If the country’s not in a depression, why do I feel like a character in The Grapes of Wrath? I had a Ma Joad moment recently when I went through my possessions with an eye toward what I’d lose when I file for bankruptcy later this year. I didn’t have to throw any sparkly earbobs into the Franklin stove, but the “household goods and personal effects” I’ll be allowed to keep are a fraction of the things I’ve collected over the years. Thank God.
I spent four decades living the life of a contented bohemian—an aspiring this, a struggling that—until 2000, when I suddenly found myself touring with the show Cabaret and as a result making a little money for the first time in my life. I bought a one-room cabin in the woods of upstate New York and became a modest property owner.
Show business (and insolvency) beckoned a few years later, and I left my hideout for a year on the road with 42nd Street. On that tour I crossed paths with Chi Chi LaRue and was transformed into the world’s oldest porn star, “Gus Mattox.”
I bought a sporty vintage convertible as well as a second little house with the idea that I’d resell it. That worked out well—it sold the first day it went on the market—so I thought I’d try it a third time. I worked on that house in between video shoots and found myself going to Home Depot so often that I decided to buy a blue pickup truck.
The third house also sold the day it went on the market, so I rewarded myself with a grand piano for my little cabin, now expanded to five rooms. The banks insisted I take out additional lines of credit without checking my financial health (which they would have been wise to do).
After two years in the movie biz, I decided that 45 was past the age any self-respecting fellow should continue to foster delusions of sex-symboldom, so I retired and bought yet another house. One day I turned around and found myself the owner of two houses, three cars, a storage space full of building materials, and just lots of stuff. I even had piano insurance. Bohemian? Uh, no.
I had unwittingly become a person of possessions, and I was finding that that had the perverse effect of limiting rather than expanding my options. I used to travel a lot. Couldn’t do that anymore; who would look after my stuff? In my 20s and 30s I wrote and performed shows downtown. Not now. I had mortgages to pay and insurance premiums due. Where did the old Tom go? The one who never balanced his checkbook? The one who would use his last 20 bucks to throw a party?
It was time to unload. Yup, just as soon as I sold this last house.
That house went on the market in September of last year. You don’t remember seeing the listing? Maybe you were distracted by the collapse of Lehman Brothers or the sound of your 401(k) flushing down the toilet.
In the span of three months the value of my assets went down down down and my debts went up up up—to the point where I suddenly owed more than I owned. (One darn letter, n, changed my whole life.) Being broke was nothing new to me, but this dramatic reversal of fortune did throw me off balance. For a week.
Turns out I really am bohemian; the decision to file for bankruptcy was easy, and it will get me to my goal of a footloose and fancy-free middle age faster and more efficiently than just selling everything off.
A few months ago I noticed an abandoned old camper near my house. I bought it for $100, restored it, and christened it “Canned Ham.” Residence…check. Travel…check.
And while I may not have a grand piano or three cars anymore, I do have a story. I just finished writing a one-man show about the past 15 years of my life, also called Canned Ham, and I’m about to hit the road. Writing…check. Performing…check.
My trip won’t be quite as rustic as the Joad family’s trek to California, but the impetus is remarkably similar: Like them, I lost my house, my livelihood, and most of my belongings, so I pulled up stakes.
“How am I gonna know about you, Tommy?” asks Ma Joad as her son sets off on his own. Like Tommy, I’ll be easy to locate: Wherever there’s an open mike, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a gay bar with a mirror ball and a drag queen, I’ll be there too. I’ll be there in the wheeze of an accordion and in the way folks laugh when they’re called back in for act 2.
I’m broke, I’m happy, and I’m on the road.