Read an Excerpt SO THE KID HAS SOME PROBLEMS
Growing up, I had severe learning disabilities like dyslexia and attention deficit disorder way before they were buzzwords. I could not read or write until the seventh grade. I had a speech impediment and what was mentioned as possibly a mild case of Tourette's syndrome. Mention Tourette's and everybody has an image of a madman screaming "cunt motherfucker!" in a crowded movie theater. As with all learning disabilities, there is no one conclusive test that confirms Tourette's. A diagnosis of various symptoms is made over time. On one of my many doctor trips over the years one of them noticed a conspicuous shoulder tic that I had had for about a year and linked that with some involuntary hand clapping and head scratching I experienced from time to time. He wanted to know if I had ever been diagnosed with Tourette's. Of course, I was horrified at the suggestion. At the time there was no formal diagnosis, but he suggested we watch the symptoms closely. Since then there still has been no formal diagnosis of Tourette's. More on this later.
In any case, I couldn't manage to break free from the confines of special education until somehow, with help from CliffsNotes, I made it through the respected Hobart College in upstate New York. I graduated with a BA in English as well as a serious addiction to drugs and alcohol. The amount of drugs and alcohol consumed by students at Hobart in the mid-' 80s was massive and is probably worthy of a study of its own. Really. My own intake of cheap keg beer coupled with dangerous drugs left me virtually unemployable (classic burnout).
I come from what many would consider a privileged background. My mother's family was once a large landowner in England, and at one point my grandfather's wool company was one of the largest on the East Coast. But "privileged" is probably not the right word; my grandfather was certainly a wealthy man and were not starving by any means, but my sister and I did not have a lot of perks, considering our Park Avenue address. My sister, Jenny, used to profess that she was the "poorest kid at Kent" (a prestigious prep school in Connecticut). After all, for some time we were primarily living off my father's modest income as a magazine editor and writer, but then, rent on Park Avenue for a three-bedroom apartment was only $500. One must remember that it was the 1970s and people were not exactly clamoring to live in Manhattan as they do now. In fact, I believe it was the opposite. While it was a cultural center and the financial capital of the world, the crime rate was simply too high to attract people who wanted to raise families.
Everyone has seen the pictures of New York City in the 1970s. Central Park was a giant dust bowl with a half-empty reservoir in the middle of it. There were no well-groomed trails or well- maintained gardens. No one would ever have considered venturing into the park after dusk or alone, the way they do now.
Drugs were pedaled everywhere in the seventies; no one would consider living on the Upper West Side or Lower East Side Seventy-second Street and Broadway was dubbed "Heroin Circle." The most defining thing I remember about living in Manhattan back then was that people got mugged...a lot! I mean all the time. My step-grandmother, a first generation immigrant from Ireland, living in an Irish holdout in the Bronx, was mugged three times (once violently) for her bingo money. (She could not tell you who the vice president was, but could work five boards no problem.) I was held up at least five times. Small stuff mostly, a skateboard (with new Red Road Runner wheels and trucks), twenty bucks, my watch. Packs of urban youth would walk up and down the subway cars and torment whomever they wanted to. No one would ever consider riding on the last two cars of a subway train. We all sat in the middle cars huddled for safety. Purse-snatching was not something you would see in movies, but rather witness with your own eyes some guy running down a crowded sidewalk with someone's bag and the victim yelling, "Stop that guy!"
Park Avenue and Fifth Avenue were always opulent, well-kept boulevards, but Third Avenue at Eighty-sixth Street was considered seedy and off limits to me and my sister. I don't like it when I hear people romanticize the past: "You know, Times Square used to have a great seedy element to it." While this may be the case (I visited the peep shows from time to time stoned with my high school friends), generally crime has receded into the background. What Giuliani, coupled with a strong economy, did for the city is amazing. A safer place is a better place.
