Under the Influence of: A New Box of Cripples
“How Did They Get Such Perfect Rust?”
Among the many things I miss about the old Portland, Oregon is Vic’s Toys and Hobbies on NE Broadway. There, as the son of a railroad brakeman1 I could reconnect to my childhood just by walking into the place. The first floor was lined floor-to-ceiling with miniature rolling stock, buildings, trees. On occasion I’d buy a tiny coal-fired power plant just to renew my visa in Train Land.
If you bought a few items – a skyscraper, here; a freight terminal, there – the older woman behind the counter wouldn’t give you the stink eye. At home the boxed kits for nuclear power plants and tenement houses piled up. Those visits were a kind of courtship as I schemed to see the store’s basement. Down there, hand-built stainless steel streamliner locomotives chugged around a world of tiny factories and lumber mills. Generations had stooped under the low basement ceiling to wire passenger carriages with electric lights. Walking beam-horse head oil pumps pumped pretend oil out of the Styrofoam ground. For a meta-touch a tiny model of the Walthers headquarters, a major maker of train set components, sat on a tiny Florist Avenue in a tiny Milwaukee, Wisconsin. No doubt filled with tiny figures of train geeks working on even tinier figures of train geeks working on atom-sized… to the vanishing point.
Trust me. I’m going somewhere with this…
For the same reason Holly Golightly goes to Tiffany’s in Breakfast at Tiffany’s I went to Vic’s.
The basement of Vic’s became the real world. Under control. Peaceful. At eye level with the tiny apartment houses you could flip toggle switches to turn the lights on and off while you’d piece together a story about who lived within. Like a weight-lifting gym for the story telling muscle. Not a real-real world, here was a German version of gritty urban America, of sprawling miniature slums and ghettos. Switch engines skirted desolate dirt roads and wooded barrens perfect for dumping tiny dead bodies. Hobo jungles. Tire dumps. Tiny crime scenes with the victim outlined in white chalk on a sidewalk no wider than a pencil.
After I’d joined the basement train cult the counter lady began to wave me in from the street. Once, she bunched her shoulders with excitement, saying, “Just wait until you see!” She pulled something from inside a glass case and set it between us.
She said, “I have a new box of cripples.” A clear-plastic box held six figures no taller than a thimble. One sat in a wheelchair. Another stood on crutches. Another had a pirate-type peg leg. A blind woman wore dark glasses and held a red-tipped cane. Another used a walker. Each was hand painted, and of course they’d been made in Germany. The set cost the price of Nike Air Jordans. All the tiny people came that same way in boxed sets of five or six. Five sex workers. Five garbage collectors. Six homeless people. Six yuppies holding tiny Starbucks lattes.
The tiny people never captured my imagination.4
Which came first, my novel Lullaby or the building sets, I can’t say. The book needed a metaphor to stand in for a destroyed family. And I really wanted to assemble the models I’d been collecting. Whatever the case I pieced together the little windows and walls with a care I hadn’t had as a child. For example, if you plan to light a building from within you need to paint the inside of the walls with black so the light won’t bleed through the plastic. And if you’re going to light a building you need to build interior walls or to create blinds or curtains that block the viewer from seeing in.
Call it a rabbit hole or a slippery slope. Instead of the models reflecting the larger world, the world became a reflection of the models.
Often I’d stare at a derelict warehouse, wondering, “How did the builders get the flashing to rust in that realistic way?” At the sight of collapsing grain silo, I’d think, “How did they get the bird sh-t on the roof so perfect?”
This is similar to when I’m watching the film Belle de Jour and I lean close to Mike and whisper, “Their French is really good.5”
When you set out to recreate the world you’re forced to see it with a new purpose. You don’t distain6 weedy vacant lots or smoking garbage heaps. You’re beyond the judgements of ugly or pretty. Instead, you study details and work toward the goal of replicating exactly789 how they look.
Another example, when someone flips me off or elbows me off the sidewalk, instead of suffering anger or hurt my go-to reaction is: How can I recreate this moment in fiction?
My point — if I have one — is that creating something forces you to study the thing. Not just your conception of the thing. On an even deeper level, creating something forces you to create the thing as your character would see it.
All of that goes to the heart of Minimalism.
So it’s not just water stains. It’s how your character would see water stains. And if not water stains, you have to see which details your character would pick out.
Here, let’s take a ten-minute breather12.
Welcome back. And maybe I’m wrong. All I can say is that recreating the world gives you permission to look at things. To really look at them. And to note the ugliness without being repelled by it. And to not always try to clean up things and make it all pretty-pretty13.
But maybe by turning the ugliness of the world into a craft exercise we gain a sense of control and we’re no longer emotionally upset because we see that chalky brick efflorescence is due to moisture passing through the clay and wicking salts to the surface. And seeing that, we resolve something in ourselves14.
And maybe if we can’t control the world maybe we can control our reaction to it. And maybe by not being so emotionally triggered, maybe then we’ll be free to invent something… different15.
