When I was growing up my mother used to yell at me for my lack of chutzpah. She was a chain-smoking actress from New York and when she got in these moods she always sounded like a Broadway agent from the 40s. “You need moxie, kid. Da world don’t owe you nuttin’ and if you don’t take what you need that’s just what you’ll have – nuttin'” Then she would cough into a Kleenex and I’d run in my room and look up “moxie.”
It was clear from the stories my mother told me of growing up in the Bronx that she would do whatever it took to get what she wanted. This usually took the form of creative storytelling, or what most people would call lying.
She signed off on Boy Scout merit badges I didn’t earn. She invented accomplishments for my college applications that I couldn’t possibly have achieved. (Pomona College once wrote and asked me for a copy of my latest play. Not only had I never written a play but I ended up writing them back and telling them all my writing had been destroyed in a fire.) Frankly, I’m surprised my mom didn’t tell them that I was taking time off from singing with the Bee Gees to pursue academic interests.
Whenever I would tell her how embarrassing it was that she would make all these things up about me she would she said the same thing, “You’re going to die with your secret.” Dying with your secret was the worst thing that could happen to a person. Every couple of days I would get in trouble at home because I suffered from low moxie and I would sit in my room wondering how I could be related to someone so different from me. If there’s a gene for towering confidence and zealous self-promotion I didn’t have it. In my head I equated all these traits with strength and lack of them with cowardice. I don’t think the word “introvert” had been invented yet.
Years later, in an effort to prove to myself what I wasn’t a coward I started doing standup comedy. It probably would have been smarter to start off with something less scary like bullfighting or crossing Niagara Falls on a tightrope but I was 28 and figured it was now or never. Over the next few years I would take a few days off from my day job every month and hit the road. I did well with comics in the room but not so good with normal people. By normal people I mean coal miners in Butte, Montana, cowboys in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and roustabouts in Spearfish, South Dakota. I didn’t bomb so much as evoke pity. Sometimes waitresses would hug me afterward and ask if I was ok.
Once, after a particularly rough time on the road I went back to my day job and wondered if I was cut out for comedy. It seemed to require a level of ego and confidence I didn’t’ have. Luckily, friends who did have that confidence often asked me to write for them. A week after I got back from my last trip to the Shangrilaff in Pawneewatucket, Illinois, my friend Craig asked me to write some sports jokes for him because he was going to be a guest on the Howard Stern show. One of the jokes I wrote for the show got a huge response in the studio.
The joke was about quarterback Troy Aikman who had just suffered his 7th or 8th head injury in a row and was going to be out for the next two weeks. Here’s the line that cracked everyone up. “Aikman’s head is so soft last week he got a concussion playing duck-duck-goose.” I’m pretty sure this is still the cleanest joke ever heard on the Howard Stern show and I was proud to find out it got such a good reception.
Later that day I was walking around downtown Olympia on my lunch hour and stopped into a little shoe store to see if they had anything on sale. The World’s Greatest Anonymous Joke Writer might need a nice pair of shoes for all the A-list rooms he was soon to be working.
I walked in and started browsing the shelves looking for a pair of shoes I could afford on $9/hour. The young woman who worked there walked up and asked if she could help me find anything. I looked over and for a moment I thought I was looking at Stevie Nicks. Sure, it would have been a much younger and darker-haired version of Stevie Nicks but for a split second I thought I was staring at the lead singer for Fleetwood Mac. She had long, flowy hair, long flowy skirt, and a long flowy voice.
To a boy who was coming of age in the early 80s Stevie Nicks was just about the prettiest woman around. It was always hard to tell exactly what she looked like because in every video she was always dancing around in gauzy, lacy, scarfy things and covered in doves. But whatever she looked like under all those birds I was sure it was sexy.
Unable to stop staring, I grabbed a random shoe off the rack and said, “Uh, do you have this in a ten?”
“Let me take a look,” she said as she floated into the back room in a swirl of cottony blouseyness. A minute later she came out with a box and brought me over to a chair. As she slipped the first shoe onto my foot she said, “So what do you do when you’re not looking for shoes?”
Was Shoe Store Stevie flirting with me?! I knew that telling her I worked at an office supply store down the street selling pencils wasn’t going to get me an invitation to sing “Leather and Lace” with her after work so I decided it was time to release a lifetime of pent-up moxie.
“Well, actually, I’m a comedian.” I paused for effect. “In fact, I just got some material on the Howard Stern Show.”
Shoe Store Stevie reacted like I’d just torn the wings off an angel. Her head snapped up and she said, “Howard Stern is vulgar and crude!” Then she got up, strode across the room and started organizing socks by hemp content.
“No, wait. It was a really clean joke!” I said as I hopped across the room in one shoe. “Remember in school when we played duck, duck-”
She spun around and walked to the other side of the store and began rearranging a table of gluten-free sandals. I stood there with one shoe on and one shoe off for a couple minutes trying to explain the joke. Finally, I waddled back to my chair, put on my old shoes and shuffled out of the store.
