Transcript

190:

Living the Dream
Transcript

Originally aired 08.03.2001

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/190

Prologue.

Ira Glass

Tito's 18, lives in Los Angeles, lean and handsome and dark with a bear claw tattooed onto each cheek. And when he talks about his life thus far, he says he just didn't have a choice about certain things.

Tito

Basically, when I was locked up in juvenile detention I was there for a year and I really believe that if you locked up a year just with a whole bunch of guys, it really can mess with your mental stage. Because I act all hard. I act like a dude. Most likely I dressed like a guy. I tried to do everything like a guy. Play basketball. But deep inside, these real males can really know that. It's just an act. It's like really, you're a girl, but you're acting like a dude.

It can be very, very, very frustrating and confusing when you are around a whole bunch of males. Because what starts to happen when you're around other males, it's like the deep side of you, the female part's trying to come out, and just try to say something. But deep inside, you're pushing that person back down. It's like the egg will crack and the female is becoming birthed. I know it sounds very freaky, but this is totally real.

Ira Glass

If you're trying to figure out who you are, it's funny what can inspire you. What can be helpful and give you strength. Tito, for example, is an Eminem fan. The night Eminem performed at the Grammy's, drunk protesters, gay protesters, who called him homophobic and misogynist. Tito was at a party with gay kids and bisexual kids and transsexual kids. Kids who are actually born as boys but live as girls, who were all watching the Grammy's on TV and cheering for Eminem. Tito explains it this way.

Here's this white guy, Eminem, who somehow felt that part of black culture was just inside him, and decided that he would rap like a black guy. And ended up able to pass in that world.

Tito

Transgender people, it's the same way. It's a boy that feels like a woman inside. And want to be free to go ahead and explore that. So they want to dress like a girl and acting like girl. It's in the same category for somebody that feels black inside. I feel so. I'm Caucasian, but I feel black inside, and I want to explore my side. And I think if Eminem can do it, anybody can. I mean, transgender should too.

Ira Glass

There's a deep part of American culture, which is all about the idea that you can make yourself into anyone. How many of our movies are about the idea that I'm going to be a star? I'm going to sing, dance, take Wall Street by storm. Own this crazy town. See my name in lights. Someday be a gangster. Someday be a real boy. Someday get to Washington and make a difference. Someday leave my uncle's farm in Tatooine and become a Jedi knight like my father. Well, today on our program, stories of people who felt this very American call to be something that they were not, and who then willed it to happen. From WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass.

Our program today in three acts. Act One, Girls, Girls, Girls. The story of teenagers who were born as boys, but live as girls in Los Angeles.

Act Two, Agent to the Stars. A fan's unlikely dream to meet his favorite movie star accidentally works. Partly to his delight, partly to his horror.

Act Three, Airel Sharon, Shimon Peres, David Ben Gurion, and me! An American teenager who dreams someday of becoming the prime minister of a nation where he does not even reside. Stay with us.

Act One. Girls Girls Girls.

Ira Glass

Act one, Girls, Girls, Girls.

Over the last 10 years in Los Angeles, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of transsexual teenagers. These are both boys and girls. You see them on the streets. Both are on the rise, but the boys who live as girls are a little more visible.

As you might expect, they prefer to be called "she" not "he." And "girls" not "boys." Cris Beam has spent the last two years getting to know these kids, interviewing them, writing about them, and she tells this story.

Cris Beam

I'm writing a book about transsexual youth. In Los Angeles where I live, there are hundreds of them, noisily laughing on street corners. Runaways or castoffs from families who can't possibly understand.

There have always been transsexuals in Los Angeles and everywhere else, but never so many kids, so visible and so determined. They come here because they hear they can find underground hormones, or friends. Or simply because this is the biggest city they can think of. And because they fall under the radar of regular social services, on the street they're playing doctor, beautician, health advisor and shrink to one another.

I posted fliers around asking them to share their stories. I got one call from a 20 year old woman who agreed to meet with me. Her name was Foxxjazell and she told me she was going to be the first international transsexual pop star. She described herself so I could recognize her. I'm very beautiful, she said. I'm tall and black with butter pecan caramel skin and long, luxurious, silky hair. She suggested we meet at the Red Lobster.

When I got there, I saw she wasn't lying. She was really pretty. She wore glitter on her eyes and had silver charms braided into her hair. On her ripped jeans she had scrawled the words "Latins do it better."

She'd grown up Dwight Eric Jackson in Birmingham, Alabama. As early as she can remember, she felt like a girl. When the teacher would parcel kids off into boy and girl teams in kindergarten, Foxx stood there frozen, not knowing which group to join. And when she hit adolescence, Foxx had to invent herself like any other teenager, but without the templates-- prom queen, brainiac, jock.

Foxx had to make up a whole persona that fit with the gender inside her. It's a trait that attracts me to these transgender kids in general. Their intense drive to develop their own reality, and then their own rules to get there.

For instance, for a few years in high school, inspired by Prince, Foxx replaced her own name with a symbol.

Foxxjazell

I did not use my name at all. I would use a pink triangle. I would always carry this pink marker around with me every day. And if I wanted to sign my name or did my homework or something like that, I'll put a pink triangle on there. Because the pink triangle was originally from the Holocaust. Because back then, a lot of the gay people there in the concentration camps got pink triangles put on them. But being the creative soul that I am, I put something a little bit different on there. I put a sign of a woman on there. And don't you know, it's like the same sign that you see like when you go into the women's bathroom it has that little symbol of a woman.

