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Plays & Musicals 

In his book The Science of Storytelling, Will Storr writes, "Who we are is how we're broken," while mythologist Joseph Campbell said, "the only way you can describe a human being truly is by describing his imperfections." I am broken and imperfect. With that in mind, let's start. 

 

Lights up on my first blurred memory - I'm seven and in the backseat of a faded fifties Buick. We're parked on the side of a derelict county road in Missouri. In the front, my mom is leaning out the window, pleading with my father. I peek out the back window and see his rain-soaked silhouette standing in the ditch, holding a gun to his head. You know life's shit when your first childhood memory is of a suicide ... attempt.

 

I've oft wished I was born into a loving Jewish New York family - Reformed, not Orthodox. And that I had an EU passport, or dual citizenship, and could live wherever I wanted. And that after graduating from Yale Magna Cum Laude, I'd backpack Europe for two years. Upon my return, tan and fit, I'd run into the boss of a top literary agency who'd be so impressed with my overall confidence and knowledge of Flaubert that he'd hire me on the spot. And every Friday at three, I stop everything and close the door to my all-glass high-rise office because that's when my father calls to tell me how proud he is of me. 

 

Instead, I was born a gentile to a psychopath light and a first-grade schoolteacher in Iowa City, Iowa, voted by American Hebrew Magazine the least Jewish place on earth. The year was 1955, the same year Disneyland opened, and Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of the bus. The top TV show that year was Jackie Gleason's The Honeymooners, a sitcom that poked fun at domestic violence. My father must've drawn inspiration from that show, for he regularly inflicted bruising punches on my mother, which she covered with makeup and dignity.

 

According to one of my father’s oft-repeated self-flattering parables, in 1959, the University of Iowa offered him not only tenure but a full professorship. But he turned it down. Only years later did I question this. Why would he, with a family to support, turn down guaranteed employment at a university he loved? The truth? My father was just a PhD-less temporary adjunct at Iowa; in other words, a disposable academic. And in 1959, they disposed of him. Yet, when he was well into his nineties, living in a crummy retirement home, barely able to see, hear or walk, he was still introducing himself as a “retired professor from the University of Iowa,” a place he hadn’t worked in over six decades.

 

After Iowa sacked him, my father bounced from one temp teaching job to another before landing a gig at a community college near Bay City, Michigan. I grew up in a rented clapboard house (1812 9th Street) in a dying industrial town whose only claim to fame was that pop star Madonna had been born there. She hated Bay City as much as I, calling it “smelly.” We were there at the same time but never met.

 

I was a latch-key kid, meaning I came home to an empty house after school because my parents worked. One day, after grade school, I unlatched the front door and immediately knew something wasn’t right. Spooked, I eased into the dark house. Then it hit me. The organ was missing. We had this ugly upright electric organ. I don’t know why; no one played it. It was there when I left for school, but now it was gone.

 

I followed the drag marks in the ugly pink threadbare carpet to the kitchen and down the basement stairs, where I found it, busted into a thousand bits, none bigger than a saltshaker. What goes through the mind of a man who thinks, maybe today I’ll take an extra-long lunch, go home, drag a musical instrument into the basement, vaporize it with a sledgehammer, and leave the chaos for my latch-key kids to find?

 

My brother, sister, and I weren’t allowed to leave our beds at night without asking permission. My bedroom was right across from the only toilet. Standing at my door, I could’ve made the shot, but to span that short chasm, I had to shout, “I have to go to the bathroom!” over and over, waking everyone. Only when the old man awoke and granted permission could we pee. As a result, we all suffered from sleep deprivation and a wide range of Freudian urinary challenges.

 

I was a terrible student at Thomas Jefferson Elementary and hated Mrs. Burns, the witch who ruled 3rd grade. She’d led us in duck-and-cover drills to protect us when the Russians dropped the bomb. She told us that anyone near the blast would instantly turn into a marbleized carbon shadow on the sidewalk. I couldn’t understand how ducking under my desk was supposed to prevent this or why my tiny elementary school would be on the Russian target list.

 

One afternoon Mrs. Burns came to class in shock and tearfully told us that school was canceled and we were to go home immediately, but she wouldn’t tell us why. I nervously scanned the sky for the A-bomb flash on my way home. My old brother ran up the block from home and said, “Did you hear? They killed the President!” I jumped for joy and did a little dance! Kennedy dying was a much better end to my day than being turned into carbon on the sidewalk.

 

A few days after Kennedy’s assassination, my terrified mother packed us into her VW Bug and tried to make a break for it. My father blocked the driveway and kicked in the car door. He wasn’t a big man, but it wasn’t a big car. After she escaped, he got his shotgun and made still another attempt. This time cops smashed down the front door and took his drunk ass to the county jail. Some apathetic shrink pronounced him sane the following day and sent him home with his gun. A few days later, my mother took us back to the house of horrors.

 

I, the middle child, turned out perfectly normal; I was just neurotic and a sleepwalker. In the middle of the night, I’d take myself on unconscious journeys and engage in comatose conversations. Plus, I was stupid. I couldn’t spell, commas and semicolons mystified me, and algebra was a nonsensical language designed to defeat my last bit of self-worth. My father’s way of encouraging me to get better grades was to slap me around when I got a bad report card. It didn’t help.

