Door-to-door knowledge (Ferguson & Katzman/Getty Images)
Door-to-door knowledge (Ferguson & Katzman/Getty Images)

Door-to-Door Tutoring

by Will Siss

In this economy, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.

That’ll be $3, please.

You’re probably wondering why I’m suddenly so wealthy, despite reports that consumer confidence is stagnant and employment anemic at best. Well, it’s no secret. I simply decided to get aggressive.

I’ve decided to throw myself into door-to-door tutoring.

At first, it was a bit discouraging. No one expects the knock at the door at 8:30 in the morning to come from a licensed teacher ready to impart knowledge whether the pupil is ready or not.

The early sessions went like this:

“Good morning! I’m Murray Spadinsky and I’m offering my tutoring services. There’s a special today on Geography, but I can tell by your harried expression that you might be more interested in Time Management. My rates are reasonable and we can start right now…”

That’s when the door usually shuts. Or slams, depending on the hour and neighborhood. More likely, however, the encounter is like this:

“Murray Spadinsky, ma’am. I received a referral that you might need some tutoring in vocabulary. Yes, your sister recommended that I teach you four new words today, and we can have the session right here on your porch. Please take these pre-printed index cards…”

The trick, obviously, is to not let them get a word in. I got lucky that she had a sister because there was no referral, of course. After three or four minutes of quizzing and using the words in sentences, Mary Customer is able to use “cacophonous,” “disambiguation,” “polymorphism,” and “bric-a-brac” like a pro.

I started out with a pay-as-you-wish policy, but eventually created a menu of price options. For a vocabulary session like this one, I’d charge $9 ($1 a word, plus labor). Comparative religion lectures are $10 per religion, with a discount on atheism.

Why more people haven’t capitalized on this career option is beyond me. Unlike at a college, where you have to deal with red tape like getting a photo ID or background checks or applying for credentials, direct-to-customer education is streamlined and requires very little overhead. I’m as flexible as can be, especially since I bought the big van. I’m prepared to teach English, math, history, Spanish (um poco), health, music (choral and strings), and hip-hop salsa.

Student buy-in is usually very simple. I’ve learned to tailor my offerings to my customers based on market research I do behind trees with my binoculars. Stay-at-home moms with infants are often interested in learning self-defense, or at least that’s what I’ve inferred based on their amateur ability throw boiling water from a distance of five meters. Men over 75 are keen on oral history instruction. These sessions can last up to seven hours, and usually end when the pupil is asleep. That makes my payment easier, to be frank, because tuition is most likely found in a loose panel inside the bedroom closet.

Another advantage to my style of tutoring, as compared to the old-fashioned brick-and-mortar model? Site-specific learning. Does the pupil have a garage? Woodworking 101. Grandma’s got a kitchen? Advanced Culinary. That condo complex’s clump of trees over there? It’s now a classroom for budding arborists.


My references are piling up…

“Murray Spadinsky was so helpful! I always wondered what those little pieces of plastic at the end of our shoelaces were called. Best 49 cents I ever spent!”

“Murray’s ability to make the work of Carneiscus relevant to me turned my whole view of Epicurean philosophy on its head. And all while I was watering my garden!”

“When I saw a crumple-suited man come out of a van in my driveway carrying a calculator, Bunsen burner, and Oxford English Dictionary, I almost called the police. But when I learned what he was doing, I felt much better about calling the hospital instead.”


So, don’t get frustrated that you’re underemployed or over-educated for your current circumstances. Channel that inner-salesmen and take that knowledge to the people! Just don’t hover near my territory anywhere from North Maple Avenue to Grove Street.  There are a few multi-family homes that I think could use a course in etiquette.

Cologne, Grass, Doughnut

By Will Siss

For his upcoming book, author Joseph Donovan has transcribed the final performance by the United States’ premier improvisational troupe, The Foundlings. The performance, presented on August 5, 2012, starred Alexander Klasen and Delores Jeroue, the beloved “King and Queen of Improv.” This transcription will be published in Donovan’s history, Off the Cuff Genius: How The Foundlings Reinvented Comedy (Zenith Publishing, 2013). All props referenced in the script are imaginary. As was the tradition of the troupe, this improvisation began with three words that had to be used in the performance. The words for this final performance were COLOGNE, GRASS, and DOUGHNUT.