Cris Beam

Like the woman in a skirt?

Foxxjazell

Yes, exactly. It looked exactly like that. And that's the symbol I adapted. And I even got a necklace like that and people would ask me, what does that mean? What does that mean? Everyone would ask me that. And I would love when people would ask me that because I would love to just tell them. I would say this. I would say, it means that I'm a woman trapped inside of a male's body. That's what it means.

Cris Beam

Foxx cross-dressed in secret. And alone in her room, pretended to be Janet Jackson. Sometimes she'd sneak out her window late at night in cheap Halloween wigs and halter tops, and just walk around her neighborhood. She wouldn't run into anybody, she just liked how it felt.

Unlike the parents of many of these kids who will throw them out at first discovery of a stiletto in a school bag, Foxx's parents were supportive of their only child. They just worried for her safety. But she worried for her sanity. She knew she had to go someplace where the unusual was more usual. So as soon as she graduated, she got a job, saved her cash, and bought a bus ticket to Los Angeles. And this is where her story really begins.

Foxxjazell

Cahuenga and Hollywood Boulevard is where I first got off. And this is where I had said to myself, my name was going to be paved down there on one of these stars one of these days.

Cris Beam

The corner of Cahuenga and Hollywood is part of the famous Hollywood Walk of Stars. Every square of sidewalk is embedded with a polished star and a name.

Foxxjazell

Madge Bellamy, I don't know who that is. Harry von Zell, I mean, Alfred Green. If these people were so famous, why haven't I ever heard of them? Oh my God.

Cris Beam

Foxx was just 18 when she got to LA, but she arranged to stay in a group home called Covenant House, where a lot of stray gay kids go. In some ways, it's easier for trans kids to hook up with other girls like themselves than it has ever been. Foxx found where to stay in LA from the gay yellow pages before she ever left Birmingham. Some trans kids use the internet to figure this out.

But the jump to full tilt womanhood came on a casual Friday at the telemarketing firm where Foxx was working at the time. On Fridays, employees were told they could wear whatever was comfortable. Most people showed up in jeans and loafers. Foxx showed up as a woman.

Foxxjazell

It finally just came down. And it was just like Foxxjazell. I mean all those years trapped inside of that boy's body. I mean, 19 years to be exact. She just couldn't take anymore. She just couldn't take just dressing up on nights, just dressing up on weekends. She wanted to be out all the time.

Cris Beam

Since that day last January, Foxx never dressed as a man again. She's fully Foxx, even when she goes home to Alabama for Christmas.

Cris Beam

Then what happened? Did you decide to go on hormones pretty soon after that?

Foxxjazell

It would be five months to be exact before I actually started hormones. I went to the LA free clinic. I went to Dr. Victory. I got a prescription for Premarin 2.5, the pills, the little purple pills. And I waited until my insurance kicked in in the middle of May at my job, and I went out and I bought my first bottle of hormones. I was just so happy. I really wanted to just swallow the whole bottle.

Cris Beam

Taking hormones, which gives them breast, redistribute fat in a more feminine way, soften the face, are only one part of transitioning. There are all kinds of unwritten rules to keep the girls in check. And mainly, they center round appearance and passability. When someone recognizes you're genetically male, it's called getting "clocked" on the West Coast or "spooked" on the East. And no one ever wants that to happen.

One girl I talked with described having some guy at a restaurant taunt, "Hey, dude" as she passed by. And it was so traumatizing it kept her from dressing for months afterwards. So the girls are always monitoring each other, keeping an eye out for bad makeup or fake looking boobs, and showering praise on anything fishy. Being fishy is the highest compliment you can get. It means you look like you were born that way. That you were born a girl.

Foxxjazell

It starts with the voice. If you really don't have a fishy voice that can really just destroy the whole image.

A lot of times you can have all the makeup in the world, but if you look like a brick, or you're just not passable, I mean--

Cris Beam

What does it mean to look like a "brick?"

Foxxjazell

To look like a brick, that's a term that a lot of girls use as far as a man in a dress. It means that you may have on a dress and makeup, but yet it's so obvious that you're a guy.

Cris Beam

Do they say that to each other? Do they call each other that?

Foxxjazell

Yeah. A lot of them will say it behind their face and stuff like that. "This dame looks like a brick! This dame, she's bricking it up!" But that's how a lot of girls say that.

Cris Beam

Do you think that girls are critical of each other? Because it seems to me when I see them on the street, there's a whole lot of criticism if one doesn't look the right way or one doesn't fit into a certain image.

Foxxjazell

I'll say this about myself. I do feel insecure sometimes if I go out with another girl that isn't as passable as I am. Because for one thing, it's bad enough if you get clocked. But if you're with another girl that is not passable that's going to get you clocked even more, that brings your self-esteem down. So a lot of girls and even myself, won't even go out in public with less passable girls. Or girls that are going to bring ridicule to them.

Cris Beam

That seems pretty harsh.

Foxxjazell

It's harsh, but you have to realize. I mean, being a transgender woman is bad enough, so why would you want to put more gasoline on the fire?

Cris Beam

There's a certain strip of Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood that Foxx says is famous worldwide. It's where straight, often married men, come to pick up young, transgender prostitutes. It's also where just out transgender kids often first spot their own kind and can imagine a place to blend in. They hang out at Benito's, an all-night taco stand.

Kids will stand around gossip and laugh, go turn a trick, hang out some more, bop into nearby dance clubs on and off the boulevard.

