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Get into Character
Characters drive the story
For better or worse, I’m a character. Ask any teacher or boss I’ve ever had—they’ve been saying it my whole life. There are a lot of reasons I might be a character, but I have always chalked it up to the simplest reason: I got it from my mom.
My mom is a character. Our complex web of extended family group chats functions as a kind of proto-social media, and my Mom is the biggest meme. She is a character and everyone loves her for it. She makes an impression even on people who meet her for just a few minutes.
Once in college, I was trying to flirt with a cashier at the grocery store in the small town where I went to school. I was having a party at my house so had a lot of groceries she had to individually scan. I watched her scan each item very closely as I cracked jokes and found out what classes she was taking etc. As my cart was emptying, she finally asked me, “OK–but why are you watching me scan every single time like that?”
I was perplexed, “obviously, I don’t want any to go missing,” I said very matter-of-factly, with perhaps a bit of “are you dumb?”
And she said, “What do you mean, go missing?”
Surprised she knew so little about her own job, I said, “grocery store cashiers miss stuff all the time. When I was a kid in the grocery store, my Mom would always let us put whatever we wanted in the cart–she kind of spoiled us. Then, when we got home, like half the stuff I put in would be missing, because the cashier forgot it.”
The cashier smiled at me. “So, your mom let you put whatever you want in the cart, but then the cashier forgot to scan it at the register, so it never made its way home?”
As the truth dawned on me, I laughed so hard I started crying, as did the cashier, as did the woman behind us in line. The fact that I had been so earnest to the point of being haughty really sold it. This wasn’t just something that happened one time. It was a feature of thousands of trips to the grocery store that probably persisted into my adolescence. The cashier called over her manager who had noticed us laughing, and told him the story. He laughed and said, “I gotta hear this story from your Mom.”
So standing there at 8:30 p.m. on a Friday at the grocery store checkout, I called my Mom on speaker phone with the cashier, the manager, and the woman behind me who was down for the story as well.
“Hey Chachi,” she answered–using my childhood nickname.
“Mom, I’ve got you on speakerphone. I’m at the grocery store where I told them how you would always let me put stuff in the cart and that stuff never made it home, and you let me grow to twenty-two years of age without explaining what was happening.”
There were a couple of beats of silence and my Mom started belly laughing, then we all joined her. She spoke, addressing the audience of other listeners, “look y’all, I had a special face I’d make to the cashiers while they were scanning stuff, and they’d just drop stuff into a bucket that I didn’t want to buy.” We all laughed again.
Then my Mom said, “OK well I have to go, but just remember–I raised my kids right, and I told them the truth a lot, but sometimes it’s easier to just make some shit up that doesn’t hurt anyone and is actually funny later on.” She laughed and hung up. And the woman behind me told me I had a good Mom. And the manager gave a confused smile but nodded his head, as if to say, “I don’t quite get it, but your Mom seems to have a point.” Then the cashier said she’d think about coming to the party I was having that night. (She didn’t.)
My mom had held court over the phone from hours away that night. They laughed with her and hung on her every word. It was similar to the way she holds court at our family birthday dinners, which usually devolve into teasing and scream-laughing until my Mom reminds everyone to start the compliment circle, where we all say something we love about the birthday boy or girl. Whether on the phone or over birthday cake, she shows up in character: fun, funny, inspiring, educational, and a little puzzling. It’s fun to get to experience “meeting my Mom” for the first time by seeing how people react when I introduce them to her, and sometimes I can forget how impressive she is.
Like how my mom is a savvy businesswoman. I’ve written before about my parents’ bookstore. It was my Dad who had the foresight to put my family’s book business online in 1994, but because he was working another job full-time, it was my Mom who ended up executing and doing so. Which, if you’re wondering, means that she was an entrepreneur executing the same counterintuitive idea that made Jeff Bezos the world’s richest man–except she had it before Amazon was even launched. This is typical of my Mom. That kind of business savvy comes naturally to her: she effortlessly makes friends. Everyone is always cutting her deals.
For years she would tell me about her friend Kevin and what was going on in his life, and I always assumed I was supposed to know who it was so I was too sheepish to ask. Then one day my Dad explained that Kevin is the mailman whose route has the bookstore on it. He’s a young black guy who would have otherwise never met my Mom and now rearranged his route some days to get extra time to talk to her.
I don’t know whether the extreme friendmaking abilities or the business savvy came first, but it seems like everyone knows and likes my Mom. She hasn’t met a room she couldn’t work. And she’s so herself that it never feels inauthentic, she just seems delighted to meet people and down to laugh. A few years after my Mom started working the front of the bookstore, my Dad had to put a few chairs out because he said people started just showing up to talk to my Mom. She’s also a published author several times over, and has a penchant for getting local news coverage.
In the last decade or so she’s become a local historian and written books on Houston and some of its oldest neighborhoods, like River Oaks, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the country. Her research had her meeting people and making friends in some of the wealthiest, most influential circles in the country. And yet, you’re just as likely to find her sitting outside her favorite tire shop joking around in passable Spanish with the young Latino guys working there.
I used to think that everything I’ve accomplished in my life was in spite of being a character, and so I assumed the same of my Mom. It wasn’t until recently that I realized most of the good things in my life are good because I’m a character. I arrived at this conclusion over the last year by two avenues.
First, I had a baby daughter a year ago. She is both a beautiful little girl and–inexplicably–she looks just like me. It’s a tradition: my face is so similar to my Mom’s that when she would come pick me up from random functions in childhood, whatever parent or school authority was in charge would call my name as she walked up, before she even announced who she was. When the three of us are together, there is a “togetherness” that feels different because I can see my Mom’s face in my daughter, and my Mom can see my daughter’s face in me, and I’m sure that my daughter has noticed my Mom and me look alike too.
Second, I started writing. When trying to write and publish a lot, you eventually turn from commentary and essays to drawing on your own life a bit. At first, I was hesitant to do this, but over time I have evidence that people who read my stuff resonate so much more with the weird, idiosyncratic stuff than with my nuanced takes on the issue of the day. Stated another way, they like it when I’m a character.
Having these both happen in the same year was informative. Seeing how similar I am to my Mom, and how much she has accomplished, and how hard I have tried to “mainstream” my views was eye-opening. Being a character is about following the eternal advice of Dolly Parton, to find out who you are and do it on purpose. We all think of ourselves as the protagonist, even if we don’t admit it. Maybe it’s time we start leaning into being a character.
Subscribe if you’re a character.