Edited by Matthew Vollmer

The Legend of Wookieback, a Feat of Space Exploration

by Matthew Vollmer



In January of 1998, when we were twenty-four years old, my friend John Ringhofer and I sat on my bedroom floor with a pair of guitars, a Yamaha keyboard, and a He-Man and the Masters of the Universe storybook cassette, and began to write songs for what would one day become one of Chattanooga, Tennessee’s most legendary musical acts: Wookieback.  

        That’s not a misprint. Our band was actually named Wookieback—as in the posterior of a “wookiee,” the Sasquatch from Star Wars. (Brandon Buckner, our drummer, had misinterpreted a radio DJ saying “We’ll get back to you” as “Wookieback to you,” and it’d stuck.) As for being legendary, I’ll admit that might be somewhat of a stretch, since it’s quite possible—if not probable—that you’ve never heard of us, even if you happen to have lived in Chattanooga during the late nineties, which, for some people, namely the members of our band, was otherwise known as “Wookieback heyday.” It’s true that we didn’t rock harder than anyone else. We weren’t appropriating cooler corporate logos in the manufacture of our T-shirts (like how Confessed Folk Singers made a CFS logo using the KFC font). We didn’t have T-shirts. We weren’t playing more shows or getting more songs on the radio than any other Chattanooga band. We weren’t even generating more buzz.  

        By the time we were done, though, we’d built a legacy. Using guitar, bass, drums, samples, xylophones, vintage keyboards, trombones, and a bunch of other random instruments, we’d penned songs about subjects as diverse as E.T., Han Solo, Flash Gordon, and Roll-da (Yoda’s twin brother in a wheelchair). We’d sung verses that included lines like “you might be bigger than me/ but I’m made out of plastic” and “Earthling, you da bomb.” We’d rhymed “jettison” with “Jedi’s son.” We’d made noteworthy observations—“Wonder Twin power activation depends upon the knuckle introduction”—posed significant inquiries—“how can Orko move around without any legs?”—expressed disbelief—“I can’t believe it’s true/ humans used for computer food!—and articulated earnest supplications —“please don’t take me to the moon, I’m here to save the earth.” And, once the golden age of Wookieback had ended (only three short years after it’d begun), we’d composed fifty-some songs, the entire catalog of which we could burn through in less than three quarters of an hour.   


Wookieback was the brainchild of John Ringhofer, a guy I first met in1984. It was the same year, incidentally, that my mom had thwarted several covert attempts to obtain a copy of Thriller (though she’d failed to prevent me from practicing the moonwalk as I tried to lose myself in the illusion that a satin Carolina Gamecocks windbreaker was Michael Jackson’s zippered jacket from the “Beat It” video). John was a scrawny kid with glasses and greasy bangs who loved Chef Boyardee, G.I. Joe, LEGOs, and the Chicago Cubs. We attended the same church—where we survived long sermons by drawing, on the backsides of bulletins, caricatures of the members of our congregation—and we attended the same church school, where we sat in a room of a dozen kids in grades 5-8, and generated an elaborate system of hand signals to alert each other when somebody in our room was doing something we could make fun of: we’d cough or clear our throats, then flash a sign (making a phone-shape with your hand meant look at Joy H., who once wore a belt that looked like a curly telephone cord; making an overbite meant, “look at Chris B., he’s grinning for no reason”). In other words, we were two kids, who, as fans of comic books, MAD magazine, and You Can’t Do That on Television, were engaged in the constant pursuit of cracking ourselves up. 

        Eventually, we shipped off to a Christian boarding school in Calhoun, Georgia, where, in 1991, after learning how to fool around on the guitar, we formed a band called “The Print” and won our school’s talent show by playing U2’s “One Tree Hill,” despite the fact that the school’s official take on rock and roll was basically: “anything that doesn’t praise God is probably inspired by Satan.” The school handbook claimed that rock’s “primal rhythms” titillated the body in ways that were unhealthy, probably even soul-tainting, and that the lyrics to popular songs were anything but uplifting, a fact that Robin, our assistant chaplain, exposed when he fiddled with the auto reverse switch on a Walkman, enabling him to play songs like “Stairway to Heaven” backwards, thus revealing that reversed vocals sound super creepy, especially when it’s Robert Plant singing verses like, “Here’s to my sweet Satan, the one whose little path would make me sad.”  

        However, as John Lithgow’s character in the movie Footloose can verify, trying to keep someone from rocking is next to impossible. The kids at our school smuggled CDs, Walkmans, and entire stereo systems into the dorms, received shipments of cassettes from Columbia House and BMG, and wore their Iron Maiden T-shirts inside-out to avoid getting in trouble for offending their peers. Every once in a while (usually during study hall or in the middle of the night), a bell would ring, and you’d trudge up to the dorm chapel and wait for two hours in a haze of farts and the pong of ninety pairs of adolescent feet while the dean and RAs conducted a room search—one that might result in the confiscation of your copy of “Appetite for Destruction” or “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.” More conscientious kids might decide, after an especially persuasive vespers service, to voluntarily surrender their music (as did one of my roommates, who tossed an entire case of Duran Duran tapes into a bonfire). Still, there was no way to completely eradicate the influence of rock music: somebody was always playing Metallica’s “One” on an acoustic guitar, somebody else was drawing those Black Flag bars on their Trapper Keeper or carving the Van Halen emblem onto a desktop. Then there was John Ringhofer, who knew every Beatles song by heart, and spent hours sitting on blankets in the middle of campus, cycling through them on his guitar, usually with some cute girl at his side singing harmony.  

        John had always been a sort of unpredictable guy, in ways that sometimes, to be frank, embarrassed me (like the time we went to see the movie Ghost and he laughed hysterically whenever Patrick Swayze’s character got emotional). By 1998, he wasn’t just unconventional: he was a full-on indie hipster. He had an art degree from Chattanooga State, a milk crate of 7-inch records recorded by bands on obscure independent labels, and a portfolio of paintings of figures with crooked, Egon Schiele-like bodies. On any given day, you might’ve found him wearing a Cub Scout cap, a threadbare t-shirt celebrating a Trans Am, or a softball jersey emblazoned with the name “Shirl.” As far as I could tell, he subsisted, quite happily, on Ramen noodles, Toaster Strudel, and Taco Bell. He had a Lite Brite on the back of his toilet and glow-in-the-dark stars in his shower. He could grow and did grow a full beard. Sometimes, as photographs of him from this era confirm, he wore his hair in pigtails.  

        The night we began writing songs for Wookieback, John had come to visit me at my parents’ house in Andrews, North Carolina, and we were staying up late listening to songs and playing guitar. I don’t remember everything he brought that night—he often traveled with a tote bag or suitcase from which he might extract a paper Burger King crown, a kazoo, a tambourine, a miniature accordion, or a white sequined glove—but I do remember that, at some point, he presented me with a battered storybook cassette, which bore the familiar logo of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, the mystical muscleman from another planet who battles evil hordes with the help of a talking saber-toothed cat and a floating elflike creature who can’t quite master his magic spells.  

