There was a single staircase that came up from a tiny entranceway next to the hardware store, and to many, it seemed spooky. It was lit by a single light bulb that had been flittering for at least twenty years. This led to Lincoln Square Lanes. “The Alley,” as I’d called it my entire life, had become my normal bar of preference for what were primarily sentimental reasons.
The Alley was important to me. I’d spent my adolescence there. This wasn’t a bowling alley where little kids had birthday parties, this was a bowling alley where unemployed people drank beer and played pinball. It was like the “Townie” bars I’d known in college, where people went to shut up and drink. Most afternoons after school from sixth to eighth grade, I went to The Alley and bowled.
I wasn’t drinking yet when I used to hang out at The Alley, I just went there to pass the time. I guess I liked bowling, or anyway the soundtrack of pins tumbling down was distracting.
In grade school, though I had a few close friends, we never really did much. I was pretty lonely most of the time. That evening at Sonia’s open mic, things would be different. The Alley was no longer going to be a monument of isolation. That day, there was a chance it was going to get me laid.
As I climbed the staircase to The Alley, I wondered, excitedly, what Sonia’s open mic would be. I’d been to open mic’s in college, maybe even participated in a few (I couldn’t be sure either way), but those were mostly comprised by stoned singer-songwriters. This was a mic Sonia had earlier that day assured me was “Just for comedy.”
Comedy open mic’s are events that occur mainly in bars, and give aspiring stand up comedians the chance to test out and advance their material. I wondered about what it would be like. What kind of jokes would these open mic comics tell? I thought about about the standup comedy that I’d loved in the past.
I’d once loved Emo Phillips, and I thought about my favorite bit of his: “I saw an old school friend yesterday, Jimmy Peterson, I hadn’t seen him since third grade, and I slapped him on the back, saying ‘why Jimmy, how the hell are you?’ Jimmy started crying and screaming, “Mommy! Mommy!” and I realized that if that were really Jimmy Peterson, he would’ve grown up too.” Halfway up the stairs I burst into laughter considering this bit.
I loved the absurdity of the routine, and the way it told the story of an adult striking a child with wit and lightness. That day, since the time I’d been with Sonia, I’d been trying to think of something similar; a fractured way of seeing the world. I thought about my own childhood, and the ways I’d thought. This was the joke I came up with: “I like that Beethoven guy, well, the beginning of the fifth symphony, anyway.”
The moment I thought of this joke, I knew I didn’t feel strongly about it. Anyway as I stepped up to the bar I told myself that I wasn’t going to perform that night, even if asked, as I had work in the morning.
On the other side of the wall adjacent to a row of bowling alleys there was a small, roughly one foot high platform, and on it stood a mic stand. Behind this “stage,” Sonia was at work setting up an amplifier. She switched it on, stood on the platform and began to perform a mic check. “Hello everyone, is this microphone on? Is everything cool?”
Sonia gave the bartender a curious look as he placed a bottle of cheap beer before me. The bartender nodded and gave a thumbs up, saying “Yeah it’s good, no louder.”
“Cool,” she said, extending the microphone past its stand before pulling it back into its regular position. She noticed me, and lowered her head to hold it just in front of the mic. “And we have a new guest, Sil, who I’ve only recently met and has already turned me down for sex, give him a hand everybody.” She raised her hand towards me, holding her thumb up and fingers out, like a model on The Price is Right.
For a moment I was stunned, preparing to feel humiliated. I hadn’t turned her down, I thought, we’d just had a missed connection. I was going to jump up onto the stage, pull Sonia close, and explain what had happened between us. I would explain that had been my fault, and that I was still totally into her, but several sharp cackles cut the air between us.
There were four people at the bar, all of them seemed like teenage boys. Despite the fact that they were all wearing baseball hats and jeans, I figured they were in their mid-twenties. These boys all sort of reminded me of myself at their age, or they made me imagine the way I might have been, if I’d had a “Crew” of “Bro’s” like they did. I pondered it, but couldn’t picture it.
