Bars become pockets of joy and despair that have always lived within him. Dinner is communion with himself, his body, his blood. Photographs hang on the walls, showing faces unique to each neighborhood’s history––-a proprietor who died of a heart attack, a paperboy who announced the end of a war, a cyclist, a Formula One driver, a vaudeville star. Images he has never seen before feel like a record of his own life. Empty storefronts become past and present failures, and from a mannequin’s dislocated arm outstretches a hand he didn’t take. Hers or hers or hers.
What makes him happy is the sound of someone practicing an instrument. Sometimes the instrument’s voice is so immature but so lovely that he needs to see the player’s face. Maybe, he thinks, it will be a new face that feels like an old home. He tries to trace the source of music, scanning apartment buildings for an open window, jogging up and down alleys, losing a shoe when he rounds a corner too quickly, then doubling back before rats can make their claim. This is his favorite way to get lost. What makes him sad is finding a harmonica orphaned on a waterfront bench, the very model he lost as a boy while visiting Lake Michigan with his parents. What name did they call him by, his parents? How long has it been since he’s heard that name and turned toward it with a feeling in his chest like a chrysalis hanging where a heart should be?
And when a stray kitten cries from below a sewer grate, down in ancient aqueducts, it is his own cry that he hears. Rather, the cries of the other people he invited to live inside his head, the artists and philosophers and figures from history that keep him company, both living and dead. Chaplin stands silhouetted in a shanty window, young and hungry in all the ways a person can be hungry. His timing is perfect even when baking a kidney pie. The smell of it, browned. Socrates walks with his arm around Plato, whispering assurances that death isn’t the end if our souls are reborn. They pause under a streetlamp and Socrates kisses the young man’s cheek. “Do you understand,” Socrates says, “that there is no reason to be sad or afraid?” Philip Glass busks in a piazza with a cigarette hanging from his lip. A prostitute throws a bottle of perfume at him, glass shattering at his feet. “With you,” she shouts, “it’s the same thing again and again.” Caesar and Napoleon race on motorbikes toward saltwater.
To be inside your own head and to feel as if you are walking through it, show after show, is the condition of the comedian. It happens in the same world that everyone else lives in, although it is inaccessible to most. A moonlit pigeon coos from the shoulder of a war monument. The pigeon asks, “What are you doing awake?” and he realizes that the pigeon is speaking in his own voice. The answer is that he’s discovering himself in the world.
“And how do you like it?” the pigeon asks.
“Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t.”
“Was that the wrong answer?”
“No,” the pigeon says. “That is the only answer.”
As time goes on, he returns to the same familiar venues. There is less territory that feels undiscovered and so he walks less. Or he knows himself better, so he walks less. He returns to his hotel room after a gig, closes his eyes, and thoughts simply stroll through his mind, then stop to rest. His mind weaves a towel and he, his consciousness, his self, lies across the towel, with his eyes closed within the eyes-closed world. He senses that to do anything internal, to think or exist or feel, is to be at the edge of an immense sea. Others are in the sea and though the masses are fuzzy and mirage-like, the individuals that matter to him appear in striking clarity. There, for instance, is Einstein on the beach. Einstein scrubbing his feet with sand.
“So, do you think I’m an idiot?” the comedian asks. “Is my life a complete waste?”
Einstein says, “Compared to mine?”
“You do what you can,” Einstein says. “Look.” He brushes off his hands and holds them out, palms open. He looks at his left hand and pretends that it holds something very heavy. The hand drops to the beach. Then he looks at his right hand and pretends that it holds something light. The hand floats, along with his gaze, up, up, up.
They look toward the water.
Possibly the mind is not an individual thing. Possibly there is overlap in spirit. When a set is going well and he breathes the air in the room–-–the air: his words, their laughter––-he feels a sense of unity unmatched. Even now, when he retrieves the paper in the morning like a stick bug creeping through brittle grass, he looks across the street and knows his audience is out there, if not seated below him, then spread before him. His survival depends upon seeing their bright eyes as they experience, each of them, this heaven and hell on earth.