London-based American comic and 84-year-old burlesque performer Lynn Ruth Miller continues her three-week series of gigs in and around San Francisco and finds, after four years away, that the US has changed…
San Francisco was once a beautiful, sophisticated city where no man stepped out his front door unless he was dressed in shirt, tie and jacket. Women wore hats, gloves and designer clothes always. Now it is not that way at all.
The city feels overcrowded, noisy and filthy. Today, I walked from one end of the city to the other (you can actually do that here) and I saw homeless people who set up their own colonies cluttered with blankets, torches, heaters, empty cartons of food, pots, pans and the necessities of their lives.
These people have no sanitation facilities and the odor that surrounds them is not very nice. They are very aggressive and taunt passers-by, insisting on money from them or just making them get out of their way.
I think of myself as a Socialist and I firmly believe we need to help those who cannot help themselves. But I was decidedly uncomfortable as I passed these clusters of filth and debris and my liberal philosophy was severely shaken. Perhaps my charitable concern for humanity is not so generous when I am faced with standards of living I never dreamed human beings lived in.
And that is what these upper middle class people I am with these days all insist. They say that many homeless people WANT to live that way.
My darling dog-sitter Leo tells the story of a pan handler who was featured on Sixty Minutes (a TV news program) who made hundreds of dollars in his ragged clothes then went around the corner, shed his rags for conventional garb and drove to his luxury home not far away. Could this really be?
I for one cannot believe that.
When I saw these grey, battered human beings who were actually hard to distinguish from the litter they were sleeping in, huddled together reeking of marijuana and human waste, I could only believe that this American society with its emphasis on the need to be rich as a status symbol as well as a means of comfort and the unquenchable thirst for luxury – huge cars, expensive clothes, food that costs five times what it is worth – has created a huge underbelly of people who are trapped in the system and have no idea of how to get out.
A case in point is a man I knew casually before I left San Francisco four years ago. His is a successful reviewer and has always supported himself comfortably. For some reason he will not disclose, he was evicted from his flat and evidently it happened too quickly for him to locate a place to stay. He is desperate and, because he has never had to cope with this kind of hardship before, he has made a horrid pest of himself, calling people who hardly know him begging for a place to sleep.
He gives the impression that he has no money at all, though the truth is he can feed himself and he can take care of himself.
BUT, if he wants a private place to live, he will have to pay well over $3,000 a month plus a deposit and, since he is a freelance writer, he is considered a bad risk.
He is terrified to go to a shelter because, in San Francisco, they are known for their high crime rate and their incidence of robbery, rape and destruction. He is so paralyzed with self-pity that he cannot think clearly and makes himself such a pest that now no-one wants to help him.
When I was with him, I couldn’t wait to get away. He whines; he demands you call everyone you know immediately; he complains that the place he has secured for the night at a ridiculous cost will be taken away from him. He tries to shame you into buying him food when he has plenty of money to buy his own.
He is terrified. He reminds me of a squirrel who has plenty to eat but stores up as much food as possible for the lean winter ahead.
Once I was away from him, his obnoxious cloying and insistent behavior, I was able to put the situation into perspective. I realized that here is a typical middle class human being who never had to fight for survival suddenly put into a situation that he has never expected to encounter.
And he is not alone in this expensive, unsympathetic, cold and demanding city.
He is one step away from those people I saw huddled in the street defecating in gutters and taking food from dumpsters. His plight is not just heartbreaking. It is maddening that a society as wealthy as this one not only allows this to happen, but has created a perfect climate to reduce the middle class to live according to lower class standards they do not understand.
They are desperate and cannot understand how they fell into this gutter of need with no way to fight the system.
All it takes is one thing – in his case an eviction, in others a job loss and in others an injury that debilitates them.
I like to think this cannot happen in the UK.
But I know without even asking that it does.
On a brighter note, the next night my friend Alan took me into Sacramento and I had the time of my life (again).
I featured at The Sacramento Punchline with Turner Sparks.
I met Turner when I was in Hanoi and he is a kind, outgoing comedian who makes his living not in comedy clubs but in men’s groups, wineries and other organizations looking for a laugh instead of a lecture. He is from Sacramento and, when he goes home to visit his folks, he puts on a comedy show at The Sacramento Punchline.
This comedy club is the poor sister of the San Francisco comedy club with the same name and the two men who were in the line up (no women of course) were polite but not particularly welcoming. After being enveloped like a long lost grandma in the burlesque community here, I was more aware of the comics’ coldness than I would have been if I had not been so spoiled by Jim Sweeny and Dottie Lux and their cast of caring, ego-boosting women.
Here is a description I found of the comedy scene in San Francisco and the United States in general:
It seems safe to say that we are in a second golden age for stand-up comedy – or, as has more often been said, a second comedy boom.
The first boom started in the 1980s when stand-up comedy went mainstream, making TV and movie stars of comedians like Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, Bill Cosby and Jerry Seinfeld. But, as is true that with the economy, that boom was followed by a bust: essentially a stand-up recession as comedy clubs across the country closed during the 1990s and all but the biggest acts went dormant.
Now, with the rise of the alternative comedy scene and the internet, stand-up comedy is booming and relevant once again, with podcasts, social media, YouTube, Netflix, and dozens of channel/website hybrids hungry for comedians’ original content and relevancy.
What that does not say is how the emphasis on political correctness has stifled content.
In the San Francisco area, the biggest inhibitor is the need to tread carefully when making any remark at all about sexual identity. I hear stories of people being ostracized and ignored because they referred to a Tranny (and we have beautiful ones in the Bay area – eat your heart out Brighton) as ‘she’ instead of ‘they’.
I notice this hesitancy to touch controversial topics in every show I see here and the one in Sacramento was no different. The topics were all safe and, because they didn’t touch a nerve, they weren’t that funny either.
The heart of comedy is the shock value of the punchline. I personally would hate to see that squelched in a misguided effort of trying to spare feelings.
The next day I returned to Burlingame and met my wonderful friend Brett to go to Oakland for Samson Koletar’s comedy show at the Spice Monkey.
Samson is an Indian-born comedian from Mumbai who is amazingly enterprising and has established the Spice Monkey as a comedy club with one show on Thursday and two each night on Fridays and Saturdays. He is also Jewish and tours the country in a show called You Are Funny, But You Don’t Look Jewish featuring three other comedians from various origins: Italian, Vietnamese, African. His humor is gorgeous, intelligent and wry.
This Thursday night I was booked in an all-male line up (as was the Sacramento show). No-one but Samson and I seemed to have any jokes. The audience was very small, no more than 20 people, but they wanted to laugh and that made it a lot easier on the performers.
What surprised me as I sifted though my set to find jokes that would amuse them is how much my comedy has become British.
To people in the UK it seems very American, but to Americans it smacks of a foreign flavor they cannot quite identify. For example, the word ‘knickers’ here means trousers that are cut off at the knee. ‘Trainers’ are people not shoes. And ‘cunt’ is such a filthy word no-one dares use it any more than they would call a black person a… a… an ’N word’.
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