For the next two weeks I wrestled with what to do next. Usually, I would turn something like this into a self-deprecating story of How Life Sucks. But this time I wanted to do something different. I wanted to stand up and make a scene. I knew somewhere in my DNA the withered alleles of courage and confrontation were struggling to assert themselves.
Two weeks later, standing on a corner waiting for the light to change, I saw Shoe Store Stevie standing on the opposite corner. I knew immediately that this was my chance. Seize the moment! Carpe Cojones! I waved my arms like a maniac to get her attention and yelled, “Hey! Remember me? It’s the Howard Stern guy! Right over here being vulgar and crude!”
Her eyes got real big, then real small, and then she walked quickly down the street shaking her head. At first I felt horrible. If I had seen someone do what I just did I would have thought they were insane. But then I remembered that I was changing my life. I was becoming the man of action will I was meant to be. I wasn’t acting like a jerk. I was fulfilling my destiny.
A week later I saw Shoe Store Stevie again. She was wearing the same outfit: loose cottony flowy stuff with velvet pants under the skirt. This time she was standing across a smoke filled room in a jazz club downtown. I didn’t have the courage to walk up to her so I walked slowly across the room a few tables away and gave her my most devastating smirk while trying to look as tough as possible.
I don’t know if you’ve ever seen me when I’m trying to look tough but I basically look like I’m auditioning for a boy band. In my head I look like Johnny Cash but to everyone else I look like an extra from a Backstreet Boys video.
After that night in the jazz club I started seeing her everywhere. In the library, at the park, in various coffee shops. And every time I’d smirk, nod my head and tap my chest as I mimed the phrase, “Remember me? Duck-duck-goose guy?” All of it from at least 30 feet away. But every time she saw me she’d do the same thing. Her eyes would narrow, she’d shake her head, and then walk away.
This went on for over a month. I finally had to quit because it was exhausting trying to be this abrasive. I wasn’t even hurting from her words anymore. I was hurting because I was failing at confrontation. How could I call myself a man if I didn’t go out of my way to hurt someone who had hurt me?
And that’s when the universe decided I was ready to learn my lesson.
A few days later I was standing behind the counter at Bigelow Office Supply rearranging the pen display for the 10th time that day when Shoe Store Stevie walked in. I couldn’t pretend I didn’t see her because she walked right up to me.
When she got to the counter she said, “I need a good pen. You got one?”
I looked at the all the pens next to me trying to decide which one would hurt the least when she stabbed me in the eye. I said, “You, uh, you can try some of these if you want” and slowly pushed the display toward her. I slid a pad of paper across the counter toward her as I leaned back as far as possible. I wondered if she was going to recite something from the Bible before she killed me like Pulp Fiction or if she was just going to flick her wrist and send a gel pen into my larynx.
After a few scribbles on the pad she put the pen down in front of me and said, “I’ll take this one.” Then, “Hey, aren’t you the comic who came into the shoe store a couple months ago?”
I said quietly, “Yeah, that was me.” I might be a complete failure as an American male but I wasn’t going to run away from my punishment. I deserved everything I was about to get so I leaned forward and waited for a slap, a stab, a rant, whatever it was that was coming my way.
But looking at her up close I got a funny feeling in my chest that quickly sank into my stomach. This was the woman in the shoe store but it wasn’t the woman I had been making faces at all over town. I’d been jumping around and thumping my chest like a monkey at the wrong woman! Somewhere in Olympia there’s another woman who also looks like Stevie Nicks who’s been telling her friends about how sad it is that so many mentally ill people end up living on the street.
I’m pretty lucky I get to say that I’ve been friends with the real fake Stevie Nicks, whose actual name is Angela, for the last 15 years. We see each other around town all the time and she’s engaged to a great guy who has probably heard this story a hundred times because she loves to tell it. I never saw Stevie Nicks #2 again but I’m glad all I ever did was act like a nut at a distance. I hope that I confused her more than scared her.
What I know now that I didn’t know then was that moxie comes in many forms. This year I told some people in Seattle that I would go out into the community and talk about what it’s like to live with depression. They want me and others to come out of the shadows and show people that you can live with anxiety, depression, bipolar, and all kinds of other stuff and still have a good life. It scares the hell out of me that people at work can find some of the stories I’ve told on the Internet. I worry that if I ever have to look for another job those stories could be held against me. But I keep putting them out there because they need to be told.
I grew up thinking I was a coward because I talked my way out of fights and was uncomfortable with the idea of getting even. I don’t believe that anymore. I don’t have the kind of courage it takes into get into a boxing ring but I do have the courage to stand up in public and tell stories about all the mistakes I’ve made to let people know they’re not alone. I’m not sure my mom would be impressed with that but I’m not the kind of guy who cares anymore.
And that’s the kind of story we’re looking for at our next show, February 23, at Roy Street Coffee and Tea. The theme is “Figuring it out – Stories of discovering something about yourself.” Tell us a story about a time when you figured something out about yourself. What happened and how did you change? Were you surprised? Were you scared? Were you ashamed? Do you miss anything about the old you?
Remember to keep it clean and under 8 minutes. Practice out loud in the car or in the living room on the cat. Let me know if you have any questions. I hope to see you on the 23rd.