So I subbed down at Auburn Library yesterday, and maybe the staff were just trying to impress the new girl, but I overheard them talking about a recent shooting in the park behind the library. A few minutes earlier, I’d seen children splashing in a wading pool while their parents knotted birthday balloons to a picnic table. It didn’t look all that menacing.
But I was in a different country. I had slid into someone else’s life for four hours, working someone else’s schedule alongside someone else’s coworkers. All the direction’s to the library referenced “Big Daddy’s Drive-In”–which did sound slightly menacing, I mean what kind of drive-in are we talking about here?–but when I ambled past, it was just a tumble-down shack caged in by chain link fences.
On the bus, a cluster of young people used the word “rumble” to describe a fight in a parking lot. I imagined telling my future ESL students about “rumble.” I would say, “If Americans say ‘rumble dome’ or ‘Did you see that rumble back there,’ it doesn’t mean a sound.”
“So what does it mean, Teacher?”
It was strange that in a neighborhood where shootings were discussed like produce prices and a patron strolled into the library with a swollen face and black eye without anyone doing a double take, I was worried about semantics. And clothing. While we waited for the last patron to saunter out of the bathroom after closing time, people said that he was the boyfriend of a young woman who had died in the recent shooting.
“Well I’ve got no sympathy today.” One staff member said, and I agreed with her. A six-hour commute for a four-hour shift, and I probably would have started shooting people myself if I’d had a gun.
“It’s ten minutes after we were all supposed to be home. And you–” She said to me. “Good luck catching your bus back to Seattle.” She’d figured out I’m a Seattleite from one glance at my leggings and Converse sneakers.
When he finally emerged from his stall, I noticed he was blond and hollow-eyed and much older than I expected of anyone even peripherally involved in playground shootings. He was wearing a gray hoodie in 75℉ weather, and he shuffled out into the foyer, shoved against the wrong door a couple times, stepped back as if believing one of us would unlock it for him, and when no one moved, he finally tried the other door.
“Finally,” one of the women breathed.
None of them–except maybe the perceptive, pitiless woman who certainly has the makings of a writer if she isn’t one already–will still remember my name today, but here I am blogging about them. Because this is what I do. I enter other lives however I can and steal words, costumes, stories, characters. One of my friends–a visual artist–steals into condemned homes and shoplifts images and strands of dead memories from the wreckage of rotting timber and mildew.
Both of us are straight and white, and I see the problem that people might have if we get our greedy fingers on the experiences of blacks or Latinos or the LGBTQ community. What will we do with that? Do we even have a shot in hell of understanding what we’ve just stolen?
But excluding minorities from our art, pretending that our curiosity about other lives doesn’t extend to them, seems just as problematic. Maybe more so. I do believe there’s such a thing as responsible theft. I have to. Because I’m not sure anyone can make art without it.