(I USED TO BE) A SMART GUY, by David Sedaris
LIFE WAS GOOD FOR THE FIRST FORTY-ONE YEARS. THEN I TOOK AN IQ TEST.
WHEN I WAS TWENTY-FIVE, I found a job cleaning construction sites in the suburbs of Raleigh. It was dull work, made even duller on the days I was partnered with a fellow named Reggie, an alleged genius unhappy with the course his life had taken.
"Here I am with a 130 IQ, and they've got me sweeping up sawdust." He'd glare at the bristles of his broom as if they had conspired to hold him back. "A 130! I'm serious, man. I've been tested."
This was my cue to act impressed, but I generally passed.
"One-three-oh," he'd say. "In case you didn't know it, that's genius level."
"With a mind like mine, I could be doing something, you know what I mean?"
"A 60 could do what I'm doing. That leaves me with 70 extra IQ points sitting around in my head and doing nothing."
"They must be bored."
"You're damned right," he'd say. "People like me need to be challenged."
"Maybe you could turn on the fan and sweep against the wind. That's pretty difficult."
"Are you making fun of me?" he'd ask.
"Well, don't," he'd say. "I'm a lot smarter than you."
"How do you know?" I'd ask. "I might be a 300 or something."
"A 300. Right. I'd place you at around 72, tops."
"What does that mean?" I'd ask.
"It means I hope you like pushing a broom."
"And what does that mean?"
He'd shake his head in pity. "Ask me in about fifteen years."
FIFTEEN YEARS LATER, I found myself working for a housecleaning company. Yes, it was unskilled labor, but, for what it's worth, I did very little sweeping. Mainly, I vacuumed. Oh, but that was years ago. Two years ago, to be exact.
I'm not sure what Reggie is doing now, but I thought of him recently when, at the age of forty-two, I finally had my IQ tested. Being an adult with a fairly steady history of supporting myself, I thought it could do no real harm. What I failed to realize is that such a test mucks with both your past and your future, clarifying a lifetime of bad choices and setting you up for the inevitability of future failure.
As I child, I'd always harbored a sneaking suspicion that I might be a genius. This theory was entirely my own, corroborated by no one, but so what? Being misunderstood was all part of the package. My father occasionally referred to me as "Smart Guy," but eventually I realized that when saying it, he usually meant just the opposite.
"Hey, Smart Guy--coating your face with mayonnaise because you can't find the insect repellent." Or "Hey, Smart Guy--thinking you can toast marshmallows in your bedroom." That type of thing.
I thought I could cure diabetes by spreading suntan lotion on sticks of chewing gum. Sea & Ski on Juicy Fruit, Coppertone on Big Red. I had the raw ingredients and a test subject, all under the same roof.
"Hey, Smart Guy," my father would say. "Offer your grandmother another piece of that gum and you'll be the one scrubbing your teeth in the bathroom sink." What did he know.
ALONE IN MY BEDROOM, I studied pictures of intelligent men and searched for a common denominator. There was a definite Smart Guy look, but it was difficult to get just right. Throw away your comb and you could resemble either Albert Einstein or Larry Fine. Both wore rumpled suits and stuck out their tongues, but only one displayed true genius in such films as Booty and the Beast and The Three Stooges Meet Hercules.
In high school, I flirted with the idea that I might be a philosophical genius. According to me and one or two of my friends, it was almost scary the way I could read people. I practiced thoughtfully removing my glasses and imagined myself appearing on one of those Sunday-morning television shows, where I'd take my seat beside other learned men and voice my dark and radical theories on the human condition.
"People are insecure," I'd say. "They wear masks and play games."
My ideas would be like demons rushing from a hellish cave, and my fellow intellectuals, startled by their truth and enormity, would try to bottle them up before they spread.
"That's enough!" they'd yell. "For the love of God, somebody silence him!"
Far scarier than any of my ideas is the fact that at the age of seventeen, I was probably operating at my intellectual peak. I should have been tested then, before I squandered what little sense I had. By the time I reached my thirties, my brain had been strip-mined by a combination of drugs, alcohol, and the chemical solvents used at the refinishing company where I worked. Still, there were moments when, against all reason, I thought I might be a genius. These moments were provoked not by any accomplishment but by cocaine and crystal methamphetamine--drugs that allow you to lean over a mirror with a straw up your nose, suck up an entire week's paycheck, and think, "God, I'm smart."
