This was the year that broke me.
I had this English teacher my sophomore year in high school. He drilled into my brain that I had to begin every piece I wrote with some kind of impact statement that would entice the reader to keep reading and invest their time into the story or essay.
So, I repeat, this was the year that broke me.
Mr. Boone was his name, and it’s been so long that I’m almost positive he didn’t teach me that. It could’ve been Mr. Gorton (but he didn’t really teach me anything other than it was evidently okay to hold a grudge with a teenager even if you’re an adult and a teacher). It could’ve been Mr. Behan, but I doubt it, he was too busy being a cool teacher. Maybe it was that other person during my junior year. I forget, honestly. Mr. Boone always taught me that writing honestly was better than writing well, or he didn’t. Could’ve been somebody else.
This year broke me. That’s the point. That’s what I’m going to hammer home here real soon, but it’s hard, y’know? Being honest and making all these impact statements to reel you in as a reader. That shit is tough, but Mr. Boone always believed in me I think. Maybe it was Mr. Sciuta? The point being: 2015 and me? Not the best friends.
The big, obvious and most awful thing that ripped off my head and shat down my neck was the untimely passing of our dog. His name was Vinnie and he was a very good boy, my best friend and the number one excuse I had for getting out of the house during the daylight.
It happened during the afternoon of October 2nd while I was back in Rochester, New York (my hometown) doing some feature work at The Comedy Club. My wife and I knew he was getting older and sicker and we knew something was going on, but I had to leave for work. I had to go. I was positive he’d be okay until I got home on Sunday. He wasn’t, and, that Friday afternoon while I was in my childhood bedroom waiting to hear what was going on, my brave, amazing wife was at the animal hospital with our poor boy making his last moments on earth as easy and happy as possible.
I got the call that Vinnie had passed away. I broke, right then and there, I broke.
I hadn’t cried like that in 8 years, and even then I didn’t collapse to the ground in a pile like I did that afternoon. I felt every trace of happiness sprint out of me like it was on fire. I didn’t even have enough strength to be angry about it. I kept thinking about the Vonnegut quote I opened my mom’s eulogy with: “Here we are trapped in the amber of the moment, there is no why.”
It sucked, is what I’m getting at, but what really, really sucked was not being there with my wife. Knowing she was doing that on her own and knowing that Vinnie was probably more worried about her than he was about himself? That kills me. Not a day has gone by since then that I haven’t been angry or sad about it. I should’ve been there, but instead I was on the road about to do a feature set.
I could’ve cancelled my scheduled appearances that night and nobody would’ve said a fucking word to me. They would’ve understood, because it’s The Comedy Club and they’re my hometown club. It’s where I got my start. Mark Ippolito and the crew that run that place are like my cousins. They’ve helped me so much and know me so well that I could’ve backed out of the rest of the weekend and gone home early and they would’ve understood, but I didn’t. I couldn’t.
I was broken. It broke me; which is a thing you should remember I said earlier in this post. Way up at the beginning just like Mr. Boone taught me, or maybe it was Mrs. Bohrs? I don’t know.
From the very first second I told a joke into a microphone I knew it was something I was going to do for the rest of my life. I just knew. I hate to disappoint Mr. Kirwin, who very well could’ve been the English teacher who inspired me to keep writing (but I’m not sure), but I’m not a writer. I’m a comic. I can write, sure, because Mr. Boone or somebody taught me very well how to write for stuff, but in my heart I’m a comic and I’ll always be a comic.
The day our dog passed away I went downstairs, tears still streaming down my face and I saw my father sitting in his office like I’ve seen him sit in his office a million times, and he said “well you don’t look good” and I told him what happened. He paused, thoughtfully, and said “my poor boy, he was your buddy” and he did an amazing thing that he’s done so many times I should’ve seen it coming. “Jimmy,” he said, “are you going to work tonight?” (He calls stand-up work which is the cutest thing ever) “I guess, yeah, I have to.” “Nobody would be mad if you didn’t.” “I know.” “But you need to, don’t you?” “Yeah.” “Then use this and do the best you can… for your buddy.” And I lost it right there.
This was full on convulsive crying, by the way. The kind you usually see in a toddler that just fell off of a roof. Full body crying and big red cheeks surrounded by an even bigger, redder face that was shaking and snot covered and unable to catch its breath. Y’know, professional crying.
My dad has never been a hugger, y’see, but he’s the most reassuring and comforting person you’d ever want on your side during a crisis of any kind, because he stood up, put his hand on my shoulder and said “use it.” Then he walked into the other room like an emotional Bagger Vance shuffling into the sunset to teach another stand-up comedian how to be funny in the face of adversity.
My wife and I talked a few more times while I was getting ready to head to the club. Weirdly, both of us started to get amped up for the show that night. She was 5 hours away, but she was pumping me up, getting me riled and feeding me the right words to get me into the right headspace. “Use this,” she said at one point, and that’s when I knew I couldn’t back out. That I had to do my set. That it was going to be 20 odd minutes of hell and I was going to get off stage happier or sadder. It didn’t matter. The point being: I was broken and I needed to start piecing myself back together.
Mr. Boone taught me that stories need to have good ending, I think, it could’ve been Mrs. Chatterton in 4th grade, or possibly Mrs. Hansen. I never really agreed with any of them about the ending thing. A lot of times endings are just where things stop happening. There’s never a twist-reveal in real life. Like, you’re not going to be reading this and then SUDDENLY MY DOG IS ALIVE.
Nope. Sorry, Mr. Boone or whoever, real shit just kind of fizzles from time to time. There’s not a lot to button onto the vision board of life when it comes to endings. Most of the time you don’t even get to pick what happens, things just kind of… stop.
And that’s what happened. I was pumped up for the shows. I was ready. I was dressed and showered and completely, 100% dead inside and didn’t care about a fucking thing. I didn’t. I don’t really remember anything that happened between leaving my dad’s house, doing my set and going home that night.
I wasn’t drunk. I wasn’t high. I was dead inside and dead outside and running on autopilot and fumes and cigarettes. (It’s been almost two weeks since my last cigarette so back the fuck off)
If there was going to be a twist ending to this, here it is: by all accounts the set I did during the early show that night may have been the best stand-up I’ve ever done. I couldn’t tell you honestly how I felt it went, other than it was the most confident and surefooted I’d ever been on stage before. Something about the not caring and being that sad at the same time brought out a different level in me I didn’t know existed.
I recorded it. I haven’t shared it with anybody, but I’m going to today. I’m going to tell you this entire fucking story about the time I was broken and then give you a listen to the first band-aid I slapped on to try and fix myself.
It’s the thing I’m the proudest of in my stand-up career, because it hurt to do, it hurts to think about doing, but I did it anyway.
That’s been 2015 in a nuthsell.