Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Andrew F. Sullivan writes about Waste from Dzanc Books.
Renovating with the Easter Bunny
The library was under renovation.
The microfiche stations were down in the basement, tucked away in a corner near the temporary reception counter, the counter where a woman with the Virgin Mary tattooed on her face demanded the librarian help her file last year’s income taxes. I put my headphones in to drown out the sound and placed my hands on the dials. I was working my way through the 1980s. Everything was preserved. I went through three or four months a day, my eyes eventually surrendering to the dim light and the shaky text. I was only a little depressed when I discovered how cheap groceries used to be as I sped through another burst of ads for Foodland before the opinions page. Columns on apartheid and hockey fights and Vietnamese refugees. Back when your mid-sized Canadian cities had their own local daily newspapers. When this place stood on its own, but barely. A city perched on shaky knees, leaning and lurching over Highway 401.
I wasn’t looking for a specific story. I was looking for an era I had just missed, the fallout that came before me, the origins of ruins and urban legends I’d heard working the afternoon shift down by Lake Ontario. Men taken out into the woods over bad debts. Men who disappeared, their cars found idling in arena parking lots, blinkers still flicking on and off. Women thrown from fourth-storey windows who survived the fall, only to stumble out into downtown traffic. Hotels half-abandoned to pigeons. Places you could only find when the lights went out.
For one month that summer, I ventured into the downtown library with my notebook and a phone that got no reception in the basement. I rode the ancient elevator with a man who said nothing to me. He wore a set of pink Easter Bunny ears perched on his bald head in the late August heat. He pressed all the buttons. There were only three. I didn’t argue with the decision. I navigated around screaming toddlers and sleeping mothers to my station. I said nothing to the old man eating soup in the corner. I spun the dials and hit forward on the microfiche machine, popping in old reels of names and faces no one talked about anymore. I had my time machine in working condition. I had the primary sources to tell me exactly what went wrong.
I spun until I found the places where we failed. I spun until I found the cracks pasted over.
A city bleeds slowly and from a thousand hidden places. I traced the wounds with the police blotter. I learned to spin through the paper until I hit the right page, marking down every strange incident, every baseball bat swung at 4:00AM, every smashed courthouse window, every baby kidnapped in the early evening by a masked man on an ATV who drove off into the sunset.
There was no vivid world here, just the bare details. The signifiers. The elemental forces of blood and rage and booze coursing through the streets to coat everything in a low, pulsing neon glow. The city sleeps in fits and starts. It’s got sleep apnea. Constant domestics, constant accidents, constant fires. Fires that spread slowly and then all at once. Children found alone without guardians, without any to answer for them. I found them all without names, just incidents. Collected and provided with bullet points for easy reference. A series of bad decisions reported without emotion, without attempt to offer details beyond the date, time and location.
A place becomes bigger without specifics. It takes on an epic scope. There is suddenly room for the nightmare and the mystery — you can only see the fragments. I wanted the core of my novel to be grounded in the urban legends I’d been told, the stories too big for small towns, but still stranded far enough away from the bright lights of a capital. I wanted the remainder, the leftover pieces. My hometown never had a lot of murders, but the stabbings, hangings, assaults and hospitalizations filled the blotter every Monday. There are wounds that just keep leaking. They don’t kill you. They just slow you down. They keep you from getting comfortable.
They remind you that it wasn’t always safe.
I wanted to get that feeling right — the sense of a place half un-done, not out of spite, but out of the ordinary, unextraordinary weight of the every day. A place where the winter doesn’t seem to end until it does, where every night opens another opportunity for a mistake, a stolen car, a fractured pelvis, a tongue bit in half and spit out on the highway. I found it in the police blotter and the local news, the stories that eventually drifted away. I found it at five years old riding a city bus through the downtown to the doctor’s office, riding past row houses and dead lawns and stained parking lots and chicken wing joints with unlimited Thursday nights and dollar beers.
It’s not like that anymore, of course. Money changes a lot of things. The wounds are still there, but they are tucked away. They are sealed under the highway. Money makes new myths. It changes the story — it tries to tell you what really happened. It tries to say you’re wrong.
Every day when I left that library basement, I rode the elevator back up to the surface through the clatter of power drills and smashed concrete. Occasionally, the man wearing pink Easter Bunny ears rode with me, his hands hovering over the buttons. I waited for him to choose a floor. We stood there sweating under the fluorescence. I waited.
I wanted him to get it right.