This is an updated excerpt from Joe Biel’s seventh book, Good Trouble: Building a Successful Life & Business with Asperger’s, detailing many mistakes that proved to be learning opportunities and the first 20 years of Microcosm Publishing.
During my second-to-last year of high school, a friend’s dad began paying me under the table to do deliveries for his Italian restaurant. Within a year it had turned into the best-paying job of my life. I earned $4 per hour to deliver pizzas and was making $10–20 per hour in tips on top of that. While the owner was a staunch Republican, the likes of which I hadn’t yet encountered in my short life, he was hugely influential in my understanding of business management and finances. He explained every decision he made and every action that his employees took in terms of the financial cost to him. From a clinical distance, he would tell an employee to put only one dollar’s worth of cheese on each pizza, as if they could visualize that as a measurable quantity as he could. He sang the praises of onions, which cost him only nine cents per pizza, while we charged the customer 99 cents. Then he raised the customer’s price to $1.09, citing increased supplier costs.
He referred to my sexuality as “confused” and would intersperse praise for President Reagan into a monologue about how his employees would get raises more quickly if we tucked our shirts in. Then he would seamlessly segue into how we were all easily replaceable because we were so cheap to train. Despite these inadvisable ramblings that made us feel worthless, he was a good manager and when I showed interest in the financial operations of the business he would spend hours detailing to me how decisions were made. He would always use the cheapest suppliers regardless of quality, he explained, because most of our clients were businesspeople staying in hotels whom we likely wouldn’t hear from again. I questioned his ethics frequently. Our disagreements were vital to my learning and also, I think, caused him to respect me for having a backbone. Within two years, he promoted me to manager of the restaurant. He began scaling back his involvement, and when a competitor opened on the same block, he began training to become a private investigator. I earned enough money that throughout the three years that I worked there, I could take $100 from each week’s paycheck to invest into projects for Microcosm. All of the startup money for Microcosm came from working at that restaurant — about $20,000 total.
One day in the summer of 1997 while delivering food to a factory, the shop manager made the callous remark that I would someday have to get a “real” job. The words stung so deep that I got up early the next day and filled out an application to work in the information technology department of a local company that made sterilization products for medical equipment. It seemed like everything in the building was pretty toxic and my roommate who worked there always came home with burns on his arms. My roommate said that it was okay money but the job kinda sucked. They called me a few weeks later, I showed up late for the interview, and I spent the entire hour haranguing the manager about how much time I needed to take off for punk tours and explaining that I couldn’t prove my income from my current job under the table. For some reason they never called me back, but I realized that I was making more money at the restaurant than I would at the sterilization company (or even at the factory where the manager had implied that my job was fake).
The following winter a car crashed into me head on in the middle of a busy intersection while I was delivering a pizza. My job didn’t provide delivery insurance like they were required to, so I was pretty nervous and didn’t notice that I was banged up, bleeding all over, and lucky to still be alive.
The paramedics got me out of the car and I could see that my car’s frame was all bent up like an accordion. As I lay on the pavement, in shock, and fading in and out of consciousness, a small child asked me if I was okay, and her dad snapped “Don’t talk to him!” Slowly, I deduced that they had both been in the car that hit me. They seemed to be in much better shape than I was. A few people came up to me and said that they witnessed the crash and gave me their phone numbers. I worried that the pizzas in my passenger seat were getting cold. Police arrived on the scene, took statements, and informed me that, given the damage, I was lucky to have survived at all.
A few days later I was lying in bed recovering from my wounds and got a call from my insurance company. The woman on the phone delivered a long lecture about how kids should drive only to and from work and school. Before I could explain that I was working at the time of the crash, they told me that they’d be in touch with the other driver’s insurance company, would call me back after a few days, and hung up.
Months later I was still waiting for the incident to be resolved. Apparently the other driver was a “safety expert” by profession and kept bringing up this detail to his insurance agent. He claimed that he had seen me having conversations with the witnesses on the scene and that they were my biased friends. I would call the insurance company once a month and was always just told that they would be in touch.
