As I walked along Fairfax Avenue, the changes bombarded me. My destination was the Kibbutz room at Canters. Every Tuesday when the clock chimed six p.m., open mike comedy standup happened. For five minutes, I could forget about my prostate and IBS. Laughter proved an excellent medicine for me.
Retirement had been agreeing with me. Classes filled my day. Music, Opera, Political Science, Theater, Cooking, and Memoir Writing. This recovering accountant was redefining himself. Time to learn mindful meditation to clear any dead brain cells. A blog to track my daily progress was freeing. My husband still wasn’t retired but I was working on him. My problematic chronic pains weren’t going away but I could distract myself with the pleasures of making my own daily story.
Student David from my writing class had e-mailed me, Gordon have you thought about doing standup? The Village is offering a six-week comedy class with a showcase on the last night of class.
I knew nothing about standup and hated watching comics. The fear that they would say something offensive about the GLBT community or women made me leery. Plus, I hated one-person shows. Who wants to spend time with a single performer?
But I craved to be the centerpiece of attention. Speaking engagements were thrilling. Sermons, going away speeches, eulogies, and story-telling were soul food.
When I was made fun of, I never stood up for myself. I had no physical fighter instincts. I didn’t learn the ammunition required to battle when I was bullied. With my father dying shortly after my Bar Mitzvah, I never had a chance to ask him, “How do I fight back?” Taunts dwindled after I reached twenty-one. I convinced myself that once I became an adult, I wouldn’t have a need to fight back. But years of cowering gave me a recurring inferiority personality. I used humor to distract. I shied away from conflict. An unexpected scream from a passing car — “Faggot, Queer, Sissy, Homo!” — reinforced distress signals. Paralyzed dread gave me laryngitis. Even being out to my family and co-workers only gave me partial security. Would anyone dare make a joke about me? A rude awakening. So, when I heard fag jokes, I didn’t counter-attack. When my lover was diagnosed with AIDS in 1986, I closeted the information. I induced weakness.
Could standup comedy change that?
The remains of this Jewish territory barely existed. Fairfax kept my Jewish heritage alive. When I wasn’t gluten free, Diamond’s bakery welcomed my appetite for Kaiser rolls. I searched for the ticket dispenser to spit out the next number. The orthodox woman next to me would check off her list of Shabbat requirements. The server took wax paper and filled it with pieces of mixed rugalach, Jewish cookies.
She instructed the server, “More of the nutty chocolate ones.” She adjusted her head covering with one hand while her other hand held onto her daughter.
This Jewish ghetto on Fairfax had become a focal point once we moved to the West Coast. When my father was alive in 1964, we would go to a Jewish delicatessen in Long Island for breakfast fish. Dad couldn’t stop moving his hands when he requested special pieces of lox and white fish. The display of vibrant colored fish filled the glass window case. I pressed my face against the glass with a hungry stare. Dad waited until I attained manhood in 1965 to die. I couldn’t probe my father with, “How do I standup for myself?”
I walked by the remnants of record store Hatikvah. The melting album covers that sat in the window display popped into my head. The beating rays of sun had wilted and bleached the eclectic mix of Israeli music and pop. I ached for the last remaining record stores.
I needed to rehearse my routine. The five-minute comedy set had to pop. The learning curve had been easy. The lingo was intuitive. Thinkers, tag, riffing, and kill became a common language between comics.
The scattered prior comedy exercises had been with supportive GLBT audiences. Straight audiences were challenging. Open mics were populated with other would-be comics unwilling to free their laughter. Last week I did a comedy set at Bert’s Back Room. I loved Bert’s motto of five dollars for five minutes with a caveat that the audience was required to remain for the entire hour show. The comics usually left after they performed and Bert’s rule guarded against that rudeness.
Canter’s was different. With non-comics in attendance, I had a chance for authentic audience response. Canters was a homecoming for me. Jewish roots. The combative nearby Fairfax High School years needed closure.
As I entered Canter’s, I remembered the last time I pierced this establishment ten years ago. Sy had a yearn for old fashioned Deli food. Despite his obesity and diabetes, Sy was set on food as his favorite pastime. He loved repeating the phrase that food was the only joy in his life. The reason I avoided Canters snuck back into my psyche.
“Gordon, I don’t feel well. I think I’m having a heart attack. Call the paramedics.” Sy said. He proceeded to throw up a portion of his meal. When the paramedics arrived, Sy had recovered. Customers, waiters, and waitresses ignored the scene. The servers had a reputation for being funny, direct, and cynical. So, Canters was the home for melodrama with the diverse crowd of older Jews and impoverished youth. Being one of the few all-night establishments made it a destination for ex-New Yorker’s, the city that doesn’t sleep. And of course, I remember the mark my Uncle Rusty made at Canters in the 1970’s.
Canter hadn’t changed. Stuck in the 1960’s. The dim lighting was masking a multitude of sins. The Kibbutz Room was part of the bar area. It was tucked away in the corner of the restaurant. I searched for the show runner.
“I’m here to sign up for the open mic.”
“OK. Fill out how you want to be introduced on this paper. Put it into this container and we’ll call names randomly. It’s free for three minutes. If you want to do five minutes, you’ll need to order anything from the menu.”
The open mic at The Kibbutz Room had two caveats: no profanity or explicit sexual content. I was warned about this strict guideline, but for me it wasn’t an issue.
My zero-fear factor lulled me into a relaxed state until I was called.
A solitary fellow comic smiled. A rare acknowledgement. I’ve observed that networking with other comics was normally forbidden.
“Have you done your set here before?” I asked.
“It’s OK. Not much energy level. But it’s the only free place in town.”
Oh good, another cheapskate like me.
He continued, “I do one of these almost every night of the week.”
Of course. He looks like a twenty-year old infant. He texts while talking.
At sixty-seven, was I robbing the cradle by just speaking with him?
I heard my name called and instantly swept onto the small stage. As I stole the mike and felt the lights on my forehead, I left earth. Where was the fear factor? Was I so naïve about exposing vulnerability? I fought back as I roamed the stage and began:
My name is Gordon and I have a disease. Don’t grab your masks! I’m not contagious. I am a cheapskate. I’m the cheapest person you’ll know. And it’s exhausting spending all day looking for bargains. When I’ve finished half of my entrée, I’ll tell them, “Oh, you know the chicken was so tough.” The waitress bringing me another entrée is my version of a two-for-one special. When someone offers to pick up the bill, most people say, “Oh, you don’t have to do that. I’ll pay the next time. I’ll pay the tip.” I just sit there in silence and smile. Maybe that’s why friends don’t want to go to lunch with me anymore.
Was this my voice? The timbre of my vocal sound echoed. Fabrications mixed with honesty. I was chained to cheapness and couldn’t change the script. I don’t drink or do drugs. Standup was my version of getting high. For the five minutes I had an out of body experience. Yet completely present in the moment. But I was flushed from the applause. I was owning myself. Standing up for my cheapness. Standing up for sissies.
Gordon Blitz has published work in Gay Wicked Ways (2020), Wingless Dreamer (2020), Two Hawks Quarterly (2020), The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, Issue #22 of Really Systems (2019), Fall 2019 Vitamin ZZZ, and Emeritus Chronicles (2020). In March 2020, Gordon signed a contract with Running Wild Press to have his novella Shipped Out published. He’s a standup comic who has performed at the GLBT Village in Hollywood, Canters, and The Ruby. His stories recorded at AKBAR in Hollywood are available on the Queer Slam podcast called “Just Gordon.”
Check out his blog: https://culturecritique.blog/