@

Please explain what just happened.

Rob Mungle: I was wondering how it’s possible that Sbarro Pizza is still in business. I believe this proves the power of the Illuminati.

Slade Ham: I just watched a pair of fat kids ride with their fat parents down a sidewalk on Segways.  They’re probably going to Fuddruckers.  Holy shit.  America is so fat, my spell check recognized “Fuddruckers” as a word.

Ocean’s Banana

By Slade Ham

Humor

Texas is vast.  It is a sprawled out, multifaceted, cocky piece of real estate.  That swagger surfaces early, too, particularly if you’ve ever entered the state from the east.  A bright green sign proudly displays the distance to other cities.  Orange, Texas is four miles away and El Paso is 857, just in case you thought it was going to be a quick sprint from Louisiana to New Mexico.

“Howdy,” says Texas.  “This ain’t Rhode Island.”

As a comedian I have traveled the entire state.  Literally, border to border to border to border, there are very few cities that I haven’t heard of.  Tiny towns – villages really – dot the landscape, often little more than single traffic lights and a corner store set up to service the surrounding farms.  There are mid-sized cities too, with their Wal-Marts and community colleges, and there are larger ones yet, with real universities and more than one intersecting highway.   Then there are the Big Three.  Houston, Austin, and Dallas.

And we pretty much hate each other.  The three cities couldn’t be more different.  Houston is gritty and a little dirty, more Mexican than American it seems sometimes, like a Latino Darth Vader.  Dallas is shiny and pretentious; a rich but overweight cheerleader that nobody thinks is hot but her.  Then there’s Austin, immaculate because the hippies keep it that way.

The comedy scenes are quite different as well.  Houston was home to Bill Hicks, Sam Kinison, Brett Butler, Janeane Garofalo, Thea Vidale, and the legendary Outlaw Comics.  Austin arrested Mitch Hedburg.  Dallas, well, Dallas has never really done anything at all.

I was among the group of comics that set off that morning for a down and dirty, Houston themed one-nighter at Austin’s flagship comedy club.  Johnny, Rob, Andy, and I limped onto the freeway around noon, painfully early for people who do this sort of thing for a living.  Every one of us was a veteran comic, but none like Andy.  Andy was one of the original Outlaw Comics and had been doing comedy almost as long as the other three of us combined.  As we drove toward Austin, he told story after story and we happily listened to them all.

“So Kevin Spacey falls down some stairs coming out of this gay bar late one night in England,” Andy says.  His way of saying it is so matter-of-fact that you instantly trust it, even if you can’t confirm the source.  “People are snapping pictures of the injury and he knows it’s going to be all over the news.  He doesn’t like to discuss his sexuality publicly, so instantly he gets on the phone with his publicist and they concoct this whole story about how he was out walking his dog and slipped and fell.  I mean, sure, it was three o’clock in the morning, but he loves his dog that much.  That would be the story they decided.  People would buy that.

“So they set up this huge press conference for early in the morning so he can get in front of the controversy and explain that he was just out taking care of his furry little best friend.  Then Spacey calls his assistant.  Turns out his assistant at the time used to work for Madonna and Guy Ritchie, so this was barely on the radar for weird shit that he’s had to deal with, but still, it’s the middle of the night.  The assistant answered the phone all sleepy, and Spacey said…”  Andy paused for a second, giving it that flawless half-step that comes from thirty years of comedy.

“I’m going to need you to go buy me a dog.”

And so the entire trip went, four comics riffing in a car together all the way up Highway 71 and through La Grange.  After the show that night, Andy retired to the hotel, his hell-raising days behind him, while Johnny, Rob, and I ducked off with some people from the show to finish off the night.  Johnny’s friend Mike knew a bar a block from the comedy club and we ended up on the patio with some Austin locals.

Ninety percent of the 18-34 year old, male demographic in Austin looks exactly alike.  Striped V-neck tee (or a not striped, but with a picture of Che Guevara or a Nintendo controller), glasses (regardless of whether or not their vision is bad), knit cap (despite being summer in Texas), and skinny jeans (how do you get those on? Do you unscrew your foot before you put your leg through and then reattach it?).

I happened to be sitting next to their leader, who had replaced his Chris Martin-esque hat with a pair of sunglasses at 1:45 in the morning.  “I had them on when I got here, man,” he said, which meant he had to have gotten there at 7:00, which meant he either was lying or that he had been at a completely dead bar for seven hours, which meant that either way he was probably a complete loser.  As if to confirm my suspicions, he slid a business card across the table that had the words “The Poet of Funk” printed across a picture of him combing his hair while wearing his signature sunglasses.

“I do alternative hip hop,” he said.

“I don’t know how to talk to you,” I replied, and turned back around to my friends.

Rob was talking to the girl that ran the bar’s karaoke night, or rather was talking directly to her boobs, and Johnny was engrossed in another conversation… and next to them sat an eight-foot tall stuffed banana with a huge smiling face and dreadlocks.  Johnny isn’t a small guy, but the massive fruit dwarfed him.  I blinked a few disbelieving blinks, and when I opened my eyes again it was still there.  I glanced around for an explanation, but a round of shots came out before I could ask.

“That’s our mascot,” the bartender said as he set the drinks down.  “The Rasta Banana.”

“That’s some real shit, right there,” the Poet echoed, sipping his Pabst Blue Ribbon.  “It’s dope than a motherfucker.”

And I knew at that exact moment there was no way we were leaving without stealing that banana.

A heist is a difficult thing to orchestrate, particularly if you’ve never orchestrated a heist before.  Every plan that began to form dissolved just as quickly.  I was the Danny Ocean of the group, and I needed things if we were going to get away with something this big – things like a helicopter, a flatbed truck, and Pierce Bronson – and we had none of them.  “Gimme your keys,” I said to Mike.

“Why?  You’re not driving my car.”

