Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Place Where I Come From is a Small Town: or Everything is Interesting if You Look Hard Enough

 So, in Monday's post I talked about where ideas come from and suggested that a lot of them come from your surroundings. Later that evening I was speaking with one of my regular readers and he put this question to me, "Yeah, but what if you don't live somewhere interesting?" to which I responded, "Everything is interesting if you look at it hard enough" Then, of course, he asked me to prove it. So, without further ado, I'm going to talk about finding ideas somewhere not terribly interesting. Somewhere like my hometown, Wooster, OH.

So, every one of you of a certain age will remember Peter Gabriel's Big Time and its awesome claymation video. At least you should if you've got any taste. Anyway, while that song is mostly facetious, it's pretty much how I feel about my hometown. Wooster is a small town about an hour south of Cleveland, smack in the middle of Amish country. It's mostly a quaint, quiet rural town where the county fair is the biggest deal of the year and where factories regularly close and put large numbers of the undereducated population out of work. There are, I believe, less than a dozen liquor licenses in the entire city, and the whole place is run by your typical small town backwoods coalition of glad handing, Boss Hogg type politicians and nosy preachers. Hell, there are even hitchin' rails in town for the convenience of the Amish community. It is, in Luke Skywalker's words, a nice place to be from.

However boring, benighted and provincial it might be, there is no shortage of inspiration and story hooks there. You know the saying that truth is stranger than fiction? Welcome to Wooster. What does it have to offer you ask? Plenty. Lets take in the big picture. Wooster is a country town home to roughly 30,000 souls. There are two pretty major institutions of higher learning there, the College of Wooster, where I spent a rough and ultimately doomed semester, and the Agricultural Technical Institute, which is a branch of The Ohio State University. There's also the OARDC, which is an ag research facility run by OSU. OARDC is full of scientists, apparently has a dumping ground for radioactive cows, and has recently started building an Agricultural Diseases lab. Agricultural diseases. You know, like Anthrax. Tell me that doesn't sound like the place where they accidentally make the Zombie Virus and then things go horribly and hilariously awry.

Aside from obvious places like the colleges and research stations, there's the city proper and all of its inherent weirdness. When I was a kid, word around the campfire was that a crazy old lady in a creepy old Victorian on Beall Avenue, one of the last houses on a street given over to fast food and hair salons, kept an alligator in her bathtub. In yet another creepy old Victorian, Wooster is lousy with them, an elderly and eccentric lawyer and her equally eccentric son died within a week of one another and went undiscovered for nearly a month! The place is full of odd and colorful characters like Crazy Carol, the wandering madwoman and daughter of a local wealthy family who is always waiting around the corner to harangue you. Or The Moped Guy who buzzes around town on a moped held together with baling wire and duct tape and looks for all the world like Mario. Or Old Pete the Good Humor Man who had a following so strong that some kids who had mugged him once were found beaten nearly to death in an alley, and thousands of people showed up at his funeral when he finally died at, I believe, 180 years old. This kind of small town lunacy doesn't even begin to cover the typical workaday suffering, madness, pettiness, infidelity, mendaciousness and violence that make up the bulk of most people's days. Stuff like this goes on every day in Wooster, and I guarantee you it goes on in your boring town as well.

If you want to go further afield, Wayne County, where Wooster is situated, is full of vast stretches of rolling farmland. Farmland watched over by lonesome, secluded farmsteads, the kind of places where your driveway is a quarter mile long and you can't see your nearest neighbor from your front porch. The entire county is littered with tiny, abandoned cemeteries and decrepit, cockeyed, blank windowed wood-framed churches, evidence of long lost parishes or forgotten family plots. Then you have the 6,000 acre Killbuck Marsh Wildlife Area, which has areas so dense and godforsaken that you could hide at least a good sized cult in there, if not an entire black temple devoted to The Great Old Ones. There's also the long and bloody Indian history in Wayne county. You can still turn over fields and find arrowheads and ancient tools, and of course you have your ubiquitous burial sites.

Look at all of that up there. It's mostly the kind of weird stuff you'd find in any small town where people have too much time on their hands. Look again, though. Look closer and ask questions. What happens if a nasty and highly unstable "agricultural virus" gets out of the research lab? Why, exactly is Carol crazy, or is she not crazy at all? Does that old lady really have an alligator in her bathtub? What if it's not a gator at all but something, you know, else? How did those lawyers die? Was there anything odd found in the house? Say, some mysterious old books or papers from the College library? What did old man Miley see shambling across his pasture last night? What happened to those hunters out in Killbuck?

See, I'm telling you. Like I said in Monday's post, this is how it works, this is where the ideas come from. Open your daily newspaper or sit in a local diner or barbershop and just listen. Drive around the country or wander streets that you consider familiar. Every house, every business, every person you pass has a story. Ask yourself "what?" and ask yourself "why?" after every weird little tidbit comes your way. Don't worry if the answers are "I don't know" or "Who can say?", because those are perfectly acceptable answers to questions that are often shrouded in darkness. Seriously kids, there's no place too boring that it can't produce at least one small inspiration. Remember, everything is interesting if you look hard enough.

P.S.: One of the benefits of growing up around ag schools and ag research stations is the awesome field trips you take in elementary school. So I bring you this gentle readers, a staple of many a fourth-grade science field trip. The Fistulated Cow!

1 comment:

Jamison said...

This is one of the more colorful characterizations of Wooster that I have ever read. Well done! Laura enjoyed it as well, and I think now has a better picture of where we came from haha. Its a good place to be "from"...I soooo agree with that.