The Rizzos crew lean into the DIY garage rock prom aesthetic on their new release, No Parents, No Rules 2: Beneath The Planet of No Rules, a tape that could easily serve as backing music for your umpteenth re-read of The Outsiders.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Adam Cecil: First off, do you want to just explain what you do as an artist?
Jake Fertig: That’s a question that I’ve been trying to figure out for myself for a while. The way to formulate my interests and the work that I do into one collective unit has been something that I’ve been thinking about consciously a lot, especially in the last few months.
Jake Fertig is an independent filmmaker.
Jake Fertig is a musician.
Jake Fertig is a writer.
Jake Fertig is an actor.
Jake Fertig is an artist, living and working in Brooklyn, New York.
Jake: The biggest project I’m working on, that I spend every day working on, is a feature film called Howeds.
I’m working on it with my girlfriend, Emily Dalmas. Frankly, she’s the best person I’ve ever met. We wrote it together, we’re producing it together, we both act in it. I’m directing it, I play the main character in it, and its semi-autobiographical.
Howeds is about my high school experience. It’s about a group of Jewish-American teenage guys who are very sheltered and a little bit teased in their community. It’s kind of an anti-Coming-of-Age movie.
That’s the main project we’re working on. We’re anticipating releasing it towards the end of next year.
Jake Fertig graduated from NYU Tisch with a BFA in Film in 2013. Since then, his day job has been producing video content for various companies and organizations. He currently works at Mashable. Howeds will be his first feature film.
He met Emily during his second year at NYU. Emily is also a graduate of the film program. Since graduating from NYU in 2013, she has worked as an NBC Page and is currently a Field Production Assistant for The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.
They live together in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
Jake: There’s this slate of projects that I’ve tried to put in one linear order. Our production company is called Perestroika, and Howeds is the first project. The second project that I want to work on is an album that I’ve been writing for the last two years.
My other main interests are singing and songwriting and music production. I’ve been in a band for the last five years called Marguerito. We just released our latest album in May. Basically, we’re an indie rock band. I’m in it with three other guys that I met in high school.
I’ve been trying to formulate — How do I not do these two separate things at the same time?, especially when I’m working a full-time job. How do I put it together into one thing?
What I’ve settled on is music videos. We shot two music videos for the last album. From there, I started to formulate this idea of creating videos that support the music in a very specific and concrete way. Most music videos that I see don’t really relate to the source material very strongly. They’re a completely separate idea from the music itself.
So, the next project I’m working on is an album, that I want to release under my own name, called Essential Problem. I have all the songs written, and right after we finish shooting Howeds, while it’s in editing, I’m going to record them. Then, I’m going to shoot music videos for each song on the record so that it’ll play as a movie or as a straight-forward narrative. They’ll all fit within the same narrative of what this record is about, which is a very personal record about my experience over the past two or three years, mostly in my personal life:
- the start of my relationship with my girlfriend (we’ve been dating for about two and a half years)
- the complications at the beginning of our relationship:
- just being able to get to that point of vulnerability with someone and
- really trusting them.
For me, the whole idea of Essential Problem was this question of, like, Do I have some kind of problem that’s going to prohibit me from being able to fully invest in this relationship? and trying to process that. That’s what this record is about, and the film version of it.
I know that was a very lengthy answer.
Adam: When I watched Honored by the Sign at the Cinema, I noticed that exact thing you were just describing, where the music video really concretely backs up the lyrics in the song. How do you make that work? What I thought was really striking was that the family in the video, it seemed like, I don’t know if that was your family…
Jake: The parents were my parents. The little sister in the song is inspired by the little sister of one of my best friends, and she’s in the video.
It’s supposed to be representative of the culture of the people that I grew up with in Wayne, New Jersey. I was born in Queens and my family moved to suburban New Jersey when I was eight years old. It was only about a half-hour before you came that I really started to fully realize that I really felt like an outsider a lot of my time growing up in Wayne. I think it’s partially because I’m Jewish and from Queens, but I didn’t even realize that I felt a little bit like an outsider by being Jewish in New Jersey because, you know, it’s not Wyoming.
Basically, I saw this sign, and it said, “Happy Birthday Michelle” on it, and I was like, “This is so representative of the culture of this town, that’s such a depressing way to have your birthday celebrated." In reality, it’s kind of a nice thing.
Adam: I felt that from the song and the video, that duality of, oh, that’s really sweet but also really fucking depressing.
