I’m in the car on my way home from the Jabberwocky, a comedy club in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where I had a gig. It’s about a six hour drive back to Cape May, New Jersey. That’s about as far as I’ll go on the road with a car, six hours. Anything longer than that I fly. My lower back can’t take being in the same position any more than a few hours at a time. My name is Gabe Ruskey. Maybe you’ve heard of me.
Besides owning a bike shop at the beach in the summer, I make my living as a standup comedian. It was easy getting started, in fact it was a little too easy. I happened to coin a phrase that caught on. It went like this: “She said that’s it?” Then the response, “I said that’s it.” It worked both ways. “I said that’s it?” “She said that’s it.” Of course, the other half is the delivery. It has to be repeated in the right voice. The tone can be questioning, or any degree of apprehensive, but it needs to be sincere.
The thing caught on with the public like a wildfire in California and went viral. People fell out of their seats laughing. And for a couple of years I was everywhere, sucking it up in clubs, on TV shows, and in commercials. I even got a bit part in a movie. That should have been the tip-off. It was like suddenly cashing in on twenty years of paying your dues in the business, only I never paid my dues. It all came a little too quickly and too easily and I didn’t have my act together, relying on that stupid phrase instead of working on new material.
After about a year and a half of complete media saturation, the listening and viewing public became just as tired of hearing it as I was of saying it. I took off like a rocket to the moon, but I burned out and fell back to earth just as fast. I should have known it couldn’t go on forever, but I was too immature. I walked through the mirror. I thought I was using the media, but the media was using me. I was more of a minor celebrity than a comedian, but I didn’t understand the distinction.
The truth was that I sucked at standup comedy. I had some other stuff, and it wasn’t bad, but I never worked at it. I was too busy having a good time. It’s like most everything else in life. If you want to be good at something, you have to do it a lot. You have to work at it. You have to cultivate whatever talent you have so that you can stay sharp. Whether it’s baseball or surgery or tiddlywinks, you can’t just go out on the field and play at a high level. You need to practice in order to compete. Practice like you play, because in the end, you play like you practice.
I never did. Practice, that is. I was a one line wonder. I snorted too much cocaine. I stayed out drinking and partying and having a good time. I was too busy trying to screw every woman I could get into bed. I cultivated the wrong friends. I was a total jerk. I had a chance to do a book, I had a chance to work on other projects. I had a chance to apply my craft and learn the business from the best. But I had my head up my ass. And man, I never saw it coming. In a matter of a year and a half I was a has-been. I couldn’t buy a spot on television. People in the audience in big clubs were booing me. Like sharks in the water, they knew I was on my way down. Just as quickly as I went nationwide, I disappeared. Over and out. I just wasn’t that funny anymore because I had no real roots in standup.
Don’t forget, every time I walked out on stage and faced an audience I was lining up against the best in the business. I was stacked against the late night guys, the guys who have their own shows, the big names. They have a few guests and an hour run time. Next are the guys with their own shows earlier in the evening, usually more social, political stuff, a little edgier. They may have a guest during a show. Then there are the guys doing comedy movies, some big names and some not so big. But they know each other. They’re buddies. They work together on different projects. They’re in each other’s movies. Then there are guys like me, standup comedians, puppeteers, impressionists, occupying the bottom of the food chain, all of them trying to get to the next level. And there’re plenty of big names in standup as well. That’s the reality of it. The competition is rigorous and they’ll bury you if you haven’t got the goods.
After I drank copious amounts of booze, snorted copious amounts of cocaine, and swallowed copious amounts of pills, had a mid-life crisis, and found myself totally broke and contemplating suicide, I decided to start all over again at the bottom. Why not, I was already there. Part of that incentive was due to the influence of my lovely wife, whom I nicknamed Sweetie. And it’s not the usual nonsense about how she brought stability to my life, gave me something to live for, or helped me get off the booze and the pills—the usual fluff you hear on daytime radio and television shows.
What she did give me was the encouragement to go for it again, even though I was pushing fifty. Not exactly the age to begin pursuing a career in something as difficult and financially unrewarding as standup comedy. It’s like suddenly deciding you want to be a commercial airline pilot. Maybe you could do it, but chances are you won’t. The odds are heavily against you. It’s the kind of career you need to decide on when you’re still a young man, not when your life is already half over.
Being an aspiring comedian and playing clubs is also hard on the psyche. You get the applause of the audience but go back to an empty hotel room every night. The more you work, the more empty hotel rooms you come back to. I knew something was missing. I tried to fill it with drugs and booze and loose women. That’s when I became suicidal. And that guy was definitely scary to be around. When I went through counseling, they suggested I find some other more stable line of employment. Stay away from the people, places, and things that caused me to feel that way in the first place. But Sweetie gave me the courage and inspiration to try again in spite of the long odds against me, and I loved her for it.
She also gave me a new perspective on life, on how precious and brief and fragile it is which made me realize how foolish and cowardly the suicide thing was. You’ve got to hang in the fight. Everybody gets knocked down, but you have to get back up. You can’t quit halfway through. You don’t know what’s in store for you until it happens. One day you might have been the guy to save a life. One day you might have been the one to help a kid. One day you might have been the one to give comfort to a stranger. But because you were selfish and immature you decided to take your own life. Whatever is around the corner, good or bad, will pass. The only thing we can be absolutely certain about is that everything changes, and nothing lasts. And eventually you realize the things you thought were so important at the time, in retrospect, weren’t really important at all. Also, things are never as good as they seem at first, or as bad as they seem at first. The truth is always somewhere in-between.
