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I’d been cold before but not like this. Super Happy Funtime launched its first WINTER SUX! Florida tour with a hell-frozen-over drive through Indiana, in the middle of the hardest winter we’d ever known. And we knew it would be rough, but not like this.
In Grand Rapids, six- to eight-foot drifts lined every side street. After months of storms without a thaw, the city was running out of places to put all the snow. The afternoon we left had the kind of weather we didn’t want to have to become accustomed to: temperature in the upper teens, milky sky, moderate wind. Tomorrow, we promised each other, tomorrow we’d be in the South. Shorts and tank tops and bathing suits sang to us from our suitcases. Parkas up front, party in the trunk, baby. Tomorrow we’d be warm.
The first hour of the first day’s drive is always an exuberant settling-in. We haven’t made any money yet, but we haven’t made any mistakes either. Often there are one or two people who haven’t traveled with us before and need to be clued in to the bus’s idiosyncrasies. Don’t put any weight there, the step’s falling in. This is how the electricity works. That’s not the way to secure the door; other way round; yeah, you’ve got it. Heading due south at our rate of speed it takes an hour to reach Kalamazoo, and about that long for us to orient ourselves away from ordinary life.
In rain or high wind, the bus might as well be a cheese grater. By the time we skirted Fort Wayne the temperature had dropped 10 degrees, with windchill 10 degrees below that. Air currents rushed around window frames, through tiny holes in the floor, down from both emergency exits like tiny wendigos. High-speed travel generates resistance: that’s physics. A closed vehicle shields you from the storm of your passage but doesn’t negate it. We had a sort-of-mostly closed vehicle and felt more of that storm than we cared to.
It was too dark to read without a light, but too awkward to hold book and reading light while wearing gloves. At our first stop I went into the bathroom and found my hands so numb I could barely wipe myself. I held bloodless fingers under hot water: no relief. Rachel and Audria sat on the counter to warm their feet under the hand dryer. We scoured the place for hats and gloves, hot drinks, magic chemical hand and foot warming pads. Jokes about applying foot warmers to underpants weren’t that funny, but also weren’t jokes.
We milled around the gas station as long as we could. By the time we headed out I’d recovered use of my hands. My toes never stopped aching with cold.
As we drove, I called up the Weather app on my phone over and over. With GPS, you can quantify your resentments. It’s 8:06 PM and the temperature in Podunk, Indiana is 11 degrees. It’s 8:23 and nothing has changed but the name of the town. Checking our progress on the cartoon map schematic was no more encouraging.
Three of us sat on the futon with five afghans over our knees. I held out as long as I could, but finally pulled off my boots and tucked my feet under. I felt warmth retreat from my limbs and pool in my torso. My body was shutting down nonessential systems. I let them go. My sense of the world contracted to the length of the bus; the length of the futon; the edges of my body. I didn’t move.
Days later I described the sensation to Rachel. “That’s very Buddhist of you,” she said. I wasn’t so sure. You could read the experience as yogic discipline or as an expression of despair. I didn’t try to sleep, exactly, but I didn’t put much effort into consciousness. I think, to qualify as asceticism, a thing must be freely chosen. I had few choices and little capacity to make a decision. To dig out an iPod and distract myself with music would have meant heaving off the afghans, and then how could I have chosen what to listen to? Half my brain had already shut down.
Bear in mind we’re talking about a few hours on a single night. Possible mocking hashtags: #firstworldproblems, #thestruggleisreal, #ridingthestrugglebus. The cold was real, but it had certain limits. We would arrive in Louisville, Kentucky. We might freeze but the bus would not. We would sleep in warm beds. We would wake to a clear sky.
When the Singularity overtakes us, a fragment of my consciousness will find its way back to @badjokebot. Persistent, artless, with more faith in abstruse wordplay than in humanity: yep, guilty. I wasn’t surprised when its feed dovetailed with my own private joke.
I lived downtown in a neighborhood desperate to be known as a hip artists’ hangout instead of a mission district. Next door to my apartment building was a three-story hulk with blacked-out windows and a light-up sign: Tini Bikinis. Whether they intended the plural or possessive form was unclear. Regardless, no one was queuing at the side door for dirty Uncle Teeny to usher them into the realm of itty-bitty bikinis. I always assumed the place was a front. They could have been keeping the blacklights on and toilets semi-functional to prop up a cam-girl dormitory, or drug ring, or baby-trafficking operation. All the neighborhood cared about was how many cars had broken down in their parking lot and who had nearly been hit by someone pulling out driving all crazy.
