Opinion » John Rember

Altered Ego

What's up to you isn't always you


On Halloween Night of 1980, I was in Ketchum, bartending at Slavey's, on the corner of Highway 75 and Sun Valley Road. I had dressed for the occasion. I was wearing black running shoes, black socks, black tights, a thigh-length tight black turtleneck and thin black leather gloves. My face was painted mime-white, except for quite a lot of eyeshadow, which I had applied in Amy Winehouse style, even though Amy Winehouse wouldn't be born for three years yet.

On my head was a narrow black lampshade that I had converted into a hat by stapling--into its small end--the plastic harness from my old Forest Service hard hat. Once my hat was on, I threw five or six glow-sticks into it, and walked around lighting up the ceiling wherever I went. My final accessory was a wide rhinestone belt, worn low on my hips.

I was moving fast, serving drinks with an athletic grace that my fellow bartenders, hampered by Sumo Wrestler and Smokey the Bear costumes, couldn't match.

Then three guys I had gone to high school with showed up. They were in street clothes, having come to Ketchum to watch the spectacle, not participate in it, and when I called out their names they looked at me like I'd blown their cover. It took awhile, but they finally recognized me.

They had been football players in high school, and so had gone around in costume themselves, usually during football games. I had been the class nerd. Football had not been an option for me for many reasons, most of them related to self-preservation.

I did make the letterman's club in my senior year, in track. I broke school records in the two-mile run, mainly because I could imagine the whole football team right behind me, about to stuff my head in a toilet.

They ordered three bottles of Coors, shaking their heads. One of them asked who I thought I was supposed to be.

"Me," I said. "It's Halloween. The real me can finally come out. All those button-down shirts and corduroys I wore in high school? My civilian disguise. Inside, I was The Human Flashlight, The Teen-Aged Superhero Who Shines Light Where No Light Has Shone Before."

"You were?"

"Halloween is all about who you are on the inside. You guys should have worn your football uniforms."

That hit home. There's nothing that creates a sense of tragedy in 30-year-old ex-high-school football players like a few beers, Halloween and the idea that for one fleeting night, the identity you cherish, the one you wish you could have had forever, could still be yours. I could see they were already thinking about next year. When they came in, in pads and helmet and jerseys, I'd be careful not to be in a button-down shirt and corduroys.

They left when word got out there was a woman across the street in Whiskey Jacques', in a Halloween costume that was nothing but body paint and glitter.

I went back to bartending but started feeling guilty about misleading my old classmates. I had really gotten the idea for my costume from Fritz Lang's Metropolis, a 1927 silent movie about a future industrial dystopia.

The Halloween before, I had gone as a Star Wars Sand Person, complete with a floor-length hoodie and glowing red eyes.

The year before that, I had gone as Charlie Manson, wearing Levis, cowboy boots, a jean jacket, a long curly black wig, a beard and a lipstick-red swastika on my forehead. That had not gone well--I discovered that there are people out there who respond erotically to Charlie Manson, even when dressed as Alice in Wonderland.

Sometime during those years I had decided that alter egos can be arbitrary and not as serious as one's real identity. Come Halloween, you can be anybody, and the next day go back to being your real self.

What can I say? I was only 30. I suppose the best way to explain how wrong I was is to ask that you look around and count up the people in your life who carelessly put on a costume, maybe only for a night or two, and then found they couldn't take it off. It's a variation on your mom's don't-make-that-face-it-will-stick rule--but it is a rule. Adopt the wrong persona, and people will decide it's you, and no matter how much you explain that it's all a mistake, nobody will believe you. Even you won't believe you.

That's when you'll understand that your identity doesn't exist inside of you, it exists in the space between you and other people.

The next Halloween, I was wearing Carhartts, a tool belt and, once again, my hard hat. After a day of pouring concrete, I didn't go to the Ketchum bars that night. Instead, I fell asleep in front of the TV.

Bartending had turned sour after one of my co-workers had gotten $60,000 in debt to his coke dealers. He had killed himself with a shotgun when they began to threaten his family. From the outside, all I had been able to see was that he was periodically and inexplicably popular with the cocktail waitresses.

A year later I was applying to the University of Montana's grad school, having decided that if I spent another year in Ketchum, I'd be there for life, and I didn't want that, at least not until I got to be 75 or so. I'd seen what could happen to bartenders, and the old guys on the cement crew ate ibuprofen like they were Tic-Tacs.

I had to get out of there, and out of all those costumes, before I became what I was pretending to be.