wondered if it was the little guy with the knife. He had just appeared next to DeAndre a minute before and stabbed him. It felt like punches but then one lit him up and he knew to stagger back into the street and turn face down. By then some of his boys had grabbed the little guy and were holding him back


Start with a Character’s Idiosyncrasy


He was better than all of us, had clearly played ball on his life, and only relaxed long after the game was over and we had a few beers in us. On the field he was all business, manning short effortlessly, collecting every ground ball and making every throw. When he came in from the field he would sit on the bench with his glove still on. He would stretch it open and back, walk his other hand across the fingers, pull at the strings. When it was his turn to get on deck he would finally take it off, rest it on the bench, and grab a bat. He would get a hit every time.


She was too pretty for Don to notice it at first. They had talked at coffee hour the first time she visited, and she had sought him out since. He towered over her—she might have even been under five feet tall—so Don took to stepping back even more than politeness called for so that he wasn’t looking down on her. It was only after a few weeks that it stood out. Her smile never left her face when she was listening to him, and she met everything he said with an “Uh-huh!” and a return to her smile. By the next summer it drove him crazy and he left her bed one Sunday and stopped returning his calls. He missed church, but only for a while.


His dark red hair covered most of his forehead, and the muttonchops—fashionable back then—reached almost to the point of his chin. Aviator glasses covered so much of the rest of his face that there was almost no bare skin to look at it, and every inch of it was mottled with freckles. He was always snotty and apparently had never used a Kleenex in his life. He would snort everything back into his nose and spit it out, big and wet. He was too big to say anything about it and too crazy. The one time I crossed him, he took a gun out and pointed it at my face. I backed off.


He was always the quietest kid in the room and everyone knew he was the smartest. Half of us were baked stupid by fourth period and almost every kid was clueless. It was Physics, and every question seemed to be missing crucial parts. “It’s 17 degrees on earth. How long will it take you to fly to the moon?” I would draw Venn diagrams full of random groupings. The Red Sox outfielders overlapping with all the known native Americans who played baseball. But there was Eddie, always finishing his work and laying his hand flat on the table in front of him. He would turn his head to the big windows and wait for the teacher to call time.

(Image Credit: By GabboT (Welcome to Me 46) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons)

Dog: The Exercise

IMG_0320In last week’s orange juice exercise, I put a glass of orange juice in the hands of different people and let things happen. I did a similar thing today. I paired a dog with a human and saw what happened.





The yipping woke Pam again, but instead of lying in bed and fuming, she was surprised to find herself bolting into the hallway outside of her apartment. Her neighbor—she thought her name was Susan—was 20 feet behind the dog, who was now in front of their apartment door, barking up at the door handle as if it would open on command.

“Every morning,” Pam hissed. “Every morning I wake to this.”

The woman, who was about Pam’s age, stopped and brought a coffee cup to her lips. She looked at Pam as though she were crazy, and only then did Pam realize she was naked. It was the summer after all and Pam liked to sleep in the nude, with the windows open, and the sweat on her body lifted every few minutes by the gift of a breeze.

“Keep it on the damn leash, will you?”



It was a beautiful morning in the park, and still early enough that Dave and Beau were the only ones out. Dave bounced the tennis ball and Beau’s eyes followed it, gaze unbroken, but he didn’t lunge for it. He knew the routine. Dave put it on the ball launcher, and used his left arm to launch a long, arcing throw. Beau bolted across the park fast enough to catch the ball after two bounces. He launched himself at it, caught it perfectly, and came running back to Dave, dropping the ball at his feet.

Beau could do this all day of course. Retrievers were built for it. When Dave found out they had to reconstruct his right shoulder, the first thing he thought about was how he could keep up his routine with Beau. Then his wife bought the ball launcher and, after a few tests, Dave saw he could throw the ball just as far—farther really.

Somewhere around the tenth throw Dave saw Lily flash across the park. She wasn’t aiming for the ball; instead, she was headed for Beau, who ignored her, fetched the ball, and came bounding back to Dave, with Lily in pursuit. She was a big Doberman—magnificent really. Her owner was Marnie, a beautiful blonde half of Dave’s age. Her husband was traveling again that week and Dave’s wife would have left for work already. Dave would have an hour in Marnie’s bed that morning, the dogs curled into balls at the foot of the bed, wondering what all the cries meant, raising their noses to the thick, intoxicating smells of their owners.



Scott was glad that Gracie would lay in bed with him on a day like this, when the pain in his legs and back would throb, unabated, for hours. Scott would wake on his side, his legs pulled up to give him a little comfort, Gracie curled up to the back of his thighs as if she were helping him hold the position.

“She’s a Velcro dog,” his ex-wife had said when they first brought her home. It didn’t matter that Gracie was 95 pounds; she was a standard poodle, and that’s just how the breed was. She was devoted to Scott, especially when he just couldn’t go into work anymore and spent the whole day with her, usually in bed.

