5×5 at 20×2

In March 2001, during my dot-com days, my friend Kevin invited me to report on “20×2,” an event he was hosting for the Austin Interactive Marketing Association at the South By Southwest Conference. The premise of the event was that twenty speakers had two minutes each to answer a specific question–in this case “What is Interactive?” Since the event was to be held in a ballroom of the Four Seasons Hotel and lunch was to be served, I was already sold on it.

The presentation started rather slowly, with businessmen coming up and reading dull corporate rah-rah reports, explaining why Jetco.com or what have you was the true definition of interactivity. Eventually some creative types–Internet celebs, artists, musicians, and so forth–came up and offered more inventive answers. They were actually entertaining and thought-provoking, and an antidote to the suits that had preceded them. Overall, it was an interesting event.

Kevin got laid off about the same time that I did that summer, and we both stayed out of work for some time, so I was surprised when he told me at the beginning of 2002 that he was hosting “20×2” again. He said the new question was “What is Reality?,” and asked if I’d agree to be one of the speakers. I gave him a tentative okay.

But what could I talk about? If I got up and held forth on my world-view, how I really, truly see things, I’d probably just depress the hell out of everybody. I thought about reading a solipsistic passage from the end of Twain’s “The Mysterious Stranger,” but decided that’d be too pretentious, rather like when Sting name-drops the title of the most recent important book he’s read into one of his song lyrics.

I knew the way to go would be something funny and pop-cultural. I thought I’d hold forth on how you can learn everything you need to know about the real world by watching “The Rockford Files,” but I just couldn’t get that idea off the ground, couldn’t get enough supporting quotations or illustrations. And when I considered that in college we had a drinking game we played while watching “Rockford,” whereby everyone would take a drink any time Jim got the shit beaten out of him, I decided that maybe Jim didn’t have the answers after all and that my premise was a mite shaky.

I got frustrated and e-mailed Kevin that I was bowing out. He immediately phoned me and asked me to reconsider and reminded me the event was only a few days away. I’d been so upset that I wasn’t going to be covering SXSW that year that I’d made a point of not paying any attention to it, ignoring it in hopes it’d pass over me and I wouldn’t notice what I was missing. Consequently I wasn’t aware of when the conference actually started. But Kevin gave me a pep talk and I agreed to give it a go. He then asked me to write up an outlandish bio to serve as my introduction. This I did immediately and with great gusto.

I decided to tell my favorite childhood story, pitching it as the time when I first realized that the world is not always as it appears. Over the years, the story had acquired all sorts of embellishments, but now I had to cut them away, so that I could tell it in two minutes. I wrote the story down on little slips of paper, with haiku-like concision. When I went to bed that night, I edited it down over and over in my head until I fell asleep. The next day, lacking a stopwatch, I timed my presentation using my microwave oven.

The previous few months I’d rarely left the house, so it was kind of a novelty on the evening of the event to put on some real street clothes instead of pajamas. As soon as I got downtown I saw all the cool, oddly-dressed out-of-towners and realized with great regret what I’d been missing.

The event was at a club on 6th Street called The Mercury, located over a Cajun restaurant called Jazz. The doors were to open at 7pm, with the event starting at 7:30. I got there early and paced up and down the sidewalk, amongst other speakers and potential audience members. Sarah, Kevin’s then-girlfriend, showed up in a leopard-print cowboy hat, western shirt and skirt, and newly purchased cowboy boots with tassels. (She’d just moved to Texas from Hawaii.) I said, “Gee, don’t you look all Patsy Montana tonight?,” but I wasn’t sure if she got the dated reference. She flashed me a toothy smile and let me and the other speakers inside.

Now I knew I wasn’t getting paid, and I saw immediately that there was no food, but the event was being held in a bar, and I could smoke there, so at least one of my Big Three Needs was being provided for. And so I proceeded to smoke almost continuously from that moment on. (It’s odd to imagine that now, since I quit smoking later that year and Austin’s bars all went smoke-free a few years afterwards.)

They had the speakers seated at special, separate tables covered with tablecloths. I really appreciated even that small bit of V.I.P. treatment after having been a nobody for so long. They also had bottled water for the speakers. I could probably count on both hands the number of times I’ve had bottled water in my life. I don’t drink much water one way or another, and I’ve never quite grasped the concept of paying for something you can get for free out of the tap or the toilet, but yes, I did appreciate having the water, especially since I was parching my throat with the smoking.

For the second year in a row Kevin’s sportscaster buddy Mike was serving as Master of Ceremonies. When I spotted Mike dressed in a tuxedo I called out, “Hey, are you the maitre d’?…How’s the prime rib tonight?”

