During my twenties, and maybe even before, I was stricken with severe insomnia. I didn’t know if it was my restless mind. I didn’t know if it was the night demons that forced me to wake and stroll about. It didn’t matter the time of night, the weather, or the time of year. It didn’t matter my geographical location. When the force hit me, I had to move.
This particular time I was in Tampa. Already awake, I grabbed my earphones and exited the ground level hotel room, almost in a trance-like state as if pulled by something.
Something strong; something powerful.
I strolled or drove but either way, when awake the condition had to be tamed. In the state of Florida during my last year, it seemed to be the worst. The year of my escape. The brutal heat and restlessness made me crazy.
One night I jumped into my ex-girlfriend’s car and cruised the West Side. We lived together and had been evicted from three different places in six months. It seemed as if the Sunshine state was forcing me out. I drove Brenda’s car (that was her name) around the dark, wet streets, until I came across a particular building that would become my prison.
It was an adult movie theater in a deep, dark part of a deserted industrial area on the edge of nowhere. There was nothing but Palm trees and nondescript structures resting on rain-slicked roads. I parked at the back entrance. The store’s lot had a few cars but not enough to claim half filled. Upon entering, a wall of Adult DVD Jackets struck my eye. I was thrown into lustful madness, while fatuously weaving through the aisles, not knowing what I was searching for, but it had to be sinfully grand.
The interior lighting wasn’t dark but strangely intimate, which was weirdly romantic for a porn shop. The others I frequented were well lit with bright, blinding, fluorescent lights and sunglasses sometimes became a requirement, but not in this place; it had a dusky parlor-like ambience.
Classic rock streamed into the background eliminating the silence. I witnessed ancient “hugger muggers” tip-toeing in and out of the adjoining theater entrance with sneaky, sex-filled glares wearing calf-high black socks, dress shoes, Bermuda shorts, golf shirts, and baseball hats pulled snugly over their gray heads filled with fresh perversions.
There were no booths in this one, only a big theater just like the AMC or other family cinema chains where one could watch matinee movies with an overly buttered box of popcorn and large, cool soda resting on their lap. Yet, in this theater, patrons held their “Johnsons” while staring slant-eyed onto the large, silver screen to the moans and groans coming from the Dolby stereo sound (okay maybe not Dolby but it was loud.)
I scanned the titles of the VHS tapes, looking for my particular, lustful flavor; I had a certain taste in adult movies. My attention was suddenly diverted to the front, when I noticed a long brown haired, skinny guy, who looked like he was dropped straight from the Creedence Clearwater Revival. It was Mark David! I remembered him from the stage at Coconuts Comedy club in St. Petersburg’s beach.
Mark was well known for his comedic talents around the Tampa, Clearwater, and St. Pete comedy scene. I was still a young pup at the art of funny, but Mark was a seasoned laugh machine and spent time before in Los Angeles with a rock and roll band during the eighties. The aging rocker told stories about the Sunset Strip, when it was under control of the Hells Angels and Aqua Net abused hairstyles. I imagined him on stage at the Whiskey or the Key Club in a five-band rotation, snorting coke, and drinking cheap beer in the Green Room. His band mates probably shared a studio apartment in a rundown section of Silver Lake before the hipsters took over.
He possessed a hard-edged, dead panned stage persona. I recognized him right away, but he struggled to recall me. His brows frowned and head bobbed up and down, while I stroked his ego: reminding him that he was really good, loved his style, and thought he’d given up. I was correct. As we talked, he sunk into a slight depression, but I tried to inspire him.
A tall, light skinned black man sporting an ancient afro fumbled with the rental returns, dropping them harshly on the counter. At first I thought he was grumpy, but instead he was very cool. His name was James from somewhere on the East Coast, maybe Baltimore. They didn’t mind that I stood paralyzed by the activity on the dual sets of monitors behind the counter, playing the same flicks as in the main theaters. By the time I left the video store, it was five in the morning and the sun waved at me scornfully. Where are you going? Where you been? Had fun, porn man?
