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In 1981, at the age of six, I won something called The Little Mr. America Pageant, a child beauty contest I’d entered at my mom’s insistence, at an age when I was far too young to really understand what it entailed or why I should take any interest in winning at all. When I asked her what I would get if I won, she explained that I could win a banner and a crown. While I didn’t know what a banner was, the word “crown” conjured a very definite mental image: It was something a king wore, an accessory that would have to carry with it some degree of status, even if it only meant some respect from my older brothers. During the pageant, when the emcee asked me why I wanted to win, I told him, “My mom said I could win a crown.” The hundreds in attendance erupted into laughter. They didn’t give crowns to little boys. They gave tiaras to little girls. I’d been duped.

Nevertheless, my faux pas had been charming enough to win me the pageant, and although I didn’t get a crown, I did get the aforementioned banner, a Snoopy watch, a calculator-like device that would “speak” certain words if you typed in the correct letters, and a chance to meet with a casting agent auditioning boys my age for the lead role in a new NBC sitcom. The agent lived in New York, but arrangements had been made for him to meet me in Cleveland, the nearest major city. This may have been the greatest single moment in my mother’s life. A single, working mother, she’d been struggling to make ends meet since her divorce from my father a year earlier, and this opportunity was a promising beacon in the night, a clear case of God’s stepping in to lift her up from the hard times into which we’d fallen.

No one in our immediate family had any experience with this sort of thing, and so we had no idea how to prepare for it. Then my Uncle Jim came up with a brilliant plan. If I wanted any shot of knocking this agent’s socks clean off, what I needed was a catchphrase. All the best T.V. kids had one. Gary Coleman had “What you talkin’ ‘bout, Willis?” Jimmie Walker had “Dy-No-Mite!” They worked it into every episode and made it part of the show. Uncle Jim was sure I’d be the only kid auditioning who already had a catchphrase of his own. He’d written one, a real winner, just for me.  It was, “What are you, high?”

I got to work rehearsing it right away.

On the day of the audition, my mom called into work, got me up early, dressed me in a powder-blue three-piece suit, and spent an hour touching up her hair and make-up. Fate had come knocking, and she’d be damned if she was going to open the door looking anything less than perfect. And all the while, I sat on the edge of her bed, practicing my line.

When we finally got in the car, she put her key in the ignition…and nothing happened. She tried it a few times. It was turning over, but the thing wouldn’t start. At the time, I had no idea how big a deal this was, but she certainly did. It was enormous. We had no one else to call for a ride. Uncle Jim was working out of town. This was it. The hope, that we might turn this opportunity into a better tomorrow for our family, simply fluttered and died right there. She sat quietly for awhile, surely in shock, her hands clutching the steering wheel for support, while I chanted away, “What are you, high? What are you, high? What are you, high?” At last, she opened her mouth and let out a cry of lament, a single unwavering note that she managed to sustain even as she got out of the car and scurried back into the house, leaving me there, alone, to rehearse my line. I don’t know how long I sat there.

We never made the audition. The show I was slated to read for turned out to be a fairly big hit called Silver Spoons, with the lead role going to Ricky Schroder, who may not be so famous anymore, but who had been, for awhile, a household name. It ran for five seasons, and in all that time, my mother never allowed me to watch a single episode. It was strictly forbidden. Still dizzy from the blow fate had dealt her, she seldom spoke of it at all, and when she did, she would refer to it as “Chi’s show.” Ricky Schroder was the boy who had taken my show. And for that short period in my life, in a bizarre and admittedly unhealthy way, I accepted this as truth, and hated Schroder – absolutely hated him – for taking my show.

One thing I think we can say in defense of childhood, though, is that certain parts of it do come to an end. My mother never got over it, but the show eventually got cancelled, Ricky Schroder faded into irrelevance, and I found other things to fill my adolescent cup.

All of this is a preamble to something that happened just a few years back, when I was about thirty. I’d gone to visit a friend who was living in Washington, D.C. and got invited to a party being hosted by some friends of his. It was a fairly big event, with a number of junior varsity celebrities in attendance. Former NBA All-Star Kevin Johnson was there; so was R&B singer Jon B, and a guy I was supposed to have recognized from his political commentary on CNN. I was completely out of my element and spent most of the evening parked next to a table of hors d’oeuvres. At one point, I caught a quick glance at the arrival of this very beautiful, well-dressed couple, and I had to do a double take. It was my old friend, Ricky Schroder; the stunningly beautiful blonde, his wife. He was wearing an Armani suit. I was wearing one I’d picked up from JC Penny’s ten years earlier for my cousin Troy’s wedding. Suddenly I felt like the poorest, fattest, ugliest, least intelligent person in the room.

I turned away and busied myself with the hors d’oeuvres. The friend I’d come with was waist-deep in what looked like a very serious discussion with some guys he worked with, and I couldn’t see any easy excuse to slip away.

I felt a tap at my shoulder, and a voice said, “Say, boss, do they have any strawberries?” He had called me boss. I turned and found myself face-to-face at last with this changeling, this usurper, this son-of-a-bitch who had taken my show. Had he really called me boss? I won’t say that what rose up in my heart was resentment, but seeing him, this handsomer, wealthier, luckier version of myself, I felt a sudden torrent of memories and associations: Of all the times I’d stood in line with the other poor kids for free lunch tickets in elementary school; the times I’d spent kneeling over bathroom sinks, nursing the dozens of bloody noses I’d gotten in fights after school; the ten years I spent slowly destroying my lower back and hips on an assembly line to work off the loans I’d taken to go to college. I felt all of this, like I said, not with resentment, but with a sort of pride that I’d endured all of these things that he never had to, that I’d taken it on the chin. And in all my life, I don’t think I ever delivered a line as truthfully or as deeply felt as I did just then, when I looked him in the eye and said, “What are you, high?”