 

Even though both my parents were college-educated, I grew up in a house almost devoid of books. When he did read, my father read about economic disasters. In 1965, our coffee table book was about the coming great depression of 1966. When that crash failed to materialize, it was replaced with a book predicting the coming economic catastrophe of 1967 - This was repeated in 68, 69, 70, 71, and 72.

 

On Sundays, he’d load us into his Chevy Bel Air (Shotgun in the trunk) and take us for a two-plus-hour “family drive.” As he drove, he’d regale us with stories about his awesomeness. He called himself a “lone wolf” who doesn’t play by the rules, and we believed him. We were kids; what did we know? Once in traffic, some female driver pissed him off, so he chased her, got her to stop, and spit on her windshield. Another time he tried to run over my brother. Still another, he yelled at my mother, “Don’t act like a Jew.” A strange thing to say because my mother wasn’t Jewish. As a result, I grew up with odd ideas about wolf behavior.

 

As a prerequisite to high school, I had to take a bullshit I.Q. Test, which screened for signs of intelligence. The night before the test, my parents had fought World War Three, so I scored as cognitively impaired the next morning. As a result, I was placed in remedial classes during my first year in high school.

 

I limped through my first half of high school with uninspired grades and teachers. At the end of my sophomore year, some jaded adviser asked what I wanted to do after graduation. I told him that I wanted to go to college. He laughed so hard that something came out of his nose.

 

I forgot about dating. Generally, girls sideline you when they learn your father is a suicidal, wife-beating twit. But apparently, Mary misplaced the memo. She was blond and had a Hapsburg jaw. She kept cornering me at my locker, trying to sell me on the “triune God.” Her pious pitch made little sense - if I couldn’t understand algebra, what were my chances with Catholicism? But something about the way she said “Father, Son, and Hoooooolly-Ghost” turned me on. So, I asked her on my first date—a movie.

 

I took her to the Woody Allen movie Bananas, which she didn’t think was funny. After we walked out to the car to discover that I’d left the lights on, the battery was beyond dead. Panicked, I called my father – Why? Early childhood-inspired potty training. After he jumped the engine, I dropped the Mother Mary imitator off and went home to face his wrath. He had his usual conniption and took away my newly won car keys - So much for religion and dating.

 

I didn’t know it then, but I was rather handsome. Not Harrison Ford nice but good enough: Six-foot, dark thick curly hair, blue eyes. Once, a stranger stopped me and asked if I’d like to earn a hundred a day as a model. It was 1975, a hundred dollars was a lot of money.) I balked; obviously, he was a sexual predator. But then I found out he was a legit talent scout. So, I modeled for snowmobile ads in Skidoo magazine. Even after getting paid for my looks, I still had so little self-knowledge I couldn’t figure out why Catholics, or women in general, were attentive.

 

One day in high school, Mother Mary ordered me to meet her in the Pine Ridge Cemetery. There I tried to explain Woody Allen to her while she tried coaxing me into accepting indulgences and relics, only this time she used a kiss as bait. My first test tube lip-lock came at 16 from a devout catholic in a graveyard. And it wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t good enough to make me believe that a virgin could get pregnant without having sex, so she dumped me.

 

Mary wrote in my senior yearbook, “To a nice guy, I guess. A real swingin’ time, huh? No, really, you are a fine person, with the exception of a few things. Well, anyway, good luck… Friends always, Mary” And then she disappeared into the rows of faces that one finds in forgotten flea market yearbooks.

 

That same counselor who laughed at my college prospects in my junior year advised me into geometry. I’m sure he was trying to hasten my exodus from high school so I could start my lucrative custodial career. Then something extraordinary happened. I understood geometry. From day one, angles and equilateral triangles all made sense. I was so good at it that I was tutoring the other students.

At the end of the semester, I opened my report card: D, F, D, C, A in geometry! That night, after my father slapped me around, I took my report card to bed, and I cried tears of joy - Maybe I wasn’t a dimwit. After that, I started genuinely studying, and three semesters later, upon graduation, I’d managed to lift my GPA to something like D+!

 

How could someone with a pathetic GPA and SAT score of less than zero get into college? Well, I couldn’t. Then I found Northern Michigan University, an isolated academic outpost on the snow-filled shores of Lake Superior. They had an open-door policy; any imbecilic was accepted under a program called “right to try.” Isn’t that a great pickup line? “What are you?” “Rhodes Scholar, you?” “Right to try.” There was one contingent to their let-any-idiot-in policy: if you didn’t have a “C” average by Christmas, you were expelled with no appeal.

 

So, a month after my 18th birthday, I left my bat-shit crazy family, got on a Greyhound bus, and arrived in Marquette, Michigan, to do something I was woefully unprepared for, academia. The only thing I knew about this new life was that I’d no longer have to ask permission to go to the bathroom. The dorms rocked with the hubbub of music, yelling, and beer parties that first evening, yet I slept well because it was the quietest night I had ever known.

