The Joey of life

Confessions of a relationship-advice columnist

Illustration By Terry Biddle

Joey Garcia writes the Ask Joey column for SN&R.

Listen for her on V101.1 FM Monday mornings during the Lee and Andrea show.

It began 10 years ago. I’d written a few freelance essays for SN&R on spirituality and personal growth, and the paper’s founding editor, Melinda Welsh, invited me to start a relationship advice column.

Me, a busybody? I didn’t consider myself particularly good at relationships. I had no idea how few people feel skilled at being good friends or romantic partners or family members. I didn’t want the job. I said no thanks.

But Melinda asked again. And again. She liked me for it because, she figured, as a student of human relationships, I’d be more compassionate, open-minded and understanding than someone who considered herself an expert. She took me to lunch at the pizza place across from SN&R and asked one more time. Maybe it was the carb overload or the blood rushing from my brain to my belly in a heroic act of digestion, but I finally said yes. At some level, I realized that her invitation might be my spiritual calling.

Haters become lovers
The Ask Joey column hit stands on October 31, 1997. Immediately, it got buried under hate mail from members of Atheists and Other Freethinkers, an organization promoting the separation of religion and civic life. Most letter writers liked my advice, but asked me to please “just leave God out of it!”

Others made threats. “I know what you look like from your picture in the column,” one said. “So don’t be surprised one day if you’re walking downtown and someone pushes you into traffic.”

“If you don’t stop talking about God in the newspaper,” said another, “I’ll make sure that you live in hell on earth.”

My hands trembled whenever the mail arrived. Eventually I confronted the problem directly, by responding to one anti-God letter in the column. “If you don’t like the column, don’t read it,” I suggested. “If the mention of the word ‘God’ bothers you, skip over it or replace it in your mind with a word you prefer.”

The hate mail stopped.

Then last year, the local chapter of Atheists and Other Freethinkers invited me to speak at their December meeting because they said the column was a fine example of secular spirituality. Karma’s a beautiful thing.

Not a Latino man, but yes, ethnic
The column debuted with a photo so readers would know I was female, despite my unisex name. Still, I get letters from men in prison addressed to Mr. Garcia, requesting an introduction to the woman whose photo appears near the Meditation of the Week. Back when I lectured regularly at Borders, middle-aged women would arrive breathlessly asking for Joey Garcia. They imagined “Joey” to be a Latino man deeply in touch with his feelings. High on infatuation, they convinced themselves that the photo was eye candy befitting the column’s placement among the sex ads.

If you’ve ever tried Internet dating, you know that the photos may not look anything like the person who appears for the initial coffee date. I actually look like my photo—except in the minds of some readers, like the woman I met at La Raza Galeria Posada: “You look like that girl who writes the Dear Abby column,” she said.

“Do you mean Ask Joey?”

“Yeah, in the News and Review. I read it every week.”

“I’m Ask Joey.”

She leaned in for a long stare. “Wow, you look more ethnic in person,” she said.

“What do you mean?” I asked, stifling a laugh.

“Well, your skin is darker.”

“It’s a black-and-white photo,” I said. She shook her head, clearly resolved that my skin should be the color of canned milk.

For the record, my ancestry is African, Mayan, Scottish and Honduran. Green eyes, dark hair, light-olive skin. So, yes, compared to a black-and-white photo on newsprint, I look more ethnic in person. I’ve also been told I look taller in person. The column photo is just my head and shoulders. In real life, with my body attached, I am taller. Close to 5’11’’, actually. OK then.

Behavior unbecoming an advice columnist
In the column, I dole out rules for romantic relationships because people ask me to. I don’t ask for readers’ advice on how I should live, but that doesn’t stop them from offering it. Once, while I was grubbing a burger at Nationwide Freezer Meats, a 30-ish man asked if I was Ask Joey. I nodded. “Whaddya doing eatin’ meat?” he demanded, then acted like he might land a punch line. I waited for more, but he didn’t deliver. One of his buddies held up SN&R, opened to my column.

