It’s 1995. I own: a pine wood futon, a Compaq Presario laptop computer (no modem), a few banker’s boxes full of books, and enough clothes to fill two duffle bags. I live in a corner studio apartment just off Saddle Creek Road in Omaha, Nebraska. I’ve just started an English MA program at Creighton University. And at this very moment a car is on fire outside my front door. I stick my head out to see what’s going on and a guy I have never seen before blurts out at me, “Dude just walked up, pulled out a gas can, poured it all over the car, and dropped a match.” I go back inside and call 911 before settling back down to watch the rest of Charlie Rose.
I didn’t grow up in what you would call an “intellectual” family. My dad was a truck driver and then he worked for a pipeline company for thirty years. My mom was a nurse. We had books in our house, but we didn’t really talk about them that much. I read a lot, but, as you might suspect, elementary kids just aren’t that interested in the latest Sidney Sheldon novel your mom got in the mail from the Book of the Month Club. I guess I craved intellectual exchange.
Maybe that was why in that tiny, dark apartment, I had become obsessed with The Charlie Rose Show – not so much because of Charlie (and his slow, obtuse questions), but because of the people he had on his show: smart people. Writers, directors, activists, artists – you name it – these were the kind of people that made you want to be brilliant and on TV sitting in a black room with a glass of water on a table, pontificating on some subject, whatever the hell it might be. I remember seeing Gore Vidal on the show one night, and I was completely hypnotized by his unquestioned confidence. He knew he was right about everything (even if he wasn’t), and I loved it. Another night I saw Henry Louis Gates, Jr. He was talking about the Encyclopedia Africana, which he was still working on with Kwame Anthony Appiah at the time. The comprehensive reference project on all of Africana culture, it was envisioned by W.E.B. DuBois nearly one hundred years earlier. Gates beamed, chatting about the joy of making his dream come true, of bringing the vision of DuBois to life.
At that moment I was completely sold. Not only did I know for sure I wanted to be a professor (a decision I was still turning over in my head at the time), I wanted to be a famous professor – someone who would appear on TV discussing his newest project, someone who would get the call when PBS was shooting a documentary on James Baldwin or Ralph Ellison, someone who, when he began to speak, people would stop and listen to.
It’s 2014. I am sitting in a small room inside a giant warehouse just north of downtown St. Paul. The room is part of a spare suite that belongs to a local production company, and I am submitting to being mopped with makeup because I am just about to make my first appearance as an expert for a documentary TV show.
The makeup artist is trying to reassure me that she knows what she is doing. She explains, “I’m going to make you look just like you . . . but better.” A second later, a production assistant bursts into the room with a shirt of mine on a plastic hanger. “This one will work. They like this one. And keep the undershirt,” he says. I want to ask him, “who’s upstairs right now? Who are they filming up there?” I keep hearing the other PA’s bounding up and down the stairs screaming at each other, “Man, that guy is great!” “Where do you think that accent is from?” “I dunno, but he is killing it with those stories.” Sounds like the cat is good.
“Ok, we’re finished.” The makeup artist packs up her stuff and leaves me sitting there with a pancaked face and a handful of crumpled notes – answers to questions I’m not sure whether or not I’ll be asked. I’ve never ever done this before, so I have no idea what’s going to happen. Soon the PA from before pokes his head through the doorway and whispers, “You ready to shoot, Chief?” I nod, get up, and follow him up the stairs into the darkness.
It’s 2015. I’m sitting in my lucky chair in the living room of my house. I know it’s lucky because the night before, the Kansas City Royals, my favorite team, completed another ridiculous comeback to beat some or other media-proclaimed murderer’s row. I’m waiting for the show True Monsters to come on the History Channel. It’s been over a year since I sat for two hours in that warehouse at the end of a giant camera, muttering answers to questions I had only a vague idea were coming. I have to see the show because, honestly, I don’t have any idea what the heck I even said. What if I sound like an idiot? What if I look stupid? What if I said something factually incorrect? As the intro sequence begins, I consider another troubling possibility: what if the show isn’t very good? This is, after all, the History Channel, home of Pawn Stars and Ancient Aliens. Who is going to watch this crap? This isn’t what I signed up for. I wanted to be like Henry Louis Gates – hell, even Neil Degrasse Tyson. Dude built a whole media career off of saying smart things on television.
As I sit back in my chair waiting for the fateful moment, hands trembling, heart pulsing, the cringe-worthy music begins. The screen flickers with fast-cut images of wolves, werewolves, little girls in red capes, pools of blood, and anything else prurient and salacious you can think of. I start to panic as the first segment rolls by. It’s not the best TV I’ve ever seen. Or, should I say that it’s exactly what you would expect to see on today’s History Channel, a venue that thinks history is when an old crotchety white guy explains the value of a twenty-foot tall gas-powered dragon head car crusher to two dudes dressed in leather pants.
And then it happens. My face flashes across the screen. The mouth on my TV face is moving, but what the hell is it saying? Something about Little Red Riding Hood “falling and breaking the bottle?” (Breaking the bottle is an allusion to virginity, I told them in the interview, and the wolf as a werewolf is indicative of fears about the animal characteristics of men, but in the end, they only used maybe 25-30 seconds of what I said. They didn’t care about folklore; they kept talking about the “original” version of “Little Red Riding Hood,” for instance, when of course there isn’t one.) Hmm, that wasn’t bad analysis, though. As the segment continues, I have some other interesting things to say – as interesting as things can be in two or three seconds – which is more than the editors give poor Jack Zipes. The guy who wrote books on “Little Red Riding Hood” is getting less airtime than I am. This is definitely an error in judgment. But, you know what? I’m not bad – certainly not as bad as the show is.
So it wasn’t Charlie Rose, but it was fun and I didn’t embarrass myself. I did ok discussing Conomor the Accursed as a source for “Bluebeard” and the North Carolina legend of the Tar River Banshee. Maybe the show was a little schlocky, but how can I complain when I was on the same series as the High Priest of the Church of Satan? I bet Skip Gates can’t say that. And anyway, I’ll never be Skip Gates. I don’t even want to be anymore. I’ll be “David Todd Lawrence, Ph.D. – Folklorist,” on True Monsters, talking about fairy tales and legends. Nothing wrong with that. But maybe I should get some leather pants?
Todd Lawrence is an associate professor in the English Department. In addition to teaching folklore studies, Lawrence also researches and teaches in areas that include: The Black Arts Movement, African American outlaw culture, Afrofuturism, memorialization and public space, and disaster studies. He continues to work on a project in collaboration with the displaced residents of Pinhook, MO, a town destroyed when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers intentionally breached the Birds Point-New Madrid levee in southeast Missouri during the Heartland Flood of 2011. This work focuses on African American narratives of disaster and resilience.