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So wrong 

Navigating life's mixed signals, bad info and misguided efforts

I've made mistakes before, like once, for three entire months, I thought I had a penis. It didn't help at all that the nurse at the doctor's office confirmed it. "You're having a boy!" she exclaimed, and I, like, believed her, until another nurse informed me that my boy sure had a lot of X chromosomes for a boy, which would actually make him a girl, and -- poof! -- there went my penis.

Another time I thought I'd make a good art saleswoman, so I got a job at a gallery in the mall. Only it wasn't a real gallery, but one of those places that sells piece-of-shit lithographs signed by filthy rich people like Peter Max and maybe a serigraph here and there of Warhol's "Queen Elizabeth" with real diamond dust brushed on her crown. "Really, it's real," I'd say to customers, incorporating a Vanna White-like hand wave over it, like I was a magician's assistant (viola!). In all I came across as convincing as O.J. professing his innocence. Even so, I actually almost got a guy to buy one once, but he was a sweet man with two kids in tow and in the end I didn't have the heart to suck 1,100 bucks out of his life for something I personally wouldn't use to wipe my own ass. I worked there three months and did not sell a thing. Not a single thing. When I look back on that stint, I don't know where I was more wrong: getting the job in the first place or doing it so badly once I had it. Either way, wrong I was. So wrong.

Another time, when I was much younger, I tried selling greeting cards door-to-door. I should have known it was a bad idea because my inventory came from a box abandoned by my dad in the garage. Needless to say, my greeting card venture hit the ground like a safe, probably because the cards were bigger than my third-grade math book and looked like they were made from flammable upholstery.

So I was wrong about that, too, but I finally struck a winning streak when, at age 7, I started selling homemade cigarettes. It was another idea that had been discarded by my dad, but he discarded all his ideas, not just the bad ones, and you never knew if any of them had actual pay-off potential unless you applied a little effort. I remember his cigarette-making machine clearly. It came with a big tin of loose tobacco and little paper sleeves with corresponding filters, and the machine had places you'd put these things and a lever you'd push, and afterward there'd somehow appear an authentic cigarette that, I'm sure, tasted about as good as a burning cat turd.

I pocketed 25 cents a pack, so the first day of business I thought I had enough to buy the bongo drum for sale in the window of the liquor store next door to my father's bar. The store's original proprietor was a big man who was fairly scary in appearance with most of the fingers missing from his left hand. My father had once tried to sell him stuff out of the trunk of his car, but the man had informed him plainly, "I'm not buying any of your shit, and I mean that in every possible sense." I myself had been in his store just about every day since we moved into the neighborhood, buying penny candy by the bucket, and every day that man glared at me, bagged my candy and scowled as I walked out his door and into the bar next door, where my sisters and I played pool and air hockey to pass the time as my father belted beers and came up with more ideas.

Earlier, I'd seen what I thought was a price tag on the bongo drum -- a mere 75 cents -- and showed it to my sisters and everything. But I was wrong. The price tag was actually a rogue sticker on the window right in front of the bongo drum, significant of nothing, really. But I thought a price on the window in front of the drum was as good as one on the drum itself and proudly marched to the register one day, slapping two quarters, three nickels and 10 pennies on the counter like I was paying off my parents' mortgage. "What's this?" he said.

"I'm finally buying that drum," I answered, but right then I saw the real price tag. Seven entire dollars! Looking back, I believe that exact moment is the first time I ever felt my heart hit the ground. I thought he was gonna throw me out right then, because once he literally lifted up my 8-year-old neighbor Tom Mulligan by the waistband of his dungarees and tossed him into the crabapple bush across the street, all because Tom peed in the parking lot. So here I was offering that same man 75 cents for a $7 drum, and I thought at the very least he'd grab me by my hair and drag me back to the bar to deposit me back on my dad's turf.

"Get outta here," he growled, so I bolted for the door, afraid he was right behind me. But I was wrong. So wrong. "Wait," he yelled after me, and I turned to see him scoop my change into his chopped-up hand. "You forgot your drum."

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