“The Dented Can” – My Story In A Nutshell

By Dobie Maxwell – http://www.schlitzhappened.com

   I was born at 12:13am Thursday March 14th, 1963 at Mount Sinai Hospital in Milwaukee, WI. After that first slap, they wouldn’t stop coming. My story has twists and turns few others do, and had I not lived through all of it myself I probably wouldn’t believe it. I assure you, it’s ALL true.

   I have always heard I should “write a book someday” – which is turning out to be today. I have enough crazy stories to tell to fill several books, but I’ll start at the beginning to set the stage. I’m ashamed to admit that for many years I wanted to forget about my past and where I came from.

   Unfortunately, there’s just no way to do that. We all come from somewhere, and wherever that is becomes an inescapable part of who we are for life. I am from Milwaukee, and no matter how far I’ve ever tried to run – and I have – it always will be a part of me. I have come to embrace it.

Flying my hometown colors

Flying my hometown colors

   It wasn’t easy. I had a very rocky start. I was born the third child to two people who should not have been parents under any circumstances whatsoever. My father rode with a motorcycle ‘club’ of local infamy called The Outlaws, and my mother was not even 21 when I came on the scene.

   Neither one was ready for parenthood, but they kept cranking out babies like Harley-Davidson was cranking out motorcycles. By the time I was five months old, they’d had enough. My mother left, and I was sent to live with my paternal grandparents temporarily until they could decide on a place to send me. One thing led to another, and they ended up raising me most of my childhood.

Other colors I saw at home

Other colors I saw at home

   That doesn’t mean life was all “Hershey bars and Archie comics” as Gramps often liked to say. He and my grandmother fought constantly, and by the time I was twelve they split up. During all that time, I would be shipped back and forth to my father’s house to try and assimilate with both my natural siblings, step mother and eventually a younger step brother. It was constant turmoil.

   I would spend occasional weekends and frequent extended school vacations living in what the neighbors came to know as the “Outlaw House”, and saw firsthand how that insane lifestyle was lived. It wasn’t fun and I never fit in, and that’s extremely painful for a child to have to endure.

   I never felt like I had a true home anywhere, but that later trained me well for the comedy road life. All too often the back stories of comedians are loaded with sadness. That’s what eventually becomes the motivation for wanting to hear laughter because there was so little in our childhood.

Does this look like a future comedian?

Does this look like a future comedian?

   What makes my story unusual is that I lived through not one but two painful childhoods at the same time. I’d spend some time at one place, and then get sent back to the other. I didn’t know it at the time, but it would provide me with more comedic material than I could use in six lifetimes. There were oddball characters everywhere I went – and that’s the ingredient of all good comedy.

   Combine those two off the charts scenarios with the backdrop of Milwaukee culture, and I was living in two sitcoms at once and didn’t know it. I wasn’t able see the humor then, as I struggled to carve out an identity and figure out what life was all about and where my place in it might be.

   I like to refer to a comedian (or anyone else from a painful childhood) as a “dented can”. There isn’t anything technically wrong with a dented can at the grocery store, but they never put it with the ‘normal’ cans on the shelf. They always stick it in a cart in the back of the store with all kinds of other rejected products like oddly shaped fruits and vegetables and crushed boxes of cereal.

   It trickles down, and robs the dented can of self esteem. There is no real reason they shouldn’t be with the rest of the cans, just as the tomato with the unsightly lump or the ripped box of Corn Flakes has a reason to be removed from the rest. There might be a cosmetic flaw, but the actual product itself is just as good as the others. The same holds true for products of painful families.

dented can

   It doesn’t mean we’re inferior people, it only means we’ve had some outside damage that has placed us in a separate category through no fault of our own. This is never pleasant, but it’s true for literally millions of people in America and all over the world. It’s not a matter of if someone is a dented can, but rather how deep one’s dents are and where. Very few live the fantasy life.

   A lot boils down to how one reacts to the poker hand life deals. I never asked to be born at all, much less to lower class biker parents in Milwaukee. Who wouldn’t love to be the firstborn son of a billionaire who lives in a mansion in Hollywood or some other exotic dream circumstance?

Life deals us all a hand.

Life deals us all a hand.

   We get what we get, and that’s how it is. I fought it for years, but the more I fought the less it changed. I was who I was, and part of that was where I came from. I eventually started to travel as a comedian, and I found that where I was from was definitely not like everywhere else. There are definitely dented cans everywhere, but everywhere was definitely not like my home town.

   One thing I noticed right away was that anywhere I went in America where there happened to be another Milwaukeean in attendance we’d always end up talking about home. We’d talk about our favorite restaurants and what side of town we were from, and it forged an immediate bond.

   This kind of a bond is both instantaneous and everlasting – just like meeting someone with the same birthday. If it happens to be the same year, you can pretty much invite yourself over for the holiday dinner of your choice. Meeting someone from one’s home town works exactly the same way, and the farther from home one is when the meeting occurs the deeper the bond becomes.

milw seal

   It took me painful decades of unsuccessfully trying to escape my past and hometown heritage to learn that I could be abducted by a UFO and taken to a far away galaxy and still not get away from the fact that I am a dented can from Milwaukee and always will be. I’m no longer ashamed, and in fact it’s quite the opposite. I’m proud of where I’m from, and I want to be an ambassador.

   Warts and all, Milwaukee and its local culture is flat out FUNNY. The situations of my painful past are funny. Life itself is funny – if we will allow ourselves to look at it that way. It took me a lifetime to be able to see that, but now I do and am excited to share the stories with everyone else who might be able to relate to being either a Milwaukeean or a dented can. Maybe you happen to be both. That’s great! Pull up a barstool. We’ve got some serious (and funny) catching up to do.

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