OK, once again, I get the ideas question, on a plane flying back from Bouchercon 2016 (a fine time, by the way).
You know what I’m talking about: “Where, dear writer, do you get your ideas?” I did my best to push beyond one of my standard answers (the planet Mars, too many Sazeracs, gumbo indigestion) and think about it but I was still back in the second line dancing down Canal Street and I couldn’t think of a thing. I made a vague answer and we moved onto other topics.
But after I’d eaten my .3 ounce bag of peanuts and drunk my cracked plastic glass of club soda, I realized I had a better answer than the one I’d given (which of course I’ve already forgotten). I remembered another flight this spring, flying back from the other Portland after visiting a friend in hospice, when I sat next to a wide-shouldered grizzled young fellow, taciturn, well-tatted up and down his arms. I thought at first we might not have anything interesting to talk about, but not for the first time in my life, I was completely wrong.
I threw out the standard opener: what do you do, what were you doing in Portland?
“Well, I’ve been working out in Hood River the last couple months.”
I notice the scars and burn marks, on his hands and forearms.
“Looks like it might have been a little dangerous.”
From him, I get this sly look and, though I didn’t recognize it at the time, he was already smirking about what he was going to tell me.
“Building the world’s largest tofurkey oven.”
Well, that would have sparked a different conversation right there, if either one of us had been a vegan or even vegetarian. Turns out, as you might have expected, there’s a huge demand for tofu products in the Pacific Northwest and one bright entrepreneur in the town on the Columbia River decided to take the plunge and create a tofurkey factory. The largest. In the world.
For those unfamiliar with the, uh, substance, tofurkey is a vegetarian replacement for turkey made of wheat protein and tofu.
It usually comes in rolls that look something like a turkey breast and I saw them on many Thanksgiving tables when I lived out there on the far northern corner of things. Have never tasted one, though. Do not intend to.
The world’s largest tofurkey factory, as it turns out, is delivered to its site in large stainless steel modules that must be welded together before the appropriate machinery can be installed and the tofurkey start oozing. This fellow—I got so interested in what he was telling me, I never did ask his name—was in charge of the team of welders who fastened the modules of the factory together.
None of this would have been overly interesting except that he started to get excited about the details of what he did every day—people love to talk about themselves and if you listen, you never know what kind of information you’ll pick up. He began by describing his work day, the various types of welding (MIG? TIG?), and most importantly, how to tell good welding from bad. Interesting stuff: trust me when I tell you my day-to-day doesn’t include a lot of contact with welders.
But what perked my ear up was when he talked about the way one welder judges whether another one knows what he’s doing. It’s a visual test called “stacking dimes.” Just as it sounds, the most proficient welders are those whose welds are so neat that they look like a stack of overlapping ten cent pieces of melted metal, all the way across a seam.
Sorry, but this is one of the things that just tickles me, the arcane language of someone’s work. I’ve carried that phrase “stacking dimes” around in my head for a couple of months now and I know it’s percolating, maybe not yet a full idea of its own but with all the potential of one. Maybe with the tofurkey, maybe not.
Obscure? Maybe. But you collect enough of these things, you don’t know where your mind will lead you. And that day, at least, I had a better answer to the ideas question than I thought: listening to people talk about themselves, their work and their lives. You can even get by with only two simple questions: Where is the common? And where is the unique?
Oh yeah. The tattoo thing.
Here’s an idea for you: how about you go get a tattoo you don’t have to wait for . .