        John covered the square holes at the top edge with two strips of tape (thus making it recordable again—a tactic he’d used when turning forgettable cassingles by bands like Color Me Badd into mix tapes), slid the cassette into the deck and hit play. We listened to five or six seconds of the story; John hit the stop button. Our goal, he explained, would be to write a short song based on what we’d heard, then record that song over the story tape. Once we’d finished recording, we’d hit stop, then hit play again, listen to whatever line of dialogue or narration arrived next, hit stop, and then record another song inspired by the next couple of lines or sound effects—regardless of how nonsensical or downright stupid.  

        If writing songs based on He-Man sounds silly and infantile, believe me, it was. It also turned out—like most of Ringhofer’s ideas—to be insanely, even sublimely fun. Within a couple of hours, we’d produced some shamelessly goofy shit—including some guitar/keyboard instrumentals that might’ve been appropriate background music for an episode of the Smurfs—but we’d also come up with a few catchy melodies and guitar riffs: a funky number concerning Teela (the unicorn-riding warrior goddess) working out on something called an “Attack-Track,” a faux-bluesy ballad about Skeletor, He-Man’s hooded, skull-faced enemy (which included the phrase “you’re bad to the bone”), and a triumphant anthem celebrating He-Man’s final victory over an evil spell.   

        And lo, the rules of Wookieback songs had been established.  

        First off: songs should pay tribute and/or call attention to the ridiculousness of science fiction or comic book heroes. Secondly, songs should begin, whenever possible, with a sample from a storybook tape or record, the kind of thing where a melodramatic actor (as in the case of Maximillian Schell, from Disney’s Black Hole) might whisper, “Tonight my friends, we stand on the brink of a feat in space exploration,” which could then be followed by a flawed interpretation of that sample (thus, John’s song titled “Astronaut Shoes,” about the feet of space exploration). Lyrics should be clever or intentionally obtuse (“Don’t mind me/ I’m just a ninja at heart”), should concern conundrums such as “psychic robots” and “android emotions,” and include, when appropriate, a string of doo-doo-doo-doo’s, eww-wee-eww’s or bah-bah-bah-bah’s. Melodies should be catchy, surprising and upbeat—something the Beatles, the Beach Boys, They Might Be Giants, or a group of wholesome teens around a campfire might get a kick out of singing. Odd time signatures were okay, as were the absence of bridges or choruses. Whistled refrains? Encouraged. Kazoos? Bring ‘em on. Finally: songs should end, as often as possible, on a “skronk,” a musical exclamation point where all musicians play one hard, loud, final note.  

        I like to think that Wookieback’s greatest achievement—aside from the quality of our recordings (the four-track we used made our tapes sound as if parts of the song were being broadcast from Alpha Centauri)—was our efficiency. Not only did we record each of our three albums—“Proposed Moon Suit,” “Robots Be One Crazy Weasel” (sic) and “Let Me Tell You About This Machine”—in one day, but also, because our songs averaged between 45 and 90 seconds (the longest clocking in at a whopping 2:19), we could pack roughly 18 songs into a 20-minute tape, thus leaving our fans wanting more.  

        And yes. We had fans. Or, rather, John had fans—he’d spent years playing praise songs for vespers services at Southern College (now Southern Adventist College), in nearby Collegedale, a town that was famous for being the home of the McKee Baking company, makers of Little Debbie Snack Cakes—which meant that every time we played a show, a horde of kids from Southern would show up.  

        This was sort of an accomplishment in and of itself, since we played three of our four shows at a place called Lamar’s, a hotel-soul-food-restaurant-bar on Martin Luther King Street in downtown Chattanooga, and which was run by crabby middle-aged African American men in flashy vests who seemed nonplussed by our presence but also generous in that they didn’t ask for a cut of what we charged people (we charged people!) to see us play at their venue, not that the venue was anything special, since it was rumored that you could rent rooms by the quarter hour there, and that the mattresses were infested by bed bugs, and that people’s cars sometimes got broken into outside. 

        Of course, none of that mattered when we were playing. Say what you will about how many tapes we sold (at least 90), those shows at Lamar’s rocked. I mean, they totally shouldn’t have, since we hardly ever practiced—immediately after our first record I moved to Raleigh to pursue a Master’s degree, thus making regular practice impossible—but we played our set list faster and tighter than we had when we’d recorded. The crowd went crazy—and often.  Like, on average, every 1.25 minutes. So what if we hadn’t practiced.  Maybe we didn’t need to! We were Wookieback! We were fulfilling our destiny! Which was: to play live, at least four times, in front of an actual audience (sometimes opening for other dork-rock acts like Music Tapes and Of Montreal and Danielson Familie) and to kill it every time. 

        Four times. That was it. I moved to Massachusetts, where I started teaching English; Brandon would eventually go to the University of Iowa to get an MFA in Painting, and John moved to Berkeley, where he founded the band Half-Handed Cloud, a psych-pop band that continues to make joyous, unpredictable songs with instruments like Omnichords, trombones, and those little toy cylinders that, when you turn them over, make animal sounds: he now tours all over the U.S. and Europe, playing venues the size of Lamar’s and packing them to full capacity wherever he goes.   

        And Wookieback isn’t totally dead. I recently visited our MySpace site—we’ve had over 11,000 profile visits, which, even if that isn’t impressive by MySpace standards, is about 100 times the amount of tapes we sold—and saw that either Brandon or John had posted some songs from a live show. Huh, I thought. I hadn’t realized Wookieback had bootleg recordings. I clicked a play button, ready to nod my head to some raw, explosive power-pop. Raw? Yeah. Explosive? Not so much. My guitar on “Slick,” originally a song we’d written about a missionary kid we knew who’d bragged about the number of indigenous people with whom he’d had intercourse and which we later changed to a nonsensical number about aliens—sounded tinny and fragile and out of tune. And on “TV Wonder Twin Power”—one of the few songs where I’d sung lead—I could hardly hear myself over the music, which was probably okay, since it soon became clear I wasn’t on key. In between songs, the crowd was cheering, but it wasn’t going wild. One might’ve described some of the applause as obligatory. I mean, no question about it, we were full of energy. And we had definitely rocked. Maybe just not as hard as I’d remembered. 



by Rachel B. Glaser



Jean was eighty and unhappy.  We were friends.  I was setting up her clunky computer to play online chess. Her husband had died. Her daughter had died, too. Her condo spread out on all sides. Abstract-expressionist paintings hung standoffish on her walls.  Huge-ass windows made a grand view of whatever.

