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  • Collin McFadyen

A Blanket of Voices

I've always done my best "brainwork" in the middle of a crowd. Sitting in a public space, a bar, a coffee shop, a laundromat. The louder, the better. Just me, a notebook, and a pen; sometimes my computer. Quiet places are fine for tasks, like resumes or filing for unemployment, but really, the louder spaces are where I love digging into a piece of writing that's screaming along like a hot rod, and I can't help but laugh a little every time I start a fresh paragraph. It's the kind of writing that feels so good while I'm doing it that I immediately come right back to edit the typos and love it even more. I'll read it ten times over, then send a copy to a friend I've been missing because she lives on the East Coast... and then I send a copy to a friend I'm missing right now even though they live a half mile away. Covid + Internet+ Distance is a hard equation to understand. Everyone seems both close and far away at the same time.

My mind moves more quickly in public space, the background chatter sounds like a crowd cheering if I don't really listen to it. Sunday NYT crosswords at my local library in North Portland? Nope. The library's fine for job hunting, but a little too quiet for actual creative thinking. The Florida Room across the street fuels my cerebral pathways with a good splash of Maker's Mark and Joy Division or White Zombie played just a smidge too loud. Tucked in into my favorite little corner, I used to become invisible enough to keep my brain switching lanes until every clue was solved.

"Anonymous in public." That's how I've always described why I like writing in loud, busy spaces. Sadly, Covid has changed that in the year my unemployed self finally has the time to devote to writing. Except now, there's no hanging out in coffee shops or bars, and sharing a space with enough people talking around me to make it "too loud" is a thing of the past.

I have a long history of public introspective writing. After my first real breakup, the kind that happens when you're a grownup and can't just go find another girl to be there while you waver between the loss of true love/joy of new love- I bought a big, heavy black blank book. It wasn't quite a notebook, because to me, notebooks require lines to keep things orderly, and it wasn't quite a sketchbook, because the paper was too smooth to smear charcoal into artistic shadows. I bought it because it was hardbound, and heavy, and I knew I'd be writing in it for a long time. I named it the "Big Black Book of Sadness" and it had an expiration date. One year. I promised myself that I'd feel better after a year, at least enough to stop writing about it. I kept that promise, and the final entry in the Black Book of Sadness read "Okay, Big Black Book of Sadness. This is it. I'm done with you, even though I technically have a few pages and days to go. I'm feeling better and your days are numbered, so let's say goodbye now."

The point of this is that I spent an entire year sitting at different bars scribbling out my heartbreak, sometimes crying, sometimes not crying, but always, always feeling the security of a warm, protective blanket of voices and laughter and music around me. Every so often I'd look up and see happy people and hate them, but on a good night I'd write about what it would take for me to become happy like them. I put my house on the market and drew pictures of my new houseboat on Hayden Island. Before the sale was completed, I wrote about the strange sounds I'd hear at night on the river, imagining the creaking of the pilings and the low gurgle of boats churning up the channel, slow and wakeless. I was excited about having a new neighborhood, and a fresh local bar to write in.

The new Black Book was exactly like the old one, except I started it in a different bar, a hotel bar on the island. The best place to be anonymous in public is a hotel, according to celebrities, spies, and cheaters. But I hated the hotel bar. The guests were quiet, and boring- and alone, mostly. They poked at their phones, or studied paperwork spread out on tables for two. Some just gazed out the window at the Interstate bridge and slowly ate dinner on their own. There were no conversations around me, nothing but smooth jazz or Motown if it was happy hour. Instead I spent those winter nights alone in the houseboat, looking at the dark river while I listened to Little Sue's latest album"Crow"on repeat. The new Black Book sat open on the coffee table in front of me, but I couldn't find a way to wrap myself deep enough in Little Sue's heartbroken voice to keep scribbling my voice on paper. I wrote exactly fourteen pages in three weeks before I decided that since I couldn't write about sadness, but I didn't have any joy, that I must be better. I wasn't really, but I believed it was going to happen someday.

I started dating again, finally met one woman I loved but wasn't ready, a few short-time flings and many painful/painless false starts in the years before I met my wife. She and I fell in love in my tiny place on the river where I'd listened to Little Sue all winter long, drank red wine, and couldn't write about it. Eventually, I did indeed feel better.

I'm writing now, during the middle of a pandemic, anonymously masked and at a table for one. Underneath a hastily erected patio in the middle of an epic Portland rainstorm, the slightly too loud raindrops sound like heavy metal and the people at the tables far away from me are laughing about the storm, my fingers are flying on my keyboard and I just laughed out loud when I hit the return key.

Be positive, friends. Our collective "Black Book of Sadness" is coming to an end. We will all feel better someday, soon.


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