2.30 Mr. Puddles
The idea of identity is nothing new. The concept of understanding who we are at a base level has probably been going on from the first thought that popped into someone’s head. Naturally, I have empirical evidence to back this up. There are many instances and situations where our identity gets lost in the shuffle. Have you ever had a colleague at work who you thought was a jerk? And one day, you run into this jerk outside of the work environment, and find out they are a human being? Their identity at work was two dimensional, lowered in your mind to the point where the only adjective associated with them was the jerkiness and not the three dimensional human being-ness.
The most I ask for is allowing my identity to be malleable in a given situation but retain some semblance of my core ideals. But I guess you have to be aware of your core ideals.
Over the past year I have been studying performing artists such as actors, standup comedians and storytellers. Outside of their performance, they continually talk about finding their voice on stage or behind the podium. I know what this means on the surface, but in a deeper sense, it is quite an abstract concept. What I can decipher is they are trying to transfer their identity from the private to the public. The most successful performers claim they are more in touch with their true self on stage than in their day-to-day lives. They have managed to tap into their core identity and present their humour or acting abilities or music without any filters. It is truth.
How does an actor portray a character separate from their core identity, yet inject a dosage of themselves into the performance? When a musician lets go of technique and loses themselves in the emotive quality of their instrument, the performance transitions from satisfactory proficiency to an experience.
Standup comedians are the most fascinating performers. They are being judged by the audience with every joke. Some of the very best ones often use their own lives as material. This sounds insane to me. They stand up in front of an audience and make fun of their lives and their wives and their children. They do this to find their voice. Through finding their voice, they find their identity. Voice = identity.
The comedian George Carlin started performing in 1959. His identity changed dramatically from clean-cut comedian to hippy to cranky old man. Through it all, he was always George Carlin and he was almost always funny. He stated in his autobiography that he felt he didn’t find his voice until the 1990s. Thirty-one years. Perhaps the most important element in finding your voice is patience.
The condo development I live in resembles row townhouses. They are maze-like and have a U-shaped driveway that runs around the complex. One afternoon, I was walking along the driveway when a car pulled up and stopped. A young woman dressed in black got out of the car and approached me.
“Mr. Jankowski?” She asked.
I stopped, looked around. Have you ever thought of being someone else?
“Yes,” I said.
“Great,” she said. “Please follow me.”
The woman held the back door open for me. I got into the black car and the man driving eyed me in the rearview mirror, nodded. The woman walked around the back of the car and opened-shut the passenger side door. We pulled away and the woman turned to face me.
“It’s nice to meet you Mr. Jankowski,” she said. “My name’s Jennifer, I'm Malcolm’s daughter. This is my husband Owen. The celebration is at our house. Malcolm would have been happy to know you're coming.”
Jennifer turned around to face forward. I looked out the window, wondered who Mr. Jankowski was and where we were going. We drove in silence for about ten minutes and pulled into a driveway of a mid-sized suburban house. The street was lined with parked cars and as soon as I threw open the door, three dogs rushed me, jumping and nipping near my crotch area.
Owen, the driver, yelled at the dogs and pulled them back. Jennifer led me through the opened garage and into the backyard. There was a sullen party in full swing. About twenty guests mulled around three tables of finger food.
Jennifer was called away and I sauntered over to one of the tables. My hunger overtook me and I grabbed some crispy crab cakes. I stepped back from the crowd and surveyed the strange scene. People of all ages were present and it might have been my imagination, but it seemed for every guest, there was a dog. One guest leaned down, feeding a pug some mini-egg rolls. A cocker spaniel kept jumping at one of the food tables. A bulldog urinated on a child’s foot. The guests all wore black and a Boston terrier wore a black tuxedo-like slip on suit that covered his torso. My patience with people who put clothes on their dogs is limited, but I must admit the tuxedoed-terrier was sharp-looking and made me seem severely underdressed.
Jennifer approached me. “Mr. Jankowski, I'm surprised you didn't bring your dog.”
“Oh, I don’t have a dog - um,” I caught myself. “He’s with his mother right now.”
“Duel custody?” She asked.
I paused and slowly replied: “Yes.”
“That’s too bad,” Jennifer said. “I hope it doesn’t traumatize him to have two households. I know a good therapist, if you need one.”
“I’m sorry? No, I don't need a therapist,” I said.
“For the dog,” she said. “If he’s really depressed, they might prescribe some meds.”
I had so many questions. But before I could ask if the dog sits on the floor or couch of the therapists office, Jennifer was called to the podium in front of the tables. She thanked everyone for coming and spoke about the event.
I needed some more crispy crab cakes.
Apparently, her father Malcolm passed away last week from a long battle with Cancer. At this point, she referred to a covered poster resting on display stilts beside her. She unveiled it to show a portrait of a dog - Mr. Puddles. The dog didn't last a week after Malcolm passed away. Mr. Puddles died of a broken heart. One of Malcolm’s last wishes was to have a wake for his best friend of many years.
Finally, it all made sense. The pugs, the tuxedo, the crispy crab cakes. This was a funeral for a dog. The only missing piece: where did Mr. Jankowski fit in?
Brow furrowed, I thoughtfully stuffed a crispy crab cake into my mouth when Jennifer said, “I would like to invite Mr. Jankowski to the podium to talk about Mr. Puddles. Although none of us ever met Mr. Jankowski before today, my father often spoke about how they would meet up everyday for the last twenty years in the park. Their dogs were the best of friends.”
A crispy crab cake went down the wrong pipe and I almost choked.
I smiled and slowly made my way up to the podium. If anyone did the calculations and factored in my lack of wrinkles, they should have put together that I met Malcolm twenty years ago when I was about ten years old. I cleared my throat and looked out over the crowd of people and dogs. I was about to come clean, tell them I wasn't Mr. Jankowski. But when I looked at them, I realized that it didn’t matter. I reached down deep into myself, found my core sensitivity, searched my identity and wrapped it in the voice of Mr. Jankowski. They didn’t want me – they needed Mr. Jankowski.
And at that moment, I became Mr. Jankowski.
“They say a dog is a man’s best friend,” I started, glancing dramatically at the portrait beside me. “Mr. Puddles was more than a friend. I remember fondly watching him play with my own dog, um – Parker, who couldn’t be here with us, but sends his regards - and how they would frolic along in the sun or in the snow. Roll around on the ground together, chase squirrels together. While Malcolm and I would go over the day, talk about the news, talk about our families. He would often talk about you, Jennifer, and cherished all that you gave him.” She had tears in her eyes - I was really selling it.
Just as I was finding the fullest, most complete sense of my voice, a large bearded collie couldn’t take it anymore and tackled a food table. A Doberman pinscher and two twin Teddy Roosevelt Terriers took the bearded collie’s lead and there went the remaining crispy crab cakes. Jennifer thanked me and the wake broke up after the table incident. They drove me back to my condo development and said it was nice to meet me.
As I walked back to my house, an older man approached me. He held a leash and a small dog walked beside him. Mr. Jankowski. I called out to him, leaned down, scratched his dog behind the ear. I told Mr. Jankowski about the passing of his friend Malcolm and Mr. Puddles. I gave him Jennifer’s phone number. I watched them walk away and thought, Isn’t it wonderful that they still have each other?
Sometimes being yourself under someone else’s persona for a day gives you a rest from your own life. It can take you out of your self and deepen your understanding of who you are, of what you have to say. It can help you find your voice. I never met Mr. Puddles, but I will always have fond memories of him.