Jake: Exactly! So the first half of the song is every shitty thing I felt and could think of, and the second half is totally inspired by my friend’s little sister and their relationship. I could see the joy on his face whenever she would enter a room. She’s the light of the family. So I was trying to find a little bit of beauty, God, light in that world.
Adam: I feel like I haven’t seen a music video quite like this, and I’m wondering if you have a specific inspiration for it. Where, exactly, did the genesis of this idea come from? Why did you want to do this?
Jake: It felt intuitive. I’m sure there are a million reference points. But I don’t really know. I was happy with how Honored came out and I feel like this is a good idea. Most albums that I love have a sense of narrative, even if it’s not so obvious or linear, it’s just that… you know what it’s about. There’s a clear story and development to it. And this idea, I have a strong sense that it’s going to work. It’s tailored to my skill set. I can do A and B so why not try to do it all in one? This is a unique piece of work just because of the unity of vision throughout the whole thing.
Adam: Were you happy with the way people responded to Honored? Did you feel like you got a good reaction from that?
Jake: Definitely. Truthfully, all the stuff we put out… I’m still figuring out how to get it beyond the social media that I know.
The commute from their full-time jobs back to their Park Slope apartment is one of the only breaks that Jake and Emily get in the day. When they arrive back home, they are greeted by their second job: producing a motion picture. Off of the bedroom is a small office. This is where their shelves of camera and sound equipment live. Propped up on the desk behind their computer is a large poster for Civil Servant, the web series written, directed, and edited by Jake (he also starred in it). Emily produced the majority of the series, co-wrote episodes with Jake, and played a supporting character. When I saw the poster, it was still wrapped in loose plastic, presumably from their move one-and-a-half weeks prior.
Jake: This poster, to me, is a testament… this is the thing that we worked on, harder than anything. It took three years of work… the last episode was seen by like, 200 people — less than that, actually.
Civil Servant debuted in late November of 2014. The sixth and final episode was posted in late December. It has, as of writing, 163 views on YouTube.
Jake: Freshman year of college, I didn’t have that many film friends. But sophomore year of film school, I immediately met Emily, Martin Pohl — some of my best friends, and the funniest and smartest people that I feel like I’ve met at school. It was like an explosion. That’s the first thing about Civil Servant, is that it’s all friends. It was Emily, Marty, Paul Head, Kristen Laffey, Jake Lindeman, Trevor Silverstein, Joe Gallo, Chloe Jury-Fogel, Paul Head… I’m sure I’m forgetting people.
I wanted to do something outside of class. Civil Servant was that thing.
The thing I was most excited about was creating plot and narrative. My favorite stuff is The Sopranos, Mad Men; I love the way that really amazing Golden Age of TV type stuff uses misdirection to create seasonal arcs. They do these things where they’re planning these stories, and you don’t even realize that these stories are being developed and by the end you’re like, “Oh, it’s been all about this the whole time and actually it’s been present.” It feels true to life.
The other thing that I was excited about was working with these people who I thought were really funny. It was just so hard to do. We were doing it all guerrilla, after hours. The production value, it started to get really difficult to maintain towards the end of it. If you look at the poster, there are four directors of photography. It was just absurd.
We started filming in February of 2012. We shot it for a year and a half. Editing took a year. I was doing it, for the most part, by myself, although a few people worked on different episodes on their own. It just took a while. It became a good lesson for Howeds. I learned from my old roommate, Jason Moss, this idea of trying to preserve that feeling of a first listen or a first viewing, that feeling of immediacy when you’re responding to something, because that’s the only thing that will connect you to what a first time viewer will see. I lost that with Civil Servant. It was really hard to get it back. So I’m not editing Howeds. Joe Gallo, who edited one of the episodes of Civil Servant, is editing the whole thing.
Long form stuff… it’s hard, it’s different, when you don’t have the resources to do long form stuff. And it’s like… it’s hard not to judge things on the merit of how many Facebook Likes it gets, which is such a ridiculous, non-demonstrative way of seeing whether it’s good or not. And Civil Servant, it’s supposed to be straight narrative, and yet, it didn’t even get seen. But I don’t feel like it was unsuccessful. I don’t feel like I could really evaluate based on how many people saw it or loved it.
If it weren’t for Civil Servant, I couldn’t do Howeds.
Adam: Like you said, it’s hard to have the resources at this stage, and I wonder, in your head, what do you feel resource cramped about, and in what ways do you feel like that hampers your abilities? There are, especially with filmmaking, a lot of tools out there. I know a lot of people who do film and video stuff and they get frustrated because they think, “Oh, if I just had this camera,” or another tool, then the art would be better.