“Of course not.  I just want to, um, look at them.”

“Oh.  Okay,” he said, and then flipped me his keys.

It didn’t matter that there was no way the banana was going to fit in his car with the rest of us.  That was a math problem.  I dropped out of college so that I wouldn’t have to do math, and I wasn’t about to take it back up again.  Getting it in the car was not my responsibility though.  I had bigger problems.  The patio was still full of beatnik kids and bar employees, and someone had to get them inside.  I slipped the key to Johnny and whispered some quick instructions.  He and Mike were going to be the extraction team.

Rob’s job was the girl.  I texted him from across the patio, and he glanced up at me to let me know he’d gotten the message.  Get karaoke chick out of here.  Instantly he stood up and headed out into the parking lot with her.  We didn’t see him until the next morning, but I was amazed at his efficiency.  No one had told him about the plan to steal the banana.  He just followed the order unquestioningly, like a Secret Service agent or one of Caesar Milan’s dogs.  It was perfect.  I can’t imagine what he said to her, but it worked.

“Hey!” I yelled suddenly to the remaining few hipsters.  “Shots on me at the bar.  You can tell me about your dope ass hip hop,” I said, and three skinny vegan rappers followed me inside.  Positioned strategically at the bar, I ordered four well whiskeys straight.  It was the rot gut stuff that no one drinks without a mixer, but I needed the extra time that their reaction would buy us.

I glanced over their shoulders as they looked hesitantly at their shot glasses.  The banana was slowly moving across the patio toward the exit.  Maneuvered from behind by Johnny, it jumped another jerky foot every second or so, like a big, yellow, stop-motion Gumby, and then suddenly it was gone, tucked miraculously into the back of Mike’s vehicle.  I dropped a twenty on the bar.  “Enjoy the shots!”

“Yo, check me out on Facebook!” the Poet tried, but I was already out the door.

We descended on Mike’s house like a swarm of drunken bees, each one of us recounting our part of the heist, toasting the banana, and flopping down on top of it like it was some huge, yellow Santa Claus.  It moved from the kitchen, to the living room, to the back patio, finally free of its counter-culture captors and in the company of (in our minds, anyway) giants.  I couldn’t tell you how many pictures were taken both of and with the banana that night, but I know that it was more than one, and that that was probably still too many.

The next morning found us incredibly puzzled as to what to do with it.  Andy just shook his head, happy that he had chosen to retire for the night.  “I’m too old for this shit,” he said, though we knew better.  Rob wasn’t exactly sold on the idea of tying it to the top of his car for the three hour trip back Houston, so we finally decided that we should just return it.  Not a creative return like in The Thomas Crown Affair, where we painted it to look like a Golden Tee machine, snuck it back into the bar, and then set off the sprinkler system, but a simple delivery of the mascot back to its rightful owners with an apology.

“We can’t brag about stealing it if we don’t return it first,” Johnny said, and we all agreed.  It was never about keeping it anyway, we realized.  This was a fraternity stunt, and we were in definitely in a fraternity of sorts.  It was one that went back generations, comedians roaming the countryside, both telling stories and creating them, and the stunt wasn’t worth pulling if we couldn’t talk about it later.  As enticing as the thought of a bar full of hipsters crying over their loss was, a good tale is always worth more to a comedian than any stuffed banana, eight-foot tall and Jamaican or not.

I

We mad fly; we
Dream dry; we
Scribble drunk; we
Fake the funk; we
Keeps it real; we
Sly conceal; we
Royal hall; we
Southern drawl; we
Bleed tears; we
Clink cheers; we
Fling curves; we
Gnaw nerves; we
Break it down; we
Class clown; we
Write raw; we
Down by law.

It’s spring, and all of you sexy people out there know just what I mean when I say, mmm-mm. It’s time for the return of the sexy.

The sun is bouncing brightly off that freshly waxed chest in front of you where its owner is parked enjoying a delicious shot of wheatgrass. He’s working on his computer like he’s got a novel brewing. Or maybe he’s a writer for GQ. He’s just made eye contact with you as if to say candidly, “I see you watching me being sexy over here. I, too, acknowledge your sexy.”

Oh, yeah.

That’s right. It’s been a long, cold run up here in the mountains, and I am happy to report that spring is finally in the air. The birds are birding, the chipmunks are chipmunking; and the bees…are beeing sexy. Yesterday, I was at a giant garage sale for my kid’s school. Helping out because volunteering is sexy. I didn’t end up doing much, but I did walk away with a great deal on a purple and black corset, which just goes to show, economy is sexy, too.

A lot has happened this last year. Grandpa got married. He’s 90 and she’s 96, but neither of them are a day over sexy. Together they witnessed the rise and fall of the USSR, the coming of age of Barbie, and the invention of the chocolate chip cookie. Had a preacher man say some words over them without actually signing a marriage license so they could be sexy together without getting their families all riled up over mingling their bank accounts. Last I heard, they had moved back to their single rooms over at the independent living center. A little space is sexy, too—oh yeah.

It’s spring and it’s time to be sexy. Two weeks ago, Slade Ham, Megan DiLullo, Uche Ogbuji, Richard Cox and Sam Demaris came up to our house. It had snowed 8 inches of fresh powder, so it wasn’t very sexy. Even so, we laughed, told stories, ate donuts and drank a lot of very sexy whiskey. At one in the morning, we broke out the kickboxing gear and sparred in the living room. I got the wind just about knocked out of me by a well-placed punch to the side by Slade. Brought me to my knees it was so sexy. Even Scott just shook his head from behind the video camera and didn’t rush to my defense. Megan put on some headgear like she was going to jump in but was eventually pulled back to the sofa by a 90 proof magnet. Uche broke out into some def poetry while Sam called us a bunch of high schoolers. Richard played Tiffany. There is nothing sexy about Tiffany. Donuts are sexy, though. Especially if you’re a dude made out of fried bread. Oh, yeah.

