"You're That Guy!"
February 28, 2022
May, 2000. The French Quarter. Four of us staying at The Audubon Cottages, celebrating Lynn’s 50th. Bloody Marys to start the day, martini lunch, dinner at Maximo’s, Ray Brown w/ Nicholas Payton at Snug Harbor. Now it’s an hour after midnight and we’ve stopped at the corner of Royal and St. Peters, Rouses market, for snacks and bottles of water before heading back to the Cottages for a swim before bed. My companions are inside, I’m leaning against the post, watching the Saturday scene. I’m in my usual all black except for the oxblood cowboy boots. Black sportcoat, stylish black Stetson, black sunglasses. Two young women approach hesitantly. They might be even more lit than I am. One says to me, “You play guitar, don’t you?” “I do,” I answer truthfully. She turns excitedly to her friend, “I told you! He’s that guy!” Back to me, “Can we have your autograph?” “Sorry, no autographs.” This pisses them off. “But why?” she wails. “Sorry, I’m on vacation.” This is a non sequitur, but it’s still a true statement. I always try to stay truthful. The girls wander off in disgust. I imagine one of them tearing the poster of “that guy” off her bedroom wall. Who do they think I am?
This had been happening to me for several years. “You’re that guy” had become the tagline for a long unspooling of mistaken identity events.
Fifteen years earlier it certainly wouldn’t’ve happened. There’s a picture of me in DC. All my earlier edges had been smoothed. Responsible guy. Trim beard. Sensible hair, just starting to thin on top. No visible hint remaining of the long-haired teenager, his raggedy jeans (patches sewn by a sequence of girlfriends), his wispy beard and poet's shirts. Just responsible guy in chinos and a red sweater. I think I look lost. Struggling to be what I believed I needed to be. Guitar in its case under the bed.
In photos from the teenage years you can see my hair growing longer, by senior year longest of any of the boys. John Lennon glasses. At 15, I was living the counterculture. Sex, drugs, rock and roll. By 17, I looked it. I wasn’t wild, though. I wasn’t reckless. I was an excellent student and I loved schoolwork. Loved studying literature and philosophy and music. I was teenage stupid, but managed just enough caution to avoid getting into serious trouble. I embraced psychedelics, smoked marijuana every day, took some pills, but avoided needles and drugs that risked addiction. I was promiscuous, but I was a romantic and craved the infatuation as much as the sex. I cared very much what the girls I was involved with wanted or didn’t want. I was terrified of offending and being rejected, so I’m sure I was less forward sometimes than my potential partner might have wanted me to be.
So I was responsible studious guy and pot-smoking poetry-writing guitar-playing hippie as well. I didn’t feel conflicted about it. But as I aged into adulthood it seemed I had to choose. In my 20s, married, I had a serious job that required “making a good impression”. There were so many subtle rules about what that involved. I tried. Figured the guitar and the poetry had just been the toys of adolescence, as they were for so many others. I lasted ten years, and it nearly broke me. But the pull of poetry was strong, and the marriage that I’d been making the responsible choices for imploded. An ugly time, but it saved me.
There's a picture of me age four. On my rocking horse, cowboy boots, vest, and hat, brandishing my six guns. You can see that I took it very seriously. So call it a return to style in the early 90s when I dusted off the guitar, bought the boots, started singing with Liquid Prairie every Saturday happy hour at the Venice Café. When I went to Birmingham, fresh in love with Lynn, I bought the first black hat. The band was post-punk country, so the boots, the hat. And while the whim may have been to have props for the performance I found they suited me. They were comfortable. I looked in mirrors and recognized myself and that hadn’t been the case for a very long time. It’s around then that I started being mistaken for “that guy”.
Making the right impression still mattered though; I still had a serious job. I remember Neil telling me how Lyders had advised him, “An academic medical center is a hierarchy. You need to dress just a little better than the people you need to impress.” So on campus it was bespoke suits, elegant ties. Always appropriate to the setting. But when I travelled, including to professional meetings, I would loosen it up. The dark palette. The boots and hat. Still responsible guy, but the edges weren’t smooth. I was learning the value of eccentricity.