 

The following day a disinterested advisor asked what my major was. I was blank. He drilled me about my high school experience. Nothing stood out except for being kissed by a papist in a boneyard. His dead eyes dissected my uninspiring transcripts when I offhandedly mentioned that I'd once been in a play. Relieved, he declared that I was to be a theatre major. And so, I became a thespian even though no one in my family showed the slightest interest in the stage. That is, except for my father's tendency to sledgehammer upright organs, which might count as performance art. 

 

In my first class, I was assigned to read Romeo and Juliet. I'd never read anything Elizabethan, and Shakespeare was not a topic of conversation in my remedial high school English classes. If I'd been born today, I'd be labeled dyslectic and be fawned over by educational specialists who'd tell me that people with dyslexia are "out-of-the-box thinkers," but, in those days, you were just called dumb. It looked like my college career wouldn't make it to Thanksgiving. Then, I discovered a recording of Shakespeare's masterpiece in the library. I found that I could make sense of it if I bypassed my eyes and listened.

 

On the eve of my 19th birthday, she sat down next to me during some campus rock concert. After chitchatting, she asked if she could see my dorm room, which I thought was odd; I mean, don’t they all look alike? Naïvely I gave her a tour of my desk, chair, and bed - Then she mounted me, and we did it. Afterward, I profusely expressed my never-ending appreciation and eternal gratitude, which freaked her out. Then I made it weirder - I admitted it was my first time. She immediately dressed, said, “That explains it,” left, and never spoke to me again. I didn’t catch her name. Happy Birthday.

 

Except in comedies, I lacked talent as an actor. I memorized lines and hit my marks but was no better than ten thousand other small college wannabees who become entertainment directors on cruise ships. I can’t explain what goes on in my brain; I see words, I want to say them, but someplace between my left hemisphere and tongue, my neurons tangle. Once after a sputtering audition, a director snidely quipped, “That was lovely; now be so kind as to do it again and this time say the words in the order in which they appear on the page.”

 

My eye/brain/mouth coordination wasn’t helped by a bout with viral encephalitis that hit me during my junior year. I was so sick I should’ve taken a semester off and gone home to recuperate, but I had no home to go to, so I lay deathly ill in my dorm for weeks. After that, I began having problems with hesitations, gentle stammering, and occasional aphasia.

 

I graduated from Northern Michigan Cum Laude. It wasn’t Yale and Magna Cum Laude, but at least I was no longer “right to try.” At graduation, I proudly showed my parents my gold graduation-with-honors tassel. My father said, “Of course, you graduated with honors; you went to a Podunk-U.” Without a penny to my name, I went home for the summer; it was a mistake.

 

Under the delusion that acting was a viable career choice, I tried for an MFA. But after a sputtering audition at a graduate cattle call, only the University of Illinois showed interest but offered zero financial aid. So, I applied for thousands of student loans. The problem was that one of my parents had to co-sign. Mom wouldn’t do it without the old man’s permission, so I approached, and as expected, he flew into a rage.

 

When my father wanted to mock me, he’d do a childish little rumba and sing, “Silly Little Billy, Not Looking Right, Not Looking Left!” I never understood what the tirade meant, but this time, as he danced with the unsigned student loan shredded at my feet, I socked him in the mouth. His reaction was a swift barrage of wallops and whacks. I was now taller and stronger than him. I could’ve easily crippled him, but instead, I took it as a child. When the slap-fest ended, I left to face my new homeless future.

 

It lasted only one night. The next afternoon, my sister found me; a letter had arrived from the University of Illinois offering me a modest scholarship and tuition waiver. My father quickly pointed out that the offer coming so late in the summer meant I was not on their ‘A’ or ‘B’ list, but ‘C’ was good enough for me. A month later, my parents saw me off at the bus station, where my father assured me that my failure was preordained.

 

I spent the next three years playing small parts at the University of Illinois. Upon graduation, I asked the pompous head of the department, for a letter of recommendation for some job I thought I was qualified for but wasn't. The next day, I found the letter in my grad student mailbox sealed in an envelope but without a stamp. I was on my way to the post office when it hit me; I know where the department keeps the envelopes; I can open the letter and read it before I mail it. And I did. Under official department letterhead were the words, "William attended the University of Illinois from August 1977 to May 1980." That was it, one line, nothing else. I threw it away. 

 

At the end of my first year at Illinois, I was cast in an outdoor drama in Alabama, where I played a Confederate soldier with a dreadful Dixieland accent. The actors were housed at the University of Montevallo, once a plantation now turned into a college campus. One muggy afternoon, I wandered across the quad, thinking about my screwed-up life, when a theatre major stepped up and said, “May I walk with you?” She had a marinated southern drawl, king-size brownish-green eyes, tiny sexy ears, and a petite nose so small her sunglasses wouldn’t stay up.

 

I reacted as I always did to pretty women; I snidely quipped, “It’s a free country.” Subtext, “I’m damaged goods.” Apparently, she didn’t get the hint, so the next day, she sat across from me in the cafeteria. I looked up from my disgusting plate of grits and saw veins. She had cute tiny green veins on her temples that made her look so damn smart. She was like a tea cake, and the veins were frosting.

