DON’T TELL ANYONE
I’m sitting at a Starbucks in Manhattan. Starbucks is the last public space with chairs. It’s a shower for homeless people. And it’s a place you can write all day. The baristas don’t glare at you. They don’t even look at you. Every once in a while they walk around with free samples of banana-chocolate something. “No thanks. Just the two-dollar coffee”—cheapest rent in New York. Plus, they sell CDs and even Christmas gifts. If this place sold toilet paper, I probably wouldn’t have to shop anywhere else.
Well, the reason I’m writing is that I want to tell you some stories. And they’re true. I always have to point this out because whenever I tell stories, people ask me, “Was that true?”
And I say, “Yeah.”
And they say, “Was it?”
And I don’t know how to respond to that. I guess I could say it louder. “Yeah!”
“It’s probably true. He said it louder.”
Growing up, I was discouraged from telling personal stories. My dad often used the phrase “Don’t tell anyone.” But not about creepy things. I don’t want to lead you down the wrong path. It would be about insignificant things. Like I wouldn’t make the soccer team and my father would say, “Don’t tell anyone.” And I would say, “They’re gonna know when they show up to the games and I’m not on the team and I’m crying.”
One time I built up the courage to ask him about this, which was tough because my dad is a very serious man. He’s a doctor—a neurologist. When he’s home, he spends most of his time in this one armchair reading these thick war novels. My dad goes through war novels like I go through boxes of Cinnamon Toast Crunch.
So I built up the courage to ask, “How come you play everything so close to the vest?”
My dad said, “The more people know about you, the more they can use it against you.”
This sent shivers down my spine because it had that kind of open-ended fear to it—like that feeling you get when you’re driving and you see a cop. And you’re not speeding. You don’t have drugs. But you’re just thinking, I hope he doesn’t notice I’m driving.
Once in a while I told personal stories at the dinner table and my father would say, “Hush!” I’ll give you an example. In grade school, I was a terrible reader. We used to do these things at school called Student Reading Assignments, and the teacher would post on the wall a list of how many everyone had done—which is a great way to squash a child’s self-esteem. I remember there was this girl in my class named Jamie Burson who finished 146 of these things before I finished 2. And I distinctly remember thinking, I might be retarded. And then I looked at the wall and thought, Oh yeah, I am.
So one night, I sat at the dinner table and said to my dad, “I think I might be retarded.” And he said, “Hush!” Which is one way to address a problem—just keep it under wraps.
That’s what my father would say whenever anyone told uncomfortable stories. So I developed this habit of telling uncomfortable stories.
So here goes . . .
© 2010 Mike BirBiglia