But Spring is in the air now, and all of those kinks have been smoothed over. No excuse to not be sexy. Even Simon Smithson and Zara Potts and the rest of you living down under don’t have to stop being sexy even though it’s well into autumn now for you. Autumn is a sexy word for fall. You’re down there and we’re up here and we’re passing like two sexy ships in the night. Passing the baton of sexy.

Don’t worry, though. We’ll have enough sexy in the northern hemisphere to carry you over. Nathaniel Missildine in France. David S. Wills in China. Steve Sparshott and James Irwin in England. Irene Zion over in Belgium(?) and Judy Prince somewhere in between. We’re creating a mesh network of sexy and beaming it south. Down below the earth’s belt. Now that’s sexy.

That’s right, Spring is in the air and it’s time to be sexy so slip out of those shoes and curl your toes deep into some warm sand somewhere. Wear something that ends in an ‘ini’. Order something cold that comes in a pineapple or coconut shell because drinks that come in their own skin are sexy. You know it. But it’s spring, so don’t worry too much about having to try. In spring, just about everything is sexy. In spring, even Tiffany is sexy.

So, keep on keepin’ on, wheatgrass boy. You’ve got a spot of green in the corner of your mouth there.

There you go.

Oh, yeah.

It’s 2:00 in the afternoon somewhere just north of Mexico. I am leaned back in my chair, feet up on an old cable spool, holding my beer up to the light and watching the sweat drip off the bottle and onto my forehead. Mesquite trees punch out of the dirt like escaping zombies to block the sun, letting just enough blue sky through to make the day perfect. Sam and I are on tour in South Texas and today is almost good enough to make me forget yesterday.

This juxtaposition on the road is something I am familiar with. All too often a horrible day is followed by a surprisingly amazing one. You never know. You can’t predict it. Even when I return to places I’ve been before the experience is always different. I have walked into gigs in dive bars expecting the worst and had some of the best shows of my life. I have also driven places thinking that nothing could go wrong and had the world explode in front of me like a landmine.

You just never know.

I’ve done this run through the Rio Grande Valley before, and while I can never quiet nail down what the crowds may be like, I can always count on at least part of the trip to work out for the best. Isaac owns the theater downtown that I am playing tonight. One of the greatest perks to traveling like I do is that I’ve made friends in every corner of the world –happy souls in Africa and Bahrain and Saudi Arabia and Japan that I always attempt to spend time with when I make it their direction. The same holds true in the States, and even more so. I get to meet people I would never run into otherwise and sometimes those people work themselves into my circle. Isaac is one of those people.

We’re staying at his house while we’re in town. No half-star hotel room for these few days – his house in inviting and comfortable, eclectic and interesting. Mexican art hangs on every wall, some his, some other artists. Crosses dot the few empty spaces on the walls and skeletons and statues and sculptures sit on antique tables in every corner. The front door is carved ornately and looks a thousand years old. In every room the walls are one deep, rich color or another. It is not museum-like – projects sit half-finished if you stop to look. A sketch in progress. A pot on the stove. Instrument cables run to amplifiers from a makeshift jam session in the living room. The bench sits pulled out at the piano. A speaker stack is set up in the corner for no apparent reason at all. The place feels used, like a sports car that the owner actually drives.

Isaac is many things: a musician, an artist, a chef, a nightclub owner, and a complete free spirit. The first time I met him we sat on the patio at his restaurant and ate paella and fried cilantro, and after so many trips through this area he and I have become friends. That’s why we’re staying at his place this week. I need to press reset after the first night out here.

The Valley is basically just North Mexico. Violence hovers like a cloud at the border. I usually slip into Reynosa or Progresso for street tacos and a cheap beer while I’m down here, but not this time. I couldn’t even escape tension on our side of the river. After a surprise change in our itinerary, Sam and I showed up a day early for a last minute extra gig in a neighboring city. The hotel that the promoter booked for us was a crime scene. Literally. It was fairly evident that someone might have been killed there in the last few days. Denzel stayed in better hotels in The Book of Eli. I rarely walk barefoot in hotels to begin with; socks just seem safer. I kept my shoes on in this one.

The first key they gave me led to an already inhabited space, though the tenants were either dead or gone or both. Smoldering cigarettes in the ashtray filled the room with smoke, a hazy veil hanging in the air like an Ecuadorian forest, and on the other side of that fog could have been anything from a murdered body to an old Chinese man selling gremlins. Scattered clothes and toiletries littered the room. The space immediately downstairs was occupied by a dog, a German shepherd from the sounds of it, which barked incessantly. Throaty woofs and growls pierced the walls as I went back to trade in my key for another room, though the new one was no cleaner than the one with the missing people in it. It’s one night, I told myself. Just one night. Suck it up.

I awoke the next morning to a sound at my door. Growing up with three brothers has made me a light sleeper. A noise is an attack. I go from catatonic to alert instantly. My subconscious always seems to know when something is not right, and something was definitely not right. It wasn’t a knock at the door that woke me up, but something much more subtle. I slipped off the side of the bed and stole a glance around the corner. The door was open slightly, as far as the security latch would allow anyway, and a hand was reaching through attempting to flip that latch open. I took two quick steps and kicked the door violently and the hand crunched and popped loudly as someone on the other side screamed in pain. I held my foot in place as the fingers twitched.

“What the fuck are you doing?” I yelled, keeping my weight against the door.

“Housekeeping,” came the pained reply. I pulled my leg back, flipped the bolt and jerked the door open.

“Have you lost your fucking mind?” I said. The man pulled his hand in to his chest, cupping it like an injured bird with his good hand. His manager strode over, a cocky looking, Napoleonic half-man with a deep Indian complexion.

