People occasionally ask me how I select the people to interview for the project. I tell them that some of the interviews are arranged ahead of time, and some are more happenstance. But there’s more to it than that.
The interviews arranged ahead of time usually come from recommendations from people I’ve already talked to. “Oh, you’re going to Saugerties! You have to talk to old Joe who used to own a bar downtown.” Some of these pan out, and some of them don’t.
As for the happenstance interviews, this process is a bit more mysterious, even to me. For instance, here in Mechanicville, New York, I’m taking a long walk to circumnavigate town, trying to get a feel for, a sense of it. I’m talking to neighbors, and asking them where the town is, and why there doesn’t seem to be much that’s older than about the mid-60s. Did they pull down the downtown in some glut of redevelopment?
People point me in various directions. People tell me stories of the town and sometimes of their lives. It feels like a dérive, the Situationist practice of an unplanned journey through an urban landscape, where wanderers abandon their preconceptions and “let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.” 1
I walk around and let the wind blow me this way and that and maybe, through this process, I start to develop the questions that I want to ask somebody who lives here. (“What is the heart of this town?” “How is the river part of the life of this town?” “Why are people here and not elsewhere?”) And maybe I run into somebody who I want to sit down with for an hour and ask those questions. Or maybe not.
Through this whole process, I’m looking for voices I’ve not heard before. Particularly people whose stories do not typically get included in the dominant historical narrative. We know the stories of wealthy, White, powerful, hetero Christian men, for that is the story of America, the one we’ve read all of our lives, in our history books, our literature, our politics, the accepted, chronicled, canonical story of America. But what about those untold stories? The forgotten heroes who weren’t white guys? The people who resisted, who bled, who died, who gave everything. The women who worked quietly or those who worked loudly to change everything. What about those other stories? Your grandma and my granddad and the work they did? I love these stories.
But no matter what, I learn stuff. I learned that there’s no Main Street but there is a very loud highway that runs through the middle of it.
I learned that there is no downtown diner, but there is a gun shop, a tax preparer, a Subway sandwich shop, an auto parts store, several gas stations, and a pawn shop (strangely called a “Metal Recycler” — to dodge zoning issues?). If you sit in the Golden Krust Bakery to suck up the AC and the WiFi, you have to endure insipid New Country (“I don’t know much ’bout nothin’ in the world, but lovin’ you is fuuuuuun.”). There seems to be two churches on every block.
I learned that people still hang out on their porch, or perhaps they can’t afford AC. I learned there’s a creek that meanders through the town. I learned that the creek which runs right by our docked shantyboat is relatively clean with no significant pollutants or micro-bacteriological contaminants. I learned this is one of those rare towns these days that doesn’t have a gourmet coffee shop. Not does it have a neighborhood bar anywhere near the river. There is Bingo on Tuesday nights at one church (which is tonight!).
Walking, walking, walking, wandering. Letting the environment speak to me.
1. Debord, Guy (1956). “Theory of the Derive”. Situationist International Online. Translated by Ken Knabb. Retrieved 2018-07-03