Hidden on the corner of West Clifton and Calhoun – under a giant, black and white sign in the shape of a monocle – was a nondescript, little hole-in-the-wall: d.w. eye.
Small on the outside, small on the inside, with two rooms separated by a bar so you could see from one room to the other without getting up and spilling your drink. The main room was decorated with light green wallpaper offset by muddy brown palm trees. And in the middle of the main room was a very small stage.
The crowd – yes, an actual crowd with 30 plus and counting – filed in. Roger Naylor, anxious host and emcee, flit around seating people and making small talk.
In the back, near the bar, comics fidgeted. Waiting was unbearable and jokes and bits buzzed in my brain like etymological mayflies. So, I killed time by hiding out in the eye’s cellar.
The eye had a mostly unused cellar with darts, a few chairs, and a small, concealed bathroom. For me, a concealed bathroom – with stalls and locks that worked no less – was key. I made a mental note to never tell anyone it existed.
Drew Hastings was in the bathroom throwing up. He didn’t look like he should be throwing up. He looked like he should be styling hair. Drew was far and away the tallest, best dressed, best coiffed comic at the eye. (Likely, he was the best dressed, best coiffed anyone at the eye.) With wavy, blown-back 70’s hair, a full mustache – styled, not barbered – and well-tailored, faux-Armani suits, Drew had the elegance of a man fresh off the dance floor without ever having broken a sweat. So, it was awful to see him puke and potentially mar his perfect outfit.
“Out in a sec,” he yelled, gargling and splashing water.
Drew opened the door, shook out his mane. In his hand, he cradled a petite coffee cup.
“Alright?” I asked.
“Never better. How’s the hair? Good?”
“Nerves,” he said, taking a gulp. “Butterflies.”
“Maybe if you drank less coffee?”
“Y’fuckin’ kidding me? Kill myself first, thank you.”
Drew and I shared the bond of those who seek the obscure, private bathroom. If he had a British accent he could have passed for a swingin’ mod, circa-Alfie. Lovey. Ducky. But as soon as he opened his mouth that god-awful, Cincinnati horse-talk came out – just like it did with Roger and most of the comics.
“Y’know,” said Drew, “there’s over 30,000 Chinese restaurants in the U.S.? 30-fuckin’-thousand! More Chinese restaurants than McDonald’s and Burger Chef combined! It’s sick.”
“Who’s eating all this fuckin’ Chinese food?”
“Mm – I eat a lot.”
“’Course you do. Y’know why?”
“Because you have to! There’s over 30,000 fuckin’ Chinese restaurants! You have an obligation to the fuckin’ U.S.-China economy, pal. Need to fuckin’ keep up! And the worst part is – I hate Chinese food. Fuckin’ hate it! But I eat it all the time. All the fuckin’ time! Why?!”
“Because there’s nothing else to eat! I don’t have a fuckin’ choice!”
“You could cook.”
“Cook?!! Fuck that. 30,000 restaurants.”
“Is that true?”
“No idea. Whadda you want? Metrics? Sounds right, though. Right?”
“Great. What’re you? Third? Fourth?”
“Cool. I’m second. Better head up,” he said, Lysoling the bathroom. “You’ll wanna give that a second. Hang loose!”
And he was gone. I waited it out in the basement. Five minutes later, roars of laughter and applause. Time to head up.
Dave and two friends – Buffy and Carl – sat at a small table close to the stage. Buffy waved at me, bouncing gleefully. I noticed mini-cassette recorders – like little transistor radios – on a lot of tables. Comics recording their acts.
The room, at 45-50 people, felt like a full house. They seemed like a nice crowd, mellow with low expectations. Comics sprinkled through the audience chortled laffs of self-preservation. In the back, Roger – the Captain of our ship – laughed a clear, strong, fake laugh, as if to say: It’s-my-show-folks-if-they-go-down-I-go-down.
One comic – Mike Irwin – laughed loud and often. A well-oiled leprechaun, he issued a generous, high-pitched hyena’s cackle that was grating, infectious, and full of empathy; like he could see deeper into the material than whatever the comic was putting out; like he was laughing not at the joke, but at the joke’s potential. This was intensely comforting to the comics, who felt that no matter how bad things went, at least one guy out there “got it.”
“Next up,” said Roger, “is a young man who’s been writing for WAIF radio. Let’s give a warm welcome to Alex Barn-stein!”
And I was onstage. And my heart stopped pounding. I was simply there. Talking. Moving. Trying to be funny. No sense of self, time, technique. No sense of anything but the here and now, the lines and the people in front of me. And I waded through my bits. At home they had clocked in at three-to-five minutes. Here, they took twelve.
