When I was a few years sober, I ended up choreographing The Wiz for a free rehab that housed recently incarcerated men in downtown LA. How a Marin County girl ended up trekking to the hood twice a week to teach a group of ex-cons how to do a munchkin dance isn’t nearly as interesting as the fact that it happened at all.
In short: I didn’t have any sponsees and was looking for a way to be of service. I toured the rehab and saw a sign that there were auditions for The Wiz.
“A musical!” I exclaimed to the person giving me the tour. “I love musicals!” I talked about how I’d had lead dancing parts in Bye Bye Birdie, Hair and West Side Story in high school and how I’d later danced and choreographed professionally. Before I knew it, I’d made the commitment.
To say I did not know what I was getting into would be the understatement of the decade. I seem to have this blind faith that can be considered wonderful or dangerous depending on the day but I just kind of naively assume if something’s come along, it’s meant to come along and I will be protected.
The faith was really, really blind in this case.
The fact is I was a woman showing up to teach a bunch of questionably sober ex-cons how to dance for a musical they were being forced to perform in if they wanted their parole officers off their respective backs.
In other words, they were not remotely interested in learning the munchkin dance I’d painstakingly choreographed in my living room.
A typical rehearsal found me teaching the dance and them sort of not really trying to learn it. Then they would ask me out. Or hand me love letters. Or give me gifts that they’d clearly stolen, usually clothing that was a few sizes too small.
I don’t tell you this to be self-aggrandizing. I tell you this to explain that I was the only woman they’d been around in a long time and they didn’t seem to understand why I’d want to show up twice a week for months at a time to teach a munchkin dance.
To be honest, I was starting to wonder the same thing.
But it was service! Service, as people in recovery often said, wasn’t supposed to feel good! It was supposed to get you out of your head!
Get me out of my head this did, particularly when I would show up and see two guys nursing black eyes and be informed that they’d gotten in a fist fight over me. While I normally will accept any opportunity to get that damn ego of mine fed, I was starting to get freaked out.
But I kept at it, even though I would be faced with a new bunch of munchkins every week since most every resident either relapsed or was kicked out at some point. By the week of the show, there was actually only one guy who’d been a part of the group when we’d started a few months earlier and he wasn’t, to be kind, Fred Astaire.
After all those months of driving there, pretending I wasn’t a sheltered girl and that teaching ex-cons a munchkin dance was an appropriate use of my time, it was determined that none of the munchkins knew the dance. It was determined that I would have to be in the play, playing a munchkin, so the rest could follow my steps.
The show had to go on and go on it did. I’ll tell you the truth: I killed as a munchkin. I know this because two of my friends came to see the show but I only learned it later since they both left at intermission—scared that they would be mugged or their cars would be stolen. That was really the first time I understood quite how dangerous the neighborhood was.
Years later, I encountered criminals of a different sort. These criminals were cleaner, a bit more suave and a whole lot more awful. These criminals hired me to edit a recovery magazine.
Now I’ve worked for so many crazy people that when the lackey who’d hired me explained that I was going to be taking orders from someone in prison, I didn’t even blink.
Instead I asked, “What’s he in for?”
Embezzlement, I was told.
I shrugged. At least, I figured, it wasn’t murder.
The problem, as I saw it, wasn’t that the guy running the show was a criminal. The problem was that he was an idiot. A few days into the gig, Lackey called to tell me that the celebrity we were planning to have on the cover was going to be replaced with a dog.
It’s the boss, he said.
He explained that the boss really had a soft spot for this certain rehab that gave everyone a puppy.
We both laughed. Jesus.
Then Lackey said that maybe it would be better if I communicated with the boss directly.
And thus began a month of me learning how to communicate with prisoners. Yes, plural. Because, as it turned out, the boss wasn’t the only person I was taking orders from. There was also a man we can call Gary. It was never clear to me who Gary was in relation to the boss—a lover, a prison mate, the guy he’d embezzled with? It clearly didn’t matter. I grew accustomed to getting two prison-sent missives a day, always filled with terrible ideas that I always acted like I thought were great.