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My father worked for the Northern Pacific, and later the Burlington Northern railroads. He was a train geek but his landscapes ran toward recreating the mountains of northern Idaho where he’d been raised. His trains tunneled through papier mâché mountains and crossed balsa-wood trestles that forded rivers and gorges. My trains plowed through scaled-down cities. As soon as I could ride a bike I pedaled around collecting beer bottles to return for the nickel deposit. A hundred bottles bought me an eight-story German department store in the Bauhaus style. An anachronism in my otherwise Norman Rockwell train world. Main Street went: barn, cottage, cottage, church, massive Kaufhaus des Westerns, tiny barbershop, cottage, railway depot, cottage… Mayberry R.F.D.-meets-Weimar Berlin.
What else is writing except your opportunity to create, endure, and resolve chaos?
The bulk of train set components seem to be made in Germany. Among my favorites is a scorched office building that contains a flickering red light and a device that creates white smoke from a fluid you add. The model is called “The Internal Revenue Service on Fire,” I shit you not. An obvious bone thrown to the American market. A close second-favorite are the blocks of semi-demolished Fort Apache the Bronx public housing complexes heaped within and without with berms of tiny garbage. Also, German made.
In recent years I’ve read about “shelter porn,” how design and architecture magazines style and shoot empty rooms. This allows the reader to project his/herself into the space. Not unlike the gaze of the model in porn-porn who looks directly into the camera, alone and beckoning. Those model train sets acted as a stage set which I could people with action. I’d guess that’s why I never wanted to people my miniature worlds.
Here Mike shoots me a dirty look and says, “It’s because they’re French, you moron.” Like, duh. Sometimes I can be awfully Chuck-centric.
Spelled wrong intentionally to maek Brandon feel better. Not a cheap shot, just gentle chiding.
When David Fincher walked me through the ‘Fight Club’ house, he told me how it was based on an actual Victoria-era mansion built in Minneapolis, and he pointed out how the imagined previous occupants had remodeled on the cheap. Some original light fixtures had been replaced in the 70s with chintzy, glitzy disco-ish fixtures. The set designer hadn’t just built a fake house, he’d built an entire history about this once-majestic pile that had gradually been surrounded by light industry. The water damage was exact and scientific. All of that realism buttresses the authority of the story.
Fincher even asked them to build a refrigerated fur closet, despite no shots including it. He wanted it just in case they’d use it. Likewise, Marla’s apartment had a beautiful trashed bathroom of green tile we don’t see in the film. It was so carefully made and degraded with soap scum just in case it was needed.
Back to the refrigerated fur closet. I’d only included it in the novel’s description of the house because I’d read a description Joan Didion had written in her collection The White Album. She’d described a lavish-but-rotting mansion that had once been the Canadian consulate in Los Angeles, and it had featured a refrigerated fur closet. I’d never heard of such a thing. Those Canadians! It seemed archaic and obsolete so I wrote it into Tyler Durden’s crumbling mansion. Thank you, Joan Didion!
An old faith healer’s trick: If someone has a headache, ask them, “What color is your headache?” Ask, “What’s the shape of your headache?” Ask about the headache’s size. Its temperature? Keep prompting them to envision the headache and assign it physical qualities. In quick order the headache will vanish. This is the real gift of creative work. It puts the problem outside of you. At arm’s length, your problem shrinks until it disappears.
The unconscious transfer of an intense emotion from its original source to another one.
I chose this video because it’s a minor masterpiece of Foley work. Look for the cheesecake sunbather who seems to morph at night into a murder victim. Perhaps in the future our inner cities will exist only as scaled-down layouts in suburban basements.
Oh, hell. Golly, gee, damn, this is all going to be footnotes. And maybe the world should be all Thomas Kinkade “Painter of Light” pretty.
After joint-custody weekends my father had to ship us back to our mother on the westbound Empire Builder, an Amtrak line that stopped in Spokane around midnight, but was usually much delayed. This meant keeping us downtown, herding us in and out of late-night grind-house movies and all-night diners until the train arrived at four or five in the morning. At that hour, with the sun rising, the empty city streets looked exactly like a train set. The pre-Vistaliner coaches were art deco chrome with murals of Manhattan skyscrapers at the end of every aisle. To ride such a train punch-drunk from lack of sleep, as a child traveling on my dad’s Northern Pacific brakeman’s pass after back-to-back horror movies was… memorable.
A shout out to author Jess Walter who lives there. The last time I went to Spokane the residents were still laughing about a stand-up comedian who’d toured through and told the local audience, “Spokane is like a beautiful model train set… with a big meth problem.”
And what I’m tackling here is what Fitzgerald did. A fresh version of that little trick he did at the end of The Great Gatsby to demonstrate how to use words when words begin to fail. Here I’m trying to replicate the effect, only using rust and tar. And next week I’ll revisit this Fitzgerald trick and let you judge for yourself.