         Jean and I had met a few years before, playing chess in the social room of Jean's apartment building. Jean lived in The Philadelphian, a bold, zig-zaggy high-rise with a pool sticking out of its side.  There was a bank inside it, and a hairdresser, and a travel agency, a diner, a mini supermarket, many carpeted hallways, a couple distinguished doormen, and three sets of gold elevators.  My grandmother lived there too, in a smaller apartment facing the museum. Jean and my grandmother were not friends.  Every week I saw my grandmother for dinner, but first I secretly saw Jean.  It was a new kind of betrayal.  I didn't think of it as a betrayal.  It was a grey zone between known things.  It was abstract and vaguely exciting.  I had never had a friend this old before.  It made me feel I was living a full life. 

          Jean and I sat on office chairs. It was stubborn to still have a computer like this one. Wires tangled wildly under the desk. Even in the computer room there were paintings and tapestries. Little glass animals lined the windowsill in a somber parade. Jean lived elegantly.


Jean gave the computer a look. It was heavy and leaning on its stand. She shook the mouse to wake it. She acted like at any moment it might blow up. She double-clicked. Immediately, tons of ad windows opened in her browser. I hadn’t seen AOL in years. It looked really shitty. Like the internet, but worse. Little cartoon women danced and we x-ed them out.

        This was in a building full of people who used to be young. It had a forgotten-about, glamorous feel. The lobby was regal and shiny with pianos. It wasn’t a hospital or anything. There weren’t rules for who could live there, but most residents seemed at the tail end of a vibrant and cultured life. They looked like New Yorker cartoons. They had grown into the weirdness of their faces. They’d made the same expression so many times, it was now patented over their features.


“First name,” I said and she typed.  She refused to use the tab key. She relied  solely upon the mouse, clicking from one cell to the next.  It was tedious.  She wrote her last name, her email.  They wanted to give her a ‘ymail’ account.  ‘Ymail’ sounded like a scheme.  Jean just wanted to play chess with her friend in Florida.  Every time I thought ‘Florida,’ a little nauseous heat wave went through me.  

        The first online chess site was ok.  Jean was confused.  “These are different rooms,” I said.  “Like you know about chat rooms?”


        “Let’s click this and play Yeah_Douglas.”  There was Buttugly783.  Mr.Buzzcut.  ExtremeMachine.  Hippy_Nights.  Jean’s name was Jean_Adler.  She didn’t see a point in obscuring it.


There is a flirtation in friendships between the unevenly aged.  It feels like conversing with your own future or past.  Old friends and young friends, they don’t try to compete with you.  They look to you amused. They stray from their family, briefly to a stranger.  

        Yeah_Douglas played aggressively and to loud sound effects.  “Jeez, why’s he making so much noise?”  Jean asked, flustered.  Every time she lost a piece, a string of morbid medieval notes vibrated from the speakers.

        “That’s just the computer. Look. I can mute it.”  

        Yeah_Douglas went on a rampage with his bishop.  I watched Jean’s time dwindle.  I hadn’t told her there was a limit. 


I was dressed right for dinner, because my grandmother was elegant too.  She wanted me to match my colors so as to attract a man.  She said I dressed like a homeless person and only attracted boys.  I loved my grandmother way more than Jean, but I can never refuse a friend.  I find time to keep it going.

        I took Jean to another site meant for long-term games, correspondence chess.  The site started up again with its forms.  “First name,” I said like an employee of someplace.  I was late for dinner with my grandmother, but Jean’s daughter had died recently.

        “Do you still talk to Peter?” she asked. 

        Peter was embarrassingly tall.  I hadn’t seen him since we visited Jean in the hospital.  I’d go out with him for some time and then we’d break it off and I’d form a life somewhere with new people, and he’d come check it out and then linger. 

        “Not really,” I told Jean.  Jean looked annoyed.  She wanted me to marry Peter or else hand him over to her granddaughter.  But after I’ve been with a boy, I’ve stored my dreams inside him.  I can’t just give him up.

        A few summers ago, Peter and I crashed my grandmother’s apartment while she was somewhere better.  We’d lounge on the balcony, talking until scolded from another balcony.  “Do you know what time it is!” a frazzled voice would call, from above.  The whole front of the building was balconies.  The balconies were like Hollywood Squares.  You couldn’t see the board, and no one was playing.  Peter and I had fun in this building.  Kissing on the piano bench, sashaying across the lobby in sunglasses.  It was weirdly easy to feel sexy among the elderly.


Last name, email.  Birth date, phone number.  The website wanted a security question.  What is your favorite book?  What was your first pet?  The website didn’t really want to know.  It wasn’t curious at all.  It just assumed we would forget the password.  And why shouldn’t we?  Jean was getting frustrated.  A pop-up window for wrinkle cream flashed across the screen.  “The internet is terrible!” she said. 

        Together we answered the security questions and she wrote them down.  For her password she wrote her daughter’s name.  “I’m just so used to it,” she said.

        Spending time with the survived always makes me feel privileged, that I’m being watched.  That the dead relatives of the survived are swarming about us when I’m talking to those they love.  Visiting in their wispy way.  They want to see through my eyes just to get a look.

        Jean retyped the password where they asked.  Then, there was that familiar thing where the website displays a scribbly word for you to decode.

        “Why! Why!” said Jean.  “Why do they always want this!”

        “To make sure we aren’t a computer!” 

        “Why would a computer be using a computer!” 

        It was PVPTTLMN, but all slanting and puffed.  “I think that’s ‘LO’,” she said, “not ‘P’.”

        “That’s ‘P’,” I said, “look.” 

        I couldn’t convince her.  Whatever.  “Everything always works with these anyways,” I said.  She insisted we click to get another.  “It’s ‘P’,” I said.

        “It’s nothing!” She said, “It’s not clear.  It’s all wrong.” 

        She clicked for another.

        This one was harder. It involved swirls.  WHAT?  She didn’t even try.  She clicked emphatically for another, but it was worse.

        I could picture my grandmother giving a mean eye to the clock.  It wasn’t fair to be so focused on Jean.  Jean had her own granddaughter, after all.  The bridge ladies all hated Jean, because she’d stolen someone’s husband.  My grandmother was a bridge lady, but we did not discuss Jean.  It wasn’t really worth it to steal a husband at their age. Jean’s boyfriend would come over and watch T.V. on her couch, hooked up to air.

        The new word was smashed.  “Completely illegible,” Jean said.  She gave a defiant click but the next one was phallic.  “Oh boy,” she said and I laughed. 

