For example, whilst recuperating from a nasty bug over Christmas - no way to spend the holidays - I was was half watching a You Tube video of what was supposed to be a romantic mountain train journey around Switzerland. I had the sound turned off. Watching trains lulls me to sleep somehow. It takes me back to being a little kid curled up in the swaying, top bunk of my parents' compartment on our annual winter cross-country rail journey from Los Angeles to Boston, Massachusetts back in the 1940s. The top bunks on the old Pullman cars used to have these little oval windows up where the carriage wall curved into the ceiling. I could slide a little plastic shade open and peek out onto a moonlit winter landscape with myriad stars above. It was like the train was travelling through space - and certainly a night wilderness. Once in a while I could catch sight of the locomotive's gyrating head lamp up ahead as it illuminated clouds of steam billowing out its stack.
Back in the present, I was about to drop off to sleep as I imagined myself on a train, when the video cut to early, 1900s grainy black-and-white film footage of mustachioed workmen wielding pickaxes. They were carving a tunnel through an Alp, presumably one that the modern train was about to enter with ease. The workmen looked heroic as they blasted granite blocks, and barely escaping once they lit their fuses. In one scene there had been an accident, and stoic-faced, grimy workmen were shown wheeling out the bloody injured and dead in one of the hopper cars. This was followed by scenes of triumphant completion, with bearded dignitaries in top hats dedicating the tunnel, now still in everyday use more than 100 years later. Cut to the the tunnel entrance - an impressive affair arching gracefully against the side of a mountain, with an elegant beaux arts granite facade.
|Golden Gate Bridge from Baker Beach|
I based the story on a notion I had about ten years ago, after several years of on-and-off dates and friendships via the free, online dating service OK Cupid. The main character, I thought, could be a chap of a certain age who perceives that he has become a sort of Flying Dutchman of the Internet, cursed to sail the Web eternally making port occasionally, but never able to drop anchor for good. Another protagonist appeared when I finally attempted to develop this idea into a narrative - a woman wrestling with tragedy and a curse of her own, and the place of their encounter, the maritime port I know best - San Francisco.
I didn't reckon that the Golden Gate Bridge would become a third and co-equal protagonist as this particular star-crossed love story unfolded. I put the bridge in for effect, because when you live in San Francisco, it's always there, in sight, or in mind, or both. But, I didn't get this until I saw the You Tube video of those 1900-era tunnel blasters, that famous, graceful, international orange suspension bridge image is much more than a postcard icon. I won't go into spoiler details, but without intending to, I populated the bridge with all those who have lived and died on it - the workers, the suicides, tourists and lovers - since it opened in 1937 (only a few weeks after I was born, by the way, giving the span a special significance to me.)
Maybe this sudden realization about my own story wasn't so much an epiphany as an insight, a broader, more dimensional way of looking at things, coupled with a humbling acknowledgment that there is a lot I don't know about the process of storytelling. The storyteller isn't me. I'm just a messenger doing my best to jot it down right. The storyteller has much to teach me, if I can catch it, but even if I can't understand a tale fully, it can be more than I think it is.
Umberto Tosi is the author of Sometimes Ridiculous, Ophelia Rising, Milagro on 34th Street and Our Own Kind. His short stories have been published in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. He was contributing writer to Forbes, covering the Silicon Valley 1995-2004. Prior to that, he was an editor and staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and its Sunday magazine. He was also the editor of San Francisco Magazine and other regionals He has written more than 300 articles for newspapers and magazines, online and in print. He joined Authors Electric in May 2015 and has contributed to several of its anthologies, including Another Flash in the Pen and One More Flash in the Pen. He has four grown children - Alicia Sammons, Kara Towe, Cristina Sheppard and Zoë Tosi - and resides in Chicago. (He can be reached at Umberto3000@gmail.com)