WAIKIKI AND ME
The dessert plates are being abruptly cleared by a waiter who seems only interested in getting this meal over with. No problem for me, as I didn’t even touch the piece of hardened cheesecake that looked like one of those plastic replicas you see in the window displays at certain New York delis.
But this aint New York.. I’m currently seated at the head table of a fancy ballroom, in a fancy hotel, in a fancy section of Waikiki, Hawaii, waiting to be called on to give my keynote talk at a fundraising gala for this fancy local substance abuse treatment center.
As a result of being visible in the world of recovery, because of the books I’ve written on the subject, I occasionally get asked to speak at affairs like this. I’m known as someone who can address the “lighter side of drug addiction” given that my books are celebrity memoirs containing colorful stories of the wild rides of shining stars before they spiraled down the drain. I’m told my talks bring levity and humor to what can often become dreary affairs.
Not that I deserve any praise or recognition for my work; to the contrary, I’m a lucky guy who found a way out of my addictions and was able to turn my living liability into an asset. But these people who I’ve been paid to entertain and perform for think I’m smart, special and someone worth shelling out big bucks to come see so I act as if, and do my best to give them what they came to hear.
I’m not really a trained performer, and as scared as I often am at these functions, I’ve learned how to tap into an inner resource and just get up there and do it, in spite of my fears and insecurities. I try to stay present and in the moment and trust that the words will come. Also, sneaking off to the restroom to offer a little prayer to the big guy doesn’t hurt either.
The MC for this gala began the after-dinner program by introducing the opening act for the evening, a group of extra-large native Hawaiian women who performed an authentic hula for the appreciative audience. They were dressed in matching sarongs, woven head dresses and large flower leis around their necks. The dance they perform is rhythmic and primitive, with a good measure of raw sexuality. They were accompanied by the only man in their group, an elder, who chanted in the beautiful Hawaiian language, while he played various percussion instruments. I was told by the chair of the event, who was seated next to me, that these impressive, native women were currently serving time in a Hawaii state prison for drug and alcohol related offences. They earned the right to be part of this dance troup by volunteering for substance abuse counseling. It was a very moving performance, which set the bar for the evening at a very high level.
Next came a series of presentations to various people associated with the fundraising organization and as I sensed my time was almost at hand, I noticed that perspiration was beginning to form under my arms, a sure sign of nervousness. “Damn, I wish they would hurry up and get this show moving.” Waiting to speak is always nerve wracking. I pretend to be calm and enjoying myself, but I’m starting to tense up. I’ve given many talks at these kinds of affairs and know the drill, but it never seems to get any easier. I know it’s only my ego wanting to look good and that the secret is letting go, but knowing and practicing are often two very different matters.
Finally, the woman chosen to introduce me is making her way up onto the stage and I take a couple of slow deep breathes to calm myself and get ready. I don’t catch her name but I understand that she is a TV personality of some renown here in Hawaii. She’s a dynamic little woman, of Philippine extraction, and immediately starts telling jokes that break up the audience. When she finishes she then breaks into a song about the islands. “My God, is this ever going to end?” I’m afraid to look down at the beautiful Hawaiian shirt I chose to wear for this occasion, certain that the stains under my arms are growing rapidly. When she finally finishes, Little Miss Sunshine receives a huge ovation, and I know there is no way I can reach the emotional pitch she has pushed the audience to. How can I follow her?
Well, here goes.. Now it’s my turn. After an introduction read off of a 3 x 5 card, I make my way over to the podium, accompanied by a pretty hefty applause. My moment has arrived. I’m presented with a beautiful Hawaiian flower lei and a kiss on the cheek by the woman who just finished introducing me.
I take the proffered microphone, step behind the lectern, grabbing each side to steady myself, take a deep breath and gaze out over the expectant crowd.
The thickly carpeted ballroom is bigger than I realized and there must be a few hundred people in the audience. Diners are gathered in groups of ten around linen covered tables, graced with lovely Hawaiian floral arrangements. The lighting has been dimmed in the ballroom, but a spotlight remains on me, making it impossible to make out faces in the crowd. The men are all donning island formal wear; bright Hawaiian shirts, while the women are wearing equally colorful native dresses. I hear the clinking of coffee cups.
How ironic I’m thinking, that a former drunk and drug addict is now standing before this upscale crowd with a story they all seem eager to here. A bottle of mineral water has thoughtfully been placed on the lectern shelf for my consumption. I raise it to my lips, take a swallow and begin. “My name is Gary, and I know I don’t look like one, but I’m an alcoholic.”