 

So, later that day, we sat on a park bench under a magnolia tree on the quad, and while she tried to keep her sunglasses up, I told her about my father’s shotgun, the suicide attempts, spitting on windshields, the wife-beating, the busted-up organ, and having to ask permission to go to urinate. Isn’t it best to let her know immediately and not later when I start sleepwalking? Then came the icing; she, too, came from a fucked-up family.

 

A few days later, Lucy introduced me to her parents. Billie Jean was an opinionated windbag and faded head cheerleader who ran a beauty shop near Birmingham. Her father was a gentle man called Itchey (his name was James Homer, but no one knew that) was a former semipro baseball player who regularly spit gobs of black chew into colorful dixie cups. In addition, Lucy had a clan of older brothers who habitually shouted “Roll Tide” for no apparent reason. I couldn’t figure out how this quiet, well-read girl, who loved Woody Allen movies and could play the gameshow Jeopardy like a pro, could come from this tribe, or, for that matter, the state of Alabama. We dated long-distance for the next two and a half years. And I became an Alabama fan. Roll Tide!

 

I have no idea what compelled me to write my first play. There was something about telling a well-structured story that, like geometry, made sense to me. Of course, my first play was about my bizarre piece-of-shit family, so perhaps it was self-therapy. I had no training, nor had I read a book on the subject; I winged it. I showed my first typo-filled draft to a playwriting professor at the University of Illinois, who delighted in telling me that I was no writer. I threw the script away.

 

That would’ve been the end if Milan Stitt, a Broadway playwright, hadn’t been a guest artist on campus. I fished my pages from the trash, fixed as many typos as my dyslexic eyes allowed, and asked him to read it. The next day he invited me to study playwriting under he and Lanford Wilson at the Circle Repertory Theatre in New York. So, after graduation, I arrived at Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York with a few hundred bucks and a portable manual typewriter.

 

I was about to be homeless when I found a room at Benjamin Franklin, a filthy transient hotel on the corner of Broadway and 77th. My room was a bleak ten-by-ten shithole that looked out on a dark alley. There was a stained mattress, a tortured sink, and a desk. The bathroom and kitchen were down the hall, both communal and disgusting. And cockroaches. Everywhere. They'd climb on me at night. I found them in underwear. I had to cover my meals between bites, or crawly things would end up in my mouth.

 

I worked six nights a week, from midnight to eight in the morning, washing cars for a limo company. My boss told me I'd be fired if I called in sick, so I never missed. A few months later, a tiny room opened on the 12th floor of the Benjamin Franklin. My life was still dire, but now I had a view of Broadway and a scrap of the Hudson. I had no TV or money, so I entertained myself by wandering through Manhattan and watching people. One night, I went for a lonely stroll up Central Park West. At the Dakota Building, I found a mass of lit-up cop cars and people crying - I had stumbled upon the aftermath of the assassination of John Lennon.

 

For my first play reading at the Circle Rep, I wrote another somber father/son melodrama complete with an on-stage suicide attempt. It was a rip-off of Death of a Salesman, only with Hermann Goring instead of Willy Loman. I sat in the back of the rehearsal hall, hoping to bring the audience to tears. After the final “Fade out, the end,” surely their heartstrings would be so plucked that they’d pool their money to help pay for my psychoanalysis.

 

But instead, they chuckled. When the character of the father entered, they guffawed. I was devastated - This was serious stuff; I’d bared my soul on these pages, yet they convulsed with laughter. After, during the talkback, an audience member, wiping tears of laughter, said, “You meant this to be a dark comedy, right?” I didn’t know what a dark comedy was but said, “Yes.” That’s how I found I could write funny.

 

This was long before the internet or e-mail; my room didn’t even have a landline. Instead, the thug who worked the transient hotel switchboard would buzz my fleapit, letting me know I had a call on the crusty community phone in the hall. One day Lucy dialed up and said that her mother had granted her permission to visit New York. I tried to warn her about my less-than-sanitary living conditions; she didn’t care.

 

Lucy arrived on New Year’s Eve 1980, and after screaming as the ball dropped on Time Square, we decided to live together. The only problem was that she wanted to tell her dominating diva mother in person. What could go wrong? Word of advice - don’t tell southern mothers that you’re going to drop out of college and live unmarried with a destitute playwright in a flophouse filled with derelicts and druggies.

 

To appease my boss, I told him that my father had killed himself. Stanislavski and Meisner would’ve been proud of my dramatic performance as I tearfully made up a monologue about my dear, kind father. Boss-man was so touched he gave me three days off. It was the only time my worthless MFA in acting paid off.

 

When Lucy and I arrived back in Birmingham, Billie Jean made a dramatic entrance, her wig akimbo; she knew something was up. Lucy delivered the bad news of our intentions. Billie said, “No, you’re not,” and started slapping the shit out of her. After Itchy and I pulled the bitch off, Lucy said, “I’m not a child anymore; I can make my own decisions.” To which Billie said, “Itchy, get the gun.” Itchy wouldn’t do it, so Billie marched her ass into the bedroom. We could hear her rustling through the closet and loading a shell into the chamber. Itchy put down his spit cup and said, “If I was you, I’d run.” And we did.