(Curtain opens. A MAN and a WOMAN enter the stage.)

MAN: Do you like my cologne?

WOMAN: (sniffs) Yes, and I think it’s wonderful. It makes me think of flowers on this very sunny day.

MAN: Yes, and flowers are what I have for you right here. (He places his hand behind his back and pulls out a spray of flowers.)

WOMAN: Why, thank you. I love them. Yes, and I plan to put them in this… horse. (She puts flowers in horse.)

MAN: Yes, that is a fine horse. What is his name?

WOMAN: It’s not a he, it’s a she.

MAN: (sotto voce) You can’t contradict me, Delores, you know that. (He smiles awkwardly at the audience.)

WOMAN: Yes, I can and her name is Frank.

MAN: That’s not a female name.

WOMAN: A-ha! Now who’s doing the contradicting, Alex? I suppose now you’ll ask me to go sit on that grass over there. You are so predictable. (MAN and WOMAN walk stage left.)

MAN: No… I mean yes, and you should bring your stupid, ugly male horse.

WOMAN: Yes, and now he’s taking a dump on your shoe.

MAN: No, he… I mean, yes, I see that. (He shakes foot and sits down). Well, that is OK because now you want to clean off the manure with your bare hands.

WOMAN: No, I… I mean, yes I do, but I suddenly have a kicking fit and kick you in the ribs. (She kicks him in the ribs.)

MAN: Jesus! What are you doing?

WOMAN: I’m trying to crack your ribs for making out with my sister behind my back, you stupid drunk.

MAN: Look, we can deal with that later, just, let’s finish this first. Yes, and look! A lightning bolt is hitting you in the head.

WOMAN: I don’t feel anything. (She stands with hands on hips.)

MAN: What do you mean? You have to because you have to say “yes, and” to keep the story going. We’ve been doing this, for like, 30 years.

WOMAN: Really? I don’t think I have to say anything, you arrogant piece of garbage. Besides, I already said it was a “very sunny day.” What’s up with the lightning, you twisted freak?

MAN: (standing) Yes, and since I’m such a twisted freak, I’ll push your shoulders violently. (He pushes her shoulders violently.)

WOMAN: (after nearly falling) Oh, does that make you feel like a man, Alex? I don’t know what Laurie sees in you, you washed up ham.

MAN: I’m sorry… I didn’t mean to do that. Will you forgive me?


MAN: Don’t you mean, “Yes, and…”

WOMAN: Fine. Yes, and it’s too bad about your condition.

MAN: What condition?

WOMAN: That you are dying rapidly of a rare and painful disease that starts in your groin and also ends in the groin. (She kicks him in the groin.)

MAN: (doubling over in pain.) Ahh! Why’d you do that? (coughing) I can’t breathe…

WOMAN: Yes, and it will keep hurting for eternity.

MAN: No, it won’t.

WOMAN: What’d you say? (She kicks him toe-first in the shin.)

MAN: (falling to his knees) Doughnut

(Curtain closes.)

Tweets from the Dogsitter

By Will Siss

Jennifer Martin @Jenn_1995 (6h)

Dogsitting gig. Soooo bored. Weener dog and german shppperd. #dumbdogssuck

Jennifer Martin @Jenn_1995 (6h)

So psyched that @eddieroolz69 is comin over! He’s gotta be better company than Mutty and Bart. #realdumbnames

Jennifer Martin @Jenn_1995 (5h)

Shots, shots, shots! @eddieroolz69 and @scuzzyfarts are in da house! got dogz tied up in basement. :P

Jennifer Martin @Jenn_1995 (4h)

WTF??? Errrbody left me alone and took the booze. FAIL! #facepalm Gonna go jump in nabe’s pool.

Jennifer Martin @Jenn_1995 (4h)

k, time to feed the stupid pups. startin to sober up. not cool. Makes me feel like this:

Jennifer Martin @Jenn_1995 (3h)

wierd… cant find the dogs. more to come??? #hmmm

Jennifer Martin @Jenn_1995 (2h)

Guess who chewed their way out a back door? Wonder if @anthony_j and @deenajamison r comin home early? hope not!

Anthony Jamison @anthony_j (2h)

@Jenn_1995 Is everything alright?

