I used to write in coffee shops. I used to listen to the hubbub surrounding me in a busy restaurant. Or travel the Metro, absorbing the sights and sounds around me. And interact with strangers, some of them people from faraway places. Have little adventures. In pushing my way through the first draft of the new novel, I hid myself away from all that. The first draft is finally done. (Yay? ) But, I’ve been left feeling stale from the routine and from lack of contact with a wider world–or as Brendan Behan allegedly said of the Irish–my “raw material.” I have been feeling trapped by routine, have been feeling that there is nothing new, locally at least, that would bring me back to life. But, sometimes the smallest encounters can do the trick.
Yesterday, I went to Staples to shop for a new printer (my six-year old HP just broke down and I need to print NOW). Afterwards, I wended my way from Metro Center to Roti on K Street and went in to have some lunch. At another time, or for other people, the crowds of office luncheoners and their noise might have been highly annoying, but for me, it was like coming up out of a deep sleep. It had me blinking and looking about in wonder at all the activity.
Many of the tables at Roti are set up as long common tables where you may be sitting next to strangers. I sat at the end of one of these, and three African men took the space along the table to my right (and opposite each other), waving to a smiling fourth, who was still in the long food line, to join them.
While eating, I was reading “Afterward,” an interesting ghost story by Edith Wharton, but having trouble concentrating because of the insouciance of the company to my right. They were chattering on loudly in a language I could not understand. Often, even when I can’t understand a language, I can make out where one word ends and another begins, but in this instance, beyond the rounded vowels and consonants, it sounded like babble–though clearly it was not. Although I could not make out a word, their wholesome, cheerful laughter and the happiness evident in their conversation was contagious and lightened my own spirit. I was very curious as to what the language was and where they were from. From his looks, I thought that one of the young men might be from Ethiopia or Eritrea. (This guessing game is an extension of my curiosity about various English language accents–English, Irish, Australian.) My curiosity comes only from being a frustrated Henry Higgins, but one never knows how people may take such questions these days when there is so much anti-immigrant meanness about. Nevertheless, when there was a lull in their conversation and one of the young men caught my eye, I asked what language they had been speaking. He very sweetly volunteered that it was Amharic, and that they were Ethiopian. When I noted how cheerful they had been, he told me that they are all accountants, that they work for different firms in the area, and that they get together for lunch.
It is small encounters like these that stimulate my sense of creativity. The mood, the flavor of their interaction, their friendly comradeship, their genuine enjoyment at getting together–the feeling of it stays with me. As ordinary as it is, it takes me out of the realm of my ordinary. It also reminds me that, in aid of my writing, I need to get out more.