The Crack of Dawn
The Crack of Dawn
Every few months in elementary school we would get an order form for Scholastic Books. You could order a whole variety of different kinds of books, and nobody cared what you got as long as you could pay for it. My mother was always very good about this and would pay for one or two books every time (of course, I still have several of them). One of these books was Ten Great Mysteries by Edgar Allan Poe, dated March 1968, and it cost 60-cents. Thus began my love of the writing of Mr. E. A. Poe. I am both lucky and cursed to have had such an exemplary writer as an early inspiration, except that Poe set an impossibly high standard that I’ve never met (nor anyone else, so I don’t feel all that bad). I memorized the story The Tell-Tale Heart and did it for every speech class. The key was to start off very soft and calm, then work your way up to a frenzy. It was sure-fire material.
On the last day of 9th grade in junior high school, I stopped by the office for some reason. I glanced over at the lost & found bookshelf, and there was a beaten up, hardcover, 1938, Modern Library edition of The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. I asked the lady in the office, “What happens to unclaimed books on the last day of school?” She said, “Take anything you want.” I took the Poe collection. It’s a hefty, red, 1,026-page tome that I have sitting here beside me right now. It has brown blood stains on the last page of the introduction and the first page of the contents. How do I know that these old brown stains are blood? Because it’s my blood.
Improbably, three years later at the age of sixteen, I found myself matriculating at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, thinking to myself, “What am I doing here?” The soundtrack is Peter Frampton singing, Do You Feel Like I Feel. There used to be a movie theater right in the center of town whose name I can’t remember that featured live performances between movies. I’ve covered my first attempt in this theater in an earlier newsletter about my two tries at stand-up comedy. My first try, in that theater, was a disaster. I thought that I could pull off a conversational comedy, along the lines of Bill Cosby, and I couldn’t. It was really awful, but I learned an important lesson. The second and last time I did stand-up, at a roast for my uncle’s 50th birthday, I spent a week combing through joke books. This time when I went before the audience, I had material. And once you deliver, and get them laughing, you’ve won. If you have ten more jokes, good or bad, you’re good.
However, that was a lesson yet to be learned. My second try at this theater wasn’t even a performance, it was an audition. I now had the brilliant idea of reading Poe’s story, The Tell-Tale Heart, which I still knew by heart. The theater was owned and haphazardly run by a middle-aged white guy in a running outfit, who was giving the theater a good shot, but it wasn’t being enthusiastically received. The audition was in the afternoon, and it was just he and I in the theater. He was seated in the audience alone. This was my clever performance: I was seated on a stool on stage, with this very copy of the red, Modern Library edition of Poe on my lap, and I read the story. But having done it a half a dozen times in front of an audience, if I started out really calm and quiet and just followed the words, it built to a wild and crazy climax and it could be fun.
I opened the book to the contents page, looked down and my nose began to bleed. I didn’t have a tissue. Blood got on both pages. I sucked it up, literally, and proceeded with the story.
“True, nervous, very, very dreadfully nervous, I had been and am, but why do you say that I’m mad?”
The plumbing blew. With a crash, a water pipe in the bathroom beside the stage began to pour water into the theater. The owner hollered, “Oh, shit!” and ran away.
I remained on stage for a while. I closed the blood-stained book and wiped my nose. Yep, it was bleeding, though not bad. I thought, “I really should bring a tissue with me.” I watched the water rushing into the auditorium under the seats. I thought, “That could have gone better.”
It wasn’t a good idea anyway – reading a story from a stool? Was I some kind of asshole? If indeed there is a God, it certainly didn’t want me reading that story at that theater. A bloody nose and a plumbing disaster on page one? I got the picture.
And so ended what could have been a glorious stage career.
With that, I bid you good day.