The Realities Of Individual Lives

Individuals form the more complex fabric of a group. Sometimes the best way to "show" the realities of a group is to focus on showcasing an individual who typifies the group. This can be done by a more comprehensive personality profile, by a sparser sketch, or even by a bare glimpse, such as that from a bus window; vivid initial impressions and judgments can be made with very little information provided by the source.

Richard Goldstein wrote a character sketch, "Gear," for the Village Voice in 1966 that tells us much about the type of person or a group of them (older teenagers).

He sits on his bed and turns the radio on. From under the phonograph he lifts a worn fan magazine—Pop, in bright fuchsia lettering—with Zal Yanovsky hunched over one P, Paul McCartney contorted over the other, and Nancy Sinatra touching her toes around the O. He turns to the spread on The Stones and flips the pages until he sees The Picture. Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithful. Mick scowling, waving his fingers in the air. Marianne watching the camera. Marianne waiting for the photographer to shoot. Marianne, Marianne, eyes fading brown circles, lips slightly parted in flashbulb surprise, miniskirt spread apart, tits like two perfect cones under her sweater. He had to stop looking at Marianne Faithful a full week ago.

He turns the page and glances at the shots of Brian Jones and then his eyes open wide because a picture in the corner shows

Brian in Ronnie's pants. The same check. The same rise and flair. Brian leaning against a wall, his hands on the top of his magic hiphuggers. Wick-ked!

A newspaper writer who made his reputation partly on his insights into the man in the street, Jimmy Breslin, wrote in 1982, in New York's Daily News, about a woman police officer, Cibella Borges, who had posed for nude photographs back before she became a cop. At the time of this article, it looked certain that she'd lose her job. In a few short sentences he gives us only a snapshot of her—not enough for us to make any kind of informed judgment about her but enough for us to begin to see some of the realities of her life.

When she had been asked to pose, back in 1980, Cibella, who had been operated on once for a cyst, had just been informed that she needed another operation and this one probably would end her ability to have children. "What's the difference. I can't have any kids, so who's going to marry me?" Cibella said. She went to a studio on the West Side, posed for the pictures, put on her clothes, and went home to Orchard Street, where her front door is between two stores, one selling baby clothes and the other men's suits. Clothes hung outside the stores and blew in the wind over Cibella's head as she came home. Her apartment was two floors up.

In this short paragraph, Jimmy Breslin has given us several glimpses of this woman much in New York City's papers at the time— glimpses certainly different, more human, than the usual news reports about her and her problems. He used a number of small, realistic details to focus this glimpse, but I saw her as she hurried into her building greeted by those clothes that blew over her head. I can't explain the workings of my mind; I can only report them. I saw a sunny day with cumulus clouds piling up and gusts of wind snapping those clothes above her head. Now, the writer didn't say any of that, except for the wind and clothes. I supplied the rest of the image. Perhaps no clouds rose on that day, but my imagination saw them. A

writer can't keep readers' minds from doing what they will, but he or she can stimulate them by provoking a few concrete details. Naturally, if the writer had thought it significant that it was not a sunny day with gusts but a day of low and ominous clouds with hurricane-force winds, he would have told me that. Otherwise, it didn't matter too much how I filled in the image. Had he given me no details about the weather, I wouldn't have formed that image (or any image at all) of this woman coming home to her apartment two floors up. As it is, he "involved" me and I turned from the sidewalk with her and climbed behind her up those two flights.

V. S. Pritchett frequently writes travel pieces, and, as we might expect, does it with creative flair. In "Pritchett's London," a piece for the Sophisticated Traveler (the New York Times supplement, March 1983), he maintains that Londoners are compulsively eccentric and describes several individuals as proof of this assertion.

We have a fair number of that London specialty, the eccentric. Most of us are reserved and dissimilate in the London way, but the eccentric publicly dramatizes his inner life. Why does that man suddenly open his jacket and display a naked chest tattooed with a nest of serpents? Why does that respectable woman with the dog stamp and shout her ways into shops denouncing "the technological, scientific, communistic-capitalist society" and scream out that "the blacks, Chinese, Indians, are taking your jobs"? No one takes any notice of her diatribes. We shrug our shoulders; the blacks and Asians politely smile. Who is that tall, ghostly, rather distinguished lady in the long evening dress and satin slippers who once asked me whether I would "adopt" her because she happened to be "temporarily short of funds"? Or that man who steers his way through the crowd, arm outstretched, his finger pointing accusingly at all of us? These people are martyrs to compulsion. They are carrying to extremes something present in most Londoners: a suppressed histrionic gift. London, as Dickens observed in his street prowling, is a theater populated by actors asserting a private extravagance. The desire to be a "well-known character," to enlarge modestly a hidden importance, is endemic.

In Encounters with Chinese Writers, Annie Dillard gives us an unusual (and unexpected) glimpse of a Chinese woman writer attending a conference of American writers and the leading members of the Beijing Writers Association in China.

Today the usual tea-serving maids do not seem available, so the woman writer pours the tea. There is always one woman. She may have the second-highest rank in the room, or she may have written the novel most admired all over China. It takes her fifteen minutes to pour tea, and she will do this three or four times in the course of the morning. After she serves, she takes an inconspicuous seat, sometimes on the one little hard chair stuck behind the real chairs.

A short, one-paragraph glimpse of one woman writer doing one simple act, but Annie Dillard has said a great deal about China, at least about its attitude toward women writers (and, we might infer, women in general). The technique to note here is that the author did not tell us about life in China; she showed us one woman writer at a conference of Chinese and American writers—and we inferred a message about life for women in today's "egalitarian" China.

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