Follow that car! How drama reveals the inner story

by Jerry Waxler

(You can listen to the podcast version by clicking the player control at the bottom of this post or download it from iTunes.)

Six mornings a week, my dad commuted to his drugstore in North Philadelphia. By closing time, he had been there for almost 14 hours, but I never heard him complain. He enjoyed his work, and it may never have occurred to him that there was anything to complain about. When I was in high school, I started working with my dad at the store. Every Friday afternoon I took the subway, and on Saturday afternoon drove with my mom. My job was stocking shelves, serving customers, occasionally counting pills to help fill prescriptions, and eating lots of candy bars. Sometimes mom packed dinner, and sometimes I walked down to the Horn and Hardarts cafeteria at Broad and Erie and brought back a hot meal to eat at the store. By the end of the day, we were all ready to go home. Around 9:30 I mopped the floor, then descended rickety stairs to check the cellar door. Finally we positioned bars across the windows, set the alarm, and went outside.

One Saturday, we drove south on 17th Street, turned left on to Ontario, and started east towards Broad Street, when a large man ran out between two cars and flagged us down. He knocked on the window, yelling at us to open up, gesturing down the street towards some unseen quarry. It was a cop, fiddling with his holster, preparing to draw his gun. As my mother reached over her shoulder to unlock the door, the strangest thing happened. Her hands grabbed wildly at the latch as if she was pulling up, but time after time her fingers missed and the door remained locked. I watched in growing horror as precious time slipped away.

This is exactly what always bothered me about my mother, and here was yet another proof. She was a klutz, and just in the most urgent moment, she failed to come through. I cursed the luck that gave me such an incompetent mother. Losing patience, the cop ran to a taxi that pulled up behind us. The driver of that vehicle knew how to open his door. The cop jumped in and they pulled around us and drove off in pursuit. Meanwhile, I was filled with wonder at how my mother who had been opening car doors her whole life could have failed at such a simple task, and fumed the whole way home.

At first glance, such intense moments appear to be excellent material for a memoir. Jeanette Walls’ wildly successful memoir, “Glass Castle,” seems like a collection of such experiences. But taken as a whole, her book is more than a compilation of zany moments. Each episode contributes to an intimate, compassionate portrayal of real human beings. Memories are simply the raw material for memoirs, like pigments for a painter or clay for a sculptor, and shaping them into the story is not an exhaustive collection but an artistic synthesis. So no matter how many high powered incidents come to mind, I still don’t necessarily end up with a readable book that authentically portrays my life. To turn anecdotes into a life story, there is much creative work to do.

For one thing, I must place the experience in context. We didn’t just appear on that street. We arrived there through the natural course of our daily lives. So I back up and explain what we were doing there in the first place. That episode with the cop makes the whole night come to life — the drugstore, the neighborhood, and my relationship with my parents. As this anecdote falls onto paper, I begin to see the world of that teenage boy, broadening my insight into the night and also expanding my understanding of how it fit into my whole life.

For example, I’m not very well coordinated myself, and during my teenage years I was especially disappointed by my lack of agility. Feeling my frustration with my mom that night awakens the recognition that neither of my parents nor any of us three kids were athletic. I have recently been reading about hereditary factors that cluster together the characteristics of nerdiness and lack of physical coordination. (see my Asperger’s article). The incident with the car lock suggests that this might help explain the Waxler family. I file that observation for future consideration.

The incident stirs up an observation about my relationship with my dad. He was a loving man, and always treated me with kindness and respect, but we never talked much. I don’t remember having had a single conversation with him, which made him seem distant. Now that I am reading about us as two characters in a story, a fact jumps out. Working in the drugstore with my father, gave me an opportunity to spend large swaths of time shoulder to shoulder with him, helping him in the store that supported the family. Now I realize we were partners, in a manly sort of way. I’ve envied other boys who worked with their dad on the farm or the family business, and now I realized until I was 18, I was one of those boys.

The fact that we had to put bars on the window and set the alarm, and that a cop was running around chasing criminals, foreshadows the fact that a few years later, corner drugstores would become targets for violent crime. When I went away to college, dad’s good friend, Sam Dreidink, who owned a drugstore a few miles away, was held up at gunpoint. On the way out, the robbery completed, his assailant shot Sam in the stomach. He lived, but in terrific pain for the rest of his life. A few months later, my dad was held up. During the robbery, he was forced to his knees with a shotgun pointed at his head. They stole his money and whatever narcotics he had in stock. When they left, he was still whole in body, but that incident ended his years in the drugstore.

My mom lived 70 more years, during which I discovered her apparent lapses in “common sense” often moved conversations in unexpected directions, offering the people in her life zest and interest, cleverness and fun. Her lack of predictability turned out to be one of her endearing traits, and instead of feeling manipulated or confused by her approach, I became one of her many admirers. Forty years after that night in the car, I knew that behind a thin facade of silliness, she was an authentic, fascinating person. Which makes me wonder as I read my story if she knew exactly what she was doing, and in her own klutzy way she was protecting her family from a man with a gun.

Writing Prompt: Write an anecdote from your life that has dramatic intensity. Using that anecdote as a core, backtrack and describe what lead up to it. Also, go forward and see what happens afterward. Try it a few times, or with a few anecdotes, to see if you can find a beginning, middle, and end. Could this be a chapter in your memoir? Could it become a standalone short story?

To listen to the podcast version click the player control below: [display_podcast]

Writing Prompt
Take one of your written dramatic anecdotes. You now have three different points of view about the same event. One is the memory of what it felt to be back there. Another is a reader, reading a written story about characters in the incident. The third is an adult, with a much broader understanding not only of the incident but who the people are, where they’ve been, and where they are going. Dance amidst these three points of view find new thoughts and connections that help put it in place. Consider what the people wanted. What were they thinking when they performed this particular action? What other episode does this story remind you of? How did your or their flaws influence the course of events? How have you or they changed since then?

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