He ignored his employee with the injury like it was a battlefield casualty. “Checkout was at 11:00,” he said. “Why are you still here?”

“Checkout is at noon,” I shot back.

“No, it’s not.”

“It’s on the sign on the back of this door you fucking idiot. And it is 12:06 right now”

“Oh, well, that’s wrong.”

“So that’s why you’re breaking into my room?”

“We knocked and no one answered, so we assumed someone must be passed out in the room.” He was smug. He’d been called on this before and didn’t care. Call the police, his face said. I dare you.

“That was your immediate assumption? Why didn’t you call?”

“Your phone must be broken.”

“Like your friend’s hand?” I asked, and flung the door shut. “Give me a minute,” I yelled through the closed door.

Sam met me in the lobby, only to share his own story. He was in the shower when he noticed a shadow through the shower curtain. Another employee had bypassed his safety lock in a similar fashion and caught him off guard.

Sam left to pull the car around as I made my way around three of the owner’s friends that were trying to bar my exit. “What you wanna do bitch?” one of them asked, posturing in front of the other two while the owner stood by and watched. A single tear tattooed on the man’s face indicated that if things escalated this wouldn’t be his first violent altercation.

“Seriously?” I asked, and tried to limit myself to just that one word. There were three of them and I can be dumb sometimes when I’m angry. I walked to the car while they circled, expecting a punch to be thrown though one never came. They got louder as I got in the car, and I popped back out of the passenger seat to yell something in reply but was stopped by Sam. No one ever believes that he is the calmer of the two of us when we’re on the road. Looks are deceiving I suppose.

So now, I am better. Isaac’s girlfriend Ceci is cooking a homemade Mexican dinner for us back at the house. From inside the bar, far across this wide open back lot, some country song plays on the jukebox and the crack of pucks on the shuffleboard table float out of the open door and off into the air. Another round of beers comes out.

I mention the hotel story to Isaac. “That kind of thing is getting worse down here.” he says. “They buckled down on the gangs and cartels on the Mexico side so now they just bring it here. Happens all the time, too. That lady whose husband got killed on the jet ski on Falcon Lake? The investigator on the Mexican side got his head cut off. They’re ruthless. There was a guy down here that got in trouble with one of the cartels and they kidnapped his baby and fried it. Literally, like fried it.”

“You’re kidding,” I say.

“No. I wish I were. It’s bad bro.”

“They fried it.”

“I’m serious.”

“They don’t even do that at the fair. I mean, they’ll fry butter or Oreos…”

“You’re sick bro. You know that, yes?”

And I do know it, but it’s how I deal with things. I made a fried baby joke. I take a sip of my beer and think about that for a second. What kind of person does that? As I mull it over I hear Sam doing an impression of a mock Visa commercial.

“When you come to Mexico make sure you bring your Visa card, because they’ll take your baby… but they won’t take American Express.” I laugh harder than I should. This is what it’s like, like it or not. Yin and yang. Good and bad. They always talk about paying dues on the road, and while I have certainly paid my share – more than enough to not really have to deal with subpar accommodations anymore, much less gang-run hotels – when those moments do surface I have learned to take them in stride. That’s one of the costs of getting to stand in front of the bright lights on a concert stage and listen to a theater full of people applaud.

“That fried baby joke was fucked up, bro,” Isaac says, laughing.

“It’s good to see you again, too,” I reply, and we clink bottles, content to wash away the Valley with cold beer and camaraderie.

“It was kinda funny though,” I say. “Wasn’t it?”

“So the Death Star is the woman?” Sam asked.

“Yes!Finally!Someone else finally gets it.I’ve been trying to say that for half an hour,” the stripper said.She had to be a stripper.I had been passively sitting at a table in the back room of the Laff Stop, sipping on a Jameson and watching this nuclear winter of a conversation for the past twenty minutes.

*While Lenore Zion found the retarded kind and Megan DiLullo stumbled upon the sexy type, I only got the violent one.*

I’ve been punched in the face a lot in my life.  My mouth has often made promises that my body wasn’t quite prepared to defend, but that my ego wouldn’t let me back out of either.  A dangerous grouping those three, the mouth, body, and ego.  They never seem to agree on anything.  Not mine anyway, hence that punching in the face part.

I have a list a mile long of things I’ve done that I shouldn’t have, and that list is only slightly longer than the one of stuff I still do that I shouldn’t.  None of the good stories have ever come from playing it safe.  Not one, which is why I’ve always been so quick to leap into the fray haphazardly.

But those are the actions of the young and invincible, I tell myself.  War should not be waged in the physical ways of my youth, but with intelligence and maturity now.  A cleverly crafted phrase, I try to convince myself, is far more effective than a strong right cross.

And yet somehow, despite the best of intentions, I can’t quite shake my former tendencies.

Like that one night, when I may or may not have beat up a midget.

In my defense, the midget did start it.  I was hanging out after a show late one Saturday night with my regular opening act on the road, a stocky black guy named Sam.  The clinking of ice signaled that we were empty, and we ordered another round of James and Jack and got change for another five.  He and I have had an ongoing competition for years now, feeding dollar after dollar into the mechanical punching bags that bars began installing once they realized that alcohol and testosterone were worth a fortune when combined.

Basically, for fifty cents, a little leather bag drops from the machine and registers how hard you punch it.  It is mindless fun and a matter of bragging rights amongst the guys.  With a healthy buzz, I fed another buck into the machine and swung.  As I connected, I heard a voice behind me say, “You hit like a bitch!”

I immediately turned around.  Maybe it was tunnel vision or maybe I simply didn’t look far enough down, but when I spun to look, no one was there.  I turned back around to swing again, and I was interrupted mid-stride by the same high pitched voice.  “You gonna hit it harder this time?  Pussy.”

