Monday, February 10, 2014

The Four Wheeled Necessity.

It's the only way to live. In cars.

     When I started doing comedy, my vision of going "on the road" was filled with great shows in towns across America, meeting new people and seeing places I had never been. I envisioned spreading my funny ideas like a humorous Johnny Appleseed, leaving smiles and laughter everywhere I stayed. The actual "road" reality never factored into my dreams. Of course, I knew I'd have to get from place to place, but the mechanics of it were just sort of vague and, at the time, seemingly less important than the bigger goal of being a "Road Comic."
     Ah...if only to be wrapped in such blissful ignorance again....
     Road comics go through cars like NBA players through sneakers and politicians through  obfuscations. It's the tool of the trade, the four wheeled necessity that keeps the "road" in "road comic." Your car is not just your means of's your office, your dining room, your shelter and, in many instances, your hotel room for the night. It can be a frustrating money pit as well. Improper maintenance and you can find yourself on the side of the highway in 102 degree heat frantically calling a booker to explain why you won't be making that (much needed) gig. Been there. Sweated that. Blown tires, black ice, fog, rain, construction jams...If you can think of a shitty road condition, I have most likely driven through it to make $250 and a hotel room.
My first road car was a beat up, fourth hand 1990 Toyota Celica. Drove it from New Orleans to Billings Montana in 2 days. I learned a couple things on that trip. Any car that sits mere millimeters from the ground does not make for a fun cross country ride. And, being a Southerner, it was the first time I had ever used defrost for the outside of the windshield. Always called it a "defogger." I'm sure a fly on the mostly missing headliner of that car would have enjoyed the panicked, white knuckle slalom through mountain passes and the constant look of sheer terror frozen on my face driving on ice and snow.
     As a feature comic, I was making less money than the trip cost. Even with gas at less than $1.50 a gallon, there were a few off nights that I had to sleep in the car, crunched up in the back seat, cocooned in almost all of my clothes and blankets. I ate enough gas station hot dogs to send up a CDC alert. Wet Wipe baths in rest stops. And don't park and sleep in a rest area unless you want to star in your own horror film. The secret? Wal Mart parking lots. All the way at the back. 24 hours and constant traffic. Perfect for a 5 hours siesta.
Such glamour!
RIP 1994 - 1996

     The next few years, I ran through a series of vehicles. Ford Grenada. Geo Metro. Saturn. Like a shady Used Car inventory. They all lasted a few years, then gave out under the weight of the workload. 
     My last road car was a 1993 Chevy Astro Van. No back seats, busted windshields from it's time as a lumber hauling vehicle. Smelled of mildew and exhaust due to multiple leaks and months parked in the country with the windows open. I'm sure I displaced a number of the Rodent family when I drove it out of Alabama. It was my Mom's husband's work van, and upon the death of my Saturn, they fixed it up enough for me to drive back to Chicago. What was supposed to be a temporary transportation fix ended up being the longest lasting work horse car I had. 3 years. From swamps to mountains. Like a trooper, she got me around over 25 states. Sure, no matter what the weather conditions, I had to drive with the windows cracked so the windshield didn't mist over and I didn't pass out from inhaling exhaust fumes. And she had the aerodynamics of a foam brick, which made wind gusts on tall bridges particularly exciting. But that van just kept on trucking. I called her the S.S. Who Dat, and my mother had a giant magnetic sign with those words made to hang on the back. The last trip I made in her started in Houston TX, through New Orleans, up to Morgantown, WV, Meadville PA through Cleveland OH, past Chicago IL to Iowa and back down through Montgomery AL, burning gas at a rate of 9 mpg due to multiple sensor failures. We barely limped back to New Orleans, where she finally met her maker. 

SS Who Dat's Final Voyage

     It's much harder now. With gas prices bouncing around the $4 a gallon range and performer pay stuck in 1990's levels, the era of the road dog might become a thing of the past. Most comedians prefer to fly in and out of gigs, renting a car when necessary. More cost effective and safer that way, obviously. But what's missing are the intangibles. Like pulling off into small towns and running into a cool farmers market, or finding a killer BBQ joint run out of an RV in nowhere Arkansas, or finally going INTO the Spam museum and finding out it's actually more cool than kitsch. Seeing America, not from the paved Interstates and Taco-Pizza-Chicken-Hut Gas station/malls just off the exit, but on the back roads and small towns. Getting to know the people of this country for real, and not the media distorted cartoons polluting the airwaves. 
     So when a haggard looking funny person rolls into your town in a beat up set of wheels, fast food bags littering the floor board and a dashboard covered in flyers, tickets and travel brochures to perform at Bubba's Sports Emporium on comedy night, please go out and support a show. Buy a ticket. Purchase the CD, or T shirt or bumper sticker. You're keeping a comedy tradition alive.
And besides...
I'm going to need a new alternator soon.


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