When I was little, I had what you’d call an “active imagination.” On any given day, I might be Robin Hood or a construction worker or a pirate.
I’m sure it wasn’t an accident; my dad made sure I could recite lines from The Sands of Iwo Jima before I could write my own name, and while my mother once took away a Sublime album because the lyrics were too provocative, my parents always loosened the reins a bit when it came to war movies.
As such, my favorite childhood films included Sniper, starring Tom Berenger and Billy Zane; and Navy SEALs, the death-a-minute action flick featuring Charlie Sheen and Michael Biehn.
I absolutely loved pretending I was in these movies, crawling around the backyard in child-sized cammies and assassinating invisible political figures for the CIA. In the summer, I’d spend hours in the pool practicing silent swimming, assaulting the deck from the ladder below.
I realized I needed to leave my fantasy world for good one night when I explained to my girlfriend what I had been up to all weekend.
“You were what?” she said. I could hear her face scrunching in disgust over the phone.
I swapped my army play for punk music and guitar and a low-level anxiety that vibrated in my gut during all social situations. From high school on, I had a perpetual feeling of being watched and evaluated, a worry of saying the wrong thing or not knowing what to do with my hands. This still happens to me, especially in the grocery store, when I feel like no matter where I stand, I’m in someone’s way.
Instead of quieting my inner neurotic with therapy and medication, I learned to combat it by carrying a notebook and writing about the things I saw. It was like giving myself a box of crayons and going to the kids’ table to draw while the grownups talked.
The snapshots of life I collected were nothing, really, just bits of string that amused me. But eventually, practicing observation for so long changed my outlook. I found if I paid close enough attention, my life would unfold like a movie.
It was one of those tiny ramen shops where the tables were two feet apart; the kind of place that usually gives me crippling claustrophobia, unless the stories from the other diners are good.
This guy said his father was a lawyer, and for a few years his primary client was the Lucky Nugget Casino in Reno. The majority of his cases involved fraud and cheating and petty theft, that kind of stuff, but one time, he had to defend a kangaroo.
“A kangaroo?” the woman said, mirroring my thoughts.
The guy said the casino hired the kangaroo to promote an event, and he was on the front sidewalk when he punched a customer. “Kangaroos really like to fight,” he said. “That’s why people used to box them.”
So I never got to hear if the marsupial was found guilty, or if it was a frame-up executed by a kangaroo court.
Then there was the time my neighbor Nancy told me about how she was going to be home for a couple of weeks because an old woman had driven her car through the front window of the T-Mobile where she worked.
Nancy said the lady got out of the car, looked around, and said, “What happened? Where am I?”
“Where are you?” Nancy said. “Bitch, you’re INSIDE T-Mobile!”
The cop who arrived on the scene must’ve felt bad for the old lady, because he kept asking questions in the hopes it might justify her driving a car through a building.
“Did you folks have some sort of curbside pickup perhaps?” he said.
I take great pleasure in watching the look on their faces when they say, “No way!” or, “Shut up, that didn’t happen.”
Every once in a while, I’m tempted to stray from the truth in the name of a good story. In my experience, fabrication never ends well.
In the first year of my blog, I wrote what I thought to be a pretty funny story about my neighbors. They had a dog who barked her ass off every time the wind blew, to the point of caricature.
The only problem was that I didn’t have an ending, a good kicker that would leave the audience saying, “No way!” So I invented a scene where one night I had enough and shot the dog in the ass with a BB gun. I had never done it, but I’d thought about it real hard a couple of times, and to me, that was close enough to the truth.
What’s the difference whether I actually did it or not? I thought. And I mean seriously, who reads this thing anyway?
Enough, apparently, because the next day I got a phone call from a captain of the Fairfax County Police Department. He told me he’d received a resident complaint that I was abusing animals and was duty-bound to investigate.
Of course I confessed immediately, explaining to him people shouldn’t always believe what they read on the internet. We exchanged pleasantries and went on our way.
The next day, my principal pulled me aside and told me he’d received an anonymous email that said I was an animal abuser. It said I had no business working with children and should be fired immediately.
I should have known better than to let my imagination get the best of me, because my dog story wasn’t the first time it got me in trouble with the law.
The summer after I graduated from high school, my friend Scott and I went to his family’s shore house in Sea Isle City, New Jersey for the day. When you’re 18, sitting on the beach with your friend’s little brothers is only fun for so long, so Scott and I decided to ditch the kids and explore on our own.
Like most Jersey Shore towns, there’s an area down by the beach where people can walk and bike and shop. Most places call it a boardwalk, but in Sea Isle, they call it The Promenade. For good reason, too, because the Sea Isle Promenade is like the sad French exchange student version of a real Jersey Shore boardwalk.
But poking at it for five minutes and realizing we’d essentially bought a seashell in a cage, we wandered into the dollar store with a willingness to get creative.
We landed on a couple of those soldier kits, the ones with the plastic helmets and grenades and toy machine guns that transported me back to my childhood joy and middle school shame.
Scott and I plopped down our dollar bills and ripped open the packaging, and we got to work defending the shoreline immediately.
We leapfrogged our way down the promenade, shooting at imaginary invaders coming off the beach, yelling things like, “Cover me!” and, “On your six!” I interjected a couple of John Wayne lines, telling Scott, “If you’re nervous, count your toes. I’ll do the masterminding around here.”
After about 10 minutes, we’d drawn quite the crowd. It wasn’t every day that a couple of legal adults defended the Sea Isle promenade from an onslaught of unseen foes.
But then Scott and I made a grievous error. After holding down our positions on the beach front for almost 20 minutes, I was struck by enemy fire.
“I’m hit, I’m hit!” I yelled. “Corpsman!”
Scott dropped his plastic M16 and ran to my side. “Man down!” he said. “I need a medic!”
He cradled me while I nursed a pretend wound in my abdomen. “Scott, I’m so cold,” I said. “Tell my wife I love her.”
“You can tell her yourself, buddy” he said. “You’re going to be just fine, just fine. I need a medic, here!”
In hindsight, this was a treacherous road to travel down. It was the summer after 9/11, and people were on edge. They were still getting used to the fact that tragedy could strike at any moment, and that nail clippers or a 5 ounce tube of face wash at the airport were a threat to national security.
I went into my death rattle, shaking and panting, and Scott slammed his fist on my chest. “No!” he said. “It’s not fair, it’s not fair!”
We concluded our performance to a smattering of applause, enough to warrant Scott and me taking a bow. We collected our dollar store toys we’d strewn across the promenade and went into a nearby shop to buy sodas.
Then a cop car pulled up. Then another, then another, until there were four different units on the promenade, their lights flashing. The officers descended from their vehicles, scouring the area for something.
It didn’t take much calculus for Scott and me to realize the something they were looking for was us. We watched two cops talk to a couple of boardwalk kids, and then watched those kids turn and point in our general direction.
“Pardon me, sir,” I said to the store clerk where we’d just bought our sodas. “Is there a back door to this establishment?”
The clerk, who couldn’t have been much older than us, walked us eagerly through the store room. “I saw the whole thing,” he said. “That was so funny, I’d do anything for you guys.”
The back door deposited us on the block behind the promenade, and though I kept expecting cop cars to swarm our position, we made it back to Scott’s house unscathed.
And really, that’s okay with me. Maybe I can’t entertain myself by infiltrating the sporting goods section at Target while my wife shops for a new summer romper, but at least I have my notebook and the possibility of overhearing a good story.
The truth, I’ve found, is more fun than fiction anyway.