Rowan McCormick (2010)

[Photographs by Rowan McCormick]

Narrative Tourism

Much of the writing happens very close to the time of an actual occurrence. Some, if not all of the writing act is an event in itself – a part of the event and the subject of the event, too, happening in real time – and for me, it seems to enrich and add layers to my experience of the moment.

Writing is a form of tourism, I sometimes think, a way of travelling that offers a direction and course through and between the internal and external – the self and one’s environment – a way of engaging. How else should one travel? In queues, for instance, for the guided tour to Liberty Island, or up the Empire State Building? One might follow a theme, a set of fictional or biographical characters, a line of reasoning, a certain passage of history or time, or an established route through place and space.

My travelling, like my writing, unfolds and I record things willy-nilly – as they occur, or when I have a chance, and events re-occur on the page as reminders that bring on more recollections. I think about emotional tourism – following one’s feelings about. I think about gastro/sex/adventure/slum or poverty tourism – attending to the senses, or appetites. My own narrative tourism involves the adding of layers to a single experience in a compulsive manner – following my nose, jotting down notes, being curious, playing the ‘reporter’ for the local newspaper, and I’m as turning the next street corner as I am turning another page …

My tourist practices consist of a few core activities, which I balance, and where feasible, double up. The trade-off, most often, is sleep.

  1. Sit around drinking coffee, watching life go by.
  2. Get into conversations with various strangers.
  3. Walk around museums or galleries – often listening to symphonic, or psychedelic music.
  4. Take a ride somewhere (anywhere) in a train.
  5. Write in my blue A5 coil-bound Sainsbury’s notebook.

How fine a feeling it is to be in a strange place, recreating/reforming impressions in part through words, but in a variety of manners, as I move through it, or as it moves about the chair in which I’ve sat to pause and reflect.

I sow memories and cultivate them on paper. I seldom consider what might become of the string of words that creeps along the page. I’m unconcerned with the harvest when the act is a pleasure, and fruitful in itself. Occasionally I’ll cast an eye over the dense jungle of script, the tangle of words, seeking a line, a phrase, a place or station name and what flourished on a certain date as I waited for the first or last train… what I found when I emerged above ground, who I met while waiting for a friend, and how sleep was once again inevitably delayed. The little green pencil darts up and down, doing a little dance along the track – a metaphor…

On the train to Coney Island.
Still a little sick from the Bowery Mission lunch,
And/or from/with tiredness.
The free meal moves within me, down into the lower east side

Clothes are removed and replaced as I move between the couches, beds and bathrooms of various folk I’ve met. People with whom I hold brief acquaintance offer me sanctuary, let me sleep over. They generously introduce me to a little of their part of town, their part of the world.

We don’t always know in what ways to connect – yet they are nice about giving the couch, a blanket, a towel, an ex-boyfriend’s T-shirt, and a little of the life story to go with it. We share these moments over coffee in the morning, cereal, milk, juice, bagels. I welcome these various forms of breakfast and kindness. There’s some warmth there. People have their ways about them – some small thing they know how to do to make you feel comfortable in their hands, allowing you to accept their care. They each have a way of letting you share, contribute, and to feel appreciated. Sometimes they have some thing, also small, they do that makes you wonder, and perhaps they wonder about you. It takes a long time for things to grow between people, and with one or other of us passing through, we don’t always have that kind of time. Sincerity (and fun) – that’s all there seems time for …

The more tired I feel, the less ready or able I am to sleep. But often, just as the promise of sleep arrives, something occurs that requires I defer the indulgence – news of a party, an accidental stranding, a chance encounter with a person of interest – a conversation, a story, a late night diner… These are a few of the unmissable opportunities for adventure that arise, and that I seldom refuse.

Travel gets the better of me. Before sleeping I make time for prayers and reflection – I give thanks in my writing. I feel open, generous, patient and kind. I feel blessed. In the night-time I lay in the dark, make up stories involving the strange silhouettes and shapes, configure something out of shadows and light, take in the scent of the room – seep into the darkness and slide into dreams. Come morning, I rise with the sun – yawn, blink, wash and wait for others to wake. Invariably, I move outside near dawn, to be stimulated by the ever increasingly strange (it seems to me) circumstances that will no doubt unfold. I fall into new rhythms that are manageable yet strange to me, free-form movements that are open for exploration, involving variations on a theme…


On this particular day, at 5 in the morning, having dried with a towel I assumed was folded and left for me, I was sitting at Loren’s dining table, drinking her coffee, and getting the remainder of my lunch from the Bowery Mission down. I was (and am now) still digesting events, recording and configuring the details and impressions of my encounters in the city. Being stimulated, I kept on waking early like this – and things were getting weirder by the day, with nothing particularly unusual occurring in the least! But the sense of everything ‘fitting together’ (or needing to, at any rate) increased at every turn…

The train arrived at Coney Island station. I dropped down to street level. The morning was overcast but not grey, just gloomy and lacklustre. Everything looked tired. Deadened. No crowds of children, no throngs of tourists or holidaymakers. No carnival tunes, singing, or loud speakers blasting encouragement. I was about it – the streets fairly abandoned. I couldn’t see anywhere to get coffee or food, or anybody else looking. If there were places, all of them seemed closed for the morning, or the season, it being late autumn.