        Jean clicked once again. This one was quilted, there were zags and stitches.  If I narrowed my eyes it pulsated. There was one like a maze that I thought was pretty.  Then a reflective one, like a beam of light within the computer.  The internet was always doing this.  Was it malfunctioning or was it someone?  Half-human/ half-machine, it bought your life, delivering only a mess of color and text.  Really, I’d wasted years on these things.  A blinking cursor, a forwarding link, simulated movement.  A scroll bar, a history of posts.  All these tricks made you feel like you were moving, when really you were sitting still for years, meandering on a big irrelevant board.  Jean sighed and looked old.  I hadn’t seen her in months.  She’d broken some bones and then healed back to normal, then her daughter had died and she’d been dealing with that ever since.                                                                                                        


The next was a hollow shape, flanked with two dark flairs.  A little scribble in the hollow made a face.  “Jean!  It looks like you!”  Jean squinted her eyes and screwed her face in distaste.  She looked at the screen and not at me.                                            

        “We’re done here,” she said.  She said, “Who can stand a computer so long?”  I looked at the scribble on the screen.  It had one eyebrow like hers, and a dot where the other would be.

        I stood and grabbed the thing I have instead of a purse.  After an ambiguous goodbye, I walked out her front door in a daze down the hallway.  It was startling to be moving again.  I took the elevator instead of the stairs.  In that building, Peter and I always flew down the emergency stairs in a bragging display of young legs.  The elevator opened into the lobby, full of ghosts and dead grandeur as I walked to my grandmother’s wing. 

        I always feel dissatisfied and lucky around the survived.  Like there are other people that would rather be there.  That when I’m with someone, I’m just near them.  That the dead would be doing a better job. 


Hall of Fame

by Aaron McCollough



Grief and memory. And sometimes surprise. I don’t usually write prose, because I think prose writing requires a special facility with the materials of memory that I lack. Sentences oblige a retrospective completeness of vision I can’t usually coax into words. Subject predicates object, but subordinate clauses intervene. And still, subject and object must float on thewy tethers. Usually, I tarry in the fragments of memory or drill into them without meaning to. 

Here, however, I aim to write about the hall of fame. Technically, the hall of fame I’m interested in is mine, and I’ll explain this, but it’s also something that belonged to an “us,” or even to an “other,” which no longer exists. The hall still exists. Last I checked, it was sitting in my old bedroom in my parent’s house. But its meaning is interior to me now and something I’m not sure I understand. 

Hence an essay. Hence this prose. 


In general, halls of fame are weird things. John D’Agata has written about them because he likes weird things that tell us something surprising about ourselves as a culture. Usually, halls of fame commemorate and/or promote something otherwise on the verge of oblivion. Retired shortstops. My hometown hosts the International Towing and Recovery Hall of Fame. This is a fact I don’t know what to make of.  

I think halls of fame have always been as marginal as they sought to be central. Consider the world’s first hall of fame (number 1, I guess, in the hall-of-fame-of-halls-of-fame), the so-called “Forum Augustum.” There, as has typically been the case since, architecture was employed to solidify a specific historical narrative (the prominent place of Augustus [né Octavian] among the great heroes of Rome). That narrative, like the one behind most halls, stressed how important the interested party was to history more generally. 

Sadly, at least for the interested parties, even architecture falls apart, and memory—even that most distended of all its institutional forms, commemorated by stone and concrete—falls with it.  Octavian’s ur-hall of fame is a ruin, and we don’t even know what he really called the place.  

Our sense of fame’s meaning is derived from its ancient etymological trace (ancient Greek, “to speak”) and also from association with “reputation” (i.e., the condition of being spoken about). This should surprise no one. 

Sometimes, fame forgets the words but keeps on speaking. Sometimes, it’s spoken over. In the 6th Century, the catholic church built a monastery on top of most of the Forum Augustum — different kind of hall for a different kind of fame. 


Today, I’m writing from a house that belongs to a couple of friends. One of these friends is in the hospital with a very serious brain injury. I’m here to make sure the painters and the window cleaners do their job and get paid. My healthy friend is visiting my injured friend. My injured friend doesn’t remember her name right now. So, it feels oddly appropriate to be thinking about what I’m thinking about here in their dining room. 

As I tried to tell the window cleaner what to do, I couldn’t help thinking about the petty operations of forgetting and recollection that usually go into arranging repairs and renovations. The logistics, of course: planning ahead, remembering to have someone on site, etc. But also the little surprise (even though you arranged the whole thing) of coming home to find something changed in the place you live. “Oh, yeah, the window cleaners came. Now, the windows will all be clean.” We could call this a new fame, what the windows now say to you when you come home. “I’ve been cleaned.”  

Maybe I’m stretching. When my injured friend comes home, however, many weeks or months from now, I wonder what the house will say to her? The hall, in this case the house, is in great shape. It is being actively maintained all around me. But, how many of its words will she be able to hear? 


D’Agata says halls of fame are elegiac. I’d say they’re apocalyptic. 


It’s important to point out that I don’t view apocalypse as an entirely bad thing. Leaning on etymology again, I’ll say it’s about “disclosure” (towing and recovery?) as much or more than it is about destruction. But, it’s about destruction, too. As a result, there’s some lament in halls of fame … some elegy, but most of all there is something like the completeness of a good sentence. 


When I was a kid, my best friend was a genius. When we were teenagers, he betrayed me. Now, he’s dead. He left lots of relics. Some memories. A hall of fame. 

He and I were born at the very beginning of the 1970s, as was a line of toys made by a company called Mego. The most famous Mego toys were probably their superhero figures, but they basically translated every 70s pop culture phenomenon into doll form. According to Wikipedia, “the secret of Mego's success” lay in a combination of interchangeable heads, generic bodies, and custom costumes. They did not make the Evel Knievel figure that every 70s boy had (that was a company called Ideal Toys), but Mego did make other figures just like him. By 1975, they were making Muhammad Ali, Planet of the Apes, The Waltons, the Wizard of Oz, and most importantly for this essay, Star Trek. In addition to these figures, Mego made a Star Trek-themed playset that was meant to serve as a metonymic embodiment of the U.S.S. Enterprise. I think I had the second iteration (1976) of this set. I don’t remember getting it, and I can’t imagine why I was given it, except that I know my Dad thought the show was cool. I also had the kid-sized Star Trek phaser pistol… 

At some point in 1979, I traded the playset to my friend Nate, the genius. I don’t remember what I got in return. I only remember the feeling of surprise and desire overwhelming me when I saw what he had done with his end of the trade. 

Most of 1979 is a blur for me now, but basically everything I do remember is related to some combination of Nate and/or football. For example, I remember the made-for-TV version of Salem’s Lot, which I watched at Nate’s house, and which haunted me during several subsequent years of insomnia. I also remember Nate and his Dad rooting for the Oakland Raiders and mocking my Pittsburgh Steelers (e.g., “those guys are so broke they can’t even afford a logo for the left side of their helmets”). The Steelers won the Super Bowl that year, for the fourth time in five years. I remember that.  

I also vividly remember the phrase “NFL ‘79,” which is what NBC called its NFL coverage, hosted by the young Bryant Gumbel. Those were the words neatly written in sharpie on the top of the erstwhile Star Trek playset once Nate had transformed it into the “NFL Hall of Fame.” 