That’s when I saw him.  Four foot tall on the dot, there stood the most confident midget I had ever seen in my life.  I leaned forward with my hands on my knees and I looked down at him, squinting at him like I was trying to make out fine print.

“What, bitch?” he said, and threw his arms out to the side.  The stubby limbs hung there, taunting me.  Beckoning me.  Challenging me.

“You can’t do it,” Sam said to me, shaking his head.

“Can’t what?”

“You can’t beat up a midget.  You won’t win.”

“You don’t think I can kick a midget’s ass?” I fired back.

“That’s not what I mean,” he said.  “It’s just that even if you do win… you still kinda lose, man.”

“Brilliant,” I replied, suddenly happy to have been saved from the embarrassment of beating up a midget.  “So what then?”

“You have to be the bigger man.”

“Did you seriously just say that?”

Sam laughed.  “C’mon, man.  Let’s go.”

As we turned for the door we pushed past the angry little dwarf, who wasn’t as content to let things slide as we were.  He pushed his little midget shoulder into my leg and threw down the gauntlet.  “Yeah, you better leave, motherfucker!” he yelled up at us.

“What?” I asked, cocking an eyebrow.

“You better leave before you get your ass kicked. Because- “

Now, this is probably where the night turned sideways.  I couldn’t even begin to guess what this little creature’s explanation was going to be for how he planned to hurt me.  His “because” seemed to hang in the air forever.  The only thing I could imagine was that he was going to suddenly pull back a curtain and reveal an entire midget army armed for battle; a thousand tiny goblin soldiers poised to attack with spikes on the tips of their boots and their teeth filed into fangs, while David Bowie sang about a baby.

“Because why?” I asked.

“Because I’m in the UFC,” the midget finally said.

“Unless they paint a number on your chest and the ring girls hold you over their heads between rounds, you’re not in the fucking UFC,” I shot back.

Now you’re allowed to fight him,” Sam said.

I lunged forward, and the midget shot for the door.  I don’t know if you know this or not, because few people do, but midgets are supernaturally fast and they click when they run.  Click click click click click.  Like a beetle.  Click click click.  You can Google it.

“He’s getting away!” I shouted, and pushed my way through the crowd after him.

“Throw your shoe at it!” Sam yelled to me.

“What?”

“Your shoe!  You never saw Leprechaun?”

“Huh?”

“The movie?  With Jennifer Aniston?  Whatever.  If you throw a shoe at a leprechaun, they have to stop and polish it.”

Ridiculous, I thought.  I wasn’t going to beat this thing with mythology.  I didn’t need rumor and folklore; I needed fact.  I had to find a way to do some real damage to this midget.

We made it out through the front door to find the little elf clicking off and away down the sidewalk.  I took off after him on what was, in my drunken mind anyway, a straight line, but was more than likely one of those Jeffy’s dotted line moments from Family Circus.  All I know for certain is that I eventually caught up with him.  As I drew near he turned around and growled at me, little midget juice dripping from its fangs.

“Rawr!”

The midget’s claim to have a background in mixed martial arts was at least partially true.  In MMA, when an attacker shoots in for a takedown, a standard defense is to “sprawl”, or flatten out forward so that your legs can’t be wrapped up and controlled.  As I got to the little creature, it did just that, except I was in no way actually attempting a takedown.  I just sort of stood there while he dove forward and landed on his bulbous skull like a weeble-wobble that didn’t make it all the way back up.

My gut told me to jump up and land on his head, because everyone knows if you do that gold coins come out.  I remember reading that as a child somewhere.  Maybe the Bible.  Then, I remembered how lopsided and misshapen midget heads can be and thought better of it, lest I turn my ankle.

There’s honestly not a lot you can do with a fallen midget.  It’s a sad truth, really.  You can either watch as they try to pick themselves up, which is like watching an upside down turtle struggle, or you can attack.  It seemed unfair to kick him so I dove on top, twisting his leg into an impossible lock.  A leg lock might not sound that impressive, but consider first how hard it is to actually locate a midget’s knee, and the degree of difficulty becomes much more apparent.

By this point, the bouncers had arrived and begun to pull me away.  As I turned to wrestle with them I saw Sam tee off with a vicious right uppercut to the side of the hobbit’s head, easily lifting him three feet off the ground and knocking him backwards.  He landed with a thud and then, beyond all explanation, popped right back up and ran off.

Click click click.

The only explanation is magic.  Midgets can do magic.  Sam’s punch would have knocked a rhinoceros unconscious.  A forty-eight inch man-child couldn’t have survived it, yet somehow he did.  And as that mystical little man clickety-clacked off into the night, my only recourse, since I could no longer reach him physically, was to throw a final verbal blow.

“I hope-” I yelled after him, “I hope you get eaten by an owl!”

Sam and I shook the dust off and made our way back inside.  “I can’t believe I let myself do that,” I said.

“What?  Get in a fight?” he asked.

“Yeah.  I thought I was grown up enough to walk away from it.”

“Well, look at it this way.  At least your last shot wasn’t a physical one.  You gotta start somewhere.”

“I didn’t think of it that way.  Baby steps, right?  Maybe I’m growing up after all.”

“Nah,” Sam said.  “You did just beat up a midget.”

“Shut up and give me a dollar,” I said.  “It’s my turn.”


I have seen more of the Middle East than I ever expected a kid from a small town in Southeast Texas would see. I won’t pretend that my time there has been completely positive, but it has been eye opening. Iraq, Kuwait, Yemen, Qatar, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia… they all start to bleed together, a mixture of people in ghutras and thobes and burqas speaking a harsh language I have never managed to figure out. It’s not a slight to the region or its people, but it is the acknowledgment that it is not the magical land of the Aladdin and Scheherazade of our imaginations. The romanticized world of the Arabian Nights gets lost somewhere between the airport and your destination.

