Not really. I wanted to be a scientist. At least when I was in second grade. I stuck with that generic aspiration for many years. It gradually solidified into a sincere desire to become an oceanographer. Which happened sometime during junior high school; Jacque Cousteau had a profound effect on my life.
I didn’t want to be a writer.
Although I’d always put words on paper. There’s a story about a ghost I wrote in primary school among the few things I treasure. In junior high, my writing talents were recognized when I won a short story contest sponsored by Scholastic Magazine. And I remember one of the teachers telling my mom about a story I wrote while studying Gulliver’s Travels in tenth grade English. She was impressed by my ability to find two different ways to refer to a bug, using insect the first time and creature the second.
Book reports, poetry, stories. I never found it difficult to generate a piece of literature for school assignments. I can’t say that I did any writing in my spare time. Which I didn’t have that much of, actually. Sports, band, theater; I was pretty much booked.
I mean, I really didn’t want to be a writer.
So what the hell was I doing, sitting in a bookshop in Manhattan with a dozen other writers, waiting to see if my name would be drawn from the Magic Hat, dreading the fact that if it was, I’d have four minutes to tell an eight minute story?
It wasn’t a whim, believe me. Let’s go back a few years.
I was living in Lansing, working at a company that processed low-income insurance applications for the State of Michigan. I had also been composing music for a local dance troupe in my off hours. Usually that was enough to give my creative side room to play. Not this time. There was something about the whole process that was too easy. I needed another outlet, something challenging.
Back in the 90’s I spent several months working on short screenplays with a good friend. I was living in San Francisco. That experience isn’t among my top ten most enjoyable. He would tell the story, with a little help from me, then it was my job to write it down in the acceptable Hollywood format. I think we were smoking too much pot in those days, because getting the whole scenario out of him was like trimming your hair without a mirror: difficult, potentially painful, and the results weren’t always what you expected.
He moved away, I stayed. And worked my creative fingers to the bone writing music for choreographers. That was something I liked to do, a skill I’d learned while living in Denver. Music poured out of my body, as it had since I first laid my hands on a piano keyboard. Playing while dancers whirled and capered next to me seemed to pull the notes from somewhere near my breastbone, up through my arms, and out my hands.
I didn’t go back to my pen until I got the urge to write a musical. That took a full year to finish, including songs. At first, no one outside the small group of vocalists and sound engineers who’d helped me produce the soundtrack even knew it existed. That changed when I decided it was good enough to show other people. I even gave a copy to a coworker when she said her old high school choir director was looking for material. I started writing more songs with lyrics, putting out a cassette tape of my best work. I hired someone to design the cover, and a company to mass produce it. Ninety Degrees in the Shade. Not a big seller.
Then my mom became too sick to negotiate everyday chores without help. I became her primary care giver, moving back to the house I grew up in. Keeping a journal was almost an afterthought. I don’t know that it did me any good; writing about the almost year-long experience made it seem both more and less real.
It would take several more years - and a full-length screenplay - for me to feel like I was ready to make writing into an ambition. I’d gotten enough practice. Especially with dialogue.
But what to write? I was talking to my sister one day when she casually mentioned that she’d been going through a bunch of letters we found neatly stored in a cardboard box after my mom died. They were written during the Second World War. Love letters from my father, mostly. She let me take a look. Reading them was a revelation. Our dad was not much of a talker. And he certainly didn’t spend much time telling stories about his days in the Service. These letters opened his life to me. I immediately thought about turning them into a book.
It took me a couple weeks to read each letter. There were hundreds, from everywhere and everyone: my mom’s cousins, siblings, some of her suitors, aunts, uncles, friends. I picked the most interesting and started typing them into my computer. More weeks passed. And still more, when I decided to ignore everything that wasn’t related to my parents.
Finally, I had something. A tale of how my father, one of the most dispassionate men you’d ever meet, won my mother’s heart with some of the most ardent missives ever sent through the U.S. Army mail service.
I submitted the finished product to a publisher that specialized in Michigan stories. They sent me a cordial letter citing the sad shape of the economy as a reason not to “take a financial risk at this time.” No problem. I got plenty of experience during my songwriting days in handling rejection. I needed time to think about what I could do to make it better. And what my next project would be.
That’s when I put my keyboard up for sale. One call, a quick demo for the man who wanted to replace the organ in his church, and I was halfway to amassing enough money to keep me alive for at least a month in New York City. Where did that idea come from? I wasn’t exactly sure, but it had something to do with fulfilling a dream; if there was any place to become a writer, the Big Apple was it. Don’t they say, “If you can make it there…?” And if I didn’t go now, I never would. It wasn’t like I had a wife and kids to support or a job that couldn’t muddle on without me.
With as much money in the bank as I could squeeze out of the rest of my possessions - an antique guitar, some electronic gear, many CDs and DVDs - I donned my leather motorcycle jacket, strapped on a backpack stuffed with as much in the way of clothing as would fit, and jumped on a Greyhound bus.
Sitting comfortably, gazing out the window, I had lots of time to think about what form of literature I wanted to tackle. Letting my mind wander led me to seriously consider following the advice of all those people who, after listening to me talk about my semi-crazed life, said “You should write a book!”