Really exploring my feelings about Nate would take more than one essay, but here are some important stats, mostly corresponding to years 1979-1983 (ages 8-12): 

--An amazing free-hand illustrator and a terrible speller. Dismissive of the former gift, explosively defensive about the latter deficit. 

--Southern by the curse of God. (Like me, he was born in the Midwest but raised in Tennessee by “yankee” parents). 

--Preoccupied with Pandas. Founding and sole member of “The Panda Club.” 

--Middle name: “Che.” Very defensive about this. 

--Meticulous about his signature, which he appended to each of his drawings. Especially scrupulous about the proper spelling of his last name, ending with an “el” rather than an “le.” Part of Nate’s (and thus our) preoccupation with Bryant Gumbel stemmed from the “bel” their names had in common. 

--Attached mystical significant to the numbers “4,” “7,” and “47.” Hence, hall-of-famer Mel Blount (who wore jersey number 47) was Nate’s favorite Steeler (even though Nate did not like the Steelers). Around 2003, shortly before he killed himself, Nate was producing a lot of collage work under the moniker NathanChe47. He sent me a small one that featured Mel Blount (on which he had forged Mel Blount’s signature).  

--Somnambulist. Very defensive about this. 

--Devotee of Hanna-Barbera oeuvre and visual style. Co-founder, with me, of Gabel-McCollough studios (see, Panda Club). 

--Critic of racial injustice as he understood it as an 8-12 year old in Chattanooga, TN. Fan of William Tecumseh Sherman. Another part of Nate’s (and thus our) preoccupation with Bryant Gumbel stemmed from his being black, a pretty rare thing for a TV commentator to be in 1979. 

--Precocious fan of punk music, especially Devo and the Ramones. An inordinate proportion of Nate’s many inside jokes with himself involved the terms “spudboy” or “pinhead.” Jocko Homo… Gabba gabba, Hey! 

--Son of a professional hot air balloonist. 

--Stopped going to the bathroom to urinate for about a year following his Mom’s re-marriage. Instead, he pissed in a corner.  


--During 1980-1981, repeatedly molested by his male babysitter. I know this because he was the only person I told about an almost identical series of incidents in my life. As it turned out, his babysitter and my babysitter were best friends. 

--As inspiring to me as anyone I’ve ever known or studied. 


I feel like I’ve thrown molestation out there in a way that isn’t totally fair. I feel this way any time I ever mention it to anyone.  

It should be shocking. It sucked for us. But, I don’t really think that thing that happened to us was much more dramatically damaging than other things we endured or were born with. Indeed, I remember our shared sense that there had been remarkable pleasure in it… that we’d only known it was wrong after we’d received the decalogue-like injunction: “Don’t tell anyone.” This made the pleasure putrid. It made us blame ourselves. 

We each knew at that moment that a hall of fame could be an awful place — an echo chamber of our own not telling. 


But the hall of fame, the true and good one, was a work of art. Before I knew anything about Harold Finster, Sabato Rodia, or the concept of bricolage which has been so crucial to my sense of what makes life worth living, Nate took a dumb, mass-produced toy, one in which I’d lost all interest, and turned it into what Deleuze and Guattari would’ve called a “desiring machine.” 

In order to appreciate the hall of fame fully, one has to accept and appreciate the depth of imaginative possibility that the NFL represented to an 8-year old boy like the one I was. Probably, one would have to have been me.  

That depth, therefore, may only be available as a given. 

So what did he do? He started with a 12 x 12 x 12 inch, vinyl-and-cardboard-pentagon, which opened out on one side to reveal 4 interior spaces (a weird “transporter room,” a wide, open floor, a control room, and another multipurpose room).  

His adaptations were pretty simple. He began with The Great NFL Fun Book, which both of us had bought at our annual Scholastic™ elementary school book fair. This book was not that fun, but it was great. What made it great were the full-color illustrations of all 28 NFL team uniforms, modeled by a total of maybe 4 dudes (plus full-color details of all 28 NFL helmets). Nate and I had spent hours discussing the nuances of every uniform. In turn, we designed uniforms for our own teams in our own imaginary league, the AFA: American Football Association (his main contribution: the Alaska Huskies; mine: the Honolulu Volcanoes). 

He lined the outside of the closed pentagon with pictures of all the uniformed dudes, which he had carefully cut from the pages of The Great NFL Fun Book. The effect was comparable to that produced by the statuary inhabiting the perimeters of Roman fora. At once, it drew attention to the varied splendor of each of the NFL’s heroic lineages and also presented a myriad army of guardians. 

He ripped out the transporter contraption (actually the neatest aspect of the original toy, which megomuseum.com describes as “one of Mego's greatest contributions to the toy industry”). He threw out all the other furniture (including a Captain’s chair, a control panel, and three interchangeable images for the “Telescreen”). He converted this “Telescreen” into a scoreboard and turned the open floor into a football field by a) inscribing it with yard-lines in sharpie and b) incising the vinyl cover so he could situate a smart-looking Raiders’ helmet in profile at the 50-yard-line.  

He cut other pictures (black and white) out of The Great NFL Fun Book. George Blanda was one. I think O.J. Simpson was another. These he taped in prominent interior surfaces to obscure evidence of the hall’s Star Trek past. 


In order to keep up with my injured friend’s progress, I have to depend more or less on a website. It’s kind of like a blog. On it, my healthy friend describes the latest developments. This is a weird way to experience worry and hope. I can’t ask the blog any questions. It only tells me what my healthy friend tells it to tell me. I can’t help feeling like something important is not being communicated. 

Still, when there is good news I’m elated. When there is bad news, I’m dismayed.  

Either way, a new post tends to make me want to get drunk. 


The most important feature of Nate’s hall of fame was probably the “football guys” he made. Basically, these started out as Mego figures (like Superman and Spock). Nate cut their fabric outfits at the elbows and knees. Then he fitted them with miniature helmets, which could be obtained for a quarter from gumball-style vending machines at Hills department store (“According to legend, little folk know, Hills is where the toys are!”). These helmets were oversized for the football guys, but Nate remedied the problem with Sanford kneaded eraser (also known as “gummy eraser”), an element that already loomed unaccountably large in the elementary school imagination. This eraser made the helmet stick fast to the football guys’ heads. 

The hall of fame served as a backdrop for football guy-related events. Mainly, these events were “hall of fame games,” played on the field Nate had marked out on the open area of the former Star Trek playset. Yes, at some level this was all a ruse meant to enable us boys to play with dolls. But the Mego toys had already achieved that ruse, as had Star Wars figures, etc. For me, the powerful thing was in the deviation from the script. I admit to ingenuousness, but the NFL felt like an open imaginative landscape. I think it was my fantasy of autonomous adulthood. 