“Shouldn’t you be a vegetarian?” the guy finally asked.

“Are you a vegetarian?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “But you’re spiritual.”

I get that one a lot. Maybe God is trying to tell me meat is dead.

Readers also seem startled to discover me at a club, shaking it on a Saturday night. “But you’re here,” I’d point out. “Yeah,” they reply. “But you’re spiritual.” Obviously, some readers think “spiritual” means flowing white robes and seclusion. Hey, I’m just your average city girl trying to be completely in the world but not entirely of it.

Sexuality harassment
One of the early columns featured a letter from a closeted lesbian who had tried to end a casual dating relationship and was threatened with being outed. She was terrified that her family, employees and members of her church would condemn her. I reminded her that she was made in God’s image and urged her to out herself. A week later, I was walking down J Street and someone yelled, “So you think homosexuality is normal? You’re a freak! You shouldn’t be allowed to work with children!”

At the time, I was teaching poetry and art in elementary schools.

“Thank you!” I yelled back, without a second thought, and kept on steppin’. A few other Sacramentans harassed me, too, but I held on to my job and my opinion.

Kill Joey?
On Good Friday in 1998, the owners of a small video store in downtown Sacramento cut my picture out of the newspaper, enlarged it to life size, pasted it to a sheet of butcher paper and drew a body beneath it, nailed to a cross. Over my head they wrote, “Kill Joey,” and taped the poster inside the glass door leading into their store. I heard about it on Easter Sunday night, from a friend’s shattered voice on my answering machine. The next day, the store’s owner told a reporter, “Joey is too good. She deserves to be crucified.”

Too good? As I pondered those words, my friends filed complaints with the police department. Freedom of speech, the cops shrugged. A week later, a streetwise lesbian, whose partner I’d once counseled, marched into the store, raised a ruckus and frightened the owner into tearing the poster to pieces himself.

Close encounters
I’ve taught high school since 2001. At the regular back-to-school night, I bring parents in to describe my course and ask if they have any questions.

Usually, I get stuff like this: “My husband doesn’t talk to his mother. I really worry about this because I think it’s hard on my daughter. What should I do?”

“Any questions about this class?” I’ll politely repeat. Then someone else will say, “You’re the one who writes that spiritual advice column, right? You should answer her question.” So I do.

In truth, I enjoy talking to readers who approach me, and I’m touched by their stories of how much the column has meant to them.

Once, in the Safeway on Alhambra, a man recognized me and said, “God must have put you here, today. My mother died a week ago, and I feel like I didn’t heal things with her before she passed. I was angry. It’s eating me alive.” People in the check-out line were eavesdropping, so I stepped away with him to a more secluded spot. “Could you just pray with me?” he asked, teary-eyed. I took his hands into mine and we stood together, eyes closed against the busy grocery store, ears filled with the rhythmic prayer that tumbled out of us.

I’ve prayed with readers in other unlikely spots and answered questions at unexpected times. I’ve called AT&T about phone service and chatted with a customer-service representative (who recognized my name) about the fights between his pre-teen daughter and new wife. I’ve made hotel reservations and talked to the agent about the crush he had on a co-worker; met a group of women at the mall who read my column together every Thursday over lunch; been on dates and given advice about recovering from heartbreak, handling friendship with the CEO’s wife and the difference between lust, attraction and love, among other things.

I’ve also been the target of dating interest by men who want free counseling. These new friends often ask how I became so wise. That’s easy; I’ve made lots of mistakes. As novelist William Saroyan pointed out, “Good people are good because they’ve come to wisdom through failure. We get very little wisdom from success, you know.” I greet my relationship failures with respect by reflecting on what I’ve done and what I’ve failed to do. Then I try to make amends and change. Whatever I learn, I pass on to you through the column. That has been, and continues to be, a great privilege. What took me so long to say yes to it?