People ask me all the time whether one or another character in one of my books is "you." More disconcerting, sometimes they don't ask; they insist a particular character is me. I usually reply to the effect that I never use real people, myself included, as models for fictional characters, that knowledge of a real person's M. O. would limit his or her freedoms of expression and action as a character in a work of fiction.
But I may have to think this through. My sister told me that Alan Chandler, the 17-year-old ragtime pianist in THE RAGTIME FOOL, is "me." I told her Alan is nothing like I was at his age. I couldn't play a note of music. I would never have run off to Missouri to meet an old man from California, to give him an important book I'd bought for a large sum of money from an old woman in Harlem. I'd never have dared to speak to my parents the way Alan spoke to his. And I was amused at Alan's naivete about racial relations in Missouri in 1951. He was unaware that segregation existed outside the deep South. Just clueless.
But a little while ago, Tim Reed, a friend and fellow music box collector, sent me a link, http://www.njn.net/arts/starts/season05-06/2412.html , he thought might interest me, given that I grew up in New Jersey. The video was from NJN, New Jersey Public Television and Radio, and presented the history of Asbury Park, the resort where my family and I spent two weeks every summer throughout the 1950s.
Did I know that the town was founded by a pious Methodist, who wanted to set up a proper resort for proper, well-to-do Christians? Yeah, kind of.
Did I know this target population had "help," who needed to live somewhere, so a Black section of the city was established literally on the other side of the railroad tracks? No.
Did I know that this Black ghetto was a hotbed of popular music, a major venue for the most popular ragtime, blues, and jazz musicians of the day? Nope.
Did I know that even into the 1960s, Asbury Park remained segregated, that Blacks had their own separate (but not equal) beach; the Black beach was adjacent to the sewer outlet? No.
Did I ever notice that I never saw a Black face on the Asbury Park City Beach during the 1950s? No.
Did that ever strike me as odd? No.
All right, then. Isn't it so that people in our dreams are not "somebody else?" Aren't they completely our own creations, put up by our subconscious minds to populate the stories we call dreams?
- Sounds reasonable.
Wouldn't I have loved to talk to my parents the way Alan talked to his?
- Damn right I would've.
Wouldn't I have loved to hop a train to Missouri with the key to a special ragtime event in my book bag?
- Well, yeah. I guess I really would've.
What would I have given to be able to play piano like Alan?
- Chalk one up for the sister.