Woman

You look so good.

Foxxjazell

It's been so long since I've seen you.

Cris Beam

When Foxx and I dropped in at Benito's this month, she ran into an old friend she hadn't seen in ages.

Foxxjazell

Where you living at now?

Woman

Where am I living? I'm living with my man. I've got a husband that I've had for two years and we've got a house and got an apartment. And the months really slow, so we got to come up with half of this month's rent and still got to go come up with next month's rent on the first.

Foxxjazell

So you're out here getting your work on?

Woman

I don't work all the time, but just some time.

Foxxjazell

I know the feeling, girl. I mean, sometimes I have to work. I have to do it too.

Woman

You smoke weed?

Foxxjazell

No.

Woman

Oh, OK. I was going to say--

Foxxjazell

It's been so long since I've seen you.

Cris Beam

Girls who have just derived in LA might show up here to socialize for a few weeks, and then turn a trick for some cash. It's by then that they've learned how hard it is to get a legitimate job when you're 17 and have both a male ID and C cup breasts. So sex work becomes the option.

It can be dangerous, especially for the younger girls. Some of whom have been kicked out by their parents at 13 or 14, and are looking for a place to stay when they're talking to johns.

Foxx used to work with the Boulevard, but now she's moved onto office jobs.

Foxxjazell

Whenever I do work the Boulevard, whenever I have to work the Boulevard, I have a purpose in mind. And that's to get money for that point in time, whether it's to booked studio time, or whatever. And most of the time I really try to stay away from the Boulevard. I haven't worked it in a long while. Especially since I've had a stable job. Basically, it's something that all of us girls have to do because for one thing, we're not sought after as like, the number one type of employee.

Cris Beam

What is it like trying to get a job as a young, transgender person?

Foxxjazell

It can be very frustrating. Because I would say that the last couple of jobs I've been at-- last couple jobs, I've had a big problem with using the women's restroom. It's like, genetic women, they can be very supportive for transgender women as far as our whole transition, helping us out with our makeup, giving us tips on men. But it's like when it comes to the bathroom, that's like off limits. It's like, we've just intruded their personal space and I don't understand that. And the last two jobs I was at, a lot of women had a problem with we using the women's restroom. And I'm like, OK, I look like a woman. I'm build like a woman. I have breasts like a woman. And you want me to go use the men's restroom?

If anything, that's going to mess up a little kid. Just imagine some little boy going to the restroom and he sees this really nice-looking Jennifer Lopez look-alike woman standing up urinating at the urinal. That's going to just destroy his whole mind concept.

Cris Beam

The girls on Santa Monica can make $200, $300 in a night, but will talk surprisingly casually about their job. For some, there's a bit of a thrill to tantalizing the straight men who would normally rebuff them. And for others, it's an unfortunate pause on the path to day work.

Foxxjazell

So many girls come to Santa Monica Boulevard and they have that Pretty Woman concept that oh, I'm going to go out here and work the Boulevard. I'm going to meet a Richard Gere look-alike and he's going to be a millionaire. And he's going to marry me and we're going to have children. I think that's what a lot of girls really think. They have that Pretty Woman concept.

Cris Beam

Do you have that fantasy?

Foxxjazell

I tend to have that fantasy from time to time. And I've actually met a couple of men on the Boulevard that have a little money and they want to spend on me.

Everyone, come on. Everybody in the arena come on and watch me do my thing. Watch me do my thing. I like to do my thing.

Cris Beam

It's Friday night at Foxx's tiny studio apartment. And while Foxx sings and raps with her friend [UNINTELLIGIBLE], two of her drag daughters, 15 year old Angela and 18 year old Ariel, are getting ready to go dancing at an underage club.

Luckily, both kids are petite and the onset of puberty has been slow. Their faces are soft and in their clingy nylon dresses, bobbed wigs and knee high boots, they pass amazingly well.

They dress like any Latina high schooler in LA would-- baby doll cute-- but a little more trampy than a mom would like.

Ariel

Do I look pretty? Do I look pretty?

Foxxjazell

Does she look pretty? Yes you do.

Cris Beam

Angela and Ariel, like a handful of other local kids, keep their wigs, heels, handbags, and makeup at Foxx's. Angela and Ariel both still go to high school and live at boys during the day, and don't want to risk getting caught by their families. While some of the other teens who live on the streets just don't want to get their stuff stolen. So Foxx's place is a sort of de facto dressing room come clubhouse, where kids come in and out to dress up, eat Foxx's food, get some motherly advice, and often crash on her couch.

I was there for hours watching them do and re-do their makeup, primp and fluff and gaze into the mirror. And pull an astonishing number of gogo boots out of Foxx's closet.

Foxxjazell

You don't have a bra on? You can put the water balloons, so they can look big and soft. At the same time when you walk, they'll move.

Cris Beam

They fill their bras with water balloons. Hormones would get them breast in a matter of months and would add weight to their narrow hips and backsides. But for now, neither has started taking.

There's a thriving black market for hormones here in LA. And, like many prescription drugs that are purchased over the counter in Mexico, estrogen is smuggled across the border and is sold in the swap meets with other Mexican pharmaceuticals. In the rush to fill out and pass, girls will shoot massive amounts of hormones into their butts every week. Often causing PMS-like mood swings. Sometimes they'll also inject silicone and oils directly into their hips, butts, knees, and even cheeks, all to round out the harder edges.

