Sidewalk Factory: A Municipal Romance

This is the last story in Psychological Methods To Sell Should Be Destroyed, and the last story note.

A few years ago, John Klima, editor of Electric Velocipede and publisher of this collection, asked me to send him a story for EV. I wanted to send John a new story that I hadn’t submitted anywhere else. I started working on something that began as a combination of three short-shorts dating from various periods. I was too involved with writing my novel The Painting and the City to spend much time on it, so I set it aside, and sent him an older story, “Travels Along An Unfurling Circular Path,” which appeared in Electric Velocipede #10.

Then, we decided to do the chapbook, and it needed a new story. I went back to work on the short-short idea.

“Sidewalk Factory” is set in a fictional island city-state, with the approximate dimensions of Manhattan. The story alternates between Lord Mayor’s Proclamation and Municipal Dispatches and a first-person narrative by an unnamed municipal worker.

For cover art, I contacted an old friend named Tim Robinson, an illustrator and singer-songwriter. He based his illustration on “Sidewalk Factory.”


The oldest short-short is a fictional press release about a new factory for making sidewalks from hats. I wrote it in the late 1980s/early ’90s (sometime during the term of Kathy Whitmire, mayor of Houston, TX from 1982-1991). The piece became the first Lord Mayor’s Proclamation and Municipal Dispatch and the introduction to the municipal worker. The character of the Lord Mayor has nothing to do with Whitmire except that at the time I wrote that bit, that was who I thought of when I thought of “mayor”. Because I lived in Texas when I wrote it, the hats originally used in the sidewalk factory were of the cowboy variety.

On a plane from New York to Texas in 1996—the same trip that gave me the inspiration for “Valley of the Falling Clouds”—I took out my notebook for some free-writing (or automatic writing, as the surrealists called it). I came up with a piece about a man attending a lecture by the great Professor Fenster. The “I” of that piece merged with the “I” of the sidewalk factory short; Fenster’s original lecture hall moved to the ship that carries the municipal worker back to the city after a business trip to a colonial town.

The Temple of Dendur formerly stood on the left bank of the Nile River; it was disassembled during the building of the Aswan Dam and reassembled inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Wandering the rooms of the museum one day I came upon it, unexpectedly, having had no idea of its existence. I sat on a bench nearby and created an event from the temple’s history (my version, not the real history). The scene sat, unused, until I incorporated it into my emerging sidewalk factory story. It became the section following the municipal worker’s encounter with Professor Fenster.

The final factor that helped me build the story was the death of Kurt Vonnegut. Several years earlier, a friend had given me a copy Mother Night, which I had somehow missed from an earlier Vonnegut-reading frenzy in my early 20s. Reading it made me want to try political satire.

I combined the various elements and wrote more around them, curious to see where it would go.

When I begin a story, I don’t usually know much about it. I have an image, situation, place, character. I write, the story emerges, sometimes easily, sometimes not. Once I had the short-shorts lined up, “Sidewalk Factory” came together fairly easily. I thought of the Lord Mayor dispatch sections as a tightening noose, going from light to dark, from absurd to sinister; and the municipal worker begins as a happy oblivious citizen who learns to reject his beliefs.

“Language over meaning,” Professor Fenster says, but I hope the story has both.


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