While in the midst of a publicity tour for my second novel, True Believers (available today as an e-book), I was scheduled for a radio interview in New York City. The station was uptown near Columbia University so it was conveniently following a guest lecture I was to give a gaggle of over-educated Ivy League film students. As expected, the enrollees were uniformly unimpressed with me as I began my humble presentation. After all, this was New York. Hometown to bona fide cinematic artists like Martin Scorcese and Spike Lee. Good thing I was prepared, having played the snobby film student vs. blue collar screenwriter game before. Oh. And it didn’t hurt that I was once an equally snotty film school undergraduate. So I understood from whence they came. By the end of my spin before a class full of young auteurs, I’d turned a few heads. Even impressed one or two. Satisfied with my performance, I moved on to my next appointment in Radioland.
It was late afternoon as I took the elevator up to the broadcast floor. As I stepped through the doors, I was instantly greeted by a middle-aged receptionist behind a sliding window reminiscent of a dentist’s office.
“May I help you?” asked the receptionist.
“Yes,” I answered. “I’m here for an interview.”
“And who are you with?” she asked.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I meant to say I was here to be interviewed. I have an appointment.”
The receptionist looked at me oddly. And we all know that gaze. The one that makes you wonder if you’d just knocked on the wrong door.
“Do you know who’s supposed to interview you?” she asked.
“Afraid not,” I said before confirming I was at the correct radio station.
“Oh yes,” she said. “You’re at the right place. But you don’t know who’s supposed to interview you?”
“Nowhere on my itinerary,” I said. “Hang on. Lemme see if I can get my publicist on the phone.”
“Publicist?” she said. “So you’re not here for a job interview?”
“Oh, no,” I said, instantly recognizing the misunderstanding. “I’m a guest on a radio program.”
“A guest?” she grinned. And then there was that look again before she asked, “What’s your name?”
The receptionist shook her head and picked up her phone. As she announced me, I found a seat in the small reception area. It was rather nondescript. More functional than concerned with putting on a face. I hadn’t a clue what the station’s format was, the power of its signal or however many listeners it was able to rope in. What I did know was that I was a relatively unknown fiction author. Not what anybody would consider ear candy. My experience in most electronic media was that broadcasters were more than happy to pimp my book as long as I chatted candidly about my travels in Hollywood. Civilized society vs. movie violence seemed to be the subject du jour. I was glad to tangle on any hot button issue as long as my book received a proper plug.
“Where’s Mr. Richardson?”
I looked up. But for the young lady in the doorway who’d uttered my name, I was the only other person present. The receptionist nodded toward me, that ever present grin of hers intact.
“I’m Doug Richardson,” I said as I stood, hand extended.
“Oh my,” she said, taking my hand.
“Sorry,” I added. “But I’m getting the feeling that there’s been a screw-up. Do I have the wrong day?”
In my addled brain, I was already blaming my publicist and the beaucoup bucks I was paying her. And this wouldn’t have been her first blog-worthy foul-up (read The Chicken Suit).
“No,” said the comely assistant. “You’re in the right place at the right time. Wanna come back with me?”
I followed the young lady into the bowels of the radio station. The corridors were tight, flanked by shelves stacked with spent audiotape.
“Listen,” said the assistant. “This is kind of embarrassing. But before I introduce you to John—he’s the host—I should tell you…”
“Tell me what?”
“Guess there’s no easy way to say it. When we booked you, we thought you were black.”
“As in African-American?”
As she nodded, it was all coming together like a CSI crime scene. Uptown radio station. The quizzical looks from the receptionist. Oh, and did I mention that everyone who worked in the building was black? Ah, the dangers of a busy mind as I was once again caught unaware in my own surroundings.
“Yes. Black,” she said. “I’m so embarrassed.”
“Don’t be,” I said.
“Really,” she said. “It’s my fault. I saw you’d written Bad Boys and this new Wesley Snipes movie that’s coming out. And I just thought…”
“Then there’s my name.”
How many times has it been asked, “what’s in a name?” Well, in my surname, a lot of color. And in the United States, much of that traces back to the deep South and the horrible legacy of plantation culture.
Despite the crossed lines of communication, the radio station was classy enough to carry on with the scheduled interview. We even made hay of the misunderstanding with a robust on-air discussion about race in film. I might’ve even told the tale of my very first film class at USC. The professor was reading off the names of those in attendance. The professor eventually called out my name. I raised a hand. Then he called out another Richardson. The man next to me raised a massive black hand. Two feet to my left was a behemoth football player who shared my last name. He stared me down as if I resembled his brother from another planet.
“What can I say?” I joked. “We had slaves.”
The football player paused, then busted out with a broad smile. Everybody laughed. And from that day on, we’d greet each other with high-fives. I was “Brother Doug.” He was “Brother Dennis.”
A week following the radio interview, I was visiting a Houston TV station when I was shaken by a sense of deja vu. The segment producer assigned to the pre-interview, was having difficulty finding the right words to describe her situation.
“Lemme guess,” I said. “You thought I was black.”
“How’d you know?” she asked, relieved I’d taken the air out of the balloon.
“Not my first rodeo,” I said. “My name. My credits. Easy mistake.”
Moments later she was staring at the jacket photo on the back of my novel.
“How long have we had this book, anyway?” she asked an assistant. “You think somebody’d look at the damn picture.”
It was maybe a month or two after when I’d returned home to Los Angeles and was happily back in the movie business. A producer pal had slipped me a black-themed action script that needed a speedy rewrite. Considering all the coin I’d paid out for travel and that lousy New York publicist, a quick production pass would’ve embroidered a big smile on my bank account.
So I agreed to meet the producer and the film’s African-American director at his Warner Brothers office. As I sat in the reception area, I heard voices rise from the director’s inner sanctum. He was having an argument with my producer pal.
“I’ve met Doug Richardson,” shouted the director. “And you know what? He’s NOT black.”
In the meeting that followed I tried to convince the young director that having successfully written for Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, I’d passed the color test. We even shared a few laughs about the racial profiling that comically peppered my recent book tour.
Yeah. But I still didn’t get the gig.
Read my new thriller, THE SAFETY EXPERT. Available in trade paperback and ebook at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.