Monday, April 30, 2012

One LIne & More - In Two Parts

Part I - One Line

In the early 1700's, Richard "Beau" Nash, a professional gambler, dandy, and all-around bon vivant, left London and moved to Bath. He was instrumental in turning the city into a sixteenth century East Hampton, where A-list society folks, including the royals, could party the night away. At one point Nash was appointed "Master of Ceremonies," whatever that means, and he went about laying down pretty strict rules for social engagement. 

I learned about Nash last month while on a city walking tour in Bath, still a prosperous spa town known for its Roman bath and Jane Austen. Our guide, a local woman with infinite energy and charm, was chockablock filled with information about the scandalous lives of its leading citizens, especially "Beau" Nash.  
Bath, The Circus
At one point she explained it was Nash who established the custom that a gentlemen must walk on the street side of ladies so that oncoming carriages splashing about the mud and garbage would not soil their elaborate gowns. I had no idea that this custom started in Bath. But now that I do, it absolutely has to go into my new book. 
           For the last two years or so I've been working on a YA book that gives voice to transgender teenagers. Is this burying the lead or what? The working title is Ze. "Ze" is a neutral pronoun for he/she/him/her. The teens featured are cool, hip, anguished, triumphant, and all-around awesome. I can't wait for you to meet them.
            In one paragraph of her chapter, Christina, a trans female, talks about going on a first date with a straight man. She thought it weird that he insisted on walking on the street side of the sidewalk. Defiantly, she'd edge over to the curb every time they turned a corner. He'd walk around her. She'd step back sashaying to his right. He'd take her arm and lead her back to the left. "So annoying," she told me. I don't think this relationship ever went forward – only side-to-side.  
            "Why did he do that?" she asked during one of our interviews. I explained the custom, not yet knowing about Nash. I didn't include this story in my draft because Christina's chapter was already too long and there were other, better things to write. 
            Now I want the paragraph back - if only to add one line about Richard "Beau" Nash to the endnotes. Just one little ole line! Pretty nuts, huh?

I like sprinkling a literary or historical reference here and there to text and photographs. They are my secrets that no one really notices, or at least, comments on. But for me it gives subconscious weight to the reportage form of writing I favor. At least I like to think this is true.
            In order to include this "sprinkle" in an endnote, though, the fact needs authentication. My Bath lady's comment might not be correct. I thought the "man-to-street-side" custom came about much earlier, and that it not only included soil from the street, but "night soil" thrown from protruding second-story windows. Wasn't this an Elizabethan custom? 
            The search began: First, make it easy and go to Wikipedia. The origin of the custom is not dated there. I punched in "Richard Nash." The practice is not attributed to him. I wanted this factoid so badly! [For dramatic effect pout and stamp your foot now.]
After more Googling I came up with one site that stated “man-walks-to-the-street side” started in the eighteenth century. Hmmm, Nash moved to Bath in 1705. Getting warmer? But then, a second site reported the custom in the sixteenth century. A third site had it in medieval times. I asked a very close friend who is an eminent medieval scholar. "I don't know and I don't care," he said laughing at me. Laughing! [Note to eminent medieval scholar: I told you I'd quote you here and I know you are laughing again.]  
            I vaguely remembered something in an old college book about the life and times of Shakespeare that may have mentioned this. I dug deep into the second layer of books in the shelves. New York apartments never have enough shelf space so we double layer our books. Eyes tearing from dust, I came up empty.

Tip: Take Claritin before pulling out very old textbooks. 

More Google: "Men walk on the right of ladies" - couldn't find anything about Nash, but I did learn where to buy the good walking shoes. 
More Google: "Rules of Etiquette" - this Victorian site is fun to read, even though it has nothing to do with Nash or transgender teenagers. 
           After spending hours, days, I could not find Richard "Beau" Nash escorting "ladies" while walking on the street side of the sidewalk. By now I have serious doubts this custom even existed.
            But look what was learned from the search: serious shoes, Victorian etiquette, and more. It reminded me of graduate school when it was deliciously easy to lose oneself in Dewey Decimal cards, eagerly moving curious fingers amongst the 3 x 5 cards surrounding the card needed to write a paper.
             My deadline is fast approaching and the Nash obsession has definitely gotten out of hand. One line, that has nothing to do with transgender teenagers, for an endnote, for a paragraph that will probably never make it in the text. 
            Don't you just love nonfiction? 

Part II - & More

Today begins PEN American Center's World Voices festival in New York City. It runs through May 6. Susanna Reich, INKer and chair of the YA/Children's committee, sent this list of children and YA author-related events.

Monday, April 30, 7:30, all along the High Line in NYC, A Parade of Bibliomorphic Puppets, Illuminated Objects, and Projections. If you are in town, this should be great fun. Bring kids! 

Friday, May 4, 6:30 p.m. Debby Dahl Edwardson will be take part in "A Literary Safari," at Westbeth Center for the Arts, 57 Bethune Street.

Saturday, May 5, 3:00 p.m. Brian Selznick will be "In Conversation" with David Levithan, at The New School, Tishman Auditorium, 66 West 12th Street.

Saturday, May 5, 5:30 p.m. Ruta Sepetys and Patricia McCormick will participate with Arn Chorn-Pond and Wojciech Jagielski in a "Children's Rights" panel moderated by Janne Teller at Cooper Union, at the Frederick P. Rose Auditorium, 41 Cooper Square.

The Festival will host more than 100 authors from around the world for a week of amazing events. For more information, please visit Pen's Website.


Deborah Heiligman said...

Only you, Susan, could introduce a transgender teen to Richard Nash, and make me crazily impatient to read the new book! And yes, nonfiction is so much fun. I, of course, will have to restrain myself from jettisoning my own work today to try to find the origin of that custom for you. But I wonder if someone else might have the answer... When does the book come out?

Mary said...

Susan! Your post is hysterical. And I agree, nonfiction is so much fun. I would not want to admit how often an elusive fact hijacks me, but that is part of the fun.

Susan Kuklin said...

Thanks Deborah and Mary. Your comments are much appreciated. So many of us share the love of a good "fact" treasure hunt.That's certainly what drew me to NF.

Not sure of pub date at this point. I think it's 2013. Right now I'm focusing on the due date. Coming up fast!

Gigi said...

Not sure this will actually prove helpful, but "man-walks-to-the-streetside" is a (fading) custom here in Argentina too. Supposedly, it used to be the case that if the woman was walking with a man the other way around (woman close to the curb), it meant he was offering her as a prostitute. A lot of Argentine culture comes from Europe (especially at the level of society where this custom is still in practice), so this is probably not an indigenous custom.

No idea where you could find a source, sorry !

Gigi said...
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