Sometimes you use Sweet Potato Pie for evil.

Image

Thanksgiving has come and gone here in the States.  With it, a myriad of foods, beverages, and desserts have passed in front of my face in the past 48 hours.  I spied a sweet potato pie yesterday.  Now, I don’t know many people who indulge in the baked good made from sweet potatoes, so it is seldom that I come across one.  The last time I remember having an interaction with a sweet potato pie was in high school.  

The year: 1999.  The place: Waynesboro Area Senior High School, Mrs. Kaiser’s 9th grade English class.

Remember those old English class textbooks that had short stories, plays, and excerpts from other forms of literature in them?  
Image

Well, in ninth grade that year, we were assigned to read the short story, SWEET POTATO PIE by Eugenia W. Collier.  I don’t recall the plot of the story, so I’m of no help to you there.  I know it had something to do with a family in a big city.  Besides that, I’m useless.  I’m sure if I looked it up I could easily write a short synopsis here, but I’m not going to do that.  You are welcome to research it on your own.

Anyway, the day came where we were to discuss the reading assignment in class.  Cody, a young man on the outside of our friend group (who, in sixth grade, introduced me to Weird Al Yankovic, by the way), confided in me and a couple of other guys that he had not completed the assignment.  He had not read SWEET POTATO PIE.

Tsk-tsk-tsk.  For shame, Cody.

He asked us to summarize the events of the story quickly for him before class started, lest he be called upon to answer any questions.  He didn’t want to look like an idiot by not knowing what he was talking about.

Now, I had one of those high school experiences that everyone hates me for.  In essence, I was happy.  I had good friends, I got good grades without trying hard, I was popular with all my teachers, and I was in practically every arts extra-curricular group so nobody paid any mind if I was absent.  It was because of these traits that my friends and I were able to skip classes regularly and generally malign the good name of our school by being dirtbags while everyone thought we were awesome.  I’m not saying we were bad kids, mind you.  We did nothing unsavory.  We just took advantage of our niceness and respect that was given to us.  

We were also stupid boys who liked to play tricks on other people.

So when Cody asked us what the story was about, my friend Scott took the lead and spun a tale of Southern hospitality, wherein the main character of Sadie enters her dead mother’s recipe for sweet potato pie into the county fair so she can win a bunch of money to buy back her father’s farm.  She wins, and the farm is saved, and the story has a very happy ending.

(This, coincidentally, is nothing at all related to the actual sequence of events that take place in aforementioned story.)

Cody smiled and thanked us, and we resumed our business in preparation for the class.

When class started, Mrs. Kaiser began by asking who had read the story.  Of course every hand went up in the air.  She asked if someone could please summarize the events of the story for the class.

Now, I’m not sure if he wanted to make a good impression on the teacher, or if he wanted to forego further question-answering, or if he just wanted to show off in front of everyone else, but Cody waved his hand above his head like a flag.  He wanted to answer the question.

There was a moment when Scott and I looked at each other with disbelief.  This was amazing.  We never thought that it would actually happen, that he would actually make a fool of himself in front of everyone.  We thought the chances were fairly slim that she would call on him and he would give some insane answer relating to a baking contest.  But here we were, watching it unfold perfectly.

Cody, when called upon, relayed the story of young Sadie and the county fair, the tragedy of her father’s farm, and the love that went into the baking of the pie itself.  Mrs. Kaiser stood with a straight face, obviously unsure of what to do.  The kids around us were giggling up a storm.  

Proud of himself, Cody finished the synopsis and settled back down into his chair comfortably.

The class erupted in laughter and Mrs. Kaiser shook her head.  Cody’s freckled face grew beat-red and Scott and I almost died of giddiness.

I don’t remember if he was punished for not completing the assignment.  Probably not, since it provided such a wealth of entertainment.  Scott and I each received an embarrassed punch to the arm from the kid, though, which was more than worth it.  

Cody now works as a government contractor working with the US military in Afghanistan.  He’s big and burly and bearded.  Ain’t no way I would pull a stunt like that on him now.

But I always think of that ninth grade English class anytime I think of sweet potato pie.

Advertisements

Sometimes you start a story at 16. And finish it at 26.

Image

 

Ah, high school.  Those ripe and rare salad days.  The virgin landscape of yesteryear.  That delightful time when anything can – and does – occur.  When all roads are open to you, and everything is possible.

It was during this impressionable time in my life that I explored every creative outlet I had in my body.  I acted, I sang, I danced, I composed music, I wrote plays, and of course – I wrote fiction.  Although recently undertaken as a solid professional goal, the urge to write was bred in me long before a whisker showed its face on my chin.  Now, there have been little stories swimming through the river of my mind for as long as I’ve been a sentient being, but it was in high school that the idea of THE NOVEL first reared its head. 

THE NOVEL came to me one day after watching a performance of Puccini’s La Boheme at a waterfront amphitheater.  It was a beautiful evening, and Rodolfo and Mimi sang of their love as the sun set behind them.  I was with my first love, and I had never felt more alive before.  I went home and immediately knew what I was meant to do with my life.
Well, not really.  That never happened.

