By Thurston Cobb
Often I get the feeling that people don’t believe me. It can be questioning glance as I’m retelling a story about city life in Chicago. Maybe it’s the confusion they express when I mention former roommates, past students, or an amazing concert I attended in Berlin. It could even be the obvious disbelief they hide behind sarcasm as I claim to have been robbed at the very last Kentucky Derby of the Twentieth Century. The truth of the matter is that I lived in Chicago for almost a decade, I’ve had close to twenty roommates since going to college, I am a former Special Educator, I saw Depeche Mode, twice, while visiting a former roommate in Germany, and at the Nineteen Ninety Nine Kentucky Derby my then roommate and I had his winning ticket snatched out of our hands while we drunkenly waited in line to claim the winnings. So, you see, it’s all true and those are only a few examples.
Are my stories so far fetched?
There is the possibility that it is has something to do with the fact that I tell a lot of stories but I’m storyteller. Maybe it’s the context. Currently I am forty years old and working in a grocery store. It’s a great company, and the pay is better than some jobs I’ve worked in the past but maybe it’s because of what the listener, usually a casual friend or acquaintance of mine, perceives about me. A twenty something co-worker in a suburban grocery store may wonder why I am not further into a “professional” career if I lived in a big city, and had some of the life experiences I claim to have had. Maybe it’s hard to hear a middle-aged man spin stories as he’s stocking cans of tuna, bagging groceries, and/or performing any of the multitude of mundane tasks my job title requires. Maybe that’s it.
What about my “professional” career? Did I sacrifice career development and financial success to travel the world and live life? Was I too busy feasting on the marrow and blah blah blah to worry about the future? Ha, I wish. I wish the answer was yes but it isn’t. I’ve gotten where I am in life through a series of stumbles, bumbles, and fortunate accidents. In my life I have been, among other things, a carnival worker, a server/bartender, a temp/receptionist, a stock boy, a Special Educator, a Drama teacher, and a grocer. Those are the jobs I’ve been paid for during my “professional” working life.
What about a career?
What is that? A lifetime of perfecting, and endlessly repeating one task? Well, then I guess my career would have to be that of wanderer and by this I in no way mean global traveler. Yes, I went to Germany after graduating from college but that was only one trip. I have not traveled nearly as much as I had hoped to in life. That was the one time I’ve been out of the country in the last fifteen years – no wait, earlier that Summer I traveled to Toronto as well. Sure, I picked up and moved to Chicago for nine years, then back to Maryland for another nine, and then, most recently, to Minnesota but that’s not adventuring, is it? That’s just life. I spent time in the big city waiting tables and working odd jobs so that I could follow my passion for theatre and play writing. I moved back to the East Coast to be close to family, start a teaching career, and build some financial stability. Finally, I moved to Minnesota to be closer to the other side of the family and to continue the hunt for that ever elusive financial stability.
If people ask me what I do for a living I usually qualify my answer by first responding, “Now? You mean what do I do for work?” When I meet someone new I don’t automatically offer up what I do for employment. It’s not because I am horribly ashamed, but rather because there’s so much more to me than what I do for eight hours a day, five days a week just to put money in the bank and food in my daughters’ bellies. I tell stories because I’ve always enjoyed doing so, whether it be recounting humorous tales, or writing scripts. I’ve had some past success in getting produced but not published and never for financial gain. If I could find a way to turn my storytelling into a money making venture than I would much prefer that to stacking yogurts all day long. A job is a job, in my opinion, and doesn’t necessarily define who you are as a person.
I guess the stories come out at my job as a way of coping with the work, I mention these examples specifically because this is where I am most aware of the skeptical reactions. I don’t just randomly offer up tall tales out of the blue though, I am not a blowhard. Usually, a conversation between a few coworkers reminds me of an event from my past and I may mention it. Then I often elaborate on the subject to further illustrate a point, defend my opinion, or offer up as as a cautionary tale.
It’s sometimes confusing for a person who has lived their entire life in the same state to keep up with my narration, and they get tripped up on where things happened. I am simply trying to clarify but realize it might appear that I am getting defensive and scrambling to make my story seem more plausible.
“No this wasn’t in Chicago. This happened when I was in school in North Carolina. Yes, I got my undergraduate in Baltimore but my first college was in North Carolina,” I’ll clarify.
Maybe the problem is with my narrative. My preferred genre for writing is script form so maybe my prose has suffered, and I’m rusty. Maybe my stream of consciousness interferes with what should be a simple straight forward story and I complicate it in the telling. They don’t doubt me they just are thrown off by my unorganized, casual way of orally passing on my lore. Or maybe they don’t believe. Maybe it’s that simple.
What does it matter?
Maybe I am a little longwinded. I’m okay with that. I’m not a cop working undercover, grasping at straws to keep from being exposed. I’m not a shepherd playing a prank on my village and in danger of getting my comeuppance at the jaws of a hungry wolf. No one’s life hangs in the balance here. I’m a man who has always planned on being a writer but for now works in a grocery store, tells stories to coworkers just to take my mind off the banality while I bide my time, try to regroup, and find a way to get back to the telling the stories I want to tell. I’ll continue to be a storyteller.
Thurston Cobb is a playwright who recently relocated to St. Paul, Minnesota with his wife, and two young daughters. Thurston has had several plays, both One Acts and Full Length, produced in Chicago and the Washington DC metro area.