Saturday afternoon I drive to Sacramento. Back up I-80 for another gig. This one doesn't pay much, but when it's for a A.A. convention, it's hard to argue about pay.
In a small ballroom, 100 people at circular tables will be eating over priced chicken and listening to me. No matter how many times I say this, no one seems to listen; performing while people eat never works out well. Their faces are all looking down at their plates, not up at a performer. The comic becomes not just a distraction, but an annoyance. But, this is how it is to be. so be it. About 15 minuets into it, I start to do well. In 30 minuets I am done and come face to face with something I don't know how to take, a standing ovation. I pretty much did my regular act with a few reference thrown in that only this crowd would get. When I leave, I feel strange. Strange for a bunch of reasons I don't care to admit to myself and strange because I am such a lonely man who is deeply uncomfortable with people. I shake a lot of hands, smile at bright faces that are truly, genuinely touched by me being there, but I just want to run off to the safety of isolation. Isolation is never that safe.
I get back into my car, look at the accumulation of fast food wrappers and empty water bottles and resolve for the one hundredth time to finally clean my car. Then, in 5 minuets I am back on the highway and driving directly into the setting sun.
I had a request to do a birthday party in Napa. I could of done it. They wouldn't come up in the money, but as I drive straight into the glare of coming dusk I think, I should of taken it. Money is money. But, it is also nice to just have to drive home and do this gig I promised I would do at one of the little hip rooms in the city.
It's the Dark room, in the Mission.
The Mission on Saturday night in San Francisco.
I love it. I hate it.
Dour looking girls from the suburbs walk down Valencia in shoes you can hear a block away repeating to themselves, "I am a lesbian. I am a lesbian."
Hipsters, at Muddy Waters cafe wearing $200 shoes and twenty bucks worth of product in their hair try hard to look like they can't afford to be there.
Most people stare at their lap top computers accomplishing nothing but listening to other peoples conversations to judge themselves by.
In every little corner and each doorway, a person in gray rags ask for change or smokes a cigarette.
The bars, the cafes, the new restaurants are over run with people who feel like just parking here means they are experiencing the city. They pat themselves on the back for mixing with the "rough element."
I learned on Myspace that last night someone slit the tires of 20 cars down here. It is culture clash for real. Gentrification and homeless mix with the economic realities of brand new lofts that overlook crack deals on the corner, and everyone crosses the street in the middle, not at the corners. Where the homeless don't stand to get out of the wind, the smokers do. Their laughter is louder, their speech is slurred. They stand in groups of 5 and 6 outside bars shivering for their nicotine fix. You can smell the music drifting out and hear the beer splashing in their belly's.
"Oh my God!" is the exclamation of choice for the gay men, the suburban girls and the guy on the cell phone next to me. We are all here, self absorbed and self aware to the point of being incapacitated by how cool we want to be. Everyone has worked hard on their look, attitude, outfit and sideburns. Secretly, I think we all think we are stars in a movie for cameras we never see. Tomorrow, we will look at the photos snapped on our phones and upload to Facebook so we can show people what we did rather than tell them what we did. Inside, I think, everyone of us is a lonely lonely soul that wants the warmth we think that couple we saw hugging in the laundry mat has. We have our piercings, tattoos, lap tops, cell phones, key rings and shoes to tell each other what tribe we belong too. It's a carnival and a flea market, a Circus and a drug deal.
The guy at the other table just said, "I am so over philosophy!"
I bite down on the laugh I want to let out, the guy on the cell phone sneers a bit as he pages through a Guardian, looking for something to show up fashionably late to. I smell desperation and strong coffee. I smell sweat and bleach. I smell the wood tables and the cologne.
The Philosophy guys take a cell phone call. He answers, "Were in the Mission!" as if they are cooler for being here. Everyone thinks that. Jazz is playing on the falling sound system in the cafe. That makes us cool. Right?
I check my phone for the time. It's time to head for the Dark Room. The sign is never lit. It probably went out years ago and they just said, fuck it. That's the mood of the place. At one time it was something. That can be said for most of the buildings on this stretch of Mission; they all use to be something. Now, it is a dark crumbling little theater where eclectic shows are put on by frustrated art students and new comics claiming their right to the San Francisco comedy heritage. Not to far from here, was a place called the Mock cafe. It was part of the Marsh Theater. When I was a relatively new comic, it was a worn out little space that experimented with stand-up. No one knew about it for a while. A friend and I didn't tell any of the other comics about it either. It was great! We could show up and end up doing 40 minuets on a tiny stage in front of less than 10 people. More than anything else, it was a great place to grow. The Dark Room is this generations Mock Cafe.
