The Heckler | J.W. Basilo

8125398Author’s Note: The following piece was crafted specifically for performance and I’ve done my best through text and punctuation to make it read as choppy and frenetic on the page as it was in person. At certain points, denoted by bold text, I took a seat in the front row and screamed at an empty stage. The parts in italics indicate a number of affectations not worth explaining.

Hey, Basilo! Everyone’s looking at your double chin and stupid outfit. You got a small dick and forgot to trim your nose hairs. Everyone can tell you have lovehandles and you cry sometimes.

Most of the time, all I want is to be left alone. However, when you have an anxiety disorder, you’re never alone; the dread lurks everywhere. It’s the vague feeling that you’re being followed. It’s a damp sweater that doesn’t dry. It’s an Ikea of melancholy building quirky furniture in your head. You live there, might as well make the place hip. But what if the boxes won’t fit in the car? What if I can’t figure out how to put it together? I can’t ask for help. Who would help me? What would they think of me if I can’t put together this imaginary Oopsk desk set? Oh great, now there are extra pieces. What if it falls apart the first time someone comes over and puts their drink on it? Sometimes it’s a straight jacket at a party or a duct tape gag affixing itself while in line at the Dunkin’ Donuts. It’s the constant heckler, hanging in the back where the light doesn’t reach, who never stops shouting.

People are going to look at you weird when this is over. You’re moderately dyslexic and have trouble reading aloud. If you stutter no one will ever love you. You’re incapable of love. You don’t have feelings like regular people do. You’re an asshole and people merely tolerate you because you’re kinda funny sometimes. Your hairline is receding. You’ll   be 30 in a couple months and everyone will know that you’re a fucking loser who lives in a garden apartment. Your parents over-aggrandize you to their friends so they don’t have to make things up. Good thing you’re never gonna get married. Hey, what do you think would happen if you fell on the sidewalk outside and broke your neck right after the show? It’s possible, you know. I bet you’d have to go to the hospital and you don’t have insurance and your parents would have to help you with the bills and colostomy bag because you don’t have any real friends and they’ll die hating you.

When I was a baby, I would hold my breath until I turned blue and passed out. I still sometimes forget to breathe. When I was around 8, I’d go missing at my family’s parties. My parents would find me later with my chin on my knees, the thousand yard stare, struggling to speak. No one asked questions. The answers weren’t convenient. I could never sleep. Still don’t. Sometimes I had nightmares that my parents were going to give me away. I started having full-length conversations with people I’d never met and any interaction I had with real people I began replaying over and over in my head, fixing the mistakes. I developed ticks and twitches. I began eating compulsively. At school I became the fat, twitchy spaz who talks to himself.

And you’re still that shit! You’re gonna die angry and alone. This piece is bombing and now the producers wish they didn’t invite you. They were just trying to be nice because they can tell by looking at you that you know what $18 worth of McDonald’s tastes like in the dark.

The insomnia got worse and worse. Silence became the pillow I thought for sure would smother me. By the seventh grade, I walked around school all day intensely dreading having to go to bed. The dread of not being enough. The dread of being made fun of, of gym class, of the walk home, the bus stop, of not getting the right answer, of the seams showing. I began unraveling but was too embarrassed to tell anyone about it. He’s so dramatic,” they’d say.When my parents had enough of me sneaking into their room to sleep on the floor, they took me to a psychiatrist. After the first session they decided just to put a TV in my room. Let it never be said that parents of the 80’s and 90’s didn’t nail it. To this day I can’t sleep unless I am inebriated or there’s a TV going somewhere. I lay awake in the hard dark of my girlfriend’s bed for hours last night.

Pssssst. She’s maaaaaad at you. You’re incapable of real love and she knoooooows it. If you stay together you’re gonna have to go to more family gatherings and they’ll ask you questions about yourself and then they’ll know you’re a fraud. Plus, you suck at talking to people and everyone can tell when you’re working your “customer service” voice. How long do you think you can keep this up? Human beings weren’t wired for monogamy, you know. Maybe some were, but not you because you’re broooooken. You want to sleep with other women and she knooooows it. One day you’re gonna have a secret Craiglist hookup out of repression (again) but this time you’re gonna get AIDS but you won’t even get checked because then your parents and your fake friends will know about it. And then you’ll have kill yourself because you can’t handle an adult conversaaaaaaaation.