Anyway, enough of that. The point is I have managed to blast through a substantial (100G) trust fund and, at thirty-five, I am a trainwreck of a man. I have no steady job, no permanent home. I have performed stand-up comedy and worked as a New York City substitute teacher. Two years ago I was arrested on Long Island, New York, for selling fish out of the trunk of my 1985 Dodge Diplomat. Now, if I could have looked into a crystal ball upon graduating from college at twenty-one and saw myself with no wife or children, renting a room at the Y, and selling porgies (fish), I would have probably taken a gun to my head. But, lucky for me, becoming a thirty-five-year-old loser is like diabetes a gradual, progressive thing. One bad job dovetails with another, and suddenly selling fish out of the back of your car becomes the next right thing. In fact, the first time I made a hundred bucks illegally selling fish I remember thinking, Wow, I am doing pretty good! Pretty good? For a sixteen-year-old, perhaps. The guys I graduated from college with run hedge funds on Wall Street. Well, I guess everything is relative. I remember that the rock band Talking Heads has a song called "Once in a Lifetime." One of the lyrics goes like this: "And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife. And you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?" If I was forced to write a rendition of this song it would be more like: "You may wake up and ask yourself: What is this rash on my stomach and why do I work at Pathmark?"
I am one bad career decision away from living in a cardboard box or moving in with my father the ultimate humiliation.
So, as of only a couple of years ago, my most efficient way of getting cash was by bumming off my family. I have gotten so proficient at this that I could probably teach a class at the graduate level. Luckily, I do not live with Mommy anymore. For years I lived out in Queens, but the umbilical cord still went out of her apartment, traveled across the East Side and over the East River, right into my apartment. Even today a team of therapists armed with saws and axes are trying to sever it. I guess, when it comes down to it, I would rather have dealt with the subtle low self-esteem associated with borrowing money from my family than the tangible pain of working nine to five.
I am not sure what Dr. Phil would say, but parents with children who are afflicted with real learning disabilities (when I say "real" I am not talking about "slow"; I mean, I could not read or write at all) feel guilty and have a tendency to overcompensate and enable us. They may clean up your room for you, or not get appropriately mad at you, or impose inadequate punishment when you screw up. In my case my mommy would give me money. But all of that changed five years ago when some awful, awful person came along and screwed up all the fun, feeding my mommy with a bunch of propaganda that she was "enabling me" blah blah. One day, when I stopped by her apartment and asked her for some loot, to my amazement and horror, she told me no. And that, get this, every time she gave me money she was "cutting my balls off." Imagine hearing this from your mother. That she is cutting your balls off!
Keep in mind, I was good at what I did really, really good. She stunned me, no doubt about it. No one wants to hear his mother say "I am cutting your balls off," no matter how accurate it might be. I was staggered. But I collected myself and used what I thought was a brilliant analogy. "Look, Mommy, you make a good point, but theorize with me a second: if you take a bear that has been in captivity for his whole life, nurtured and fed by humans, then throw it out in the wild, do you think that bear will survive?" That line got me probably another two hundred bucks, but after that I was cut off.
First off, I must admit that I am writing this opus with a certain degree of desperation. Back in college I found it necessary, while others were studying, to snort something like a kilo's worth of the hideous designer drug ecstasy up my enormous nose, wiping out millions of productive and healthy dancing brain cells in the process. I fear that eventually my last two neurons will betray me, saying something along the lines of, "Look, somehow you managed to get rid of all our friends and fellow workers that helped us to process information and remember names. You have been pushing us to the limit, sustaining us ith only wretched black coffee and the occasional blast of nicotine, so we are out of here!" Then, like an old lawn mower that has been pushed too far without oil, there will be a big bang, some black smoke, and then a possibly pleasant but ultimately unproductive state of dementia. I could go on at length about the long-term horrors of ecstasy abuse (chronic paranoia, bone marrow loss), but let me cut to the crudest, most effective deterrent that I tell college kids when I perform: "I did a lot of ecstasy twenty years ago, and today my dick only gets hard in the middle!"...So don't do it!
