Last Saturday morning, before anyone else in the house was up, I made a quick run out to the garden to pick some sorrel and lemon verbena. (Sorrel for sorrel soup — a total summer favorite around here — and lemon verbena for iced tea.) “The garden” is Corinthian Gardens, a community garden 3 blocks from my house that I’ve been helping start with a bunch of other neighbors over the past several years. We’ve designed it as a public, “edible forest garden” — with permaculture beds full of edibles and native perennial and woody plants that are publicly accessible, as well as private, individual plots for 70 households to tend in exchange for maintaining the entire space. We’ve included a giant sandbox and nature play area, seating, and nice patches of lawn. The process of getting Corinthian Gardens up and running (this spring was our first official season) has been amazing.
The garden’s .66 acre is a long wedge; it sits on a plinth about 4 feet above the adjacent sidewalk and runs alongside the massive stone wall of the amazing and historic Eastern State Penitentiary. Two times a year the sidewalks around Eastern State and the garden become a flea market, and Saturday was once of those times. After I collected my bounty I had no choice but to troll a few blocks of wares.
It was early, and many vendors were still unloading their trucks, so the press of goods and people was not too overwhelming. At one relatively empty table along the way a guy was laying out three shallow baskets filled with paper ephemera — items that looked as if they’d been harvested from photo albums and scrapbooks. I paused, thinking I might poke around for some tall tale postcards, but quickly saw that his collection was more photo-heavy. Then this photo caught my eye.
I’m not sure what it was about this trio that grabbed me. It may have been the way that all three are responding — in their body language — so differently to one another and/or the camera: the man, almost puppydog-ish in attention, mouth open and hands pressed between gangly knees, his body facing front but his head turned ninety degrees; the middle woman sitting up straight, arms stiff and supporting, legs stuck straight out in front, looking directly across the pool — maybe at the camera — her ankles rolled out in a gesture that I always associate with nervousness; and the other woman, Gatsby-esque and so full of ease with legs crossed and dress draped, facing the first too with full body and gesticulating as she speaks. Clearly she is the one — at this moment — who is in control, is the center of attention.
At first I took the water they were sitting by to be a pool, but the coping is so substantial — maybe it is a public fountain. No matter though: as I studied the image, questions about relationships and ideas about details started bubbling up in my mind. And I was reminded of an exercise that a writing friend, Christine, once told me she had done at a workshop.
In the exercise, Christine and the other workshop participants were each handed a photo and simply told to write, based on the photo. There may have been more direction than that — I’m not sure. But her photo was of a young boy and, as she tells it, the child who emerged on her paper that day has stayed with her in her work to this day.
With my summer’s focus on character development, and Christine’s story in mind, I began to troll through the trays with more purpose, looking especially for potential characters. The photos seemed like great things to have around when at a loss during daily free writing.
I went through the baskets on gut — not forcing myself to know outright why I liked any particular image, but just setting aside the ones that grabbed me. When I finished sorting I had a pile of 26 photos: most of them of people, usually (but not always) posed, all of them black and white, and most from the 1940’s and 50’s. All for just $2 — a bargain.
Yesterday I spent a half an hour with these two: one, of a lilac tree and a falling down shed, the other of two young women — sisters maybe — posing and laughing in a landscape that is cleared and tiered — with a built-but-unlit campfire set up behind them. From these two photos came a sketch about a pair of sisters sent to live, for the summer, on a family farm in a house now full of quirky-personalitied great-aunts and uncles… We’ll see if it goes anywhere. But in any case, it was fun.