In his opening remarks Mike warned that “in the wake of September 11th” and “surreal” had been over-used recently, and as such were not allowed in any of the evening’s presentations.

I was third on the line-up, probably because I had a very low-tech presentation planned–no music, no Power Point overheads, no interpretive dancers–just me and my mouth. The first guy did a narrative, but seemed a little nervous. Then there was a chick that talked about a Conan O’Brien fan convention, but didn’t get to finish her story. Then it was my turn.

Early on during Mike’s introduction I took the stage. I had planned to talk standing up, but Mike the MC had the standing mike to himself. The other mike was set up lower, next to a table with an Italian restaurant-style candle atop it. There was a red spotlight aimed at the table. I decided not to risk breaking anything by monkeying around with my mike, and to just sit the hell down and do my bit.

And here’s what Mike said:

“J___ S___ B_____ was an early achiever, serving as the gunman on the Grassy Knoll when he was less than a month old, and later cementing his position in the military/industrial complex by serving as personal advisor to Henry Kissinger at the Paris Peace Talks. Later, using money he had judiciously saved after selling subscriptions to “Grit,” B____ helped Steve Rubell bankroll the opening of Studio 54. After graduating summa cum laude from Bob Jones University, B_____ worked for several years as caretaker of the Spahn Ranch before settling in Austin. He worked as a bookseller, librarian, and hand model before taking a job as Food and Drink Editor at Austin Citysearch.com, but his glittering thirteen months there were cut short by the dot-com bust and a bad case of gout. Currently unemployed and living in seclusion, B____ spends his days watching “Dark Shadows” reruns and finishing the first volume of his memoirs, while awaiting the tender mercies and open wallet of a wealthy benefactor. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you J.S. B___.”

The intro was very well received. The embarrassing plea for a benefactor was Kevin’s idea, by the way.

I was wearing what had become my winter uniform–flannel shirt and leather jacket. I licked my lips and started, my manner a mixture of Spalding Gray and Richard Burton’s crazed psychiatrist Dr. Dysart in “Equus.”

Here’s what I said:

“I first became aware that the world was not always as it appears when I was six and vacationing with my parents in the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee. We went to a theme park called ‘Goldrush Junction,’ the chief attraction of which was a combination train ride/historical pageant depicting Davy Crockett’s treaty with the Indians. You’d ride awhile, then they’d stop and do a scene, then you’d ride some more and then the Indians would attack the train.

“The kids were issued black powder pop gun toy rifles, but my trigger was broken and I was depressed.

“Davy Crockett came into our car before the ride started. He was a young man, and I didn’t think he looked anything like John Wayne or Fess Parker, but I took my genocidal duty very seriously and shook his hand.

“The ride started. We’d ride awhile, then they’d stop and do a scene, then we’d ride some more and then the Indians would attack the train. All the other kids would kneel by the windows, shooting at the Indians, but I had to sit there with my hands folded in my lap because my trigger was broken and I was depressed.

“We were rounding a bend in the mountains, and as the scene they were doing was especially boring, I looked over where I wasn’t supposed to, down to the end of the train. I saw these Indians stepping out of the woods, and as the caboose rounded the corner, I saw our conductor reaching down and helping the Indians on board. I got suspicious. Then screams came from the back of the train, and at the same time, the announcer at the front of the train immediately knew what was going on and called out over the public address system: ‘Look out kids! The train’s been boarded by Injuns!’

“The screams got louder and louder as the Indians got closer to us, and finally they burst in–shirtless white boys from Vanderbilt with faces and chests painted–grunting, ‘Oogah-boogah-boogah!’ and flashing jazz hands at everybody.

“There was one Indian right behind me, scaring the hell out of a little three-year-old girl. She was crying her head off, but the adults in the car seemed to find this hilarious. Being a good Texan, I thought, ‘What did Davy Crockett do at the Alamo when he ran out of ammunition?,’ and so I got up on my knees in my seat, grabbed my broken rifle by the barrel, and reared back and smacked the shit out of this marauding Indian, right across the forehead with my rifle butt.

“My parents yanked me back down into my seat, and the Indian went staggering out of the car, clutching his skull and murmuring. I didn’t know why I was in trouble. I said I was trying to defend the little girl’s honor.”

BANG!—Mike hit the gong, and I was unable to deliver the post-script of the story:

“Sixteen years later, ‘Goldrush Junction’ fell upon hard times, so a singer bought it, renovated it, and renamed it ‘Dollywood.’”

The crowd really seemed to dig my story.

