When I was a college student I used to work as a cab driver in New York City.
My first week on the job was a disastrous time. Every single cab I’d been assigned had broken down: the first night, a tire blew out; the second, the engine overheated, steam rising from under the hood in the middle of an intersection; the third, the horn wouldn’t stop blaring; the fourth, my taxi stopped and started unpredictably—a mysterious mechanical hiccup that chased every passenger away after a few blocks; and at the beginning of a thunderstorm on the fifth night I discovered that only one windshield wiper worked—the one on the passenger side, of course.
I eventually discovered why all those taxis broke down on me. By the start of my second week on the job I was afraid to answer to my name when the taxi dispatcher called it out in the waiting room, and I had a long time to wait and worry, because it seemed I was always the last one assigned a cab.
I remember sitting there beside one of the guys I had categorized in my mind as a lifer—a man with an unshaven, pockmarked face, a gut and greasy uncombed hair. Someone my young self couldn’t imagine becoming, was afraid of the very thought, but he was friendly, complaining about the weather, wishing me good luck for the night while he waited, so I found myself pouring out to him the disasters of my first few days on the job.
He nodded sympathetically through it all, and then simply offered, his voice lowered, this advice: “You got to take care of your people, if you want them to take care of you.”
I nodded my head, as if I understood. Soon the dispatcher called him, then a few more guys were called, and two of them had reported to the waiting room after me. Why was I always one of the last drivers given a cab?
Idiot. Of course—I checked my wallet, to see what sort of bills were there, how many people I could afford to take care of–who, as it turned out, were the dispatcher, the guy in the lot who chose the cabs, and the two workers who checked the water, the oil, the tire pressure, the wipers.
“You got to take care of your people, if you want them to take care of you.” Ethical questions of bribery aside, sometimes I think this is the best writing advice I’ve ever received. Isn’t it the web of our relationships that gives us a center of gravity, that gives our interior landscapes the context of others? And as writers, we employ what we’ve learned of ourselves, of our relationships in order to create the breathing space of difference for our characters, to help us imagine their own particular realities.
One of the best examples I’ve ever seen of this aspect of the writing process is in James Baldwin’s novel Another Country. One of his characters, Vivaldo, is a budding novelist struggling with the characters he’s created:
“On a Saturday in early March, Vivaldo stood at his window and watched the morning rise. The wind blew through the empty streets with a kind of dispirited moan; had been blowing all night long, while Vivaldo sat at his worktable, struggling with a chapter which was not going well. He was terribly weary—he had worked in the bookstore all day and then come downtown to do a moving job—but this was not the reason for his paralysis. He did not seem to know enough about the people in his novel. They did not seem to trust him. They were all named, more or less, all more or less destined, the pattern he wished them to describe was clear to him. But it did not seem clear to them. He could move them about but they did not themselves move. He put words into their mouths which they uttered sullenly, unconvinced. With the same agony, or greater, with which he attempted to seduce a woman, he was trying to seduce his people: he begged them to surrender up to him their privacy. And they refused—without, for all their ugly intransigence, showing the faintest desire to leave him. They were waiting for him to find the key, press the nerve, tell the truth. Then, they seemed to be complaining, they would give him all he wished for and much more than he was now willing to imagine.”
Much more than he was now willing to imagine. A beautiful phrase. If you take care of your people–your characters–by offering the truth of yourself as you understand it, then they just might take care of you with their own hidden truths. It’s not so simple to accomplish, though. We all have our own personal histories to unravel, knots inside ourselves that it sometimes seems no untying can manage. But believe me, you do not want your cab to break down five nights in a row.Another Country • James Baldwin • New York City cab driving
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