Retweeted by Jennifer Martin

Jennifer Martin @Jenn_1995 (45m)

Found dogs. Not good! #shoveltime

Jennifer Martin @Jenn_1995 (27m)

All I have to say is: fb.mi/dU32jj

Jennifer Martin @Jenn_1995 (12m)

They’ll be pulling in any minute. @eddieroolz69 come pick me up nowwwwwwww. #busted #goingtoprison

Jennifer Martin @Jenn_1995 (2m)

@deenajamison “Jenn, I hope your tweets are just a joke?” Ya, no! #soscrewed

Jennifer Martin @Jenn_1995 (1m)

so when do i get paid? #fml #

Thanks for Comin’ Out Tonight!

By Will Siss

As a musician, performance feeds my soul like no religion could. It breathes life into the dark corners and allows the full flower of my expression to blossom without restraint.

The highlight of my performing career bloomed this past Friday night when I captured the imagination of an audience with my skills in ways that even I had never thought possible.

The gig was at my middle school’s media center for a student talent show. Granted, I’m a teacher there, but with barely any insistence from me, organizers placed me on the bill. It promised to be a night of poetry, song, and dance, but when I saw the line-up I knew that the singer/songwriter abilities of me, “Mr. Dennison” to everyone at school, would be the highlight.

To be sure, the pre-teen contestants had promise (organizers refused to call it a contest, but let’s not kid ourselves). When I signed up, I noticed there would be an a-capella soloist who would sing “Don’t Stop Believing,” a hip-hop trio called BaKfLipZ, and a poet who would recite something called “U Broke My ❤ in 2.”  Scrappy performers all, I was sure, but did they have the drive I had? The passion? Did they have cassette tapes of original power ballads recorded in their basement dating back to 1987? Clearly not.

I decided to sign on to sing accompanied by my acoustic guitar, as it paired best with the library’s intimate environment. After going through my mental catalogue of originals, I went through my actual card catalogue of originals, since it’s alphabetized and therefore easier to find what I want. I didn’t dare sing anything too racy for the audience, which promised to consist of students in the 10- to 12-year-old demo. However, I knew that their parents and grandparents would be there, which got me thinking that perhaps I could expand my choice afterall.

On the night of the performance, I displayed the humility that befits a teacher, but I’ll admit it was a little hard not to strut a bit to my seat when I saw my competition (I mean “fellow artists,” wink-wink). There was a minor glitch when I forgot that middle schoolers haven’t developed a sense of irony. Upon being asked if the giant guitar case I was carrying meant that I was going to play guitar tonight, I glibly responded to my seventh grader, Joey, “No, it’s a gun!” Did you know that libraries have security guards? They do.

As it so happened, I was placed last on the list of 20 performers. Whether that was because they were saving the “best” for that slot was hardly a question, although there were whispers that by 8 o’clock we’d be bumping up against some bedtimes. I scanned the audience for fellow teachers: there was Janice, the science teacher with the overly caffeinated smile. Stan, the music teacher who shook your hand too hard. And then there was my nemesis: Cassandra, the history teacher who thought she was “all that” when she sang the National Anthem (more like butchered it!) at last year’s opening day ceremony. She said she didn’t want to sing it as a duet because she didn’t “understand why” I added lyrics to liven it up.
Padding the room were about 40 mop-headed students, eyes glued to their cell phones, no doubt texting that they were at the cultural event of the year, at least locally.

I took in the venue. Clearly, the acoustics were going to be unacceptable. With an 8-foot ceiling of primarily water-stained tiles and the glass of the courtyard bouncing the sound around, I took solace in the fact that the natural ring of my guitar and voice would compensate. The performers were placed in front of a bank of computers, stage left of the reference section, and stage right of the check-out counter. Overall it was a nice space, my only real complaint being the flourescent bulbs. I asked the custodian to turn them off, and he just sort of looked at me in that way that all custodians look at me, as if I’ve recently shot one of their relatives. Clearly, he was not an artist.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” an 8th grader read from an index card. “Thank you for coming to the Tidesdale Middle School Student Talent Show. Please make sure you turn off your cell phones and disable any flash photography, as it could distract our performers this evening. We ask that you do not talk during the performances, and that if you do need to have a conversation that you make your way to the hall between acts. We will begin tonight with a song sung by Jenny Heffernan… Heverman…Heff…”

What an amateur!