Nate and I were both vexed that none of our Mego figures were black. Had we known there was a Muhammad Ali figure out there, this would have been an easy fix. But, the closest I could come was my Spiderman figure. He had a red head. In what can only be understood as a failure of comprehension, I saw him as the best candidate for racial transformation. Even more embarrassingly, I deemed a black permanent marker appropriate to the task.  

To my credit, I found the results immediately disappointing. 

The following Christmas, I was astonished to find an “official” version of Nate’s innovation in the Sears wishbook. A company called Pro Sport Marketing had been manufacturing the “NFL Action Team Mates” line of figures since 1977, but neither of us had ever noticed. All 28 teams were represented (as were white and black skin types). Also, these “football guys,” as we continued to call them, came with a sheet of adhesive numbers, so you could change the identity of the player every once and a while. Each of us got two for Christmas. Steelers. Raiders. Black and white. 

These figures were much more satisfying at some level (their helmets fit perfectly), but clearly they weren’t important in the way the original “football guys” had been. At the same time, they made impossible to go back. Kirk in a mutilated uniform was only that.  


I can’t say I played with the hall of fame ceaselessly or that it obviated my need for any subsequent toys. I can say that it’s the one toy that still holds significant meaning for me at 40. This has everything to do with the fact that it was a product of Nate’s imaginative intervention.  

Obviously, I had been exposed to handmade toys on occasion. But to me, the limber jack and the hooey stick were just depressing. The difference in this case had something to do with need. Nate and I didn’t simply need distracting, we needed something to play with that spoke to our imaginative world. Sadly, perhaps, the NFL was the richest vein in that world at the time.  

When Nate’s hall of fame spoke, it didn’t really say anything about history or statistical supremacy. It said, “anything in the world can be a textile.” It helped me see that what mattered to me was also something I could enter and change. Text-, participle stem of tex-ĕre, to weave. 


My old friend is dead. I drink to him.  

My injured friend is in an uncertain state, and I drink to her, too.  

None of us is important to history. 

This is why I do not write prose.  

Too much fabric. Too many words. 

Temples to commemorate. Toys. 



by Nic Brown

KJcrowd view.jpg


It's 1998. I am twenty-one years old. I have a record deal with Atlantic Records, a publishing contract with EMI, and a song shifting around the top of the Billboard modern rock charts. I am the drummer. 

Every morning, a man named Gary wakes me in a different discount hotel. Gary is my road manager. I sleepwalk to the van, place my head on a pillow pressed against the window, and listen to my headphones until I fall asleep. I sleep in my own bed one dozen times this year. 

We navigate with road atlases and pencils. We do not have cell phones. Maybe Gary does, but it’s for business. The rest of us use payphones when we need to, but usually we don't need to. We float around the country in our own silent cloud. We film an interview for CNN and never see it. People tell us we are on MTV; we don't see it. I do a phoner with some local daily over the hotel room line, but never know if it makes it into print. At a gas station in Virginia I buy a Rolling Stone that includes a photo of me and I want to tell the cashier but then  become too embarrassed and just purchase the magazine in silence.  

Each new town looks the same. We only see the club. Each is identical to the one we played the night before, run-down and depressing in daylight. At night, the lights impart some magic to these rooms. Afternoons reveal what they really are: dilapidated bars that smell like spilled beer. In the hours between soundcheck and showtime, I walk around.  

One day I go for a walk with a Dwight Yoakam album on my headphones. The music I listen to this year is by nature oblique, unrepresented in the collections of most people I know. I escape into the odd cultural corners of free albums provided to me by various label reps. I don't listen to any of the bands we are on tour with. For the most part, these groups have hit songs that are easy to like and members who are kind, talented, and handsome. There are no drugs. There is a surprising lack of stupidity. But I don't care much for the music. I'm not a snob. I have no indie cred. I'm just not into it. I don't know what I'm into. But that's neither here nor there. What I'm doing is listening to Dwight Yoakam on my Discman, and I find a cracked and empty parking lot behind some shuttered industrial building. I think this is Cincinnati. I am a few blocks away from the venue. We have five hours till we go on. The lot is empty and feels like it has been for decades. I sit on the loading dock in the dappled sunlight of a tree whose limbs have been broken by truck traffic and hope against hope that that night's show will be cancelled. It is snow day logic. This world! Where is the danger? I don't see it. I can't believe how innocent it all is. It is like the country is just a series of empty concrete surfaces, all waiting for me to step onto them and look around. 

In October we play at an amphitheater, opening for a popular band with whom we are touring. They have the number one song in the country. The members of this band are very nice and two of the three wear eyeliner. They are somewhat famous for their hair. I do not care for the music. It is a good tour, though. Before the show, backstage, my band argues about who we are going to allow to travel with us on our new tour bus. Girlfriends, friends, family? We agree the best policy is to take no one. Our singer, however, who is one of the most considerate people I know, wants to bring his girlfriend. She is nice and pretty and makes all of us happy. We'll only have that bus for one month. But we don't know that yet. We think this is our permanent world and we are scared of securing its borders. Our capacity to give what we should to each other has run low. So we tell him it's not a good idea to bring anyone on the bus. Onstage that night, because of the lights, I see nothing other than the first three rows of spectators. There are thousands of people there, yet I am unclear on the count by tens of thousands. It is ten thousand, or twenty. Or more? Somebody says it is more. Amphitheaters are like playing in a sea of Novocain. Despite the volume all sound feels diffuse and quiet. Everything seems too far away. As a city population cheers, I think about how it was unfair of us to tell our singer not to bring his girlfriend, but I can't imagine a way to tell him so. Or maybe this isn't the night we argue about that. Maybe this is another night, the night we argue about tempos. It doesn't matter. What matters is that I don't even know that I'm playing.  

In Charlotte near the end of the year, we headline a large theatre. At the close of our set, we play our hit song. It opens with four measures of primal thump – the snare drum cracking on each quarter note: bang bang bang bang. I launch into it and the crowd begins to bounce, jumping in rhythm to each beat. I still remember the light. The sun has not yet set and streams in through the room, backlighting in silhouette a sea of bouncing heads. How do I say this? I have run out of compassion for my band members, for myself, for the music itself. I'm ashamed at what I think. I look out at the crowd and, in my least charitable moment, ask why are any of you people here?  I feel like anyone who wants to dance to the music I am playing is someone with whom I can never spend time. Later I work even better jobs for other major labels, other bands, I play on The Tonight Show, record for films, make a living. I am a very good drummer. But I guess that night in Charlotte is when I know my music career is over.  


Clear Eyes, Full Heart, Can't Win

by Terrance Wedin



I spent my first nights in Austin combing Craigslist for jobs. I was unemployed and running out of cash, posting my crappy resume on Monster and HotJobs, continuing to call my mom in Virginia with lies about my luck in the big city. One night, I found an ad looking for background actors for the third season of Friday Night Lights. They wanted people ages 18-25 to play high school students, football players, cheerleaders, and rally girls. The job paid upward of $120 a day. I filled out a form detailing my physical attributes, attached a photo of myself, and waited. Two days later, I got a call from the casting office.