Really, I have no idea where or how I got the idea for THE NOVEL in the first place.  But it appeared one day and I said, “Hey, that’d be a cool book.”  So I sketched out some ideas and wrote a chapter or two in a journal and promptly forgot about it.

Cut to my sophomore year of college four years later.  Going to school in Philadelphia, I was working part-time at Adventure Aquarium across the Delaware River in Camden, NJ (which, at the time, was considered the most dangerous city in America – fun fact).  Every day I had to get on the PATCO train which connected the two cities and ride it across the Ben Franklin Bridge.  While on this commute one day, I suddenly remembered THE NOVEL.  (I should mention I was going to school for musical theatre at this time, so I had entertained no intention of writing.  Ever.  Not that I was against it – it had just never occurred to me.)

Being an ambitious lad with an hour of nothing to do every day while commuting, and not being one of those silly bookworms who read on the train, and not being one of those crazy teenagers who listen to music on the train, I decided I liked the romance of writing a novel on the train.  I found my old red notebook and set to work with a serious mind.

I plotted out THE NOVEL and created a map of the world (Yes, it was an epic fantasy.  Of course.).  I wrote a few chapters and was so pleased with the novelty of it all.  This was so different than going to voice lessons and dance class and crying in Meisner studio and dealing with hot girls who were actually crazy.  Alas, all good things end, however, and my time at the aquarium drew to a close.  I typed out what I had written and saved it on my computer.  And promptly forgot about it again.

So it went for the next few years – I graduated and got my first professional acting gigs.  I fell in love, fell out of love, moved in with people, moved away from people, had other day jobs, and eventually moved to New York.  During all of this, THE NOVEL would stop by my head to say hello every now and then.  I wrote a couple of chapters between acting gigs, I rearranged a bit of dialogue when going through a breakup, I edited the map anytime I saw a cooler map in another epic fantasy book.

I actually got a lot of writing in during Army basic training.  After the day was over and our drill sergeants released us for the night, I’d sit up in bed with my little notebook, scribbling away about fairies and magic with my M-16 semi-automatic rifle by my side.

Anyway, there came a point when I realized I had finished the darn thing.  So I said, “Neat!” and promptly forgot about it.

Cue me making the decision that I’d like to start writing fo’ realsies.  THE NOVEL is ecstatic.  Happily, I read through it, prepared to start the editing process.  I am appalled.

Here is the problem with beginning a novel at 16 and finishing it at 26:  it was written by at least ten different people. 

I could point out exactly what section each author wrote.  And not because I remembered when I wrote what.  It was because it was so blatantly obvious.  I will highlight a few of these authors:

The 16-year-old wrote like Tolkein or Dickens:  long, luxuriating sentences that carried such weight of import that you wanted to take a nap after every period.  You lost track of the subject of the sentence after hearing how beautiful it was in the moonlight.

The 21-year-old wrote like David Mamet:  whole chapters filled with dialogue.  Occasionally there’d be a “he said” in there, but that was about it.  Otherwise, it was action-action-action.

The 26-year-old wrote with a sense of motivation: whole pages where we followed the characters’ thoughts and feelings, their wants and desires, and then a little blip about what them doing something to get it.

It was like somebody with multiple personality disorder wanted to write a book.

So here we are, a year later, and my agent suggests (not wrongly) that I give it yet another go-through to clarify some points.  Sigh.  How much longer shall I continue to edit, trying desperately to unify these many voices into one?  Only time will tell. 

Hopefully it’s not another ten years.

Sometimes you walk past a dead body on the banks of the Hudson.

At 9:15am today I saw the new Star Trek at Lincoln Square.  At 1:00pm I saw Belvedere Castle as I walked north through the park.  At 2:45pm I saw Memorial Day picnickers when I transferred to the Greenway.

And at 3:05pm I saw a dead body in a bag.

The scene was idyllic:  a lovely sunlit path by the Hudson’s waters, cyclists in family groups laughing at inside jokes, and a light breeze rustling the leaves in the maples.

And two police cars.  And three policemen.  And a slew of purple medical exam gloves tossed haphazardly to one side.  And a large black garbage bag with a slightly swollen foot sticking out.

Ah, and yes – the breeze that was rustling the leaves brought with it a fragrance too fine to put into mere words.  A fragrance that yielded a lush bouquet of various bodily functions and sun-ripened processes, all having matured while marinating in the green-grey waters of the Hudson Valley.

Who was the owner of this water-logged hairy leg, I wondered.  Some poor kayaker bashed against the shoals upstream?  A jilted lover who had had enough of the world?  A drug deal gone awry?

Later, as I reflected upon this event, I was reminded of a time when I had thought I would see another dead body mere inches from me.  Journey with me into the past…

The year was 2011.  Barack Obama was the president.  The world had not yet been introduced to the Internet memes of Lil’ Bub or Grumpy Cat.

I was working (as I still do today) as an Assistant House Manager at Second Stage Theatre, a job that allows me the opportunity to witness the inner soul of humanity on a daily basis and run screaming in the opposite direction.

