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 One of my least favorite things about living in Los Angeles was being known as Midwestern Guy. For some reason, when you live on either coast but didn’t grow up there, you are subject to ridicule and mockery. I’ve heard ‘em all: Hey, Will, do you miss the corn? Hey, Will, you Midwesterners sure can drink! Hey, Will, ever bed your cousin? Perhaps the best example of the mindset: A friend in New York told me about how she was talking to a guy at a party, and when she told him she was from Illinois, he responded icily, “Well, someone has to be from Illinois, I guess.”


Strangely, the people in L.A. who gave me the most crap were other Midwesterners who had been out there longer and were happy to have someone else be mocked rather than themselves. It got old fast, and I don’t think I shook the label until I left L.A. and moved back to, of course, the Midwest.

Still, having friends who grew up outside the Midwest has forced me to re-evaluate some of the things I do. I don’t consider myself any different from other humans out there - well, maybe a little different. However, I guess you can take the boy out of Mattoon, Illinois, but it takes the Jaws of Life, a salad fork, one of those Bobcat diggers and a powerful leaf blower to even try to extricate Mattoon from the boy.

I’ll admit to drinking Anheuser-Busch products, saying “doggone it to heck” on occasion and thoroughly enjoying a night of bowling from time to time. I have been cow-tipping, I used to have a mullet haircut and, given the opportunity, I’ll put John Cougar Mellencamp on every jukebox in the Tri-County area. I’m not afraid to say it, folks: I was born in a small town ... used to daydream in that small town ... that’s probably where they’ll bury me. HEY!

However, I don’t want the Midwestern thing to be my rep in New York. As I found out when I made friends with people from Los Angeles - and even Chicago - it’s difficult to be taken seriously once you tell someone you wore a jean jacket with Poison and Warrant buttons during your sophomore year in high school. Can’t imagine seriously discussing Dylan Thomas poems with artsy New Yorkers if they know that my favorite movies as a kid were those Ernest films.

Changing misconceptions will be one of my top priorities once I get to New York, and I’m willing to wear black turtlenecks and smoke cloves to do it.

There’s one very Midwestern vice, however, that I will not apologize for, and I can only hope the artsy folk can deal with it, or at least not find out about it. When you’re talking fun, drunken social activities, I won’t lie, I find few more fun than ... are you ready? ... karaoke.

You don’t think I’m a dork, do you?

There’s a place called TomE’s near my apartment, a ragtag saloon with plenty of big-haired women and guys wearing Confederate-flag hats. It’s a rough-and-tumble place, full of guys who bring their pool cues with them to their factory jobs so they don’t have to stop at home on the way to the bar after work. They sell pitchers of Natural Light and Busch for four bucks, and you drink out of plastic cups with ads for local garages on the sides. Every Friday and Saturday are karaoke nights. No matter where I am each weekend, if you listen closely, you can hear TomE’s beckoning me, singing its siren song of “I Will Survive,” vexing me.

I will say - in an attempt to sound all postmodern and in favor of performance art - there is an obviously strong kitsch factor involved in a Midwestern karaoke night. I’ve been to them too many times to count, and I’ve learned what you can bank on each time:

• A group of three to six drunk women, friends from work or old college cheerleaders, will sing “Love Shack.”

• Some guy with sideburns will do an Elvis song.

• The most meek, quiet, shy woman in a gaggle of friends will eventually be persuaded to live a little and go up and sing something like “I Will Always Love You,” “My Heart Will Go On” or “Wind Beneath My Wings,” then smile sheepishly, go back to her table and be congratulated by her friends for her courage. My favorite example of this was an obscenely overweight woman who gave a rousing rendition of “What A Feeling (Flashdance),” complete with a chair turned backwards and violent Jazzercize gyrations. All she was missing were the headbands, leotard and someone to pour water over her.

• Some guy in a cowboy hat will do either a Hank Williams song, or if he’s particularly hip, Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive.” He will sing with a proud snarl, particularly the line, “I’m a cowboy! On a steel horse I ride!”

• A dumb, drunk frat guy will think he’s being really funny by doing a song with the word “sex” in the title, though I never have the heart to tell him that George Michael is gay, so you’re probably singing to a man right now.

This is wonderful entertainment over a few pitchers of beer, and I don’t mean to mock these people too much. There’s something achingly sincere about each of these performances, and that’s the beauty of karaoke. It’s a time to cut loose and forget you have an efficiency expert coming in next week and that your cable bill is a week overdue. I do enjoy laughing at these people, but it’s a most uncynical laughter. Karaoke is no place for cynics. If you’re not willing to play along with a 40-year-old welder trying to channel Tom Jones, then you can go to your tofu bars, hippie, and leave the soul to us.

When you’re at karaoke, you see people at their most naked, truest selves, using a song to remember or mark one of the happier times in their life. Fine, when Bernice tries to belt out “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” she sounds more like Pat Boone, but that’s not the point. In her mind, she is Aretha Franklin - for five minutes anyway - and if you’re too heartless to let her have that moment and witness the freedom she’s obviously experiencing by being someone else, well, we don’t want you around anyway.

And that she’s so out of tune it makes your back hair stand at attention? That’s just all the more fun.

Anyway, the last time I went, I was with a group of five who were not regular karaoke participants. In fact, I was the only one who had ever gone before, and it was only through my persuasion (guilt trip) - “You know, this would be a great thing for us all to do together before I leave ...”- that they showed up at all. None of my friends planned on actually singing, heavens no, but I figured if I went up first, and they consumed a few pitchers of Busch, they’d give it a shot.

My name was called. I’d kept my song choice a secret, and I followed a woman who had the audacity to sing Kiss’ “Beth” with a straight face (Kiss is the exception to the Karaoke rules; if someone sings a Kiss song, you have every right to openly mock them, and even, perhaps, pour beer on their head).

My moment had come. As the song began, I thought back to junior high school, at the roller skating rink, when all my friends had girlfriends and I had to sit and eat Fritos in the commons area, not only because no girls would talk to me, but also because I couldn’t skate. There was one particularly popular song for the slow, hand-in-hand skate at the time, and it used to always depress me. But now it was my turn:

“I can’t fight this feeling any longer. And yet I’m still afraid to let it flow. What started out as friendship has grown stronger ...”

As I wailed out REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling,” my friends were at first horrified, then a little worried; then they started to laugh. And then they started to smile. I was up there singing REO Speedwagon (REO Speedwagon!) wildly out of tune but with every bit of feeling and, yeah, dammit, all the sexiness I could muster. I serenaded a woman in the front row, and I think I might have even made her friend blush.

I was ghastly, embarrassing and more than a little drunk, but when you’re up on stage singing REO Speedwagon to a group of strangers, you have little time to think about that. A waitress even walked by the table where my friends were laughing and chided them for making fun of me. I found that adorable.

I don’t know what my future friends in New York would do, but my Midwestern friends eventually got up and sang with me. They had a damned good time.

Now, let’s see if we can get those folks in the Village to do some cow-tipping ...



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