Tuesday, June 27th, 2006
Hillary Carlip lists her occupation as “multi-mediaist.” Throughout her experiences –as an author, screenwriter, visual artist, Web designer, entrepreneur, creative director, performance artist, rock star, and fire-eater– personal media has emerged as a theme, probably even before there was a name for it.
Her first book, Girl Power: Young Women Speak Out, included essays, poems and rants by teenagers who were homegirls, teen moms, queer girls, cowgirls, sk8rs, and even pageant queens, all explaining their lives in their own words and often their own handwriting. Her second, Zine Scene, celebrated zines as a form of self-expression and offered practical advice for starting a new one.
Carlip also created interactive network Voxxy, personal essay site Fresh Yarn, and along the way found time to stalk Carole King, appear with Olivia Newton-John in Xanadu!, deliver singing telegrams at celebrity birthday parties, become a cult rock star, write a screenplay for Debbie Gibson, appear on Oprah, and earn the first-ever perfect score on The Gong Show.
Her new memoir, Queen of the Oddballs: And Other True Stories from a Life Unaccording to Plan, details these life adventures and so many others. Illustrated with pictures, personal letters, and news clippings, and contextualized with timelines that read like primers of pop culture, Oddballs offers insight on how a freaky-deaky iconoclast (once suspended from third grade for smoking cigarettes while impersonating Holly Golightly) grows into a multitalented and successful woman.
Step one: learn to juggle. Here’s a little taste of Queen of the Oddballs, reprinted with permission and joyfully offered here to you for your reading pleasure. Then go buy the book.
- Rachel Fershleiser
Queen of the Oddballs by Hillary Carlip
Adventures of a Teenage Woman Juggler
Carly Simon and Carole King were not the only talents I longed to emulate. I was also completely enamored with Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett, whose television shows I watched religiously from the edge of my parents’ bed. I admired everything about these women, especially the way they made people laugh-intentionally. If they could do it maybe I could, too. But how?
The answer arrived one sticky summer day when I was hanging out at my friend Edwina Katzman’s house. Edwina’s parents had banished her older sister, Randi, to her olive green shag-carpeted bedroom-grounding her for breaking the large glass table in the dining room.
“How’d she break it?” I asked Edwina.
“Juggling,” she laughed. “Can you believe it?”
Juggling? Throwing things in the air? I’d only seen jugglers on The Ed Sullivan Show and they were always foreign men in spandex unitards. Girls juggled? Wow.
As if moved by a higher though possibly demented power, I flew upstairs to Randi’s room and asked if she would teach me how to juggle. I don’t know if she agreed to because she was bored to death after her week-long grounding or because I “paid” for my lesson by sneaking into her mother’s nightstand drawer and pilfering four cigarettes for her.
Leaning against a musty-smelling patchwork quilt on Randi’s bed, using three oranges I had fetched from the fruit bowl in the kitchen, Randi showed me the basic juggling pattern. I tried it, and was surprised by how quickly it came to me. The oranges sailed through the air from my right hand to my left in neat, controllable arcs. There was no conscious awareness of how I was doing it-juggling just felt instinctual and effortless.
I was under five feet, over 140 pounds and about as graceful as Don Knotts. When I didn’t ditch gym, my schoolmates always picked me last for teams. But now, for the first time in all my 15 years, I actually felt coordinated. It was an extraordinary moment.
While my mother’s habit was martinis and Miltown, my father’s nicotine and work, and my brother’s a variety of addictions from pot to potpies, I became obsessed with flinging objects into the air and catching them.
At home I practiced with oranges. Every time I dropped one, it would splatter on the floor and my mother’s toy poodle, Monkey, would stop her favorite activity-holding a furry slipper between her legs and wildly humping it-long enough to lick up the orange juice. Soon I realized that the reason Randi had taught me to juggle over her bed was that when the oranges dropped onto the quilt they stayed intact. So I stood over my own pouffy quilt patterned with pale pink and blue ballerinas-a hand-made gift from Margarita, the older sister of Esperanza, our boarder from Guatemala-and for hours on end I juggled.
Catching and releasing in a smooth wave of grace, juggling was a meditation, something to focus on besides how uncomfortable I was with myself. I would come to find that it was also a distraction-people watched my juggling instead of me. And before long I started to feel like maybe I was worth watching.