I couldn’t keep working at my delivery job without a car, and money was getting tighter as I waited on my settlement. I came home after a night of drinking to find an email from someone named Terri DiSisto offering me a few hundred dollars to self-produce a home video of myself being tickled. It included such highlights as “Guys that interest me are YOUNG (basically, my age…18–23), HOT (….on the thin side…not too ‘big-n-buff’….with absolutely no body fat whatsoever), and TICKLISH! No sex or nudity are wanted…Good videos feature exhaustion (which can usually last several days), pseudo-asphyxiation, emotional desperation, occasional muscle strains and pleading and begging…accompanied by truly desperate ticklish laughter…”
I don’t know how she found me, but the enclosed photo looked like a college-aged Candace Cameron and the email described the person that I was making the videos for as “attractive.” Many elements of this job offer seemed fishy, but this was before the era of Nigerian princes, and everyone in Cleveland had a scam anyway, so a person pretending to be someone else and soliciting tickling videos from strangers didn’t raise a single red flag to me. It seemed like good fun for everyone.
I began enthusiastically telling my friends about this job offer and tried to cut them in as the tickler, but their responses ranged from disbelief to abhorrence to questioning the ethics of it. My friend Ryan wanted to have a debate about the most ethical way to do sex work for a stranger. Having no interest in that, I turned the conversations back to money, “How about I pay you $50 an hour to tickle me?” He agreed.
I set up the video camera on a tripod, was tied to the bed with neckties while wearing only cut-off shorts, and was straddled by a friend, who tickled me for an hour according to the regimented timelines for each area of my body that Terri dictated. I mailed tape after tape to Terri and the money started really adding up. I was even paid for a shirtless interview on tape. She complained when I submitted a tape of myself with a beard and told me that it was not acceptable. I must be clean shaven.
There was only one problem: each time a friend spent an hour straddling me, s/he said that s/he wouldn’t tickle me again. People said that it was too weird to be in this supposed sexual situation with me for a stranger’s benefit. I had one friend who loved it but, his girlfriend was freaked out about it and forbade him from doing it again. I was running out of ticklers.
Fortunately, after almost a year, the insurance company determined that I did not cause the accident. The settlement was quite large, as I’d been without a car for eleven months by then. I was too young for them to provide me with a rental car so I received a daily stipend instead. When spring came around, I’d begun a life as a dedicated bicycle commuter, riding my bike to a part-time, minimum-wage job at a dollar store in the same mall where I’d been caught shoplifting years earlier.
I loved cycling, especially at night. I began to get up at three in the afternoon to go to work, going to sleep at nine or ten in the morning after hanging out with my friends all night. I was directionless but no longer depressed. When winter returned, so did my car, and I went back to my delivery job.
Still, being a teenager with a severe accident on my record, my premium went up. I met with my insurance agent to ask whether there was anything that I could do about it. He said that there was a discount for having a high grade point average. So I enrolled in community college and took some business classes. The State of Ohio paid for it.
I told my teachers what I had been doing with Microcosm: publishing and distributing zines and records. They told me that it would never work, that I would need to raise prices and conform to more conventional models. “Wouldn’t you rather sell one $10 item than ten $1 items?” they each inquired, thinking that it was such an original idea that it would shatter my misconceptions. The funny thing was, the more they kept yapping, the more I realized that they weren’t running businesses. And I would rather sell ten $1 items. It serves a different goal that they were overlooking or perhaps was beyond their education: Many businesses employ the concept of “loss leaders,” or selling something for less than it costs you in order to attract people to your business and advertise it by telling their friends about the great deals that they got. I was expanding on that concept. I knew that I couldn’t afford to lose money, but I knew that I needed to get people talking about Microcosm, what it offered, and how great it was. Selling some things for $1 was a great way to do that. Stickers were like the pizza restaurant’s onions: We pay nine cents for them but sell them for $1. The zines cost 50 cents each, so we weren’t making much money but through creating systems designed to manage sending ten times as many packages as other small publishers, we would stand out from the crowd and be ready to fulfill those orders, get those zines and stickers into stores where new people could find them, and get people talking about us. I was young and pompous enough that I decided that my business teachers were idiots.
I took some accounting classes and discovered that I already had a freakish inherent understanding of all things financial. Everything that they taught me was already in my head somehow. I began to realize I had picked these things up through osmosis while growing up. My mom had raised my sister and me on very little income, less than I was making at the time, but she never complained about being broke and always knew how to shuffle the shell game. Despite the fact that her only income was social security and welfare, my mom suspiciously had enough money for “investments,” such as a new minivan every three years and some elaborate vacation packages for herself. Many of my friends’ parents asked how my mom could even afford her mortgage and taxes on such a tiny fixed income. I never asked questions and she never explained where the money came from, but I was thankful that I had picked up the skills of financial literacy and responsible decision-making.
