Friday, July 02, 2004

The Crowd and Politics.

I made fun of a blind guy in the crowd tonight.
I didn't know he was blind. Couldn't tell at all.

He's in the front row and is turned sideways in his chair so he's constantly looking off to the side. I comment on this by saying, "You haven't even made the commitment to the show to turn completely to the stage yet."
That's when he reaches down and picks up what looks like a grey magic wand.
I am thinking it is going to be some Harry Potter nut whose going to put a curse on me now.

He flicks it.
Like some Jedi Light Saber, it suddenly elongates in to a stick with a red-tipped end. It dawns on the crowd and me at the same moment.
I am making fun of a blind guy.

Why do you have to sit in the front row then?

Another comic asked a drunk woman from somewhere in the south why she would vote for Bush again.
She said, "Because I don't wanna speak Air-A-Bic."
Don't worry, you barely speak English.

At a political show I did a joke about being poor and eating Top Ramen. Afterward the other comics and I did a round table discussion. A woman asked me, when it comes to Ramen, do you prefer it as a soup or a pasta?
Good to see we were getting people to think.

The Skinheads, Barney the Dinosaur, and Me. A Road Story

Once upon a time I was doing a string of one nighters that took me through the great state of Idaho. Somewhere in the panhandle region you can find exceptional ski resorts, potatoes, and skinheads. Do not call them Nazis. That really really bothers them for some reason. Imagine that, the skinheads are intolerant of other hate groups.
Stupid skinheads.

I was onstage in yet another nowhere town in front of yet another group of indifferent rednecks who were mad because they couldn't play foosball while the comics were on. But this night, oh this night was different. In the back of the room were 20 skinheads. Nobody warned me. I thought perhaps it was a field trip of kids from Butte, who were returning from chemotherapy. (see, the Pit. A Road Story)

Here's how long ago this happened. The big news at the time was about Barney the Dinosaur. Remember him? It was a kid's show. A guy in a giant purple dinosaur costume talked to kids about reading and self-respect. People hated him.
An article had just come out that the actor inside the costume was an African-American man. Well, the KKK found out about this and put out a press release. I read some of it onstage that night. Somewhere in there the head clansmen is quoted as saying, "We think it's evil the way he hid his identity from people."
You have to laugh at that. Come on! It's coming from guys who dress up in sheets and hoods!
Who are you supposed to be, Casper the Intolerant Ghost?

Most of the crowd laughed. But those 20 skinheads did not find it funny. In my most stunning heckle ever, they all stood up at the same time and turned their backs to me. I guess the rallies give you a lot of practice at coordinated movements. You know, things like invading Poland and such.

It was explained to me later that what they were doing was turning their backs on me because I had sided with a black man and therefore I had turned my back on my people.
But that's not what I was thinking at the moment. When I understood everything that was going on, I took a sip of whatever it was I was drinking (it wasn't smart juice either), and calmly replied, "Oh. You're showing me your backs. I guess that's the view you guys have of most of your victims."
Again, they didn't laugh.
Stupid skinheads.

They rushed the stage. You know, if having an entire town hate you was invigorating, this was...painful.
It all happened so fast. I am just there smiling at my wit in the moment and the next thing I'm thinking is, wow, there are a lot of bald guys in the front row. Then it was, hey, that's a fist. Which was quickly followed by, that hurt.

I don't know how it looked to the small crowd, but I picture it looking like a Bugs Bunny cartoon when everyone goes down into a pile of tornado-like swinging fists and stray limbs. It was in that way that I managed to crawl out of the center of the brawl, without being missed.
It's true you know, hatred makes you blind.
They all just kept swinging away. I ran out to my car, proud that I was about to make a clean getaway. But the universe was not smiling on me that night.
I had locked my keys in the car.

Whatever you were expecting to happen in this story, I bet you will not see the next few things coming.
At the time I had become a huge stoner. Some nights I would get high before I went onstage and just giggle. Picture this, I would just stand there wondering why the crowd wasn't laughing and then realize I hadn't said the joke out loud yet. Nice!
I had been locking my keys in my car so much that I had devised a way to keep a key hidden on the inside bumper of the front end of the car. I remember bragging to a friend about the solution to my problem when he just said, "Or you could quit smoking weed."
Another very good idea I must say.