Jake: I know what you mean. Well, preface this by saying that I definitely believe that limitations set you free. In the worst case, just make whatever you’re doing a document of where you’re at. Compared to thirty or forty years ago, we have so much access to resources. You can always have more. Everybody always wants more. You just have to make it work, with whatever you have, and make the best of it. Those constraints will be a document.
The most important resource, without compare, is people. Before even going into anything else, I’m just going to harp on this for a second: Emily (and I think she can hear me right now) is God’s gift to me. Besides being my best friend and the best person I know, working with Emily has changed everything for me. Working on Howeds with Emily… we both work incredibly hard on it. It’s like we’re two heads that are constantly bouncing back and forth on all of the creative and all of the product elements. It’s amazing to be able to have that conversation outside of your own brain and to be met with someone who has a ton of their own ideas. That’s the best thing.
Jake has reason to appreciate people as a resource; right now, none of the cast or crew of Howeds is getting paid (including Jake and Emily). All of the money is going into the production, food, transportation, etc. And all of that is very, very expensive. Jake was uncomfortable when we talked about paying people. It was obvious that he wished he had enough money to give them the salaries they deserved.
The money for Howeds has come from two sources: Jake’s own savings (it took him two years to save enough to fund one quarter of Howeds’ production) and from soliciting family and friends. When Jake and I talked, he and Emily were in the beginning stages of planning a crowdfunding campaign, which will, by the time this is published, be on Indiegogo.
Jake: Art is such a funny thing. Emily and I had gone to a session on fundraising in the arts, and this guy was basically saying that being nervous about asking for money is – if you go down the line – related to questioning the value of your work.
I’m definitely a believer that art should be functional. I like channeling that feeling of What is this for? What is the purpose of this?
For Howeds, I want my message to reach people who are in suburban communities. And, to sum up what the movie is about: Howeds is about how oppressed groups tend to revisit, through this “us vs. them” mentality, some of the same persecution that that they faced and project it onto others. It’s through the lens of the Jewish-American experience. Jewish kids who are teased can be xenophobic and don’t even really realize how they’re prejudiced against women or minorities. And they suffer for it. My hope is to, through this lens, create a sense of empathy for these characters and position some kind of thesis as to why this behavior goes on.
Emily and I went to Israel a month ago. I had felt for a while that Jewish-American culture was something that I didn’t feel comfortable touching with a ten-foot pole. And then I realized that, you know, I always knew that Howeds was a Jewish movie, but I sometimes felt uncomfortable, because, for me, I feel like there’s a golden rule of not writing about characters that I don’t love. Howeds is cultural criticism. After we went on Birthright (which has its own share of propaganda, but it was amazing to be in Israel), I felt more comfortable with Howeds being a Jewish movie. Cultural criticism is what Judaism is about. This is one voice moving forward Judaism. I’m not an extremely religious person, but I feel like I’m culturally Jewish and I’m proud to be culturally Jewish. I feel like being Jewish connects me to the world rather than separates me. I think, whether you’re atheist or religious, everybody believes that the world is bigger than themselves. So, to me, it gave me this sense of purpose. Howeds is a Jewish movie, it’s a criticism, it’s one voice in this movement, and hopefully that will have a functional effect.
I’ve been working on a song called “I Belong,” and it’s about my realization that, for me, I don’t feel anymore that art is a vanity project. I used to feel bad when I thought, “All I want to do is make my own projects.” But I know that I belong, I know that my ideas and my messages, even if people are not clamoring for them, need to come out, because I deem them important. Even if it’s just my voice in a crowd of voices.
With some of the same friends who helped make Civil Servant and are helping make Howeds, Jake and Emily made Key Party, a short comedic film, for the 2013 Tisch 48-Hour Film Festival. Key Party is not only funny: the character beats feel sincere even when they’re completely absurd. It was, to put it in Jake’s words, “lightning in a bottle,” a complete amalgamation of the talents of those involved.
Jake has a complicated relationship with comedy. “When I was in elementary school, I felt like my way of getting in with people who didn’t really care about the real me was through making jokes.” That feeling hasn’t really left. Whenever he posts a new What’s Good? video – a series of shorts where he asks various people “What’s good?” – people seem “more responsive to [him] playing a character that makes a fool of myself" than to his more serious work.
