Well, I made it back from New York City without getting stabbed, mugged or eaten alive by a pack of wild city horses. Therefore, in my mother’s mind, the trip was a success.
I stayed with Tim Dimond in Astoria. For those of you Pittsburghers looking for a local reference, Astoria is like if Bloomfield was 40 times bigger. It seems like a cool place to live: close to the subway, great mom and pop restaurants and just sketchy enough to keep you on your toes.
Tim had graciously asked me if I’d like to perform at the weekly showcase that he and a few other comics produce. Sensing that it could possibly be my only chance stand-up under the big city lights, I agreed and thus began my month-long anxiety fever.
It is undeniable that there is something palpably intimidating about New York. Unlike any other place I’ve ever been to, when you walk the sidewalks you can feel the city living underneath your feet and above your head. It is literally pulsating at every second of the day. You feel almost like a flea, climbing on a giant bear and at any moment you might get swatted off the surface of the whole thing. I’m not sure what gives the city this animation. Maybe it’s the sheer number of people that occupy it. Everyone lending a slice of energy to fuel the creature. But I got the feeling that even if the city was devoid of people, if the taxicabs stayed still and the subways were motionless, it would still live, though it would draw softer breaths.
That fear of being gobbled up by the monster might be a viable explanation of the personalities of Manhattanites. Everyone seemed to be trying to get you out of their way, putting a brave face on while running from the creature. That’s the best way to describe it. I will say that I’m sure a good portion of this interpretation is a projection of my own irrational perception. No one was outwardly mean to me. So take my opinion for what it is: insecurity amplified.
So I spent Sunday night getting caught up with Nick Milton, Mo Mozuch and Tim at a local bar in Astoria. The next day was dedicated to walking. I marched from the World Trade Center all the way to Central Park. I stopped only once at a lunch place that I had no place being. “Jack’s Bar” seemed innocuous enough. I didn’t think that expectation would be high there. When I walked through the doors, I was immediately engulfed by Sex in the City extras. The lunch crowd was a mix of Wall Street Journal editors and people who just made important decisions about fabric prices in Senegal. I should have tipped my greasy Pirates cap to the maitre de, done and about-face and walked out the door. Instead I did what most people do in New York within the first few days of arriving: I tried to act like I belonged there. And in doing so ended up paying $35 for a turkey wrap and a bowl of soup.
The night came quickly though and showtime was upon us. Tim took us down to a bar called One and One on the lower East side. It looked like a dive-ish, Irish bar from the outside, but the inside was teeming full of dimly-lit hipsters and shadowy remixes of Velvet Underground songs. The stage was downstairs in a bricked-in basement where the only light seemed to come from a hole high in the back wall that supposedly held a DJ, trapped like Rapunzel.
I met the other comics as they began to filter in. There was Taylor from LA, Matt from Buffalo. I gravitated towards those I thought still looked fresh to the city. Who still had the faint traces of smiles on their face. The host of the nigh was Louis Katz, who has been on HBO and had his own Comedy Central Special. The closer for the night was Nick Turner, who had been on Jimmy Fallon only a few weeks ago. Then there was me. I uh…opened for Jim Breuer one time.
The show got started much like any Pittsburgh open mic would: a paltry amount of true audience members with the gaps being filled by judgmental comedians. I was on third. As I saw the comics before me perform there was a noticeable jump in the level of stage presence, voice and polish that I wasn’t used to. There was no mistaking that these were professionals.
It’s the first time I’ve ever been embarrassed by my setlist. I was looking over my notecard seeing pedestrian key words like “baseball,” “wrestling,” “sports fans,” thinking that this material isn’t edgy enough for the room. It’s like when you had an awesome Super-Soaker that you really loved, but then some other kid comes out of the house with a newer, stranger Super-Soaker that has a laser sight and a backpack tank. Ultimately they both still spray water, but you’ve never seen theirs before and you just assume it’s more expensive.
The first two comics were solid, but the audience was cold and distant. So basically I felt right at home. This is what I’m used to! Thriving in the silence. But still, I was nervous. These comics were on TV for Pete’s Sake. They had unfinished scripts they were working on. They had credits and years of experience under their belts. What chance did I have? This performance was one of the more nerve-wracking ones of my life even though there was literally nothing at stake.
When my name was called to come to the stage, I knew I couldn’t just jump right into material. I needed to address my feelings of insecurity and how I felt about New York:
I am from Pittsburgh and I really love coming to New York City. But I will tell you that New Yorkers can cop a bit of an attitude with people from the Mid-West. Yesterday I was getting my MetroCard. I put $20 and ran it through the scanner on the turnstile. It said, “ERROR.” Ran it through again and it said, “ERROR.” Now there’s a line forming behind me. I heard one guy just sigh and say, “What are you from the Mid-West or something?”
I wanted to turn around and be like, “Well Gee-Willickers buddy! How did you know? I’m sure am sorry I can’t make heads ‘ner tails of this here fancy ticket-scanning robot. Why if’n ya ask me this whole city’s crazy. Why just today I seen a fella wearing purple sneakers! Purple! Do you believe it?”
Just because people from the Mid-West are nice doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re A-holes.
That broke the tension that I was feeling and I think conveyed a good message to the coffee-house elitists that were in the crowd.
The rest of my set went about as well as a decent open mic set around Pittsburgh would go, but the comedians were very complimentary to me afterwards. I got a lot of awkward questions though.
“So you just moved here from Pittsburgh?”
“Oh then when are you moving here?”
“Aren’t you a comedian? Why aren’t you going to move?”
“Well, I have a girlfriend that I love more than anything in Pittsburgh. I have great friends in Pittsburgh. I have my family. I have a safe, affordable place to live. A good job. So I’m really ahead of the curve in almost every respect.”
So while I do think New York is a city for the strong at heart, I don’t want to live there. I love Pittsburgh because it’s part of my DNA. It’s ingrained in my personality and etched on my soul.
I also don’t feel like the city of Pittsburgh is going to morph into some massive octopus and suffocate me at any given moment.