As I pulled a stool out from the bar to take a seat, the white boy nearest me seemed to yell with a booming voice, “What were you thinking, man?” He had a goofy face, and he seemed to be opening his eyes as wide as he could. He had loose curly bright red hair that popped out the back of the bandana he was wearing like water from a fire hydrant.
I must have looked confused, as my mouth was slightly open and my eyebrows were knit tight. “Um. . .” I spoke, trying to think of something funny to quip, and hopefully reduce the tension of this interaction. I pulled a stool up close to the bar, sat on it calmly, and told the truth. “I don’t know. I was scared, I guess?”
The young man laughed and clapped in a way that seemed to be more at me than with me. I ignored what I might have considered a slight as I felt Sonia’s arm lay across my upper back. She wrapped her palm around my shoulder and brought it tight against my bicep, squeezing me harder than I’d have expected. “Sorry about that. I just saw you, and I’d had a few and I was holding a microphone. So, ya know?” She shrugged adorably.
“No, no, it’s fine,” I said truthfully, as it really was fine. Sonia hadn’t embarrassed me by blurting out into a microphone that I’d refused her offer of sex. Just the opposite, it made me seem quite the gentleman. “I just wanted to come up and see, uh, what’s goin’ on.”
Sonia went about showing me the list of comedians and explaining its workings with a simple summary. “I put the list up at eight, and it’s pretty much first come first serve, but if you wanted to go up early I can slide you in.”
“The list? Slide me in?”
Sonia chuckled putting her hand on her hip. “Slide you in just means put your name on the list to perform tonight.”
I would’ve probably objected, saying that I couldn’t possibly go up tonight, but I was caught by Sonia’s eyes. I figured it was probably some obvious touch of makeup, like a dusting of blush or rouge wherever, but her eyes were stunning and they caught me; I was helpless. From the wit in her eyes I could tell that she expected me to fumble, but I held strong and acted cool. “Yeah okay, I’m in.”
Smiling and clapping, Sonia picked up a pen and the clipboard that held the list of that night’s performers. The numbers one and two were blank, but the numbers three through fourteen were filled with names. I turned to Sonia, as I was not quite sure what to do, but she told me that I didn’t need to put my name on the list, because she’d get me up whenever I was ready.
“Bullshit!” The kid with the fire hydrant hair waved his arms and stomped his feet. “He turned you down though, Sonia, fuck him.”
“You’ve already met Cali,” Sonia said with flippant disregard, “I guess you can tell he’s a shithead.”
“Shut up, bitch,” Cali responded quickly, and they each moved on. It seemed like they’d been joking, or at least had some sort of prior understanding. I laughed neither nervously nor excitedly.
Sonia introduced me to the three remaining young white boys. “And that’s Jerry, Nathan, and Bob,” she said, pointing to each in turn. “They’re awful too, like we all are, but they’re nice at least.”
The lad in the middle, Nathan, raised his hand as he called out. “I’m not awful, I’m awesome.” He was the one who seemed oldest, as his face was a bit pudgy and his hair seemed to be receding.
All the comics laughed, and Sonia put her shoulder to Nathan’s and leaned against him. “That’s right,” she said, extending her lower lip out past her chin, “Nathan’s our favorite.”
Nathan laughed, shyly nodding his head as he did so. “That’s right I’m awesome.” Nathan squeezed his eyes shut in a mock sob as he lowered his head. Both Jerry and Bob patted him on the back, offering their own condolences.
Open mic comedians, in my experience, are a strange bunch.
“Hello and welcome to this, the second edition of: The Bowling Microphone!” Sonia stood in the center of the small, makeshift stage that rose only two feet up from the ground.
“It’s a straight first-come first serve, you can put your name and only your name on the list.” She raised a single finger and wiggled it side to side, telling me that she wasn’t really that serious. “Your time is four minutes. You get the first light at three, this is the light.” She opened her cell phone and held it above her head, “This means wrap it up. If I’m waving at you and flipping you off, get off the stage.”
She finished her opening spiel in a way that seemed very practiced, and as she wrapped up by announcing the night’s drink deals, she moved on to her comedy. As it would happen, most of her hosting set was spent discussing me. “Okay, gang, so here’s what happened,” she bugged her eyes out a little and chewed her bottom lip, “I met a boy.”