And yet, he keeps coming back to it, posting new What’s Good? videos frequently enough to keep the series active. Howeds will have humor as well, as did Civil Servant before it. Humor, Jake tells me, is just another human emotion. For a young filmmaker struggling to make people care about his art, it may also be an easy way to connect to people, to make his work accessible. What I imagine keeps the elementary school boy inside of Jake awake at night is the idea that they won’t stick around to care about anything else.
Adam: I want to go back, all the way to Shofar Away, which I really enjoyed. Knowing what you just said about Howeds and the Jewish-American experience, how did you think about Shofar Away at the time? And now that you have the further realization of what you understand about yourself and how the Jewish-American experience affects your film output, what do you feel about that? Give me a before and after.
Jake: Well, I didn’t want to make that movie. It was for my Intermediate Class, at Tisch, and I wanted to do the final episode of Civil Servant as my project. Emily and I, we had the same professor. His name is Boris Frumin, and I feel like I learned more from him than any other teacher I’ve ever had. It wasn’t fun being in his class… he was very aggressive. He’s Latvian, always said, “No, no, no.” At the time, I could do a much better Boris impression.
He would talk through your movies while they showed, and to some degree, I felt like he was a little detached. But for the most part, he was ridiculously incisive with his criticism. He could immediately diagnose the problems that you had on set by looking at your final footage. He was just really thoughtful. He connected me to the history of cinema. There are just some truths that are eternal. This dude changed my conception of thinking about film. Before Boris, I thought film was about interesting dialogue, character beats, and story things. Boris taught me that everything is blocking and staging and everything else in the film is an extension of that. I’m forever indebted to him for that.
Boris was preaching, “Do things that are original, do things that are based on a specific type of experience,” he preached cultural stuff and interesting props. So that was it. Let’s track this shofar.
I don’t like doing things for class. Whatever your heart desires, it’s being warped by this craft exercise. I’m a big believer in learning by doing. But if you set up a craft exercise as a craft exercise, immediately there’s some separation. You don’t have truly full stakes. I feel like I need to have completely full stakes in it for me to get the lesson learned, even if it ends up being a failure. That’s the only way I’m going to try to my hardest, if I really feel like it’s full stakes. When I fail, it will still be a craft exercise, so why just make it a craft exercise? I know I’m going to fail at some point and learn something for the future, so why not do it with my whole heart?
It was based on my friend Jake’s story — they were both at my Rosh Hashanah dinner and Jake, the whole time, hid upstairs watching football on his computer and my other friend, Jason, jokingly flirted with one of my cousins the entire time. I thought it would be funny to combine it all into one thing. And, to me, connected to your question, I think Shofar Away was about feeling like an outsider in my own culture. I feel conflicted about Judaism, but I feel proud to be culturally Jewish and I don’t feel like my beliefs as a Jew are much different from anyone else’s beliefs in any other religion. I like the idea of connecting to everyone and everything, or striving to, rather than focusing on points where we’re different. Jewish just happens to be my identity. And I’m proud of it. That’s how I feel now, at least, but looking back… a lot of it was like, yeah, it was kind of growing pains.
I had a sixteen minute cut of it, originally, and I was I thought it was an opus. I was like, “This is amazing!” I brought it into class and thought, “I’m going to blow minds.” And then Boris shit on it. He told me to cut half the scenes and he told me that most of the scenes were undershot. I shot every scene in one take. I thought it was going to be a cool conceit, and it worked sometimes but it didn’t work as the whole thing.
Then I edited it too much, according to his notes. I got obsessed about it. I would send a cut to him after class was over and he would send me ten notes and I would do all of them and I did that over and over again. There’s a moment, in one of the cuts, it’s like a Psycho moment, a kind of Hitchcock or Kubrick thing, when he picks up the shofar, the film goes into slow motion and it gets really serious and dramatic, like he’s doing something really awful. When I showed it to the class, that was the part where everybody laughed. I wished I’d kept it in, but Boris said it was stylistically inconsistent. Marty gave me the note that I should’ve just listened to the laughter — if an audience is reacting, go for it! I wish I had done that differently. I feel like the climax of it is very downplayed.
Adam: To me, actually, that was one of the strengths of it.
Jake: Aaaah, that’s interesting.
Adam: I feel like the entire story was incredibly downplayed, and yet at the end of it, you feel, watching it, like the outsider. You feel like you are not of this world. I felt vaguely uncomfortable the entire time I was watching it, in a good way. I felt that I supposed to feel that way.
