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  • Ken Ilgunas

On being famous

Walden on Wheels got off to a slow start. Despite a few well-placed op-eds in the New York Times and Chronicle of Higher Ed., the interview requests—that are crucial for a fledgling book, I’m told—never came. I had a few radio station interviews lined up, but many were poorly established operations based in some of the most remote parts of the country. One radio host didn’t even have an assistant to answer company phone calls, so he took them while he was on the air. I called up the day before the interview to make sure the sound quality of my cell phone was up to snuff, and while repeating the words, “test, test, test,” I had the odd feeling that I was live on the air.

“Am I on the air?” I asked.

“Yep,” he said. I would have felt embarrassed, but it occurred to me that there probably weren’t any listeners.

Honestly, though, I didn’t care too much about how many interviews I was getting or how many copies of the book were being sold. I’d already been paid for writing the book, so selling 100 or 100,000 copies would make little difference. I worked hard on the above-mentioned op-eds, and I did my best at every interview I got, so I guess I just felt I did my part, and if the book was going to sell, it really wasn’t up to me anymore, but more amorphous, uncontrollable things like “fate” or laissez-faire economics. Plus, I was just content to have published a book, which seemed like such an implausible, far-fetched endeavor two years before.

I took a flight to Buffalo, NY to visit with family for the first time in a year and a half, and from my boyhood bedroom I did a few more phone and email interviews. Life, though, continued on as normal. I kept working on book #2, I took a nightly jog to the Niagara River, and I made a fruit and yogurt smoothie for myself each morning. For a couple of days, I became the family laughingstock when I replaced the cheap $2 gallon of skim milk (a family staple) with a gallon of organic. Neighbors were called up. I heard some ecstatic shriek from my mom when she was on the phone with my aunt. “Organic? What is your father going to say?” my mom said to me, all smiles and wild cackles. Upon opening the fridge, my father stared at the white jug with a red “No antibiotics and toxic pesticides used” label with a confused, slightly pained look on his face, as if he was trying to figure out if he was the subject of a devious prank. “You bought organic?!” he cried, leery of the new substance he was holding, as if I’d suggested he amend his mug of tea and fill his cereal bowl with turkey grease.

Meanwhile, there were rumors that my aunt needed some dehumidifiers moved in her basement. The transportation of moderately heavy appliances hardly seemed like a daunting task, but our family has a secret PTSD-based fear of my aunt’s basement, so the place, in our memories, is not merely a damp storage facility, but a bunker in which we harrowingly endured hours of exploding shells. Years before, my mom, dad, brother and I helped my aunt haul boxes of clothes, antiques, and holiday ornaments from her apartment to her new home. The boxes went straight from the apartment attic, where they were never opened, to her basement, where they never would be opened. My brother and I, curious about what exactly we’d been hauling for the past ten hours, broke open a box to see what was inside. We looked at each other with mystified expressions when we pulled out a faded teal dress from the 1970s with shoulder pads. “Maine, are you ever even going to wear this again?” I asked. She pretended not to hear the question as she placed a cardboard box on top of another. After three days of box hauling, the basement was like a mini city. When you walked through it, you felt like Godzilla waddling through narrow alleyways brushing shoulders against towering skyscrapers. Consequently, my father, who doesn’t come across to anyone as “morbid,” has more than a few times hinted that he aims to be the first in the family “to go,” so the burden of moving the boxes again doesn’t have to fall on his sore shoulders.

My brother would end up helping my aunt move the dehumidifiers and advising her on how to sell her couches on Craigslist. “You gotta know how to play the game,” he said annoyed, as the older members of our family always seem to lag woefully behind the rest of the world on the march to technological sophistication.

“The game?” I said. “What, are you selling heroin in East Baltimore?” (The phrase struck me as ridiculous because I’d just finished watching HBO’s The Wire, in which drug dealers refer to “the game” as the bloody drug war between gangs—not gypping some sap out of an extra thirty bucks over an old couch.)

