The further downtown I go, the more anxious I become.
I’m on the 2/3. I’m listening to my iPod while reading my essay. I am imagining the sound of my voice over the sound of The Who’s “Eminence Front.” I am practicing emphatic pauses. And the further downtown I go, the more anxious I become.
For weeks, no, for months, I have been lobbying the editors of “2 Do Before I Die,” Mike Ogden and Chris Day, to host a reading.
Be careful what you ask for.
I overshoot Houston, and hop a local back uptown. The venue, Junno’s, is mere steps from the subway station. So I walk around the block to try and gather my wits. I take a deep breath, and try and slow my racing mind.
‘Speak clearly,’ I remind myself. ‘Speak slowly. Deep voice. Calm down, calm down, calm down.”
I step inside the venue. Bespectacled, cute, literary-type women dot the room. My buddy Ron, the Wall Street Journal reporter who suggested I submit my story in the first place, is already here. I saddle up to the bar, order a Stella, and hold an awkward with him. I’m nervous.
Nervous, me. I’ve been performing for fifteen years. I love standing in front of people. But I always have a guitar to hold onto, or at least a mic stand. And there’s music to blend into. Not tonight. Tonight, it’s just Mr. Rogers and me.
Heather and Rach show up. This is a sweet development, but only makes me more nervous. I order another Stella. Mike and Chris begin the evening.
I am the seventh of eight readers. I hear the other “2 Do” storytellers — wear high heels, do nothing, sing opera, quit my job, graduate college, do standup — but it’s impossible for me to be 100% present. I feel like a tiny astronaut high atop an Apollo rocket. 6 … 5 … 4 … 3 … 2 …
“Hello. My name is Benjamin Wagner, and my story is entitled, “Meet My Childhood Hero.”
Best as I can tell, I am speaking clearly. I am speaking slowly. I am speaking in a deep voice. I’m not stuttering, or mumbling. I pause emphatically. I look up to the audience and make eye contact. Best as I can tell, it’s going well.
“Easy enough,” I conclude, pausing emphatically. “Right?”
I smile sheepishly, roll up my story, and walk back to my seat. I sit down, neck warm, head spinning, and take a long tug on my beer. As the final reader starts her story (“Live Alone”), it occurs to me that, in a small way, I have succeeded in Mr. Rogers challenge. “Spread the deep and simple message, Benjamin,” he once said. And I have. And I feel good.
But I also feel sad. I miss him. I wish I could call him, tell him, “I did it! I spread the message!” I wish he was still here.
Then I hear a voice in my head. “I’m right here, Benjamin.”
I return to Earth.