Everyone greets me warmly. I sit down in the back/green room. A collection of hats and wigs hangs on the wall with a sign in marker that reads; Before touching any of the hats, ask Erin. People are busy opening bottles of wine and discussing a story about a girl who sat on a toilet for two years before her boyfriend, who apparently fed her, said enough is enough and called the police. Her ass, the story goes, grew around the toilet. So when they came to remove her, they had to cut the toilet from the floor and take it with her.
This is crazy enough to be true.
Two years! What kind of relationship could they have had? Do you realize this woman celebrated at least one new years on the toilet! How festive could that have been? Where did he go to the bathroom? So many questions.
Despite the warning, one of tonight's guests tries on a hat, decides he likes it and then begins to accessorize it with shoes and a sheriffs badge. Yeah. It's that sort of show. Basically, there is no structure. The idea is, you go out, sit down on stage and talk. It's not a bad idea and I am told that usually, when there is a crowd, it goes really well. I am going to have to take their word on that. On this night, there are 7 people in the crowd. Two girls who are past belligerently drunk sit up front, a young couple sits off to one side and in the very back, three people who were invited by one of the other comics on the show sit. Alright, I am all for experimentation and the occasional joyous train wreck can be fun, but this? I have no idea what is going on here. As I sit in back beneath the hats I seriously think about finding a back door and disappearing. All I can hear is 6 or 7 people talking at once about at least 3 different subjects. It is drunks yelling at each other. That's it. At one point, since the girl on the toilet seems to be the subject that captures the most attention, the guy in the hat says he invites anyone in the audience to watch him on the toilet. In a sudden mad rush, he walks to the bathroom and the audience follows. Thats when I first meet them, the audience. The bathroom is across from the waiting room. The host turns to them and says, "This is our last guest." We all say hello. I wave my hand, they raise their crumpled brown paper bags of booze. The host then tells me in front of everyone that if I want to go I can. And miss this? God no!
For a few awkward minuets everyone mills around the bathroom. Only the two loud drunk girls actually go in. I cannot confirm if he ever sat on the toilet or what state of undress he was in. It's not exactly the big attraction everyone thought it would be.
When everyone is back in the show room, I follow and take a chair on stage.
Pandemonium is not the right word. I just keep thinking about where I was a few hours ago and how much I should of taken that other private gig and canceled this. The two drunk girls are just ugly. I don't mean that in a cruel way or even as a comment on their physical appearance, they are just so drunk and so loud and so without any sort of idea about how ridiculous they are being that they are ugly. One girl leans back and wraps her legs around the other one as she tries to explain why she is scared of birds. I make the mistake of asking "did something happen to make you afraid of birds?" She replies, "Should we be Freudian then?" In what I think she thinks is a Freudian accent, she launches into an explanation of being bit by a Canadian Goose when she was young.
Beside me, one of the other comics and I just go back to our side conversation about the perils of getting involved with younger woman. Next to him, well I don't know what they are yelling about and in the back, I can hear the mumble of disapproval, but thats about it. I could be home masturbating instead of this and still feel better about myself.
Eventually our cordial host, a paper cup of red wine in his hand, stands up to announce next weeks line up. From the back of the room we all hear someone say, "Some actual comics." I turn to the host and say, "Did you hear that?" He then admonishes the crowd for what I probably would of said if I was sitting in the audience too. I admit, that comment bugs me. It bugs me because I haven't done anything. All I have done is sit down and get yelled at by two drunks. What comedy? Our host points to me and asks, "How many years in the business Joe?"
"15." I say flatly.
Pointing to the back of the room he says, "You can mock the rest of us, but this man has 15 years."
When he says it like that it feels more pathetic than anything else. Then he asks if I have anything to promote. God, I don't want any of these people showing up at one of my shows! Before I can figure out a polite way to get out of saying anything, he says, "Your headlining the Punchline this month, right?"
I think, that's right. I am!
There really is no ending. People mill about continuing the conversations that took place during the "show" but now the whole place is lit.
I gather my things, shake some hands and in a few minuets I am out in the cool air and exhaust fumes of the night.
What to make of all this? I could judge it harshly I suppose. In an odd way though, it was so completely strange that it became fun. It was like being on an acid trip without the acid. Oh well. It beats the hell out of just going home and wondering out loud to myself about what I could of done.