Tears of a Clown: Charlie Barnett Cracks Up
January 17, 1989
ON THE THIRD STAIR of the sidewalk entrance to the Palace Hotel on the Bowery I catch an unmistakable whiff of aging vomit; halfway up the steep concrete stairs I step on a purple jumbo vial and shatter it, then tiptoe through a small, multicolored minefield of empty vials up to the front door, which is decorated with a wreath of plastic holly and black magic marker graffiti reading, “Don’t Smoke Cwack.” The tiny lobby looks like a cage: straight ahead is a fenced-in reception desk papered with admonitions for transients and “ticket men,” nonpaying émigrés from the men’s shelter next door. A steel-gate door to the left leads to a long narrow hallway of rooms, a steel-gate door to the right opens onto the “dayroom,” a huge holding pen of a rec room, smelling of Lysol and hissing with the static of a TV tuned to an empty station. Five or six desperate-looking men are sleeping as far away from the TV as possible. I ask the stubby-bearded desk clerk if he’s seen Charlie Barnett. “Never heard of him,” he says, suspicious. Turning to go, I ask how much the rooms are. “Six dollars, 50 cents tax,” he answers. “But you don’t want to stay here.”
It’s been a long morning already, making the rounds of comedy clubs like Catch a Rising Star and the Improv for news of Charlie, hearing one How the Mighty Have Fallen comment after another. “You know about his films, all those TV shows?” Sylvia, the day manager at the Comedy Cellar, asked. “God, Charlie had it made.” There was a time Charlie enjoyed carte blanche in these places, dropping in at midnight after a day of street shows, stealing the prime spots from the scheduled acts; moving on to another club for more. Nobody was surprised when he Made It, a little over four years ago, and abandoned the clubs for the West Coast and stardom, and there’s a polite but noticeable relish of his hubris and low profile since coming back. “Two years ago,” said Sylvia, “he was in Hollywood. La dolce vita. Now he’s back out on the street — 3rd and Avenue A, maybe the Palace Hotel. Poor Charlie.”
Out on the street is where Charlie always was, performing on Bleecker and Thompson, behind the newspaper kiosk on Sixth Avenue and 3rd, Washington Square Park, any semi-enclosed spot where he could set up shop, start yelling, and get a crowd. His half-hour shows, wired with the racial and sexual humor of early Richard Pryor, were revved up by pyrotechnical, viciously funny exchanges with his audience: winos, druggies, tourists, local professionals, professional loiterers. Greg Mullins, a William Morris agent who lives in the Village, “discovered” Charlie one afternoon in 1980, performing for about 300 hysterical people in Washington Square Park and signed him up for bookings in “some of the better clubs across the country.”
He also got Charlie an audition for Saturday Night Live during the crossover from the original cast to the next generation, which Charlie made good on, being called back a number of times for further tests. Jean Doumanian, the show’s producer at the time, remembers Charlie and his talent affectionately, but not the details, and nobody at the current SNL goes back far enough to comment. The “inside story,” sworn to by someone close to the show, is that he lasted through final auditions on the strength of his own material, only to lose the spot to Eddie Murphy when it was learned Charlie wasn’t literate enough to read cue cards.
Charlie’s “break” came in 1984, when the casting agent of D.C. Cab saw him passing the hat in Washington Square Park, then filmed a performance in the Comedy Cellar and sent director Joel Schumacher a tape. Schumacher, looking for performers with a “raw, spontaneous edge,” says he “fell in love with Charlie at first sight,” and cast him opposite Gary Busey, Mr. T, and Adam Baldwin. Within weeks after the shoot, Charlie went bicoastal, shuttling between New York and a new condo on Sunset Boulevard, with week- and nightlong stopovers at clubs in Miami, Chicago, Las Vegas.