Howard was now living with his therapist on a farm in Topanga Canyon taking care of a family of peacocks, so my mother had a little more energy for me. On weekends she’d drive me to Westwood Village or the L.A. County Art Museum and drop me off to work. I’d juggle on the streets beside acrobats, mimes and other jugglers who taught me how to “pass clubs”-throw fiberglass Indian pins back and forth to one another in elaborate patterns. We’d pass the hat for donations, and I’d hitch a ride back home, flop onto my bedroom floor and spread out my loot-separating out the dollar bills, then counting pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters and placing them into shiny piles like my very own teenage Fort Knox. I’d roll them all into brown paper cylinders that I’d picked up at the bank when I opened my own savings account with $3.75, and weekly I’d haul the rolls of change into the Westwood branch of Bank of America for deposit. While my friends were earning meager cash by babysitting or working at McDonald’s, I was making enough money to buy records, concert tickets and mystical books at the Bodhi Tree. I even raised money for the Los Angeles Women’s Liberation Union and donated it to them by handing over the first $100.00 bill I had ever seen.
One night I went to a club on Melrose called the Ash Grove. Though a well-known a cappella singing group, The Persuasions, was headlining, as in the days of Carly and Carole, I’d come to see their opening act-the Obie Award-winning San Francisco Mime Troupe. Their name was misleading as they specialized in performing socially relevant theater with nary an imaginary rope pull in sight. But they did juggle.
After the show I found the dressing room and poked my head into the open door.
“Are you Hillary?” the only woman in the troupe asked.
“Yeah, you must be Jane.”
“Great to finally meet you!” She startled me with a hug.
“You too,” I said, awkwardly hugging her back. “Your show was incredible!”
Since there weren’t many professional female jugglers in the country, Jane and I had been corresponding after reading about each other in the International Juggler’s Association newsletter. Before she said another word, Jane picked up a large green duffle bag, grabbed my hand and dragged me to the stage. The audience had left and waitresses were noisily clearing off tables.
Jane pulled some equipment out of her bag. “Let’s pass clubs.”
This, I’d discovered over the six months since I’d begun juggling, was a common greeting between jugglers-an instant connection that replaced small talk. Jane and I began to toss the pins to each other, and one by one three men from her troupe seamlessly joined in, never interrupting the pattern.
The owner of the club, a middle-aged man who smelled like smoke, watched us with fascination. “You guys were great tonight. How soon can I get you back here for another gig?”
Never taking her eyes off the pins flying through the air like fiberglass torpedoes, Jane coolly answered, “We’re booked for the rest of the year, touring the country with our act.”
I wanted to be able to say those words. And with Jane’s self-assurance. Touring. With my act. Only problem was, I had no act. But juggling gave me balls. Without thinking I blurted out, “I live in town. I could perform.”
The club owner laughed. “I’m not gonna ask how old you are. You know we serve liquor?”
I sighed heavily, defeated by my adolescence. But to my surprise the owner smiled and said, “Well, I can’t really hire you, but what if you juggled between the opening acts and headliners? You could pass the hat.”
“Perf.” I tried to sound as laid back as possible. After all, I was about to become a true professional. “I’ll start next week.”
At home that evening I began to write my first comedy juggling routine. With Lucy and Carol as my muses, I stayed up for three nights fueled by Mystic Mints and Dr Pepper, writing and rewriting my act on lined notebook paper. I tried it out on my mom and dad who thought it was pretty good. Well, “cute” is what they called it. I decided I needed musical accompaniment and convinced my friend Greg to be my pianist, even though he didn’t know how to play the piano. He made up one abstract, circus-sounding song, memorized it, and one week later “Hillary the Woman Juggler” began performing regularly at the Ash Grove. I’d juggle before such headliners as Linda Ronstadt, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and Maria “Midnight at the Oasis” Muldaur.
One night I was about to do my act before jazz legend Pharaoh Sanders’s set. The audience was classy, older and predominantly black. I felt anxious-I was the only fifteen-year-old white girl in the room, except for Greg, who was so effeminate he might as well have been a white girl.
Well, I thought, why not use the uncomfortable situation-play on it. I slipped into the dressing room and borrowed a guitar case from the opening act’s guitarist. I placed my juggling balls into the case. When it was time for me to go on, I walked toward the stage, past men drinking bourbon and women smoking Virginia Slims; no one paid any attention to me. Greg followed and sat down at the piano. The lights dimmed and the emcee introduced me, leaving off “Juggler” as I had asked him to.