By the late 90s I’d gotten used to it. There was the time I’d gone to Asheville to sequester myself for a few days at a fine old inn (I stayed in the F. Scott Fitzgerald room) while I worked on a grant proposal. I saw that Bruce Cockburn was in town. The show’s sold out, but he’s a favorite of mine so I go anyway. The venue’s on the 2nd story of an old building and the line of waiting ticket holders stretches down the narrow stairs to the street. I walk up past the line to the guy who’s checking IDs and taking tickets. I’m all in black, except for my boots and my Parisian red scarf. The hat, the long black coat. I see the familiar flicker in the guy’s eyes as he takes it in. “I know you’re sold out,” I say, softly and very politely. “But is there any chance you could squeeze me in?” “Um, yeah,” he says, looking down the line of ticket holders and then back at me. “If you don’t mind sitting at the bar?” “That’d be great,” I tell him. He takes me in, shows me a spot from where I can look across the room to the stage. “Is this okay?” he’s still a touch uncertain. I assure him that it’s perfect, thank him again. He doesn’t ask for money. I’m not surprised, although every time something like this happens I’m still puzzled. Maybe they think it’s safer to do what I ask, just in case I really am that guy.
I used my eccentricities as deflection. Not a disguise exactly; more like some shelter and shielding that I could hide within and behind. As if the self I was calling attention to was actually standing a handful of inches to the side of the truer self I was unwilling to allow most people to see. Someone asked me once, in the days when I was blogging a couple of times a week, “What is it like revealing so much of yourself so publicly?” I laughed. “There is so much more that I don’t reveal. You only see what I choose. It’s hiding in plain sight.”
Eventually it became apparent that people were going to cling to their belief in that guy no matter what I might say. I never claimed anything that wasn't true, but even my flat denials just slotted into what people wanted to believe.
I'm sitting bar side at the Underground Wonderbar in Chicago, gently telling the guy I'm talking with that I am not a bass player and he is misremembering how great I was that day I sat in. Yeah, sure, he seems to be saying, I know you're not mostly a bass player, but you can really go on that thing can't you? No, I really can't, I laugh. He thinks I'm just being modest. 'Cause, you know, I'm that guy.
Another town. Another bar. "You're in a band," she says. "I am." "Where would I have seen you play?" "Not likely." "I'm sure I have."
Maybe the eccentricities were a way for me to get some of the rush of being that guy without having to bear all the burdens of really being “that guy”. Act like a Rockstar. Feel like a Rockstar. Get treated like one.
There’s a picture of me in Korea. 2007. I’m at the Lake Hills Hotel on the edge of Songnisan National Park. I’m here for a three day workshop where I’m the keynote speaker and the judge of a project competition among three teams of some of the sharpest young librarians Korea has produced – there was a national competition to get to attend this event. At dinner the previous night, Mr. Choi had been regaling me with tales of the Korean love of drinking and singing. “Mr. Scott sings,” says one of the young librarians. “He’s in a rock band.” “You must sing for us!” says Mr. Choi. I demur, “I’d need a guitar for that.” “But if we get a guitar you’ll sing?” “Sure.” We’re three and a half hours from Seoul in a little resort town. Where are they going to get a guitar? But by lunch the next day they've found one. After dinner I have my translator tell them the story of the lonely old woman, unable to leave her dreams, pleading for transformation. I sing Angel From Montgomery. I tell them about the years I was in St. Louis and Lynn was in Birmingham and what it was like to drive the eight hours from my house to hers, powered by love and longing. I sing Little Black Car. We stand for a picture, the young librarians on either side, me in the middle with the guitar. Boots, black jeans, black t-shirt, black hat. The picture floats in the internet forever. The next day they do their presentations and I declare the winner. In the evaluations they call me inspiring.
I rebelled at the obsession with work/life balance. All the pontificating self-help advice. Absurd to imagine them separable. I wanted an interwoven life, not one of “balance”. I was a librarian full-time, a grandfather full-time, an amateur musician full-time, a husband full-time. I wasn’t weighing these selves on a scale, trying to make sure no persona took more than its fair share of my time. My "work", my responsibilities as Director LHL, required a 24/7 mindset, but that didn’t mean I was doing library work 24/7. There was almost always time in any given day for me to shift from one facet of my life to another. The technology made it possible for me to travel the world, and still be on the job whenever (wherever) I was needed.
