My name is Mortimer, but I let it slide. In fact, I began calling myself Bobby to avoid Mortimer-related problems in the neighborhood,
I had my answer ready. I had decided it only the night before. "An Indian," I replied. (This was before “Native American” was the accepted term.)
"An Indian?" she repeated incredulously, and she and my grandmother laughed quite heartily. Like hyenas, in fact. Mrs. Matkowski's babushka slid down over her eyes as she convulsed.
"You can't be an Indian, Mortimer,” my grandmother said. Why not, I wondered? Wasn't this America?
"Why not, Grandmom?"
Mrs. Matkowski chimed in. "Because you have to be born an Indian, silly!"
Mrs. Matkowski was getting on my last nerve.
At the time, Westerns were very popular in the movies and on TV, and Native Americans were not usually portrayed by Native American actors. So I thought "Indian" was just a job title. And it looked to me like their "job" was to hop on a pinto and ride across the plains looking for daily adventures, not unlike me hopping on my Schwinn and riding around the neighborhood looking for the same thing. It looked like a much better job than those cavalry soldiers had, riding around in boring formation on boring brown horses in hot woolen uniforms. My Indian name would be Bold Ox, and I would call my horse Esperonto.
But thanks to Mrs. Matkowski and my own grandmother, my dream died that day, and when I grew up I had a series of reality-based jobs.
For a while I was a successful Madison Avenue ad man, but my agency fired me when Joni Mitchell sued us for my unauthorized use of her song "Urge For Going" in a commercial for an enlarged-prostate drug.
Next, I tried my hand at ventriloquism. I had minor success one summer at a resort in the Catskills, but by September I believed my dummy was talking to me for real, so I had to quit. (I still believe he was, actually.)
A brief foray into political cartooning ended when my unflattering depiction of a religious icon got me placed on an international hit list and I had to change my name, my face and my pants.
A succession of diverse jobs followed over the years: lighthouse keeper, gem cutter, trapeze artist, three-card Monte dealer, gigolo, wrangler, sommelier, ornithologist, roustabout, doorman, etc. I was a phrenologist on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, but I found that people couldn't handle the truth. I was a wheelwright's apprentice in Montana, but my spokes were jokes. I was a lumberjack in the Pacific Northwest, but I discovered that I hate plaid flannel shirts and backbreaking labor.
I just couldn't find my niche.
Now I'm old and I work part-time in a potato chip factory to subsidize my Social Security checks. My job is to pick out the chips that don't quite meet the company's quality standards. At some point I started saving the chips that resemble Jesus. When I get a good Jesus chip I put it on Ebay. It provides me with a little extra cash.
Why couldn't I have followed my dream? Why couldn't Mrs. Matkowski have kept her big mouth shut?
What have I learned from it all? Not much. Indians are born, not made. Old Ukrainian women can be cruel. Canadian singer-songwriters think pretty highly of themselves. It's hard to say "bottle of beer" without moving your lips. A Fatwa will cramp your style. And never eat your potato chips in the dark; you could be losing money.
This story originally appeared in Funny Times.