Saturday, March 26, 2016

The "Real" Smo

So there it was, staring me in the face as I entered the bathroom of a non-descript office building in Irvine, California.
No Smo ing.
The K in the no smoking sign was gone.  Not an issue for most people as there isn’t anywhere to smoke in California anyway and people don’t sneak into the boy’s room to smoke anymore either.  But this sign now meant something deeper. To me. Specifically me.
You see, I’m Smo.
No Smoing?  Does that mean I can’t go in there?  Or maybe I can’t be myself when I am in there?  Or people have to call me by my given name while I am in the bathroom?  What a conundrum.  More importantly, at forty, how is it possible that the nickname ‘Smo’ is still following me wherever I go, even to a bathroom thousands of miles away from my hometown.

The Horribly Uninteresting Origin of a Nickname

Like millions of other boys over the last seventy years, I was given the first name Michael at birth.  How popular of a name is Michael?  Well, from 1954 to 1998, Michael was the most popular name given to boys with the exception of 1960.  And that year it came in a close second to David.  Jacob replaced it as the top name in 1998, but Michael remained number two through 2008, then fell to 3 for 2009-2010 before falling out of the top five.   It remains among the top ten, although Jayden, Liam, Noah, and Ethan have replaced Matthew, Christopher, James and David.  In its peak years, 2 percent of all babies born were name Michael (some, but very few, girls were named Michael as well), making it so roughly 1 out of every 25 boys was named Michael.    That is what my parents called me.
In first grade, there were eighteen kids in my class.  Three of us we named Michael.  The other two generally went by Mike and I was called Michael, but at some point our teacher, the fabulous Miss Quinn, was tired of the confusion.  She started calling me ‘Smo.’  Yes, my first grade teacher gets all the credit.  Soon, everyone in school started to call me that.
Simple.  Short, succinct. Easy to pronounce. Notice there is no CH in it.  It is not Schmoe, like the infamous, yet hardly ever seen, Joe Schmoe we all hear so much about.  It’s much easier to pronounce than Smolarek. I’ve learned that when in a crowd and a name is called and the person starts by saying Michael, then starts with the S sound but stops while trying to figure out the name, they are generally talking about me, so I save them the embarrassment of trying to say it correctly and just volunteer myself.  I think I’ve won some raffle prizes intended for other Michaels who have unpronounceable last names that start with S. 
By the end of first grade, everyone called me Smo and I was alright with it.  Now, I didn’t go around introducing myself that way, but the name itself didn’t bother me.  Everyone wants a good nickname.  It’s not like they were calling me Chunk, or, Boner, or Tiny or Dipshit.
After first grade, our school closed due to declining enrollment and we merged with a neighboring school.  Second grade with forty new kids along with the thirty six from my original school.  By some miracle, no new Michaels. But all of the kids from my old school called me Smo, so even at James Whitcomb Riley Elementary, I was known as Smo.
Four elementary schools into my junior high school, Cooper Junior High.  Lots of Michaels.  Smo followed me there as well.  Coupled with my record setting cross country times, I came up with a brilliant campaign slogan for my run for school council representative. Are you ready for this? Hold on to your hats. It is some witty shit.