            “Terrance,” the woman said. “Can we book you as a Strip Club Customer for our shoot tomorrow?”

            I paced the room I rented from a forty-year-old ex-punk-rocker. My stomach turned liquid, the same feeling I’d had before kicking my first field goal in high school. I thought: do I look like the kind of guy that goes to the strip club? Am I a strip club guy? On my computer, I pulled up the photo I’d used for my casting profile. A little backwoods, maybe, but I thought I looked decent. Certainly not douchey.

            “What would I have to do?” I asked.

            “You’d be one of the guys watching the strippers,” the woman said. She sounded annoyed.

            I pictured a director instructing me on how to hoot and holler with more enthusiasm, how to precisely leer at the strippers.

            “I don’t think I’m comfortable doing that,” I said.  

I had no grand religious beliefs, owned a moral compass that read crooked too often. I was talking myself out of a job, purely because I didn’t want to be perceived as a strip club guy.

            “That’s okay, sweetie,” the woman said. “I understand.”

            “Is it possible I’ll still get a part?” I asked.

            “Let me see what else we have.” On the other end, computer keys clacked. “We need people for a bar scene Wednesday night. Got anything against bars?”

            “No, I can handle that.”

            “Great. We’ll need you dressed in solids, no logos. And NBC requires you wear closed toe shoes. See you tomorrow!”

The woman hung up.

            I called my mom, told her the first good news I’d had in months: “I’m gonna be on television.”


I arrived at the community center in East Austin that’d been co-opted as home base for the FNL Production Crew with a messenger bag that contained a couple solid colored shirts, a granola bar, and a Phillip Roth novel. There were no television stars, no lights, no cameras. Just a bunch of recent high school graduates milling around, meeting together in clique-y groups that reminded me of high school lunch. I’d been expecting some Hollywood atmosphere, some crew guys moving lights, or stars walking around drinking coffee and reading over scripts. Instead there was just a Production Assistant waiting at a card table, ready to check me in.

            “How old are you?” he asked. A walky-talky on his shoulder whined.

            “Twenty-five,” I said.

            “Take this.” He handed me a receipt. Go out to the trailer marked ‘Wardrobe.’”

            At wardrobe a lady examined my clothes: grey t-shirt, jeans, and skate shoes.

            “You should be okay,” she said.

            “That’s it?”

            “That’s it. Just go back inside and wait for a PA to grab you.”

            Six hours later, after I’d finished the Phillip Roth novel, a PA announced that we’d be shooting at a dive bar across town called Trophy’s. “If you need directions, ask,” he said. He encouraged carpooling. I bummed a ride from another background actor, an older woman with hair so teased up and peroxide blonde that she could have been a holdover from the show Dallas.

            Outside the bar, a haggard group of displaced regulars drank brown bag tallboys and heckled the background actors as another PA herded us inside. The bar was lit brighter than any bar I’d ever been inside, the sticky spots on the wood floors shining like oil slicks. A woman from props handed us plastic cups or beer bottles. The Assistant Director (AD) moved us into place and gave direction. We were the crowd, the fictional FNL town, watching the nerd-cum-jock Landry, the stage lights glaring off his giant forehead, play his first show with his new band.

            “Stand right here,” the AD said to me. “When we call rolling you’re going to pretend to talk to this girl next to you. The onstage camera will face the crowd. Don’t look at the camera.”

            I asked the girl, all glossed lips and flawless make-up—a girl that would’ve never indulged me in conversation at an actual bar—what the AD meant by “pretend talk.”

            “Like talk but like don’t say anything,” she said.

            A voice called out: “SOUND!”

            Then: “BACKGROUND!” (Our cue to start pretend talking.)

            Three hulking television cameras circled us take after take. I pretended to take a sip of beer from my plastic cup. I nodded my head, mouthed “Oh yeah? Really?” over and over. Visions of the Producers ecstatically stopping the shot and offering me a job as series regular, based on my natural acting ability, clouded my head. Later, I’d learn the secret to pretend talking is the phrase “rubber ball,” a combination of words that creates the illusion that you’re actually saying a mouthful; now, with that huge lens baring down on me, I struggled not to sneak glances directly at the camera, and after nine or ten, the scene was shot, and my night was over.


The big bucks were made during the filming of the football games. Instead of the regular day rate of 72 dollars, extras got 120 dollars, and had the opportunity to get overtime if the shoot went over 8 hours.

            The games were filmed at an old, unused football stadium in East Austin, on the other side of the freeway across from Austin International Airport. The fake atmosphere on location was incredibly similar to the real atmosphere of an actual high school football game. Entire families exited cars holding blankets, coolers, and those funny portable chairs with the foam-back pads. A PA acted as parking attendant, waving cars here and there, and outside the stadium groups of young people stood in packs, waiting for the night to get started.

            On the field, players wearing the Dillon Panthers blue and white uniforms warmed up like a real football team, going through laborious stretching routines and running half-speed plays that I remembered from my own playing days. Nearby, players wearing the away team maroon and gold uniforms, went through the same routine. The players on the field were NFL-sized, their arms the size of small children, their bodies the equivalent of human SUV’s zooming around the field. The extras on the sideline, dressed in the same Panther uniforms, looked more like a used car lot. A bunch of sedans and compacts, guys my size, standing around, waiting to be noticed.

            The shoot lasted all night. As the crowd’s energy exhausted the crew pumped us up by raffling off various FNL memorabilia: A football, a jacket, t-shirts. I really wanted a t-shirt. Getting a t-shirt would symbolize my time working on the show and justify sitting in the stands all night alone, clapping my hands on cue. At Christmas, I could wear the shirt out to bars in my hometown. People would ask about it and I’d let them know I’d been working in television. No big deal.

            I wouldn’t get my t-shirt until the next night of the shoot, though. Again, everyone showed up at the stadium, checked in and got their paperwork. I let the PA know that if they needed someone else for the football team, that I had played a little high school football back in the day. And after checking back with him a couple more times, he scratched his ballpoint pen through the word “BACKGROUND” on my work receipt and wrote “AWAY TEAM PLAYER” underneath.

            The locker room was an actual locker room. The Dillon Panther logo had been emblazoned on every metal locker, the floor, even the above the toilets in the bathroom. News clippings from the fictional Dillon newspaper were tacked to a bulletin board. The Panther’s motto was painted over the door leading to the field in big, royal blue block letters: Clear Eyes. Full Hearts. Can’t Lose. We were issued uniforms, everything except hip, thigh, and kneepads for our pants. I was number 57. The energy while getting dressed reminded me of playing high school football, the serious faces in concentration, the knocking of shoulder pads, the hand slaps between players. I imagined lining up for the kickoff, jetting down the field, and busting up the wall like Steve Tasker. But no coach arrived to pump us up. Instead, the AD gave us a pep talk about the shoot.

