The other day I was running errands, going about my business and sweating in the blaze of the midday sun when an older gentleman stopped and looked me over with a smile.
“Good to see a fellow Owl.”
“Oh,” I said, unsure if I’d heard him correctly. It wasn’t until I got in my car and started down the road that it dawned on me. I was wearing my ratty, sweat-patched Temple Basketball t-shirt.
I love random t-shirts. Always have. As long as I can remember I’ve foraged thrift stores and flea markets, rummaging through estate sales in search of the perfect tee. If it fits and it’s comfortable, I’m wearing it. Family reunions, YMCA staff, at least one Seoul 2003 marathon long sleeve—I’m a regular international man of mystery.
My favorite ones are the colleges: Temple Basketball, Vermont, SUNY Plattsburgh. I get asked all the time, “Did you attend Random College?”
Sometimes I’ll play along, shrug and smile. But the first time it happened I was too shocked to do much of anything.
As a shy, awkward, pimply freshman in high school, I clearly remember one day in the cafeteria. I was waiting in line to pay for lunch, wearing a Duke Blue devils t-shirt. I’m no Duke fan by any means, but back in the nineties I was a big fan of Grant Hill, the superstar freshman on the national championship basketball team. Maybe it was the only clean shirt I had that day. Nonetheless, I never would have remembered any of it had the shirt not attracted the attention of an old assistant coach.
He came hobbling over to me, his gut protruding from his track suit. “Boy, why are you wearing that shirt?
I blushed. My ears went hot. Again, I was painfully timid, self-conscious about my shadow. I spent a lot of time figuring out ways to avoid people, be it slinking through the hallways, hiding in the crowd, or arriving early to class and NEVER volunteering for anything. Ever.
But this was a coach, calling me out in the cafeteria. I was half expecting him to smile, maybe chuckle and spill the punchline. Instead the old man only looked me up and down, shaking his head. I knew he was a football guy, a legend back in the day. And yet, here was this silver-haired old man regarding me like I’d personally insulted him.
He pointed to my chest. “You don’t deserve to wear that shirt. You know that?”
I did not know that. I was fourteen. Today people speak of this man as a mentor, a great coach and motivator. We hear so much about the impact our coaches have on a young person’s life, how they build kids up, make them feel like they can do anything they put their minds to do. Well, it must have been an off day, because according to him I didn’t deserve to wear a shirt with his alma mater on it.
And that was it. He stalked off, still grumbling about a kid wearing a shirt.
Such an insignificant part of his life. And today I know more hard truths about the world. We can’t do anything we put our minds to do. I couldn’t learn quantum physics if you gave me a lifetime to do it. But here I am in my forties, and I can remember with great clarity this moment on some random day this man had on my life. So many times it’s popped into my head and I’ve laughed, wondering just what this great coach saw (or didn’t see) as he wandered into the cafeteria that compelled him to approach and lay clear a kid’s limitations. To tell me what I didn’t deserve.
And hey, I’m not saying he was wrong. Sure enough, I didn’t go to Duke. I followed the path this wise old gruff already knew to be my destiny. I attended community college, only to drop out and go to work at the car wash. After that I cut grass. I cleaned bathrooms. Joke was on me, right?
Perhaps. But what the old ball coach didn’t know—couldn’t have known because I certainly had no idea at the time—was that while I was toiling away, be it waxing cars or push mowing through a haze of grass clippings, I was coming to terms with what I could do.
With every car I washed or lawn I mowed, every mop I pushed, a story spun its way through my mind. And well before I was ready to admit it, when I was without story, skills, or even the first letter on a page, I was dreaming. Dreaming of what I could do.
I read constantly. I cut grass and came home to Steinbeck, Hemingway, Fitzgerald. Richard Wright. From Stephen King to John Grisham, even my mother’s Nicholas Sparks collection wasn’t safe. I loved the smell of the pages, the yellowed rinds of life’s tragedies told in so many different ways. I dreamed of the day it would all work out.
As I moved on in the real world, got a new job and made several dumb decisions, I thought maybe I’d buried the dream. I learned several painful lessons about eviction, debt, consequences, love and loss, while crossing paths with too many colorful characters to count. And just when it seemed nothing would ever work out, my dream would surface with a whisper, having followed me faithfully into whatever hole I’d dug. Even after I’d told it to get lost.
How could I write? I couldn’t even finish community college. Heck, I didn’t even deserve to wear the t-shirt of a college. Think I forgot?
But it was there, fighting to claw its way out. And still, I kept telling myself for years, I couldn’t do it. Why even try?
So I read. I continued to keep journals and write silly things that caught my mind. And then, years later, as I was dealing with personal issues, I was on a walk with my dogs by myself when the voice piped up again.
You’re a writer.
I don’t write.
But you should.
But I had nothing to lose. And so I wrote. Short nothings. Then some more. I wrote and it was like scratching an itch that had been nagging me all my life. It wasn’t good writing, but it could be. And what did it matter. I was a writer. I am a writer. I deserve this.
It’s still hard for me to embrace. To open up and put it out there. To speak in front of the class or even believe it’s happened. I’ve had two books published this year, with four more on the way next year. One every three months. You win, Dream.
Am I Hemmingway, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald? Not even close. I’m just a guy who didn’t deserve to wear a t-shirt.
Pete Fanning is the author of Justice in a Bottle, Runaway Blues, and Bricktown Boys (scheduled to publish in January of 2021). He’s a regular Rough Writer at Carrot Ranch and published in The Congress of Rough Writers Flash Fiction Anthology, Vol. 1. You can read more of his writing at Lunch Break Fiction and follow him on Twitter @fatherknwslttle.