The car was also a disaster. I bought it for $400.00. When you spend that kind of money, you expect some trouble. First of all, the body of the car was about 80% Bondo. It wasn't a car. It was more of a four cylinder mud hut. It also had no parking brake. I had to keep a block of wood in the back seat and put it under the tires whenever I stopped. You really want to hear something odd? My last name, Klocek, is Polish. I am told that the translation is literally, "little block of wood".
To keep the car from rolling, I put a Klocek under the wheels every night.

Now there I am, a stoner far from home with a bunch of skinheads who want to kill me for pointing out the irony of the KKK critiquing someone for wearing a costume, with my keys safely in the car. I can see them too, sitting in the ignition just sort of glaring at me like the claw in one of those get-a-stuffed-animal-for-your-girlfriend kind of way.
What should I do?
This was not the smart thing. I went back into the bar and yelled, "Does anyone have a coat hanger!?"
The pile of skinheads turned, saw me and yelled "Get him!"
Luckily, this was about the time the local police showed up.

The cops knew most of these guys from other "social" groups. Even though it was 20 against 1, I was the asshole in their eyes. Things got sorted out, I got a coat hanger, the cops and the haters left.
I still had problems.

I twist the hanger into a long thin grappling hook and insert it through the window. On the first try I get the key ring! This isn't going to be so bad, I think. I pull. The keys turn in the ignition and for the first time since I have owned that piece of shit, it starts on the first try!
No parking brake, remember. So what does it start to do now? It starts to drive away without me!
The car keeps bumping into the curb but moving along basically in a straight line. At one point it runs a stoplight with me running behind it.
I catch up to it and start jogging alongside it and yelling "Stop! Stop!"
I don't know what good that will do. It's not KIT from Knight Rider.

It was at this time when the local police showed up again.
I am jogging alongside my car when they pull up next to me. The cop looks out his window and very casually asks me what I am doing.
If a cop ever pulls up next to and asks what are you're doing, as you're running next to your car, I have learned that you should not reply "Taking my car for a fucking walk, Officer!"
He was not amused.

Pulling in front of the car, he finally manages to stop it and helps me to get inside and turn the engine off.
There's an awkward few minutes as I stand there and he runs my ID.
He comes back and proceeds to start writing a ticket, never looking up at me.
"Weren't you the comic that started all that trouble tonight?"
Great. I am going to end up in some jail cell with cops and Nazis taking turns on me.
"Yah. That was me."
He hands me the ticket. It's for walking my dog without a leash.
Good to know there is a cop somewhere who has a sense of humor.

I honestly can't remember where that gig was.
I never heard from the skinheads again, and I lost the ticket in my accident with the cow.

Thursday, July 01, 2004

The Pit. A Road Story

We were driving through Montana. It is a beautiful state. Truly God's country if there ever was.
Our route was from Great Falls, in the north, to Butte, in the center of the state. The road cuts through some exquisite natural landscapes. There were sandstone cliffs dotted with snow and hardy trees. Jagged red rock cathedrals on each side of the car. It was beautiful enough to make me forget some of crap I had endured on the road. Isn't this one of the reasons I came out here? I thought to myself.
Damn you Jack Kerouac, for making traveling sound so romantic.
About an hour into this trip, I notice a sign in all this splendor: Scenic Overlook - 80 miles.
My god! All I could think was, this is pretty amazing right now. What could the scenic outlook be?

The other comic was a road warrior. A hack, really. A guy whose entire career consisted of making these trips all the time. When I asked him for some comedy advice, he didn't pause for a second and responded, "Always change your oil, turn your lights on during the day, and when you get close to town, slow down."

It had stopped being about the art for him for a long time now. It was just a paycheck and the little bit of glory he could get from whatever crowd showed up at the redneck bar or hotel we would be at.

A while later we saw another sign telling us the scenic outlook was getting closer.
"You might want to get your camera ready." he suggested.
He said it with a slight smile. Something was up. He must know what it looks like because he had done this run a hundred times before. But, I got my camera ready.
Finally there was the sign I had waited two and a half hours to see; scenic out look, turn here.
We were just outside of Butte, Montana. I had never been nor had ever heard anything about this town.
A little history might be in order so you understand the place better.

