I keep telling myself that riding the bus really has its merits. (Granted, my silver Mini Cooper has even more merits, but they’re not worth dwelling on, as my husband is the one commuting in it lately, as it is far fewer miles to my writing space than to his office.)
Bus merits include:
1. Amusement. Yesterday, I rode next to some guy with a swine-flu prevention strategy that involved his wearing a respirator mask made even less permeable to germs by a serious coating of duct tape. How he got any air is unclear to me.
2. Primal fear. When I head home, I quite frequently have the pleasure of riding next to a man who looks like a shorter, skinnier member of ZZ Top. A member who handles a bowie knife nervously throughout the entire bus trip.
3. Visceral shock. There’s nothing that makes one more aware of one’s physical being that the nauseating smell of a guy, straight from the gym, holding his armpit aloft directly in front of one’s face.
4. Teenagers. They’re too young to realize (or perhaps care) that it annoys the Blackberry-texting and Dockers-wearing crowd to chatter aimlessly to their friends and classmates while on the bus.
At times I’ve wanted to be the mean oldster who twists her fat self around in the seat and holds a finger to her lips to shush them. But this week, as two boys discussed the benefits of studying in the library versus going home and eating (I’ll admit–this is tricky stuff), I realized I should probably be listening to these people. This is, after all, my demographic, and my topic (the main characters in Jacob Wrestling are 17 years old). Of course, I’m around 17-year-olds pretty frequently. But the kids I teach have very specific things on their minds when they’re talking to me: college application essays, how to raise a grade in an English course, a parent’s disappointment in a less-than-stellar achievement on the SAT, and the like. But when kids are talking to each other, unaware that the lady with the giant laptop case is listening in, it’s a little easier to get to know their real obsessions. I heard girls worried about the health of a friend, a couple of out-of-town boys talking over eagerness to explore the city alone, and a group discussing class material without disaffected blandness but with genuine interest: all far beyond the stereotypical concerns with datable persons, looks, and material goods.
This eavesdropping mentality probably seems like a given to most fiction writers. But it’s certainly a new process for a poet who generally starts with a fragment of language or an interesting image and creates a closed system around it. In fact, one of the things that drew me to writing a novel in verse rather than a novel in conventional prose was the idea (a terribly, terribly wrong idea) that I wouldn’t need to write dialogue. Now that I realize I actually have to write poetic dialogue, I’m learning to listen. Even if it means I’m under the armpit.