There are a few doctors who will prescribe hormones to kids, but the waiting lists are long. And some feel the doses are too conservative. Foxx is going the legal route with an estrogen prescription and her doctor tells her to expect breasts about the size of her mother's. After all, you can't override genetics.

This particular Friday is special, as the girls are celebrating Ariel's retirement party. Ariel is 18, small, Latina, and even when she wears her baggy boy clothes, looks like a shy little girl who curls herself into her chair when she talks. She tell me she's decided to retire. To stop dressing and live as a boy for one whole month to see if she can make it. Tonight is her last night in drag.

Ariel

Put powder on your face, your ears. Behind your ears and your neck. And your chest.

Cris Beam

Ariel named herself after the Little Mermaid in the Disney movie. For so many transgender kids Ariel's age, The Little Mermaid is hugely significant. After all, the film came out when they were 9 or 10 and give them hope. The cartoon Ariel is a mermaid who hates the body she was born with and wants nothing more than to be a real girl.

Ariel

She was sitting in the ocean. She wanted to be a human being. And at the end, she turned into a girl and she just looked like a girl. And she never got clocked. And then she went for what she wanted and she did what she wanted. At the end she was happy. Everyone's happy. Her story is just-- I don't know. It'll be like my mom telling me I can be a girl and you can do this. Like that.

Cris Beam

Do you think your mom ever would say it's OK to be a girl?

Ariel

No.

Cris Beam

Foxx thinks there's no way Ariel's retirement is going to last. She remembers her own teenage-hood and how she would vow to give up dressing as a woman, but she could never help coming back.

Foxxjazell

Today was-- I don't know if it was the rain. But it was just a depressing day for me.

Cris Beam

A few days after the retirement party, I met up with Foxx again at her apartment. We drank her Kool-Aid from plastic cups and sat on her secondhand couch with the shades drawn.

Foxxjazell

Everything just seemed to be coming together now. But I still have this sense of emptiness inside because apparently Valentine's Day is coming up. Plus my birthday's going to be right after that. And it doesn't make any things much better that I haven't had my first relationship yet.

Cris Beam

Whenever I see Foxx she talks obsessively about finding a boyfriend. She's visited psychics and grilled all her friends for leads and can't figure out why nothing has panned out. As she's gotten older, transitioning into a woman is no longer the central drama of her life. Getting a boyfriend is.

Today's story is typical. She tells me about a guy down the street who introduced himself as Christopher Columbus. He told her she looked good and they exchanged phone numbers, but he never ended up calling her.

Foxxjazell

It was probably, at least a month after that, he still didn't call. And I was walking on that same block and he was out with a bunch of his friends. And one of his friends I think wanted to talk to me. He said, hey, what's up? And the guy that identified himself as Christopher Columbus, he came out of nowhere and said, that's a man. That's a man. You're a guy. You're a guy and you're ugly. You're ugly. And I just walked away. And my heart was just so broken. And like now, every time I pass by his house and everything he's standing outside with his friends or something. He still teases me and say things like that.

The last time he talked to me was probably like three weeks ago. And he asked me, let me ask you something. Have you had it cut it off yet? And he was referring to have I had the surgery yet. And I said, that's personal. And he said, well, I guess that means that you haven't had it cut off. And I just walked away.

Cris Beam

How do you handle that kind of sadness and that kind of rejection?

Foxxjazell

Well, it's been the inspiration for five songs that I've written.

Cris Beam

Foxx wants to be a huge star. She's a singer and a rapper and she spends all of her money on studio time, recording songs about coming out, and being transgender, and wanting the world to understand.

She imagines being somewhat of a sex symbol too, and knows her future boyfriend will have to put up with that. She constantly worries about when that boyfriend will come.

It was a few weeks after her 21st birthday that Foxx called me up all excited. It had finally happened, she gushed. Everything she dreamed of. She told me she had met a man. Actually, they met a week ago and he was now living in her apartment.

Foxxjazell

It's really exciting because I mean, it's like last week I'm single and now this week I have a boyfriend and he's cooking for me. And I'm falling in love with him and he's falling in love with me. It's just happening so fast. It's like a dream.

Cris Beam

If there's any question in your mind at all about straight guys going for transgender girls, remember, these girls are fantastically adorable. Foxx's new boyfriend, Sergio, is 23. He's a Puerto Rican guy from New York with an ex-wife and a daughter. Foxx is the first transgender woman he's ever dated. He's straight and sweet and totally in love.

Foxxjazell

I even tell them it's like, I don't believe you some time because of the fact that you're so fine and you can get any real girl that you want to. But yet, you're here with me. And I just want to pinch myself and just wake up.

Cris Beam

How do you feel when she says that you could get any real girl? What does that do for you?

Sergio

Well, I actually said that maybe she's true about that, but my feeling is I can never find someone like her. And I think I'm going to be all right after this.

Foxxjazell

I wanted to comment about something. Sergio was listening to my song, "If I was a Real Girl" and he made a comment that just struck me. And I forgot what he said. What did you say, baby? When you listened to my song.

Sergio

Oh, I say, you don't have to be a real woman to somebody like me who cares and love you. I don't see what she has outside, I see what is inside of her. That's the point. That's the view that I see about all this thing. Like I always say, the heart doesn't see, only feels.

Cris Beam

When I tell people about this book project they all want to know which of the kids are really women or really men. By which they mean, who has had the genital surgery. But the surgery is irrelevant. Lots of trans men never have it because it costs $70,000. And plenty of trans women, like Foxx, don't want it.