He aced his next shot at the Big Time, a spot on an early episode of Miami Vice, playing a police snitch called the Noogie, a character that proved popular enough for 10 more episodes over the next three years and which served as a springboard for three low-budget films, more than 10 HBO comedy specials, and an episode of T.J. Hooker. Every two or three months, he’d be back in Washington Square Park, talking about how different blacks are who’ve made it big (“Out in L.A. they got big-lipped, blue-black Alabama porchmonkey Negroes lying in the sun trying to tan their asses white”), how Abe Lincoln nodded out on his monument while waiting for Mr. T to deliver his one line of the evening without fucking it up, and how rewarding it is to work your ass off and finally get what you always wanted: Enough Cocaine To Last the Night.
Though he was funnier than ever, over the next few years it became increasingly apparant something wasn’t right with Charlie: longer and longer pauses began to crop up in his formerly seamless shows, Charlie staring at his audiences like they were made of ether, coming down to the park looking like he’d just fallen out of bed, performing for 15 minutes, then taking off. Mullins remembers this period with fond exasperation. “You’d get to the office and your first problem was a Charlie Barnett problem: Charlie’s cancelled a date, Charlie’s missed the plane, Charlie’s in the office for a check that’s not due for another few weeks. On Miami Vice they loved his character, his performances. But Charlie could bring confusion to any set he walked onto. And then there were the drugs. Finally, a year and a half ago, I had to cut it off with Charlie. He just got to be too much to deal with.”
A little over a year ago Charlie dropped out of sight: no more movies, TV, or street shows. A few months back a friend saw him performing in Washington Square Park, badly, and said Charlie looked completely cracked out.
A BLACK ECONOLINE VAN with Jersey plates is backing up to the curb in front of the Palace. Four mid-thirties leather boys step out, rough and ready, wearing mascara, eyeliner. I watch them unload a stack of well-traveled Marshalls into CBGB next door, grateful for their hardcore, harmless presence, only gradually becoming aware of a finger poking gently into my arm from above. A heavily bearded man in a beat-up, pea green corduroy jacket is standing on the first step of the Palace stairs, smiling warmly as he tells me in a rapid-fire Negril patois not to worry, he’s got what I want, we’ll go for a walk, just call him Bigger, everyone does. Does he know Charlie? Of course he knows Charlie, Charlie’s a funny man, personal friend. As we turn onto 3rd Street, stopping at the men’s shelter so Bigger can talk shop with three guys named Stretch, Frenchie, and One-Eyed Shorty (everyone here seems to go by monikers), I understand he’s trying to sell me something, but I can’t figure out what it is. Bigger sounds more like an advance man for the Palace than any card-carrying crack dealer.
“Some very respectables come here,” he says as we complete our first lap around the block, never losing his salesman’s smile. “The suit, the tie, the stockbroker, the chemical engineer, people, like yourself. Journalists. But they cannot compete with the people who live here. In the dayroom, when we past the drug, having lunch, watching TV, you see our quality of people — singers, entertainers, civil engineers, people like yourself. Journalists. Those people who come to the Palace in their limousines, go to the Prince Town University, they cannot compete with men like I, who spend 75, 80 per cent of his life on the street. You learn too much on the street. Is the biggest college there is.”
As we turn onto Second Avenue again I lean against the fence penning in a vacant lot to catch my breath, while Bigger says hello to a few of his colleagues speeding around the block. All are selling crack, Bigger tells me, except for a short, sweet-looking old-timer named Hook, selling $75 “Perry Ellis” shirts for $3 apiece, and a good-looking kid in stonewashed jacket and jeans, 16, 17 years old, who looks like he’s just begun the training program. “Now I feel secure for the first time today,” the kid says, appraising a new K57 switchblade he holds opened in his hands.
As he watches the knife go by, Bigger’s face is absent its smile for the first time. “Everything good and bad must come to an end,” he says, turning professorial. “Thirty, 40 per cent of them get out from under the crack, the rehab program. The John Belushi, the entertainer, Charlie, 90 per cent need something to hype them onto the stage, keep them going after the stage is finished. They come to see me, they know it is an event, something’s going to happen.”
