Wednesday, November 14, 2012

With It

You talk with some frequency to students about transportation and to yourself about the same topic with even greater emphasis.  The transportation in these conversations—lectures really, and yes, you do tend to lecture yourself—has to do with readers being lifted from where they are, reading, to the landscape of a story.  Once within that landscape, the reader may struggle for a time to get free.  But in the final analysis, the reader slogs on, sometimes with the grim jaw set of a motorist on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, where the exit ramps are only every twenty miles or so, other times with the glazed look of someone who has given up thoughts of resistance and excuses for not believing the characters, their goals, or their plight.

This morning, as a student read of her experiences as a young person, living in a small town, enthralled by the arrival of a traveling carnival, you were transported.

You knew this because you were already remembering the smell of onions, sautéing on the grill of the cook stand.

The first thing upon arrival at one of the venues the carnival you worked for, the food workers fired up the propane-fueled grill, splashed a generous dollop of cooking oil on its surface, then dumped mounds of diced onions to give forth their pungent announcement:  the carnival was in town.

One of the carnival elders told you how this simple act saved the carnival hundreds of advertising dollars.  “Onions,” he said, “tell the story.  They tell people they’re hungry, they tell people we’re here, and they set off the epic confrontation of the carney and the civilian.”

But you’re getting ahead of yourself somewhat.

Once again, money had run out, the novel, which you were hopeful of launching you on your written way, had landed you a respectable literary agent, but as yet no publisher nor, so far as you could see, a way to get a revision that would bring you closer to the heart of what the characters wanted except for some vague sort of integrity.

You were big on integrity, then, as though you’d discovered it and had only to package it.  In retrospect, the integrity you championed in those days was more like some libertarian politician’s simplistic solutions than a more nuanced concept of Reality.  But that plays even more mischief with your timeline.

You were packed and ready to depart once again from your parent’s home on Corning Street in Los Angeles, where you’d retreated to finish the novel.  Your destination was a small town separating the United States from Mexico.  Your venture was to test the waters of general assignment journalism, then work your way to the point of experience where you could return to the district manager of the Associated Press, Hubbard “Hub” Keevey, who this time around, presumably would not laugh when you applied for a job at one of the AP outliers such as Reno.  You actually had a resume in journalism, including excellent letters of reference and clips from your years as a copyboy at the Los Angeles night office of AP.  Among these “clips,” was such solid reportage as “The Los Angeles egg market closed up today, with prices rising a penny or more in all the major categories.”  And not to forget your major scoop:  DOVER, England.  Nobody tried to swim the English Channel today.  Maybe tomorrow.

You were interrupted from stuffing shirts into a valise by your mother, advising you, “That fellow from San Francisco is here.  He just pulled up in a Cadillac.”

Although this was your first introduction to the Cadillac, it, too, had a future in your life, wherein it died an inglorious death some sixty miles outside Sacramento, where it was beastly hot, and you and that fellow from San Francisco were stranded on your way to working the acme of the carnival season, the California State Fair.

“Why in hell would you want to work on a newspaper in El Centro,” that fellow from San Francisco (whose name was Ron) said, “when you could experience at first hand Bakersfield, Fresno, Visalia, Reno, Ventura?  Where you could experience life as you’ve never experienced it…” His voice trailed off in the unspoken frustration of knowledge at the things I’d be missing.  Things a writer needed to see.

“There are two ranks of humanity, those who are with it and those who aren’t.  I’m going to show you how to be with it, a king in the world of marks.”

Some years earlier, an individual approached you at the UCLA student union where you, an English major with a political science minor, ached to write his way to self-awareness and education via the short story and occasional short novel.  “I’m from the film department,” this individual said by way of introduction, “and I want to make great films and I’d like to have you come along with me.”

This will serve as partial explanation of how and why you shoved aside dozens of stuffed teddy bears in the back seat of the Cadillac to make room for your duffel bag and carry-on, filled with the clothing you’d packed to take you to El Centro.

You and Ron and the teddy bear-filled Cadillac headed north for a time, on 101, while Ron explained to you that you were almost with, the expression any one who worked for the carnival understood to mean on the job, with the carnival.

Before you could get “there” to be “with it,” Ron headed east to the inland route that would take you toward the beginnings of your new destiny, in Tulare, where the Tulare County Fair was about to begin.

But first, before any of that, you had to stop at a particular place Ron knew, where you could get what he described as the only genuine tuna salad sandwich to be found in all of California.

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