The billionaire that humiliated me and paid me $800

by Avi Webb

Once, a billionaire humiliated me in front of his billionaire friends, then gave me $800 for the trouble.

I’ve been blessed with a pleasant singing voice and a fine ear for vocal harmony.

I’ve also been blessed with a debilitating stage fright, which means that I’d sing the roof off at a gathering of very close friends, but would become physically sick—panic-attack-level sweating, nausea, dizziness—if asked to speak or sing in public.

My friends did not all know the extent of this fear, and so I was invited by one, a professional cantor, to be his “understudy” at a private weekend getaway celebrating a billionaire’s son’s wedding.

The host—I’ll call him Mark—asked my friend to bring someone if he’d like to and my friend liked to.

Pause: I was by this time in my mid-twenties and fully aware of how stupidly my fears were compromising my life. As one example, I frequently turned down dinner invitations fearing they’d go around the table making introductions and I would have a stroke.

So, I’d been slowly building up the courage to try a little challenge. My friend’s offer gave me the chance to maybe do a little non-essential backup humming during the responsive prayers. A little get-your-toes-wet with still a great deal of anonymity.

This weekend was one for the books. Mark and his best friend arrived by individual yachts and came to the fully-reserved hotel in modest motorcades.

Evening prayers were held in the historic Touro synagogue, the oldest in the United States. Meals were catered, waiter-ed and take-some-for-later-ed.

I did my best to be present without being seen and did a great job till I let my guard down, after lunch on Saturday.

With the main event done, about twenty-five guests were gathered around Mark’s table, jibbering and jabbering. Talk turns to music and liturgy and the intersection of the two and stupid me thinks this is a fail-safe time to speak up in a “public” setting that I could also get up and wander away from:

“Yeah, so one of my friends set a piece of the liturgy to All I Ask of You, from Phantom of the Opera. Ahahaha! Sounds really great. Maybe he’ll record it someday.” I laughed again. “Ahahaha!”

“Cool! Sing it for us!” Mark said.

Me: “Ahahaha!”

“No, I’m serious! Get up and sing it!”

Me [sweating awfully and fidgeting]: What? NO! That’s insane!

“Hey, we want to hear you sing a little Phantom. Go for it. We’re all listening!”

Me [starting to have that stroke…]

It is this guy’s party, but he doesn’t actually own me so I could really just keep saying no and he’s bound to smell my sweat by now, so he made his point. And I have made mine — the sweat beads on my face have.

He’s probably not going to ask ag—

“Hey, everyone, shhhhhh!” said Mark. “He’s going to sing a show tune for us! Hey, man, get up on the table. Sing Phantom like your friend does!”

I look around and considered my options. The others look as uncomfortable as I feel — it is that obvious I am going to pass out.

As a Sabbath-observing Jew, I cannot escape by car, bus or boat at this time. I consider more options. I wait for him to back down, I smile, I stammer, my eyes beg.

This putz is merciless.

Shhhhhh!” he went on. “Let’s hear him.”

So I sang a show tune.

On a table.

In a shaking, cracking voice.

To a room full of people dying of referred discomfort.

There was no applause, just a sigh of relief. I felt the blood return to my face. The host said “thanks!” and continued the party.

The kind of boat we were on

Sunday, we went out on Mark’s yacht, enjoying Blue Label, hors d’ouvres (appetizers served before a meal) and lots of sun.

“Hey, Avi. Come with me a minute!”

I look.

It was Mark.

Is he gonna throw me overboard for wasting his money wining and dining me so I can do such a crappy job singing?

He takes me down to the master suite, looks me in the eye and tells me: “I’m really proud of what you did yesterday.

“I could just see how badly you wanted to run away and I knew I had to get you to give it a try. What’s the worst that would happen?”

Then he handed me an envelope with the aforementioned cash and a handwritten note thanking me for adding to his family’s joy and wishing me all the best.

I’ve kept Mark’s note for more than ten years and I still have it.

It has pushed me into friendships, relationships and jobs. It has helped me speak up and speak out when I realize no one else will.

It even drove me to take a leadership role in my back-home synagogue where I am the official lay-leader, which is funny because:

This past weekend, a meek young congregant in his 20s tried slinking behind a pillar as I made eye contact with him.

I walked over and invited him up to lead a short prayer.

He began to stammer. His eyes begged me not to. I told him that I, and he, had no choice.

And besides, “What’s the worst that will happen?”

After the prayers, he came to me and thanked me.

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