 

That night we made it to the University of Montevallo. Lucy lived in a women-only dorm filled with malicious housemothers who guarded the co-ed’s virginity as well as their own, so I waited till midnight and climbed the dorm’s tubal fire escape slide. Slipping and skating upwards, I managed to find my way to the third floor, where Lucy unlocked a window and let me in. A few hours later, before dawn, I shimmied back down and waited as she packed her meager possessions.

 

I don’t know what the hell we were thinking. Everything was stacked against us. We had no money, no family, no credit cards, no checking account, no health insurance, no food, no connections, and no confidence. And to top it off, we didn’t know each other that well. We’d dated for years but mainly over the phone. Back in New York, squeezed into our sagging transient bed, I calculated that before we moved in together, we’d seen each other face-to-face for no more than four weeks.

 

We worked menial jobs during those hungry years, ate off thin paper plates, used toilet paper as napkins, and never saw a doctor or dentist. We were robbed, bullied on the subways, and occasionally went without food. Then one day, a package arrived; it was a birthday gift from Lucy’s mother. Perhaps the witch had finally found wiggle room in her padlocked heart. We opened it to find an oversized tin packed with gallons of popcorn. We thought there must be something hidden inside, as we raked the kernels for buried treasure, but that was it, popcorn. Happy Birthday.

 

Our summers were spent at New Salem State Park in Illinois, earning $75 a week acting in an outdoor drama about Lincoln. I said most of my lines and hit my marks playing Abe, and Lucy skillfully acted Mary Todd. Then, late one summer, we ran out of money, so instead of returning to our nasty Manhattan hotel, we went to a courthouse. There we waited in line with handcuffed criminals. Finally, a judge called us into his office and asked what we wanted. We told him that we wanted to get married. So, he unceremoniously wed us. Afterward, we went to the Illinois State Fair and blew our last twenty bucks riding a Ferris wheel.

 

With zero prospects, we moved into a raggedy 12-foot-wide mobile home near a highway in Urbana, Illinois (the sight of my MFA in failure). When I’d bump into any of my former professors, they’d quickly glance away, making it clear that I was on the no-contact list. We both worked at Jumer’s Castle Lodge; I was a waiter, and Lucy was a receptionist/bartender. Trying to find a way out of our mess, I applied for an MFA in playwriting at Rutgers and got in. But once in New Brunswick, we couldn’t find a place that’d rent to us with a dog, so just before classes started, I dropped out, and we limped back to Urbana on fumes. 

 

Growing up, my father never allowed us to have a dog; when asked, he’d give his pat answer, “That would be a problem.” So, the first chance I got, I went to the local pound, where I found Val, a jet-black mutt with a Bob Hope nose. I bond with pound puppies. We speak the same language. Years later, there would be LaRee - She was part Chow, part Dachshund - her parents must’ve had a ladder. Then Cootie, a shy, beautiful gentleman who had been abandoned twice before we rescued him. And at this writing, Ollie, a darling teacup Chihuahua. I’ve wept longer and harder for the death of my mutts than I have for any family member or friend.

 

Then, one day while waiting on tables, I met Shozo Sato, a Japanese master of Zen arts. When he found out I'd studied playwriting in New York, he asked if I'd write a Kabuki version of Medea. Lucy quickly joined the project. Shozo staged it at the University of Illinois the following year, and a year later, a professional production opened in Chicago. Then it was produced at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC—finally, a crumb of success and royalties. But we were still suffering from mind-numbing day jobs.

 

During those treadmill years, Lucy worked as a secretary and bartender. I was a guard, janitor, and waiter. She kept her jobs; I was often fired or quit. The maitre-d' at the French restaurant at the Carlyle Hotel in New York fired me because he said what I spoke didn't sound like French. I was canned by the big band singer Peggy Lee because I was a horrible spotlight runner. Sometimes I wouldn't even make it through my job training before quitting. Once, five minutes into an interview, I said to the rude supervisor, "Why the fuck would I want to work for you?" I guess after my childhood, I had a chip on my shoulder.

 

My job performance evaluations were also awful. One read, “Bill prefers an uncomplicated schedule and consistency above putting himself in a situation where initiative is necessary.” I was fired from a waiting job by a fundamentalist Christian manager who wrote in my dismissal report, “Bill has always had an attitude problem, but today he started acting as if he was possessed by the devil.” I was only good at delivering morning newspapers, mostly because I could work alone. It also helped that I’m an extreme morning person, sometimes called a ‘Super Lark.’ Without fail, my brain clicks on between 3 and 4 every morning. I never set an alarm clock. Maybe that’s why I started writing; I had to find something to occupy all those quiet, dark, early mornings.

 

After a few penniless years in Urbana, in 1984, I was accepted for an MFA in screenwriting at UCLA. This time luck was with us, for we found a quaint 1930’s bungalow (10733½ Ohio Street) within walking distance of campus. It had a private patio with flowers that bloomed twice a year and a cat-loving landlord who tolerated our mutt. The place was petite but had giant windows, a Murphy bed, and no cockroaches. It had once been owned by the movie star Loretta Young and later the writer John Ohara.

