Monday, August 16, 2010

In Gawd's Image

The proposed mosque near Ground Zero, peeling paint and rust, was quiet when I visited. No action news teams, no outraged 9/11 survivors or those who claim to speak for them, no jihadists or Death To America chants. Just an old building awaiting renewal. I stood there and stared at it, waiting for something to happen. Given all the reactionary clamor, I half expected the building to rise in the air, fly over the city, then crash into the Chrysler Building.

Ground Zero seems less a holy site and more like Terror Disney, hundreds of tourists smiling and waving for cameras as giant cranes lumber behind them. No one knelt and prayed. No one pounded the construction wall and wept. People just milled around the hole as they would a county fair. I'm mildly surprised that some enterprising soul hasn't set up a shooting gallery with large Osama bin Laden targets, or Dunk The Muslim featuring a dark-skinned actor yelling Arabic gibberish at baseball-throwing rubes. Profit from the Prophet. It's the American way.

There's been loud heavy talk of "tolerance" of late, and like much of the national discourse, it's tinged with halitosis. Americans love beating their chests and patting their backs simultaneously, congratulating themselves for courageous, righteous behavior. Why anyone desires to preside over this revolting display escapes me, but I'm slow when it comes to power hunger. Obama's rather tame, routine remarks about the mosque fed our domestic jackals, though admittedly it takes mere scraps to whet their snouts. Having to be the president of all the people blows. Pretending to care about idiots and lunatics must wear you down, which is probably why presidents relish missile strikes on anonymous others.

I recently experienced a weird mix of tolerance and insanity at the Village Lantern, the basement stage that's sort of home base. It feels that way when Ray Combs hosts, but Ray is on hiatus, leaving the Lantern in less nimble hands. The night I performed the host was Hassan, a large, boisterous comic for whom no genitalia joke is too extreme. I like Hassan and have shared post-show pints with him. His humor doesn't send me, but he's pretty loose on stage, sometimes recklessly so. Hassan held it together for much of the night, mocking and chiding in his inimitable way. Then up came another Lantern regular, Ratnesh, who seems to invite emcee abuse, and certainly doesn't shy away from it.

I've yet to fully understand Ratnesh's routines, partly because his English isn't great (but then, neither is my Marathi), but mostly because he's all over the place. This night he took especial interest in the female comics, of whom there were many for once, yet I wasn't sure if he was complementing or hitting on them. He appeared eager to disprove any notion of queer tendencies, which other male comics, Hassan included, suggest he possesses (fag-baiting is a regular feature of NYC stand up, alas). Ratnesh finished his set and sat back down as Hassan retook the stage.

"Let's hear it for Nesh!" yelled Hassan.

"My name is Ratnesh! Ratnesh! Not 'Nesh'!"

Hassan chuckled. "Hey man, I'm trying to give you a nickname. Nesh is a great nickname."

This enraged Ratnesh. "No it is not! Fuck you! You don't understand its meaning! Go fuck yourself!"

Hassan looked surprised, becoming angry in return. "Look fucker, you're in America now. We have nicknames. Get used to it, asshole!"

"No I will not!" Ratnesh screamed at the top of his lungs. "Fuck you! I'm from Mumbai! Our names mean something!"

"Who gives a fuck? What's your problem, dickhead?"

"You are my problem! So fuck you again!"

"Fuck you back! Sucking dicks made you a jerk!"

"I do not suck dicks! You suck dicks!"

The hostility was so tangible that in most cases you'd expect a fist fight. But comics rarely throw down, preferring schoolyard insults to physical altercations. Hassan told Ratnesh that the show had to go on, and Ratnesh fell silent. Shaking his head in disbelief, Hassan introduced the next comic, who of course was yours truly.

I came onstage, kissed Hassan's nicotine-stained hand, grabbed the mike and stared at the crowd.

"Thanks Hassan, Ratnesh for warming up the audience. It's always nice to see comics of color get along. Gives me hope. I want to keep the love train moving, but before I do -- Ratnesh, you say you're from Mumbai?"

"Yes sir."

"Well, I know that blowing up things is common there, but this is the Village. Tone it down, man."

Mercifully, Ratnesh laughed.

I squinted into the stage lights. "Is Hassan still in the room?"


"Hassan, you know I love you. I love you so much that if you left a smoking SUV in Times Square, I wouldn't turn you in." I extended a clenched fist. "You and me, brother."

The audience laughed as Hassan went outside for a smoke.

I launched into an autobiographical bit about the work required to watch early porn: setting up the Super 8 projector, loading the film, running to the window with my pants down to see if my mother had pulled into the driveway, and if she had, unplugging and quickly stashing the projector in the closet. Kids today have it easy with Web porn, not giving a thought to we masturbatory pioneers whose passion and dedication ensured leisurely pleasure for later generations of jerk-offs.

The audience enjoyed the bit, which is part of a larger routine about cultural changes and attitudes toward sex. But the Mumbai/Yemeni rumble sucked a lot of energy from the room, so who knows how much better the bit would've done without that madness.

Afterward, I walked through the late night streets of the Village, reflecting on the set and The Project. My stage presence grows stronger each time out, my material at times problematic, depending on the room. Whatever mixed emotions I feel, strolling the city calms me. I lose myself in its embrace, familiar rhythms soothing.

NEXT: A painful breakthrough.