So, while I have this brief window of clarity, please indulge me in my story. At this point you're thinking: Why do I want to read an autobiography written by a nobody? To this, I say "Good point." You may also be thinking: Here's another writer shamelessly exploiting his life and handicaps for a book. Again, I commend you for your astute grasp of reality. In an effort to establish complete candor, I will take it a step further and confess that my primary motivation for writing, or performing stand-up comedy for that matter, is to date hot women (which certainly has not worked so far). There are many success stories of people high-profile politicians and professional athletes who have overcome severe learning disabilities to ultimately reach monumental success. Be warned. This is not one of those stories. THE PERFECT STORM
In The Perfect Storm, by Sebastian Junger, three different weather patterns conspire to create the ultimate storm. My "storm" has three ingredients: vicious learning disabilities (in my years as a stand-up comic I used to joke that my SATs were so low that my entire school district lost funding), an insatiable appetite for drugs and alcohol, and the fact that I am a WASP.
At one point in history, the WASPs aggressive imperialists that they were conquered and then ruled the free world. Now it seems that we are a dying breed. Perhaps it is some sort of cosmic payback. Most WASPs, and I know there are some exceptions, have a tendency to sit around and wait to inherit money and various neurological diseases. Hopefully, in that order. (There were a lot of inbred folk on the Mayflower, don't you know. Put in the crudest terms we all fucked each other back on that island. You can't find a more WASPy name than Parkinson's.) You show me a couple of pale-skin twins with Coke-bottle glasses and I bet they can be traced back to England. Obviously I am generalizing, but a lot of WASPs seem to be in a perpetual "holding pattern." When was the last time you saw a WASP help out another WASP? Sure, we will get together at the Union Club for a game of squash and a drink, but I will submit that we lack the solidarity of, say, the Irish, Koreans, or Jews. What I am saying is, I can't help my poor work ethic and weak libido (we simply can't fuck well but we are great bankers); I was saddled with these apathetic, privileged genes at birth. DYSLEXIA
Let's talk now about my specific learning disabilities. I have been diagnosed with dyslexia and attention deficit disorder (ADD). Dyslexia, I believe (some don't), is a real and powerful biological and neurological phenomenon. A severe case of dyslexia can render a person unemployable and put tremendous stress on the individual and his or her family. This condition does not discriminate; it can affect anyone regardless of his or her intelligence level.
A friend of mine, Max, with whom I graduated from high school, simply could not read at all. Max also had horrible spelling and handwriting. Today, Max is a prolific artist whose works sell for up to a hundred grand a piece. His art has been shown in many museums and galleries across the world.
Another friend, Jim, was performing so poorly in middle school that he was sent to a BOCES program. (The New York State Board of Cooperative Educational Services provides special programs and resources for kids who learn differently.) That meant that Jim was so difficult that his case was actually contracted out that, folks, is a severe case of dyslexia. Jim, however, made lemonade out of lemons, and, after a brief stint of dealing drugs and a couple of stays at reform schools, he used his strong interpersonal skills to learn about the contracting business. Ten years later, he started his own construction company in Florida and is married with two great kids.
Finally, another friend, Mark, was told by a guidance counselor that he should not bother applying to college. Instead, his parents hired a good tutor, and while he still struggled with English, he developed a strong aptitude for math. I was lucky enough to be standing next to Mark when we got the results of his SAT. Though his verbal was rock bottom, a 220, his math score, a 780, was in the top percentile in the country. Mark went to college on a few scholarships.
Aside from chronic sloppiness and the obvious mixing up of words and letters, another common denominator with LD people is that we are all (with the exception of Mark's 780 in math) horrific standardized test takers absolutely awful. What the dyslexics do to the national curve is downright contemptible. Even worse than test taking is our inability to read aloud publicly; it is actually comical. By ourselves we can usually labor through a book with some comprehension, but when we have to perform in front of a group, like a collective root canal, it is an agonizing experience for everyone involved. Show me a man who breaks out in a rash when he is asked to read aloud, and I will show you a dyslexic person. Is it any wonder that most learning-disabled people, in an effort to take the edge off and eliminate embarrassment, crawl into a vodka bottle any chance they get? DYSLEXIA AND THE WORKPLACE
"We dyslexics are discriminated against!" my old friend Tim used to profess. Tim was referring to our plight in the workplace. To be fair, I should add that Tim had a daily pot habit. However, his point is not without some merit.