Bigger watches two huge gray rats scavenge by the fence; he smiles, musing, “Charlie once must have had a lot of money. On a personal note though,” he says, turning around, “I have been completely honest with you. How come you no give me two, three dollar?” I give him some money, asking where I might find Charlie. “You just miss him by an hour,” he says. I ask Bigger why he thinks someone like Charlie would throw it all away. “The same reason as we all,” Bigger says. “Because he is addicted.”
A TWILIGHT CONGREGATION of 50 or so stands under an elm tree near the arch in Washington Square Park, blowing into hands for warmth, laughing and screaming. In the center of their circle sits Charlie, his little butt crammed into the top of a wire wastebasket, talking about how hard it is trying to fuck a prostitute in your room at the Palace Hotel when you’re cracked out of your mind. He’s picked up a few decibels since I last saw him, and has added some of the staccato cadence and gestures of a Southern Baptist preacher: he sounds like a man testifying, but proud, unrepentant, with an “I alone have survived to tell the tale” delivery. After an afternoon’s rafting through the stream of hyperkinetic zombies on 3rd Street, I recognize the sentiment.
“I had me a fine room there,” he’s yelling. “Finest room $6.50 can buy. And a stack o’ rubbers” — he raises the imaginary stack in his left palm, Exhibit A. “I was prepared … to meet the virus. And I had me a stem,” he lifts his right hand, ” — and $50 of what goes in it. And I had me a beautiful black woman. And she was willing, brothers and sisters. She was fuckin’ desperate.”
Charlie lowers his right fist and inhales for a long time, closing his eyes. He looks like he’s seeing something horrible when he opens them again. “When you smoking crack,” he says with a lowering voice, “you get paranoid. Like a motherfucker . I’d be checking out the woman, the rubbers, then back at the bitch. And she be saying, ‘C’mon Charlie, I wanna get down.’ And I get mad. Furious. ‘Soon’s I finish,’ ” he inhales, glowering, his eyes growing wide until he looks furious, dangerous. ” ‘Soon’s I finish,’ ” he inhales again, “‘I am gonna fuck the shit out of your black ass. Just as soon as I finish.’ ” He inhales once more, then looks at his left hand. “I’m so paranoid now I put on all the rubbers. Sixteen of ’em.”
Everyone starts howling as Charlie mimes it, each one more difficult to force on. “Even my rubbers was paranoid!” he screams. “By the time the last one’s on, they’re yelling, ‘No Charlie! Please! Don’t make us go in there! Let’s go in that bathroom and massss-tuhbate.’ ”
Two elegant kids with matching double-breasted suits, gold wire-rims, and Grace Jones coifs fall to their knees on this last joke, pleading, “Oh shit, oh shit.” Charlie checks them out, rising from his garbage can. “Jesus!” he screams. “There’s two of you motherfuckers. The rhinestone asshole twins. But I like my man’s hair,” he points to one, strutting the width of his circle like a five-foot-four Jake LaMotta, making eye contact with anyone who’ll dare. “Looks like a fuckin’ shoebrush.”
As he settles back into the garbage can to do his imitation of a crackhead vet pirouetting paranoically down the Bowery in his wheelchair, a six-foot-six, 250- pound wino spills out of the crowd to join the fun, coughing up ugly fluids, roaring like a hippo. He gets an ovation from the crowd — seemingly the only response he’s had in months — and decides to stay. Charlie, who’s been dealing with occupational hazards like this on a daily basis for over a decade, borrows a dollar from someone, then, like a matador, holds it up to the man, saying, “Here, Papa,” till the man sees the bill and goes for it, repeatedly, as Charlie leads him safely out of the circle.
“How many you people like my show?” he asks, returning the dollar; he gets a huge round. “Good. Because now I collect for real. I want you to pay me! I don’t drink, I don’t steal, and I haven’t had any drugs in … excuse me, what time is it?”
