In the Season 4 finale of Road Rules, the road trip spin off to MTV’s The Real World, Erika says something like, “When you leave the place where you grew up, you find out you’re a different person than who you thought you were.”
I have a handful of Real World and Road Rules related tales, many with plenty of details and sidebars I don’t have room for here. But I do want to share with you what I can as my relationship with the shows, like any relationship, has a story. It’s the true story of a young man who so desired to be a seven stranger picked to live in a house and have his life taped. To both share and learn about himself; to pick up enough experience points to reach the next level; to maybe become a pioneer or an icon! Okay, to meet a cute guy and to force himself, lest their scene not make the cut, to open up more and not shut himself off, his companion holding him unable to read his mind, and wouldn’t that have been helpful later in life?
All when there’s barely an internet, and definitely no Facebook, or Myspace, or even Friendster. Remember Friendster? No blogs or vlogs or podcasts or YouTube monologues. No cell phone cameras, no nothing. Just good old paper and analogue goodness: ‘zines and crashed frequencies and cable access. Friendship books and pen pals. Open mic nights and showcases in bars, cafés, and eager college amphitheaters.
If you know the show, you’ll know I never sat in a hot tub with six other strangers sharing my secrets, or jumped off a bridge bungee-strapped to my fellow Roadies. But I did leave home like most of us do. In August 1992, three weeks before I left home to start college, I caught a marathon of the first Real World season in New York, including the finale where everyone was crying and saying “goodbye” and I totally lost my shit, and was like, Why am I not on this show? This is such a Me show!
I want to tell you about how I obsessed the following summer over the second season in L.A. How, to pass the time at my job cutting grass at a cemetery near my house in Detroit, I fantasized about replacing kicked-out David instead of that Glen. David had ripped the blanket off only-underwear-clad Tami and shit went down, yo.
And here’s an excerpt from my Season 3: San Francisco application letter:
October 1993: [A friend] told me today that the first time she saw me, she thought I was weird. When she talked to me, she knew I was weird, but not the kind of weird where she’d pull out her Mace if she saw me hanging around her car in a darkened parking lot. I guess that’s good. I always knew I was never quite normal. I would say I’m a bit on the dark/goth side. I consider myself a “nice guy.” I’m more or less outgoing and easy to get along with.
Several weeks later I received an encouraging form letter informing me I was not selected: We’re so impressed with the thoughtfulness, creativity, and passion contained in the letters. We could easily put together a hundred casts from those who’ve responded. Well. Maybe they wanted someone who wasn’t easy to get along with. Or they weren’t impressed by my interest in Wicca. Or didn’t like the full-body shot photo I sent where I’m dressed all in black. Or maybe they were afraid I’d be boring. In the end, I suppose it was either me or Pedro Zamora. I wasn’t the pioneer they were looking for.
I want to tell you about how during my second summer at the cemetery in 1994, a coworker backed into my ten year old Plymouth Reliant, denting its side. How since the car still ran, I took the insurance money and bought a VHS camera to become a one-man Real World camera crew, recording footage at home and work, on back-to-school day junior year, at theatre house parties, and “confessionals” with myself.
I learned about the fast approaching 1995 London season application deadline while stressing over finals when my roommate received an invitation letter to apply, and I was all like, “Why did he get a letter? This is my show dammit!” Watching that season’s Jay the playwright, I was like, “That should have been me!”
I eventually received rejection letters from 1997’s Boston season as well as two seasons of Road Rules. And Season 7 in Seattle was my last eligible season before I was too damn old. Still, I kept focusing my life through a Real World lens, even writing an article for the inaugural issue of HERO, a new gay men’s magazine themed the “great divide” between gay and straight men. My article, My Real World: Kalamazoo chronicled a year of life in my college house with five other guys, but to further my Real World rejection, was cut before the issue went to press.
I want to tell you about how Road Rules Season 5 took the Roadies to Detroit Receiving Hospital where their mission was to work a 27-hour emergency shift. How they met Dr. Tim, and how he and cast mate Anne struck up a romance. How my mom worked as a tutor at connected Detroit Children’s Hospital and she’d see Dr. Tim in the cafeteria and said he’s cuter in person than he is on TV. And how I believe this is the only time my mother (who passed away four years later) and I ever bonded over a guy.