It's funny, feminism has worked so hard to prove that women are more than what's in their pants. But when it comes to transsexuals, it's all people can think about. So I counter crudeness with crudeness and ask them, if you somehow got into an accident and lost everything below the waist, would you be any less woman, any less man? If you think you're a woman you are one. We're not used to that idea. We're not used to believing that gender is determined only by our hearts.

In Ariel's case, she couldn't suppress this heart and her retirement turned out to be more of a pause then a real break.

Cris Beam

So the last time that I saw you, you were deciding to retire and stop dressing. And how long were you going to take your retirement for?

Ariel

For a month.

Cris Beam

And how long did it last?

Ariel

It lasted for like a week.

Cris Beam

A few days after her retirement party, Ariel's friends started calling her, asking her to go out, and dress up, and take pictures with them. So she went and it felt great. Though it scares her that if felt great.

Ariel

I failed. I did fail. It's like I'm going to go to hell. That's what I think in my head.

Cris Beam

Why would God disapprove?

Ariel

Because it's in the Bible that you were born a man and a man you are.

Cris Beam

Did you learn anything from your retirement? Did you learn how to golf? Did you learn anything from your retirement?

Ariel

Yes, that I'm a boy. I'm a woman.

Cris Beam

Ariel is struggling back and forth, dressing some days as a boy and some days as a girl. But guiltily. Ariel as a boy is withdrawn, blinking vacantly and drowning in baggy, hide-everything jeans. He almost disappears. But as a girl, Ariel is vibrant, believable, sassy. Claiming space with her walk and challenging you to meet her eye.

When Ariel was going to a rough inner city school a few years back she tried to be tough and masculine. But the boy's still harassed her for acting too girlie and she had to drop out. To get even, she showed up one last time dressed up, as she says, hoochie, in a tiny dress and heels.

The boys didn't recognize her as she walked around the quad. And some even asked for her number. I love this defiance, this revenge in the face of such pain.

Ariel recently had to leave her sister's house and south central neighborhood because neighbor boys, once again, we're threatening to kill her for acting too gay. She's now living across town in her own apartment with an older transgender woman. Ariel's still not dressing full time, but the other day she did call me up to see if I would take her out for her 19th birthday. She wanted me to buy her a wig.

Ira Glass

Cris Beam is a writer living in Los Angeles. These days, Foxxjazell has a day job doing street outreach to transgender youth. To hear her music you can download MP3 files from the This American Life website, www.thisamericanlife.org.

Coming up, somebody famous you've never heard of. Somebody who wanted a job you probably don't want. And the well-known catchphrase, "this is my boomstick." You know, this is my boomstick. In a minute from Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Two. Agent To The Stars.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program of course, we choose some theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, Living the Dream. People who decided to remake their lives around some new vision of themselves. We have arrived at act two of our program.

Act two, Agent to the Stars. John Hodgman tells this story of a dream that was a modest dream. Modest enough that it could actually come true.

John Hodgman

If there's one thing you learn the day you start working in publishing, it's that everyone wants to write a book. No matter how lowly your position, the moment you get that first job you can be sure that 18 of your father's friends will soon be calling you about how to get their spy novel published.

There's something so alluring about becoming an author, and it's something so daunting and enigmatic about the process of getting published that even the most accomplished men and women, world travelers, captains of industry, cower before it. This is how the greenest publishing recruits end up editing the inner musings of gangsters, telling millionaires to kill their darlings, spell checking presidents. And this is how, with little training, less experience, and only a vague idea of what I was doing, I became the professional literary agent for the world famous movie star Mr. Bruce Campbell.

You don't know who Bruce Campbell is. That's fine. As his agent, I've had to explain it a lot. Bruce Campbell is an actor. He was Ellen's boss on Ellen, Jack on Jack of All Trades, Autolycus, King of Thieves on Xena: Warrior Princess. In the movies Maniac Cop 1 and Maniac Cop 2 he played the cop who was not a maniac. He's the sort of actor who dies in the first 10 minutes of the movie Congo. Which he did.

The music you're listening to right now is the theme from The Adventures of Briscoe County Jr. in which Bruce Campbell played a cowboy. It was canceled after one season. We still use the theme song though, from time to time, to introduce sporting events, like the World Series or the Olympics.

If none of this rings a bell, perhaps you've seen a movie called The Evil Dead or one of its two sequels. In Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn there's a character named Ash, whose hand is infested by an evil spirit. After the possessed hand slaps him all over the house, he cuts it off with a chainsaw. But it still isn't dead. Ash goes out to the work shed and what follows is one of the great parodies ever to be filmed of the classic hero gets ready to kick-ass montage.

Close up of Ash gathering his tools and ammunition, modifying the chain saw. Which he then straps on to the stump where his hand used to be. Pulling the rip chord, he uses it to saw the end of a double barreled shotgun. He twirls the gun cowboy style around his trigger finger, slips it into a holster on his back. As the chainsaw's engine roars, he stares into the camera and deadpans the immortal line--

Bruce Campbell

Groovy.

John Hodgman

That's Bruce Campbell. And with that line, a B-movie star was born. Because if you don't know who Bruce Campbell is there's a growing circle of devoted fans who do, and they want you to meet him. They build websites in his honor. They make refrigerator magnets with his picture on them and they sell them on e-Bay. When Napster was on its last legs this past spring, the only thing you could be sure to find there were German drinking songs and Bruce Campbell's most famous lines. "Groovy." "This is my boomstick." "Hail to the King, baby."