Anyway, the other thing Sweetie gave me was new material for my comedy act. Sweetie is a black lady. Curvy, she looks taller than she really is because of her posture—standing straight, shoulders back, head up. Full lips, a round forehead, expressive eyes, and short cropped hair complete the portrait. And if you were blindfolded and hung out with her for the day you would never know she was black. You’d swear she was white. More on that later. But it all eventually morphed into part of the comedy act, which I now call Perspectives in Black and White. I talk about her all the time on stage. I play to mixed audiences, diverse, all races, young and old. Age and race don’t matter in my comedy routine, though some will tell you those are the only two things to consider in an audience.
Right now I’m playing a few comedy clubs again, decent, well known venues, and getting paid. People still come out to see the train wreck; only the train is back on the tracks again. I don’t work every week, though now I use the extra time to work on my act. Comedy is a full time job, especially if you don’t have a bunch of writers in the next room churning out material for you like a lot of these guys.
I’m back, but certainly not at the level I was before. And that’s all right. I may never again reach that level of notoriety, but I’m okay with it. I’m at a good place in my life. I’ll get on the big money circuit eventually. I’m confident it’ll happen when the time is right. Only on this go around I’ll have my act together and my destructive impulses under control. Right now, I’m still a work in progress.
But this is not so much about me. This is about Sweetie and Marion, my stepdaughter, our odyssey in the health care system, and why black girls don’t get hickeys. I just happen to be the one telling the story.
I drive across the Walt Whitman Bridge from Pennsylvania into New Jersey. I live on that little peninsula at the southern end of the state called Cape May County. On one side is the Delaware Bay, on the other is the Atlantic Ocean. My house is on the bay side, about eight blocks from the water.
I drive through rural South Jersey, home of the Pinelands, including Wharton and Lebanon State Forests, under which lies one of the largest, purest, untouched aquifers in the country. It’s also home to a lot of farms. They don’t call it the “Garden State” for nothing. Mile after mile of blueberry fields, cranberry bogs, and fruit orchards, mostly peach and apple and pear trees. Enormous fields of fresh vegetables and row upon row of corn. Roadside stands are everywhere in New Jersey in the summer, selling fresh fruit and vegetables and honey.
Heading further south there are glimpses of the marsh, as the land mass shrinks to a peninsula and the water intrudes on both sides. The marsh is a green carpet that rolls out half a mile or more towards the bay, intersected by winding channels, the adjoining land dotted with cedar trees and dying hardwoods, many of them already stripped of their bark, worn to a dull silver by the weather, sticking out above the marsh like ghost hands haunting the day.
When I first moved to the peninsula I thought it would be cool to live near the water, where I could see the ocean when I was standing on my front porch in the morning drinking a cup of coffee. You know, just like in the movies and commercials. But after living in close proximity to the bay for twenty years, I’m glad I live where I do, a half mile back, especially after Hurricane Sandy hit land. People on the Atlantic Ocean and on the barrier islands side of the Cape got hammered pretty hard. That was the first time I saw the water in the marsh flood over the road since I lived here.
If you don’t believe the sea level is rising, come visit me sometime and I’ll take you down to the marsh and show you where the water level used to be twenty years ago, and where it is now. There’s not much room left anymore under the small bridges that span the channels and connect the roads north and south. As the sea level rises, this peninsula I live on will be one of the first land masses to disappear. I’ll never see it my lifetime, of course. But it’s definitely happening.
Alexandria, the city Cleopatra lived in on the Mediterranean, is presently twenty feet underwater. It took a couple thousand years, but in Earth time that’s the blink of an eye.
I still have one stop to make for Sweetie’s flowers before I arrive home. Whenever I’m away I always bring her flowers when I return.
I eventually reach the house, walk in the front door holding my bouquet of flowers, and find Sweetie on the couch doubled up in pain. Marion, her fifteen-year-old daughter from her first marriage is sitting on the edge of the cushion holding her hand.
I pull up a chair. I can see the pain in her face. “What happened, Sweetie?”
“It’s her stomach,” Marion says.
“Is it something you ate?”
“I don’t know,” she manages. “It just hurts so bad I can’t stand it.”
“Do we have any good pain pills?” I ask.
Sweetie shakes her head no.
Figures. How many pain pills had I taken over the years just for kicks? Now that I’m straight and somebody really needs one, I’m out. Bad karma coming back to haunt me.
I can see she’s perspiring. Intense pain can do that. I feel her forehead. Her skin is glistening and clammy, but she doesn’t seem to have a fever. “I’m going to call an old acquaintance. He should have the necessary medication.”
“Who?” asks Marion.
“Never mind,” I reply. “You don’t have to know everything.”
“I’d rather you didn’t,” Sweetie says. “I want you to stay away from those people.”
I don’t contradict her. She’s probably right. The less I see of the old crowd the better off I’ll be.
“But that’s not what I’m worried about,” she says.
“I know,” I confide.
“It’s the other thing.”
“I’m a little scared,” she admits.
“Me too,” says Marion.
I glance at both of them. Marion has the worried look as well. She’s been through it with her mother in the past. We both understand what she’s talking about.
Now I have the worried look too.
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR:
An excerpt from a published work of fiction, SWEETIE.
Having traveled the US extensively, Frank Geiger currently resides on the Delaware Bay in Southern New Jersey. His writing runs the gamut from off-beat and quirky to mainstream. An ironic sense of humor like a rosy crucifixion resnoates throughout his work.