One day, one of my closest friends, Billy, came to my dorm room late at night. He had been drinking (so had I and everyone else), and he came in without knocking and swayed in the center of the room.
“I can’t be your friend anymore, Don. I’ve been thinking about this and you suck. We’re no longer friends. Go fuck yourself.”
“I’m gay you stupid fucking asshole! I can’t listen to your shit anymore.”
When I sobered up, I was stunned. He really was one of the people I counted upon as a close friend, someone I’d take a bullet for.
Like a two-by-four smacked across my face, it hurt and woke me up at the same time. I was deeply ashamed. It was a bit of a life changer for me in terms of my views of the world, how systematic bigotry was proliferated in small moments every day. I decided that (A) I needed to readjust my perspective, and (B) I didn’t want to be complicit in these small moments because they added up, gathered to one another like mercury droplets, forming an unstoppable flood of inhumanity.
Billy and I never reconciled, but I stopped my rants, took to eating lunch alone to think through my attitudes. I asked questions that now seem naive and insulting but were necessary for me to see the world from a different angle.
I moved to Chicago and the diversity of people I met and cared about expanded exponentially. I was on the road to becoming less of an asshole.
About five years later:
“Can you even see?”
“Kind of. Shut up and let me drive, yeah?”
The truth was I could just barely see fifteen feet in front of my crappy aquamarine Geo Metro, through the epic blizzard we were navigating through. Along for this Ride of Sheer Stupidity were my wife Deanna (she of the question), my buddy Joe, and a fellow stand-up comedian, Bill Leff. This was before smartphones, Google maps, and readily available GPS. The road map was completely useless in what we found out later was one of the most severe snowstorms in twenty years.
In some part of my primal brain, I was terrified that we were going to die in this fucking shitbox car.
Earlier in the week, Joe had called me to see if I wanted to go up to a comedy club in Wisconsin, which meant I would have to drive. Joe had been a professional stand-up years ago and had given it up to improvise in Chicago. He and I had met at Second City.
“I got hired to do this, but I haven’t done a routine in a long time,” he said. “I can do twenty minutes and then you can come up and we can do some improv. What do you think?”
I thought it sounded like fun. Drive a few hours to Wisconsin, have some drinks, watch Joe do a set, and join him in some onstage make ‘em ups. It was rare that I got to improvise outside of the confines of class. It was rare that Joe asked me to perform with him. I was in and Deanna wanted to come along, too.
Bill was the headliner, which meant that Joe opened for him. He had been in Major Leagueand Major League II (baseball comedies starring a young Charlie Sheen that did pretty well at the box office in the early 90s) and went on to be one half of WGN’s “Bill Leff and Wendy Snyder Show.” Turned out he was a genuinely nice and humble guy, a professional working comedian, and he offered to help out with gas in spite of the fact that he wasn’t getting paid much more than gas money to begin with.
The snow started before we left. It got worse and worse the farther out of Chicago we went. The heater in the Metro was broken. We could see our breath inside the car and my feet became like blocks of frozen chicken breasts on the end of my shivering legs. And, with the onslaught of non-stop white and wind and dark, the idea of coming out to a fun night at a comedy club began to look more and more like a death sentence. The only conversation was limited to “How far is it, again?” and “Maybe we can just get hotel rooms so we don’t have to drive back through this tonight.”
Four hours of near silence, with more tension than I thought sustainable, we found the place. It was called The Comedy Shack or The Comedy Hub or some sort of late 80s bullshit. The parking lot was filled with trucks and pickup trucks. The Geo Metro was decidedly out of place. The Shack was packed as we—late, of course—stumbled in, half frozen and numbly grateful to have made it at all.
Deanna and I were ushered over to a table on the right side of the stage. Joe and I briefly decided to do a “Fill in the Blank” scene when he called me up to perform. Essentially, we’d get a suggestion to start the scene and whenever one of us wanted an activity or a noun, we would gesture to the audience, they would yell out something and we would immediately incorporate it into the scene. The emcee introduced Joe and he hit the ground running. In spite of still being partially frozen, Joe was up for the task.