I took off from Washington DC this time with my usual sidekick, Sam, and another comic named Katsy, an upbeat, sassy black woman from Los Angeles. Katsy was on, always. I technically didn’t meet her until we got to Kuwait, but I quickly realized that the pressure was definitely not going to be on me to have to entertain people off stage. She couldn’t be turned off or unplugged. Her mouth was a machine of energy and stamina, her thoughts projectiles launched at anyone that passed. Questions, answers, ideas, laughter – her food had to turn sideways and tiptoe to get in around the words when she ate.

I don’t know that I ever found out exactly how old she was but it became the subject of discussion over the two weeks. Comedians tend to latch on to one thing and drive it into the ground, and with Katsy, that thing was her age.

Initially she couldn’t remember our names, changing our identities from Sam and Slade to Quincy and Slam Bam. Someone fired off an Alzheimer’s joke and it spiraled out of control from there.

“You can talk about my age if you want,” she said, “but it just means that I’ve seen things you haven’t.”

“Yeah. Like the 1800’s,” I said, rolling around in the back seat with laughter.

A day later the three of us, along with our security escorts and a Sergeant named White, climbed on board a boat – a heavily armed 30 foot Army SeaArk – and headed out into the Persian Gulf. Once we cleared the harbor and got out into open water, the pilot turned around toward us. “You want to drive?” he asked.

“I’m going first!” Katsy yelled and sprinted to the driver’s seat.

“You better hold on,” Sergeant White said, and we did.

Katsy hit the throttle and the bow of the boat shot ahead. Not content with simply going fast and straight, she hit a comfortable speed and then threw the boat into a hard turn, almost tossing our Marine escort in the Gulf. She pulled down on the lever and then hammered it forward again, cutting through the rolling wake left by the bow as it slid sideways through the water. Waves rushed onto the open deck in the back where we held on to the rails and roof and attempted to stay on board.

She spun the boat into another donut and then circled back through it again. The cameraman fell down. More water gushed on board, soaking us below the waist. Her yells echoed over the sound of the engine as White came crashing into me. We hung on.

“When is it my turn?” Sam tried to ask.

“Woooooohoooooo!” screamed Katsy from behind the wheel as she punched it again.

We held on longer until the call came that it was time to go back to port. “So wait, no one else gets to drive?” I asked.

“Sorry, we have to get you guys back for the show. You can bring it into the harbor if you want though. You just have to keep it under five knots.”

“Thrilling,” I replied.

I didn’t know it then, but I would soon long for that cool ocean spray. We were leaving for Iraq in the morning and as we sat around at dinner that night we had hopes of an uneventful travel day. Katsy, however, wasn’t ready to move on to the next day yet.

“You like how well I drove that boat!” she said, rubbing it in.

“If by ‘drove’ you mean ‘filled with liquid’, then yes. You’re a natural” I replied. “How about you go re-drive my coffee cup?”

“You’re just jealous,” she said, and I was a bit.

“It’s cool. Just wait.”

* * *

The room where we waited was a thousand degrees and it was constant. For thirty-six hours things had been tedious and stagnant in a way that only Iraq could be. We managed to get in one amazing show at the Kuwaiti Naval Base before our itinerary was lost in an avalanche of unscheduled detours. Manifested on the wrong flight into Iraq out of Kuwait, we ended up in Balad, a place we were not supposed to be until the end of the week. A quick nap later found us waiting for a flight into our original destination, Kirkuk. Two shows had already been cancelled, and after a quick unscheduled guerrilla show in the dining hall we got orders to fly again in the morning.

I remain baffled at why the country of Iraq is so hotly contested. I understand the oil argument now, but not the reason people ever managed to want to live here in the first place. It is alien and dry, with powdery brown dust settling on everything that isn’t perfectly vertical. The hazy air is translucent tan at best, opaque at its worst. And the heat – dear God, the heat – is incessant. It hit 130 degrees the day before we left. I’m pretty sure all those suicide bombers blow themselves up just to cool off.

So in Kirkuk that next morning, we waited. You fly at 0930 they told us. Everything is always military time, which means automatically translating it in my head. If it’s higher than noon, subtract twelve. It is awkward. 0930 is now cancelled they said. Just a few more hours. The air conditioner was broken. There might have been a small fan somewhere but it was defeated by the open door at the end of the room, as if the sun had banged away at the gates until the building simply gave up.

You’re new flight is at 1330 they said. The dust was too thick to fly in. Visibility was zero. They couldn’t get the rotaries in the air with the sky like that. Even bubbly Katsy was beaten at that point and lay motionless on a bench. In that heat your soul cooks to medium well. 1330 came and went. 1700 was now our next possible fly time but the air was so thick outside that you couldn’t see across the parking lot. We were nowhere near where we were supposed to be and another scheduled show was cancelled while we sat there. All we could do was wait, but the only thing that came was more sun.

* * *

Blackhawk helicopters are quite possibly the coolest pieces of machinery I’ve ever seen in my life. My last time through Iraq, I took them everywhere. They look like sharks, if sharks flew in pairs and had massive guns hanging from their skin. At night the insides glows green and if you look hard enough through the darkness you can just barely make out your companion helicopter as it hovers next to you in the black sky. The desert air, regardless of the time of day, slips hot through the open sides as you cut your way across the landscape. Occasionally, flares flash green and white as they break a target lock. It is intense.

As the rotors slice through the air they generate a massive current of air that circulates clockwise. It whips downward and blows directly into the open back window on the right side of the chopper. It blows hard there. Very hard.

* * *

We eventually made it out of Kirkuk and headed to a forward operating base called Warhorse. An hour after landing we hit the stage. Outside and under halogen lights, the bugs swarmed around us as we told our jokes. A sea of soldiers in fatigues and reflective belts laughed in front of us, making the dust and the waiting over the last few days worthwhile. I like these people, I thought to myself. Good, said Life. Get used to them.