The Doe Lecture, given annually at the Medical Library Association convention, is a big deal. To be selected to give it is one of the Association’s highest honors. I assumed I’d be chosen at some point. I don’t think this was just ego. The lecturer is expected to make a major statement about the history and/or philosophy of medical librarianship. Wasn’t that my very brand? My reputation was built around the editorials in the Journal of the Medical Library Association, the postings on my blog, the presentations I gave. When I went out for my morning walks, I’d imagine the themes in the lecture I would give. Over the years those themes shifted to suit the changing times, but when the call finally came, I was ready. It’s a tradition among Doe Lecturers to comment on how intimidated they were by it. Not me. I’d been preparing for years.
By 2011, the year of my Doe, the annual migration of the Bearded Pigs had become a significant conference event. The band had gone from the few of us frolleagues getting together in an empty conference room to jam for an evening to a full-blown rock and roll event. Every year the crowd was bigger. There were posters, t-shirts, buttons. And the schedule being what it was the gig that year was the night before the lecture. I was happy about that.
I walked into the ballroom at eight in the morning for soundcheck. Impeccably dressed. Ostrich skin dress boots, black button fly Levi’s, tailored black shirt and sportcoat, the Nicole Miller magazine tie, the Stetson. Carrying a guitar case. Definitely that guy. We’d finished playing around 11, took an hour to tear down, went back to the room for a couple hours of whiskey winddown. I’d managed four hours of sleep, a refreshing shower. I had a buzzy hangover and was feeling fueled by adrenalin. I was excited. I was eager. I’d never been so prepared for a performance.
I like professional sound guys. They’re easy to work with. They looked askance at the guitar case, but I said, “I’m not going to play it – I’m just using it for a prop.” We went through the cues so that we all knew what to expect.
It was important to me that there be people who’d been to the gig the night before seeing me now delivering this lecture. I wanted newer librarians in particular to see it. That the music wasn’t some kind of side hustle that was a hobbyistic diversion from my more important life work. That I could give myself completely to performing with my band one night and give a completely different and thoroughly committed solo performance the next day. That one was not more important to my life than the other. That we can all contain multitudes.
Ana (last year’s lecturer) did the introduction. I walked out, put my hat on the podium. Signaled to Bruce, waiting in the wings. He came out with my guitar and a stand, set it down next to me. “I’m not going to play it,” I said to the giggles in the crowd. “I’m just more comfortable when I’ve got it nearby.” As if I could make it any clearer that this guy, about to give a lecture to a ballroom of a couple thousand people, was the exact same guy as that guy, who’d been playing guitar and singing to a couple hundred people just ten hours before. It went off without a hitch. I was very good.
Most people are flabbergasted when I tell them I’m very shy and extremely introverted. “But... but... how do you...?”
It’s all just performance, I tell them. As long as I have a role to play, and a persona to suit that role, as long as the constraints are just right, I can play the part.
“But how did you get over your stage fright?”
It’s true. Over the top anxiety before every performance, whether with the band, or doing a talk to a thousand people, or running a meeting of a dozen colleagues. What I eventually learned was that I was good at it anyway. It might feel as if the ground was going to open up before my feet and swallow me, but in fact that never happened and was almost certainly not going to happen this time. Knowing that didn’t change the anxiety I felt about it. But it enabled me to keep doing it.
My hands might tremble as I approached the mic, but once I uttered the first sentence of my talk, or brought my arm down for the first guitar chord, the anxiety shifted. No longer driving fear, it was energy. It was energy I could tap into and use. I could be that guy.
I was good onstage, but informal situations were always rough. Cocktail parties, lunches, receptions. I did a lot of those during the years I was Director LHL, and I was very bad at it. I knew how to do it – knew how to ask questions that would get someone talking about themselves in ways that made me seem like a great conversationalist, but I could rarely get myself to do it. To ask questions like that of someone I didn’t know or barely knew felt intrusive, rude. I knew that it wasn’t, under the circumstances; knew that most people would welcome it, knew that it showed I was taking an interest in them. But it was still almost impossibly hard for me to manage.
