This is another story from the time I went to the Banquet of the Golden Plate with Oliver Stone in Las Vegas. It was a week-long event where the high school students who scored the highest on the SAT came to Vegas to hear lectures from the most successful people in all walks of life. This included Colin Powell, Norman Schwarzkopf, Bill Gates, Robert Gates, Richard Sessions, Kevin Costner, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Barbra Streisand, Dolly Parton, Edwin Teller and several prominent businessmen, architects, and doctors.
On this particular afternoon Oliver and I had just heard Barbra Streisand talk about knowing when to take advice and knowing when to”stick to your guns”. She mentioned how, in the early days of her career, everyone told her to “fix her nose, change her name and stop singing those dippy love songs.” She did not take their advice and became a huge success. Then
we saw her in the hall. I had already met Barbra a few times and I knew she had a great sense of humor. We walked up and said how much we had enjoyed her speech. Barbra smiled and said, “Wait until you hear me tonight. I’m talking about women’s rights.
Oliver nodded and smiled. I looked at Barbra and said. “Listen, I popped a button off my shirt a while ago…do you think you might have time later to sew it on for me.”
Oliver glared at me so hard it felt like he was elbowing me in the side. But I had read Barbra correctly. She burst out laughing and gave me a playful shove, “Yeah, sure,” she said. “Just drop it by.”
Then we all laughed. I supposed I could’ve played it safe and not kidded her, but most people in the entertainment
business have a sense of humor and you get to know them a lot better if you make them laugh.
In some circles this kind of joking and false bravado is called selling wolf tickets. This is actually an old blues term meaning to “put on airs” or “act tough”. Usually it when someone boasts about their fighting skills as in…
Gangbanger Stink: “Give me back my money or I’ll beat you into next week.”
Gangbanger Smudge: “Don’t be selling no wolf tickets here, Stink.”
I have been known to sell a wolf ticket or two in my time. I think it actually has more to do with my Irish heritage than anything else. My mom was a Kelly and great grandpa was an O’Riordan. Growing up Irish, especially blue-collar Catholic Irish meant you really didn’t back down from a fight. Most of us figured that even if we got beat up, it couldn’t be any worse than the damage Sister Almira did with a paddle three times a week at school. We bluffed a lot and we fought a lot. This is how I grew up.
The ability to “throw down,” as it is called in the teen subculture is worth endless street cred. I used it often when I ran the teen center downtown. One time I remember two very large black kids coming in and standing around glaring at everyone. I knew they had the potential to be bad news since they each stood well over six feet and weighed over 250 lbs. I wanted them to know that I wouldn’t put up with any trouble from them and that I was not afraid of them, but I also wanted them to know that they were welcome to have fun and hang out here if they would not use their considerable size to cause problems. So I went up to them and said.
“Hi, I’m Jim Riordan and I run this place. I want to welcome you guys here and…hey I wonder if you’d help me out. See, every once in a while I have problems with fights and big kids throwing their weight around so I was wondering if we could stage a little something. In a couple of minutes I’ll come over and act like you guys started some trouble. I’ll like pick you up or slam you to the ground, smack you around a little, so it looks like I’m hurting you and then everyone else will tow the line. They’ll figure if I’m not afraid to take a couple of big boys like you on, then they better be cool. Don’t worry, I’ll go easy. Does that sound okay?”
Of course the looks on their faces said it all. Anyone crazy enough to ask them something like what I’d just said might just be crazy enough to do it. They weren’t sure what to do so they just stood there, kind of frozen. Then I laughed and told them that I was just kidding around and they laughed as well. But they got both messages I wanted to send.
For the last several years I’ve been visiting prisoners in the county jail. I started out just seeing kids that I knew from the teen center who had gotten themselves in trouble but over the years I’ve seen a lot of convicts. Now the jail is probably the place where the most wolf tickets are sold. Just about everyone acts like they are bad because if they appear soft they’re likely to be taken advantage of in all kinds of undesirable ways. Well, I’d been going out to the jail for about a year. I liked to see the guys one-on-one so they could feel free to open up and we could talk and pray without anyone hassling us. But sometimes the lawyers were using all the private rooms to confer with their clients and the only way to see someone was to go inside the “pod”. The pod is a large area which houses around fifty men in bunk beds formed around a central area where there is a TV and several tables to play games on or just hang out and talk. There are no guards inside the pod area. The guards sit outside the pod and watch the monitors. So I was sitting at one of the tables inside the pod talk-ing with Tony, a guy I’d been seeing for half a year, when a tall, lanky black man (who actually looked a lot like Snoop Dog) came over and asked me what kind of cologne I was wearing. I told him I wasn’t wearing any cologne and he shuffled off nodding his head.
Now Tony was a good kid. Of course I see them all as good kids. Tony was a white working class kid whose old man had been a violent alcoholic. Tony had been getting knocked around since he was about four so…surprise! He was also violent. I’d met Tony through his younger brother who used to come to the teen center. Tony was a gangbanger with a swastika tattooed on his chest. He was in jail for shooting a Mexican gangbanger because one of the guys Tony was selling coke with had told him that the Mexican had stiffed them on their money. This was not actually true. The Mexican had not stiffed them on the coke deal but he had insulted the guy’s girlfriend. The guy knew that if he lied to Tony and made it Tony’s problem then Tony would do something about it. So Tony and the other guys pull up in their car and the Mexican charges at them. Tony pops him two in the chest.
The fortunate thing and maybe the big break that God gave Tony, was that the Mexican didn’t die. In fact he totally recovered. So Tony was coping to a manslaughter plea and I’d been seeing him at the jail. We talked about how he got here, his life and we prayed. Tony went from barely listening when I prayed, to listening intently, to praying with me, to praying for me, to praying with others guys in his pod. And finally before he was shipped off he asked me if I could help him get the swastika covered so he wouldn’t have to hang with the white supremacists in the jail. This I did. But here I was trying to talk with him and this goofy Snoop guy comes up to me again and asks what kind of cologne I’m wearing. I told him again that I wasn’t wearing any cologne and he goes, “Oh, come on man. What’s the name of it?” Then he went away again.
The third time I saw him approaching us, I decided that this was one of those devil things. When you’re trying to pray with someone sometimes the devil (or whatever you were taught to call him) sends someone over to hassle you just by planting the thought in the person’s head (if you don’t believe in the devil, that’s fine…but like I wrote in my song “So You Don’t Believe in the Devil” then who stabs a child forty times, who made Hitler so blind and who took Jeff Dalmer’s mind?) I knew that Tony, being Tony, might react if the guy bothered us again and I wanted to head that off so as soon as the guy came near I stood up. The looked at me and said, “Man I just want to know the name of the cologne you’re wearing.”
And I said, “Okay, it’s called tough guy. You want to know anything else?”
The guy shook his head and said, “I didn’t mean to start nothing” and he walked away and let us finish praying. I felt relieved that I could stand up to someone and , if need be, still sell a wolf ticket now and then.
Now the funny part is that about a month later I got a letter from another kid I was working with who had gone off to prison. He had a picture of me in his cell and this tall, lanky black guy saw it one day and said, “Hey, I know that guy. He wears Tough Guy cologne.”
Apparently he hadn’t really bought the wolf tickets I was trying to sell after all. But six months later, when he got out of jail, the dude called me and said he was the guy that had asked about my cologne and I remembered him. I met with him and we prayed together several times. He said he respected me because of that day and that he knew I was for real. And he never asked about my cologne again.
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