Management tried to perk up the facade with three larger-than-life cardboard cutouts of barely-legal bikini models: one Latina or possibly Eurasian, and two blonde. The blondes looked remarkably alike. I walked past them every day for more than a year but was never able to decide if the two images were of one woman photoshopped to look different, or two women photoshopped to look the same. At times like these I’m glad I never got very far with contemporary philosophy. Students looking for thesis topics: you’re welcome.
Don’t worry, I’m getting to the joke. This is a shaggy-dog story inspired by a robot with only the vaguest idea of how comedy works, so you’ll have to locate the punchline yourself.
One day I was walking to the coffeeshop as per usual when I spotted something mashed against a glass brick basement window. It was a VHS box (no tape in sight) with a lingerie-clad, big-haired blonde superimposed on a clip art road graphic. Porn? Absolutely. The title was AssFault, as in “Your fault, dumbass.”
And the punchline is me. The punchline is that I memorized the details of a castoff I found in the street outside the most pathetic strip club in Michigan so I could retell the story as a joke before the humor gets put in.
A joke is a question: please? The answer is laughter, recognition. Or not.
Certain colors I find difficult to look at. There are shades of periwinkle or pink that make the object seem to shimmer, like slipping in and out of 3-D but more unsettling, borderline Lovecraftian. The color cloaks the object and projects it in five dimensions simultaneously.
A certain unremarkable house in the neighborhood where I grew up was painted deep periwinkle. In retrospect I’m glad I never knew anyone who lived there. If I’d had cause to enter the house its color would never have become infused with strangeness.
The occultist Peter Carroll follows Terry Pratchett in describing an eighth color on the visible spectrum: octarine, the color of magic. Its nature varies from person to person. Carroll describes his as an electric pinkish-purple. That shade can be difficult to find outside of seizures and hallucinogenic trips, but it’s not uncommon if you know where to look.
I don’t often think of Mary Kay, but it’s hard not to when you’re trying to park next to a pink SUV twice the size of your car. It looked as though it had rolled off the lot that afternoon: perfectly clean, electric purplish-pink. A whip fit for a champion lipstick slinger — or a PSYCHONAUT.
I’ve never been terribly musical, but I think I could hold my own in an all-novelty instrument ensemble. No ax larger than an autoharp permitted. Ukulele is only the beginning. Finger cymbals and castanets for the chanteuse’s elegant hands. Jew’s harp holding down the bassline. I’ve always liked melodica because it combines the worst features of an accordion and a breathalyzer: the keys are soundless unless touched while blowing through the attached tube. Slide whistle, thumb piano, triangle, and kazoo form a treble chorus. Aficionados of old-timey Americana will appreciate inclusion of the piccolo banjo. An actual drum would be far too sensible: how about this stroke of genius?
I think I have a couple of kazoos and a slide whistle in a drawer somewhere. Let’s make this happen.
So many people have styled themselves members of Super Happy Funtime Burlesque that former burlesquers and band members could start their own groups three times over, and have. Having seen considerable turnover, we slot newcomers into functional roles that remain constant even as the faces change.
Who will be the forgetful one? The cartoonishly neurotic? The chronically late? Who will proffer massages? Who snores? Who will buy novelty souvenirs? Who will get in a physical fight? Who will suffer more than her share of unwanted attention from creepy audience members? Who will eat stinky food on the bus? Who will, improbably, hook up with an audience member? We’ve even shepherded a few under-21s. As their know-it-all surrogate aunts and uncles, we tutor and protect and permit. But don’t push your luck, kid.
I’m often asked how many people are in the show, but am never sure how to respond. All I can offer is the number of people who must be accounted for before the bus can pull away. The greatest number we’ve traveled with was 17; the smallest was 10. Always cast and band, plus professional drivers, significant others, friends of the show, local performers or guides. No one can be left behind. Hassled for foot-dragging, definitely, but to their face, as the bus merges onto the highway. The bus can sleep 16 if four don’t mind being cramped and uncomfortable. Seventeen is nearly more people than seats. It was impossible to account for everyone without walking down the aisle, which was invariably obstructed with feet, shoes, bags, and items dangling from bunks. During that tour we came to rely on the buddy system. Each pair had to verify that the other was in fact on the bus before we could leave. Later, with fewer on board, one person would make a formal headcount and clear us for departure.
For the past few tours, either Corey or I have written out a roll call on one of the bunks, listing the date and every person traveling with us. Rachel once kept a tour diary on a post at the foot of a bunk. Every show in every city got its own shorthand note; each note unfolded into a story. We mark the walls with notable quotes, caricatures of each other, commemorations of events. On the bus’s first tour, whoever slept in the lower double bunk kept a private tally of Days We Have Been On The Road against Number Of Times The Bus Has Been Fixed.
I’ve considered many tattoo designs (for the record, I am uninked) but never a Super Happy tattoo. We’ve written our history all over the bus; in a way, it is our group tattoo.
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