For example, checking my calendar one evening I saw I was booked for a lunch reception at the alumni house. There were events like this at least once a month, chances for people in the community to mingle with University leadership in hopes of attaining some mutual benefit. I couldn’t remember the specifics of this one. I looked up the invite/command from the President’s office inviting/instructing me to attend. It was a gathering of local estate planners who were coming to get an update on some of the fantastic things we were doing at the University.
Okay, I get it. My job, then, at lunch, will be to make sparkling conversation about what we’re doing, drawing out the interests of my tablemates, in hopes that when they’re discussing wills with their clients they’ll suggest including UAB as a beneficiary. Like I said, I knew how to do this. I was just uncomfortable with it. Hated it, in fact. But as I drove to the alumni house I decided that I would try pretending to be the kind of guy who enjoyed this sort of thing. After all, I knew how that guy would act. I even knew how they would feel about it. The rush of pleasure they’d get from connecting with people, from getting to know new people, from representing their institution well. I’d seen those men and women in action many times, envied their confidence and poise. Maybe they were just acting as well?
I did a good job with that one, which is why it sticks in memory. I even kinda enjoyed it, but that may just have been the feeling of relief that I’d pulled it off. But it was exhausting. It was by no means “fun”. I couldn’t manage it very often.
And so I bumbled my way through the years of my career. Not exactly faking it. What does it mean to be one’s authentic self? Frisse said that Lynn has whole cities inside her. She told me once that she managed her relationships by just giving people those parts of herself she thought they could handle. Always authentic, but (until me) never revealing too much. She might be more intentional about it than most, but isn’t it what we all do?
People are complicated. Bundles of contradictory selves, passions and promises pulling us in different directions. It’s funny how we demand such consistency in the people that we’re judging, as if the self that caught our attention is the only self that person has, and how we feel about just a few of that self’s actions gives us leave to pronounce judgment on their entire life. Never thinking how outraged we’d be if someone judged us with that same cruel simplicity.
Our complexities can frighten and confuse us. Our desires can cause damage, regret. I wanted to learn to live a life in which the best of me was upfront, where my strengths could compensate for my weaknesses, where I could do more good than harm. Where I could find safety and boldness in equal measure. Where there could be room for the best of all of the guys I might ever be. Where I could hide my terrors in plain sight.
New Orleans again. Different year. A pretty fall afternoon. Royal is blocked off and there’s a very good street band playing. Pretty good crowd. I’m standing off to the side, watching, listening. The bass player notices me, gives a little nod. I nod back. I can tell he thinks I’m somebody he should know. When they take a break I go up and drop a 20 in the tip bucket. “Thanks!” says the singer as I start to turn away. “Wait,” she says. “You’re a guitar player!”
“I am,” I bow slightly in acknowledgment but keep turning.
“I know you!” says someone in the crowd.
“Probably not,” I laugh and keep walking. I wave without turning around. Later, they’ll be sitting around the bar, talking with friends. “And that guy – I just can’t place him – he dropped a twenty dollar bill in the bucket and just walked away!” “Pretty cool,” says the friend, raising a glass. “Here’s to that guy.”
Years ago I quit wearing the boots when they became too heavy for my crippled legs. But the rest of the outfit remains. We were out for dinner during our Door County vacation a few months ago. We were nearing the end of the meal when our waiter handed me a note someone had given him for me. “Sir, what instrument do you play? -- Dan” I look around the room, baffled. Lynn just laughs, “You’re that guy!” Man at a nearby table fesses up that the note’s from him. “Guitar and harmonica,” I tell him. He’s a guitar fan, looks like a businessman. He wants to know, “What’s your #1?” I tell him it’s the ’52 Telecaster. That’s not entirely true, but it impresses guitar nerds. I tell him about the Telecasters all being gifts from Lynn, how when she looked askance as I kept shopping guitars after she gave me the engagement present Thinline I pointed at the ring on her finger and said, “you think that’s the last piece of jewelry I’m ever going to give you?” He laughs, thanks me, leaves. Lynn is delighted. I’m just amused.
Y’know that game, “if you could be anybody else...” “if you could be living at any other time...”? Never made sense to me. I could never come up with anybody I’d rather be or any time I’d rather be living. I’ve never wanted to be anybody that I’m not. I’m still trying to work it out. Being me. I glance again at the mirror. That guy.