Unfortunately, capitalism rarely slows its wheels to accommodate the learning disabled. There simply is not enough time. If you happen to be saddled with a severe learning disability and find yourself gearing up for the workforce, get ready to hear two words a lot: "You're fired." Sometimes, these words will be cloaked in more euphemistic terminology like "We are downsizing," or "I don't think this is going to work out," or "Look, this job is not for everyone." When the economy is good, the learning disabled can usually find something (our slowness has to be tolerated because the workplace needs bodies), but I have found that when the economy is bad the learning disabled, on a superficial level reeking of incompetence, are the first to get their walking papers. After years of working on fishing boats in Montauk, New York, I realize that I am not a proactive employee, rather I am reactive. This could be distilled to this formula: They yell, I do.
Half the time we dyslexics don't even get job interviews because our handwriting is so illegible. Dysgraphia coupled with our awful phonetic spelling means our applications are never even considered. Learning-disabled people often never get through the initial screening process. This makes sense, as most employers are inundated with applications and are looking to lighten their loads. Eliminating any applications with pigeon scratch will help them thin down their pile.
In defense of dyslexics, let's face it when it comes to spelling, the English language sucks. The rules suck, as do the exceptions to the rules. "And sometimes y?" What does that mean? Could this be a little more vague? Is it -ible or -able, threw or through? Do I preform or perform? I don't know! I would submit that the spelling rules are a form of tyranny for the dyslexic. I was not necessarily a dumb kid, but in high school I would misspell just about every word. A dictionary is of little use to the phonetic speller. Even spell check on a computer, while helpful at times, is not sympathetic or accommodating to the phonetic speller. It an betray us. For whatever reason, I never include r when I write the word first. Spell check on a computer, as good as it is, does not know that I want first, so it sees fist and leaves it alone.
It seems as though the people who wrote the English language purposely tried to mess us up. Here is a tangible example: f and ph. Pardon my Phrench but what the phuck is up with this? A comic friend named Jackie called and left a message on my answering machine to tell me about a big thousand-dollar comedy gig that she could not do and I could have. I had, of course, lost Jackie's number, but I knew her address and called information to get the number. I spelled her last name like it sounds "Fallen." Who the hell would not? The operator informed me that there was no such listing. I tried a few more times with various spellings but finally gave up, figuring that, like a lot comics I know, Jackie had fled the country a step ahead of the law. Two years later I bumped into Jackie. When I told her that I was trying to get in touch with her, she informed me that her name is spelled with a Ph Phelan. Ph cost me a thousand dollars. Can't this be amended somehow? I am just a guy trying to stagger through (threw) my miserable life. How about this new rule? If it sounds like f, let's use oh, I don't know the letter f! As unfair and arbitrary as the ph rule is, the English language does have some wonderful, phonetically friendly words: Madagascar and mascara come to mind.
Spelling traumas aside, there are some tasks that I am good at. I like jobs where I move things. When I get involved in a project that involves moving objects about, I can become quite diligent and effective. I guess some latent puritanical work ethic kicks in. As if trying to make up for every job I have ever messed up in the past, I work methodically.
For example, take moving a pile of wood: I have no problem moving one pile of wood to another pile. I could not pile it neatly, but nevertheless the wood would (that sounds funny) get moved.
A job that entails moving those big plastic colored balls, like the ones found in big bins at your local toy store, is perfect for me. I can get up in the morning, struggle through my cluttered, dysfunctional world of unopened bills, dirty dishes, and disillusioned friends, and somehow make it to work. Nirvana! The boss simply has to point to three big bins in a huge empty room. One of the bins, marked "A," has a bunch of red, white, and blue balls in it. The boss simply tells me to put all the red balls in one bin, put the blue balls (no pun intended) in another, and leave the white ones in the original bin. That's it.