Bruce Campbell

Hail to the King, baby. Good. Bad. I'm the guy with the gun. Give me some sugar, baby. I got news for you, pal. You ain't leading but two things right now, Jack and [BLEEP]. And Jack left town.

John Hodgman

On their own or dropped over homemade techno music, they're the passwords into the inner circle of the cult of Bruce Campbell.

The cult is nearly equally men and women, perhaps because Bruce's charm fall somewhere between Cary Grant and the Three Stooges. And maybe it's because he's not very well known that you end up feeling that he's your own personal celebrity that no one else knows about. Even if you're aware that Bruce Campbell has a small army of avid fans, there's something about him that makes you think that if you ever had the chance to meet him, the two of you would definitely hang out. You might even watch Bruce Campbell movies together.

That was my line of thinking anyway, in early 1997. I was a young, literary agent who had never sold a book, and a Bruce Campbell fan. That spring, my office finally was hooked up to something I had only heard whispers of called the World Wide Web. It didn't do much for office productivity, but on that first day I typed in the words Bruce and Campbell and it changed my life forever.

It turned out that Bruce Campbell had his own website. And by his own, I mean his own. Not some slick corporate product, but a homemade looking affair maintained by volunteers, and featuring long essays from Bruce, advice to aspiring actors, notes on how much orange juice costs at the Cannes Film Festival. Reports from the set of McHale's Navy, a terrible Tom Arnold movie that no human would ever see.

There was a link to an email address and I clicked on it and I stared at the empty form. I didn't know what to say. But then, of course, I did.

I'm not only a fan, I wrote. I am also a professional literary agent. Have you ever thought about writing a book?

I didn't really expect him to write back. It certainly never occurred to me that this book nonsense would be something I'd ever have to think about again in my life. But after all, one man's B-movie god is another man's lonely working stiff factor stuck in New Zealand filming Xena: Warrior Princess, taking digital pictures of the strange southern hemisphere electrical outlets and posting them on the internet. He must've been bored out of his mind.

So the next thing I know I'm chatting with my hero on a crackly overseas connection about why the world must hear the confessions of a B-movie actor.

People have celebrity dreams all the time. David Letterman moves into your apartment building. The Pope calls wanting to know if you need him to cat sit. But this phone call was the real thing.

There I was telling him how a book proposal is written, what an editor does, and on the other end of the line it's Bruce Campbell saying, "Uh huh, I see. A proposal you say." When he actually said groovy, it was very unsettling.

I wanted to draw our conversation out in part because I thought I would probably never speak to him again, but I also wanted it to end as quickly as possible so I could put it behind me, make it into a story, get back to my normal life. To do this I even tried to discourage him. You should probably know I said, I've never sold a book before. But when we hung up, it wasn't over. I wouldn't go back to my normal life for a long time. Somehow, I don't remember how, I had sold him on me.

After that, it was all downhill. And for a reason that I was too much of a fan to anticipate. The nature of B-movie stardom is such that you can be a celebrity on one hand and a nobody on the other. In a hotel that's hosting a horror movie expo, Bruce Campbell may not be able to get arrested in the lobby, but in the conventional halls he's a living god.

Turns out though, that most of the editors I sent his proposal to don't live in the conventional hall, they live in the lobby. If they were aware at all of the world in which Bruce is a star, it was only to take the time to sneer. Even those who were closet Bruce fans like me, were either unable or unwilling to take a stand and let their geek flags fly.

So this project, which initially seemed to spell easy money for both of us, gradually became a painful exercise in enduring rejection. Which put me in a complicated position. I had achieved my dream the moment Bruce first called me. The rest was gravy. But now, against all common sense, Bruce was entrusting me with his dream and I was letting him down.

It was time to bring out the big guns. Or, as we say in publishing, it was time to bring the pope over to cat sit. Bruce had to put himself in front of those few remaining editors who hadn't passed. Make them feel as giddy as I had during that first phone call. He had to come to New York.

I had obviously always wanted to meet Bruce in person, but not like this. Not when the sole reason for his coming was because I had to date, been failing miserably. So I tried to distract him with a quick tour of my office. We reached my cubicle at the top of the stairs. That's me, I said, with a quick wave to my sad, little chair. Let's go to dinner now.

As we walked down Sixth avenue, my girlfriend and Bruce's wife a little ahead of us, Bruce and I painfully tried to make small talk. At dinner, I finally got the experience every Bruce Campbell fan dreams about. I was hanging out with Bruce. Specifically, I was eating hummus with him. Does that sound exciting? Of course it doesn't. Everything was normal, completely un-dreamlike. And that's what made it great. We were two couples having dinner, talking about the books we had read. The only thing that skewed the night slightly towards surreality was my shaking need for a cigarette. I was holding off. I thought it might offend him. But even after, when Bruce and his wife caught me and my girlfriend frantically lighting up on the street, it wasn't weird. We all had a laugh about it.

The book finally sold tot he last editor we met that day. The one who had brought in the Bruce Campbell issue of Fangoria magazine for an autograph before introducing Bruce around to his bosses. Actually, he didn't even buy it at that house. He had to quit first and take a job at another company, and then beg his boss before he could even make a modest offer. We quickly accepted.

It was a huge weight off my shoulders. It's not usual for a book to take almost two years to sell. Typically, it's more like two weeks. I was hoping that Bruce didn't know this as keenly as I did, but I could never ask him. If you're someone's literary agent, the one piece of advice you can't give them is, go get a good literary agent.

