I was thinking the other day about an old acquaintance of mine named Jared.
From 2006 to 2010, I spent almost every Friday night at No Shame Theater in Roanoke. Invented by my friend Todd Ristau, No Shame Theater exists in venues all over the country; the concept is that you have a performance space with up to 15 five-minute slots. Anyone can take a slot and perform a five-minute piece for the audience. The piece can be literally anything, as long as it’s only five minutes long, is your own original work, and doesn’t break anything (including the law and members of the audience).
Discovering No Shame was a watershed moment in my life; I would show up weekly to read monologues, perform comedy skits I’d written, and sometimes do stand-up comedy. Along the way, I made many wonderful friends, not to mention some of the most important connections of my life.
Jared was one of the people I met through No Shame, although it would be a stretch to call him a friend; I don’t know that Jared really had friends in the traditional sense.
Jared was in his 60s, an enormously tall and stoop-shouldered man with a high-pitched voice. Every Friday night at 11 p.m., he would show up to No Shame with his notebook and take the first slot of the night. When his turn came, he would sit on stage and read to the audience from his notebook.
What made these performances quite interesting was that Jared had paranoid schizophrenia.
Jared’s writings usually focused on the massive government conspiracy that he believed was targeting him. For example, he once told a story about getting on a bus in Washington D.C. at the same time as a bunch of kitchen staff from the White House. He talked about how they all looked at him oddly because they clearly knew who he was, having overheard conversations about him amongst high-ranking White House staff. It never occurred to Jared that perhaps the reason they were looking at him oddly was because he was — and I say this with love— a very odd guy who didn’t do a great job of concealing the fact.
Over the years, I was able to piece together a bit of Jared’s story. Apparently when he was in college in the mid-1960s, he wrote a pro-Communist letter for his campus newspaper. Around this same time, his schizophrenia was beginning to manifest, as often happens when people are in their early 20s. One of his professors complained about Jared to the school administration — whether the complaints were about the letter or his deteriorating mental health, I cannot say — and Jared was reprimanded in some fashion.
This was the flash point for Jared, the point of no return; to his mind, he possessed dangerous ideas that had made him an enemy of not just the college administration, but the entire U.S. government. I don’t know if he ever made an effort to seek help for his schizophrenia, but it doesn’t seem likely; from his perspective, there wasn’t a thing wrong with him.
After Jared would read from his notebook, he would return to his seat and quietly watch the rest of the show. After No Shame ended, a group of No Shame regulars would always retire to Macado’s in downtown Roanoke for a late dinner, and Jared would usually join us.
Jared would never sit with us, though; he would always sit by himself at a booth nearby. On a number of occasions, I wandered over to his booth to make small talk.
The great tragedy of Jared was that it was impossible to be his friend; if you showed him any kindness or expressed interest in his life, he took that to mean that you were an FBI agent investigating him. That didn’t stop a lot of us No Shame folks from trying, and he would always talk to us, but he would never let anyone get too close.
Ironically, out of all the folks who attended No Shame back then, one of the few people that Jared did not accuse of being an FBI agent was, in fact, an employee of the FBI.
Jared could be funny, albeit unintentionally, and I won’t deny that a lot of us cracked inside jokes about Jared and his rambling, paranoid missives. However, there was a silent understanding that while WE were allowed to crack those jokes, we had to fiercely protect Jared from outsiders who didn’t understand. On a handful of occasions, a new person attending No Shame would get up on stage and make a crack about the weird dude who had opened the show; this newcomer would immediately get booed into oblivion. Jared may have been a weirdo, but he was OUR weirdo.
What always struck me as so fascinating about Jared was the fact that he felt comfortable sharing his notebooks with us. No Shame would occasionally be packed, a hundred or so people in attendance, yet he would still go up on stage and share his thoughts about the secret government conspiracy against him. I was told that he wouldn’t even read his notebooks aloud in his own apartment because he believed his oven was bugged, but he WOULD read them on stage in front of an audience comprised of complete strangers and people he believed were FBI agents. Perhaps at a certain point, the need to make a connection overrides the need to play it safe.
Jared eventually moved back to New York, and as far as I can tell from a cursory internet search, he lives there still. A couple of years before he left, his nephew came down from New York to Roanoke, presumably to check on Jared. During his stay, he accompanied Uncle Jared to No Shame one night.
At the end of the evening, Jared’s nephew seemed stunned. He had watched all the No Shame regulars greet Jared when he walked into the theater, watched everyone applaud Jared’s piece. He had, I suppose, watched an entire audience of people treat Jared not like a mentally ill kook, but like a cherished (if eccentric) member of the family.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back, I increasingly think Jared was the heart of No Shame. Every week, so many of us would show up to perform, everybody trying to do something funnier, something weirder, something that pushed the envelope a little bit further. Jared had us all beat from the jump, and he didn’t even know it.