The contest started off without much bang. Jenny, a cherubic 7th grader I had in my fourth-period honors English class, sang a predictably “sweet” version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” I mean, could you be more safe with your choice? Everything was on key and all that, despite not having any accompaniment, but that’s just a parlor trick and anyone could do it. You’d think, however, that Jenny had just cured cancer by the reception she got. Jesus, people: all that hooting and hollering is just embarrassing.

BaKfLipZ brought a bit more energy to the stage, but their performance was more light than heat, if you know what I mean. Volume does not equal talent, but tell that to Phoebe, Katie, and Katie, whose splits and cartwheels were drowned in a sea of thumpity thump of some pre-recorded popular singer (where’s the copyright security when you need them?). Their routine was cute, but it seemed too rehearsed. I guess spontaneity somehow went the way of the dinosaur, eh, kids?

There was Bobby, whose ode to mountains relied a bit too much on slant rhymes for my taste. And there was Letisha who got all fancy with her rendition of “Stand By Me,” what with her friends singing this gospel part that totally manipulated the audience’s emotions. Even Smiley Janice was all teary-eyed. Puh-lease!

I thought I’d be the only one with an original song. I was counting on it, since it was going to be part of my opening “patter”: “These kids are great, aren’t they? None of them can write their own material, however…” It went on like that.

But no: number 15 on the list was Trevor, an 8th grader who also brought an acoustic guitar. His had 12 strings on it, and boy did he look ridiculous trying to fit his hand around the neck. I did this thing where I turned a laugh into a cough, and everyone looked at me in that custodian kind of way. So Trevor did this fake-appreciative thing where he thanked the audience and said he’s going to sing a song he wrote called “Midnight.”

He started with this show-offy maneuver I think they call an arpeggio or some sort of finger-picking thing, then went into this we’ve-heard-it-a-million-times major chord progression: G, D, C or something like that. I was just completely embarrassed for him. I looked at the audience and they’re eating it up like the cafeteria’s Friday special. Like he’s some sort of genius just because he can sing and play at the same time. I wanted to say, “Would it kill you to throw in an A-minor? Do you even know what a diminished chord IS?”

So he had a classic two-verse, then chorus composition, and then he got all fancy and threw in a bridge. Then he actually got the audience singing along with him on the chorus again. Gee, maybe because the song was so BORING that they already knew the chorus? Did snobby Cassandra the history teacher even think of that as she was all swaying back and forth at her table, doing that vibratto thing that’s so phony?

Then the song was over and they all stood up. Can you believe it? I mean, really. Like they’d never seen a 13-year-old sing his own decent, albeit catchy, song before.
By now the crowd was starting to dwindle, and after the 19th performer (a poet whose work “Trees” seemed a little derivative of Frost) there were only about 12 people left. It didn’t matter, because the judges — I mean organizers! — were still there, and they were the ones that mattered. I was going to nail this thing with my grand finale, and boy did I ever.

I sat in the wooden chair set up for me in front of the microphone. “Thank you!” I said to the audience’s awed silence. “I want to thank all the kids who tried so hard tonight. As you can see I’m hardly a kid (I paused for their internalized laughter) but I think I’ve got a little something that you’re going to like.”

Striking the first chord (an E-minor, thank you very much), I stood and kicked over the chair. That got them looking up. Then I knocked over the mic with my strumming hand, which gave this wicked feedback that I didn’t even expect, which was totally cool. I walked closer to my fans as I played, and by the way they leaned back I knew I had their attention.

The song was called “When You Never Call I Can’t Return Your Call,” which I wrote after a particularly stormy relationship in college, I think with my roommate. It held up very well after 17 years, and if anything, took on more relevance in these trying times.

“You are a lie! You are a liar! You lie! You are a liar!” I began, in what I called a revese-coda. The song was more freeform jazz than traditional “rock” or “folk” music, but if it reflected any genre, it would have to be “atonal punk.”

“Burning bodies! Rancid squalor!/I’m the phone! You’re the caller!/You never call! You never call! You never call me back!/Sequined disaster! Pit of fiery ambition!/I left a message! I’m the message! You call this living?!”