There are no rules, regulations, guidelines, or middle-management intervention. I do not have to interact with anyone, and I can use whatever method I deem appropriate to move the balls. For instance, I can carry two and kick one along. I can even throw or juggle the balls. I can complete the task any way I damn well please so long as I meet my quota for the day. Imagine the sense of accomplishment! I can meet my friends at a bar afterward, and when they ask me how my day was, I can answer, "Great. I moved all the blue and red balls! Go by and take a look!" Then I will get good and liquored up. After all, I deserve a reward. I know I am basically a spectator of life. I don't even have a credit card. I don't know how the fuck you human beings do it! Life is such a pain in the ass: the bills! the paperwork! the cleaning! the expired warranties! everything breaks! And what about the kids! Humans have to be like ants in a nest always working, always moving. I am in awe of the mundane. My own dysfunction is the reason I am extremely attracted to highly functional people. I remain baffled and amazed by people who invent things. It does not have to be a huge invention like the internet, GPS, or Viagra to impress me either. Like the other day, I was helping a friend move into a new apartment that is a law: if you are a loser you must always be on call to help people move and the boxes we put down to hold the door open kept sliding and proved generally ineffective. Some lady who lived in the building, noting our predicament, quickly sized up the situation and took a small piece of cardboard, folded it, and stuck it in the corner of the door, which held the door open firmly so we could lug our stuff in. A miracle! We looked at her in awe, as if she had just shot lightning out of her ass. I have always been impressed also by the resourcefulness of the characters in books like Lord of the Flies or Robinson Crusoe. If I were stuck on a deserted island with the guys I hung out with in high school, there would be no irrigation systems, no pulleys, no rafts, and fire would be out of the question. When archae-ologists would find our remains decades later, all they would find would be skeletons and a bunch of coconuts with holes in them. That is right we would have been a colony of coconut fuckers. TOURETTE'S SYNDROME
Tourette's syndrome is really nothing more than a severe case of hyperimpulsiveness, or, better put, the inability to control impulses. Not all people with Tourette's syndrome actually yell out. I believe too much caffeine will trigger this in me. I do not yell or talk out loud yet. I feel that it is not a case of if but when. In fact, I came close to yelling out on a crowded subway the other day, professing "Good God! I'm lonely!" But, you see, I'm not sure I am afflicted with Tourette's. Rather, my impulse originated from the God-sized hole in my soul. The only symptom of Tourette's I have manifested so far is a slight motor twitch that becomes more pronounced when I am stressed.
And occasionally I rock back and forth and clap loudly. I now, very odd indeed. As one might imagine, this activity is usually interpreted as extremely antisocial and the clapping has even managed to get me evicted once. I must also add that when I am excited I tend to scratch my head, an action that certainly alarms and alienates people. CHRONIC SLOPPINESS
I am a slob. (Doctors call it executive function deficit.) In some rural areas of Texas we are referred to as "pigs" or "clusterfucks," not to be confused with "pack rats," which are separate entities altogether. My roommates in college used to refer to me, without affection, as "the Varmint."
Certainly I believe that my sloppiness has something to do with laziness, but also I believe it is related to my learning disabilities, and that somewhere in my brain is an organic chemical malfunction that relates to order. My sloppiness transcends the usual sloppiness of others. I am a Chronic Slob. I have several Chronic Slob theories that I believe are supported by anecdotal evidence from my own life.
The difference between a sloppy person and a Chronic Slob is that the Chronic Slob's mess cannot be re-created. Chronic sloppiness can be seen as a work of art. A team of scientists cannot replicate in ten hours what I can do to a hotel room in five minutes. A sloppy person has a three-day-old pizza box on his living room table. I have the same pizza box, but I do not have a living room table, or a living room for that matter. Inside the pizza box there is a W-2 form and a sock. A sloppy person will have three-week-old sheets on his bed.
I don't need a vacuum cleaner for my room; I need a backhoe, although this matters not because I, the Chronic Slob, never clean. I simply move out, usually with all my worldly possessions, or those I can find, stuffed into two large green garbage bags. Once I was getting out of a cab in front of the apartment of a friend who was nice enough (or codependent enough) to let me move in with her. I put my two garbage bags on the curb and went to pay the cab driver. When I turned around, three people, not necessarily homeless, were riffling through my stuff. I had to fight them off. "Hey, that's my stuff," I protested. One of the guys claimed that he got there first. If it was not for the doorman, who knew me, a scuffle may have taken place.