A few months later, the parking brake didn’t catch while I was running inside an apartment to make a delivery and my car rolled into someone’s garage door. Six months after that, while delivering to a factory in an industrial part of town in the dead of winter, I stopped the car as I entered the parking lot and was hit seconds later by a snowplow going in reverse at about 45 mph. The frame of the car had already been bent back into place once, and the car crumpled like paper under the weight of the plow. The impact of the crash finally stopped the plow inches before it crushed me, too.
As the frozen air surrounded me through the newfound holes that had developed in my car, I looked through the windshield and saw a giant machine towering over me, inches away from my body. I laughed like a lunatic. There was really no other reaction that fit the situation. It felt like a scene out of a movie. I couldn’t tell whether I was lucky or indestructible. I was a teenager after all.
I didn’t get another car. Driving felt too dangerous, and I had read a great article in a zine titled “how to save $7,000 per year” that detailed all of the merits of commuting everywhere by bike. Because of my punk-rock moral obligation, I rode my bike everywhere I went after that. In anticipation of another big settlement check, I bought a nice Cannondale bike that weighed less than a pound.
After the accident, I biked to work and worked only inside the restaurant from then on. As a fiscal conservative, my boss strongly approved of my decision to live car-free but seemed a little concerned about how this would affect him in the game of capitalism. He gave me another car that I drove for a while, but my heart wasn’t in it so I gave it back.
School wasn’t really working out for me either. It wasn’t really engaging me mentally, nor was it meeting my intellect. Most of my classmates were either kids I had gone to high school with whom I hadn’t liked the first time around or retirees who wanted to be landlords or fulfill such needs as opening a Christian bookstore inside the mall because the one across the street from the mall wasn’t reaching enough nonbelievers. I was there only for the car-insurance discount so with my car in the junkyard, I dropped out. But first I took some graphic-design classes and changed my declared major to dentistry, if only to amuse myself.
Years later, in 2006, in an effort to cover the cost of visiting someone that I thought that I was in love with, I contacted Terri Tickle again. She didn’t respond. Eventually, while reading a magazine in a hospital waiting room one day, I saw an article titled “I was a Teenage Tickle Whore.” I laughed. I had been a teenage tickle whore. But I had never thought about it that way. The article was the story of another young man who had made videos for Terri. Apparently, a frustrated Terri Tickle was put on trial for shutting down a school’s email servers after a student decided that he didn’t want to make tickle videos anymore. Terri’s real identity was found out: 39-year-old Long Island high-school assistant principal David P. D’Amato. While his actual convictions were comparatively minor, it ended up also costing him his job — and his tickling empire. Apparently, you can’t be an assistant principal who is attracted to teenage boys being tickled, even if you claim to be a perfectly permed teenage girl. His arrest meant that the best-paying job of my life was over.
In 2016, D’Amato was properly documented in David Farrier’s film Tickled. The man was apparently the son of a Wall Street attorney and the heir to quite a fortunate. He had operated “tickle cells” in places around the U.S. where concentrations of athletic young men existed. He hired recruiters to fill the cells with mixed martials arts fighters. He stole the identity of a second woman to reboot his empire. From watching the film I learned so much about my own life.
David targeted boys that were financially and emotionally vulnerable. In every case it was David’s emotions that were his undoing. He would maliciously attack young men when they decided that they didn’t want to make videos for him anymore or that they didn’t want their names to be posted on YouTube. When his victims flinched, David turned the screws deeper, contacting their families, employers, and colleges and claiming that they had a dark secret and had inappropriately sent their videos to him. He seemingly set out to ruin their lives.
But I was immune to all of this, for better or worse. I didn’t care if everyone in my life knew about my tickle videos. I had no shame and there was no distance between my real identity and any perceived one. Maybe David contacted my boss at the Italian restaurant. Maybe he contacted my parents. But nobody would have cared, including me. I was immune to his emotional blackmail and manipulations. I just wanted to make more and more videos with him. The pay was great and it didn’t make me feel vulnerable or creeped out at all. My Asperger’s shielded me from the malice that D’Amato wreaked upon the other boys. So perhaps that’s why David got bored with me and stopped commissioning videos of me.
And now, years later when I think about it, it’s rare that anyone could emotionally manipulate me in this way.
I’ll never know for sure but I’m willing to bet that it was my emotional detachment that drove away David from our years-long relationship. I still kind of miss him. One more tickle for old time sakes?
This has been an updated excerpt from Joe Biel’s seventh book, Good Trouble: Building a Successful Life & Business with Asperger’s, which details many mistakes that proved to be learning opportunities and the first 20 years of Microcosm Publishing.