Three days later found us still there. Another dust storm, another missed flight, another day in that godforsaken brown powder. The Muslims can pretend that they defend the region for religious reasons, but even they at some point would have to admit that no god, Allah or otherwise, has come anywhere close to caring about that hell hole for some time.

There was the dust and then there were the flies. Lots and lots of flies. They hovered and buzzed and landed on everything, their bodies stuck to traps in black masses, while thousands of others swarmed, still alive and hungry. I expected the river to turn to blood next, but there was no river. I sat there, hoping a flight would leave before the other eight plagues hit.

We arranged an additional show at the DFAC, the dining facility, on Warhorse. Sometimes you hear stories from other comics about the flawless shows where everything goes exactly like it should and you step off stage to roaring applause and a standing ovation.

This was not one of those.

The ambient roar of a thousand people conversing and the clanging rattle of contracted Iraqi nationals pushing metal carts of food swallowed our jokes as they limped out of a sound system that barely reached forty of the hundreds of sets of ears in the dining room. It was like screaming into a jet engine. Halfway through his set, Sam made the comment that he deserved a Purple Heart for surviving that show. He wasn’t kidding.

* * *

Eventually they managed to schedule a chopper out to Warhorse to pick us up. My new best friend, Sergeant Nethers, had arranged a nice little diversion in the event that we were unable to get out after all.

“If the sand doesn’t break, I’ve got you cleared to go out on an MRAP and shoot the .50 cals,” he said.

“Who’s shooting cows?” Katsy asked, wide eyed.

“We just met her yesterday,” Sam and I said simultaneously.

“I’m gonna get you, Slam Bam. Watch,” Katsy shot back, making us all laugh.

“I didn’t forget about the boat, you know. You have one coming.”

“Uh huh. Try it,” she said, and we laughed some more.

Thirty minutes before we were supposed to follow Nethers out to shoot the .50 caliber, word came that our bird was inbound. “Grab your gear,” someone said. “You have to go. Now.”

As I put on my vest, Katsy shot past me. She wants to be first on the chopper just like on the boat, I realized. Well, cool. How perfect, actually. I eased in behind her in the queue as the rest of the passengers lined up. They opened the door leading out top the helipad and we marched out in single file. Only as we approached the chopper did I move in beside her.

“Take the good seat!” I yelled over the wind and sand, and motioned with my hand toward the back right. “I’ll take the one facing backwards since I’ve flown before! You take the good view this trip!” I wasn’t completely sure that she’d heard me until she slipped over into the seat I had indicated. She gave me a quick thumbs up.

“You’re welcome!” I yelled.

We buckled our four point harnesses as Sam and a group of soldiers piled in after us with their gear. We were packed in tight as we levitated off the pad and into the baking desert sky. “Your turn to hang on!” I said, and winked at Katsy.

At 150 miles per hour the wind tore into the cabin like a rabid dog. She tried desperately, hopelessly, to cover her eyes. Her cheeks vibrated as the burning air clawed at her face. She squinted and turned her head, but it was everywhere. The gale pried her mouth open and ripped her gum from under her tongue, where it hovered for a brief moment before it bounced off a soldier’s helmet. She tried to bury her head in the corner but the wind found her. It rocked her back and forth and made her skin quiver and flap.

I cackled across from her, my camera snapping picture after picture while I tried not to hyperventilate with laughter. It was totally worth the wet blue jeans.

You Can See That Here

* * *

We ultimately made it back to Kuwait in one piece and on time after several unscheduled stops. We spent a day at a base dubbed “Mortaritaville”, so named for the relatively ineffective daily shots lobbed over the wall by insurgents. We marched up the ramp into C-130’s and fought the engines as they hummed and pushed blistering air at us across the tarmac. We sat huddled in our rooms waiting for the all clear after a warning siren went off at another base. “Just wait for the boom,” we were told. “If you don’t hear the boom, it’s not good.”

“Wait, what’s it mean if I don’t hear it?’ I asked.

“That means it hit you.”

Climbing on board our flight back to DC, I was exhausted. As we drew close to the States, I watched the sun rise through the window somewhere over Newfoundland. At 40,000 feet, things fall into perspective. Staring down through the cobalt blue and orange tinted clouds you could make out the twinkle of city lights. As people shook themselves awake seven miles below me, I wondered what they were doing.

Somewhere down there, someone was rushing to get to an office so they could yell at people for not pumping out enough of some trivial product or another. People were neglecting their families to race after a paycheck that would only buy more things that probably wouldn’t make them as happy as time with their family would have. From the air, it was so easy to see how worthless a lot of our efforts are. I remember hearing a story about a businessman and fisherman somewhere in Mexico, a story that I can’t quite recall now but that I am certain sums up my feelings as I stared out that window.

Then I thought of the soldiers that I had just performed for and just how tough the conditions can be, not only for them but for their families back here in the States. I was there for two weeks and was worn out from the heat and the early mornings and the cramped conditions. What our soldiers have chosen to do, for years on end, makes them nothing short of amazing to me. They’re heroes.

I don’t know a lot of things. I don’t know if our presence in the Middle East is good or bad. I don’t know if it changes anything on a grand scale. The global aspect of our efforts over there aside, I know that I’ve met individuals that have made an impact on a personal level with the people of Iraq, and that’s where it counts.

A real impact, too; not one that seems insignificant when viewed from a distance. I spend a lot of time wondering if I’m doing the right thing or if I’m in the right place or if I’m not supposed to be somewhere else with someone else doing something else. The one thing I got while staring out that window was that it doesn’t really matter as long as I’m happy.

There’s a world where bombs go off and people carry guns and other people will blow themselves up because God told them to. It’s a world where life can end abruptly and without warning, and I don’t want to spend any more of mine than I have to chasing something unnecessary and useless.

