Thursday, May 10, 2012

Andromeda: Serendipity; or In the Rain, Looking for Rayner

The Internet can make certain kinds of research possible, as we all know. Quick— locate my narrator's  senator uncle and give me all the facts about his turn-of-the-century career, including famous statements he made about preserving Maryland blacks’ right to vote. Quick—the gorgeous church I discovered this afternoon that used to be a synagogue, built in the 1890s; who was on the board of trustees?

These are precisely the sorts of questions I’ve been Googling from my Baltimore hotel room. It’s been wonderful to follow the trail of crumbs—from the Internet to a university library to a hospital to a medical archives and back to the Internet again.

But even more amazing, on this trip and on every research trip I’ve ever made, is serendipity. Serendipity is the reason we visit real libraries with real books, and browse the shelves, not quite knowing what we’ll find. Serendipity is the reason we mention to the librarian, the taxi driver, the security guard, and the bartender what we’re doing in town, just in case they have something interesting to add. Serendipity is how we find out what’s not on the Internet.

And serendipity was the reason I lingered on the once elegant, now elegant-shabby corner of the 1800 block of Eutaw Street in Baltimore, in light rain, on Tuesday afternoon. I checked out the synagogue around the corner. (Boy, a lot of synagogues around this street—I finally realized my narrator might have been Jewish— and yes, the records confirm, she was, whether or not she observed the faith later in life.) I talked to two retired guys sitting on a marble stoop, who were hanging out here because just two blocks west there were too many drug deals going down. (Straight out of “The Wire,” which I watched for the first time just before this trip.) They told me where to walk and what blocks to avoid, and also shared what they knew about the neighborhood’s history.

And then I took my time—looking in a back alley, walking around the Queen Anne-style mansion I’d come to see, trying not to hurry, trying not to be shy. It’s the moments of hanging out, usually solo (unfortunately), that tend to deliver.

I’m writing a novel about a young psychology student named Rosalie Rayner, who was involved in a divorce scandal (also an academic scandal) that made East Coast headlines. I found her census records just weeks ago. The 1900, 1910 and 1920 census gave me her Eutaw Street address, as well as the changing names of her neighbors and her family’s servants (Irish, German, American black) each decade.

And now, here I was on Tuesday. Getting wet. Wondering what to do next.

Suddenly, a man darted out of the building next door. I called out hello to him. He paused just before getting into his car and asked me if I was looking for someone. “Yes,” I said. “Someone who lived here a century ago.”

Turns out, Craig had a hand in owning and renovating both buildings, and had even heard of the family I was writing about. Twenty-four hours and many cell phone calls later, I was invited into 1814 Eutaw Street, once a mansion (“Richardsonian Romanesque” style, not Queen Anne after all) and now an apartment complex. My kind host and his partner, J.W., had gone to the trouble of asking their tenants if I could peek into various apartments. This one used to be Rosalie’s bedroom. Another, her parents’ bedroom. And so on.

We all shared Rayner family stories—with each other, and with the tenants. I promised to share any blueprints or historical photos I come across, and the building owners—reinvigorated about a subject they’d dabbled in when they bought the building back in the 1990s—promised as well. They were excited to find someone who knew something about their building’s history. I was thrilled to get to see inside the building: every staircase and pocket door and beautiful bit of restored woodwork, while we all made our guesses about where certain events (the finding of certain hidden love letters, for example) happened. The tenant who had lived--without realizing it--in Rosalie’s bedroom was excited enough about the century-old history that she said she hoped to “see the movie version someday.”

“Well, a novel first,” I told her. “But who knows.”

I went back to my aging Baltimore hotel and celebrated--running shoes soggy, feet sore, and imagination on fire--with oysters Rockefeller.

Andromeda Romano-Lax is working on a novel tentatively titled The Expert, about Rosalie Rayner and her affair with and marriage to iconoclastic behaviorist psychologist John Watson. Rayner and Watson co-authored the famous (and infamous) “Little Albert” infant fear conditioning study.

2 comments:

Lynn Lovegreen said...

Awesome! What a great experience!

bikegirl said...

So exciting! I think our lives are surrounded by these moments, yet sometimes when writing fiction I worry that people will think things are too coincidental. We just need to open our minds to what is possible.