Then on a trip to Boston in the fall of 1998, I peered inside that season’s vacated firehouse, and I checked out the back steps where the smokers powwowed in episode one. And then these two tween girls (probably fans) approached the house and I was all, “Kinda makes you feel like Montana’s going to come walking through the door,” and they looked at me like I had two heads. Touching this house was concrete proof that the whole thing was indeed real.
I want to tell you how on Halloween ‘98, I met Real World: Miami Dan at Roscoe’s in Chicago while I wore a gold glitter mask with purple feathers and a green tinsel wig, my first in-the-flesh connection; and how one night in 2006 I ended up taking care of a drunk ex-Roadie at Hydrate while wanting to/not wanting to ask him about all his Real World/Road Rules friends; how a guy friend I went out with a couple times in college and a guy I did a show with in Ann Arbor were supporting players on the Philadelphia and first New Orleans seasons respectively.
And I want to tell you about how before watching the first season on that day in August 1992 before leaving home to start a new life, I took a walk to our old neighborhood and stood in front of the house that I lived in through the end of 8th grade and just stared, even if I couldn’t touch. And how I didn’t care who saw me because it’s my fucking house.
And this gets me to thinking about houses. My houses and Real World houses and home and Erika’s quote and how I found her quote in a 1998 journal entry where I’m having lunch with my college friend Kathleen at a Livonia, Michigan mall Olga’s less than five months before my move to Chicago and her grad school graduation, and she isn’t sure what’s next and so she asks me, “Is it okay to be scared?” and I answer, “Hell yes!” because I am terrified, but also exhilarated, and I didn’t bother applying to Seattle because by then I didn’t need a reality TV show to figure it all out, anyway. Right? And I still don’t. At 40, even the thought of getting on an HGTV real estate or makeover show sounds terrifying and invasive. While yes, I want to share my personality and creative endeavors with the world, as a storyteller, I’d prefer to be both the writer and the editor of my life, thank you.
Finally, there’s this: I want to tell you how in October 2001 I met my now husband Ernie, at Unabridged Bookstore, without a single camera in sight to catch the porn I held in my hand for half our conversation, or my waiting for him in front of About Face Theatre on Broadway that night for the show we both had tickets for, or our having drinks in a new Boystown hotspot, and my then throwing up those drinks in his studio apartment bathroom. How a month later, production wrapped on The Real World: Chicago, and I may have stalked the cast just a little while they were here by riding my bike down to North Avenue Beach where they worked and by walking past the house on my way(ish) to writers group meetings making eye contact with a camera guy in the window of Local Grind.
I want to tell you about how before the show vacated its tumultuous Wicker Park location they held an AIDS charity auction and sale, and for $15 and a signed waiver promising we wouldn’t discuss anything with the press, Ernie and I got inside Real World nerd heaven. Up the elevator, past the fish tank, and into the main space: bright and colorful and SO Real World. How we found the hot tub and opened the mostly by now empty kitchen drawers and cabinets. How I wanted a souvenir but the house had been pretty picked over after earlier-in-the-day fights. How for $80 we could buy their bed sheets, but I was like, I don’t think so. Ew. How I settled on a couple of four dollar cookie cutters (a bicycle and a pumpkin) and anxiously awaited the episode where the roommates have an all night drunken cookie bake-off, which did not happen.
I want to tell you how I discovered a partially opened sliding book case and gave it a push—and found the Confessional where the cast can vent on camera outside of scheduled interviews. How in the middle of this tiny room was an empty chair facing a naked tripod and that I sat and looked into an imaginary camera, practically wetting myself: “So, I met this cute guy, Ernie...” How Ernie joined the fun by yelling, “That bitch! Blah, blah, blah.” And how I grabbed him and planted a big fat KISS on his adorable lips.
You sure as hell couldn’t tell that not-quite 18 year old staring at his childhood house still seeing every corner in his memory and thinking he knew who he was, that in less than ten years he’d be kissing the man he’d spend the rest of his life with in a house he can see every corner of thanks to MTV. This moment would totally have made the cut.