The last time I saw Charlie, I realize as he passes by with his monogrammed leather baseball cap in his hand, was in this spot, but that was over a year ago. I’ve forgotten how small and fragile he is, how childlike his features are, how lean and adolescent his body looks. All his clothes seem outsized, like he’s still a few months shy of growing into them: his cap (worn backward), plain blue T-shirt, unlaced Avias, cuffed Levis, always clean and ironed. He looks more like a wellscrubbed Little Leaguer heading for a full day at the playground than a 34-year-old man who’s spent the night in an SRO.
“SURE, I’ll TALK TO YOU,” Charlie says while he’s signing autographs, confirming an amorous Columbia Grammar student’s suspicions that it was him she saw on all those episodes of Miami Vice. Once the fans are gone, he counts the coins and bills in his hat. He isn’t pleased. “I had me a lot of money once,” he commiserates with himself. “So you want to talk about drugs, right?”
Struck a little dumb by his directness, I ask after his resume, and Charlie reels off a list of performances: his movies, a ton of cable specials, a film he wrote and starred in called Terms of Enrollment: Charlie Barnett’s Guide to Higher Education, a role in Nobody’s Fool, the list goes on. I ask if he made a lot of money for his biggest movie, D.C. Cab. “Yep, and a $1.2 million contract for three movies. Plus points and all that bullshit. Fucked that up good. Plus 10 Miami Vice episodes — ”
“What was it like working with … ?”
“Don’t like him. Don Johnson? Don’t like me either. Had a fistfight with him, right on the set, first few days. ‘Cause I stole the episode. It was called ‘Cool Runnin’.’ I stole it. They were talking about how this black guy’s great, and the man just started fuckin’ with me, saying ‘You been on this show for a week and you think it’s yours.’ And so I said, ‘Fuck you,’ and we got into it.”
“Did you get in any good shots?”
“Nah, it turned into a wrassle. The teamsters grabbed us and dragged us off. He called me and apologized. I just did another Vice, a year ago.”
I tell him I can’t connect all that with doing street shows for chump change. He shakes his head, telling me that isn’t the problem. “I made $200 one show last Saturday and I woke up on a bench in Tompkins Square Park next morning. I did even better that night, and I was standing in the food line Monday morning. I’m trying to handle these drugs.”
A woman who looks faintly familiar to Charlie comes up to talk. A friend of a friend, she tells him about the rough time she’s had since coming to New York, and Charlie reaches into his hat for a $5 bill, a substantial fraction of what’s in there. “Listen,” he tells me, “I gotta walk. Let’s do this tomorrow or something.” “Fine,” I say, then watch him walk her to the corner and say goodbye, patting her shoulder warmly, making a couple of jokes before he turns round and heads east, toward the Bowery, walking faster and faster till he’s out of sight.
THE NEXT DAY COMES but Charlie doesn’t, nor the next or the day after. Saturday, a gorgeous day, brings a mob to the park, and an almost medieval array of performers sets up shop in the center of the fountain: Joey Joey, a unicyclist/ sword-swallower; mimes; a martial arts juggler; a six-five transsexual in green body paint imitating the Statue of Liberty; the Calypso Tumblers, flipping and flying over each other and making a ton of money. Everyone but the prince of fools.
By Wednesday it’s cold and rainy. The main attraction in the park is a squad of bearded men in yellow T-shirts talking in relay about the Power of Darkness Within You, arguing with a homeless Hispanic woman who refutes all of their points with the simple reductio, “I’d marry a pit bull before any of you godless excuses for men.”
Late in the afternoon, I witness something nasty: a black man in his thirties, leaning awkwardly over a chess table in the corner of the park, an intense, vacant look on his face as a patrolman with a size-18 neck frisks his torso, arms, and legs from behind. Finding nothing, the cop snarls some unacknowledged words to the wise and takes off, and the man sits down at the empty table to gather his wits. I recognize him suddenly: Alex, a weak but iron-willed chess player who used to be here constantly, falling into lost positions all over the board, then finding one saving move after another till his opponent finally dropped. It’s been some time since I’ve see Alex, and the change is frightening. Six months ago he was a gentle, solvent professional who didn’t seem a day over 25.