Over the course of a couple of weeks, several business media outlets—many of which leaned conservative—became interested in my book. I received a glowing review in the Wall Street Journal, followed by features on websites like Bloomberg, Business Insider, and Mike Huckabee’s website. Three different Fox News television shows asked me to come on.

Things seriously took off when a Business Insider interview was put up on Yahoo’s homepage, once again advertising my patchy chest hair and mouth full of food to the world at large.

The article generated an astounding 9,500 comments, and, within three days, I had 1,200 Facebook friend requests, my book shot up to the 109th bestseller on Amazon, and I had close to 400 messages and emails from complete strangers. Good Morning America was frantically trying to get in touch with me, seeking an exclusive interview, sending me emails all morning while I slept in past 10 a.m. When no one picked up at home, they desperately called my neighbors. These things, I’ve learned, often fall through, so I was never on Good Morning America, but I was invited onto CBS This Morning.

My publishing company flew me to NYC and put me up in a hotel for a night. In the morning, I was picked up in a car and taken to CBS’s studios. I met my publicist for the first time, who didn’t seem to mind my complete silence on the car ride over, as I played out in my head a host of worst-case scenarios, which ranged from “What if I have a brain freeze?” to “What if I crap my pants?”

At the studio, a woman dabbed makeup on my face and combed my hair while Gayle King very charmingly went over all the notes she took when reading my book. Elizabeth Dole, another guest, was backstage with me, and I was trying to avoid eye-contact with her because I’d forgotten if she was still a senator of North Carolina, and I didn’t know if I should address her as “Mrs. Dole” or “Senator Dole.” The subject of “Duke” somehow came up among other people in the room, and despite having my back turned to all parties, one of the producers mentioned that I was a graduate of the school as well. “Well, hello, it’s nice to meet you,” said the esteemed guest. I didn’t want to say something as uncouth as “It’s nice to meet YOU, too,” so I figured I’d kind of just mumble “Senator” hoping that, if she expected to hear Senator, she would, and if she didn’t, she’d just write it off as a speech impediment.

“Hello senna Dole,” I said. “It’s nice to meet you, too.”

For the most part, the interview, only a few minutes long, went well. I stumbled on one (somewhat sprawling) question, but muscled through the brain freeze. Gayle King threw some softballs to me, which I was able to manage with some adrenaline-fueled charm.

Fox News also asked me to be on, and with a great deal of reluctance, I agreed. As David advised, this was my opportunity to “throw a love bomb behind enemy lines,” and I justified it was okay since my harmless message about living simply and paying off debt responsibly deserved as big an audience as it could get.

The next day, I got an email from Steve, a producer of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, who told me he had a Waldenesque cabin in Idaho and that he identified with my story. We had a “pre-pre-interview” on the phone, during which a producer feels the interviewee out and determines if he/she can supply semi-articulate answers. I managed well, and he invited me to Burbank.

My dad is a big Leno fan, so he and my mom took time off of work and flew in on a separate plane. I spent the evening at the hotel gym working out for four hours. I spent three miles on the treadmill, five miles on the bike, and completed full shoulder, bicep, and pectoral workouts. For the past week, I’d had a borderline eating disorder, as I tried to shed every trace of flab, but also to destroy all nervous energy with intense exercise and an austere diet.

On the morning of the show, my publicist and I met with two producers, who told me about how the interview would go down. Steve, who, I gathered, was having second thoughts about me, said, “Be charismatic, even if that’s not how you usually are.”

I spent the next four hours in the gym, thoroughly scrubbed myself down in the shower, and shaved. A driver took us all to the studio, where I had a dressing room with my name on it, plus trays of veggies and fruit.