But it was warm, sunlight and heat bleeding through the high cloud canopy. I walked miles of beach and boardwalk, meeting only older folk and retired types. Retiring myself, thinking about napping either on the sand or one of the wooden ledges, I found a place to sit and write …

Rusty, burned out supermarket trolleys, trash cans and oil drums, empty bottles, homeless folk, signs explaining who and what is not allowed between what times and dates and in which places, under what authority.

Toward the beach at ‘Cone City’ I find the fairgrounds – all closed down. The Ferris wheel is bound in barbed wire, dodgem’s housed in plywood hoardings, carriages lined up and cloaked in torn swathes of sun-bleached canvas. I photograph something on the back of the phone booths – a poster showing script imprinted on the seat of an empty swing, shot at the apex of its ascent: “An Abducted Child is Everyone’s Child”.

At some point this happens, swinging along nicely, back and forth, gaining momentum and altitude, and suddenly we’re plucked up by someone, or a series of events, and never returned – arrested mid-flight, unsure what to make of it all. I stumble about through an abandoned playground, unable to find solace in these amusements – nor any great attraction. An aband… no, abducted child. I move between these swings and contraptions with neither child rider nor parental guide, swaying in the breeze, pivoting uneasily on a rusty axis, corroding in the salt air, sunburned and wind-beaten.

Little by little, through summers and other seasons of the years, corrupted, steadily abducted. Not all in one go, nor at gunpoint, but slowly and surely. I am everybody’s child, out there in the world, alone, disconnected. Or perhaps it is the other way around. Perhaps it is childhood abducted from us as we swing or spin, coast, dodge, bump and blunder our way...

There’s something in the air – that’s what I’ve decided. It’s sucking up. There’s a vacuum. Coney Island of the movies. Coney Island of the past. Coney Island of songs on the radio. Why am I here again? The cloud cover is thick but distant. There’s light but no shadows. A movie set, a ghost town …

Later, when I return to the place I call home, I will sit at my desk, my family nearby, and I will search Coney Island, Brighton Beach, the Pier. I will discover something about we who visit these places, who observe, read signs and watch people, consume the mise en scène, then write about it in travel blogs – often in mocking, ironic tones. In these I will find that I have unwittingly plagiarised these places and people with a similarly careless and trite rendering. In other’s ‘travel writing / narratives’ I find my own observations echoed, almost word for word…

A sign on the fence at one end of Brighton Beach – “Go no further”. Carved into the handrail beneath it, “White people is Stoopid”.

The fairgrounds are locked up, closed down, carcass-like rides half dismantled, capsized, canvas covers slung over. Observing those still suspended, I get the seasick sense of rolling and coasting above the tide. A series of coloured bulbs hibernate, paused between flashes, their blinking on-off-on-off ceased with the seasonal bloom and flourish. It’s a sad place, tired, oozing kitsch the slow sap of which has become tacky and dark, stagnant, tasteless.

It is the ‘off season’. Multicoloured carriages hang from perilous frameworks like dust covered fruit clinging to a dried up vine cut off at the root, slowly fading, dissolving in daylight, swinging in the breeze as if ready to yield. The shouts and cries of the summertime days and nights, shed. The children have gone, taken their shrieks to other places, for other reasons, to other forms of amusement. There aren’t any trees. There aren’t any children. The only nearby movement – a tattered Stars and Stripes flapping in the wind, discordant. Or perhaps in accordance. Things are falling apart.


But of course, the back streets are where true life resides. I move away from the amusements, get off the main drag, cross the railway tracks to the unseen neighbourhoods which tourists are warned about, and fenced out of. I move toward the small township behind the bright lights of the holiday façade.

Once again I find myself roaming at noon, observing the formation of a queue. The people pull empty trolleys of different colours, as if on a track, trundling toward the doors of the mission. Staff are handing out tickets and calling numbers, but there’s no luck involved, no “step right up, step right up, everyone’s a winner” - just patience and perseverance. Folk come forward, present a yellow stub for a bag or two of food – Pepsi Max, corn flakes, bread, tins of beans, cans of soda.

In the other direction, a gathering outside a Salvation Army soup truck. I take up conversation with a veteran who sidles up with an electric whir in an unpolished, once bright red mobility scooter. He’s lucky enough to have secured an apartment in the projects where, if he’s careful about his power, water and gas consumption, and people keep up with their food-bank donations, and the subsidy on the rent is maintained, and his meagre pension with it, he’ll make do, or scrape by – just. He explains to me that his injuries and wounds were sustained in one of the wars of the last century, and that his children live far away, and don’t visit, or write, and that it’s hard sometimes, living in this place –

“There’s no work around here, not for me, nor most of these people – you’ve got to be mobile, and those with somewhere else to go, often do. It’s seasonal work, for those who can work, and some stay year-round. I’ve got my scooter… gets me around town, down to the corner and back, but I can’t get on a train with this – I’m on a limited circuit. I can’t get farther than my batteries will allow. And I have friends here, connections, community and memories, stories, but not many hopes… This town is quietening down, too. It’s not what it used to be – not when I was a young guy… You got your ticket, man? You don’t want to miss out. What’s that …? They’re calling 76. I’m 124. A ways to go yet … what’s your number…? Oh, you’re a visitor here ...? Where from ...? You’re a long way from home, son … Well, take care…”

© Rowan McCormick

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