In the Writing & Publishing Apprentices workshop, led by Justin Carder, students and professional writers come together for a semester-long series of one-on-one tutoring sessions. The workshop, unlike any other in the Bay Area, is designed to guide whatever creative-writing project students have in mind.
“Shalhoubing,” he told me. “It’s called Shalhoubing.” Bobby Schmidt pressed his fingertips together, like the church minister.
“Shalhoubing,” as Bobby describes it, is the act of “becoming” the moderately famous Lebanese American actor Tony Shalhoub. Tony Shalhoub has no idea that Shalhoubing is even being practiced.
“So are you impersonating Tony Shalhoub?” I asked him.
“God, no. It’s not impersonating, it’s becoming. It’s like he’s embodying us. Or, maybe, we’re embodying him.”
“And you can just go out in the street, like what, like dressed up like him?”
“Me? No. Some of the other Shalhoubers do it. They say it ‘enhances their experience.’ But for me? No. God. This isn’t marijuana, this is Shalhoubing.” According to Bobby, there is a group of Shalhoubers that meet periodically, in taverns and cafés, or basements, to share their experiences.
“So what is this, really? Is Shalhoubing some sort of cleansing process?”
“No!” he said, offended. “No, not at all. If anything, Shalhoubing increases stress, increases mental instability.” Then he licked his fingertips, and decided he didn’t like it. “One minute, you were barely something—this farmer, this factory worker, this schmuck—and then, the next minute, you’re this famous actor. You’ve got responsibilities, pressure. Fear. Dignity. It’s all very encompassing.”
Two weeks later, my girlfriend left me for this massive Spaniard. We were sitting out on the balcony, feet on the railing, when she turned to me and said, “I’m leaving you.”
“For whom?” I asked intuitively, then: “How big is he?”
“He’s more of a man than you ever will be.”
An hour before, this had been the best day of my life. I realized this a few minutes after I stopped vomiting all over the balcony. “Oh, man,” I said. “Of course there’s this stupid food poisoning.” She helped me clean myself up, kissed me on the cheek, and then left for the airport. She’d already packed her things.
I flew back and hid in my New York apartment the next week, in hopes that I could potentially be hiding there the rest of my life, with my limbs sprawled out on the futon, all so lanky and nonmuscular. I got called by my editor to do this story the same day I got back, and I sat on it a few days. This is it, huh, I thought. This is me, this is me writing stories about these other people. This is just what I do. I called back and agreed; maybe I’d give this one more shot. I hoped it would be worth it.
After the interview, Bobby took me outside for a walk around the town, an archaic patch of rural Tennessee. I honestly couldn’t determine whether he’d started to Shalhoub. He was a silent for a lot of the way.
“But you know, it’s exhausting, this Shalhoubing,” he said as we walked past a drugstore.
“Then why do you do it?” I wanted to know. He halted.
“Well, why do any of us Shalhoubers do it? We do it in hopes that one day we won’t have to be Shalhoubing. We’ll just wake up one morning and we’ll be him—this new person that actually isn’t all that new. That is actually kind of familiar.”
Written by Paolo, age 14