Scott reached for his oxy, took two dry, and reached behind him to pet Gracie. The oxy would kick in, and he would make it downstairs and to the door at some point to let her out to do her business.  He looked at his phone. It was Sunday. The football would be on later, and his brother Kevin would drop by with a pizza and some beer. Kevin would have the Oxy he had picked up in his own name and in his wife Cathy’s name. It would be enough, maybe, to get Scott through the month.



Lately, the dog had been the only thing that calmed and focused her boy. Her son was eleven now, almost as big as her, and harder to handle every day. She had another welt under her eye to prove it. He had figured out that head butts were his best weapon, and he would come at her low and hard, the crown of his head catching her anywhere from her breasts up to her forehead. The worst hit almost dislocated her jaw, but she especially hated anything to the face, anything that bruised. She knew what people must think when they saw her in the supermarket or in the library, where she would be returning a stack of picture books and collecting new ones.

At this point the terminology didn’t matter. They used it, she decided, because puzzling over what was wrong with him must have felt better then telling her that it was hopeless. But she pressed them, not because she needed to know but because the insurance needed to play their part in this. They needed to play God, and decide whether he could be hospitalized somewhere, and for good, so she could go back to her life, so she could climb back into bed with her husband at night and let her jaw stop throbbing and the bruises under her eyes heal.

Boston Subway Moments

TiQrBJJ4When riding Boston’s MBTA subway system, I record observed moments in Twitter form and sometimes on Twitter. I like the challenge of 140 characters. Is this microfiction? I have no idea. I might use these as prompts though.





Boston Subway Moment: Young girl reading a book, two parents on cell phones, all smiling.


Boston subway moment: Power suit guy on a cell phone, “Just calling because Mommy’s back in the hospital”


Boston Subway Moment: Big brother, 4, helps little sister, 2, over that scary “mind the gap” moment when leaving the train.


Boston Subway Moment: Middle-aged guy reading, “The Causes of Molecular Evolution”


Boston Subway Moment: retired couple from Jacksonville, FL on the Red Line, excited to be visiting Harvard Square.


Boston Subway Moment: National guardsmen with automatic weapons at Downtown Crossing.


Boston subway moment: Chief inspector at Oak Grove stepping into each car asking who might have left a coffee on the Charlie Card machine


Boston subway moment: Wheelchair-bound man, toddler on his lap, getting a hearty “Have a Good Day, Sir!” from the T worker manning the ramp


Boston subway moment: two guys heatedly debating the etymology of the word “franc” as the train pulled into Harvard Square.


Boston subway moment: Two guys side-by-side, texting away; one guy says without looking up, “Last night? Reading Harry Potter.”


Boston subway moment: little guy plays out a long conversation between Spiderman and Batman dolls while sitting on his sleepy dad’s lap


Boston subway moment: dozing (drunk?) guy  waking and clapping (precisely three claps) as we roll out of each Orange Line station


Orange Juice: The Exercise

downloadI used a glass of orange juice as a prompt the other day. Put the glass in a character’s hand, and see what happens.

I ended up with six the other morning and added a seventh just now.



He really shouldn’t be drinking orange juice. It was rough on his tongue and throat, and David knew he would be feeling it for hours. But that last sip out of the glass felt great—tipping the glass up high to catch the last drops, his mouth filling more with air than with water, then swallowing.

David rinsed the glass and put it in the dishwasher. He didn’t want Sheila to see it. She was getting sick of everything—the appointments, the chemo, the medication, the claims and the insurance—but more than anything she was getting sick of David not doing what his doctors said and then whining about it. His throat would have been on fire all day anyway, but he might have well been pouring kerosene on it.



Elena cleared the corner table. The man had ordered a full breakfast—eggs, toast, ham, fruit, orange juice—but had only eaten about half of it. He had left the newspaper, his signed check, and $50 for Elena. She folded the bills and put them in her uniform pocket.

It was his third morning at the hotel, and his third morning at the same table. The first morning he had said little, ate even less, and left her $10. The next morning he left $20. Now here it was Wednesday morning and Elena had $50 in her pocket. She knew what he was up to.



Abby scanned the refrigerator, looking for any last things that might have to go on the list. The OJ was almost empty, the last of the juice barely covering the bottom of the container.  She opened it and downed the last drops. She had told the kids a thousand times to not do this, but did they ever listen to her? No. But she was alone now, with Bob at work and the kids at school. She could do what she wanted.

What she wanted was to have Matt come by, at least for a quickie and maybe for more. Bob remained clueless. He never noticed how often the sheets were changed and the bathroom emptied of towels. He would leave a bed with blue sheets and a bathroom with yellow towels and then return to a bed with green sheets and a bathroom with peach towels. Whatever else was wrong with Bob, Abby saw this cluelessness as his one gift to her.




It was our second morning on the river, and, really, I should have been trying to make it last, but I poured myself a big glass of OJ before anyone else was up. I took it with me and walked up into the woods where I could finish the juice and piss.