Before junior high was over, I took to lashing out at everyone around me. I developed the steel, the suit, the phone booth. The wit, the wisecrack, the put-down. I literally worked to create a self image that was too cool for school. I took up smoking, which became the shoplifting, became the drinking and the drugs because the threat of getting caught was at least a real thing to worry about. By high school, I was a cortisol addict, but told myself I was addicted to everything but. I developed a perspiration problem and wore pit stains like an albatross or a cliché. I was twitchy and impulsive. The eating. The eating. The smoking. The whiplash whipcrack of the tongue. I barely graduated. Homework and studying seemed pointless and soon became daunting, more than I could bear. I managed to fail Creative Writing. I skipped college because my fundamental objection to the modern American educational machine, man. But I knew better. I knew that I couldn’t bring myself to complete an application; I couldn’t get beyond the heckler long enough to focus on anything but moving out of my parents’ house.

I became an adult and fell in love with alcohol and poor decisions. My first job out of high school was bartending at a restaurant with a shit paycheck but the inventory records were lax and the owner always went home early. I had no money or skills and without my parents feeding me, I discovered the world famous “worry-diet,” where I twitched and paced myself to a new, thin me. I lost 80 pounds in 9 months by replacing compulsive eating with compulsive smoking (the novelty of smoking indoors was better than Taco Bell,) drinking, and sex. It’s amazing how much easier it is to get laid when you’re thin and have your own apartment, amazing how quickly I noticed I never wanted anyone who wanted me back. To this day I have cheated on almost every girlfriend I’ve ever had and I rarely turn down a sexual advance. Nothing is sweeter than a concrete reason to feel shame.

Hey! Are you about to go into that sexual compulsion thing? Everyone knows that isn’t real unless you’re rich or a celebrity. You’re just a sad character from a Todd Solondz  movie. You don’t haul your sad ass to SLA meetings or anything. Remember when you   researched a bunch of meetings after that anonymous hookup binge but you were too scared to ring the buzzer for the building and then the next day your test results came back negative so you just pretended it never happened–again?

The first time I saw the TV show Dexter, I absurdly thought someone finally understood me.That’s me! I, too am unable to connect! I also talk to people who aren’t there, except I don’t kill people, I just shame-sturbate! Oh shit, what if that leads to killing people? I still get caught talking to myself at least three times a day. When I have conversations with people who aren’t there I hold what they (didn’t) say against them. Sometimes these conversations happen out loud in public. This afternoon I yelled, “shut up!” at no one in the dairy aisle of a supermarket. I’m the asshole who destroys remote controls when they don’t work properly. As a performer, I only hear mistakes and will spend an after party abusing myself for dropping a line on stage, even on the nights I’ve gotten standing ovations.

Nice humble brag, douche.

My work is never good enough and I fear everyone will know that I’m a fraud. I refuse to get a retail job because eventually someone will see me and I can’t take the embarrassment of other people knowing that I’m a failure to myself. I never leave the house without looking in a mirror. I plan my outfit before running to 7-11. I can’t look in a mirror without uuuuugh. I have taken my shirt off in public roughly 5 times in the last 5 years and I made sure no one was looking. I go through a pack of Listerine breath strips a day because of the constant fear that someone might catch me with funky mouth and then every time they look at me forever I’ll know they’ll be thinking, he’s the guy who had bad breath that one time. I can’t fill my gas tank without pressing the unlock button 5 times to make sure I won’t lock my keys in the car while repeating, “don’t start the car while the gas is pumping” over and over. At the airport, I lose my shit every time I go through security. There are people behind me and they all want me to be moving faster. Everyone is looking only at me. I am George McFly, who can’t handle that kind of rejection.

