Epiphany in the Check-in Line
My mother was a confirmed atheist. She believed in no higher power, in nothing that couldn’t be quantified. She barely believed in the existence of emotions. But everyone’s got to believe in something, even my mother.
She was an orthodox liberal who fervently believed in equality. Racism, anti-Semitism, all forms of discrimination and prejudice were deadly sins in her book, and they all grew from the original sin: stereotyping. Stereotyping arises from a need to feel that my group (insiders) is superior to theirs (outsiders.)
It’s an old, deep instinct. In one of its virulent forms – xenophobia – we can perhaps see that it once conferred an evolutionary benefit, because insiders may have had good reason to fear diseases carried by outsiders. A nasty vestige of this instinct can be seen in some people suggesting that the 50,000 immigrant children who recently arrived in the US must be carrying diseases. Never mind that the same thing has been said about every wave of US immigrants, and with as little reason.
After spending some time in Europe I observed to my mother how interesting it was that the French were great cooks and the Germans lousy; whereas the opposite was true of music. She excoriated me for stereotyping, and of course when it comes to individuals she was right: I have a good French friend who’s a fine composer, and learned to cook from someone whose family came here from Germany.
Since that run-in with my mother I hadn’t given the subject of stereotyping much thought until I started writing fiction. One of my pet peeves as a reader is cardboard characters, and I certainly don’t want to write them. Cardboard characters are two-dimensional, all surface. Rather than be formed of flesh and blood and strong bones they’re made of tics and tropes, the stuff of stereotypes. No matter how much adrenaline an author packs into a story, the story doesn’t touch me if I can’t identify with the people all the action is happening to. You can run a character over with a Mack truck, nuke them to smithereens, but I don’t care if they’re made of cardboard.
How do you write real characters? One way is by becoming a student of other people. By observing how they walk and talk, and listening to what they have to say, all the while populating an inner database of gestures, expressions, attitudes, accents, and yes, prejudices, because everyone has them. When it comes time to write you have a growing body of knowledge from which to draw.
I just moved to California from Massachusetts. I did not cross the great plains in a covered wagon, fighting off wolves and stereotypical native Americans, but flew. The morning of my flight the line at Jet Blue was long, winding around five of those corralling fences. It was too early. I was tired and toting too much crap. And I hate standing in line.
Lines evoke in me an irrational anxiety, a kind of social claustrophobia. One effect is to accentuate my sense of the others in line as outsiders. It’s like I see them through a dingy filter. They look all wrong, and I start thinking bad thoughts about them.
Judging. And stereotyping.
What’s that teenager doing wearing a Foxy Lady tee-shirt? The shirt doesn’t make her any foxier. And what the hell are those people doing wearing Hawaiian shirts, and laughing at 6:30 in the morning? Where’s the TSA when you need them?
A group of guys stands behind me. To now their conversation has just been a low menacing grumble, but they seem to be getting excited about something, and I catch a few words. The Venetian! Vegas! It dawns on me. Foxy Lady and the Hawaiian shirt folks and these guys are all headed to Las Vegas.
They coalesce in my fear-addled brain into a stereotypical group – Idiots who go to Vegas. Never mind that I’ve been there several times myself. Hey – I was there on business! I’ll admit, the lights were a kick, and so was looking down my nose at all the tacky hotels. Paris. The Venetian. Caesar’s Palace. The Bellagio….
Because you see, I’ve been to the real Bellagio, up on Lago di Como (that’s Italian for lake Como, you morons.) I’ve been to the real Paris, and Rome, and Venice.
Bellagio, Las Vegas
They both have water, but….
Looking on those ersatz palaces was when my stereotype of Vegas-goers thrust its ugly head into the light, but its roots went deeper. Back to my mother. Because while she believed herself to be tolerant of people of all races and ethnicities, at the same time she was incredibly judgmental of the actual people she knew – family and friends. And judgmental of everyone else, on the basis of class. She was, in a word, a snob. She had a longer nose than anybody I’ve known, and looked miles down it at everyone with “bad taste.” Which is to say, different taste than hers, which was strictly Modernist. (Probably the reason I came to love all things Victorian, which she despised.)
I know exactly what she would have said about those folks on their way to Vegas. The same thing I was telling myself.
I turned and cast the corner of a jaundiced eye on the group behind me. Guys in their thirties. Vaguelly ethnic. Not Hispanic, but with broad faces….Armenian? I did business with some Armenians one time…. Probably wearing polyester, though with what I know about clothes I wouldn’t know it if I saw it. And then the kicker. Thick Boston Accents.
Judgment city. And then I remembered my new job – snooping, observing, filling that database. And before my eyes these cardboard jerks on their way to throw their money away, or whatever, filled out into three dimensions. Became real people.
They were on their way to a bachelor’s party. Along with about 15 cousins. (Damn, wish I had 15 cousins!) The guy doing most of the talking had been to the promised land of Vegas and was cluing his buddy in on it.
“You won’t believe the rooms at the Venetian – they’re suites! You walk down steps to the bedroom!”
“You’ve heard about the restaurants in the hotel, they’re amazing! But you’ve got to wear businessman’s casual. I brought a white shirt. That works with anything.”
“Good. I brought one, too. What about the gambling?” The second guy sounded worried.
The first guy laughed. “Drop a couple of bucks on the slots, say you’ve done it, then move on.” He reminded me of myself evangelizing about French Cathedrals and the ruins of Rome. Never mind that their Venice was fake. These guys were no longer part of an outside group, but we were in the same group. Of people searching for that quality buzz, the Higher Ground.
Before you start inviting me to the goody-two-shoes club I should remind you that I’m still a writer. That’s topsay, a vampire. Though I wished those fellows a fine time, I had no compunction about mining their supposedly private lives for my database and using them for my characters. I already have.