Wissot: Stages in my life
The most important summer in my life took place in 1957. I turned 12 earlier that year and my father decided I was old enough to sell toys to little old gray-haired ladies six times my age in his Bronx toy store. I was at a loss for words when a kindly grandmother asked me what I would recommend as a gift for her 8-year-old grandson.
I felt like answering, “How should I know? I’m only 4 years older than the kid!“ But I didn’t. Instead, I relied on my own version of “fake it till you make it.”
I stuck with faking it until I discovered that the customer could help me make a sale by answering questions I asked them. By telling me what toys her grandson was playing with now, and what toys he liked in the past, I could narrow the focus of my recommendations to ones that might help her make a satisfactory purchase. By summer’s end, I was fast becoming, if I may be so immodest, the best 12-year-old toy sales boy in the Bronx.
I learned a lot about myself that summer. I learned I liked the spotlight on me; liked helping people; liked controlling communication. I realize now that the floor of my father’s toy store served as the first of several stages I performed on in my life.
In the late 1960s, I found a different stage. This time it was a classroom in Hackensack, New Jersey, where I taught high school English for five years. Unlike a customer in a toy store, the kids in my 10th-grade English class didn’t choose to be there. They were assigned to me. I was assigned to them. The school assigned the curriculum I was expected to teach.
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It didn’t take me long to realize that you can compel kids to attend school, but you can’t compel them to learn. I found teaching to be much harder than selling. Selling a customer a toy they needed to buy was much easier than teaching teenagers about the significance of Shakespeare’s “beware the Ides of March” warning in “Julius Caesar,” a piece of information they had absolutely no need to know.
Looking back on it now I think I was a popular teacher, but not a particularly good one. I was more of an entertainer than a teacher. Good teachers care about whether their students are learning. I didn’t. I cared more about entertaining my students than helping them learn. Education is different from entertainment. Educators are authority figures — something I didn’t aspire to be. I preferred laughter to learning; amusement to seriousness; being liked to being respected. I needed a new place to perform.
I eventually found a stage where I could entertain people. When I was 43, in 1988, and with a successful business I had begun bringing in enough money to pay the bills, I decided to embark on a side career as a stand-up comic. For the next 16 years, I took my comedy act to a wide assortment of venues. I performed in clubs, bars, prisons (Buena Vista here in Colorado), shopping malls, and Salvation Army holiday parties. I once did my act in a John Deere showroom in Torrington, Wyoming, with the audience sitting on picnic tables. I traveled to Texas and played comedy clubs named Froggybottoms in Lubbock and The Velveeta Room in Austin.
My comedy career never brought me fame and fortune. I worked with comics who constantly complained about being underpaid; I always felt I was overpaid. If I were to write a book about my experiences, I would title it, “Failure to Launch.”
I wasn’t discouraged by my never becoming a well-known and well-paid comic. I loved the challenge of trying to make strangers laugh. Truth be told, I was never upset by the fact that I didn’t excel at any of the career paths I pursued in my life. I was never fearful of failing — the only fear I had was in not trying to do something I wanted to do and then regretting I hadn’t later.
In 2004 I pulled the plug on my undistinguished comedy career. The little voice in my head feeding me new material contracted laryngitis. I knew it was time to quit when being a comic stopped being fun because I no longer found my own jokes funny. Recycling worn plastic is good for the environment; the same can’t be said for comics recycling worn jokes.
I like the stage I’m on now, writing opinion columns for readers whose viewpoints sometimes converge with and sometimes diverge from mine. I crave the relative solitude and privacy the writing process affords me. It’s like the stage I was on when I hosted a Denver talk radio show in the late ’80s. I sat alone in a radio studio on the top floor of the downtown Tabor Center swapping opinions with callers who could be heard but not seen.
My need to be the center of attention is met these days by wearing Halloween-ready outfits/costumes that are appallingly flamboyant. Think Elton John and Liberace shopping together. I’m quite content being a fashion faux pas, but if I ever want to go back to my glory days in the Bronx, I could always apply for a job in a toy store helping little old gray-haired ladies pick out toys for their grandsons. I just hope the little old gray-haired ladies of today don’t mind being waited on by a little old gray-haired man older than them.
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.