The day we sold the book I was on vacation with my girlfriend, whom I'd been dating for 10 years. The next day, I asked her to marry me. We can invite Bruce, I said.

John Hodgman

Hey Bruce, how you doing?

Bruce Campbell

Greetings. Greetings. Enter. Thank you. I see you've brought goods.

John Hodgman

Yes, I brought a few sandwiches here. This room is pretty nice.

It's been four years now since that first email and I'm visiting Bruce at The New Yorker Hotel in Manhattan. The book is about to come out and Bruce has come to push it with a Q&A, an autograph signing at the Fangoria Weekend of Horror.

Man 1

Give it up for Bruce Campbell.

John Hodgman

I'm not his agent anymore. For various reasons I've left the business, but Bruce and I have stayed in touch. Mainly because I refuse to let him go.

Bruce Campbell

I want everyone to stand up. Stand up. Every single one of ya. Raise your right hand. Repeat after me. I.

Audience

I.

Bruce Campbell

State your name.

Audience

State your name.

Bruce Campbell

Comedians, huh?

John Hodgman

Bruce is famous for antagonizing his fans, and they love it. They love him. In this room, Bruce Campbell is the biggest star in the world. His book is the most important book in the world. And I am his esteemed colleague. His former professional literary agent.

Bruce Campbell

Be better over here. Yes sir.

Man 2

Are there any plans for Evil Dead IV?

Bruce Campbell

God, that's so weird. I've never heard that question before.

John Hodgman

As the convention continues, Bruce signs posters, head shots, DVDS, bootleg scripts, bared breasts, anything the fans have to offer. The line goes to the back of the room and out the door. In this crowd, there's almost a paternal sense of pride and even concern. They feel that Bruce has never had the big break he deserves.

John Hodgman

You're brothers? Are you a Bruce Campbell fan as well?

Man 3

Oh, big time. Yeah. My brother and I, we're like-- he's like our idol, basically.

John Hodgman

Really?

Man 3

We pretty much grew up watching the horror movies. That's like totally won my brother over with the whole Evil Dead series. In fact, I hope one day when I get really big in the money in the stock markets and everything, I'm going to buy a studio like, for example. And I'm to make him a star, like one of the big movies. Top notch.

John Hodgman

Right now I'm a freelance writer, but I used to be a literary agent. And in fact, I represented Bruce's book. I sold his book to the publishers. And I'm going this show about how four years ago when I first started talking to him about doing a book, for me I had the same impulse. It was wanting to bring him to a bigger audience. And you're saying how you'd like to--

Man 3

Exactly. That's awesome, man. Way to go. Definitely.

John Hodgman

I just think it's interesting because obviously, other people feel the same way. That he deserves more exposure.

Man 3

He definitely deserves more. Yes. Definitely. He's really a top notch actor in reality.

John Hodgman

So you start the studio. You get a Bruce Campbell vehicle going and you hire me to do the book.

Man 3

There you go. That's about it pretty much.

John Hodgman

And then we'll all hang out.

Man 3

We got to hang out, definitely.

John Hodgman

This, I, realize is the paradise that all Bruce Campbell fans want to reach. They all want to hang with Bruce, but they want to earn it. They want to help him. And if the book is a hit, then I will have done exactly what that kid dreams of. What I wanted to do all along, help, and then hang out.

Finally, the convention is over. A few fans try to shadow Bruce up to his room, but he evades them. I, however, am still able to follow him through the back passages, the freight elevators, the restricted access doors. Then we run into some trouble. Bruce's key card won't open his room door and the organizer has to go down and have it reprogrammed at the desk.

Bruce and I stand there in the shadowy hallway locked out of his room. He seems fidgety, exposed. There's still quite a few fans roaming around and now I realize I'm one of them. I'm not his agent anymore.

When the organizer comes back with the key Bruce will go in, get changed, head out to the airport. I'll go back to my apartment, watch him on television just like I did before I ever met him. Pretty soon, I'll run out of plausible excuses to email him, to call him, to get the special treatment I've come to expect from my friend, the movie star.

John Hodgman

Is there anything you won't do for a fan?

Bruce Campbell

They got in their head about saying these lines of dialogue.

John Hodgman

Like what lines?

Bruce Campbell

Like groovy or give me some sugar or something. Those are tough just because it's hard to have the same feeling. And plus it's like, you've rented the movie. That's where it comes from. That's the original. I would just be giving you sloppy seconds.

John Hodgman

Would you say groovy?

Bruce Campbell

No.

John Hodgman

Come on.

Bruce Campbell

No.

John Hodgman

For your old literary agent.

Bruce Campbell

I said no.

Ira Glass

John Hodgman lives in New York. Bruce Campbell's book is If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B-Movie Actor.

[MUSIC-"THEME TO SECRET AGENT MAN"]

Act Three. Airel Sharon, Shimon Peres, David Ben Gurion, And Me!

Ira Glass

Act Three, Airel Sharon, Shimon Peres, David Ben Gurion, and Me!

Well, you've heard about a number of different kinds of dreams in today's program. There is also a kind of dream that we have to protect ourselves from seeing who we really are.