Perhaps because of my dizzying workouts, I felt an odd sense of calm. My mom, who said she might “throw up,” was visibly nervous and just barely holding it together. We were talking with one of the show’s writers, when my dad called out, “Hey Jay!” as if Jay, walking down the hallway, was selling bags of peanuts at a ball game. Jay came in and spent about five minutes talking with us, but mostly with my father, who’s Scottish, like Jay’s mother. I was struck with my father’s carefree comportment, leaning back in the sofa, shooting the shit with a nationally-recognized celebrity.

“How old are you?” asked Jay.

“I’m 63,” my dad said.

“Ah, same as me,” said Jay.

“Yeah, well I’m not retiring early.”

My parents were ushered off to their seats in the audience and I was taken to the makeup studio and given a new pair of pants because mine were inexcusably wrinkled.

Steve Carrell was the first guest, and I was watching the show from a television screen in my dressing room, still oddly serene until the second half of his interview was coming to a close, which meant that I’d soon be on.

They took me behind the stage, where I’d wait to be called out. The band was rocking. The crowd was energized. A lady looked at me and said, “Steve really got them going.”

In moments, I’d be called out onto an iconic stage on one of the most iconic shows—a fixture of American culture. How did I feel? I was pumped. As the band played on, I found myself dancing while shadow-boxing, oozing with energy that desperately needed a vessel into which it could be salvaged.

I still wasn’t even that nervous. Part of it was because I was well prepared and that I’d had my “first time” already. But part of it was just that I didn’t care. I am going to be on TV—so what? Whatever I put in books, on TV, on radio, on this blog doesn’t matter—it doesn’t change what I am inside. How people perceive me doesn’t change how I perceive myself. While I certainly didn’t want to crap my pants and be a viral embarrassment, truth be told, I just didn’t care what anybody thought. If Joe and Susan in New Mexico think I’m a dweeb, how does that in the slightest affect me? And while I’d very soon be in the national spotlight, I knew I was a mere comet pebble in a vast TV galaxy—one voice drowned out by millions of others on thousands of channels.

Between a last second pep talk, in which I deceived myself into believing I was up to the task, and a reminder to, as Steve the producer said, just have fun, I walked out onto the stage with something bordering on confidence.

The next five minutes passed as if they were seconds. Afterward, I leaned back in my chair, feeling awfully content with myself. Steve Carrell introduced himself and told me my story would make for a good movie.

That night, I received another flurry of emails, including one from “Erika,” who called me “realllly sexy,” attached a suggestive picture of herself, and proposed that I “might have an easier time getting some in Miami than you did in your van….”

Turned off a bit with her forwardness and leery of getting entrapped in a Manti Te’o-like scandal, I politely turned down Erika, who turned out to be one of my male friends in New York screwing with me.

This was my third fifteen minutes of fame in the past few years, and I was prepared to handle it. In the past, I’d been transfixed with having my name listed on national publications, with receiving emails from mysterious strangers, and always wondering what other changes this fame will bring me. There’s a high high when you’re on top, and a low low when your popularity dissolves. This time, though, I was just kind of nonchalant about the whole thing, feeling the sort of breezy contentment that one basks in after a good, hard day’s worth of work.

I’ve learned there really are no substantial “changes.” Though inundated with new Facebook friends, there are no new friends. There is no new money. No new things. No one recognizes you on the street. In the media ocean, you are a big swell that lasts for a moment, and you’re dashed into a trillion indistinguishable bits on the shore the next. It may in fact present some new opportunities, it may improve your chances of getting a second book deal, but it doesn’t change who you are. How can you live for thirty years and, one day, just magically change into someone else, with different hobbies, values, and friends? You can’t. And having just spent a month visiting old friends and family, it was so clear to me that people just don’t change, sometimes for the worse, sometimes the better. Myself included.

While my friends worried that I’d be swept up and altered by this new wave of fame, I knew better. At the height of my “fame,” with Leno on the tube, I wasn’t at some throbbing club, rubbing shoulders with famous people, or having wild sex with the likes of Erika, but laying in my underwear on my hotel bed, with the tray of fruit and veggies I’d pilfered from NBC resting on my stomach, watching another episode of The Wire.


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