(Yes, you read that title correctly. No, I didn’t turn into a corporate whore overnight. Just keep reading.)
When I was in college at the University of Southern California, I knew a guy named Brett.
He was blonde and loud and ridiculous and just about everything you’d expect a college kid to be, but he was also one of the most genuine people I’ve ever met, in that he didn’t adhere to any stereotypes or social circles. He wouldn’t be defined. He rode a skateboard. He was a deep thinker. He was also a comedian. His English final was a stand-up comedy routine involving the paradoxes of the English language. It was pretty brilliant.
We went to open mic poetry readings and drank too much beer. We walked home from class talking about the meaning of 80s movies. He left coffee cups on my bookshelves from late nights of studying. He was in my creative writing workshop, in which other students would write simple dissertations about college life and he wrote a story that wasn’t a narrative so much as it was a frantic rant about existence, probably composed while high in the middle of the night like some goddamn beat poet.
I admired him, so much so that I crushed on him a little bit. I just wanted more people to be like Brett. To be so enthusiastic about the world, and so thoughtful.
One night, I went to see his stand-up set at Common Grounds, the campus coffee shop. I sat on a couch while he downed a small bottle of vodka on a dare and proceeded to dance around the stage like a drunken jumping bean. The show was shot, of course. Everyone laughed and left, except for me, because I didn’t really want to be anywhere, and Brett was just drunk enough to worry about.
We ended up sitting on the curb of some street in Los Angeles, spewing out our plans for existence and what we wanted from life. It was all sorts of profound to us then, because we were a couple of college kids with delusions of grandeur. I wanted to tell stories; he wanted to make people happy. I remember it clearly, because I wrote it all down. (I think I even ended up reading the story at one of the open mics later on.)
We graduated, went our separate ways, and all that.
Fast forward to last year’s Superbowl Sunday.
I watch the Superbowl with my friend Maureen every year. Sometimes we’re at a guy’s apartment eating hotdogs and beating on the couch armrests; sometimes we’re just sitting on her floor with wine yelling at whatever ref made a bad call; but whatever the situation, it’s always an event for us. The game, that is. Some watch for commercials, but I never did.
Last year in February I drove over to Maureen’s apartment and busted my car’s rack and pinion trying to parallel park. My steering wheel wouldn’t budge. I couldn’t get home without getting it fixed, and I didn’t have any money, so I had to call my mother and plead, which felt rotten. (Then I had to leave my car at a Midas overnight and miss a day of work.)
It was not a good start to the day. I missed the beginning of the game. By the time I calmed down and sat in front of the television, I hated the world. I was gruff and disappointed, but prepared to enjoy myself, anyway.
Then I saw Brett in a Superbowl commercial.
I blinked a bit, at first. Is that who I think it is?
I knew through Facebook that he had moved to New York, but that was all I knew. I hadn’t thought about the guy in years. And there he was on fucking television.
He was hilarious, even. Spot on. Perfect. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I bounded out of the room and tried to exclaim to Maureen, who was making chili, that one of my college buddies had just been in a goddamn Superbowl commercial.
All of a sudden, I couldn’t stop smiling. I was dead broke, and I couldn’t stop smiling. My car was a useless wreck, and I couldn’t stop smiling. This thirty-second television spot had confirmed to me that someone I wanted big things for was actually doing them. Someone I had sat drunk on the sidewalk with in college was making millions of people laugh.
I want to make this clear: after seeing Brett on my TV, I was happy enough to ignore the sheer amount of bullshit I was going through. If all he ever wanted was to make people happy, like he said over and over that one night on the street, well… mission fucking accomplished.
Brett is one of the most unique friends I’ve ever known. He deserves it.
He’s a radio personality now. He headlines comedy shows in New York. Headlines them.
Here I am, still bouncing checks and penning stories for pennies, but I’m completely blissed out that I could see someone make it. That Brett made it.
Success finds its way to good people after all.
This is Brett’s commercial.
This is the story I wrote a decade ago about me & Brett being dumb kids drunk on the sidewalk. Please pardon the college English major sense of overdramatic flair.