When I got back to my table, some guy had taken my seat, despite the fact that I’d left my cap, cigarette case, lighter, and all sorts of personal items there. I’d done everything but mark the spot with my own urine. This interloper wasn’t a speaker–I guess he was the friend of one–and he was stuffing his face with fried oysters from the restaurant downstairs. Now normally I am quite territorial and get very anal when strangers invade an area reserved for me, but three minutes of laughter and applause had done wonders for my mood. He asked if he had taken my spot. I said that he had, but for him not to worry about it. I just got my stuff and moved a few places down, and sat with local musicians Shane Bartell and Darin Murphy.

Probably the biggest name there that night was L. M. “Kit” Carson, the screenwriter/actor/producer/director. Mike the MC didn’t have to read a phony bio for him, as he had some pretty impressive film and writing credits in real life (“Paris, Texas,” “Bottle Rocket,” “Esquire” magazine). His son was the little boy in “Paris, Texas, and his ex-wife was ‘70s actress Karen Black. Anyway, Carson had to go on early, as he had another event to attend, but he showed a short film that blew everybody away.

One speaker had us get up to do a yoga breathing exercise. I had a cigarette going during all this and was looking around like “Ab Fab’s” Patsy Stone does when she wakes up all disoriented, trying to figure out where she is and what she’s supposed to do next. Another presenter was clever enough to read a somewhat erotic passage from “Siddhartha,” while illustrating it with a slide show from “Sex & the City” (like the book, hate the show).

There were several Internet big-shots, all completely unfamiliar to me, who did Power Point presentations that got slowed down due to technical glitches, but which were pretty interesting once they got going.

Not surprisingly, a few people sang.

Shane got up and did a straight narrative account, about how he never had to worry about reality after discovering acid as a teenager. (He told me afterwards that our two stories were the only presentations he’d really understood thus far, and described us as “bulls in a china shop.”) Darin did a narrative a well.

Somebody was a no-show, so a tall, lanky guy was prevailed upon to perform. He sat down and started fussing with the mike. He seemed very nervous, and fumbled and stuttered and stammered and apologized a lot. He’d obviously not rehearsed. He explained how he’d been asked up at the last minute. And he apologized and stammered and stuttered and fumbled some more. The audience was wondering if this was an act or was he really this uncomfortable. It got kind of painful to watch. Was it a performance piece or what? Was he not very good with improv? Then the guy suddenly announced that he had to piss really badly, and got up and bolted from the stage. Even Mike the MC wasn’t sure about him and waited to see if he was coming back before thanking him and asking the audience for their applause.

Another fellow told a story about his flight from LA to Austin, and how he’d discussed 20×2 with a Frenchman who’d been in the next seat over. The story ended with him quoting the Frenchman, in French. As this guy left the stage Mike announced, “Maurice Chevalier, everyone!” I was tickled by the reference: my nasal cackling carried loudly over the modest applause.

One of the last speakers was a middle-aged bald guy, another supposed Internet superstar. The crowd looked at him like he was Sinatra. He also did a narrative, but it was much more animated than anyone else’s. It started as an adventure in the jungles of the Amazon, moved for some reason to the Sahara desert, then back to the Amazon. He was also a lot louder than any of the other speakers, and at the climax of his bit, for reasons known only to himself, he jumped onto the amplifiers at the edge of the stage and then ran out into the audience. Afterwards, Shane and I just looked at each other. Neither of us had had any intention of getting that physical in our presentations.

And then, sadly, it was over–the applause, the laughter, the cameras snapping my picture–and all too soon. I thought how good it had been to get out of the house for a change. I stood up and started milling around. I spoke briefly with the few people there that I already knew, including Kevin’s room-mate, Jeff, (whom I’m convinced looks like one of the singers in the early ‘90s pop group, “Color Me Badd”). But none of the audience approached me–no questions, no congratulations–certainly no autographs. Everybody was fawning over these Internet celebs that I didn’t recognize. I kept asking myself, “Why are they famous and I’m not? How do I become one of them?”

The fact that no one was really interested in talking to me became sadly apparent, so I slipped out, ran into the first speaker of the night on the sidewalk, complimented him and shook his hand, then went to a convenience store to spend my last five dollars on smokes, newspapers, and three “Little Debbie Nutty Bar” snack cakes.

On my way to the bus stop, I passed somebody who looked a lot like actor Jason “Chasing Amy” Lee. He had rumpled clothes, uncombed hair, and a scruffy moustache and goatee, yet he gave off the aura of a minor celebrity. He was talking to another guy who was hanging on to his every word. I looked back at him over my shoulder, then concluded that it was somebody else, someone who wasn’t famous. But I can be forgiven for my mistake. After all, in Austin, white male hipsters are a dime-a-dozen.

(Links to videos of Goldrush Junction:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AFyAcsFleZw

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2dc9nQnGzSY

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vrzBBMXCDOo )

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