by Whittier Strong
You never know who you’re going to come across in my neighborhood. I live in a small apartment on the top floor of a public-housing high-rise on Hennepin Avenue, right in downtown Minneapolis. This stretch of the city is home to the theatre district, two professional-sports arenas, an array of posh restaurants and trendy nightclubs, and numerous bus routes. It is always abuzz with activity, especially at night.
Last month I enjoyed an evening of karaoke at the Saloon, a gay bar five blocks from home. It was past 11:00 p.m. by the end of my performance, and I was ready to turn in for the night, so I headed out into the warm September evening toward home.
When I hit a don’t-walk light at Eighth Street, I noticed a man a few yards to my left. His voluminous white beard covered an army-drab jacket, and he hobbled about with a crutch. He appeared to be begging change from a group of people awaiting the #5 southbound. Ever since the recession hit, my neighborhood has become a hub for the homeless. At several points, I have come dangerously close to being where they are, and I owe it largely to luck that I am not there now. Yet, in my own penury, I feel helpless to better their situation. I cast my gaze homeward and crossed the street at the signal.
Midway down the next block, I shuddered and let out a yelp, not knowing why. I looked down and discovered that an enormous insect had thumped onto my chest. I don’t have any phobias when it comes to creepy-crawlies; the sudden thud had just startled me. I shook off the insect and it fell to the ground.
I had never seen anything like it. It was the size and general shape of a cicada, but its wings were an opaque mottled grey, and it possessed a large and threatening set of mandibles. I was desperate to find out what this gorgeous creature was.
I glanced upward and there before me stood a middle-aged lady. She sported a greyish-blond bob and a stylish bright-red ensemble. I imagined she had just left a show at the State Theater when she heard my cry. “Are you okay?” she asked.
“Oh, I’m fine,” I replied, “This bug just landed on me and it startled me, that’s all.” I pointed to the ground, where the insect sat motionless. “Have you ever seen anything like it?”
“I don’t believe I have,” she replied.
“Is it a cicada? I don’t think a cicada would have jaws like that.”
“Oh, no, that’s not it. It’s the wrong time of year, anyway. It is fascinating, isn’t it?”
Right then, the man I had observed at the bus stop sidled up to us. “Whatcha got here?” he asked.
“It’s this bug,” I replied, “Any chance you know what it is?”
“Can’t say I do,” he said, “but sure is an interesting fella. Say…” He met the lady’s eyes. “You wouldn’t happen to have some change, would you? I’m a disabled veteran and I’m just trying to get three dollars so I can get into the homeless shelter for tonight.”
The woman pulled herself to her full height and looked down at the man. “I don’t have any money for you. I’m sixty-three years old and I have disabilities and I work two jobs. I earn my money. I don’t believe anyone gets anything in this life without earning it first.” She turned around and crossed back over Hennepin.
The tirade shook the gentleman, but only for a moment. He turned to me. “Hey, would you happen to have any change to help a veteran out tonight?”
“I’m sorry. I believe in being generous. But, in all honesty, I don’t have any money.” I fumbled for the right words to close the encounter. “I hope you have a good night, sir. And good luck.”
“I appreciate it, thank you kindly.”
He wandered off into the night to continue his vain search for a place to lay his head. She walked along the other side of the street to locate her luxury car. I made my way to my dingy, underfunded government high-rise. The bug flew up, up, up until we became three indistinguishable dots.
In my writing, I try to walk a line between memoir and social commentary, and I consider this flash essay to be one of my best attempts at this tightrope walk. The story originally had a much different ending, in which I went on a rant, condemning a society that could produce a woman who had such awful views of members of her own species—my "J'accuse moment". But when I took the piece to workshop, my friends didn't see a condemnation of society, but rather, of the woman. The ending had to change. My friend Brielle suggested I focus the end of the story on the bug, and her suggestion brought about the final paragraph of the piece. For me, one of the greatest values of workshopping is discovering how people interpret my writing, and what I need to do to better carry off my intent.
I don't know for sure if the bug flew "up." I remember it flying away. But Brielle's idea allowed me the opportunity to view the three people in the story the way I thought they should be viewed: as equals. This sort of tweaking is a challenge for me as a memoirist. I want to hew as closely to what actually happened as possible. However, the conventions of storytelling sometimes mean I need to intervene in the truth and make tweaks. I try to keep such tweaks as rare and as small as possible. If anyone ever calls me out for a tweak I've made to a story from my own life, I'm happy to explain the hows and whys of what I did. All of this gets into big debates that have been happening for a while in the field of creative nonfiction. I just try to tell my story the best I can, as truthfully as I can.
Whittier Strong is an MFA candidate at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks with a concentration in creative nonfiction. His work appears in The Rumpus, Three Line Poetry, Among the Leaves: Queer Male Poets on the Midwestern Experience, and a forthcoming issue of Jonathan. He has lived in Indiana, Missouri, and Minnesota.