She almost giggled, putting her hands over her waist and bending her knees slightly. I giggled a bit too. Her impish grin melted away in an instant and she pointed at me, saying plainly, “It’s him, so. . .” She shrugged, “I’m not, ya know, wild about it.”
I burst into laughter so hard I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt its like. I was able to keep my composure, so this guffaw was short-lived, and Sonia continued her set. From this opening quip, she segued into written material.
“I’ve done a lot of research, and I believe I can say, with confidence, that without a doubt, the itchiest spot of the body,” she let the joke draw out smoothly, like a master calligrapher. “Is the taint.” She then took her free hand and inserted it between her legs, scratching the spot where they were stitched together with her nail. As she at least pantomimed digging her nail into her crotch (though I think she probably actually scratched), she let out a soft groan.
“Huoawhoah,” she sounded satisfied, releasing rather than creating her own unique call. “This is one of the most important things in life, the little pleasures.” She stood and looked out over her audience, moving swiftly on to the next joke. “When I was a kid I thought the world was speaking to me.”
I was confused by the way Sonia’s material seemed to meander around. “Like you know the sound of a stomach growling? I used to think it was a little voice saying “stomach.”
Sonia was able to manipulate and shrink her voice such that while it did sound a lot like the sound your gut makes when it’s empty. “You know, ‘cause I thought it probably knew what I called it.”
After just these few opening bits, Sonia retrieved the list and read the first name off of it.
“Uh oh, this first comic, this guy’s trouble, Lyle the Cutter.”
A tall, pudgy, clumsy-footed man with what I used to call a buzz-cut ambled onto the platform and faced his audience. “My name is Lyle and the doctors told my parents to make sure there’s nothing I can strangle myself with at our house, I guess it was because I cut myself a lot.” Lyle spoke in a monotone, varying the distances between his words very little.
This manner of speaking was unsettling to me. It sounded as though he might have some kind of mental disability. This consideration left my mind as soon as he told his first joke: “No seriously, I love to draw but they took my pencil away ‘cause I stabbed myself with it.”
I cracked up. It was hilarious, and I didn’t consider even for a second how tragically honest Lyle the Cutter may have been. The open mic comics who’d seen Lyle many times before laughed, with several of them also cheering and hooting. Other than that, the three or four regular bargoers chuckled nervously and glanced at each other.
From there, Lyle’s act devolved into near-robotic recitation of facts and lists. His joke about stabbing himself with the pencil really made me laugh a lot. As I thought about it, most of the humor of this statement seemed to come from the lack of a comma between “away” and “‘cause.” If you pronounce the joke like that, I felt, it would be like you were reading the joke like a news bulletin, and that there was nothing odd about it.
After Sonia and Lyle kicked the show off with a very weird pair of sets, the mic was off and running. To tell the truth, I’d admit that the majority of these comics were forgettable, but there were a few standouts.
One guy, Bob Avaro, whom I’d sort of been hanging out with at the bar with just prior to the start of the mic, seemed to do his best to bring down the energy of the room. He held the mic in front of his chest, lowering his head to meet it. “I usually wake up pissed cause I don’t wanna go to my work, but then I remember I lost my job yesterday, and that calls for a celebration drink.”
After Bob, both Jerry and Nathan, his two compatriots from the bar went up in direct succession. Their acts were sort of hackneyed, blatantly obvious, and distinctly forgettable. The same could not be said for the comic who went up soon after them, Malcolm, “cali” Kavanagh.
Cali, who I’d met earlier and had made an annoying impression on me. His long, curly red hair, as well as his obnoxious demeanor, made me want to push the palm of my hand into his face.
His “jokes,” if they could be called that, meandered from reflecting on the fact that he was performing at a bowling alley to noticing the people in the audience that looked weird. At one point he even said “Get a load a’ this guy, what’s with his head, right?”
As Cali performed in this way, each “joke” only earned only silence and derision from the audience, until he turned to me. As he looked over his audience, groping for something funny to say, his eyes locked on me and he smiled wide. He pointed at me, “And did ya hear? This guy turned down Sonia, what the hell man, she’s a milf!”