A few tables over, a friend of mine named Eddie has stopped his chess clock to watch the proceedings. “Damn,” he says, starting his clock as Alex takes off across the park at breakneck speed, “Alex is gone.” I ask where he’s gone to and Eddie, flashing his opponent a how-stupid-can-this-white-man-be grin, says, “East. See? The man’s gone east on important business. What I hear,” he concludes, sacrificing a rook with an angry flourish, “business is booming.”
AT TWILIGHT I FIND CHARLIE sitting by the fountain, wrapped up in a polyester-filled ski coat, watching a comic named Albert try to perform while a THC-crazed kid standing nearby aims karate kicks at his head. Charlie greets me warmly, putting his arm around my shoulder, and together we watch Albert’s show disintegrate. “It’s getting cold,” he says. “People gotta go to work tomorrow. I hate to do this, but — ”
Charlie walks 20 yards away, drops his coat on the ground, and starts screaming, “Showtime. Showtime, motherfuckers.” Minutes later, he has every cogent person in the park in his corner and the show begins, Charlie down on his knees, pounding the bricks, screaming, “I hate that bitch. I hate that bitch. Robin, Bitch, Ass, Fuckin’ Givens wants $20 million for eight months of marriage and I know for a fact the Champ didn’t get to fuck her ass but four times. That’s $5 million a fuck. I know a woman on 3rd Street for $20. Yo, Mike,” he whispers, “spend the extra buck on the rubber — it’s worth it. And I knew,” he raises a fist in solidarity, “I knew she married my man for his money. Think about it. Would a bitch that fine fuck a gorilla for free?”
And on he goes, one racist, sexist, homophobic joke after another, each laced with some rage or foolery so extreme he can get away with all of them. Charlie is always acting something out, something childish and familiar; whether he’s making fools of the audience or of himself, he’s making you an accomplice, his witness; if the joke doesn’t get you, the anger or panic on his face will, getting Japanese tourists to laugh about their big cameras and tiny dicks, black men to laugh about how they’ve never seen a subway token in their lives, Puerto Ricans to laugh about how they’re born with knives in their hands and live 4000 to a room, women about how they sound like a small rodeo when they’re coming, jokes about everyone and everything.
Thirty minutes later, Charlie’s feeling good, with a hat full of money and a gaggle of admirers around him, easing the bridge from showtime to reality. His girlfriend, Marcie, a 27-year-old cellist with two masters degrees, has returned from visiting relatives in Germany, and he’s living happily, and — this week, at least — drug-free out in some obscure part of Jersey with her again. He’s been offered a movie about sea monsters that will film in Florida over the winter, and is booking himself into the New York clubs for the month ahead, the weather dropping too rapidly for him to be able to count on street shows for a living anymore.
I go over to watch Marcie sing soprano with Zeus, Chicken George, and Jodi in an a cappella quartet called The Village All Stars. It’ been a while since I’ve heard good four-part harmony, and I’ve forgotten how beautiful it can be, how much meaning it’ll lend even the most insidious tripe:
In the words of a broken heart,
It’s just Emotion,
Breaking me over …
A few feet away, Charlie is settling accounts with some neighborhood creditors — the shish kebab man, the hot dog man, a guy who lent him $5 last week — everyone who asks, seemingly, but for one grinning, desperate-looking character, who seems completely unfazed by Charlie yelling at him to go fuck himself, to go fuck his mama. “You just remember that next time you come to me,” the man says with a smile.
“I hate those motherfuckers,” Charlie tells me, leading us to a bench nearby. Realizing this is my formal interview, I get the tape running and ask my first question: What motherfuckers?
“Motherfucking drug dealers. They want me to kill myself,” Charlie answers. “They always smiling, saying, ‘Hey, Charlie, how many? You got my money?’ Nah, I can’t do it. It’s a fuckin’ nightmare. Heroin, you get to nod out of reality. Cocaine, you hear the least little sound. Lots of guys you see are doing speedball, they say it’ll slow you down, you won’t go back and buy coke right away. And I say, ‘Wait a minute, me and you both go running back to the drug spot, you buy the speedball, all I’m buying’s cocaine, how much is it slowing you down?’ It’s just, I’m the one making the money, and they figuring, they get me into heroin, I buy 10 bags a day.”
