Because of my rock star, phenom status in the world of free, weekly, Northeast Florida, small-town community newspapers, I was invited to speak last week at the University of Central Florida, my old alma mater.
“First thing’s first, dollface,” I told the professor who invited me, leaning in close and cracking my knuckles. “What’s the score here? Cuz you better believe top-shelf wisdom like this don’t come cheap (it does). And you know daddy’s got alimony bills to pay (I don’t).”
She said the pay was zero but that, afterward, I was more than welcome to make myself sound super cool in my column (I took the gig).
“I’ve always loved being backstage,” I told her, limbering up before class, beside her podium.
OK, maybe it wasn’t a “stage,” per se. It was just a regular old classroom, but by virtue of me not being a student in it, it felt special.
Unlike my college days, the rules no longer applied to me. And that was my first revelation about show business. Like an edgy young comic, I wanted my set to feel lawless and raw.
The next few moments are a little fuzzy, but I remember there was chanting. “Mike! Mike! Mike!” The houselights dimmed. The class erupted, already craving an encore before the show even started.
“Oh, stop it!” I said, emerging from a heavy velvet curtain. “Sit, sit … ”
The first thing you need to “get” about public speaking is engagement. You’ve got to read the crowd, figure what they want and serve it up. And let me tell you: I was killing! Strutting around the room, cracking hilarious jokes, dropping truth bombs.
“When you get to where I am, stature-wise,” I said, huffing hot air onto my fingernails and polishing them on my shirt, “you’ve got to at least pretend to stay grounded.”
Then one student asked how newspapers find their stories, and as I answered, her eyebrows fluttered. She nodded. Then she started taking notes.
Maybe you didn’t catch that: She started taking notes. On paper. With pen. She was writing down my words as if, I don’t know, there was value in them, as if I could actually be trusted.
And this is when a great secret of the universe opened itself up to me, like a heron drying its wings in the sun.
Everybody … everywhere … is totally faking it.
Just look at me: I was actually pulling this thing off! I came with no preparation, no ideas, and ended up speaking over an hour.
But it didn’t hit me until the note-taking that I’d become this weird sort of authority figure, distanced from my college years and high school years and youth.
“Yeah, so, uh … newspapers,” I stammered, distracted.
As a kid, you wait and wait for the future to come, as if it’s some kind of train you board and ride into the “real world.” But then one day you’re Zig Ziglaring in the front of college kids, and it hits you that time is way more like a carton of Ben & Jerry’s, one that you buy, stash in your freezer and and can’t wait to devour — only you end up going out that night, so you forget about it and it sits in there until it gets freezer burn, and one day you find it, in the back, under a Tupperware of two-year-old pasta sauce, and it’s plastered in ice and disapointment. So you chuck it and get Baskin Robbins, instead.
“Well, I think that’s our time,” my professor said at the end of class, pushing her sleeve aside to check her watch. Then she initiated applause, and a part of me wanted to join in and hide inside the noise awhile, still a part of the group, right there with the rest of them.
Outside, the trees rustled and the breeze felt like it did every night I’d ever left that campus, back when I’d obsess about the future, half-believing that if I just walked home slow enough, I would let adulthood beat me to the finish line, where I could see it in full light and stop worrying.
I got in my car with a long drive ahead of me, a legitimate, turkey-talking grownup by the standards I’d set in my college days. Yet, as I pulled onto the Interstate, I was struck by the same impulse to take the drive slowly, to let that something, whatever it might be, beat me home.
BY MIKE CAVALIERE | ASSOCIATE EDITOR