Telling people that I’m an author always requires a lot of explaining. Some draw comparisons and ask questions, giving the profession a scrutiny one doubts they give other people when they talk to them about their jobs. No one ever says, “A plumber, huh? Yeah, well, I haven’t used a toilet since high school. Have you done any plumbing I might know? I like that one plumber, what’s his name? The one with glasses. You’re not a Best-Selling Plumber, are you? Your work must be shit.” Okay, it’s likely that a plumber has heard that last one. You get the point.
The most common question I get asked is, “How do you come up with these ideas?” I write about criminals, thieves and con artists, so it’s a natural question for people since I am none of those things and I don’t know anyone who is, fortunately. I do know that I have a rabid curiosity about what makes people tick, so that could be it, or maybe it’s just that I’m really nosy.
I worked at the Union Station train station in downtown Los Angeles for many years, which was an amazing place to generate story ideas, especially about crime, since listening in on the property radio channel was like having your own personal episode of Cops. This transportation hub brings together tens of thousands of people every day from every socioeconomic level. There was a good percentage of criminals passing through at all hours of the day, and not all of them wore suits. No matter who they were, people always reveal themselves when they think no one is watching.
I was watching. Not in a creepy, Norman Bates-through-the-closet-peephole way, but as an intentional, public observer of their behavior. My job at the time entailed a lot of waiting around. I got a lot of practice.
Watching a person walk from the main entrance to the passenger tunnel leading to the train platforms could tell you everything you needed to know about that person if you paid attention long enough. I watched how they walked. Where did they come from? Where were they going? Are they on their way to work? Are they in a hurry? Are they late? Why is that? That person with them. Who are they? What’s their story? How about this one? What’s he up to? I didn’t always have to figure it out. There were times when the characters were fully there. No further explanation was needed.
I was training a new employee one day and we broke for lunch. I took him to a sandwich shop across the street and on the way in we passed a homeless man in his late twenties sitting on the ground by the entrance, which is unfortunately not an unusual sign in downtown Los Angeles. The homeless man didn’t speak, but instead rattled his red Solo cup with two lonely quarters inside and flashed us his weathered cardboard sign advertising his homelessness, hunger, and a tepid plea to Please Help and God Bless.
My trainee was first in line and ordered two large turkey subs with everything on them. I looked at him, doubtful. “What are you doing?” I asked.
“I’m buying that guy outside some food.”
I shook my head. “No. That man doesn’t want food. He wants money.”
My trainee shook off the opinion of his older, jaded supervisor. The look in his eyes judged me; my generation obviously had no compassion for the plight of others. “Didn’t you tell me that we always try to help people the best we can?”
“That’s not what I meant,” I said.
“C’mon, man. We’re all in this together. We need to help each other out. He’s hungry. Not everyone is looking for a handout. Sometimes they just need a hand up. You’ve been working at this job too long. It’s making you cynical.”
I’m not denying that I can be cynical, but I knew that it was best to donate to local homeless organizations, the ones with boots on the ground who dealt directly with these issues, like the Midnight Mission and the Union Rescue Mission. I understood the point he was trying to make, but like a lot of guys his age, this do-gooder thought he knew everything.
“Spend your money however you want to spend your money,” I told him. “I’m only saying that a sandwich is not what that man wants.”
We left the restaurant and my trainee went over to this homeless man, who was still sitting by the entrance. The man held out his cup, expecting to be the beneficiary of spare lunch money change. Instead, my trainee handed over the turkey sub.
“I bought you something to eat,” the trainee said. “No one should have to go hungry.”
The man held the turkey sub in his outstretched arms, impressed with the trainee’s generosity. “Wow, that’s really nice of you. Can I ask you a question?”
“Sure,” the trainee answered.
“Does this have mayonnaise on it?”
“Yes,” he replied, confused. “It has everything on it.”
“Sorry,” the homeless man said, handing the sub back. “I don’t eat mayonnaise.”
There were plenty of angles this story could take. One story might have focused on my cynicism, or why I felt the need to laugh about this out loud for ten minutes after it happened. There could be a story behind the trainee’s need to help this homeless man. There was the homeless man. This particular homeless man was in his early twenties, looked fit, reasonably healthy, and was possibly the best dressed homeless man I’d ever seen. Maybe he was new.
How do I come up with my ideas? I read. I pay attention. I ask questions. I’m curious. I live in an amazing world filled with fascinating characters. They’re everywhere, and I don’t have to go far to find them. When I look close, my story is all around me.
I don’t even have to beg for it.