The last couple of blogs have been by the uniquely multi-talented comic, writer and occasional burlesque performer Lynn Ruth Miller, ruminating on her recent visit back to San Francisco, where she lived for nearly 30 years. Here she rounds off…
I met with Mike Morgin who is my US tax consultant. His stage name is Mike Moto and he was an active part of the American comedy scene.
His heritage is part of his set. He is part Japanese, part Yugoslavian so he always opens with: “I am a Japoslav”.
The last time I heard him, we were in a tiny theater that holds 20 people and someone in that minute group shouted: “I am, too!” You cannot make these things up.
Six years ago, Mike suffered a severe stroke and the interesting thing about this story is that for six years he has struggled with his rehabilitation and within two years he was managing to go back on stage. His balance is precarious and he walks with a cane. Although his speech is improving, he still is difficult to understand. However, he is determined to master these challenges. He is doing more shows every year. His progress is slow, but he proves the cliché “once a comedian always a comedian”. His set is still solid and, as of just this year, he has been doing longer sets not just for comedy audiences but for people recovering from a stroke.
Since comedy is not the most lucrative profession for those of us that TV has not discovered (yet), Mike is a tax consultant during the day and he has been doing my taxes for about 8 years.
On the Friday, I was booked for Samson Koletar’s room in Oakland. Samson is from Mumbai and came to Silicon Valley because he got a high-paying job in IT. He moved into a beautiful apartment near San Francisco’s Mission District. He said that, in Mumbai, his parents, his sister and he all lived in a one bedroom flat and the isolation of living alone in his fancy new American home was almost more than he could bear.
Samson started Comedy Oakland several years ago and its growth was very slow; but he persisted.
The city of San Francisco was the center for sophisticated entertainment. Stand up demands intelligent listening to be enjoyed. Oakland, on the other hand, has a fluctuating population and the income and cultural levels are extremely varied.
It has some of the most gorgeous and expensive places to live near scenic Lake Merritt. It is also one of the places famous for its drive-by shootings and immense consumption of drugs.
Sam continued to bring in good comedy to this area because it had no comedy at all and he knew eventually the shows would be accepted and be well attended. He succeeded. This time, Sam scheduled two shows back to back and the place was sold out.
Once again, I am faced with the question of what keeps us at it. Comedy is a thankless, stressful career, at best. At worst, it is the stuff of suicide. It is very stressful to get up on a stage and bare your heart to a bunch of strangers.
I lived alone with no family and very few friends. Comedy was my lifeline and I hung on to it for dear life. I fed on the laughs no matter how sparse they were when I began.
I went for dinner with my friend, Judy Lawrence. I met her at the Park Movie Theatre when she was the manager there almost 40 years ago. We became fast friends and I saw her through some very difficult times.
Her favorite nephew got brain cancer and died and Judy was torn apart. She went from one dead-end job to another and, between the ups and downs of her very challenging life, we would meet now and again. At one point when I was in my house in Pacifica, she had dyed her hair a bright green and pierced herself like a pin-cushion with rings everywhere – her tongue, her nose, her eyebrows, her ears. I asked her: “Why do you mutilate yourself like this?”.
She said: ”Why did you have anorexia?”
And the penny dropped.
I realized then that the only thing we can control is our bodies and, when life goes off the charts, we turn to our anatomy and force it to do our bidding.
I starved and stuffed my body because it kept me from facing my many failures and inadequacies. Judy pierced hers trying to come to terms with the unfairness and cruelty of disease and loss.
Owning a house in San Francisco is beyond most of us and to my happy surprise, Judy now has her own little house in a beautiful and safe neighborhood of the city. She has a partner now and her mother lives with her as well and – surprise of all surprises – Judy works for Apple.
She is now part of that top income level created by the Silicon Valley Greats that people say is destroying the city and erasing the middle class.
These very high-income professionals can pay outrageous prices for what they want and, in America, money is the only power that counts.
Judy has a brand new car; she dresses in up-to-the-minute fashion. The rings are gone. Her hair is a conventional color. But, underneath, she is the same fun-loving and adventuresome Judy that I bonded with at the Park Theatre.
Our circumstances change, but those basic impulses: compassion, kindness and adventure… we hang on to them. The difference is that, as we age and as our circumstances change, the way we express those tendencies becomes different, less impulsive and, perhaps, a bit more staid.
That night I had a sleep-over with my long-time friends Alan Schneider and Deidre Laiken. When I met them, they lived in San Francisco’s North Beach. They were originally from New York State and came west as so many of us did because we believed California was a magic place. And indeed it was – over ten years ago – when the two of them became part of that culture: jazz on Sunday afternoons, wild street entertainment every day and idyllic weather, never too hot or too cold.
Gradually, the ambience changed and Deidre tells the story of walking out her front door and being accosted by angry, demanding homeless people who blocked the streets with their sleeping bags and tents. The two decided to do what so many former Californians have done: move away from the city that had originally captured their hearts.
They chose Folsom, an expanding community nearer to Sacramento than San Francisco. They found a condominium development with every amenity: a gym, a swimming pool, lovely walkways filled with foliage that encouraged birds to nest and a well-equipped clubhouse all at a cost far less than their two-bedroom flat in San Francisco. The weather is more extreme; the culture is just not there; but it is safe to walk outside at any time of the day or night.
To my surprise, both of them are ardent Trump supporters. Alan explained that, although he has no respect for our president as a person, he believes in the things he has accomplished. Unemployment is down; the economy is up; he says minorities are prospering (?); and Donald Trump is making America greater every day.(???)
“The world is changing,” Alan went on to say. “Families are totally different; we live with our cell phones; we do not eat together; and young people cannot have the same dreams we had. Few of them will be able to buy a home; more of them will have to go to University if they want to earn a living; yet fewer of them can afford tuition; we meet people online instead of face to face. Children are living with their parents longer; they are more concerned about things we never even considered like abusing the environment and the artificial additives we put into food.”
I saw that change he was speaking of when I went out for dinner with another friend, Alan Kahn. This Alan is a teacher and a magician, involved now with a woman ten years his senior, who wants him to move to Oregon, a typical escape haven for people disenchanted with the Bay Area.
Alan has had custody of his two children since his divorce many years ago. Both are in their twenties and are living at home. They are incensed that their father is charging them rent to live in his home now that they are older.
He believes he is justified because he says they do nothing to help with the upkeep of the house and are earning enough to pay him for the cost of the utilities and huge taxes that every Californian has to pay. His daughter was so insulted that her father would charge her to live in what she feels is her home, that she has moved out and is paying twice as much rent for the privilege.
Alan is not happy with his job and would like to tour the country in a van performing at magic festivals, but his new partner is not too enthusiastic about that. And he says he cannot even consider such a move until both his son and daughter become self-supporting. Neither of the children have a partner and both of them not only have menial jobs that barely pay enough for food, but also do not have enough education to break into more lucrative professions.
It certainly is a new world. I left home as soon as I graduated from university to take a job my education had prepared me for. After my first divorce, I returned home and it never occurred to me that my parents would charge me to live there. My plan for my future was to marry and have children. The idea that I would not do such a thing – or that I would have to go to work to support myself after I married – would have horrified me.
Today, millennials do not leave home until they have to, marriage is in a steep decline and recreational sex is taken for granted.
… TO BE CONTINUED IN LOS ANGELES …