            “Guys, tonight is a rain game,” he said. “Although you’ll be on the sidelines, you might still get wet, but because it’s a rain game, you’ll be getting an extra twenty bucks.”

            Me and the other background actors cheered. For most of the guys I talked to this was a fun, second job, something to boast their income, but for others being a background actor was something they did regularly, driving to San Antonio for work, checking websites for casting info, and networking with the production staff. You could tell which guys were serious and which guys weren’t by how enthusiastically they cheered for those twenty dollars.

            Why did being a background actor dressed in a football uniform seem more tolerable than being a spectator in the stands? For one thing, I was closer to the action. I had this terrible urge, fueled by my unrealistic fantasies of getting noticed and becoming a cast member for real, to make the production staff aware of me, to notice me, all those cameras trained on other people, all those actors getting the attention. As the rain machines spun overhead, dropping torrents of stylized water on the field, and I jumped up and down cheering for a fake touchdown on the sidelines, I realized how close I was to the action, to what people actually see on television. At 4am when the shoot finished, a PA handed out t-shirts in the locker room and congratulated us. T-shirt in hand, it felt like I had finally accomplished something in Austin. 


Days passed. The Casting Department never called. Money was slim, and my diet consisted of spaghetti, hot dogs, and ramen. I spent most of my time skateboarding at the local skate park near my house or lifting weights, mostly because neither activity cost money. Nights, I’d scrounge up change and head to the bars downtown where my attempts to meet people failed miserably. I never had enough money for more than two rounds. I was still looking for other work, but because the country was in the middle of a recession, it felt like I had just as much a chance of living out of my van soon, joining the homeless dudes that hung out and drank beer on the street below the graffiti walls at Castle Hill, as I did of finding a steady job.

            The lady I rented from continued to ride me about leaving the mailbox door open, about using her cheese and conditioner, or how frequently I visited the bathroom. The calls to my mother were becoming gloomier. I started calling the casting ladies, begging for roles, but they were always looking for people older or younger than me.


Two weeks later, I’d catch a break. Since working the football game I’d gotten a couple random days of work: I was a college student walking to class, a man shopping with his girlfriend at Sears. I was becoming more familiar with the PA’s on the show, too. Not first name familiar, but they were starting to recognize my face, smile, say hello when I checked in. I’d heard stories about background actors making the jump to working as PA’s on the show, and I felt like if I kept showing up, who knows, maybe somebody would give me a job.

            “We need someone to play a worker at a party supply store,” a casting lady said.

            “I can do that,” I said.

            “You’re going to have to move some tables,” she said.

            “I can move tables,” I said.

            The shoot that day took place at an out-of-business flower shop on the east side of Austin. The windows were slathered in that soapy writing that celebrants use to graffiti the windshields of newlyweds’ vehicles, only the message here was: “Out of Business!” Adrianne Palacki, the actress that played Tyra, the show’s Bad-Girl-Gone-Good, was smoking a Marlboro on the side of the building as I walked on set. She glanced at me and half-smiled as if I’d caught her acting like a regular human and not a television star.

            I was one of two background actors on the shoot—a pivotal scene in which Tyra and Landry (formally a couple on the show) would reconnect while planning Tyra’s sister’s bachelorette party.

            “Get this guy a smock,” the director said, pointing at me. He sized up the baggy green polo shirt the costume director had dressed me in. “You’ll look like a real employee in one of those things,” he added.

            Smock on, the director walked me through my role. Like a model party store employee, I was helping Landry bring some tables out to Tyra’s truck. Put one table in the truck, come back into the store, grab another table, put it in the truck, then get out of the way. Simple enough, but while I walked back and forth stacking tables, the actors would be reciting their dialogue. What if I lose my grip and drop one of the tables? What if I put one of the tables into the truck too loudly? Was all I thought. What if I fuck up the show? My palms sweat uncontrollably while the director blocked the scene. Jesse Plemmons, the young actor that played Landry on the show, introduced himself to me as we waited shoulder to shoulder. Between takes he hummed a song that sounded like Pearl Jam.

            The cameras started rolling. We were in the scene. Take after take I hauled the tables onto the truck. The director said, “You’re doing great,” as I came back into the store for another take. I hoped he’d notice me, how fluid I moved, how I was probably meant for starring roles instead of being in the background. Each time, I felt more confident about my “acting,” like I was really nailing this part—a guy working at a party supply store. Of course, with the season ending at the end of the week, and without an actual job, I might have soon enough really been that guy dropping tables into the back of someone’s truck.

            I couldn’t help feeling like I would always be that guy lugging around tables for someone planning a party. I would always be the guy wearing the smock. Never the guy throwing the party. My big scene on Friday Night Lights made me feel so insignificant, so minuscule and non-essential.


I worked my last day on the show, the final game of the season, the Championship game at the University of Texas’ football stadium. Shooting that day was scheduled from 10am until midnight and beyond. People arrived in droves for the chance to pretend cheer in the concrete bleachers of the UT stadium. Sweat stained my shirt as we cheered. An hour went by sitting in that unforgiving early afternoon sun, then another.

            I imagined baking in the sun for eight more hours, then sitting in the dark of the stadium alone, waiting to go home, knowing I’d earn seven dollars an hour. I needed the money desperately, though, and I knew that if I walked, I wouldn’t get paid at all for the two hours I’d already stayed. Also, I felt some strange allegiance to the show, like I owed them my time. When I hadn’t had a job and was running out of money, it had been there, waiting for me.

            But swallowing a handful of nails sounded more appealing than stomaching another ten hours of boredom in those stands. And as we broke for lunch, I made a break for the exit. I stuffed my work receipt in my pocket and headed toward my bike locked up outside the stadium. I was free. The ride home was bittersweet, but I knew that I was done being another face in the crowd.


That Christmas, I returned to Virginia and watched myself on television for the first time. After my best friend’s mother found out I was on FNL she started recording each episode on her DVR. We fast-forwarded through the first episode I appeared in, scanning for a scene I might recognize, until we found the bar scene, my first night working on the show. My head swam with excitement and self-adulation as we waited for my television debut.

            “You probably won’t be able to see me,” I said, hoping you’d see my whole mug on the TV screen.

            The scene cut from a shot of the band tuning on stage to an establishing shot of the crowd.

            “There you are!” Sonya said. She started laughing, paused the DVR. “You’re looking right into the camera!”

            Even with the dark and grainy cinematography it was clear that I was gawking, mouth open, directly into the camera. I remembered my struggle to look away and into the eyes of a pretty girl I’d never met before.

            Sonya and her mom kept laughing. Once the embarrassment passed, I started laughing, too. Four seconds of fame, I thought, were more than enough.