Probably the most distinguishing characteristic between a Chronic Slob and a sloppy person is that the sloppy person does not like to be sloppy and is embarrassed by his slothfulness while the Chronic Slob prefers a good mess on some level. In fact, the Chronic Slob prefers chaos to order. He wallows in it. I know I should do things 1, 2, 3, but I prefer, or must, do things 1, 3, 2.
Chronic sloppiness transcends all economic and social boundaries. I passed a homeless person on the street the other day and found myself genuinely envious of the way he had structured his shopping cart. Here was order: his cans were organized; his newspapers were neatly tied up; and his tarp was folded perfectly. Quite impressive.
Chronic sloppiness, which has certainly tempered, if not ruined, any chance of a career or social success for me, is a common denominator among learning-disabled people. When it comes down to it, life is basically all about details and paperwork: bills, forms, applications, and occasional warrants. A healthy person with a clear mind takes the process in stride, deriving a sense of well-being when the task is done. A person with a learning disability sees day-to-day paperwork as a virtual meteor shower and becomes paralyzed. Sometimes, I will get my act together and pay some bills and enjoy that wonderful solace that comes when one "has his house in order." It all comes crashing down a month later when I am broadsided by the next set of bills, to my shock and outrage. "What is this phone bill? I just paid one of these last month!"
Countless times I have ventured into my room with the best intentions to clean. Armed with a broom and a bottle of Windex, I enter my den. The problem is that I have an inability to finish a task once I start it. I start sweeping. Move to the windows. The phone rings. Instantly, I am overwhelmed. Two minutes later I find myself in the corner, assuming the fetal position, frantically masturbating.
Sloppy people tend to smell bad but are embarrassed when it is brought to their attention. A Chronic Slob smells, but embraces it. I tend to enjoy my own musk and giggle when people point out with indignation that I reek.
I used to jest in my comedy act that the "worst day of the week for a slob is laundry day, because you spend half the morning rifling through scattered clothing on the floor trying to find something that you have not cum on." I also used to say that if "I had a vagina it would stink." (The first joke used to work well, apparently people identified with it; the second would elicit groans.)
When it comes to relationships I, the Chronic Slob, have problems. Many Chronic Slobs are charismatic; after all, they have to have some charm just to get through life. However, I would say that they are usually incapable of staying in a relationship.
I know women often look at me and think: Project! Clean him up a bit! Get those gross teeth sandblasted! Get him to clip his nails! Buy some toilet paper for him! Indeed, after all that work there might be a good product. However, the first time these optimistic women discover that I have dashed out a cigarette in their $100 container of moisturizer, they flee from me like a gazelle from a lion. A lot of guys are looking for a woman who wants to settle down; I am looking for someone who simply wants to settle.
Finally, if you want to have some fun, ask a Chronic Slob to empty his pockets. Sure, you will find the typical stuff, like candy wrappers and useless month-old receipts, but mixed in with the junk will be unexplainable stuff, like nine yards of snarled twine.
Stimulants, like the ridiculously overprescribed drug Ritalin, can help a Chronic Slob. They are delicious tasty little nuggets of productivity. Ritalin comes in delightful yellow five-and ten-milligram tablets. Wonderful (and festive) green and white twenty-milligram time-release capsules are also yummy. Take one pill and what was once a messy room becomes a highly functional factory.
The problem for me with Ritalin is that while I get what I paid for the ability to focus the drug does not have a "stop focus" gauge. What was once a casual glance at a girl's ass becomes an awkward glare. I have taken the drug and realized it was too much for me after polishing off the entire bottle in two days. (Is it bad to snort it?) I spent the entire time barricaded in my room organizing my underwear and sock drawer.
I do know that if Oscar from The Odd Couple were on Ritalin, he would be cleaner and neater, but he also might not be Oscar. Oscar would be focused, but focused primarily on getting his mitts on some more Ritalin. The goddamn stuff is addicting as hell.
Copyright © 2007, 2009 by Jeff Nichols