 

When I wasn’t in school, I worked as a script secretary for the television show Moonlighting, which starred Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis. During the closing night party at the Coconut Grove, I broke into the adjacent (and abandoned) Ambassador Hotel and found the exact spot where Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. I also worked as a script secretary for Jason Miller, who wrote That Championship Season and played the Priest in the 1973 movie The Exorcist. He would already be drunk when I arrived at 10am, so I join him.

 

The polluted skies of Los Angeles were a breath of fresh air. I bloomed at UCLA, found an agent, and optioned a movie. Then, after a reading of one of my comedies at a local theatre, a stranger approached and said, "You're funny." It turned out his roommate from his college days was now the executive producer of the NBC sitcom My Two Dads. He said he'd pass it on if I had a spec script. I just happened to have twenty sitcom specs in my trunk. Two weeks later, I got called to a pitch meeting, sold a script, and was hired as a staff writer. 

 

You might think this is a happy ending. Learning disabled nobody lands ultra-high paying job writing comedy for television. But you must remember the sins of the father. There were two producers on the show, one was a screamer, the other a prick. And they did everything in their power to create a hostile workplace. The writers often worked fourteen hours a day and six days a week. Once in the bathroom, a writer suffering from a pre-nervous breakdown, stepped up to the urinal beside me. Under his breath, he whispered, "Oh my god, I'm peeing blood." I told him to see a doctor right away. He said, "I can't. If I leave for a few hours, they might discover they don't need me."

 

On tape days, the producers ran the show over and over well into the night, boring the hell out of the trapped studio audience. Behind the set they had a standing offer; any writer who had the balls to ask the sitcom's 15-year-old starlet if she were a virgin and got an answer would receive a cash bonus.

 

During one of these late-night tapings, I desperately needed sleep. With my brain clicking on at 4 in the morning, I was beyond sleep deprivation. So, I slipped from the sound stage and trekked back to my office for an hour of rest. But it was so late the writer's building at Sunset Gower Studios was locked, and I didn't have a key. In frustration, I kicked the glass door. It shattered. Alarms. Desperate, I hid as the nightguards investigated the crime. I was 34 years old, making thousands per week, and hiding under a studio truck like a criminal.

 

Soon we were living the L.A. lifestyle: traffic, smog, congestion, earthquakes, and a convertible. Lucy finished her bachelor's in theatre at Cal State Northridge, I got my second MFA from UCLA, and I sold more episodes of sitcoms and movie to Ron Howard's Imagine Films. He never made it, but the check was fat.

 

Then, Lucy got accepted for an MFA in voice speech and dialects at the National Theatre Conservatory at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. She had found her forte in dialects coaching. So, we decided she'd go to school in Colorado while I fought for writing gigs in Hollywood. We had had a relationship over the phone before; we could do it again. 

 

Then one night, a few weeks before she left, I tuned into an episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air I'd written, only to discover I had been thoroughly rewritten. All writers in Hollywood are rewritten, that's typical, but this time there was little left. My name was still in the credits, but my jokes had been dumbed down. After the phone rang, it was a friend who said, "Bill, I just saw your Fresh Prince; I gotta say, it's some of your best writing." I hung up, turned to Lucy, and said, "I'm coming with you." Hollywood had lost its luster. Fighting for gigs was exhausting, and when I did get a job, I had no pride in the crap I wrote. 

 

So, in 1992, we drove away from the tiny bungalow we loved. In Denver, Lucy started school, and I found an adjunct position teaching theatre at the University of Colorado's downtown campus. The students liked my informal teaching style that mixed stand-up comedy and a tiny bit of educational value.

 

Then one day, I was in the public library when the intercom lit up with "Bill Streib, please come to the front desk." The librarian mispronounced my last name as "Streeb" instead of "Streyeb," but that was normal. I thought it was  odd - who knew I was at the library? I walked up to the desk and said, "I'm--" but that's all I got out before an older man stepped up and said, "I'm Bill Streib" (only he said "Streeb"). I said, I’m Bill Streib (“Streyeb”). Not only did we share the same rare last name, but he looked a little like an older version of me.

 

Then he said contemptuously, "You're from the 'Streyeb' side of the family," and told me about my Jewish ancestors, two brothers who had immigrated from Germany. He told me the brother I came from had anglicized his last name to "Streyeb" and stopped being a Jew. This is how I discovered I had Jewish heritage - It came from my father's side, so it didn't count, but now I fully understood how screwed up my father was, "Don't act like a Jew."

 

Then, as part of her MFA, Lucy interned at Playmakers Repertory Theatre in North Carolina, so I applied and found a tenure track job at UNC-Charlotte. A week before classes started, I wandered into the department. I was hoping that the kind department chair who hired me might give us some advice on housing. That's when I discovered he'd retired. The new chair was an evil termite.