But what stories to include? Before I bought my bus ticket I gave myself a task: find some courage. I was about to do something that, frankly, scared the crap out of me. I was too old for this kind of adventure. Or was I? Tapping into my memories, dredging up the way I felt during the experiences that had burned them into my brain, I started to feel my mental age decrease, and my bravado increase, each time I hit on a particularly vivid tale: first skydive, first drug overdose, first time I got to third base with a girl.
By the time the bus pulled into the Port Authority station, I was feeling like a bold, brash young man again. A man with dozens of stories to tell, some of which had to do with my tendency to abandon what most people would say was a perfectly fine life in search of yet another shot of adrenaline. An addiction I acquired when I was five years old while hanging from the clothesline pole in my parents' backyard.
But that’s another story, for another time.
During my first experience with New York - part of a wild, cross-country road trip in ’06 - I ran around the city until my feet were blistered, taking in as many events as possible, exploring a city that is a world in itself. Now I had to focus. Apartment, job, in that order.
Heading into Manhattan, I picked up one of the many free newspapers from a metal stand next to the subway entrance. I was familiar with what it had to offer: news, gossip, event calendars. And classified ads. The one that caught my eye was half an inch square. A tiny picture of a furnished room, with the promise of a low weekly rent. I was on the phone as soon as I got off the train.
Which I got right back on as soon as I’d spoken to the agency that placed the ad. A quick trip on the A express train to a small office in upper West Harlem. When they asked where in the five boroughs I wanted to live, I said, “I kind of like it right here.” The neighborhood was a block up from Riverside Drive. I could see New Jersey directly across the Hudson. It took a little over twenty minutes to sign the papers, pay the fee, and get the address.
148th and Broadway, 5th floor. Not a great-looking building, broken tile, a bit on the filthy side, covered in the kind of dirt that comes from decades of wear, grime that you couldn’t remove without a sandblaster. Up in the rickety elevator, knock on the door.
“Who”? A voice from the other side.
I scrutinized the business card the guy at the agency gave me, “They sent me over from NYC Rooms For Rent. Are you Belkys?”
A bolt lock clicked open and the door swung back to reveal an old man, maybe five foot five, his shoulder-length, grey hair tied back in a ponytail.
“Come on,” he said, his words flavored with a Spanish accent.
I followed him down a narrow hallway. We passed one door and stopped at the next. He used a key to open it. Not much: a bed, a television on a wooden stand, and a tiny refrigerator. And someone else’s belongings. He immediately began gathering them into his arms.
“My grandson,” he said. “He’s not here now.”
“That’s fine.” I still had one more night reserved at the hostel where I landed my first day in town. “Let me give you the deposit now, then I’ll move in tomorrow.”
He dropped a suitcase and said, “Oh, I tell my wife.”
I waited as he disappeared into the rear of the large apartment. The place was as ragged as the lobby. But clean. My new landlord returned with a woman even shorter than him.
“She says you pay the rent,” he said.
“I’ll pay the rent when I move in,” I explained. “Deposit today; rent tomorrow.”
A rapid-fire exchange in Spanish, the old lady waving her hands around, then silence.
The old guy looked at me and said, “OK. Give me the money.”
I did, the old woman scanning my face for deception. She said something to her husband, he snapped back. They were still bickering as the door closed and locked behind me.
Jumping right into the New York scene, I wrote sketches for a tiny theater company, joined a couple writers groups - one in Brooklyn, one in Manhattan - and made a habit of reading my work at different venues around the city. The instant feedback from an audience sharpened my style, bringing out a unique voice I never knew I had.
Finishing my book while doing all that and toiling for several temp agencies in a dozen or so companies over the span of two and a half years turned out to be a lot of work. But the reward of self-publishing Not Another Danger Boy - the volume of short stories named after my adventure-loving alter ego - was well worth the sacrifice.
Which brings us back to my effort to make connections at an independent bookshop in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan.
“Dan, come on down!” shouted the host of the No Name story slam.
Clearing my throat, I walked to the Word Up bookstore stage, grateful that I’d had plenty of time to whittle the anecdote I was planning to read down to a version that would fit the format. The whole Magic Hat thing was a total surprise. A last minute change the host dreamed up on her way to the shop.
I stood at the microphone and told what was essentially a new story, embellishing it with gestures and vocal inflections that I made up on the spot. All while watching the host out of the corner of my eye as she consulted her stopwatch to make sure I didn’t go over the time limit. Somehow I wrapped things up with ten seconds to spare, took a quick bow to a smattering of applause, and scurried back to my seat.
Not my best performance, but it turned out to be the culmination of a process that began a couple of months earlier. I’d attended or participated in several events either held at or sponsored by this particular store. So when I ran into the owner at a friend’s art opening shortly after the No Name show I had no problem asking if she would carry my book.
I recently had one of the clerks there take a picture of me holding it near the Local Authors section.
Dreams. Everybody has them. Even if you don’t know they’re there. Sometimes you find them, sometimes they find you. The trick is to know when it’s right to go after them.
From my experience, that time is always now.
Dan Combs was born in Pontiac, MI where he was adopted by a loving couple. He grew up in Lansing, and after eighteen years began following his inner wanderer around the U.S. and - so far - Europe. Musician, Composer, Screenwriter, Playwright; currently living in Manhattan and loving every opportunity New York City offers.