One day, one of these messages from Gary explained that he’d written a book and wanted me to write the foreward to it. He attached it.
Unsurprisingly, said book was unintelligible.
But I needed this job, I told myself.
I wrote him back that of course I would write the forward.
A therapist would call my agreeing to do this subscribing to a “scarcity mentality.” I thought of it as just doing what I had to in order to remain employed.
A few days later, after thinking it through and talking to my sponsor, I came to the conclusion that I hadn’t been hired to add my name to illiterate books written by the incarcerated. I wrote Gary that I was very sorry but I couldn’t write the foreward.
I went back to finishing the current issue. I continued to work long days, forwarding stories and ideas to Lackey and his lackeys. But suddenly, they had all gone MIA.
Two days later, I woke up to an email from Lackey saying that he was “beside himself” because he had received the galley for the September issue. The email accused me of hiring writers who were plagiarists and then listed a series of inadvertently hilarious accusations about editing stories badly and promoting my podcast on other sites. It concluded, “It is obvious we need to hire a forensic researcher to determine the extent of plagiarism, recycling, and exposure to claims of copyright infringement.” He asked for my resignation, saying that this, “together with a crafted message, mutual release and confidentiality/non-disparagement would obviously be in your best interests well as ours, and we could all avoid a public discussion about your departure.”
We were, to put it mildly, not in Kansas anymore.
Now I’ll admit I cried when I got this. It doesn’t matter how outrageous someone’s accusation is; it doesn’t matter how illiterate the email; it doesn’t matter that you know it’s written by a pathetic lackey answering to the demands of a prisoner’s friend, who happens to be his boss.
It sucks to be told you suck.
I let myself cry for a day.
A few days later, I had forwarded the email to several people who are far more intelligent and litigious than I am, and all of them pointed out that these people had a hell of a lot to lose. It’s illegal, of course, to run a company out of prison.
For several weeks I received emails from someone at the company asking me to sign an NDA. The more I refused, the harder he pushed. I just kept saying no—that they were free to tell anyone they wanted that I hired plagiarists. Then a friend pointed out that since they had everything to lose and I had nothing to lose, they probably would be willing to pay me to keep quiet. My responses to the business affairs guy began to hint at the fact that I would keep mum on the way they were doing business if they paid out my contract.
The guy in business affairs didn’t bite. He did, however keep asking me to sign something.
One day he stopped emailing.
Shortly after that, I realized what a blessing this was. If I asked to be paid to keep quiet about their criminal activities, wouldn’t I be as bad as them?
The day I let go of this debacle is the day I decided I would never again work for crazy and abusive people.
But a crazy thing happened when I made that decision. My little side hustle—a company actually called Light Hustler, where I help people share their light, grow their businesses and be of service to a world that needs them—took the f off. Suddenly, out of nowhere, something I’d always considered an adjunct income started bringing in more than editing the prison magazine did—by a landslide.
And that’s not the only thing that happened. I also ran into a munchkin.
Yep! A few months ago, I was sitting on a couch in the VIP room of a rock show—in other words, the last place on earth one would expect for this to happen—when a guy came up to me and told me he was 14 years sober and I was a large part of it.
“I was one of your munchkins,” he said. With tears in his eyes, he told me how much the play had meant to him and what a large part of that I was.
“I still remember the dance,” he said.
I myself do not. But this encounter reminded me yet again that you never know what’s going to happen. I never thought when I was teaching a bunch of seemingly indifferent ex-cons a dance that I’d run into one who told me that changed his life. I also never thought I’d be called a plagiarist by a wanna-be writer in prison.
I guess it comes down to this: my former munchkin, the criminal running the recovery magazine and the rest of us are all on our own yellow brick roads, headed to our own emerald cities.
How we dance on them is up to us.