Friday night, I got screamed at in Romanian in front of everyone by the insane Eastern European girl in my fencing club for reasons that are literally beyond my comprehension. Asked about it later, she shrugged it off and just said, “It’s a Romanian thing.” But it’s not a Romanian thing, because I’m not Romanian. It’s a half-Romanian thing at most. It’s a half-Romanian, half confused and unnerved Canadian thing.
As you might imagine, I was in need of a drink after that, and as fortune had it, a bunch of us went out to get one afterward. We got to swapping stories, with one guy in particular remaining in the spotlight with anecdote after anecdote. I slipped in the tale of how my dad nearly destroyed his office building, which went over well. Perhaps feeling compelled to top it, the other guy came up with a crowd-pleaser that went something like this:
“I was sitting in a public washroom this one time, and from out of nowhere, the guy in the next stall says, ‘Hey, how’s it going?’
“I’m a little weirded out, but I say, ‘I’m fine. How are you?’
“He says, ‘Good, good. ‘What are you up to?’
“I’m even more weirded out now, but I say, ‘Um, same as you, I guess.’
“Then the guy says, ‘Listen, I’ll have to call you back. Some idiot in the next stall keeps answering everything I say to you.’
It went over like gangbusters. Except with me, that is. I’d heard that one before. Well, actually, I’d read it on the internet. Even with a couple of pints of Stella in me, it only took me about two minutes after I got home to confirm my suspicions with the urban legends page Snopes.com. Snopes says this story has shown up in various places including the Chattanooga Times Free Press, Paul Harvey’s radio show, and Dear Abby. And now it’s shown up in the mouth of some guy I know who says it happened to him. It could have, but I doubt it, and now I’m doubting everything else he says too.
What this made me think of was this seminar that I took once. The guy who gave it used several stories to prove his points, but some of them sounded fishy. For example, he talked about how, during the early days of the space program, the Americans spent millions of dollars developing a special pen that would write in zero gravity. But the Russians, he said, waggling his eyebrows and grinning smugly, had a much simpler solution: They used pencils.
Great story, but it’s not true. Astronauts and cosmonauts alike tried pencils, but they were judged too dangerous, as the tips could break off and float around until they got in someone’s eye, or the graphite could cause an electrical short. Eventually, the Fisher pen company developed a pen that would write in zero gravity. The Americans used it. The Soviets used it. And everybody else used it too, as Fisher used the “space pen” marketing angle to sell a bundle of the things.
I knew that one was a hoax from the get-go. He had another one that seemed like a load of applesauce, a Powerpoint presentation that purported to show the actual correspondence, as forwarded to the London Sunday Times, between a frustrated traveller and the hotel housekeeping staff who kept bringing him increasing supplies of those little bars of soap, which he never wanted in the first place. Sure enough, according to both Snopes and BigHoaxes.com, it’s a work of fiction by comic Shelley Berman that first appeared in his book A Hotel Is a Funny Place in 1972. It didn’t happen. Quite simply, the soap story didn’t wash.
He had a third anecdote that smelled funny, but I wasn’t able to debunk it, which is a shame, because it’s the only one he claimed had happened to him personally, so it would have been the crown jewel of the three. The gist of it was that he was asked by the phone company to buy them a warehouse because their current ones were full, but it turned out that as a result of a clerical error, they were all full of toilet paper that had been delivered to various branch offices and then put in storage because no one knew what to do with them. So he just canceled whatever old contract that was causing this state of affairs and saved the phone company a pile of money. The idea of these warehouses full of toilet paper sounded bogus to me, though. If a couple of big boxes of toilet paper started showing up at my office every week, I’d just take them home and use them. I’d never have to buy toilet paper again, and the company would be spared the courier charges involved in shipping it over to the warehouse. After all, this is what happened when my mom and my stepfather worked at Nestlé: If a crate of something came open, it was just cheaper to split it up among the employees than to ship it back. It’s why I had free chocolate all the time, and why my stepfather has diabetes. I brought this up, but he blew it off and everyone gave the tale a free pass. As far as I’m concerned, though, based on the two previous examples, his credibility had already been flushed down the toilet.
And that’s the point. When I pointed out the dubious veracity of his stories to a couple of people, they said, “Well, it’s just a story to illustrate his point. You’re missing the point.” But the point is simple: Whether he knew he was fibbing or he simply didn’t check his sources, he told us things that weren’t true. So, with his credibility cracked like that, why should I believe anything he had to say?
Same goes for the dude from Friday night. Not everyone is a compulsive fact-checker, and maybe not everyone spends so much time on the internet that they feel like they’ve got phantom limb syndrome when they’re not holding a mouse. But on the other hand, I’m far from the biggest conspiracy theorist out there, and I’m certainly not the only guy who uses the web. So if you’re telling stories that you got off the internet like they happened to you, you’re bound to get burned sometime, either by someone who’s already read it or, in the worst case scenario, by the guy it actually happened to. If you’ve got to lie to make yourself seem more interesting, take a creative writing class or an improv class if you need to, but at least write your own material.
Here’s the most flagrant example I’ve ever seen of a plagarized anecdote: Back in high school, I knew this dude named McCarthy who ought to have been the big man on campus. He had it all: Good looks, athletic ability, smarts — everything. But he was just kind of a dick, so he didn’t really have any friends. In fact, a couple of friends and I once conceived of a musical called McCarthy, McCarthy, which was based more or less on Faust: McCarthy sells his soul to the Devil in return for some friends. However, the Devil is unable to come through with his end of the bargain, and vanquished, dies. Thus, McCarthy is the saviour of man, but the ironic twist is that he’s just such an insufferable braggart about it that he still can’t get any friends.
Anyway, one time, McCarthy was making a bid for friendship with the churchy crowd. Hey, they’re not the coolest kids in school, but they’ll take anybody, right? He went on and on to Mark Croswell, the pastor’s son, about this dream he’d supposedly had the night before. “And then I said to Jesus, ‘Where were you when there was only one set of footsteps in the sand?'” he said earnestly. “And then He said, ‘It was then, child, that I carried you.'”
“Yeah, I think I’ve heard that one before,” I said. “On a plaque on the wall of every Christian I’ve ever known. It’s like the most famous Christian poem there is. You honestly thought Mark might not have heard that one?” I turned to Mark. “He so did not have the “Footprints” dream.”
Extreme doubt wrestled with Christian charity on Mark’s face as he tried to believe McCarthy. “Well … he could have….”
Yeah, but you know what? He could also have been a lying douchebag.
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