It all started with a pencil.
Twelve was an extremely difficult age for me, but it was also an age when I figured a lot of stuff out. I knew I wanted to be a science teacher when I was 12. I knew my purpose in life as a grownup would be to help teens in any way I could. And I knew that I didn’t belong in Middle of Nowhere, New Jersey, in a small town at a school where I was bullied every day for being an outsider. My true home was out there somewhere. Not stuck in the middle of the woods, completely isolated and feeling so alone. I was determined to find the place where I truly belonged.
I stayed with my grandparents most summers of my teen life. The summer I was 12, I was staying up late watching The Tonight Show with Gram. Gram understood that I was a night person. After Johnny Carson said goodnight, a show called Late Night with David Letterman came on. I asked Gram who David Letterman was. She said, “He’s kind of like Johnny, but wackier.” Anyone who was wacky, zany, dorktastic, a hardcore nerd, or proud to be original in their own quirky way was a winner in my book. So I kept watching. Dave threw a pencil at the camera. He made weird faces. He threw a pencil at the window behind him with a sound effect of glass shattering.
David Letterman instantly became my hero.
I obsessed over Late Night that whole first summer, learning Dave’s tricks and idiosyncrasies. Connecting to things he said in a way that made it clear he was my people, and gave me hope that more of my people were out there. The energy of New York City was palpable. It was an energy that radiated from the screen, an energy that made me feel alive. New York City was clearly my destiny. It was my true home. It was the place where everything that made me different would make me shine. The New York City energy Dave showed me was a drug that kept me going all through high school as I carried hope in my heart that one day I would live there. I looked forward to the time when I could be free to be the best version of myself. As a reminder, I put a Late Night tee on my koala bear Chez, who is featured in When It Happens in the same tee. Chez is an attention hog who has photo bombed several book giveaway pics over the years:
I taped Dave’s show every night. The first thing I did when I got home from school was get my Late Night notebook, rewind the tape, and watch Dave show me more of what I had to look forward to. For the length of his show, I felt like I wasn’t alone anymore. I was in on the joke. I was one with Dave’s community. I wrote down the title of every Top Ten list, every description of “And now, a man who…”, and lines that made me laugh. One was, “I’ll give you 500 dollars if you let me take my teeth out.” I don’t know why that line resonated with me. Probably just because it was so weird. I wrote it on the top of an algebra quiz in 8th grade because my 8th grade algebra teacher seemed like the kind of dude who would watch Dave. Dave’s lines became like this secret language I could use with certain grownups to make me feel included in something. But my teacher didn’t get it. He gave the quiz to a guidance counselor who called me into her office and asked if I was okay.
Of course I wasn’t okay. I was miserable. But every day was one day closer to living in New York City. One day closer to when I could create a happy life for myself and start turning my big dreams into reality. And that made surviving worth it. When I say that David Letterman is why I’m here, I don’t just mean here in New York City. I mean here. Along with the books that saved me, he helped me survive the worst time of my life. He showed me a reason to keep holding on.
When I was fourteen, I sent a postcard in for Late Night tickets. They said it would take like a year to get your tickets. The first tickets I received were for April 24, 1989, one week before my 16th birthday:
As you can see from these Late Night tickets (which are so vinatge that the NBC building wasn’t called 30 Rock, or even the GE Building, but the RCA Building) , anyone under the age of 16 would not be admitted. But there was no way I wasn’t getting in. Fortunately this was back in the day when ID wasn’t checked. They let me and my friend in and it was a completely overwhelming experience that made me even more determined to live in New York City.
I became obsessed with New York. The opener of Late Night started by zooming in across the water to the Twin Towers. The Twin Towers became a symbol of hope for me and the focus of every sketch, painting, clay impression, collage, and photographic paper etching I made in art class. I would go to the library at lunch and research New York, learn its buildings and streets, draw maps of the Village. Also in that Late Night opener was a part where the camera zooms through Old Town Bar. Of course I now live on the same street as Old Town Bar. Love that full-circle non-coincidence.
My inspiration for writing So Much Closer came straight from all of this. So Much Closer is the story of Brooke, a Jersey girl who dreams of living in New York City and finally has a chance to move there. This is why I acknowledged Dave in So Much Closer. Brooke wears the same Late Night tee Chez does and nails a Letterman question at trivia night. My publicist sent Dave’s personal assistant a copy of the book. She also included a letter from me in which I thanked Dave for changing my life and making the world a better, smarter, kinder place. See that Late Show ticket from May 4, 2015? Dave’s assistant remembered me from So Much Closer and was super generous in giving me tickets for his final month of shows. I was nervous about picking which day I wanted because it was impossible to know who would be on. But it turns out that I picked the best possible date. Because who was Dave’s guest on May 4?
Oh, you know. Just President Barack Obama. The Universe was totally on my side.
One of the things I respected most about Dave is his passion for improving public understanding of science, particularly with respect to global warming and environmental preservation. Dave had on physicists, environmentalists, and climatologists in an effort to help his viewers understand the detrimental effects we are having on our planet and how we can all be a part of the solution. Dave even had on my old boss from NASA, Dr. James Hansen, who was rocking the same Birkenstocks he always wore to work. But that’s what was cool about Dave’s show. It wasn’t about glitzy appearances and superficial interviews. It was about the heart and soul of us. It was about the truth, and innovation, and making a difference. David Letterman made this world a better place. And I know he will continue to do so, whichever path he chooses to take next.
This is how a guy as weird as I was showed me where I belonged. By dropping watermelon off the roof, crushing car doors in a 90-ton hydraulic press, with “I be hypnotized” and asking what else Just Bulbs has and rocking those Adidas with blue on the back and whipping all of those pencils at the camera. David Letterman showed me that it is okay to be exactly who you are. More than okay, actually. He showed me that by being exactly who you are, you can inspire more people than you’d ever dreamed and help others in ways you can’t even imagine.
Thirty years ago I was a 12-year-old outsider searching for my true home. David Letterman showed me that New York City was my destiny. Thanks for showing this lost girl where she belonged, Dave. Thanks for helping me survive the worst time of my life. And thanks for showing all the outsiders that they are not alone <3