The moment was breathtaking. They were so physically moved that they grasped the sides of their chairs and wouldn’t even look at me. I had to give a nod to Bobby when I rhymed “slaughter” with “mauler,” and he actually had to leave, he was so choked up by the mutual respect (well, ran out of the room was more like it). He wasn’t the only one. By the second half of the song, only six minutes in, the last children started filing out, some leaving their instruments behind.

But Cassandra stayed. Oh, yes, she wasn’t going to miss this one. I held her gaze until the last chord, which was also an E-minor, and as the echoes of my words “Chest cavity!” echoed against the “Mural of Friendship” behind the audience, I knew that I had won.

They never did technically award anyone anything that night, and I’ve had the last two days to think about it. I just checked my school e-mail from home and there’s a message from the principal for me to see her in her office before homeroom. I’m pretty sure I know what she’s going to say. I just need to put on the humble act when she does.
(C) Will Siss 2011

Lost in Translation

By Will Siss

As I reread the classic work Love in the Time of Cholera, by Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez, I am struck by its flowing lyricism and dynamic wordplay.

That said, I cannot help but think of the contribution made to the work by translator Edith Grossman. “Needy Edie,” as she’s known in our translator circle, is a master of taking the already beautiful Spanish language and making it even more beautifuller. Take, for example, the opening line of the novel: “It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.”

Nice, huh? Pure Edie. If you look at the original Spanish version, a literal translation reads thusly: “What stinks in here? Oh, it’s almonds.” Not exactly Shakespeare.

As a licensed translator, I find that it’s best to give yourself to the text and let the author’s words shine through. Except in English. This isn’t as hard as it appears if you have a superior mind like mine. Now, I may not be exactly “fluent” in the languages I “speak,” but in the past 17 years that I’ve been translating, it hasn’t slowed me down a bit. In fact, I’ve translated novels, biographies, pamphlets, eulogies, and wedding vows in my own signature style. Whether they were originally in Spanish, German, or – if they exist – any other languages, I’ve been there making word bagels from inferior language dough.

Want an example? I thought you would. I am currently in the process of translating the work of Miguel de Unamuno, the Spanish essayist. Here are just a few lines of his work from 1914:

No creo deber repetir que me siento más quijotista que cervantista y que pretendo libertar al Quijote del mismo Cervantes, permitiéndome alguna vez hasta discrepar de la manera como Cervantes entendió y trató a sus dos héroes, sobre todo a Sancho.

Pretty dry stuff, right? I mean, he’s absolutely unclear here. In fact, I can’t understand a word he’s saying! So, I turn on the translator in my brain and create a much more entertaining English version:

Don’t give me credit for using my debit card to repair scented moss. Let me jot something down for the servants and pretend that the Quijote Library is missing servants. Permit me algebra with pasta descriptions! Man, this era comes with servant-ending traitors and sassy heroes, and sorbet with Sancho.

At least 10 times more beautiful, wouldn’t you say? Or as my Spanish brethren would say: Moy beautifulito!

German, frankly (Get it? FRANC-ly? Like their currency? Classic!), is much easier to translate, and therefore more easierly to make beautifuller. The following comes from my upcoming translation of poet and novelist Günter Glass’s “Die Blechtrommel,” which Wikipedia says means “The Tin Drum.” Lame! I plan to call it “Drachen Gesicht,” which Google Translator says means “Dragon Face.”

I’ll save you the boredom of having to read his first line. It’s just so pedantic, which says means “Sign up for premium for this definition.” Here’s the first line I suggested:

Es war die beste aller Zeiten, es war die schlechteste aller Zeiten.“

While Google Translator says this means, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” I would spice it up a bit and change to:

“When the dragon lands on your face, you become the Dragon Face.”

When you have that talent that Edith Grossman and I have, you just don’t question it. You go out into the world and help writers reach their potential in the language they only wish they could write in.

© Will Siss 2012

From “A Life on the Road: The Authorized Memoirs of Allan P. Cheeks”

by Will Siss


A lot of people ask me what life was like all those years on the road. They ask it like I could fold my thoughts into a tidy bundle and lay that bundle out on the table and pick through it and say, “Hello? What’s this? A toothbrush?” Blimey, if it were that easy! In fact, if there were such a bundle of thoughts about my life as road manager for some of England’s most notorious rock bands, it would be so sodden with unidentifiable filth that you’d set it aflame and wish never to speak of the experience again.