Except for one thing.
Joe is a “smart” comic. In fact, I think he is one of the smartest, most thoughtful comic minds I know. He uses wordplay and observations to create his funny. The only example I can think of (with apologies to Joe because I’m sure it was funnier than I’ll recall here) goes like this:
“Superheroes aren’t real. If they were, it might go like this. I’m THOR. Really thor, like right here.”
Joe starts his set and he isn’t winning the crowd over. At all. And then I notice the crowd: sixty to seventy trucker dudes and some girlfriends (or barflies) all in flannel, almost all bearded, wearing trucker caps and drinking whiskey and beer. Like a mountain man competition or a meeting of the Red Necks of the Midwest Chapter in Wisconsin. Joe, on the other hand, is a thin, bald City Guy with glasses. His voice is slightly nasal and his delivery is dry. Even if he weren’t onstage, he would stand out in this room as “different.” A Geo Metro in a parking lot of eighteen-wheelers. Ten minutes in and Joe is scrambling. He’s getting heckled. He’s doing his best, but they simply aren’t into it and things are getting a little ugly. These fuckers had been in the storm as well and were not in the mood for Joe’s jokes.
Twelve minutes into his twenty-minute set, Joe suddenly decides to introduce the improv. And I no longer want to play. I’m caught in a crossroads. I’m dressed in flannel, have a beard, and am wearing a ball cap. I blend right into the crowd. I could just ignore his invitation for me to come up to the slaughter. But I can’t do that to my friend, and I can’t imagine the ride back if I did. “Don’t do it,” my wife whispers. “I have to,” I whisper back.
I get up onstage. The trucker crowd gives us a pause in the grumbling and heckling. Joe gets the suggestion. “The Beach.” And we start our scene. A minute into it, I say “Buddy you are a real ____” and wait for the audience to respond.
“FAGGOT!” yells a drunken voice. The crowd roars in approval.
And I am caught in another crossroads. I do blend in with this crowd. I look like one of them. I used to be one of them. In their eyes, I am one of them. And, in their strange, angry homophobic worldview, Joe is someone they want to see suffer because he is a faggot in the most shitty and pejorative sense of that slur.
I look at Joe. We both know where this is going. And Joe nods, resignedly. We are there to make these misguided, ignorant fucks laugh and buy more drinks. In the moment, trying to figure out how to spin this is too daunting for either of us.
“Buddy, you are a real FAGGOT!” comes out of my mouth and I get a huge laugh. The dirty, hateful game is afoot. For the next six minutes or so, Joe and I are stuck in a scenic game that simply involves my character doing and saying horrible things to his character at the behest of a grotesque subset of humanity. I am suddenly playing a role I had shed years before. Who I had become and who I was had never been so apparent to me but the words came easily, like riding a bike or lighting a match. It’s funny how that is—like going back to a high school reunion and suddenly finding yourself acting out in the same ways you did as a kid, seeing an old girlfriend and instantly embracing the roles you had played way back then.
We finish to thundering applause and I want to vomit. Joe won’t look me in the eye. I seem to recall that Bill got up and did a bit better by accessing jokes, while far less hateful, still capitalized on the stereotypes of the world this room simmered in.
As soon as Bill finished his set, there was no longer talk of hotel rooms. We were absolutely desperate to get back out into the storm and risk our lives getting back to Chicago (or away from the Comedy Shack in Wisconsin). The ride home was far colder than the ride up even though the storm had mostly passed. It was a heavenly reprieve, however, from the ugly cold of intolerance and the sad reality of my own complicity in it. Of my complicity in another small moment, a snowflake of a moment, in the burgeoning blizzard of bigotry.
Change is a struggle for the best of us and finding warmth in a cold fucking world can be hard to achieve. But you still have to look for it. Sometimes you have to run from the cold in order to find shelter. Sometimes you have to experience the storm to appreciate the hearth.