This is my first stand-up. If I throw-up it’s part of the act.
The next bit wasn’t mine. It was something Dave showed me at school that week. Probably wasn’t his, either. But it seemed like an easy laugh.
Impressions! I said. Elvis!
I laid down on the stage like a corpse, arms folded.
Same thing, but with arms and legs sticking up in the air, like a dead horse. Some laughs. Not bad. Maybe they’d seen it before?
I’m in high school and I’m taking some advanced courses. Pre-med, pre-law, pre-mature ejaculation…
Guttural laughs – ho ho ho – wash over me. What a nice feeling. People I don’t know are laughing at something I said. How lovely.
I come to every class.
Ha. Groan. Eh, maybe he’s not so funny?
A lot of people have weird fears – claustrophobia, agoraphobia. I have verbophobia. Fear of verbs. It can be difficult – like when I’m asking a girl out: ‘want to…date?’
When I got to the pauses I convulsed, spastically, unable to utter the verb.
We can…back to my house, and…!
The and…! pause was supposed to connotate a sexual reference. Enough of the crowd seemed to get it. Polite laughs. Completely acceptable.
There really is a verbophobia, by the way. I’d read about it in school. It has the same meaning as Logophobia: a fear of words, although not specifically a fear of action words. (I.e. there is no Nounophobia – or Prepositionophobia.) But a literal fear of verbs seemed funnier to me. So, the word’s true meaning wasn’t that far off.
Peripherally, I noticed a waitress bringing Dave’s table a pitcher of beer. This registered as important, somehow. But I couldn’t think about it now.
I hate dogs – especially big ones. My neighbor has a dog that’s part Irish setter, part German tank. I know a girl that named her dog, “Dammit.” Whenever she gets angry, “God dammit!” Dog runs up and licks her face.
I actually did know a girl, years ago, at kibbutz camp that had a dog named, “Dammit.” And whenever she got pissed he really did lick her face. Good therapy, I bet.
Drew, at the bar, guffawed, nursed a new cup of coffee. At the back of the room, high above the audience, a yellow light came on. Huh? What’s that mean?
I closed on Things I Learned at Camp. There was no set-up. Just the lines as is. Camp came up a lot in my bits. Talk about what you know, right?
When you dive into a pool, don’t have someone hold your legs.
When you go swimming in a lake, remove your glasses first.
When you run from a horse, let go of the reins.
When I was six I took horseback riding at Camp Wildbrook, a day camp in Cincinnati, and I was terrified of horses. I thought they were gigantic, monstrous things and the idea of riding one absurd. And we weren’t even riding them, we were just supposed to walk them around this tiny track and back to the stable. There was only one rule: don’t let go of the reins.
I had the reins of, what seemed to me at the time, Secretariat. I was leading him around the track. But after a minute, I thought he was getting too close. So I walked faster, trying to put more distance between us. But he walked faster, too. And when I walked even faster he started trotting after me. Then his nose came down and brushed against me. And I panicked and ran, still holding onto the reins, screaming that the maniac horse was going to trample me. Thankfully, one of the trainers ran over and grabbed him.
“Why didn’t you let go of the reins?!” he asked.
So, when you run from a horse, let go of the reins.
I left the stage to decent, healthy applause. Cheers from Dave, Carl and Buffy. Roger, passing, as he jumped back on stage, whispered a matter-of-fact, nice job. As I edged to the back of the room, Bob Lambert and Mike Irwin called: Kick ass! And a couple at a back table reached out and grabbed my arm: Verbophobia! Fuckin’ funny!
My mind, my body, were floating. I’d survived. Succeeded! I could die now. But it was too fast! I wanted to go up again! Right now! Start over! The world had opened up to me. It’d been so obvious. This was what I was supposed to do. Yavneh. Wyoming. Camp. WAIF. Everything had built up to this. My future was crystal clear. d.w. eye had been dropped in front of me for me! For my personal benefit. This had been my real bar mitzvah. Today, I was a man.
I went to the bar to get my free Coke. In the front room, Don talked to Dave, Carl and Buffy, and he looked pissed. Their pitcher was half empty, and they were all pulling out i.d.s. Don scanned the bar. When he caught sight of me, he glared.
“Outside!” he said.
Dave and Buffy collected their things, and tossed me deeply guilty looks. Carl took a last, defiant swig of beer.
“You fucked up!”
“But I – ”
“We had a deal,” Don barked at me. “We had a deal, and you broke it. And now – you’re through.”
“I – ”
“Thank you. Good bye,” he said, and shut me out of his club forever.