A lustful routine had morphed into a nighttime ritual. The motel, heat, and hopelessness drove me to the point of lunacy. I neglected telling Brenda about the missions, but instead pinched her car and traveled to shady places without street signs, guided by internal autopilot and cravings.
For hours I visually drank in the DVD box covers, conversing with Mark and James about every subject one can muster while trying to figure the intricacies of a round, purple, sex toy. The red eyed former front-man spouted more tales of eighties LA. That must have been the true golden age of Hollywood: Cocaine and sex with groupies yearning for instant stardom (hoping it came on the armrest of a casting sofa).
MTV had transformed “Hollyweird” into the “Evil Empire” and the late nineties seemed like the ebb after a dying storm. I wanted so bad to taste the smoggy air and feel the retro, West Coast sun warming my neck. The Gulf coast gas ball was killing me slowly. The wetness and the severe summer took a toll, while my dreams and aspirations slipped away with the hurricane waters down West Tampa gutters, out to the bay.
Some nights Mark ran material as I kept pushing him back to the stage. It had been a couple years for him but the Jersey kid was still hitting the open-mic scene, while booking a show at the local, adult film awards. I’d told a “homo joke” on a payphone in the hotel lobby, during a minister’s convention.
It got a standing ovation over the phone (which included Ron Jeremy in the background) and weird, quizzical, soul-saving glances from the church-going people checking in to their rooms. I felt dirty for the rest of the evening. Unfortunately, for my act, my mate at the time was a devout Christian who never drank, cursed, or smoked. Once I told her about the event, she and her car disappeared that night.
A few days later while loitering around Coconuts, I found out about the HBO Aspen Comedy Auditions taking place in West Palm Beach. I had no money and needed at least thirty dollars for fuel. If I faithfully got us down there, the good Lord would do the rest. Brenda didn’t have money but supplied the wheels. I humbly asked everyone if I could borrow at least twenty dollars.
A Cougar I had dated let me have a twenty-dollar bill, but everyone else had long pockets and short arms. I gathered the few things of value I possessed and visited the adult video store. I assumed Mark would help, fronting me some cash while using the objects as collateral. I drove to the store with one goal: getting to this audition.
I strolled with a gait of determination, knowing deep inside I wouldn’t miss the opportunity. I put my possessions on the counter and reminded Mark again about the audition. He slowly turned his attention away with an, ‘I can’t do anything to help you,’ glare.
Disappointment traveled from my gut to my face, as though I’d been hit by a sneaky upper cut. James picked up on that moment and empathy entered him.
“Hey man, I’ll give you fifty dollars and I’ll hold your stuff. I wouldn’t even do that, since I don’t know you that well, but I think you’re cool.” He said in a low gruff voice.
I passed the box of old electronic devices to him and he slid me the money. I was so overjoyed tears came to my weary eyes. A slow R&B song played on the speaker system in the background as a Jollux, dressed in a wine-colored, one-piece, running outfit and blue blockers appeared from the darkened theater.
Here I come HBO. I will defeat all!
I thanked them both but secretly despised Mark, and then returned to our motel room behind the strip club with the bright, pink lights. I showed Brenda the money.
“Get some sleep we will leave at five o’clock; we have to be there by eleven!” I sang.
I felt alive again; for a long time a dead feeling resided inside my bowels. Something had finally gone right. Maybe, God had other plans for me. I remembered stories by others in the entertainment “biz” whom shared the same situation and came out successful. A leap of faith. I could make that rare list and the opportunity was only hours away. We both slept lightly, setting the alarm for four thirty.
After a cat nap we woke, dressed, and were out the door in a pre-dawn flash. We jumped in the older model Golden Corolla and headed due south. It was four hours to West Palm and morning radio was our only companion. For three hours we drove the empty highways, then cut through Alligator Alley: the famous stretch that connected the East and West coast of Florida via the Everglades. I didn’t see any gators or anything passing for reptilian.
We reached the city limits. From West Palm, I could see Miami in the distance. The bright sun murdered the morning gloom as the glassy buildings sparkled. It was as if a brand new city had been constructed yesterday.
Everything new. Everything bright. Everything colorful. Everything happy and expensive.