Jake: Yeah. *laughs* All my mom’s Jewish friends, when they saw it, were like, “Oh, we like Jakey’s stuff but I didn’t get Shofar Away.” I mean, I’m happy that you liked it. I felt, I guess, looking back, I don’t think that fondly on it. Some of the jokes are just convoluted. I’m happy I made it. Personally, I think Howeds is a step above. Not that there is a better or worse, but those were just different times.
Adam: It’s a document of the moment.
Adam: You should look at it with fresh eyes, though.
Jake: Yeah. *laughs* Yeah, yeah.
You can view all of Jake’s films and keep up with new projects, including Howeds, on his website.
A virtual play by Michael Doshier
We’re in Conway, Arkansas. It is night.
You take the exit and drive onto the Waffle House parking lot off US-65. Two seconds ago you crossed the city limits and now you’re here at its welcome center. Outside, teenagers dressed in either camouflage or Abercrombie smoke cigarettes, give each other piggy-back-rides, and generally act a fool. They’re a little tipsy. You’re intimidated but only cause they’re so young and immediately remind you of being that young, an emotion layered in complications ranging from jealousy to nostalgia. You walk in after gifting them with your precious nervous smile.
You sit at the booth and a 25-year-old waitress named Kasey takes your order. She’s a stunning Scarlett Johansson beauty – dirty blonde, a sweet face with crooked and missing teeth, a body to die for, and a welcoming, truly sexy alto voice and southern accent that makes your heart melt like the cheese grits on the cooker. She smacks her gum and gives you a smile. You just order a coffee, which I can humbly but confidently inform you is a mistake. I don’t care how hungry you are or are not - get the hash-browns –smothered, covered, chunked, and peppered. You won’t regret it (for at least another hour or so).
Please press play:
Over by the jukebox, which is playing this mess of a “song” (“Waffle House Family Pt. 1” is its name. There is, mercifully, no part 2) another Waffle House employee sits at a table, folding up images of Sassy Patty (late 50s), placing each photo in an envelope. You notice this process but pay little attention. She doesn’t notice you. She’s focused. She smiles to herself. She cries to herself. She leaves, and, with much hesitation, drops the envelopes in the mailbox by the adjacent motel. She kisses the palm of her hand and pats the mailbox twice. Once firmly, once incredibly gently. She lights a cigarette and moves to her truck, as the smallest tinge of the sun rises in the distance as if to accompany her on her way home.
I haven’t been back in years, but tonight, I’m feeling nostalgic (the teenagers got to me too) and I can’t sleep. I’m staying at my parents’ house for the holidays. I need a coffee and a chocolate chip waffle to fill the stomach with blood and pass me the fuck out (or however the human body works). I also need some company, being back at this establishment so deeply, intrinsically connected to my adolescence – a place where I once thrived at the ages of those kids outside. I used to make people just like you nervous (and yes, we are making fun of you once you’re inside.)
Tonight, I sit across from you.
On the one hand, I feel as if I have not found my soul mate. I’m not sure if I’ve ever been in love in a real way, so I know I haven’t been in love in the soul mate way. But on the other, more prominent hand – the hand that you learn to throw a ball and masturbate with (my left hand) – I know that Sassy Patty was my soul mate.
Sassy Patty enters.
Sassy Patty was the night manager at one of the two Waffle Houses in Conway, Arkansas. The one we’re at right now. She wasn’t always the night manager. Like any worthwhile achievement, she worked her way up to night manager, the ladder of which included strong recommendations from my friends and I as we sat at our booth – THIS very booth actually - and wrote letters to the CEO of Waffle House about how perfect she’d be for the job. This wasn’t the only time we did that, either – one time, one of Patty’s waitresses
waitresses… Kasey, was in trouble with management for apparently yelling at a customer in a way that felt racially charged. Kasey assured us she had a black boyfriend, so we spent all of our energy that wasn’t being used inhaling hash-browns to write to Management about the progressiveness of Patty’s particular Waffle House (which we did – and do – believe in, by the way, but perhaps we should have considered gathering more proof than Kasey’s unseen and possibly fictional better half before attaching our names to Project Save Kasey’s Career). This was our relationship with Waffle House – it was our home, and Sassy Patty, and whomever Sassy Patty liked on her staff-
And whoever didn’t bug the shit out of me OR fuck shit up all the time behind the counter.
… were our family. We were 18.
