Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Things You Didn’t Know You Should Know, Part 2: Going Out of Bounds

When I was about ten years old, I ran up to my mother in a department store and said, “Guess what! I found out what color the ink in those security tags is! It’s yellow!”

My mother, of course, was horrified, and I could practically see the visions of ruined (and very expensive) garments dancing in her eyes. She knew the tags I meant—the bulky plastic canisters clipped tightly to the priciest items in the store, ready to spill indelible ink all over the garments if a thief tried to remove them without the proper tool. My mother had seen me fingering the tags and knew I was naturally curious. I finally had to lead her over to the area near the register, where I’d been wandering around looking at things, to prove that I hadn’t actually done anything she’d have to pay for.

As it turned out, I had discovered a spot where I could stand and look behind the cash register as a salesclerk rang up purchases. Nobody watches a ten-year-old who’s standing still and not touching anything, so I was able to observe the clerk using a tool to remove the tags and drop them into a clear plastic tub under her counter. As it turned out, when the tags were opened correctly, they revealed little clear plastic windows that showed the color and level of ink inside—and all the windows I could see showed yellow ink. I thought this a strange color for security ink, especially on dark-colored garments; wouldn’t something like red be better? My mother was relieved, and for years afterward delighted in telling people about her clever troublemaking daughter who figured out the color of the security ink without actually getting into trouble.

Good writers, I’ve discovered, often have a knack for going carefully out of bounds. While great stories can come from the mundane details of ordinary life, there’s nothing like a dash of the unknown to spice things up. What’s behind that door? What’s in that locked cabinet? What would you see if you could just slip backstage while the curtain is down? If you want to know, chances are your readers will be interested, too, and real-life details from out-of-bounds places can make your story come alive. To that end, I’ve collected a few tips for aspiring discreet trespassers.

1. Look like you belong there. When I was in journalism school at USC, I attended a seminar by a well-regarded photojournalist, who eagerly described his favorite techniques for getting close to the scene of the action to take pictures. His most useful trick: he carried a set of colored windbreakers in the trunk of his car, and used them to blend into the crowd of officials at the scene—blue for the LAPD, brown or green for local sheriff’s departments, the Highway Patrol, the Forest Service, etc. (I treasure the memory of one of my professors standing behind the photographer, emphatically shaking his head and mouthing the word No! to students who appeared to be getting ideas.) While I don’t recommend impersonating a police officer just to get into someplace interesting, it does help to dress practically and look like you belong there. If you want to walk around a college campus, dress like a student or a professor. If you want to blend into an office, dress professionally.

2. Keep moving. One of life’s little joys for me in college was visiting a friend in her dormitory at Biola University. Biola’s a mid-sized Christian university, and its students include some of the nicest people I’ve ever met—and some of the dumbest. Every single time I visited the campus, if my friend didn’t meet me in the parking lot, I could easily sneak into her dormitory, despite my lack of a campus ID card or passkey. I would hang around outside the dorm and catch the door before it swung shut, or convince a resident that I’d lost my ID, and get inside in seconds. Once in there, all I had to do was keep walking like I knew where I was going, even if I didn’t. People don’t question you as much if you look like you’re in a hurry. Once I got all the way into my friend’s room while she was out (her roommate had left the door open) and hid her iPod just to make her crazy. (I don’t recommend doing this if you plan on getting into a place more than once.)

3. Mirror people. Human brains are keyed for pattern recognition. Remember that old Sesame Street song that went, “One of these things is not like the others”? We play that game all our lives. When you’re in an unfamiliar place, learning new things, try to mirror the people around you to keep from standing out. If the people around you walk a certain way, look at certain things, or stand with a certain posture, mimic that. Don’t copy one person continuously, and don’t mimic the most obvious tics, but try to take a little from everyone so that eyes will slide right over you, assuming you fit in. It works surprisingly well. When I was about eleven, I went to the reading of an uncle’s Ph.D dissertation—which happened to be about the psychology of child molesters. I mirrored the adults in the room well enough that I caught several of them doing a double-take when they belatedly realized that one member of the audience was young enough to be a victim of the crime being discussed.

4. Take a guide. There’s no substitute for an inside source of information. Thanks to a family friend, I once got an opportunity to interview a local fire captain who had invented a new system for finding victims trapped in collapsed buildings, as well as other search-and-rescue techniques. It was supposed to be a standard school assignment, and I was supposed to be interviewing him in his office at the station, but the man was so delighted to have someone interested in his work that he invited me to ride along on a fire truck while he and his men performed inspections of local industrial buildings. I learned priceless things about the amount of junk that gets thrown into the back of a fire engine’s cab, and about firefighters’ reluctance to wear seatbelts. It’s going in a story someday, and that fire captain is going in the acknowledgments. Never underestimate how excited people can get when you ask them to talk about their private obsessions—or their willingness to let you behind the scenes.

5. Don’t break or take. I happen to own a T-shirt that says (NINJA) in big white letters. For some reason, I often find myself wandering out of bounds while wearing it. It’s not that I got up that morning and decided to wear my ninja shirt and go trespassing; it’s just the ineffable workings of Murphy’s law that I seem to be wearing a ninja shirt when I do something vaguely sneaky. Often, I’ve found myself wearing the shirt when I went to tutor the children of a local family. The house has some nice security on it, but the family has a habit of leaving doors unlocked for one reason or another, and I’ll often just let myself in to save time and trouble when we have an appointment. The kids know that I might show up unexpectedly behind them at tutoring time without ringing the doorbell, and they are usually amused to see the ninja shirt … but their parents tolerate it only because they know I’d never actually steal anything or hurt anybody, and that I’ll break up a fight between the kids if I walk in on one. If you’re just looking to explore a corner of the world where you’re not strictly allowed, do your best to avoid damaging the place. It makes it a lot easier to pretend later that the trespassing was unintentional or that you belonged there all along.

6. Don’t be stupid. Don’t go slipping into places where you’d actually be in danger, and especially don’t tell the cops I told you to do it. Places where you really shouldn’t go without an official guide include crime scenes, disaster areas, nuclear reactors, military bases, etc. There’s a difference between casually wandering into a college dormitory where you don’t happen to live and slipping into Camp Pendleton when no one’s looking. (Pendleton is harder, for one thing.) Use your common sense; while there’s no real substitute for what you can learn by being in a place, there’s also no substitute for living to tell the tale. If wandering out of bounds would get you arrested, hurt, or killed, don’t do it. Find an informant to tell you about it, look at photos online, or do outside research. Heck, call up the public-information office, say you’re doing research, and ask to take a tour. You may not find out any nuclear secrets, but you’ll probably find out what the floor polish smells like—and sometimes that’s all you need to make your story come alive.

My favorite trespassing story dates from my senior year of high school, when I toured the campus of the University of California, Irvine with a friend. It was Saturday, when UCI doesn’t have any classes, and we’d finished the campus tour when my friend remarked that she wished she could sit in a UCI classroom and see if she felt comfortable there. This seemed like a pretty simple problem to me, so I convinced her to walk all over the campus with me, trying doorknobs until we found one carelessly unlocked. One of the buildings we accidentally explored before we found a lecture hall was home to a weekend neuroscience conference—lots of meeting rooms with signs on the door full of incomprehensible medical jargon. At one point, we passed a deserted sign-in table with a notice asking people to sign in and take a souvenir button from the conference. My friend talked me out of signing us in without an invitation, but I did get a button out of the deal, one that has informed my out-of-bounds trips ever since.

It says, “Brain Awareness Week—Just Use It!”

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