Strictly speaking, my career began with skiffle. Skiffle, for those of you too young to remember, was the groundbreaking style of folk music that exploded onto the British scene in the 1950s. Like all lasting popular music, this upbeat style began in America, played by New Orleans jazz men. And like any black form of music, the British musicians of the post-war era could not get enough. Skiffle was aggressively primitive, and that’s what I loved about it. True, most of us played like crap, but that didn’t stop us from forming hundreds of bands almost overnight.

Life in Bexleyheath, a suburban enclave of London, was dull to the point of literal death. Between 1952 and 1958, 30 percent of the population committed suicide. This was a dark period indeed. After attending school and then our after-school jobs, my mates and I would bicycle home and trade cardboard cutouts. They didn’t have anything printed on them, just squares of cardboard. Bradley and Jeremy and “Nobby Randall” and I would sit on a pile of dirt in my back yard and trade cardboard every night, only taking breaks to attend funerals.

Then one day, over the wireless, I heard Petey MacGullum, the Scottish musician who – along with Lonnie Donegan – popularized this rather obscure musical form for British lads like me. MacGallum was a multi-instrumentalist, but he never played anything I’d ever heard of. While skiffle musicians played the banjo or guitar, maybe a washboard or pair of spoons for percussion, “Mad” MacGullum played furniture. He’d pluck the springs of a twin bed or clap the tops of stools together. He was notoriously difficult to record, but once you heard his ottoman solos on singles like “Don’t You Shoot the Dustman, Pa” and “Pontchartrain Delight” you didn’t soon forget them.

It became the rage at the time for boys to start their own skiffle groups — and there were a few lads in Liverpool who turned that moment to their advantage! I didn’t have any such dreams of glory; I was just getting damn sick of cardboard. So Bradley and Nobby and I (Jeremy had since died expectedly) learned everything that MacGullum had ever recorded and became the Dirt Pile Boys. Bradley became the local “King of the Couch,” which was no small feat for a boy his size. Nobby played discarded end tables he found in the rubbish heap. And I became our lead singer, with occasional accompaniment on the zurg, which was a homemade guitar-like instrument made of copper pipes and cat.

“We all looked forward to the precious hour each night of rehearsal in Nobby’s basement before lights out.”

Perhaps it’s silly to look back on this time with such breathless nostalgia, but perhaps I need to remind you that there was NOTHING to do. There was a ban on public dancing, running, and by 1961, meandering. School boys were in class by 6 in the morning, not to rise from their seats until noon for a lunch of gravel and cheese, followed by two more hours of maths. Then we were marched to the dirt mines and it was not until well after sundown when we ate our flabby piece of pork fat. We all looked forward to the precious hour each night of rehearsal in Nobby’s basement before lights out.

Like most groups on our lane, we did cover tunes of popular skiffle songs of the day. “Mary, Won’t You Cut That Thing Off,” “I’m a Muleskinner,” and of course “Stubborn Rash Blues” were constantly in the air. When Bradley spotted the advert for a skiffle talent show at one of the local pubs, he ran home to tell us about it (naturally, he was fined for the outburst). We signed up immediately and two days later we gathered our furninstruments together and hit the stage.

We were no more terrible than everyone else, but we found a way to be voted “Last Place” in a field of five, which I thought was a little unnecessary. What I didn’t know at the time, as I stuffed my zurg into a burlap sack, was that my future was about to present itself. As we shuffled through the sawdust and vomit to the door, I noticed a little man packing up the banjo cases of the winning band, Rory and the Blazers.

I don’t know what inspired me to ask, but for some reason I needed to know who he was and what he was doing. “I’m the road manager,” he said, as if it was the plainest thing in the world.

“Road manager? What’s that, then?” I asked.

“I make sure the band gets where it needs to go,” he said, dusting off a bit of vomit from his sleeve. “It’s my job to make sure the band’s happy.”

Suddenly something inside me sprang to life. I realized that my destiny was to be a road manager. And I knew just the band to start with.

© Will Siss 2011

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