The club was right outside a million-dollar neighborhood. We pulled up to our destination. Nervousness hit me. Brenda said she would drop me off at the front and park. I dismissed her,
“If we got here together we will go in together.”
She quickly found a spot a few blocks away and we ran to the front door. The comedy club was beautiful; the type of place that probably rejected my audition tapes. It was one of those A level clubs where all the greats performed and a guy like me could only hope to open if the regular Opener slipped and died in the tub and the bartenders went mute. My young mind was Teflon.
But wasn’t that the gift of youth? Ignorance was a present from the Gods, which was lost on the milk stained lips of a generation.
A beautiful lady manning the entrance controlled the list. I scanned the paper for the next empty line…..125! My heart dropped to my sneakers as I surveyed the packed interior crammed with potentially funny people of all shapes, sizes, colors, and devotions.
So much for reality idiot!
I waited seated at a small round table, witnessing comic after comic coming and going to the stage, exiting to no laughter, but only scribbles on white paper from three serious people off to the side: one woman and two men decked out in designer glasses and Hollywood attitudes. She was holding a big, silver flashlight.
After an hour and what seemed like a day, it was my turn. I went up with the best stuff, but performing in a room full of jokers was like doing a handstand in a hard wind. The rules were you had three minutes, yet at two minutes and thirty seconds, the judge flashed the light.
I jumped into my routine but wasn’t ready for the ticking clock. The Jersey boy tried to find the energy from the abyss but was a comic that feasted on the crowd’s energy but this crowd had none. It was all business. The time flew and as I was delivering my punch line to a big joke, the light flashed into my pupils blinding me. I stood on the stage gobsmacked like a deer in headlights. I exited the small flight of steps, my Lethophobia kicked in suddenly. It felt as if I failed three final exams in a row. I sat at the table to the side as Brenda put her hand on my hand to comfort me. I felt like the stupidest man in the world, moon, and half of Mars.
Why did I come here? I thought I was following faith. I thought I was putting it in God’s hands. Let down again. Why God? Why God?
I tried my best to contain my disappointment. On the way out, I saw the comic, Smooth. At that time, he wasn’t known. His tall, skinny, black body leaned against a back wall. His bulging eyes stared at Brenda, while he spoke to me. I forgot the conversation, but after he screwed my girl with his globe-sized orbitals, it spurred the urge to leave even more.
We went back to the parking lot. We had very little money and no idea how we were going to get back to the other coast. I remembered Tony from my high school basketball team. He was a teacher in West Palm. I let him know a few days before we might be in his area for the comedy competition. He told me to stop by and see his wife and new daughter. I called him from a 7-11 (via payphone) and he gave me directions.
My over six foot, blonde, very Christian former teammate lived in a nice development in a humble, well kept, one level rancher. His wife was a pleasant and outgoing gal, but I could tell instantly she “wore the pants”. His daughter was a tiny, beautiful, piece of innocence. I felt the love pouring from the couple as they showed me their new offspring. We spent hours talking as Tony told tales about my semi wild days and then went head first for the old Gator yearbook.
The money kept invading my thoughts. I had to muster the bravery to ask him for the loan, so I timed it for the way out. It was daytime when we reached his doorstep, but night when we crossed it again. I said goodbye to his new family, then pulled him aside. I felt my face burn as the words stammered from my lips,
“Hey man I have no money to get home. Do you think I can borrow some?”
I bowed my dome shamefully. Tony held his finger up to wait and ran back inside his house. He came out with thirty dollars and a piece of folded paper. He gave me a tight hug and let me know everything would be okay.
“Take care my friend. It was nice seeing you again. God bless you”
He returned to his family, but I had the feeling he was being browbeaten for aiding a broke buddy from the mediocre high school in good old South Jersey. I put most of the money in the gas tank and saved the rest. We both hadn’t eaten all day, so we ate at a roadside, fast food chain. I thought about the purpose for our journey.
If it wasn’t for the Aspen audition then what was it for?
As we sat in the quiet eatery, I opened the small piece of folded paper. A note in blue ink was scribbled in my friend’s handwriting: ‘Romans 10:9’
David is also the author of the novel Exodus from the River Town, published by Shook Up publishing.
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