               “Vote for Smo, he’s not slow.”
You see, it has all the hallmarks of brilliant campaign slogans.  It is short, it rhymes, and it takes into account what I was most known for at the time.  Sadly, the slogan was dog-eared and tired when I tried it again in eighth grade while running for Vice-President.  The voters rejected me as a career politician who had no new ideas (now I know how Jeb feels).
High school.  More new kids.  More Michaels.  I remained Smo.  Most of my teachers called me that.  All of my coaches did.  Every year as part of the senior issue of the highs school newspaper, we voted for students for “most likely to succeed,” and “best hair,” “most into music” and “best athlete.”  I figured I was a shoe in for best nickname, but not only did I not win, I didn’t even make the top three.  The top spot went to Tippy Taplin, if I remember correctly.
By this point I was ready to NOT be called Smo.  Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t hate the name.  It was kind of cool having a nickname, a very simple nickname that has no great amazing story behind like some of my other friends, like Donk, Chickenhead, Parm and Whitey. I had finally gotten people who didn’t use Smo to call me Mike instead of Michael not matter how many other Mikes were around. So maybe at college I’d get to be called Mike.  Only two people from my highs school went to college with me and neither of them called me Smo.  So, for a short while, I was just a regular Mike among the many Mikes on my floor. Then one of my close friends from high school visited for a weekend.  While a group of my floor mates were around, he called me Smo.
               “Schmo, I love it,” said Rob, who lived across the hall.
               “Not Schmo, just Smo,” corrected my high school friend.
The name spread like fire through the 3rd floor of Seton Hall, then to the rest of the building.  By the end of freshman year, some people had forgotten my first name and the RA on my floor had given me his old monogrammed day planner because his initials were S.M.O.  The name stuck with me the rest of college.  To this day, there are people from DePaul University who do not know my first name.
Then I graduated college.  Got my first real job.  Professional.  I wore dress pants and the occasional tie.  Lots of people around me in suits.  Fancy offices.  Surely here everyone would call me Mike, right?  Nope.  A college friend who had gotten me the interview also worked there.  He called me Smo on day one.  Our boss picked up on it and nineteen years later, I am still Smo. Even my boss’s kids call me that.
I was at a wedding for a high school friend.  I introduced myself to one of his friends I had never met as Mike.  He looked at me sideways like he’d never heard of me before.  “You may know me as Smo.” I said.  “Oh, Smo! Matt talks about you all the time! It’s awesome to finally meet you!”  Smo followed me to Texas, where I have never lived.  People who I don’t know at all know Smo.
Smolarek is a difficult name to pronounce.  I get that.  My children have a hard time pronouncing it (they have trouble saying animals instead of aminal, too).  Checkers at grocery stores try to read the name off the receipt, then just mumble something that sounds like it starts with an S.  My childhood doctor pronounced it incorrectly for so long my mother finally gave up trying to correct him.  My sixth grade basketball coach couldn’t pronounce it either.  Well, he couldn’t remember it either.  He called me Polack at first.  Then he remembered part of it and called me Smolack.  Thankfully, that one ended when the basketball season did.
Who is the REAL Smo
Not the real Smo.
And finally, this is not the real Smo.  Don’t fall for it. Seriously, his last name is Smith, so he can be Big Smi, but not Big Smo. He’s half right. He’s real big, but he’s not real Smo, although he did get a TV show on A&E.
Ultimately, I am the Smo. The REAL Smo.  And I’m okay with that.  No sign on a door is going to stop me.  I pushed hard on the door, and tried to enter, but the door wouldn’t budge.  I pushed again.  Still nothing.  Then I looked at another sign, the sign near the handle that said ‘Pull.’  Then I pulled it and went in.
Thanks for reading.


Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Book Review: Fake Fruit Factory by Patrick Wensink

The best way to sum up Fake Fruit Factory by Patrick Wensink is that it is ridiculous. Absolutely ridiculous. Ludacris, even. And that’s a good thing. It’s the story of the Ohio town, Dyson, which is fighting for its survival against the decline and decay that has happened to small towns through America over the last fifty years. Lead by Mayor Bo Rutili, (the fourth youngest mayor in America we are told multiple times), Dyson and its impassioned citizens hatch a plan to revive their sagging town, only to learn that NASA is expecting a falling satellite to crash land into Dyson, obliterating the “speck of pepper” from the map.


Desperate times call for desperate actions and Dyson’s citizens are desperate to save their town. The Mayor’s girlfriend, Marci, often ignored by the Mayor himself, dreams of the most famous person in Dyson’s history, who ran the Fake Fruit Factory. Her sister, the failed actress, desperate to escape Dyson, clinging to anyone who smells like they might be famous. The former big city DJ, Cody Kellogg, Mr. Razzle Dazzle, now stuck at a small station in Dyson where no one can hear him. The police chief, a former opera star, desperate to win back the love of his former opera partner and ex-wife. The proprietor of the local tavern, who keeps his shit list tattooed on his hand. the former basketball star, still stung by the death of his wife fifteen years ago, on his own crusade to save the town’s history. The current owner of the factory, intend on having a parade. The rich lottery winner, Donna Queen, intend on saving the town by force if she has to, but lost for the right words and the right actions, who opens a casino. The former Mayor, Old Man Packwicz, down on his luck after missing out on the lottery prize and ousted from office, who tries multiple times to end his own life. The town’s only attorney, who thinks he is smarter than the rest of the town but lives in fear that his wife is going to leave him. The government agent, Eggelston, who seems to turn up everywhere. The First Lady, who seems to be a roulette junkie and who also loves a good mudslide. Throw in a map to a long lost treasure for these people to hunt down. Oh, and a mummy who drops off gifts to the citizens of Dyson, including foie gras and opera music.  There are a lot of characters.

These characters all have feelings and wants and needs and things from their past they cannot escape. Although they try, they can’t to do the right thing to help each other or Dyson. Even though they keeping making the same mistakes, by the end of the book, you’ll be rooting for them to succeed.

So yes, this book is ridiculous. It’s also hilarious. Wensink words made me laugh out loud. When you think things can’t take another turn for the worse, or the more ridiculous, they do. And how does it end for the citizens of Dyson? Who is the hero? Who saves the town? Does anyone outside of Dyson itself even care? Well, that I can’t tell you.
Fake Fruit Factory
by Patrick Wensink
Curbside Splendor
350 Pages
Publication Date: Sept, 2015