Butte was a huge copper mining town in the 1800's. Most of the pennies you have in your pocket were crafted out of copper that came from their mines. They were not so concerned with the environment back then. In fact, they basically had one huge strip mine. The hole, or the Berkeley Pit as it's known, is so large that it is one of the few man-made things that is visible from space. After they got as much out of the pit as they could, new science came along. With the miracle of chemicals, they could leech even more metals from the ground. When there was nothing left to pull out of the ground and all they had left was a giant wound in the surface of mother earth, the good people of the town made lemonade out of lemons. Let's take other peoples garbage and waste and since we got ourselves a big hole, we can throw it in there.
Makes sense.

You may or may not have heard of the EPA's Super Fund Program. It was set up to clean America's worst toxic disasters. Well, it was created specifically to deal with Butte's toxic waste dump. Right there in the heart of God's country is America's biggest toxic waste dump.
It is also the site of the scenic outlook.

I don't get it either. But when you think about it, it sort of makes sense. Every town has something. Right?
In San Francisco, we are blessed with an abundance of cultural and natural places and things to have pride in. We have the Golden Gate Bridge, the Gay Pride Parade. They have that pit.
But that's not how I am thinking in the moment. In the moment, I am pissed. We just drove two hours through some of the most majestic land I have ever seen in my life. All the way being promised a Scenic Outlook, which strikes me as extreme false advertising considering I am staring at a huge hole bleeding a hundred years worth of chemicals and garbage!

Before we can check into the hotel, we have to stop in at the local radio station and promote the show. It's really the headliner's job, but he lets me come with him. Mistake number one.
We get there and all I can talk about is that damn pit and the signs along the road that build a very unrealistic expectation of what's to come. I am convinced it is some kind of a practical joke.
Suddenly the phone lines start lighting up. Basically the callers say something to this effect: "Screw you, Mr. California. That's our thing and who are you to make fun of a place you've never really seen."

I want to tell you this about the town too. When you drive in from the other direction, you notice a huge statue of the Virgin Mary up at the top of a hill. The story is that a man's wife in town had cancer. He made a deal with God. If his wife was cured, he would put a statue of the Virgin Mary up on the hill. Well, she lived and he followed through on his promise.
Here's what you have to wonder: on the only major road leading into town, you want to draw people to your town's attraction. Do you go with toxic dump or giant statue of the Virgin Mary? The good people of Butte went with the dump. Call me crazy if you want, but maybe the man's wife would not have gotten cancer if they didn't live next to a toxic waste dump.

Finally a guy calls in and says,"Why don't you come on down to the Berkeley Pit, I will give you the tour and something from the gift shop."
The Gift Shop?
Oh. I have to see this.

When I get there, a good portion of the town is waiting to see me. I take the tour. Circling the entire pit are those binoculars you can put quarters in. There must be some sweet school field trips out there.
"Teacher! I just saw a bird land then burst into flames!"
Then we get to the gift shop.
What, are you going to get a t-shirt: I saw Butte, Montana, and all I got was this RASH!
It's a waste dump, people!

That night, the show was packed. Standing room only. People wanted to see the California asshole who was making fun of their Pride and Joy pit.

Whenever a comic is introduced at a show, you always get that polite welcome applause. Not this time. The host was also the radio personality. That didn't help me any. She said my name and... complete silence.
I was ready for yells of "you suck!", or aimless hillbilly shouts, but complete silence, that's unnerving.
I walked across the stage. In that second before I reached for the microphone, the biggest, meanest-looking redneck (in overalls, too) I had ever seen stands up and yells out as the spokesman for the entire town: "What did you get at the Pit?"
I took the mic out of the stand and very confidently replied, "Cancer."
That's when the riot started.

Have you ever been the focus for a whole town's hatred and rage?
People always say that love is strong. NO! Hate is much stronger.
I know that as I brought that town together, somewhere high up on a hill, a certain virgin was looking down on all of us.

Tuesday, June 29, 2004

The Cow. A Road Story.

