In 2003, Staci Swedeen was returning from running errands to her home in Sleepy Hollow, N.Y., when a rabid raccoon bit her, setting off a series of events that seems funny only in retrospect. Now living in Knoxville, Tenn., and working as executive producer of the Flying Anvil Theatre, Swedeen has been regaling audiences with her tale of the raccoon run-in. Her one-woman show, titled Pardon Me For Living: A Biting Comedy, will make its Charleston debut at Piccolo Spoleto. The City Paper called Swedeen to ask a few questions about vermin and viruses.
City Paper: On its surface, getting attacked by a rabid raccoon sounds funny, but I imagine it could also have serious consequences. How bad was it? Did you contract rabies?
Staci Swedeen: No, actually, immediately in that kind of situation, you're given rabies shots, which are not nearly as bad as what they used to talk about with the huge needle through the belly button. What happened in my case was that the wound was quite large on my foot, and a secondary infection set in, at which point they were going to have to amputate my leg.
SS: So there is definitely a serious side to the comedy as well. One of the things that got me through all of this — and I think other people have talked about this — is finding the humor. And that's the best way to deal with life. I think the universal message in this piece is unexpected things happen to all of us, some with dire consequences, some with less dire consequences. One of the reasons that I wrote the piece was, as I was trying to bushwhack my way through the experience, I was a writer, and people would come up and say, "I can't wait to see what you're gonna write about this." And for a long time, I didn't know if I'd be able to. But one of the things that helped me was reading things that other people had written about their most horrible or bizarre experience.
CP: Through all of this, did you learn anything new about raccoons or rabies or yourself?
SS: I would say all of it. Number one, I never knew anything about rabies, that it's a viral infection and it's carried in the saliva of animals. Also, I learned that there has been a rabies epidemic in the raccoon population traveling up the whole East Coast. So as bizarre as that is, someone that I became very close friends with afterwards was also attacked by a rabid raccoon, and we were on
This American Life with Ira Glass because it's so bizarre. This happened up in Westchester, N.Y., and there actually has been an epidemic of rabies. And I would say the major thing that I learned about myself was to learn to accept help when it's offered, that there's some things that you just have to have support. Where I come from, it's not uncommon: 'I can do it myself, and I can take care of it.' But sometimes you're in situations where you can't do it yourself and you can't take care of it, and you need people to help you. Literally, if you're in a wheelchair, you need someone to push you.
CP: Having gone through that whole ordeal, what do you do now when you cross paths with a raccoon?
SS: It appears the raccoon has now become my totem animal. In fact, I just got a package in the mail from my brother three days ago, I opened it up, and there was a raccoon marionette. My brother sent it to me and he said, "I'm named Mr. Spoleto. Break a leg." I have a large collection of raccoons, and at this point I don't have any kind of fear of raccoons, but I have had people tell me that have heard this story that they now are extremely cautious.