Wednesday, September 02, 2009


by Michael Dymmoch

Hear the word and you think buzzards. Right? Or rats. Or mangy dogs in third world cities. Or maybe small children in the garbage dumps of Mumbai or Rio. If you live in a city, you may envision homeless entrepreneurs who roam the streets with purloined grocery carts, collecting cans and freegan food . Or scrap metal collectors in pickup trucks with weird assemblages of metal objects projecting upward from their truck beds. Yup. Pariahs.

But think writers, too. Think photographers. Think artists. All of us take our materials where we can. One of my first writing teachers advised me to hang out in restaurants, bus stops and bars to eavesdrop. Great advice. Some of my best lines are borrowed (Okay stolen—I’m never giving them back). Some of my best settings are places I came across in transit or discovered when I was looking for somewhere else. Many of my favorite characters are riffs on real people I’ve seen or clashed with. Like Poke Salad Annie…

Thinnes had asked the District Nineteen, Twenty and Twenty-three officers to keep an eye out for the bag lady. Patrol found her sitting on the steps of a doorway to the apartment over a store on Argyle. She had all her earthly belongings in a wheeled, wire shopping basket, and she knew her rights well enough to insist the officers bring her stuff along to the station. They brought her to the District Nineteen desk and waited with her until Thinnes came down to take custody.

He hadn't spoken to her at the scene of Thomas Redbird's murder, but he recognized her—a small, skinny black woman, much older, according to her record, than she appeared. Her teeth were too perfect to be original equipment, and her hair too black. The wig was so excessive it reminded him of Dolly Parton's. She was sitting on the bench next to the Community Relations office. He watched her for a few minutes before going over to introduce himself. Poke Salad Annie, a.k.a. Layde Bird Johnson, a.k.a. Melanie Moonshine, a.k.a. Alice Mayhem. She must have had enough gray matter, once, to have a sense of humor. Now, she seemed kind of vacant.

She also had an extensive arrest record: possession, prostitution, assault, and aggravated battery. Her most recent arrests, though, were bullshit: trespassing, disorderly conduct, and petty theft.

He didn't even consider dragging her upstairs with her stuff. He sat her down at a table in one of the district interview rooms. It was small and close, and breathing the same air with her was almost enough to make you high. She must have had a BAC two or three times the legal limit. She took off her coat—a ratty fur—and carefully laid it on the far end of the table. She seemed to be wearing a whole jewelry box full of costume jewelry, and three or four outfits, one on top of another. It reminded Thinnes of a little girl playing dress up. He didn't comment as she fished a pint of cheap whiskey out of a pocket, opened it, and took a swig. Her trinkets jangled as she threw her head back and slugged it down. "You know why they call me Poke Salad Annie?"

Thinnes grinned. "You were busted for marijuana possession and told the arresting officer it was poke salad greens."

She gave a whiskey-voiced laugh and nodded. "I was beautiful once. Men wanted me." She leaned back and squinted at him. "Bet you find that hard to believe."

"No. You've got a sense of humor. That's more important than looks."

She pointed at him with an index finger bent by arthritis. "You all right. I s'pose you want I tell you 'bout the man was killed." He nodded. "Elvis done it."

"The Elvis?"

"Hunh! I ain't that drunk. I never been that drunk."

I guess I’m a writer because I’m not fast enough to be a great photographer. If it’s standing still, I may get my camera out in time to capture it, but moving subjects either wander out of frame before I can focus or blur because I moved the camera.

Images I store in my head are usually easier to file and retrieve than photographs. (I have a great photo of a guy with all his possessions in a grocery cart, but I don’t remember where I put it. ) I’ve taken thousands of shots over the years, but when I don’t recall the date or venue, I might as well not have it. On the other hand, when I can’t remember the details of a memory, I just make something up.

Picture this…

A rusty grocery cart blocking the curb lane of LaSalle Street, downstream from an intersection and in front of a bus shelter similar to this one.

The cart is filled with plastic bags from various retailers and has an aluminum gutter jutting upward like a ship’s mast sans sails. Adjacent to the shelter, the owner of this dubious conveyance is leaning casually on one of three newspaper boxes with his newspaper spread out across the box tops. He’s dressed in the uniform of the homeless—ball cap and nondescript hoody, baggy pants and high-tops. He appears oblivious to problems his cart creates for motorists and CTA riders. Where is the ticket brigade when you need them? (Yes, some of these details are confabulated. I wish I’d had my camera with me.)

I believe all artists are scavengers, just a socially acceptable variety.

What do you think?

1 comment:

Dana King said...

Absolutely. Best example in the world is THE WIRE. Read Simon's HOMICIDE, then see how many of the best scenes and lines from THE WIRE were said ans done by actual cops years ago. It doesn't make them any less effective.