The guy across from me on the train is middle-aged, white, and wearing a cream colored Members Only jacket. A pristine Vancouver 2010 USA Olympic Rowing baseball cap and big black work boots scuffed to dark green. He’s also intently fondling a big pile of plastic gold necklaces. The cheap beaded kind like you’d get at Mardi Gras for dramatic acts of public service.
The problem is, I can’t use him.
Writing fiction backs you into something of a corner when it comes to characters and events. You have to select images that establish the rules of the world you describe, staying within a certain boundary of plausibility, yes, but more importantly staying on message. So while the New York Metro area provides a wide variety of oddballs, desperadoes, schizophrenics, and weirdos of every stripe, that variety must be curated.
It becomes a matching game. What bizarre stranger best matches the mood of the part right before the breakup? If I’m setting up the feeling of desperation, who should I put in the background: the elderly black man in the boiler suit with the gold spray-painted briefcase dancing to his walkman or the white guy with gray Bozo hair who backstrokes across the floor, eyes squinted shut, in various public transportation hubs?
But gold beads… naw I can’t use it. Would be too cheap a metaphor for fruitless grubbing for wealth, too close to clutching a rosary, too random for anything else. The Members Only jacket and the boots combo, though. I might use that next time I’ve got a hot date.