I am the comedienne who twists the cords of human failures into sardonic tales. So don't think you are safe from me and my turn-about phrases. I will use anything that will get me two laughs in a night.
But I am wise -- you'd be surprised how wise I am. I sometimes have these marsh visions, at the moments when they least suit me, being a comic and a woman. But don't mistake them for pearls of wisdom -- they are more like tarnished silver balls. The kind the Chinese coddle in their hand to collapse tension.
And just where do I get off shooting my mouth like a bomb in a sewer, exploding filth? I may be only thirty but I have seen more grime in twelve years of playing the joker than you might see in a lifetime. I say might -- I don't pretend to be the all-seeing. Lady Teresias I am not.
You have to know where I came from to know why I choose comedy as my profession. I had, what the psychotherapists call, an "uncommon childhood".
My mother was the Old-Woman-Who-Lived-in-a-Shoe personified. She had me and then found out she couldn't have any more children -- an infected vagina or something, she never told me the whole story. But she adored children and gave me the company of as many as she could fit into our house on Hull Hill, a lethargic corner of San Francisco. She took in kids who were recovering from some ailment of the body or the mind and who couldn't go to the city halfway houses because the adults would corrupt them. My house resembled a carnival of sorts. It frightened off a lot of people -- my father the first of them.
My mother said we didn't need him. "Women can raise daughters better without fathers than with them," she would say, twirling curls off of my forehead when she brushed my hair in the mornings. "A father chains his daughter to the 'lady' rules. A single mother kills those myths." My mother was a pragmatic thinker.
But she worshipped creativity. She was a professor in literature at Mill's College and talked about the literary greats as if they were her close personal friends. She got her reputation at the college by being the only professor to teach Jewish literature. Every book she hunted down for her students she brought me to read. At faculty parties she would strut in with loose jeans and jackets against the other dowdy women in their tight dresses and pumped-up hair and wrestle with her male contemporaries about whether Sappho had really ended her life for an unrequited love of a man or was it just a natural death in the arms of her daughter. She must have gotten proposals from the bachelors among them but she wasn't the least bit interested in remarrying.
I was afraid sometimes I would never match up to her brilliance. Academically, I was a bust. But I had something my mother valued more than any straight A or honor-roll mention, more than the talent of all of her beloved writers, in fact - I could make people laugh. And once she discovered this, she set about getting me an audience. Our carnival house on Hull Hill got started for that reason.
Half of the people in San Francisco who grew up alone and dysfunctional must have passed through my house. They weren't dangerous, they were just misfits. The kind who never seem to blend in with a softball game at recess, who have to have a bottle of water at their desks because every few hours they needed some kind of medication, who found the worlds inside the words of a book more real than the ones outside it. My mother may have idolized artist but she didn't take on their artistic arrogance and she never let me be arrogant either.
The kids found out very fast that I could make people laugh and doted on me, so I had around four or five of them sleeping in my bedroom at a time. My mother never let the boys in so girls were mostly my audience. There are the joke comics and the story comics -- I was of the latter kind.
I'll tell you now the secret -- how I could make people laugh. I'm no different than any fiction writer. In a word -- exaggeration. That's it. The difference between me and a fiction writer is just a matter of slant. A fiction writer might be coming from a burnt relationship, so a love story unfolds -- a dull life, so an adventure story unfolds -- an uninquisitive life, so a murder mystery unfolds. For me, I just had to see those blushed cheeks creased with the frown of sadness and I would fly into an anecdote of Mrs. Ringford's cats or the rehearsal for the class play "Huck Finn" or the invasion on the boy's club.
When I was ten, I got a best friend. That's the trouble with being funny, everyone wants to be your best friend but the minute you try to tell them about your pain, you confuse them. Pain and laughter go hand in hand, we are told. You can take pain away with laughter but you can't obliterate it completely. Comedians bear the burden of having to lock their pain in jack-in-the-boxes all the time. But when the handle turns, the paper clown smashes open the lid of the box, and don't you forget it.
My best friend's name was Marline but I called her Mick. I don't know where I came up with that nickname, except that she always kept her hair short and talked my mother into letting her "borrow" the clothes that my father had left behind shoved in a box in the attic. But her appearance never stopped the boys from hovering around her. She never took much of an interest -- but it was the seventies and still acceptable to be a rabid feminist.
Mick was one of the strays sent to us from the children's ward of Mt. Zion hospital. She had been from one psychoanalyst to another for most of her childhood because she was synestasiac. Every part of her life had a color or a taste -- the sunlight was pink, socks tasted like gummy bears, wood smelled like eggs. The psychoanalysts thought she was schizophrenic. She just had unpredictable senses.