“Asshole! Fuckin’ asshole!” Carl yelled at the door.
“Aw shit,” said Dave. “That was completely messed up.”
“You were soooo good!” said Buffy. “So funny!”
“I – I – ” I was in a dream, barely processing what had just happened.
“I’m practically 18, man!!” said Carl, throwing rocks at the side of the eye. “I can drink anywhere in this fuckin’ town! Asshole!”
“Carl – shut the hell up!” said Dave. “You’re not helping!”
“You didn’t even drink!” said Carl, pointing at me, as if somehow I had screwed up his evening. “We drank! You didn’t do shit! Why should he kick you out?!”
“You were really really funny,” said Buffy. “I laughed! I never laugh!”
“You laugh constantly,” said Dave.
“I do not!” said Buffy, laughing. “Okay. But really – I really really laughed at you. With you.”
“What are you gonna do?” asked Dave, looking at me with immense pity.
“I have no idea.”
“You wanna come with us?”
“Yeah – come on,” said Carl. “You don’t need this shit!”
“Carl! Shut up!” said Dave.
“I’m fine. Fine,” I said. “It’s – I was just stupid. He’s right. It’s my fault. We had a deal. And I screwed it up. I screwed it up.”
“You didn’t screw up shit!” said Carl.
And then they were gone. And I was alone, outside in the cool Clifton October air. Despondent. On a desert island lined with empty parking meters.
I had been good, right? I mean – I did it. I did it – so I could do it again. I knew it. Christ, the whole thing was surreal. Why did everything have to be tainted? Why couldn’t I just have my one, perfect moment? Was it short-sightedness? Stupidity? Or was some cosmic force just trying to make things really difficult for me? Jesus! I knew I was on my own here – but come on! Now what was I supposed to do?! Pretend it didn’t happen? Go somewhere else? Where? Another club? There were no other clubs! This was it! This was what there was – and I fucked it up!
And I leaned hard up against the parking meter parking meter parking meter. This couldn’t be it. Couldn’t be. No. If I gave up now, it’d have to be for a better reason than stupid friends drinking in a stupid bar. No, there was no choice at all.
I went back in.
I found Don behind the bar, still fuming, and wide-eyed at seeing me back inside. I held up my hands.
“You’re right. You’re right.” I said. “I screwed up. I completely screwed up. I wasn’t thinking about them. I was thinking about myself. I was thinking I’m not drinking – so why should I worry? But y’know what? They were my friends and I invited them and they ordered a pitcher. They were my responsibility and I should have been on top of it! I should’ve been paying attention. Should have warned them. Told them the rules. So, I screwed it up. I did. And I’m sorry.”
“They should have never been here in the first place!”
“You’re right. You’re right. I was just – I was excited about the show.”
“If someone had seen me serving them – minors!”
“I know. I know. You’re right. I – I swear – Don – they’ll never come in again.”
“You’re friggin’ right they won’t. I know they won’t!”
“I promise – I will never ever ever bring friends in again, ever. Ever. Just me. I will invite no one. I promise. I swear to you. I will bring no one to the club.”
“Yeah, that’s not my problem anymore. You had your chance. You fucked it up.”
“Don – everyone deserves a second chance – ”
“I don’t trust you.”
“I know. I – I – I – just – shit – I thought I was good up there.”
“You saw what I did?”
“Of course. It’s my bar.”
“So – did you – do you have any comments – or – ? Anything?”
“You were choppy. I liked the verb thing. People liked the camp thing you closed on. But yeah – you were good. It was good. That was your first – ?”
The two waitresses – blondes in tight, white d.w. eye t-shirts – passed by, grinning.
“Yeah. Yes. That was it.”
“Didn’t look like it.”
“Thanks. Thank you.”
He stared at me, sizing me up. I made efforts to look humble and pathetic.
“Look – ” he said.
“You know I’m sincere about this.”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t drink. I could give a crap about beer and liquor and the bar and – ”
“The show is in a bar. That’s the reality of what we’re doing here. It’s a bar! It’s not the comics that keep this place going. It’s the drinks. The liquor. The liquor keeps this place alive. If you want to stay here, those are the rules. No one under 18. Period. Period!”
We stared at each other.
“So, then you’re giving me a second chance?”
“But you are?”
“No more friends – no one under 18.”
“And this is probation for you!”
“Understood. You got it.”
“There won’t be another chance!”
“Absolutely. Great. Thank you! Really. You won’t regret it!”
And we both breathed and turned back to the stage. The audience was laughing and applauding another comic.
I was back inside.
And like that, my life had changed.