I am grateful to those men and women that put themselves in that situation so that I don’t have to.

Hooah!

2009 is almost gone.  I feel like I made it through this year the same way I got through high school, which is to say I skipped most of it and barely squeaked by the rest.   One of the greatest perks to writing as frequently as I do is that there is always a record of where I’ve been and what I’ve done.
I rolled into this year as unobtrusively as I possibly could, falling asleep on my brother’s couch an hour or so before midnight.  “If I’m quiet maybe ’09 won’t notice me”, I told myself, and for the most part it didn’t.  I spent January in the coldest weather I’ve ever experienced, -21 in Indianapolis.  Negative.  Twenty-one.  At that temperature even your soul freezes.
That probably explains why I was so sick a week or so later in New Orleans.  Instead of wrought iron and beignets and the banks of the Mississippi, I spent my time there huddled in the Ambassador Hotel hiding from fever induced nightmares.  That didn’t stop Wild Bill Dykes and Sam Demaris from dragging me to Vic’s for a glass or two of James.  I went straight from there to the Oklahoma foothills for a few nights of nothing but wilderness and fire.
There was a very blurry weekend in Shreveport somewhere around that part of the year, too.  I remember Justin Foster not wearing pants for most of it.  Sam and I stole a tree.  We also almost fought Elmo and Cookie Monster.  Wait, maybe that was last year.  This year we beat up a midget.  In our defense, he said he was in the UFC, which prompted the response, “Not unless Arianna Celeste writes a number on your chest and holds you over her head between rounds.”
I spent most of my May hopping around the Middle East with Don Barnhart and Bryan Bruner, which is not the place to visit during the summer.  I got to bake in the Qatari sun and walk the streets of Riyadh in Saudi Arabia.  It was nice to find out that Saudi was so much different than I had thought it would be.  I got to soak for a few unplanned off days in a lagoon attached to a luxury hotel in Bahrain.  It was an oasis by every definition of the word and a very welcome respite from the hot desert sun.
While on that side of the world I got demolished in a game of soccer by Djiboutian children, met too many amazing people to name, played with wild cheetahs, and watched Christian Slater rescue a Marine girl from being attacked by one.  A cheetah, not a Djiboutian kid.
Somewhere in that same time period a German woman decided to go skinny dipping with polar bears at the Berlin Zoo.  I’ve never laughed so hard in my life.  We were soon inundated with more attacks from the animal world, this time in the form of the Pig AIDS.  Swine flu.  H1N1.  People wore masks and we all watched as the death toll rose on national television.  It didn’t take long for us to realize that it was a pointless thing to be afraid of.  “Save your fear,” we told ourselves, “there are underwear bombers coming in December.”
The King of Pop died right in front of all of us this year, too.  Sam was in Seattle when it happened, and managed to sleep through the news.  As long as I can remember, he has had one line in his show that takes a crack at Michael.  He called me that night to tell me he did the line on stage and was booed by the entire crowd.  “What’s wrong?” he asked.
“He’s dead!” yelled someone in the crowd, to which Sam replied, “No he’s not.  He just looks like that.”
Here’s hoping nobody dies while you’re hungover in 2010, Sam.
I was almost arrested in Dallas on my birthday until the cop admitted that some friends of mine had set me up.  He laughed as he took the handcuffs off, and I resisted the urge to kick my friends in the head.  It wasn’t the only time I would find myself in a cop car this year.  Back in Indianapolis, Billy D. Washington and I recruited a ride to our hotel from Indy’s most eccentric police officer.  After tazing himself a few times in the leg, he invited us into the cruiser.   What should have been a ten minute drive took forty minutes, reaching a conclusion only after I managed to pinpoint our location on my phone’s GPS.  To this day I’m not certain we didn’t get a ride from a guy that had just recently stolen a cop car.  Billy and I laughed until we cried, making that one of the most memorable weeks of the year.
I got to climb a bit in the Rockies this year as well.  There was a lot on my mind this summer and nothing clears it like thin mountain air and thousand foot falls.  Charlie Moreno and I watched a Gay Pride parade, a Mexicans for Jesus rally, and a Free Iran protest all take place in downtown Denver within a block of each other.  We watched street musicians and crazy people for a few hours before heading back to the Springs.  I was introduced to K’naan on the drive back, which only made the trip that much more worth it.
In July I got to briefly see my friends Kevin and Pete, who I see far too rarely.  I also got share some of the finest Irish whiskeys in the world this year with BC and Mike Flores.
Fall was spent in Canada, riding trains across Ontario, and drinking Alexander Keith’s with a slew of new Canadian friends.  For a comedian, the stage at Absolute Comedy in Ottawa is as close to heaven on Earth as one can possibly get.  It is to comedy what Nirvana is to both Buddhists and grunge fans.  I was also given the grand tour of Toronto by Jeff Schouela.  If you have to spend a few weeks in Canada with anyone, you could do far worse than Jeff.
On top of all of that, I lost my two best friends.  Tiger Woods fell from his perch at the top of the sports worlds.  I saw snow in Houston.  A family pimped their kid out with a childish balloon hoax.  I fell out of touch with my favorite person on this planet.  Billy Mays and Farrah Fawcett and Patrick Swayze and David Carradine and Jim Carroll died.  I made a stupid bet with my friend Titus.  I saw my friend Rachel turn orange.  I met new people and reconnected with some old friends.
And with all of that said, I managed to accomplish absolutely nothing.  I somehow managed to end the year precisely where I began it: in front of this desk, staring at this screen, drinking coffee.
Here’s to 2010.  I don’t know anything about it yet, but like most wild animals, it probably won’t bite you if you don’t look it in the eye.  I was a little passive this past year however, so I may very well pick a fight with this one on purpose.  It might kick my ass the way ’07 and ’08 did, but I also might find a way to tame it.
Good or bad, it’s pretty much upon us.