He smiles at you, making you feel dear, even here. His eyes are bleary saucers of vodka regret. And yet, his other friends are speaking, twirling around him in circles, making you small. You look at bricks surrounding down on walls and form sculptures from them in your brain.
By now the only one you know has left, has gone home—the rest are strangers, enveloping, exempt, forcing you aside. But this is not about you.
You try to speak and find your mouth dry from lack of liquor. Your lungs are only luminous when coated with that alcoholic sheen; otherwise, something grabs your voice and roughs it up. You need paper. You need something indirect. To bounce off the bricks at just the right angle.
Slaps on backs are echoes, secluded. There is no one else in sight. He waves them away. When smiles fade you aren’t sure what to do; flesh always feels clumsy in your arms and falls out. You hug yourself, taste leather, and look up. When the clock strikes lonely he licks his lips and frowns, then falls like a collapsable figure, forgetting his earlier vigor. I fucked up, he says. He says, I’m freaking out.
You think, I’ve never had anyone sob a hole into my shoulder. You can feel his chest move—uneasy, like a record skips. You can feel how thin he is just before he turns around. You let him go in time for him to kick the wall instead of you, the bricks instead of bones. You try to hold his head away, afraid he might knock himself out. You remember what he wrote.
You didn’t believe him then. You aren’t sure that you believe him now, even as he hugs the wall. You say, what can I do, fully expecting, half hoping him to pull away. And instead he whispers, stay. Just stay.
So you do. You hold his hand and once again wish you were more drunk so you would know how to handle yourself. You focus on the few beers. You feel like a flightless bird. Then, in a burst, he breaks away. He runs, as fast as he can, away from you and around the corner towards the road.
You are scared, but remember his words. You grab the phrase, hold your breath, and follow him. Where the sidewalk ends, for a second, you think you’ve lost him. You think he’s gone inside, outside, disappeared—to puke, to forget, to fly away. Then you see him at the gate: head down, shuffled feet. He is dealing with this the only way he knows how, but before you let him get away, you hear something push anxiety aside and shout his name. The something is determined to be of some use; the something will be damned if it lets this boy face that black by himself.
So it shouts again: a knife in the dark. And it hooks a hand that motions, slowly, in your direction. You hesitate. You feel one side of you shove the rest of your soul into dust. You see his face through bars: behind. Your body slips between them—thin enough, just barely, and your brain follows.
It’s late, and the pavement shines sticky with oil. Neon glows pompous in the fog. He grabs your hand and pulls you to the curb beside a set of car wheels. When you both face the surface street, feet set apart, sitting with backs to the loaded black gate, he says, I can’t believe you’re still here.
It feels like a snapshot; you want to write it down. Tears grace his face like bleeding ink. You want to use them to write answers to all he says. You want to hold up mirrors to his mind and say, see. To pop this with a pin and alleviate the pressure.
You spend an hour with your chin against his knee, talking. Sequences of silence, speech, silence again silence. You swallow his words and share a few of your own. You quote other artists because your own repertoire seems shallow. He says, I just want to make people happy. I want to make them laugh. You say, I want to tell stories.
The desert night deepens. The sidewalk becomes cold against your jeans. There is a large rose garden a few streets down. He says he wants to go there. You can tell he wants to go alone, but when you ask, he gives you the choice and your own sense of need. You’ve almost forgotten about yourself. You don’t even remember what you’re wearing. You try to wipe your eyes and realize you have glasses that fogged up when you weren’t looking.
You should sleep, you say, wiping them with your shirt while the world waits, blurry. He says, I haven’t slept in days. Sleep is strange.
Words feed the air, involuntarily wrought, from both sides: I hate sleep. Sleep is such a waste of time. I wish I could stop sleeping.
When he stands up, he stumbles and almost falls over. You grab his shoulder, hold him there, afraid, and suddenly very aware of your own body. It’s thin and flimsy: useless support, really. Still, he hooks his arm through yours. Still, it steadies him, somewhat. Still, you begin to walk, and you feel your sense of stability change. Even when he stops to scream, to stomp his feet and shout FUCK into the air, to throw things in the street—you stay. He always comes back, and you lead him silently back to his house.