Being from Ohio and living in Los Angeles there's a ritual you go through when people ask, "Where are you from?" In reality, I happen to be from Warren — that delightful salmagundi of decaying steel mills and farm country. But to people in Los Angeles, I am from Ohio, outside of Cleveland, from the town of "NotShakerHeights."
For some reason, people in Los Angeles only know people from Shaker Heights, so the ritual is always the same, "I'm from Ohio. Outside of Cleveland. Not Shaker Heights."
Angelenos all know where "NotShakerHeights" is. It's not far from "WhoCares, Indiana" and "I — Can't — Tell — The — Difference, Ohio/Iowa."
And that's about all the mental real estate that Ohio gets on the coast. It's a faraway place. It's the exotic of the mundane ("Look at the natives at the Giant Eagle in dad jeans and Dawg Pound sweatshirts"). Everyone knows it exists, but no one cares about it. Sort of like men's professional tennis.
In fact, the only time people in L.A. mention the Midwest is when they reference "good Midwestern values" — which is said in the same way girls talk about their unattractive friend's "big heart" or "great personality."
But those Midwestern values are actually something to be celebrated. I am so glad I spent my formative years in Northeast Ohio. Growing up in the sleepy suburbs, adulthood wasn't thrust upon us. Fun was still age-appropriate, and kids could be kids, which meant wanting to do adult things like drink and have sex.
My senior year of high school I was in the student production of Ten Little Indians by Agatha Christie. In my current profession, I am comfortably and cowardly ensconced behind the camera shouting, "Do it like this!" but back then, I was acting. Why? I don't know. Maybe for the same reason everyone else does it: to try to hook up with chubby theater girls with low self-esteem.
This play had a student director, my friend Ted, who also now lives in L.A. and is an Emmy-nominated writer and exec producer of a hit show. But back then he was just Ted, the guy who didn't want to go into a freshman soccer game so he claimed he couldn't untie the knot on his sweatpants. But that's another story.
In this story, he's directing this play and I was one of the leads — the elderly and venerable Justice Wargrave, who craftily murders everyone and then writes a note about it to the authorities, because there was no Facebook back then.
The Saturday afternoon before the play was going up there were two run-throughs: one for the actors and then a tech run-through. It was a full rehearsal, which meant full makeup and wardrobe. Which meant I was transformed from a skinny, short 16-year-old to a short, fat 60-year-old man — complete with a tweed jacket and vest, a pillow in my belly for a fat suit, spectacles and a pipe.
I wore caked-on, old-person makeup that was exactly high-school quality, and I had that crappy graying spray in my hair that basically looks like someone grated duct tape over your head.
There was time to kill between rehearsals, and since the chubby girls who do theater were having nothing to do with us, my friends Rob, Dave and I were doing what we specialized in — hanging out with each other by default. And that's when it happened. Where most people looked at me and saw a teenager trying to look cool in a fat suit, my friends saw an opportunity...
"We should try to buy beer."
To give you a little context, it was 1987, the drinking age had gone up a few years back, and Ohio ID cards (two for $5 at Terminal Tower) had ceased to be useful, as every bouncer and liquor store clerk in the state had seen enough pimply faced teens swearing they were 22 but didn't drive.
Aspiring underage drinkers were left with very few options other than raiding their parents' liquor cabinets and refilling the bottles with water. (I swear we gave one of my friend's dad's a drinking problem. "I've had two martinis and I don't feel a thing.")
So off to the liquor store we went. Rob drove. Dave came because one of two things was about to happen — beer for him, or me being chased out of a liquor store and arrested for impersonating Peter Ustinov. He was down with either.
In the liquor store parking lot we had a quick powwow about my final look. Me: I think I should bring the pipe. Rob: Leave the pipe out of it. Me: Old people have pipes. It's authentic.
Dave: It has no pipe tobacco in it. Me: So? Dave: So you think people who smoke pipes walk around with an empty pipe all the time? When you're not eating do you just go about your day holding an empty plate?
They fussed over my hair and makeup and concluded I could maybe pass for an old person... in the dark, if the person I bumped into was himself an old person. "Don't get too close to anyone. And put the fucking pipe away."
Before I could protest, they took the pipe and pushed me out the door.
As I walked anxiously up to the store, I mentally prepared myself for the role ...I was going to have to do my best "old person." So I summoned up all my life experience and settled on a frown, as that was the face I had seen old people do the most. I also thought it made me look old, but intelligent. The facial equivalent of the tweed vest I sported.
I walked in, quickly sussed out the cashier. As everyone who's ever bought alcohol underage knows, it all depends on the cashier. She was in her 20s, chunky, stolid. If I came back in twenty years I might see her rooted to the same spot. I nodded at her, giving her my best intelli-frown and she said, "Hello."
She said "Hello." Not "Nice get up," or "Going to a costume party?" or "Hey kid, get your fake old ass out of here."Maybe this could work.
I grabbed a grocery cart and headed for the beer section. I harrumphed and stood in front of the case, summoning my courage and thinking this would have been a perfect place to pull out that pipe. Then, with nervous, over-acted nonchalance I put a case of beer in the cart.
No alarm bells. No S.W.A.T. team.So I put another case in. And another. Then I started grabbing individual tall boys, all along harrumphing and scratching my chin like a professor.
The cart was full of beer, 67 in all. This was crazy. It couldn't have looked more like I was on a bender. To counter that, I cleverly grabbed a bag of chips. One bag. We didn't have that much money and I knew I couldn't waste it on non-beer items.
It was a tepid attempt at making my intentions seem more honorable, like when drivers pretend to be lost when they cut to the front of a left-hand turn lane at an intersection.
Now for the moment of truth. I trundled back toward the cashier with my 67 beers and the lonely bag of Ruffles. Under my fat pillow I was a sweating like tomorrow sweat would be illegal.The cashier hardly looked up. "Did you find everything okay?"
There was a long beat as I stood there. "I left my pipe in the car." I winced as my inner voice screamed, "Oh shut up you stupid asshole!"
The cashier looked at me ... and started to RING UP THE BEERS. I forced my bewildered smile back to an old-man frown. She did not ask for I.D. Holy hot Christ!
I made sure to avoid the sunlight spilling from the upper windows so the graying flecks in my hair didn't sparkle like a disco ball. Then I croaked out, "Thank you, young lady."
Really? I said that? "You're welcome," she replied as she made change. She bought it! And I had bought beer. I pushed my cart out the door, waddling out into the sunlight, legs straightening out like Keyser Soze.
We brought the spoils back to the theater. Everyone in the cast and crew was sneaking beers until the entire production was a wobbly, giggly mess. And Dave got his face almost chewed off by one of the chubby theater girls.
Not surprisingly the tech rehearsal was a loopy fiasco. And when Ted found out why, he was pissed. Not because we were drunk, but because he was not. No one in high school likes to be suddenly seen as the authority figure.
Twenty-five years later ... I don't remember anything about how the play was received. My performance is literally unmemorable. Even to me. But I'll always remember the star turn I gave at that liquor store.
And I'll always be grateful I grew up in Ohio where kids can still be kids, even if that means being an old man.
Jeff Schaffer is the co-creator, with his wife Jackie, and director of The League.
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