When you start out as a comic, there are a few things that nobody thinks to tell you. One very practical suggestion is this: buy a good used car with a CD player/tape deck.

A radio is not enough. When you are just starting out you will be doing the one-nighter runs. These will take you through very desolate country. Often your radio choices will be religion, static, or Mexican music. That's not in the order you find them most. In fact, somewhere in Mexico, there must be a huge antenna. I always seemed to be able to find that oompa-loompa Mexican polka music.

Without a radio or a CD player, you are stuck with your head.
When you are driving eight hours at a time, trying to cover four hundred miles through Idaho and Montana, you will want a diversion from all that self doubt that swims inside yourself. Believe me, if you are alone with your thoughts for long enough, they will start whispering some crazy things.

Somewhere in Eastern Washington state, I was having a profound attack of depression. I was on my way to another shitty gig that would pay me enough to get gas to the next shitty gig, some fast food, and all the alcohol my system could tolerate to keep this life going.
Suddenly, the radio seemed to be talking to me.
"Do you feel alone?"
"Has it been awhile since you were happy?"
I swallowed hard.
"Then come on down to Cavenaughs for a night of comedy. Tonight's headliner is Joe Klocek, all the way from San Francisco!"
I heard an ad for my show!

Listen now and I will tell you a tale from the road about spiritual redemption and a cow.

I was driving through the Four Corners section of the western states on my way to Texas. It was a week before Christmas, I was broke, and wondering if the life I had been living for the past year was worth it.
About an hour before sunset in Utah, I drove into open range. No fences and cows just wandering on the two lane highway. Slowing down to forty seemed reasonable. There really was no hurry. I planned to check out a section in Arizona called Valley of the Gods, for a few days before moving on.

The shadows were long across both highway and red rock shapes. It became difficult to tell what was solid and what was not. My frazzled state of mind did not help any.
This is how it happened:
What is that up ahead?
I think it is a long shadow from that outcropping of rock on the hill that the sun is filtering through.
Did it just move?
You know, it looks a lot like...A COW!

I remember seeing a big brown bovine eye bounce off the windshield as it cracked into the familiar spiderweb pattern.
The car spun around and around and into the ditch by the side of the road, flipped and burst into flames.
So this is what it's like to be in a car when it explodes, I thought to myself.
The rocks began to peel apart the car. All the wheels were bent or broken. The trunk was opened too. Somehow a nail clipper that was in a kit I kept in the trunk became lodged between the rear view mirror and the driver's side door.
What I didn't know is that a guy in a motor home who was still some distance away, saw the whole thing.
Did I mention the car came to rest in the opposite lane facing the direction I had just come from?
Talk about signs in life.
Here's the other little thing that seems important even today to mention. The highway I was traveling on was number 666. Get a map and check it for yourself. I was about 20 miles south of Medicine Hat.

Maybe the message from the universe was clear, if you are going to live life on the devil's highway, you are not ready to go to the Valley of the Gods.

As the car began to burn I just sat there behind the wheel in shock! The guy from the motor home came running up along side the car and yelled to me.
"Your car is on fire!"
I turned. Looked at him, and then turned back looking out the windshield.
He knocked on my window.
"Hey! Your car is on fire!"
I rolled down my window only an inch. He's a stranger. I don't want anything to happen to me.
That's when it all came back to me, the cow! That stupid cow.
I tumbled out of the car. Nothing, absolutely nothing was wrong with me. Not a hair out of place, not a scratch or a mark. Nothing.

My entire life was in that car. I am not being dramatic. I was on the road so much that I gave up having an apartment. That car got me to and from gigs and held all my possessions. I was a turtle.

I turned back to the car and began pulling what I could out of it. Clothes. Notebooks. CDs, everything and anything that was in there.
Over my shoulder I see the guy who got me out of my shock. He's holding a shotgun!
"Let's find that cow!"

Hey, I am a little upset too, but not vengefully so. Also, how did he know I hit a cow? I guess it happens often out here.
With a flashlight taped to the barrel of his gun, we start to walk up the road. It's like a tour of all things mechanical that used to be in my car. There's a part of my radiator. Here's a fan belt, a fan, some big metal thing and there, in the center of the road sits the biggest pile of shit I had ever seen.
I scared the shit out of that cow!