Adam Davidson

December 3, 1986, Wednesday. Another fascinating day in the life of Adam Davidson. I have a math test tomorrow. I'm going to school early to tutor a girl in my class for the aforementioned test. My math class, a joint precalculus and calculus class, consists mainly of seniors not especially interested in learning. I guess that I'm the quote "class expert" unquote, in that I always do the math problems which no one else can. And for this, I'm disliked. I guess that because I apply myself, think clearly, and do a little work, as well as some intelligence helping out, I am a geek. In truth, I am far from it.

Ira Glass

When you first read that to yourself, when you first saw it, your reaction was?

Adam Davidson

It was pure horror.

Ira Glass

Recently, Adam Davidson, an occasional contributor to our program, found his old high school diaries. Adam's mom is Israeli, his dad is American. Adam grew up in New York. His body was in New York. His brain, as the diaries reveal, was somewhere else entirely.

Adam Davidson

I remember when I was writing it, I remember very clearly. Although I don't say this in the diary that it was very clear to me that this was the diary of the future prime minister of Israel. Me. That I would one day be prime minister. And it would be very important for history, for people to know the deep thoughts of a young Zionist as he prepared his way to lead his nation.

Ira Glass

Now, our regular listeners here in This American Life might remember that you've been on our program describing your experience in Israeli army summer camp.

Adam Davidson

That was right before I started writing this diary.

Ira Glass

Read me another.

Adam Davidson

Sure. Let's see.

There's so much wrong with Jews in Israel that I'm going to have a job ahead of me. One thing is the lack of any strong Jewish identity among most Jews. This attitude sickens me. You Jews of the world, stop worrying about money and well being. I do not know what exactly I'll do. But if this situation continues when I'm a bit older, then watch out world Jewry, here comes Adam.

And "watch out world Jewry, here comes Adam" was all in capital letters.

Ira Glass

Wow. It's interesting that you actually are addressing a readership.

Adam Davidson

I know. That's what kind of amazing.

Ira Glass

And that readership is world Jewry.

Adam Davidson

Yeah. The Jews of the world will one day read this book and will say, if he knew this at 16, how could I be living so badly?

Ira Glass

Can I ask you to just read one of the passages where you talk about Israel?

Adam Davidson

Sure. Let's see. I mean I have this thing from January 4, 1987.

I memorized "The Hope", Hatikva, which is the Israeli National Anthem a few minutes ago. That will help me in Israel. I find that really amazing that here I am, the future prime minister of Israel and what are the things I need? Oh, God, I need to know the national anthem. I'll probably be called upon to recite that at some point.

Ira Glass

Or they'll be a ball game or something, you'll need to stand up and sing it.

Adam Davidson

Right, exactly.

At 16, I had such an inflated sense of myself. There was so much going on in my life then that I can remember and I wasn't recording it. Instead, I was creating this ridiculous fantasy of I'm not just a 16 year old kid who's having crushes and a hopeless geek who can't get a girl to kiss him. And being scared and confused about growing old. I'm the future prime minister of Israel and everything goes through that.

But I don't know.

Ira Glass

But maybe keeping a diary where one tells the truth, maybe that's a luxury of being a certain kind of person in a certain kind of situation. Maybe other people in another kind of situation need to actually make up a little fantastic.

Announcer

Yeah. I didn't have much angst about being the future prime minister of Israel. I was very calm and confident and comfortable with it. And I had so much angst about every other aspect of my life. So I now see it as just kind of-- maybe it was a good solution. It was a good way to deal with what I was going through. To have this space where I could just be one of the greats.

Ira Glass

I wonder what the 16 year old Adam Davidson would feel in knowing that finally, an audience of a million people was getting some of the reading from this diary.

Adam Davidson

I think this would feel so small to that 16 year old. This would feel so nothing. This would be so unimportant.

Ira Glass

Being on the radio?

Adam Davidson

Being on the radio, a million people. What's a million people? I mean, we're talking about history. We're talking about sweeping changes. I'm pretty sure that he would be thoroughly unimpressed.

Ira Glass

And Adam, what would the 16 year old you think of you now?

Adam Davidson

I think he'd be really disappointed. I think he'd be really sad.

Ira Glass

Because you're not the prime minister of Israel?

Adam Davidson

Yeah, because I just have such a small life.

I mean I remember I was very disappointed and very sad about my parents. I was reading biographies, of course, of all the prime ministers of Israel. And I would just think about my parents and just think, how do you wake up every day knowing that your actions won't affect millions of people? How is that enough motivation? Just to have your petty little craft and your petty little family and your small little apartment. It just seemed pathetic. I mean, they have the kind of life that, I mean basically, I want for myself.

Ira Glass

What you're saying though, is that the 16 year old you would be cringing at your 30 year old version just as your 30 year old version is cringing at the 16.

Adam Davidson

Yeah, that's very true. He would be very, very disgusted if he heard this radio piece. It would seem like I had settled in a pathetic way.

Ira Glass

Adam Davidson in Los Angeles.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Jonathan Goldstein and myself, with Alex Blumberg, Wendy Dorr and Starlee Kine. Senior producer Julie Snyder. Elizabeth Meister runs our website. Production help from Todd Bachmann and Paul McCarthy. Original music in our story on FoxxJazell by TRS-80. That's Deb, Kent, and Jay.

To buy a cassette of this program, call us here at WBEZ in Chicago 312-832-3380. Or visit our website where you can also listen to our programs for free at www.thisamericanlife.org. Don't forget those MP3s.

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia, who explains himself this way.

Foxxjazell

Last couple of jobs I've had a big problem with using the women's restroom.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of this American life.

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.