What's the most embarrassing thing that's ever happened to you? Did it show up online yet? Consider yourself lucky if it hasn't, because aside from kitten memes and porn, schadenfreude is the dirty coal that keeps the engine of the Internet firing away. With the constant barrage of the morbid, ridiculous and scandalous popping up in our news feeds, we've come to expect a daily dose of catharsis from all walks of life. Look at this idiot trying to rob a convenience store with a tree branch! Top 10 faces of meth addicts! Watch this woman fall into a fountain at the mall! Look at this guy who got caught trying to smuggle 30 different items into a Florida prison by stashing them in his rectum. LOL ad infinitum.
That last story just arrived in February. You probably already know that since I'm sure one of your friends "liked" it or tweeted it #assjokes. Or maybe you came across the link on one of the hundreds of blogs, like this one or this one, that revel in such things. I should know, I write one of those blogs myself.
It's the kind of news report that's tailor-made to go viral, dealing as it does with criminals, drugs, and, more importantly, rectal storage. That's a complete Internet shame bingo right there.
I found out about it on my Facebook page. "That takes intestinal fortitude," read the headline on MSNBC. Buzzfeed had a page up listing the "Top 30 Items This Man Was Hiding In His Rectum." Naturally I was excited to click through. Who wouldn't be?
The Smoking Gun had gleaned the details of the man's stash from the Sarasota County Sheriff's Office report: 17 Oxycodone pills, a cigarette, six matches, an empty syringe with an eraser over the needle, a lip balm container, a condom, a CVS receipt, a paper coupon, and a piece of flint.
Puns abounded as the man became, forgive me, the butt of a thousand jokes. One commenter on TSG took a characteristically sarcastic approach. "Flint? [Is he a] former Boy Scout? Be Prepared!"
I'd laugh if I didn't want to cry. Actually, he was a boy scout. I know because he was in my troop. Neil Lansing, 34, formerly of Kingston, Mass., laughingstock of the Internet last week, was my first friend in the world.
Online everyone was asking the same questions—and reasonable ones, at that: Why in the world would someone smuggle a coupon into prison lodged in his anal cavity? And what was he planning to do with that receipt? My buddies and I had something else on our minds as we shared the story with one another and exchanged e-mails about how funny and charming he'd been back in the day. "It is definitely odd how I can go to blog sites and just chuckle at idiots, but then I scroll down to Neil's blurb and I get sad," a mutual friend wrote to me.
I think it's strange, too.
I was amused when I first saw the story about some guy in prison, but that gave way to a stunning wave of recognition when I saw Neil's mug shot. I had to look away from the screen. In fact, after hours of reading different versions of the story, I can still only look at that photograph of Neil from the corner of my eye. That sad, beaten-down face implicates me in the story both as a former friend and as the type of jerk who'd normally find this amusing. "Is it funny now?" he seems to be asking. Well, yes and no. Depends on who you ask.
Remember when everyone had a good laugh about the woman who fell into the fountain at the mall while texting a couple months back? The video racked up millions of views online and was shown on network and cables news programs. You know who didn't think the whole thing was that funny? Cathy Cruz Marrero, the woman in question, who filed a lawsuit against the mall for not coming to her aid. You know who thought it was hilarious? Me. I wrote a blog post titled "Literally the Stupidest Thing I Have Ever Seen," in which I called her the "fleshly embodiment of American culture."
Most of us are Internet bullies now, some of us more active than others. Spend any time online, and you'll recognize that the worst way to react to stories like this, or anything else embarrassing, is to defend yourself or the people you know. There's always some sap in the comments saying, "This isn't funny, that's a real person with real feelings." Well, yeah, but they aren't my feelings, so ... To show such concern on the Internet is a sign of weakness; it's called being "butthurt." (Yes, I know.) Now I've found myself in the awkward position of being butthurt myself. I'm acting like troll bait, and it's an uncomfortable place to be.
Yes, Neil is a real person with real feelings. Maybe it's telling that my first memory of him involves what might have been his first brush with crime—or, at least, his first attempt to hide things in his pants. He grew up a few blocks down from me in the suburbs, and we'd spend our time after school doing normal suburban kid stuff: throwing a football in the backyard, running through the woods playing imaginary army games, scraping together change to buy hamburgers, and shoplifting. I came home one day with Mötley Crüe's Theatre of Pain and a Young MC cassette single crammed down the front of my jeans. I don't remember what Neil took, but his mother smelled a fish and called mine. I don't think I've ever lied so thoroughly to my mother since. I got away with it. Neil didn't.
"What was up with his parents?" went a common refrain among commenters this week. I remember Neil's having a strict family and a cold, sterile home. There were always wooden garden archways and children's playhouses on display for possible buyers on their front lawn. Most of them stayed there for years, the for-sale signs fading as one season turned to the next.
That's the stuff memes are made of. Sketchy childhoods are to the Internet what heartbreak is to songwriting; someone else's misfortune is good for fans. My former friend isn't a victim of this phenomenon, exactly. In a way, he earned his celebrity. It may not be a lasting sort of fame: Most of you have probably moved on to the next wacky Internet loser by now—the 575-pound Heart Attack Grill spokesman, dead at age 29, or the teacher fired for her past porn career. But Neil's story will linger online for as long as there's still an appetite for anus- and drug-related jokes. So, forever.
Here's another memory of Neil, from later on in high school when we played on the football team together. We'd drifted apart as friends, but he found himself in some sort of disagreement with an older boy we knew, and I tried to help. At the time, I didn't know that the other boy dealt drugs—I hadn't yet realized that drugs were an actual thing that people did, never mind people I knew. All I saw was that some guy harassing my childhood friend, so I pushed him down and told him to leave my teammate alone. Then I spent the rest of the school year dodging death threats. I got away with it again that time. Neil didn't. His sentence was already being written.
Maybe I could have stuck up for him in another way and tried to stop whatever was happening to him before it was too late. Well, for what it's worth, old friend, I'll stick up for you now. I'll be that guy, excoriating the Internet bullies, whining about how we should stop laughing about people with sad stories, because they're real, breathing human beings with real human feelings and all that other sentimental bullshit. I'll mean it, too. This time.
One thing I can't do? Stop reveling in the misfortune of others. The lesson here is I have learned no lesson, and you can bet the next time something ridiculous pops up, like the guy with half an afro in his mug shot after he stabbed the guy cutting his hair with scissors, I'll be writing a snarky blog post about it.
Who cares, right? It's just another asshole on the Internet. No pun intended.