We never did find that cow either. I imagine it escaped deep into the back country with a hell of a story for his cow buddies.
"Guys. Stop chewing your cud for a second!"
The cow's story must have sounded like an alien abduction gone bad.
"There was this bright light and then suddenly I was hit and when I came to there was all these strange bits of metal around and I was far away from where it all started!"

I looked at the pile of cow shit in the middle of the road and then looked back at the pile of my worldly possessions in the middle of the road. I looked back at the cow shit and then at my shit. It's all shit!
That was my transcending zen moment out in the Utah desert night.
Eventually I got a ride back into Medicine Hat where I was checked into a hotel under the an-out-of-towner-hit-another-cow rate.

The next morning I took stock of all I had. It was a little over a hundred bucks. Some of my comedy notebooks. A collection of CDs. Clothes. A lot of anxiety!
My only choice was to head home. The only way to do that was to get to the Greyhound bus terminal in Salt Lake City.
I put what few things I had into a duffel bag and set out to hitchhike through the winter desert hoping to get a ride at least to Interstate 80. From there maybe I could get a ride to Salt Lake.
Do you remember the TV series from the 70's? The Incredible Hulk?
That's what this looked like.
The duffel bag started to get heavy. I put it down and went through the contents. What could I do without that would make the load lighter?
First it was a few shirts. But they weigh almost nothing. Then I started looking at the CDs. Do I really need REO Speedwagon? Every half hour I would stop and reevaluate my collection of music.
I ended up leaving a trail of Tears for Fears in the desert.

Eventually I got picked up and he was going all the way to Salt Lake City. If I paid for a fill-up, he would take me all the way.
I got to the bus station and after I bought the ticket I had eleven dollars and 20 hours to get me home!

I want to back up for a moment before I tell you how this whole adventure ends. You need to know a few other things.
At the time I was deeply, absolutely in love with a young girl. To this day she is still the most intelligent and beautiful girl I have known. It's an entire story in itself what happened between us. It is enough to say here though, that like all great love, it went wrong. There would be no songs and no jokes without that. I was sick with desire for her when I was out there. Although I saw some amazing country, I never really saw it. She was constantly on my mind.
I knew that she was in Spain, and therefore out of reach for at least six months. But I knew she would be home again and whatever she had said in the heat of the moment might not apply after the consideration of time and feeling.

When I was walking through that desert with all I had in the world on my back, a curious sensation started to come over me. Everything was new. I had survived something.

I lost everything but myself. The one thing I couldn't really stand was the one thing I had left. Each step I took, and every hour that went by alone in that red rock canyon, just made it more real; everything is brand new.

When I returned home my parents put me up and talked of my returning to school. I went back to my old job as a cook in the very restaurant where I had met this girl. They gladly took me back, but I would be low on the totem pole again and that meant I would have to work New Years Eve.
That was a bit of a blow to the ego. The one night you want to work as a comic is New Years.
What could I say?

The universe has a funny sense of humor. That night, as I stood over the grill, I cooked a special menu for the occasion. T-bones, Tri Tips, Porter House steaks. It was all cow!
Nobody complained that some of their meat seemed a little extra tenderized that night. It made me laugh a little to myself too.
Oh well.

We're not done with this story yet. Standing there, sweating and cooking rich people's food, wondering about my place in the universe and trying to keep alive that feeling of everything being new in my life, she walked up to the cook's line.
It was her.
She had been back in town and was sitting at the bar with a friend. They were going into San Francisco to see Greg Proops at the Palace of Fine Arts for New Years.
She wanted to talk to me. Wanted to clear the air and say sorry for some of the drama.

We did not get back together, but I was able to get questions answered that had fed my self doubt.
If I had not hit that cow, I would not have been working as a cook that night to see her and resolve a wounded heart.
One other thing.
Without the car I was off the road. So began my time digging into the S.F. comedy scene and giving me a respectable career where I don't have to recite the same old "guys and girls are different"/hack/monkey shit that those rooms require to get ahead.

Everything is new.