The audience grew quiet. But when the lights came back up and the crowd saw me onstage, dressed in my Indian print bell-bottoms with a rust colored wrap-around leotard and carrying the guitar case, they instantly grew restless. These were hard-core elite jazz-enthusiasts waiting to see a musician who had performed his own genre of “Nubian Space Jazz” with Sun Ra and John Coltrane.
Greg began the song, and the crowd started to boo. The “boos” grew louder as I put the guitar case down and opened it. I started shaking. Part of me wanted to vanish into my safe, familiar world of juggling oranges over my ballerina bedspread, but I thought of Lucy Ricardo; whenever Lucy wanted to make something happen there was no stopping her. I summoned Lucy’s determination as I pulled three hot pink balls out of the guitar case. I began to juggle. Within a few seconds the crowd quieted and began to watch me. My plan had worked. At least a teenage white girl in a leotard juggling was better than a teenage white girl in a leotard playing guitar.
Then I launched into my comic patter-a story I’d written about working at a bakery, using juggling tricks as puns. “I have a lot on my mind” I said as I rolled the balls off my head; “I’ve had ups and downs,” (I tossed the balls up and down in columns). I squinted into the spotlight, focusing on the fluorescent pink orbs sailing through the air. I looked into the crowd and caught one older gentleman’s eye. When he slowly nodded approvingly, I felt encouraged, and I forged on, the tricks becoming more complex, the puns more groan evoking.
“To make bread, you knead…” I said, bouncing the balls off my knees.
“You can’t be blind to what the customer wants…” (I rolled the balls across eyes).
“My co-workers and I really hit it off…” (I hit one ball consecutively off my elbow, forearm, back of hand).
The audience began to laugh and applaud. I left the hardest trick for last. “Working at the bakery is a pain in the neck,” I said as I threw a ball out of the pattern above my head, squatted, flattening my back just in time to catch the ball in the crook of my neck. The crowd let loose with cheers. Then I whipped back up, and the ball flew out and over my head, returning to the juggling pattern. Greg played our climatic finish, running his hand from top key to bottom. Black, white, old, young-none of that mattered any longer. The crowd went wild. They gave me a standing ovation.
My dreams were no longer on hold. Finally I was making people laugh-intentionally.
After that I performed at the club every week. Some times with Greg, most times alone. I was applauded and lauded, and I almost keeled over with joy when I read my first review, a rave in the Los Angeles Times. A week later, I bought up all copies of the Herald-Examiner at every newsstand within five miles from my house because a reviewer wrote: “…Amazing… ‘Hillary has to be seen to be believed …She deserved ten encores…”
But while the opening and headlining acts hung out with each other, I sat alone in the dressing room, sipping virgin peach daiquiris, no one talking to me. I teetered between two disparate worlds-high school and the L.A. nightclub scene-and I belonged to neither.
For the next seven months I continued my gig at the Ash Grove until one windy October night its name proved prophetic, and the club burned to the ground.
I was distraught. Since I’d experienced the luxury of performing onstage, I couldn’t bear to return to the streets. But what other club would hire an under-aged schoolgirl to juggle between acts? I was soon to find out-none. I pondered my future, only then realizing that making a living from juggling was going to be a challenge.
And then one winter afternoon, providence came to me over chili-cheese fries at an Orange Julius. That’s where I found a brochure for a Learning Annex type of program called Heliotrope. Through this Open University people taught all kinds of classes out of their homes. “Advanced MacramÃ©”; “Creative Casseroles.” Why not juggling?
I was sure the description I wrote for the catalog-including the enticing phrase, “Let me help you fulfill your fondest fantasies”-would surely seal the deal for those trying to decide between my class and “How to Make Giant Tissue Paper Flowers.” In fact since I knew “Learn to Juggle” would be in such high demand, and I’d fulfill my maximum of ten students, I xeroxed ten copies of a handout I had created, complete with hand-drawn diagrams of juggling patterns.
When I received the call from Heliotrope informing me that only one person had signed up, I was totally bummed. But since I was holding the juggling class in my tiny bedroom and hadn’t really considered how more than two people would fit, I figured it was just as well.
On the first night of class, I asked my parents to make themselves scarce. “Who’s coming over?” my dad asked.
“Heliotrope only told me his name is Bob.”
“Well, I’m sticking around to check him out,” Dad said.
“Alright,” I agreed, “but Mom, please make sure Monkey’s locked in your bedroom.” I couldn’t deal with the possibility that my mom’s poodle would be humping the furry slipper when my student arrived.