Now look, I’m a writer in the sense that I really, really want to be. The new screenplay I was working on earlier this year featured a 20-page section about Sassy Patty. Two young adults visiting her at her home and smoking cigarettes out her window, discussing the ins and outs of her life, her opinions on current affairs and pop culture – which she would have even if she actually had no idea what she was talking about.
I’m right here, jackass.
Hey Patty, I’m struggling to remember something – who was the first person to win American Idol again?
Kris Motherfuckin’ Allen, that’s who. Only one that matters anyway.
It was a perfect Sassy Patty scene in that it didn’t progress the plot at all. In that way, it was similar to my time spent within the confines of this Waffle House in that it was a break from plot – a gated community, a shielded “safe space” with her.
The scene made no sense in regards to advancing the overall story, and the script was running fifty pages long. It had to be cut. Then, about a week after highlighting her section and pressing the delete button, I got a call from my best friend Raven informing me Patty had died. Months ago, actually; her second family just hadn’t been clued in yet.
Are you familiar with the idea of a “safe space”? Well let me tell you one thing, you’re sitting in one right now. And it’s a great idea, too – that we are responsible for creating an environment in which everyone is comfortable and welcome. It’s something I heard a lot about in R.A. training in college – something you get certificates for to place on your door so people know you’ve been trained to provide a space where they can feel safe.
Sassy Patty did not need any training.
Sassy Patty was a pioneer of safe spaces, having created one at her Waffle House without even realizing it or being told to.
Patty truly loved the Waffle House and would remind us constantly that
This is the best Waffle House in the STATE!
And then, to celebrate, we’d put “Friends in Low Places” on the jukebox and scream it together, her smoky growl taking the melody to places so low, Garth Brooks never dared dream them.
I knew Patty from the ages of sixteen to twenty-one. That particular Waffle House was the place to be, as it was one of only two establishments – the other being the other Waffle House – open 24/7, and teenagers hate sleeping at hours kept by adults. We would go there after we’d completed whatever our other night activity was – drinking, sobering up, watching movies, driving aimlessly around, or talking about deep shit while smoking packs on packs of cigarettes on our elementary school playgrounds. But visiting Patty at the Waffle House was never the after-party to any of this mindlessness; no, the other stuff was the pre-game. We were hungry and tipsy to the point that the mere concept of hash-browns left us in a daze of desire, let alone hash-browns covered, smothered, chunked and peppered (Waffle House language for cheese, sausage, tomatoes, and jalapenos added). And yet that wasn’t even why we went. Not even close.
You know, I’ve only been to the other Waffle House in Conway once, and it was because I was high and pleaded with my friends that I couldn’t go entertain a conversation with Patty in this state. I was terrified I’d act weird and she would take it as shade, or that I would act obvious and she didn’t approve of drugs – this is a few years before the medical marijuana progress of today, plus the state I was in was purely recreational. I later learned Patty wasn’t a stranger to a little Greenpeace International herself, and would have been totally fine with this part of my life. 23-year-old me wishes he could go whisper it into 18-year-old me’s ear so I could’ve gotten one more night with her.
From the ages of 16 to 18, I learned all about her time in the Navy. The time she got into a bit of a tiff with a fellow SEAL. This anecdote, interestingly, derived out of some Sassy Patty life advice.
I learned in the Navy that quitters don’t EVER win. Quitters get rolled under the staircase so that Sassy Patty don’t get in trouble! That’s what happens to quitters!
The woman on the receiving end of their brawl woke up and survived, by the way, and became one of Patty’s best friends (which is not surprising and sort of sums up Patty’s entire thing in a nutshell).
I learned all about all of the years she had spent as a truck driver before joining the Waffle House team-
I was the best trucker in the state!
I learned of the great love between her and her husband. I learned that he had passed and, while Patty went on an occasional date, she never expected to marry again. That was her one true love and he was gone. There was no point – and if you didn’t really catch my tone, Sassy would say that sentence as if it were a truly-meant shrug. I learned that this was one of the main reasons she didn’t fear death and instead embraced it, so that she would be reunited with him.
I learned of Sassy’s great love of Harry Potter.
We always tipped her well, though I hope well enough. I always remember feeling so awkward about the moment the receipt came. She was our friend, and we spent every night with her we could, yet the receipt was a reminder that Sassy didn’t get off ‘til 7am and couldn’t leave with us.
