Real life characters

I could probably get in trouble comparing old acquaintances to roustabouts from a traveling circus — but I mean it in the nicest way.

A reporter asked where I get my ideas for characters. That’s actually a pretty good question, better than asking where I get my story ideas, because I like to think my books are character driven. I grew up inspired by John Irving’s TS Garp and Fred Bogus Trumper. My Golden Retriever was named Bogus, another pet was called Merrill Overturf.

I explained to the reporter that when I was working overseas assignments I often searched out sidebar stories about street entertainers and small carnivals. Southeast Asia is famous for amazing contortionists and high wire acts, trained animals and unbelievable freak shows. All these were filled with rich characters, some beautiful and some quite dangerous.

But many of my characters in BEAR — as well as more recent manuscripts — come from closer to home. Rather than circus acts, I tend to draw more from people I’ve known who have unique identities, are the definition of true individualism. They are idiosyncratic and proudly eccentric. They were the kids from City Gardens and Zadar’s who seemed to live for Thursday nights in the seediest section of Trenton, or weekends in the much gentler New Hope. That both dance clubs are gone is no different than when your parents sell your childhood home and move to Florida. It’s like an anchor is yanked up and you’re set adrift. Or maybe it’s a traveling circus tent that’s rolled and shoved into a truck. And it’s like suddenly being lost to have these places gone. I met my wife in front of a bank of speakers at City Gardens. We were there the night it closed forever, when the lights came up and the DJ played Fatboy Slim’s Praise You. We can never go back to the place we met.

The characters, the rugged individuals, have lived on. One of those rare personalities was ushered out of the dance clubs when the doors closed. I only knew her from the dance floor at Club Zadar, where she dressed in black leather and vinyl, with pieces of taffeta and metal spikes here and there. If her hair wasn’t blue then, it is now. She might have just stepped out of a Cure video, but I remember she loved The Psychedelic Furs, Dead Kennedys, and Echo and the Bunnymen. Before the clubs closed, I think dancing was her main form of art. She was mesmerizing, intimidating and beautiful. I remember dancing with her when she’d had a day filled with good things, and I danced with her when she was crying about her dog that had just died. No matter, she was always dancing, right up until Zadar’s went out of business.

I know Meshell’s hair is blue because I recently found her in a little shop she owns in that same town of New Hope, Pennsylvania. Instead of dancing, she blows glass, reflects on a brief career of roller derby, and collects artifacts from the industrial/goth world. She sells these treasures in a place called God Save the Qweenz, whose interior resembles a chaotic postmodern painting. I got to know her under the flashing lights almost twenty years ago, DJ Chas or Rich spinning records, and I stole some of her for the people in my books. In THE BEAR IN A MUDDY TUTU, part of Meshell lives is in a character who steals a convertible and races down a secluded road at a hundred miles per hour, singing along to a hardcore Henry Rollins song. Not to suggest my old friend would ever steal a car, but I’d definitely ask her to ride along and pick the music if I did.

About colealpaugh

Cole Alpaugh's newspaper career began in the early 80s, starting with small daily papers in Maryland and Massachusetts, where his stories won national awards. His most recent job was at a large daily in Central New Jersey, where his "true life" essays included award-winning pieces on a traveling rodeo and an in-depth story on an emergency room doctor that was nominated by Gannett News Service for a 1991 Pulitzer Prize. Cole also contracted with two Manhattan-based news agencies, covering conflicts in Haiti, Panama, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Thailand and Cambodia. His work has appeared in dozens of magazines, as well as most newspapers in America. Cole is currently a freelance photographer and novelist living in Northeast Pennsylvania, where he spends afternoons in a virtual running race around the equator, and evenings watching his daughter's magical stage performances. You can find him online at
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