I haven't always been the calm, self-assured celebrity you see before you. In fact, I'm not now. But that's beside the point: I'm here to tell you how it all began. My "big break"; my "discovery"...
We lived out in the sticks when I was a child. I blame my lack of childhood friends on this. My school was the nearest one to us, and it was a good 15 miles - and that was on a cool day. Heat expansion often stretched the journey out to 16 miles. And while my parents were not poor, I certainly was. When I got to that certain, magical age, I wanted to drive to school. Funnily enough, my parents didn't want to drive me, either. But, insurance for a 16-year-old boy is astronomically high. (How astronomically high? Click here.) So my father determined that I should pay my own insurance. And, in order to pay for insurance, I needed a job.
Since I had a pretty full after-school schedule, between band, choir, theater productions, and - uh... something really tough and manly I used to do that would scare you too much to mention here - it was difficult to find the right job.
Then one day, I noticed that one of my fellow band-geeks was working behind the lines in the cafeteria. I asked about the job, liked the terms, and filled out an application. It didn't pay much, but it was enough to make my dad happy. And I got a free lunch every day that I worked. Sweet!
It didn't start out very glamorously. I was a dismal failure at kitchen duty. At home, mom would ask me to help, and after a few clatters, a couple of knife drops, and a little broken glass, she would invariably tell me the same thing: "Go tell your father he wants you." But a school cafeteria's cookware is very durable, and can survive quite a bit of abuse from a high schooler. So with a bit of persistence, patience, and a smidgen of yelling, I got the hang of things.
After a short while, I even found my niche, my place in the universe, my Special Purpose: They made me the fry guy.
It started with a simple task: put the french fries into the paper bowls, and hand them out. Somehow, this tiny bit of social interaction brought out the showman in me. I discovered, welling from deep within my bosom, this amazing gift of repartee! I found 1,000 ways to say "would you like fries with that" and provoke a giggle. My portions became famous ("Dude, he really piled them on!") and my delivery became as polished as the reachable sections of the Blarney Stone.
My God, it was a wonderful time that I looked forward to each day. Girls smiled at me! Guys did that super-cool head-nod thing (and refrained from threatening me with bodily harm). By and large, my classmates - most of whom wouldn't have dignified me with their loathing if I had asked for it, before - actually liked to be served by me. I became a minor high school celebrity. The Fry Guy.
This position of respect led to a few new skills, as well. The boss-lady let me operate the fryer, and I learned the importance of keeping clean, fresh oil heated to just the right temperature. I learned the exact right amount of time to leave the fries down, and how long they would need to drain before serving them up.
Not only did I have insurance money, respect, and a future in the food services, I had fun. I learned how valuable my "enjoy everything" attitude was by volunteering for the seemingly mundane tasks of washing up, and was rewarded by getting asked to do really prestigious jobs, like washing out the 50 gallon cook-pot on chili or beef stew days. (You haven't lived until you've sung "I Am the Pirate King" from inside a suds-filled cauldron. It is, it is a glorious thing!) Truly, I had "arrived".
One fine day, riding on a cresting wave of popularity, and feeling on top of the world as I handed out perfectly crisped and golden potato strings to my fans and admirers, a cloud crossed over the sun. A sulky blond-haired girl came through the line, and glumly took a basket of my now-famous fries... and didn't smile. I made some witty remark - I'm sure it was VERY suave and tasteful - and instead of warming to my charm, she stared into my face with widening eyes, dropped her tray and stormed out of the cafeteria line at a near run.
I shrugged it off; every comedian has to learn to deal with hecklers. No biggie, right? It wasn't, until she came back with three large friends. The largest (but not the tallest) of them leaned over the sneeze guard, seriously encroaching on my personal space.
"Is your name 'Tom'?" she demanded.
"No," I squeaked, manfully.
"Are you sure?" she asked, taken aback. She looked confused, like when a dog licks ice for the first time. Then she turned positively fierce, and snarled, "A guy named Tom got my friend, here, pregnant!" She put her fists on her hips and seemed to be challenging me to answer for my crimes. The other two moved up to flank her, and the blond cowered behind all three of them, peeking out at me furtively.
I was at a loss for words. And, truly, it was as much a sense of shock that I couldn't speak that was keeping me from speaking as anything else. I visualized my mouth as a logjam in the North country, with lots of bearded, en-flanneled miniature Tad-loggers stumbling and slipping on the conflicting idea-logs of fear, outrage, and ill-advised amusement that were trying to flume out of my throat.
One thing I knew: a joke at this point could be fatal.
The situation called for dignity and respect, and so I drew myself to my full 5' 2" height, and looking the bully straight in the eye. "Do you know what I would have to have done with your friend for her to be pregnant?" I asked her. She nodded, again looking surprised that things had not come to blows yet. "Well, I know what I would have to have done, and I have never done that. With anyone. And if I had, I most certainly would have done my best to remember it."
They looked at each other, and at the blond girl, who reappraised me with a bit more confidence, now. What had she to fear of a virgin? She shrugged, and left, her friends straggling out behind her. The big one turned around one more time, though, and stuck out a finger.
"I better not find out you're really Tom," she said. She never really looked away; she just slipped out backwards, and the last I ever saw of any of them was her menacing index finger, waggling in the doorway.
And that, my friends, is why to this very day, I am still not Tom.