I thought she was one of the mice that needed someone to take away the stinging sadness from her eyes. So that first night, curled up against the blankets, I looked down at her on the floormat and she stared up at me with honey vacant eyes and I flew into one of my new stories -- Mrs. Ringford's cats find the costumes and the catnip in the attic. There were two others in my room, an eight-year old and a fifteen-year old. Both familiar with my blimping storytelling, I had them giggling for hours. Mick was tough -- I think she was terrified my mother might take up where the psychoanalysts left off. She listened but didn't even grin. I went to bed biting back tears -- the talent that was my only known favor, that made my mother adore me, had failed. I will never forget those eyes, clear brown like the desert sand when the wind skims the surface of it.
The next morning Mick came up to me and handed me a piece of paper. On it she had scrawled the story I had told her the night before. She hadn't missed a word.
We didn't speak much for the first two years she was with us. But we were always together. We refused to separate in the classroom and took the punishment for writing notes back and forth. We went exploring the city after school, as far as my mother would let us go. At night we stayed up and read. Our present and our past became welded into one long tapestry of her life and mine, not because they were similar but because we connected in a silent world of books. Mick was the only one who didn't expect me to be funny twenty-four hours a day.
Those two years I upstaged myself in my story-telling repertoire. Every incident warranted a theatrical playback and I started doing something I'd never done before -- accompany words with gestures. Playacting had never occurred to me because my mother worshipped actors the least of all her artists. But I was mesmerized by this melancholy girl with the tomboy hair and the tale of torment inside her eyes. I couldn't understand why I never got more than a stare the first two years.
Then one night I was on a roll of stories and she burst out laughing. Just in the middle like that, one wave after another. She had the most gorgeous laugh I've ever heard -- fertile and broad, something between a goat's bleat and a cat's purr. Sometimes that laugh swims back to me, in the middle of a line or a stand-up act, picked out of the layers like a guitar string. It throws me off and I have to scan the dry faces. But I never see hers.
Kids came and went, getting adopted, running away, or just growing up. Mick stayed. When we were fifteen, she said, "Let's keep a journal like Mrs. Adler does." Mrs. Adler was the high school English teacher whom both Mick and I adored. She was a tiny scrumptious lady who had written books for children when she was in her twenties and thirties and now in her forties had abandoned it to teach teenagers how to write and, as she put it, "beat poets out of puberty clowns". She made us write poetry to our pets, to the woman at the supermarket checkout, to the bee outside the classroom window. She would take us to the football field and spread us out like daisies and tell us to have a "writing conversation" with the grass or the sky or the wind. Imagine the sports coaches coming onto the field with their teams to find a bunch of ninth and tenth graders mumbling to the ground or the sky and writing furiously!
Mrs. Adler told us that she had begun keeping a journal when she was eleven because her parents had gotten divorced. She had begun it out of loneliness and it had spun her out of the dead-end web of poor grades and miscommunication. From it, she had discovered she loved children and she loved to write. She still kept it.
I think that Mick was more literary than I was. My stories are spontaneous and urgent because they have a purpose - to make someone laugh at the story-telling moment. My journal looked like an abandoned baby book -- disheveled, pieced together like some ill-fit puzzle, incredibly boring in some places, incredibly pathetic in others, and completely self-centered. I kept it in a three-ring binder that I could add pages to. When we ran away to New York, I trashed the whole thing in a recycling bin somewhere along the East Coast.
Mick kept hers around for years. I was jealous sometimes of the hours she spent on it but she swore to me she didn't write down anything she hadn't told me first. "You know everything about me there is to know," she said. "All right, then why do you even need a journal?" "Because I'd forget everything if I didn't put it down. I don't have a good memory. The analysts took it away. " She also said she wrote down all of my stories in the journal and looked at them when she was depressed.
When we were sixteen, Mick came up with the idea or writing funny skits. "You have the humor, I have the writing talent," she said. "Why shouldn't we collaborate?" We tried. Part of me resented pinning down the anecdotes I was so good at spinning out of the air. But the pragmatic side of me saw the sense in doing it. Besides, it made me see that Mick had not only learned how to laugh again but she had developed the craft of refining it.
We were approaching the age where we were forced to think about the murky beast called Future. Mick and I were not like the others. They talked about colleges until they were breathless, attacking the career center as if it were a bomb shelter and meeting weekly with counselors for "advice". Mick said to me, "Can you imagine playing 'top-this' with a bunch of 4.0 geniuses?" I didn't want to go to college either, and I had no intention of telling that to my mother, the lady professor.
But it was a mistake to run away with only a note propped up against the salt shaker. When I saw my mother last month for the first time in years, I realized just how much it broke her. She looked faded and pale. I had always been proud of her for defying the dowdy-intellectual image with her dark radiance but she had come towards me with a looped back, a wry smile and eyes that had held many crying sprees. I never believed in those bloated descriptions of the mother whose flesh is torn when her child runs away until that moment. I will never forgive myself for that cruelty.