I frequently cancel social plans due to the fear of impending panic attacks caused by not being able to find a parking spot, not knowing anyone, getting stuck talking to that weird guy and then not knowing how to get away. The following things have sent me into a panic attack in the last 6 months: being 5 minutes late to a meeting, someone not saying, “excuse me,” failure to use a turn signal, touching my fries without asking, watching me eat too intensely, commenting on what I’m eating, standing behind me, and being discourteous with the armrest. Several times a day I’ll get trapped in a memory loop—the time I cried at football practice, the time I fucked up on stage, the sight of hundreds of unsold CDs under my mother’s basement stairs—and will start twitching and sputtering. I never know when it will happen. I have two speeds: life of the party and hiding in the corner pretending to be admiring things. “My, what a fabulous CD collection you have. Ooooh, Postal Service. Exotic”

Hey, Idiot! Now everyone is going to know that you’re faking it when you talk to them! I mean, Jesus Christ, we get it; you’re kinda fucked up. But no more than like, everyone. You’re so embarrassed to talk about it publicly because people won’t think you’re cool. Because your entire sense of self-worth is based on whether or not people like you and/or want to DO you. “Ooooooh, I have a low self-esteem and OCD. I’m all twitchy and anxious and hate myself.” Make a fucking emo record. I bet that one won’t sell either and then   they’ll be more boxes of proof that you’re a failure.   

I’m terrific in crisis because it no longer becomes about me. I’m at my calmest when things get serious. I’m always the first to spring into action when I hear the clatter of a skull on a hardwood floor, see the man in the restaurant going blue and grasping at his throat, the building on fire, the drowning girl. I have saved no fewer than 3 lives, loaded another at least 5 strangers into ambulances, but I go into shock when a fight comes. I have trained for countless hours how to defend myself but I’m terrified I might have to—terrified it won’t work, of being defeated.

The first time I found a gun in my face I put my hands in the air and spent the next year dismantling the relationships around me out of shame. How can a woman love you if you can’t defend her? I started walking the streets of the neighborhood where I was held up with a folding blade in my fist. “Never again,” I thought, my thumb on the fulcrum ready to spring. My wrist is quick and no one knows how bad I want this. For years, when I did sleep, I was always fighting or dying in my dreams. On my bad days, the sleep doesn’t come but the nightmares never fail to show. I refuse to go on medication because I fear losing parts of myself. Should I dispense the heckler, who else is there to talk to? What else will drive me? What’s a dog sled without a whip?

“The Heckler” was originally performed at Guts & Glory: Live Lit for the Lionhearted. Keith Ecker & Samantha Irby, the producers of Guts & Glory, selected this piece as one of the best that has ever been performed at their show.

6716215_origJ.W. Basilo is a guy who never learned how to shut up. He is also a writer, performer, comedian, musician, and educator from Chicago whose work is equal parts poignant and perverse, hilarious and heart-wrenching. His often raucous stage act, a Vaudevillian mash-up of poetry, music, comedy and storytelling, has earned him a reputation as one of the more sought-after and compelling spoken word artists working today. Basilo is a National and World Poetry Slam finalist, a PushCart Prize Nominee, Executive Director of Chicago Slam Works, one half of Poetry/Comedy duo Beard Fight, and an Artist in Residence at Real Talk Avenue. His work has appeared on NPR, CBS, WGN, in the Chicago Tribune, numerous literary journals, and in hundreds of theaters, dive bars, prisons, schools and comedy clubs across the world. His first solo play, No One Can Fix You, debuted in 2009 to rave reviews in Chicago, Seattle, and New York City. When not on stage or banging his forehead on a keyboard, Basilo teaches writing and performance to brilliant youth and burned-out adults all over the country. All things considered, he’s doing pretty well for a guy who failed Creative Writing in high school. Currently, you can catch him every Sunday in Chicago at the Green Mill, where he co-hosts The Uptown Poetry Slam and Mondays at Haymarket Pub & Brewery where he serves as curator and host of The LitMash. He resides online at

© 2014 J.W. Basilo


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