Big Hairy Ape Redux
It has been quite some time since I barged into the room as a big hairy ape. Since my third shot at grad school, in 1995, when I had considerably more hair (on my head), in fact. That time, I got into it with one of my teachers, a nebbishy little guy with a beard, a combover, wrinkled khakis, Birkenstocks and blue socks. I realize that I have just described every single liberal arts school humanities professor in the U.S.
This guy, David Marshak, who resisted the nickname "The Shack," insisted to me that there was an overflowing reservoir of famous Jewish athletes, proof that the stereotype of the nebbishy Jewish man did not exist. He lived, apparently, in a home lacking mirrors.
Later, discussing this debate with my equally swarthy classmate Joe Mele, we realized that I'd put Marshak in a situation he'd probably faced countless times as an adolescent but few times since. His voice said, "I am a reasonable, educated man having a discussion," but his eyes said, "GET AWAY FROM ME, YOU BIG HAIRY APE!"
We got a kick out of that, Joe and I.
I was a big hairy ape last night, though in a much less threatening way, when I arrived late for my "Breaking into the Glossies!" class.
As I would later learn, my 15-year attempt to fashion myself as some kind of "writer," has been entirely without practical training. Yes, I have workshopped to the point of exhaustion and can tell you why your symbolism doesn't work, but I still have no idea what it takes to call up a stranger and convince him/her to let me write something for them.
In an attempt to finally take charge of this, I signed up for "Breaking into the Glossies!" which, I hoped, would get me past this 15-year-old obstacle.
The room, fashionably empty of furniture on the third floor of a downtown art gallery, was already full of young, attractive, ambitious women when I arrived, five minutes late, sweating buckets from walking up Powell street, the cords from my messenger bag and brand new iPod dangling twisted from my shoulders, sweater and only-slightly-fashionable-and-then-only-in-a-tough-guy-sort-of-way fleece-lined corduroy jacket all askew. There was no more room at the table, so I had to pull up a chair, being careful to keep some distance from the various young, attractive, ambitious women, lest they be splashed with some of the sweat pouring off my middle-aged body.
A big, hairy ape.
I think one of my problems as a writer is that I like to talk too much, amazingly, simultaneous with also being horrified at my appearance and thinking, "Oh, God. Please tell me that I don't smell." No sooner had I settled into this seminar, still sweating, than the instructor waved her hand jauntily at me and asked me to "give a little background," this without any guidance, no seeing anyone else give their background. I launched into it.
Perhaps if I were 15 years younger, less hairy and my skin was dry, they would have found my asides funny. As it were, they dropped to the floor like bricks. Silence filled the room. I swear, I could hear my glands pumping out sweat.
But this was not enough. I had to compound it by launching into an outline of a story about dog walkers that I just "pitched" to "San Francisco" magazine. As I proudly, PROFESSIONALLY gave the lowdown, I noticed that the instructor's pained expression was shared by each and every one of the young, attractive, ambitious women in the room.
Did I mention that I was the only male in there? Okay.
"Uh, yes, I'm going to hang onto that," said the instructor soothingly, as she would were she speaking to a rabid dog in a corner or a cheerful, boistrous "special needs" student stuck in an honors class. "What I meant, though, was what are some elements of a story? What would make it compelling?"
For three hours I stared at the words "DOG WALKERS" in the corner of the white board. And still, I couldn't bring myself to shut up.
Everytime a young, attractive, ambitious woman spoke, I had to add some helpful comment, some personal experience that might add some depth to what she had just said. Weirdly enough, I grew comfortable with this. My body dried and I even, recklessly, put my sweater back on, as if to say, "I am completely at ease in this room full of women much younger and more professional than me. I will dominate the conversation, for I have knowledge from which you can all benefit."
The class was very informative. I learned that I do not know even the basic foundations of pitching stories to editors. My years of cranking out stories to the alternative weeklies did nothing to prepare me for the next step -- the one that would eventually lead to that special place where you're making a living doing this sort of thing.
It was fine. Everyone forgave me for sweating, speaking out of turn and being a middle-aged male. They did what most young, attractive and ambitious young women do in my presence: they ignored me. And the second time I prefaced a comment with, "You'll have to excuse me. I can't seem to shut up," the instructor said, "Oh, no. That's okay."
I would like to think that this one three-hour class will signal a turning point for me. I'd like to think that I will now tap into a small slice of the ambition that was floating around in that art gallery room last night, that I, too, will soon be jetting around the world in pursuit of a lucrative story.
If, of course, that were the kind of thing I wanted to do.