I left Massachusetts in a minor snow storm; no real accumulation but the roads were slick and the visibility was poor. Driving into flurries has always reminded me of the Millennium Falcon's jump to hyperspace, every flake a star whizzing by so fast you can only see the streak of white it leaves behind. By the time I could see the road ahead I was halfway through Connecticut.
I've made this trip south no fewer than five hundred times. My favorite time to leave is well before dawn, when you can be sure to miss rush hour traffic going into New York. If you plan it just right you can cruise by the city and hit the edge of Newark as the sun comes up. There's something about seeing the sky turn pink over industrial wasteland that makes me think of Morning in America; something majestic about smokestacks silhouetted in a haze of their own excretions, like ships headed out to a foggy sea; something that makes me roll down my window, breathe deep and think, So that's what it smells like.
On this particular trip south I didn't leave in the early morning but the late afternoon, and so when I reached Newark I was greeted not by the Morning in America vista I long for, but by This American Life on the local public radio station. The voice I heard was David Sedaris, telling a bizarre story about people beshatting the changing rooms of various retail clothing outlets around the country.
Just as I was thinking that the problem with writing nonfiction books is that many people who claim to write nonfiction clearly just make stuff up, I remembered that the very story Sedaris was describing had happened in my high school ? not in the privacy of a changing room, but smackdab in the middle of an English teacher's desk. The kid who did it was thrown out of school, fell in with the wrong crowd, and eventually disappeared into the juvenile detention system. I knew him from the school play; his part had to be recast at the last minute, and school officials went through 200 copies of the program drawing thick black lines through his name.
A couple of years later, as a budding college scribbler, I tried to write a short story reimagining the moment that changed this poor guy's life as an act of Dostoyevskian defiance, an existential assertion of identity in face of the required conformity of high school culture. My success with the theme was summed up best by a woman in my writing class. "Sorry," she said, "but it's just too gross."
I've been writing about religion ever since.