It's always been the little things that encourage me. I'll watch a movie in which an attractive woman in a sports bra, a handsome widower, and a trio of selfish, weak-chinned cowards are pursued by mighty reptiles or visitors from another galaxy. "The cowards are going to die," I'll think, and then, when they do, I congratulate myself on my intelligence. When I say, "Oh, it was so predictable," it sounds brainy and farsighted. When other people say it, it sounds stupid. Call me an egghead, but there you have it.
IT WAS SIMPLE CURIOSITY that led me to take an IQ test. Simple, stupid, ugly curiosity, the same thing that motivates boys to pull the wings off of flies. I took my test in Paris, in the basement of an engineering school not far from my apartment. I'd figured that, on its own, my score would mean nothing--I needed someone to compare myself against--and so Hugh came along and took the test as well. I'd worried that he might score higher than me, but a series of recent events had set me at ease. A week earlier, while vacationing in Slovenia, he'd ordered a pizza that the English-speaking waiter had strenuously recommended he avoid. It came topped with a mound of canned vegetables: peas, corn, carrot coins, potatoes, and diced turnips. Observing the look of dumb horror on his face as the waiter delivered the ugly pizza, I decided that, in a test of basic intelligence, I was a definite shoo-in. Then, days later, with no trace of irony, he'd suggested that the history of the chocolate chip might make for an exciting musical. "If, of course, you found the right choreographer."
"Yes," I'd said. "Of course."
The tests we took were designed to determine our eligibility for Mensa, an international association for those with IQs of 132 or higher. Its members come from all walks of life and get together every few weeks to take in a movie or enjoy a weenie roast. They're like Elks or Masons, only they're smart. Our tests were administered by an attractive French psychologist named Madame Haberman, who was herself a Mensa member. She explained that we'd be taking four tests, each of them timed. In order to qualify for Mensa membership, we'd need to score in the top 2 percent on any given one.
I've known people who have taken IQ tests in the past, and whenever I've asked them to repeat one of the questions, they've always drawn a blank, saying, "Oh, you know, they were.., multiple-choice things." Immediately after taking my test, I was hard-pressed to recall much of anything except the remarkable sense of relief I'd felt each time the alarm went off and we were asked to put down our pencils. In the first test, we were shown a series of three drawings and asked which of the four adjacent ones might best complete the sequence. In the second, we were told to examine five drawings and figure out which two didn't belong. The third had to do with spatial relations and gave me an immediate headache. A break was called, and we stepped out onto the street. Hugh and Madame Haberman discussed her upcoming trip to the Turkish coast, but I was still trapped in test world. Five deaf students walked down the street, and I tried to determine which two did not belong. I imagined myself approaching the two boys wearing tennis shoes and pictured their confusion as I laid my hands upon their shoulders, saying, "I'm going to have to ask you to come with me."
Our final test involved determining a pattern in four pairs of dominoes and prophesying what the fifth pair might look like. I didn't come close to finishing. I'd like to say that the room was too hot or that Madame Haberman distracted me with her incessant banjo picking, but none of this is true. I have no one but myself to blame.
A WEEK LAVER, our scores arrived in the mail. Hugh has been advised to try again: Scores can fluctuate according to stress and circumstance, and he's right on the cusp of Mensa qualification. My letter began with the words "Dear Monsieur Sedaris, We regret to inform you..."
It turns out that I'm really stupid, practically an idiot. There are cats that weigh more than my IQ score. Were my number translated into dollars, it would buy you about three buckets of fried chicken. The fact that this surprises me only bespeaks the depths of my ignorance.
The test reflected my ability to reason logically. You either reason things out or you don't. Those who do have high IQs. Those who don't reach for the mayonnaise when they can't find the insect repellent. When I became upset over my test score, Hugh explained that everybody thinks differently--I just happen to do it less than the average adult.
"Think donkey," he said. "Then take it down a few notches."
It's a point I can't really argue. The thing about my brain is that it hasn't advanced much since the time I claimed ownership. Reality doesn't concern me in the least. It never has. If told I had to vacate my apartment by next week, I wouldn't consult the real estate listings. Instead, I'd just imagine myself living in a moated sugar-cube castle, floating from room to room on a king-sized magic carpet. If I have one saving grace, it's that I'm lucky to have found someone willing to handle the ugly business of day-to-day living.
Hugh consoled me by saying, "Don't let it get to you. There are plenty of things you're good at."
When asked for some examples, he listed vacuuming and naming stuffed animals. He says he can probably come up with a few more, but he'll need some time to think.