Even though at eighteen, we wouldn't have been considered runaways. By then we had become a comedy team, both of us writing, me performing at Drake's and Midnight Mass and The Chat Room, the three major comedy clubs in the city. But those performances were few and far between -- one ten-minute hosting would be the result of weeks of charming phone calls. The club owners were not generous to women comics -- "comediennes" were "cute" because they were little wenches on the big male stage, like the tomboy trying to join the boy's softball team.
Mick read in the paper one day that they were taking auditions in New York for a comedy tour. "Even if we don't get in," she said. "We'll be in New York, the vein of it." We ran away the same night, switching trains for buses and back again, arriving filthy but hopeful.
The woman at the audition took me aside and said they loved me but I would be better without Mick. "Writing partners do more harm than good," she said. "I've found the comics to be less spontaneous when they have a better half to consider." I refused to let go of Mick. I don't think she ever knew about the conversation.
Comics do not like to recall their days doing stand-up on the road, if they go that direction. I think the youth hostels, the competition, the slag-mouthing of comics better than you and the nomadic living shatters a lot of their dreams. God knows Mick and I had no romantic visions -- we had both crossed over to the violent mourning of realism years ago. Of the first-timers, we were the least idealistic. We were also two out of three women on the road. As a woman comic in the men's territory, you had two choices -- you could rotate bedfellows among the boys, comply with the "cute comedienne" persona and maybe they would give you a morsel of their approval, or at least be kinder in their put-downs, or you could avoid them and steal yourself against the brutal criticism and "anti-male" accusations. Mick and I choose the latter, but we were lucky, we were two to fight off the swarm. They thought we were frigid -- they thought we were virgins -- they thought we were lovers. We let them believe it.
The road life was the exact opposite of the asylum life Mick had known. Where she had bars she now had stages. Where she had locks she now had open spaces. Gray was replaced by neon, authoritative analysts by club owners, bland meals by greasy restaurants. I thought she would be relieved at the change but she had misplaced her adventurous spirit between one big city and another. She had misplaced her faith.
We were on the road for four months and then when we came back to New York, we hit the comedy club circuit. People thought we were truly artistic -- sleeping in late and working on our craft in the daylight. At night I would go wherever they would give me stage time for five minutes. They thought I was sassy because I argued with them about the fee. It was a novelty for them -- a "cute" sassy female comic.
Mick and I were beginning to separate by then. We never argued -- we needed each other too much for that and we had perfected the art of reading each other's minds. But she was edging away from comedy. She began taking along a separate notebook with her when we to write in Central Park, and she would copy down images which would later get elaborated into a poem or a short story. She hunted up writing groups and found one that spent Tuesday nights ripping apart classic literature and inspecting its parts. She stopped coming with me to the clubs. I was hurt because being in those dark shoddy places alone at night was beginning to scare me. But I knew it wasn't me. We had come full circle to the time when we were twelve and I was the only one who could make her laugh.
After two years I got my first acting part in an off-off-Broadway comedy and Mick met a man in her writing group. He was a blond Californian with an even voice and opinions that almost reached the obnoxious point. He wrote science-fiction to make a living but his real passion was nature poetry and he would make snide remarks about the "media-friendly" theater when he was sure I was within earshot. Mick would bring him to my rehearsals and they would sit in back of the auditorium and read in whispers from the script, mocking the dry humor. He had no respect for comedy.
One night she came to me and said, "Martin wants to leave New York and write poetry full-time. He won't go alone. He needs me." I knew what that meant. She had been looking for a reason to quit comedy and now she had found it. I tried talking her out of it but she just kept saying, "He needs me." Finally, I grabbed her shoulders and said what I should have said months, years ago -- "I need you. I've needed you for ten years." Mick said I was tough, I was sharp-witted, she wouldn't worry about me being alone. "You've got direction. If I knew what I wanted to do with my life, it would be different." She stayed tearless but her voice wavered just a little. "I'm not like you. God, I wish I was."
At the airport, she held me and whispered in my ear that she was not going away with the gift I had given her -- humor. I whispered back, "Humor and love both."
Ten years have passed since then. She wrote the first year but her husband thought she was wasting her time with a long-distance friendship. He thought she should learn to like her neighbors who worked part-time at the departments store in town and transformed into the Housewife after five o'clock. But she still wrote poems and short stories.
I have dreams about her sometimes. I dream that she has left her husband and has wandered through our old neighborhood in New York looking for me. I bolt out of bed in a panic because I want to tell her that I am in San Francisco, that the stages dimmed for me after she left, that I can only hide behind the masks of humor books. I dream it is twenty years later and she walks right into my mother's house on Hull Hill, shakes me out of the sheets and screams, "Tell me a story, Elaine. Just off the top of your head." I have two gifts for you, Mick, two gifts -- humor and love -- and I refuse to believe you won't come claim them.
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