THE JOHNSON PROJECT
I applied for a writing residency at Vermont Studio Center in June 2014. I got the news that I had been accepted a month later in late July. I had heard great things about the residency. As for the town it resides in, Johnson, Vermont, I had never heard of it. No one else, it seemed, had either. Being from New England, however, I spent some time in Vermont: a family vacation here, a school ski trip there and even a few times post-college when I was invited by my roommate who was born and raised in the state. So while I didn’t know about Johnson specifically, I knew I could count on a small town in Vermont to be quiet, rural and beautiful – a nice change from my usual city life.
I was going to write so much. I brought a short story to work on and the ideas for the ones that would follow it. And as I tried to write these stories, stories taking place in New York City and Los Angeles, I stalled. Not quite writer’s block but it felt all wrong. Why was I writing stories about cities far away? Why did I need to come here to write these stories? And what about the stories of Johnson, Vermont?
Setting aside my city stories and my laptop, I left my studio and headed into town. I visited the shops and the restaurants. I talked to employees and to my surprise, many owners of these businesses. I sat at the coffee shop for an hour and mostly just observed the flow of patrons coming to caffeinate. I did my laundry at the Laundromat and a woman approached me for conversation. I revisited stores and people I had met. I visited the public library and the one at the college – I checked out books at both. I was able to help out in an art class of the elementary school and interacted with third graders. I even chopped a good 6-7 inches off my hair just to see if the hairdressers would share any good town gossip with me (they did). I talked to as many people as I could.
Of course, being a writer and being in Johnson, Vermont for the sole purpose of writing, I wanted to retell the stories that were shared with me. Again, I found some challenges. While I was in the right place to tell these stories, I didn’t feel I earned that privilege yet. A month is long enough to get a feel of a place but it’s not long enough to really know it. There are people in Johnson who knew me by name after a few weeks, others recognized me as a friendly face but to many, I was still a stranger. I came and left Johnson, VT as a tourist. And how do tourists remember the story of their time in another place? Snapshots.
The following ten stories, attached to postcards, are the snapshot stories that I took with me to remember my first (hopefully not last) time in Johnson, Vermont.
I. Oh no, I’ve only been up here for three – four – five – ten years. I’m originally from Wyoming – New Jersey – New York – Newburyport, Massachusetts.
II. I moved up here when I was a kid. Used to go down to the river with bubble gum stuck to a paperclip on a string. I was able to catch some big fish. That’s how I got the nickname Blue-eyed Trout.
IV. One time we were robbed. He took a candle and the cashbox. He was pretty stupid though – put his face right into the camera! And then he grabbed a Pepsi out of the fridge and left. He was caught.
VI. Do you know Blank Space? By Taylor Swift? It’s why I painted these flames in the background.
VII. He fell asleep at Penn station and missed his train – the only train to Burlington. He could catch a train to Connecticut and I could drive four hours in the pouring rain to pick him up. I asked my mother what I should do. “Go get the bastard,” she said.
VIII. He almost always got the soup. Today’s soup was split pea soup. It reminded him of his mother. She used to make pea soup. The secret to making a good pea soup is to make sure it never gets too hammy. This pea soup, like his mother’s had the perfect amount of ham.
IX. I’d rather live here with my parents than with some asshole somewhere else.
X. They came, they sang, they... well, then they left. They always do.