I raised my hands, pointing my palms to the ceiling, trying to think of something to say. Cali’s mention of Sonia and I had garnered the only laughter his comedy had received so far, so I knew he wasn’t likely to just move on without getting my response. I wasn’t fast enough at it, though, as before I could respond to him, Cali resumed aggressively questioning me.
“So what’s the deal man? You gonna hit that or what?”
I just stared up at him and watched him point the microphone at me. Having no response, I looked at Sonia, and she was jumping up and down, waving an open cell phone in the air; I pointed to her, “I think your time’s up.”
“Just when I was finally getting laughs!?” Cali gesticulated with his hands, pretending to hurl the microphone on the floor, and then placing it gingerly on the top of the stand. “I apologize, as always, for everything I’ve said into this microphone.”
Cali dropped his head as he placed the mic back on its receiver and lowered his head. Looking out over the audience, which by that point was comprised almost entirely of aspiring comedians, and then sat on the stool to my right. As he was doing this, Laura resumed her hosting duties. “That was our main man Cali, give him a hand.”
At 11:43 PM, I was feeling tipsy, so I decided it was time for him to go home. I considered heading out, and I remembered that I’d told her I would perform I would perform that night.
Will she hold me to it? This thought wrapped itself around my head and would not let go. What would she do when I told her he didn’t want to try standup? Would she make fun of him? These open-mic comic people seemed to be pretty quick and nasty with the insults, what would they say? What if they pressured me to perform after all? It could become a very embarrassing situation, and I hated those.
As the second-to-last comic was just about to come to the mic, I feebly sidled up to Sonia. “I don’t think I’m gonna go up, actually.”
I’d spoken shyly, as though ashamed of my cowardice, and I expected her to denigrate me. Or worse yet, she could’ve acted disappointed, hanging her head and shaking it slowly. However, in response to my cowardice, she smiled and spoke with a warm voice. “Oh no problem, maybe you’ll do it some other night.”
Hearing Sonia say “some other night,” excited me, as it indicated she was already planning to spend more time with me. “Yeah maybe I will,” Sonia responded, switching off one of the microphones on her PA system. She walked over to me, laying her wrist on my shoulder. “You stickin’ around? We’re almost done.”
“I got work tomorrow, sorry.”
She fired back like she’d been ready. “At least stay to the end, you’re almost there.”
Sonia stepped to the mic, holding her eyes on me. “And now, here we are, the last comic of the mic, let’s hear it people.” The seven or eight people that were still listening clapped and hooted half enthusiastically.
It was an eighteen year old with lame jokes whose name I don’t remember, but during his entire set, Sonia and I were ensconced in the “looking” game. This is the game that occurs between people when there is both a mutual attraction, and a public shyness shard between two people. I would stare at her until she looked back at me, then I would avert my eyes.
We did this until Sonia noticed that she should’ve called the comic off the stage a minute ago, and she jumped on the stage, closing the show up as quickly as possible. As she did this, she added a bit in the end that caught my ear. “And so, thank you for coming to this, the second installment of The Bowling Microphone, now let’s all get laid!” The significance of this quote from Back to School was not lost on me, and I smiled wide because of it.
After she slid the microphone into its place on the stand, she stepped off the platform towards me, cutting the distance between us to almost nothing. She stood before me, our noses almost touching, for what felt like a long time. Though it was not at all like me, and afterwards I was never able to adequately explain to myself where I gotten the courage to try such a thing, I kissed Sonia.
It was not for more than a moment and it was very sweet. We flowed into each other, as it seemed our energies fed off of the inspiration of the other. At least that’s what I felt, and Sonia seemed to feel the same. We made out a little before traipsing down the staircase to the street. When we left The Alley into the deep dark starless night, Sonia took a left when I’d have taken a right, and I followed her.
I thought about the reasons not to go with Sonia, from the fact that I’d promised my mother I’d return to the fact that Mondays are often a hectic day at Harvest Time, but none of them received precedence. I was with a groovy chick at 12:39 on a Monday morning, and we were going to have sex. I forgot everything else I could possibly have been thinking at the time. I was about to have sex