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.
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.