In Charles Willeford’s novel Sideswipe, there’s a character that hates dogs. He hates them so much that he has a special cane with a hollow shaft containing chunks of poison meat. When he pushes a button on the handle, which is shaped like a dog’s head, a piece of tainted meat pops out the bottom of the cane. The man pretends to like dogs. He walks right up to them, acting friendly, and presses the button. I have no proof, but I’m convinced that this is a real person, or at least something that a real person did. It’s too bizarre, too needlessly complicated, for pure imagination.
Part of a writer’s job is to notice things. As anyone who knows me will tell you, I’m not especially good at this part of my job. A friend of mine had a pet cat for several years before I became aware of it, just as an example. If you’re wearing a new dress, pair of glasses, or hairstyle, I’ll figure it out in a month or two. But I like to think that I notice the good stuff, the little bits of everyday weirdness that might make for interesting writing.
For instance, my favorite movie theater is in Hazard Center, one of the lesser malls of Mission Valley. Hazard Center has a sizeable underground parking garage. Since the mall is right on the trolley line, the owners make a few extra bucks by selling spaces on the lower levels to the park-and-ride crowd on game days. The last time I went to a movie, I noticed a new sign at the entrance to the garage advising sports fans that cooking fires were not permitted in the lower levels of the parking structure. We all know what must have happened, right? Some Neanderthal must have fired up his hibachi down there, nearly asphyxiating everyone nearby, and possibly setting off the fire sprinklers. It’s a scene straight out of a sit-com, a free gift to any writer who picks up on it, the creative equivalent of a five-dollar bill lying in the street.
Even so, what makes me think the dog poisoner is real? Are people really so weirdly vindictive? Consider the following incident.
A couple of weeks ago I was hanging out with my friend Matt. Matt works as a bailiff, but had the day off. Even so, he needed to go downtown to pick up his paycheck. Despite my loathing the Gaslamp and environs, I agreed to accompany him. We got his paycheck, and the two of us stopped at a bar for a quick drink. As we left the bar, I paused to savor the feel of the afternoon sun on my face, when something hard slammed into my left foot. I staggered. Hoping on my right foot, I saw an older black lady in a powered wheelchair. Matt eased me down onto one of those squat metal cylinders meant for cigarette butts. I removed my shoe and sock. Veins had burst all over the inside surface of my foot. The entire area was blue and swollen with blood. The ankle was scraped and hurt like hell. The woman was apologetic, but also scolding. “This thing ain’t built to be walked into,” she said, though I am fairly certain I was standing still when stuck. A closer look at the woman’s fraying polyester pants and grimy cardigan indicated that she was homeless. Seeing no point in arguing with her, I told her that I’d be fine and limped off back to Matt’s car.
A couple days later, my leg propped up on the patio table, I entertained Tim with the story of my injury. When I finished, Tim just shook his head and said, “Yeah, you have to watch out for her.” According to him, the homeless lady with the powered wheelchair is a notorious downtown character who gets her kicks by ramming into the unsuspecting and unobservant. Tim’s wife, who once worked in Horton Plaza, pointed her out to him as a local menace.
It’s a great little story. I’m sure I’ll use it in a piece of fiction some day. I could never make up something like that. I just wish discovering it hadn’t hurt quite so much.