March 29, 2015

The One Question I Get Asked More Than Any Other


If you read or hear enough interviews with celebrity types, you start to notice a phrase, or at least a variation of that phrase, that seems to crop up about two-thirds of the time, maybe even more than that. Watch the late night talk shows and you’ll see what I mean. . It goes like this: “People are always coming up to me on the street and asking . . . ” or “If there’s one question I get asked more than any other, it’s . . . ”

            Over a period of years, it seems, these famous people can’t step out of the house or pick up the phone or open an email without someone asking them the exact same fucking question hundreds of other people have asked them already, and hundreds more will ask in the months to come.

            The questions themselves vary greatly of course depending on the celebrity (“How did you get so fat?” or “What was it like working with Dub Taylor?” or “Why have all of your films been so miserable?”), but the situation itself seems decidedly common.

            When I first noticed this it struck me as a little odd, even almost disturbing, that the lives of all these famous, glamorous people would be so marked by a deadly, endless, existential repetition. It sounded like something out of Beckett or Kafka. Imagine waking up every day and knowing with sharp, inescapable clarity that at some point, someone was going to stop you somewhere and ask you the same goddamn question again. It might even happen six times while you’re just trying to eat lunch. Are all these millions of fans so lacking in imagination? Well, okay there’s no need to answer that, but still don’t you think they’d do a little research before marching up to someone they admire and asking the same trite bullshit question? Even if you put yourself on autopilot when the question arises yet one more time, it’s still got to be pretty horrible after awhile.

            Then I realized that even though I’m not a celebrity, that I’m about as far from famous and glamorous as you can get, I, too, have been asked a single question almost every day, not just for a couple of years, but pretty much my entire life.

            Although I might have been asked long before this, the first time I remember being asked was when I was eight years old.

            It was about five on a warm summer afternoon. The garage door was open, and my dad was in there grilling up some burgers and hot dogs and bratwurst for dinner. He had to step away for a minute to do something down at the end of the driveway, so he handed me the tongs and told me to flip the burgers and brats when I thought it was time. I forget if he’d let me take on this responsibility before or not, but I have my doubts. He was very protective of his barbecuing.

            So he stepped away, and I pondered all that grilling meat. Things were looking pretty well done to me already, but just for good measure and to prove to him I was the responsible type who could take on such a task, I reached out with the tongs and plucked up a brat.

            A moment later, as my dad would recall, he was heading back to the garage and the grill when he was met by a bratwurst rolling down the driveway toward his feet.

            “Oh, can’t you do anything right?” he asked.

            Little did I know at that tender age that, like a big celebrity, I would be asked this question repeatedly over the course of the next forty-plus years.

            To be fair my dad, whom I loved dearly, only asked me that question once. Since then, though, I’ve been asked by a wide variety of people in a variety of situations. It’s come in response to my efforts to shovel snow, mow a lawn, wash the dishes, clean a shower, get rid of vermin, sweep the floor, walk upright, navigate a grocery store, throw a football, baseball, or Frisbee, buy groceries, bathe, sleep, extinguish cigarettes, take out the trash, type, tell a story, dress myself, tie my shoes, install an air conditioner, not spill a beer, make the simplest of home repairs, brush my teeth, clean a countertop, carry things, feed myself . . .

            Well, you get the idea. See what I mean, though? I can hardly go out or do anything at all without someone popping up to ask me that same question. It all leaves me feeling a bit like some big-time celebrity, like Wink Martindale or Bernie Madoff or Queen Elizabeth II. And like those stars who all have their own personal One Question, I’ve learned to just turn on the autopilot whenever anyone stops me on the street to ask, “Can’t you do anything right?”

            When they do, I merely smile and respond, “Well, obviously not.”


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