My father was an ex-artist whose insatiable interior design hobby caused him to redecorate the house every few months. He had recently painted our entire downstairs a dramatic black, so when I heard the doorbell ring, I raced around turning on every light. Then I ran to the door and opened it to find my pupil standing there: a stocky older man with a gray goatee.
“Hi,” he said. “I’m Bob.”
“I’m Hillary. Come in.”
He stepped into the foyer, and my dad walked in from the kitchen.
“Hi Bob, I’m Bob Carlip,” he extended his arm and the two men shook hands.
I looked at my dad with a See? He’s fine. My dad pulled me aside for just a second and whispered, “Leave your door open.”
Bob seemed older than both my parents, but since I was the teacher, I said in my most authoritative tone, “All right, Bob. Let’s get goin’.”
He followed me up the stairs. After months of living with his therapist, Howard had just moved back home, so I pretended not to notice the smoke seeping from beneath his door, forming a pot-scented cloud in the hallway. Once in my bedroom, I picked up three balls that sat on the Guatemalan-made ballerina quilt on my twin bed, and began the first lesson of our four-week class. Step by step, ball by ball, I showed Bob the basic juggling pattern, leading him in proper arcing, tossing and catching. I was reassured when two hours later, at the end of our first class, Bob smiled and said, “That was great. See you next week.”
When he returned for the following lesson, Bob told me he was a television writer. Learning to juggle, he explained, was research for his work.
“Neat,” I said. “Have you written for any show I might have seen?”
“Probably,” he answered casually. “I Love Lucy, The Lucy Show, Here’s Lucy.”
My heart started beating so loudly, the sound drowned out Hendrix blasting from my brother’s room. Bob, this ordinary old man juggling in my bedroom, worked on a daily basis with my idol. I’d seen his credit roll into that I Love Lucy heart a thousand times.
“You’re Bob Carroll Jr.?”
“That would be me,” he said. “I’m learning to juggle so I can teach Lucy.”
“Lucy has to learn how to do something really well before she can make it look like she doesn’t know how to do it at all.”
“Like the time when she was trying to climb into the top bunk bed with the stilts?”
“Exactly,” he beamed, clearly impressed with my episodic knowledge.
“Well,” I sputtered, the wheels turning, “Lucy really could learn more effectively if I taught her directly. I could stop by the set or something.”
Bob smiled. “She’s just so busy, it’s hard to pin down a time with her. I’m going to show her whenever we can just grab a second.”
“I see.” Oh well, I tried.
Over the next two weeks, Bob proved to be an excellent student. On the night of his final class he said, “Lucy’s going to be very excited. She really does want to learn how to juggle.”
A strange calm oozed through me like taking that first sip of hot chocolate on a chilly night and feeling it pulse through your veins. For so long I’d wanted to be like Lucy. Now, Lucy wanted to be like me.
I saw Bob to the door where he gave me a strong, fatherly hug. By then I felt so confident, I didn’t even care that in the foyer where we said good-bye, Monkey was humping the slipper.
- Carly Simon marries James Taylor. Molly and I are not invited to the wedding. Friends. Right.
- The same week Roe v. Wade is re-argued in Supreme Court, I go see the taping of the new show, Maude. The episode is part one of the controversial “Maude’s Dilemma,” in which the 45-year-old character decides to get an abortion. Despite protests, including Pro-Life groups mailing producer Norman Lear photographs of aborted fetuses, months later the Supreme Court rules that a woman’s right to an abortion falls within the right to privacy protected by the 14th Amendment and abortion is legalized.
- The number one song is Helen Reddy’s “I am Woman.” Right on.
- My two straight girlfriends Leslie and Dana sleep together and say they had an incredible, beautiful time. This helps me acknowledge my own repressed lesbian desires, even though I don’t act on them yet.
- The Joy of Sex is released, featuring unsightly illustrations and watercolors of a very hairy heterosexual couple having sex. Now I act on my previously repressed lesbian desires and experience my first kiss with a girl.
- I am picked by lottery to attend my high school’s alternative program. Students create our own classes and I get straight A’s in Rose Breeding, Post-Sixties Novels, and Pantomime.
- As a volunteer, I help organize a McGovern for President Benefit where we show the film Reefer Madness.
- In the largest Republican landslide in history, Nixon defeats George McGovern. So much for us pot-smoking volunteers…
- Deliverance, Last Tango in Paris, and Pink Flamingos are the big hit movies of the year, prompting nationwide dinnertime discussions about banjos, butter and dog shit.
Excerpted from Queen of the Oddballs by Hillary Carlip. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022.