Erica was already mad at me. I loved sex when we were camping, especially in a spot as remote as this. She kept telling me to keep quiet, but I kept getting louder instead.

“Who’s going to hear us? The bears? Fuck the bears.”



I finished the eggs and tomatoes, leaving the toast and some orange juice to wash it down. It was a beautiful morning in London, and the owner of the café was out on the sidewalk with us. He was talking to a young woman, and I guessed she was his daughter. They looked Arab. I had noticed he was well dressed, especially for such a modest café, and she was stylish, radiant. She had on a black dress and black leggings underneath. I watched her put on oversized sunglasses. They could have been out of the 1970s, but somehow she made them work.

The father stepped away for a minute to answer his cell phone, and she produced a brilliant, blue scarf. Back in Los Angeles we would have called it Dodger Blue, but maybe its real name would be azure; I wasn’t sure. She wrapped it loosely around her head. I didn’t realize I had been staring until she turned back toward the table and our eyes locked. I blushed and returned to my paper.



Maureen was surprised when she looked at the orange juice bottle and saw that it was from concentrate. We’re in fucking Florida, she thought, why would it be from concentrate? She found a bench, sat, took a breath. Class must be letting out, because the quad was suddenly full with students crossing from building to building. Few of them even paused. Back in Boston it was probably 20o. If you had awarded Boston this day, everyone would be out in it, stopping, letting the sun hit them. I guess they took it for granted here.

Maybe Keith would like it here. Maybe he would even thrive. It was the only school in Florida they were visiting, but he seemed dead set on going here. He was sick of the winters. So was Maureen. Maybe she would follow him here, find a job. She was a nurse. She could work anywhere.



They had orange juice this morning, and Tim elbowed Cheryl, who was in line just in front of him, to pick up hers, even though she wouldn’t drink it.Tim could always count on the evangelicals to put out a good breakfast, even on a weekday morning, and even when eight inches of snow had fallen the night before and streets were still impassible. They were cheerful, sturdy people.

Tim hadn’t been able to stay sober for a few days, so when the cops collected him from the underpass the night before they couldn’t take him to the better shelter. He had to settle for the men’s wing of the old hospital. His grandmother had died there 30 years before, when people still called it “The Incurables.” Tim always hated that word.

Tim followed Sally to a table and they traded–Sally’s orange juice for Tim’s home fries. “It’s going to be a good day,” Sally said, squeezing Tim’s arm for an extra beat. “They’re doing a dinner tonight, too. Meatloaf. If you give me your potatoes tonight I will give you whatever they have for dessert.”

Orange Juice

I am sure I didn’t just invent this, but I decided on a writing exercise this morning. I was running late, and wanted to make good use of the time I would have left. How could I productively make use of 45 minutes? I am working on two short stories and one creative nonfiction piece. I am not happy with the shape of any of them, and a sleepy 45 minutes was not going to move any of them along.

So I poured myself a glass of orange juice and decided to use it as a prompt. Put the orange juice in a character’s hand, and create the seed of a story. I produced six. Maybe one or two of them will be good.

I’ve Been Searching

internet22.pngI’ve mentioned elsewhere that the Internet has bolstered my creative writing. I love that I can find simple things quickly–the name of a street, a line from a song, a recipe for a drink. I have always loved dictionaries, almanacs, encyclopedias, and maps; use it well, I tell my students, and the Internet gives you many of the secondary sources you need.

As I write, my mind goes to ideas, or details I need to know, and I want to hunt those details or concepts down. A character is afflicted with an illness, and I want to know how they might be feeling, what challenges they face, and what their prognosis might me. I send a character down a street to pick up a passenger in his limo, and I want to know what that street looks like. I used Google Street View recently to look at a street scene to help me describe what my character would see when he looked out the window of a certain Irish pub in Manhattan.

Over the last few weeks, I have been working on four different stories, finishing one, and putting two on a back burner while one might head to the finish line. I went through my Google search history. Among many mundane searches (directions, work-related searches), I was delighted to find a long list of searches related to the stories:

  • Do hangovers kill brain cells?
  • Wretch
  • Retching
  • Bar stool designs
  • Worst kind of bipolar disorder
  • Wild Turkey 101
  • Chinese 8-Ball Pool
  • Ski skiing skied
  • Italian word for boy
  • The tulip bubble
  • Shades of purple
  • Belly shirt
  • Sussuration
  • Agape Greek love
  • Alderian therapy
  • Self-disclousre in therapy
  • What would a doctor do to help a patient die
  • Synonyms for sacred
  • Medical term for senility
  • Medical term for as needed
  • Refinery jobs
  • Population of Antarctica
  • Forest fires
  • Common Mexican girl names 2003

If I were even a half-way decent poet, I would have a good start on something here. Oh, and if you have never heard of the tulip bubble, you really owe it to yourself to read about it–on the internet, at least to start there.