Patty and I took an immediate liking to each other that grew and grew as if it could never stop. Perhaps I wasn’t the most “popular kid in school,” a concept I don’t remember very well now but vaguely know was, like, a thing I thought about occasionally – BUT at Waffle House, it was cool to like Sassy Patty – and Sassy Patty loved the crew of which I was a proud member. She didn’t just love us, she knew our names. We were greeted, personally, one by one, when we walked through the door, like royalty. So we were always the coolest at the Waffle House; no matter who else was there that night, we ran the show. You can take all the pictures you want with this woman and caption them on Facebook about how funny she is and what a good time you had, but I’m over here laughing ‘cause I know Patty secretly hates this and probably you. She whispered it to us.
And then, after one final tearful night, I left.
For years while studying writing in New York, Sassy Patty was my muse. It started after I presented a sketch about her to my freshman class and got the biggest laughs of the day. I called her to let her know what a hit she was, hoping she understood they were laughing at her big vibrant incredible personality, not at a stereotype. …Hoping that I hadn’t painted her as a stereotype.
For the rest of my time in college, I continued to write about her – placing her in all sorts of scripts she could star in – not some actress to PLAY her, but ACTUALLY her. I made it my mission to make Patty Motherfucking Lytle a star! And every time I’d go home for Winter Break or Summer Break or Spring Break, she’d ask:
When am I gonna see ya on TV?!
And I’d explain, “YOU’RE going to be the one on TV, Patty! YOU are the star.” And I genuinely did think I was going to make this woman a star – this woman who was one of a kind, in the actual sense of the expression that makes you THINK about the expression, not just acknowledging it’s a cliché set of words and you know what they mean when put together. There was
She was the only individual that was this. This wholly unique, wholly perfect creature deserved the spotlight whether she wanted it or not (I never asked).
The closest I ever came was giving her a copy of the script I had written for her. She read it in the booth next to me, noted the inaccuracies I had made, but cried a bit and said she would be framing it. To celebrate, we put “Friends in Low Places” on the jukebox and screamed it together, her smoky growl taking the melody to places so low, Garth Brooks never dared dream them.
I never came out to Sassy Patty; I was far too protective of losing our bond and the many risk assessments I’d done in my head had always bolted out of the closet screaming a resounding “NOPE!” I wasn’t used to adults taking kindly to gays at this point – not enough of us in Conway had come out yet to watch our own community make the slow, beautiful progress it can boast now, nor had I moved to New York yet and seen a world where literally no one gave a fuck (except one randomly homophobic R.A. I met senior year who was probably super fucking terrible at creating safe spaces). And Sassy was a tough, God-fearing, Southern-with-a-capital-S woman.
The wannabe-progressive, rally-attending, hopefully-forward-thinking, hopefully-less-ashamed-of-myself-now version of myself cringes that I never let her know the “real me” or whatever – I guess the complete me, as I was never realer than I was at Patty’s Waffle House. To be honest, it just wasn’t worth it to me. If Patty was homophobic, I didn’t want to know. And I didn’t want her to know either, because losing her as the sun that set my soul ablaze with comfort and contentment in this place whose fabric I was never quite able to weave all 6’4” of my body and spirit into naturally and without shame, would’ve crushed me.
I don’t think she would’ve had a problem with it, though. When I asked her what she thought about Lady Gaga, she said
She reminds me of Boy George. I loved Boy George when he came out! People always tellin’ me, “But Patty! He’s a queer!” and I would say, “Hell, I don’t care!” (singing) Karma, karma, karma, karma, karma, chameleon, you come and go, you come and go.
Once while I was here with my friends Kalee and Marina, I was paying my tab and told Patty gleefully, “Marina and Kalee are on a date!” This wasn’t true, and I never told Marina and Kalee – both straight – that Patty spent the rest of her days believing they were lesbians and together – but I was drunk and morally saw nothing wrong with testing these waters using my unknowing buddies.
Well that’s nice! Looks like it’s going well! Why are YOU here with ‘em?! Come out and smoke a cigarette with me and give them some time alone! Jesus CHRIST, Michael!
See. I probably had nothing to worry about. And before our cigarette break, to celebrate the fake lesbian date happening before us, we put “Friends In Low Places” on in the jukebox and screamed it together, her smoky growl taking the melody to places so low, Garth Brooks never dared dream them.
I learned of Patty’s health problems my sophomore year of college while I was home on break. She told me over a cigarette that her doctor had demanded her stop smoking and she had a check-up the next week she wasn’t feeling hopeful about. A few weeks later, I heard she’d been fired for missing a shift.