It was a Wednesday matinee, and we had a school group coming in:  High school.  Inner city.  Tough kids.

I was upstairs in the theater, watching the audience take their seats, when I heard Jenny the ticket-taker’s voice over the headset (it’s in a Welsh accent, P.S.): “Artie, we need you downstairs right now!  Medical emergency!”

Now, for those of you who may not be aware, I’ve served as a medic in the New York Army National Guard for a few years.  Nothing too crazy or outlandish, but I have my EMT certification and a basic skill set for helping those who are in immediate need of medical attention.  Although I have this certification, however, I’ve never really had to use it.  Sure, I’ve given the Heimlich a couple of times, and I treat minor burns, bumps, bruises, and bellyaches when playing Army, but no “real-world” experience, per se.

So you can imagine my total soul-crushing fear upon hearing those words being screamed at me through a two-way radio.  Suddenly I was the one who was responsible for whatever was going to happen.  Suddenly I was the one who was supposed to do something.

My first thought as I ran down the stairs was that it was one of our subscribers.  Bless their little hearts, most of them are geriatric timebombs waiting for the one day that something doesn’t go quite right so they can leave us all behind.  In my head, I went over the steps for CPR: “30 compressions at 100 per minute, two breaths, check pulse.  Or is it two breaths, then compressions?  Or is it pulse?”  I got out my phone from my pocket, holding it at the ready, waiting to hand it off to somebody and shout “Call 911!” in their face.

When I reached the lobby, I scanned the area.  I saw no dead body, so that made me feel a little better.  (Although, let’s be honest – if someone’s already dead, there’s nothing I can do so there’s a lot of pressure that’s taken off my shoulders.)  I saw no blood.  I saw no guts.  In fact, nothing seemed out of place.  There was very little in the way of audience activity down there, as most were already up in their seats.  I spotted Jenny and sprinted to her side.  With a sigh of relief, she directed me to a young man by the front doors.

“He says he feels like he’s going to die,” she told me with a slight tremor of fear.  Then she quietly resumed her tearing of the tickets, reminding audience members to please turn of their cellphones.  I ran to the boy, which didn’t take long because he was only two steps away.

He was definitely from the high school, as he couldn’t have been more than sixteen years old.  He was thin and gawky – as high school boys are – and was showcasing his fly fashion sense by allowing his beltloops to droop down to about the lower-thigh region of his leg.  His arms were crossed and he was pacing in circles by the box office window.  His eyes were wide and his head was shaking.

After greeting him and asking him how he was feeling, he responded with “I dunno man.  Something’s wrong.  Something’s wrong.”  Not to worry, young man.  I, proper medic that I was, went through a prescripted evaluation in the hopes of coming across his ailment.  He continued his pacing while I interrogated him.

When did you start to feel like this?  What exactly do you feel like?  Are you in any pain?  Have you ever felt this way before?  Would you feel more comfortable sitting down?

About halfway through, he apparently got tired of answering my questions.  Brusquely, he grabbed my arm and pulled me out onto the street. “Look,” he whispered. “Can you keep a secret?”

I responded with the ever-elusive “What is it you want to tell me?”

Nervously, the youngster looked around.  “I bought some brownies, man.  Across the street.  I think there’s something bad in them.  I think I’m dying.”

I nodded my head, solemnly.  “And where did you buy these brownies?”

“From a guy.”

“You know this guy?”

“My friend does.”

“Where’s your friend?”

“In the theater.”

“But he had some brownies too?”

“Yeah, and he’s fine.  So’s all the other guys who bought some.”

I continued to nod, ever the medical professional.  I put my phone back in my pocket.  I didn’t think I’d need it at the ready anymore.

“What was in the brownies?”

“Pot, man.  Weed.  But I don’t know.  I don’t think I’m supposed to feel so weird.”

“Have you ever had marijuana before?”

“No.”

“Have your friends?”

“Yeah, they’ve all smoked it before.  Said I should try it.”

“So you tried the brownies?”

“Yeah.  But now my body’s doing weird things and I don’t feel like I felt earlier.”

“Before you ate the brownie?”

“Yeah.”

“You feel different?”

“Yeah.”

“Not normal?”

“Yeah.”

“Hmm.”

“Also?”

“Yeah?”

“I’m really thirsty.”

I got his teacher’s information, and made the kid sit on a bench.  I radioed for them to send the teacher down.  I told the concerned woman what was going on.  She looked at me with incredulity.

“So he’s just high?”

“It appears so.  Yes.”

She punched the young man’s arm and laughed.

I recommended that she take him to the hospital if he really felt like he wanted to go, but that it would probably pass and all would be well.  And that the next time he ate a similarly-baked brownie, he would probably be a little calmer about the whole thing.  They remained in the lobby for the duration of the performance.

I saw him again once more – at another show.  Apparently his school comes to most of them.  He saw me and shook my hand in a very cool way that the white man I am dares not replicate.  “He talked me down,” he bragged to his friends.  “I was mad trippin’, yo!”

And then they entered the theater to witness the beauty of the spoken word.

I had to tell him and his punk friends three times to stop texting during the darn show.