 

Then she showed me my windowless jail of an office. It was currently being used as a storage room. She told me it was my job to move the boxes out of the office and into the empty sunny office across the hall that looked out on the leafy courtyard. I kindly suggested that instead of moving the boxes, why don’t I take the empty sunny office. She informed me that the nicer office was reserved for senior faculty. If that’s the case, I asked, why would you make it into a storage room? Adamant, she informed me that the shit hole was mine. As she left, she yelled, “What committees do you want to be on?” I answered, “The welcoming committee.” Our relationship never recovered.

 

My personality is like flypaper to assholes. They seek me out. So does absurdity. Once you find absurdity, it will always find you.

 

After putting up with head of the department’s petty crap for nine months, I got a call from a friend who said an adjunct position had opened at the University of Wyoming. I knew nothing about the university other than it was about a hundred miles north of Denver, where Lucy would be back at school in the fall. So I again quit.

 

My departure from UC-Charlotte typified the pettiness I would put up with for the rest of my academic life. It was 3:45 on a Thursday, the semester was over, and I was doing final grading in my windowless shit hole. Tomorrow Lucy and I would be off to Wyoming. I asked Sybil’s evil little assistant what I should do with my office key when I left. She informed me that the campus “key office” was only open on Thursdays from 2 to 4. As I had more work to do, I asked if she could turn it in tomorrow. “No.” “So, I have to hang around for a week just to turn in my office key?” “Yes.”

 

I went back to my holding cell and sat in sullen darkness. Then enlightened words came upon me. Words that might’ve come from a mountaintop sadhu or Buddha - Fuck It! It was now 3:52 on Thursday; the key office was open. So, I packed up my office, turned in the stupid key, drove away, and never finished grading. “Bill has always had an attitude problem, but today he started acting as if he was possessed by the devil.”

 

How did I pack my office in five minutes? Easy, I never moved in. I’ve always kept my offices empty so that if the university police stopped me for some “key” violation, I could be escorted off campus without looking back. The Polish political playwright Vaclav Havel always carried his toothbrush with him, so he’d be ready to go to jail when he was arrested. During my life as a professor, I was the same.  

 

As I locked my office door for the last time, I noted that the light-filled office across the hall was still jammed with dusty boxes. This is the thing with universities; they give you a shit hole and tease you with a window. After a while, you begin to think the window is essential. And then, one bright day, you finally earn the window, and you think you’ve moved up, but in fact, you’ve only moved a few feet.

 

I took one look at the cheerless zero-culture University of Wyoming and was convinced that I, just like my father, had hit the last stop on the failure train. But it turned out not so bad. In those early years, the President was approachable, the Dean had a wonderful hardy laugh, the head of the department was pleasant, and the key office had reasonable hours. A year later, Lucy graduated, and we were both hired on tenure track.

 

I’d be in my office during those first years I enjoyed the spectacle of football games. I marched with the pomp and circumstances of graduation. My classes were popular; I filled lecture halls with more than 200 students per class. I had an audience of over 800+ students a year at my peak. I sailed into tenure. The promotions, teaching awards, and raises seemed destined to never end. It was, most truly, a beautiful time to be a professor. 

 

Not that it was perfect. Lucy and I put up with a lot of tedious, annoying bullshit. For example, once, a professor measured Lucy’s office and complained that hers was ten inches wider than his. What the fuck is this obsession theatre professors have with offices? When they weren’t concerned with square footage, they found ways to overstate their resumes, inflate their egos, and shit on us. Why can’t theatre professors just admit they won the lottery - they found the three things most artists never know, a regular paycheck, healthcare, and summers off - and be nice to each other?

 

One day my mother phoned and asked if she and my father could retire near us. It was a nightmare, but for her sake, I said yes. Or did I do it because of self-hatred? Masochism? Stockholm syndrome? I’m sure Freud would’ve had a field day trying to figure it out. A year later, Mom died suddenly, leaving me to care for my father’s old bones. So, I changed my name.

 

Lucy’s great-grandmother, Sandal Missouri Downs, married a Baptist missionary and moved to Alabama, where she died in 1905. I found her abandoned grave, knelt, and asked permission. No thunderbolts struck, and no squirrels attacked, so I presumed she wasn’t going to charge me with copyright infringement.

 

Those benevolent early years at the University changed when the pleasant department head was replaced with a Blowfish who saw me as a threat. He sidelined me by filling my schedule with low-level classes for non-majors. Instead of challenging him, I moved my office out of the theatre building and into a spare room in the philosophy/religion department and quietly quit. With no one watching, I simply did my work and went home. During my last twenty years at UW, except when directing, I seldom put in more than 15 hours a week. Add that to Spring/Winter/Summer breaks; I had over 270 days off yearly. “Bill prefers an uncomplicated schedule and consistency above putting himself in a situation where initiative is necessary.” Blowfish didn’t know it, but he gave me the greatest gift a writer can receive, time to write.

 

With so much free time, I was soon kicking out a new play every year, winning contests, and getting productions. I published over a dozen plays, and Lucy and I also wrote textbooks. Flush with fat royalties and residuals, we set out to travel the world. We spent a month in China breathing air the color of pink candy. In London, we spent half a year without sunshine. In India, I made a pilgrimage to the top of a dusty mountain where I asked a naked Sadhu wearing a Timex about the meaning of life – he had no honest answer. In Krakow, Poland, I entered a confessional and asked a priest about the meaning of life – he also didn’t have an answer. While in Egypt, I was held at gunpoint after breaking into an anthropological dig at the ancient Library of Alexandria. I had traveled too far to let fences stop me.