And then, I couldn’t get a hold of her. She wasn’t answering her Facebook messages and her phone was disconnected. I asked around for new numbers, and finally got one from a reluctant employee I found on Facebook who told me shit had gone down when she was fired, and I wasn’t allowed to let anyone know where I got the number. I wasn’t surprised. I didn’t expect Sassy to go without a fight.
I got ahold of her one more time over the phone. She told me she was doing better. Living with her family. I was happy to hear this. I promised her the next time I was in town, I would visit her no matter where I had to drive and I told her I loved her. And that was the last time I ever spoke to Sassy Patty.
You turn to look at our angel, but she’s out for a cigarette break. The sun has started to rise with a bit more intention, casting her shadow through the window and over our table between us. Kasey asks you if you want more coffee. Do you? That one’s entirely up to you.
I’m sorry I’ve taken so much of your time this morning, I just thought you’d like to know the history of this place and the star of this stage we’re sitting on. We’re enjoying our coffee on a Broadway set whose star flat-out murdered five nights a week in her prime. She was killer. She did the damn thing and never apologized once for it. And at this point, I’m unsure of my purpose without her – if my little rant is about appreciating your friendships because they can be taken from you, if in that sense it’s about the temporality of life. If it’s about the first person who I felt accepted by, or the first place where I felt accepted. If it’s The Amazing Tale of Two Wacky Worlds Colliding – that of a Rough-and-Tumble Navy-SEAL-Turned-Trucker Meeting a Sensitive, Closeted 16 Year Old and Forming a Six-Year Friendship that Felt Life-Long. (That does sound pretty epic, though, so let’s go with that one.)
All I know at this point is that Sassy Patty was one hell of a woman and has made many, many lives much, much happier and her death has shaken me.
Aww thank ya, baby, that sure is sweet of ya.
A cigarette only takes three minutes to smoke, baby!
One Christmas there was a Christmas tree hanging upside-down from the ceiling at Patty’s Waffle House. I guess this was Management’s decision because when we asked her about it, she responded
We decided it was a symbol of how upside down the world is. Other than that, I can tell you it’s straight retarded.
The world is an upside-down place, Sassy Patty. And that statement is offensive.
It’s gotten even more upside down – if that’s geometrically possible – with you gone. I pray there are other “safe spaces” for kids like me in places like Conway, Arkansas. I pray that each kid that needs one gets her own Sassy Patty whether in the local Waffle House or elsewhere. I honestly pray for these safe spaces for everyone whether they manifest themselves in a Waffle House or a bar or a Drama classroom or a drag club. I wonder if any of the employees at the other Waffle House of Conway were someone else’s Sassy Patty. I wonder if the space contained within every Waffle House’s perimeter is magical for those willing to see it this way – or perhaps forced to, given their daily experience in other spaces. One time, the rapper Fabolous – do you know Fabolous? No? Well, good. This dumbass went on an anti-Waffle House Twitter tirade, and I so distinctly remember how intensely my blood started boiling, how deeply offended I became and how silly I felt but how legitimate it all felt as well. All I could do was press the stupid “Unfollow” button, a move that he didn’t notice but one that made me feel so powerful for having stood up for something I believed in. I wonder if anyone else un-followed him that day for similar reasons. And then I wonder if any of these attempts to turn her legacy into something universal and accessible for all can even be valid, keeping in mind that she was so deeply one-of-a-kind. That maybe she was just our angel we were lucky to know. And maybe other people get something great, but no one else gets a Sassy Patty.
What I do know is, Patty, you formed the only truly safe space I’ve maybe ever found. And I thank you for it every day.
I hope you’re dancing with your husband. And I hope that even in heaven, you bring this song to depths so deep and places so low, even Garth himself hadn’t dreamed em.
Please press play:
Care to join?
Blame it all on my roots, I showed up in boots, and ruined your black tie affair
The last one to know, the last one to show, I was the last one you thought you’d see there
And I saw the surprise, and the fear in his eyes, when I took his glass of champagne
And I toasted you; said “Honey, we may be through, but you’ll never hear me complain!”
WAFFLE HOUSE FAMILY
Cause I’ve got friends in low places, where the whiskey drowns, and the beer chases,
My blues away; and I’ll be okay
And I’m not big on social graces, think I’ll slip on down to the oasis!
Oh, I’ve got friends in low places!
Michael Doshier is a writer and musician based in Brooklyn, NY. He is the creator of the electronic rock project Johnny Darlin and his visual EP Mr. Monogamy, all available at johnnydarlin.com.