Tom Pitts: On “American Static” And Tumbleweaves

Tom Pitts received his education firsthand on the streets of San Francisco. He remains there, writing, working, and trying to survive. He is the author of two novellas, Piggyback and Knuckleball. American Static (June 26, 2017 – Down & Out Books), his latest novel, is the story of young man who finds himself stranded in a small Northern California town and begins a journey from which there is no return. 

Tumble weaves.

There’s a growing phenomenon in our neighborhood.  My wife and daughter started noticing it first. Small clumps of hair on the road. At first glance we thought they were roadkill, but out here in the Hunter’s Point/Bay View district of San Francisco there really isn’t much wildlife. I mean, there’s wild life, just not so much wildlife.  Not with hair that long anyway. Soon we started noticing different colors. Bleach blond, purple, pink. It was clear what we were seeing on a daily basis—on the streets, on the sidewalks, and in the gutter—were weaves. Lost, loose, and drifting. Street weaves.

My nine-year old suggested we make a calendar. For each street weave we saw, we could pull over, take a picture, and make a nice menagerie of photos. But it soon became clear there were too many choices, too many options, too many weaves.

I pointed out the phenomena to my older son, and, without missing a beat, he tells me, “Oh yeah, those are tumbleweaves.” I laughed out loud. Perfect.

Of course it was already a thing. I got to googling and found endless posts and photos, the Urban Dictionary definition, several Instagram pages, and … even a band.

This wouldn’t be the first time I was late to the party with things I thought were wholly mine, but I guess the allure, the attraction, the intrigue of the tumbleweave pulls everyone in. Why? I think it’s the mystery, the story behind the weave. One never imagines a gust of wind planting that weave in the gutter, it’s always something darker, more violent. The chaos of a clump of hair on the sidewalk looks like a crime scene, an aftermath.  It fires the imagination.

It got me thinking about where I find inspiration. It’s not always what you see, it’s how you see it. I’ve always been cursed with my imagination. I remember, as a child, sitting in the backseat of my parent’s station wagon and gazing out the window. We’d drive past serene suburbs and I’d look at the front doors on the houses and every door I saw I wondered what kinds of fights made it slam shut on a nightly basis. I pictured angry teens kicking it shut as they yelled “piss off” on their way out in the world. I pictured S.W.A.T. teams kicking in those same doors to defuse domestic violence situations and kidnappings. I imagined criminals of all kinds picking those locks in the wee hours.

And that was just the front door. Don’t get me started on what I thought was going on behind the curtains.

Seeing life through this dark prism gave me no solace, no comfort. When I grew a little older it may have even fostered some paranoia, some unbalanced fear. It seemingly did nothing to enrich my life. Until I became a writer. Finally my spin on things was rewarded.

With American Static, my new novel from Down & Out Books, there was no secret well of inspiration, no story ripped from today’s headlines, no horrific life experience. It was me driving by a rural bus stop, seeing a kid smoking a cigarette. That was it. I saw something that wasn’t there. An innocuous common occurrence that I somehow misinterpreted. That got the ball rolling. That was enough.

Soon there was a backpack, a mysterious stranger, a quest for a girl. Then a bad cop, a couple of good cops, a winding chase, and a scandal that burned down San Francisco’s city hall. But it all started with that innocent kid stealing a way a peaceful moment with a cigarette.

So, ultimately, although the physical source of inspiration may seem mundane, the catalyst is still in the recesses of a twisted imagination. You don’t need to seek out inspiration, it’s already inside you, coiled and ready.