 

Next, we bought a beach house in Gulf Shores, Alabama (The Redneck Riviera), where we spent summers running the air conditioning twenty-four-seven, and eating shrimp boiled in Coors. During those summers as a beach bum, as I spoke to my neighbors, I became painfully aware of the ignorance gripping society. I soon became ashamed of this country and considered renouncing my citizenship. Still, instead, just as I had quit my birth name, my family, and the University, I also quit the United States. Overseas, if asked, I’d tell people I was Canadian. I'd quietly leave if caught in a situation where the national anthem played. I never made a show of it; I simply checked out. I became a resident alien, a tourist, and a wandering Jew.

 

The unfortunate side effect of a life spent in academia is that time speeds up. Time spent teaching is time slipping. Lucy and I blinked, and we were in our fifties. It wasn't that we made a mindful decision to stay in Wyoming; we just forgot to leave. Nor did we choose not to have children – we just never got around to it. Soon we were both full professors. During those slipping years, I lived for early morning writing sessions. I relished those moments when the bothersome world was still asleep. Nothing was better than coming up with a funny line at 4:30 in the morning and laughing.

 

I wrote plays that poked fun at school shootings (The Exit Interview), corporations taking control of our government (Fascism The Musical), dominant fathers and artistic sons (How to Steal a Picasso), being invisible (Cockeyed), the Jewish family I wish I’d been born into (Kosher Lutherans), being ashamed of my parents (How to Survive Your family at Christmas), Christian clodhopper conservatives (Life On my Knees), love in the imperfect world (Mr. Perfect), fighting against self-doubt (Women Playing Hamlet), trying to understand the philosophy of life (Asking Strangers The Meaning of Life), and the madness of this world (Mad Gravity).

 

Soon I had had hundreds of productions all over the world. Sometimes Lucy and I traveled to see my plays. I heard people laugh at my jokes in Spain and Korea, while in Austria, the producers insisted that I take the stage for the curtain call. That boy who could hardly spell or pass high school was now taking a bow in Vienna.

 

But I never told my father about my successes. I discovered that the best way to deal with him was to lie. Even when I didn’t have to, I made up shit to ensure he had no idea who I was or what I was doing. I bought a beach house and never told him. I took a bow in Vienna and forgot to mention it. I published books and plays but never gave him a copy. I became a multi-millionaire but let him continue to believe I was a starving artist who could barely pay my bills.

 

As the decades slipped, the laughing Dean retired and was replaced by a humorless shadow. The approachable President was superseded by a series of faceless, overpaid, penny-pinching CEOs. And the state legislators demanded that everything at the University be monetized, so the humanities were declared nonessential. Soon, my fat lectures fell from hundreds of students to less than twenty-five. “Prepare for complete living,” the words carved above the doors of Arts and Sciences no longer applied. So pried my name off the office door leaving only a splotch of dry glue, and I removed my name from the department website.

 

With the election of Trump, the kingpin of psychopathic fathers, the floodgates gave way; society had indeed gone mad. Desperate to escape, we bought a log cabin in the mountains of Colorado. I treasured waking in fresh air there, mingling with deer, and contemplating the Milky Way. But once again, the world caught up with us. Global warming and oil spills drove us from our beach house; forest fires smoked us out of the mountains.

 

All I ever wanted was good food, restful sleep, intelligent conversation, and solitude. I was still hoping that someday I’d find them. Then came the pandemic. Within weeks of the outbreak, the theatre idled, and my playwriting career stalled with it. Restaurants closed. Movies sputtered. And my once great booming stand-up lectures delivered to packed halls filled with laughing students were reduced to a handful of students watching over Zoom.

 

After twenty-nine years in of Wyoming, what Lucy called “Ice Station Red Neck,” we had few friends. We despised the passive-aggressive, pompous, petty-minded academic oxen that stagnated the department. We detested the Trump-motivated politicians that rule the state. And the woke liberals who tried to censor my plays. Lucy and I had racked up well over thirty teaching and research awards, but they never meant anything to us. Over fifteen thousand students have taken my classes through the decades, but I always knew that they’d forget me and my lectures within a few months of graduation. Everything is forgotten. My books will be forgotten. My plays. My sitcoms. My life. And that’s why you must, as Lucy says, “work to create a life, not a legacy.”

In the end, a series of stupid scandals rocked the department, reckless professors doing dumb things, so Lucy and I retired. I had been quietly quitting UW for years, so leaving wasn’t a problem. We just got tired of our colleagues. We were both offered the “great honor” of Professor Emeritus, but we both turned it down. We didn’t even have a goodbye party; we just walked away. It took only fifteen minutes for me to clean out my office.

 

I guess now I’m supposed to let you in on some great lessons I’ve learned; you’ll find that in my plays. Life for me was spent running away from my childhood and missing that big loving Jewish family I never knew.

 

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