So on a day you’re smoking crack, a typical day …
“In the life of Charlie as Crackhead. Let’s see, I do a show. I walk that way [points east]. Toward 3rd Street. When I disappear, just like that, then I’m going to get high. Over by the Palace, the men’s shelter. Tons of fuckin’ crack. Five-dollar vials. Get a stem, light it up, suck it in, blow it out. ‘Come on. Poh’lice. ‘Sgetouttahere. Try to keep the stem on.’ ”
So how much will you do at a time?
“The whole thing.”
Which whole thing?
“Whichever whole thing there is.”
Somebody I don’t get a good look at passes by, telling Charlie he shot his girl; from the look on Charlie’s face, I get the feeling the guy isn’t joking. When Marcie comes over in between songs and nestles into Charlie’s shoulder, I ask if he’s funny at home. No way, she says, the lazy fuck just sleeps all day, then she slaps his face and goes back to her quartet. On cue, a six-foot, 85-pound Morticia Addams look-alike drifts over to say she loved Charlie’s show, smiling at him like he’s the Charlie Manson she’s been waiting for. Charlie says he’s being interviewed, explaining, “That’s an old-fashioned junkie,” as she wanders off. Then he identifies what some of our neighbors are on; half are drugs I’ve never heard of. I ask what the crack high’s like.
“Paranoia,” he says. “I was high now, I couldn’t sit here, I’d be looking around, thinking everyone’s trying to get in my pocket.”
When ‘s the last time you smoked?
“Seven days ago. I still haven’t recovered. It got to a point, recently, where I couldn’t even — not that I wasn’t funny, but I’d only do $10 shows. Soon as I could get $10 in the hat I’d end it.”
So why do you do it?
“I don’t know. I’ve spent thousands and thousands of dollars on a high I cannot stand. Drugs make me work my ass off. I got good at being funny ’cause I needed the money to get high.”
Do you think you ‘re punishing yourself for something?
“Probably. ‘You got a low self-esteem/if you like to beam/and it ain’t what it seem/’cause you’re chasing a dream/down 3rd Street, the Devil’s beat.’ ”
Sounds like a rap song.
“Me and Marcie wrote it together. It’s called ‘Third Street.'” He takes out a dog-eared, typewritten copy of the lyrics and starts reading:
… This drug is a drug
that will kill your ambition
but ya jus’ won’t listen
coz ya can’t stop dissin’
and you’re always in position
for goin’ on a mission
it’s an everyday tradition
on Third Street.
I get the feeling Charlie’s self-conscious about reading, and I look down, nodding to his faltering beat, surprised at how lame his rapping is, how little snap is in his bravado. Charlie’s a consummate clown, capable of becoming anyone instantly, and this would seem a simple enough persona. By the last page his voice is almost inaudible, incredibly plaintive, and I look up. His eyes are closed and I realize he’s no longer reciting, that he never really was:
I jus’ gotta get high and I don’t know why
I wanna take away the pain but then it’s back again
I’m just sick and tired a bein’ sick and tired
a bein’ sick and tired a bein’ sick and tired
a bein’ greedy and needy and seedy.
I’m finished with the filth and the crime
crack crack crackin’ it up all the time
crawling through the gutter and slowly dyin’
Jus’ can’t stop buyin’
on Third Street, the Devil’s beat. *
I wait out a long moment before responding: Sounds pretty dreadful.
“It is. Right from the start. I want to stop. I’ve been running good and bad with it, going to NA [Narcotics Anonymous] meetings. One day I’ll smoke, then I’ll stop for a week, then I’ll do it for a month. Pure paranoia. If your hand was here, I’d watch my bag. I don’t trust nobody.”
I look at his hands, which are enormous: huge, spatulate fingers, each fingernail as wide as two of mine. “I’ve got these E.T. fingers,” he shrugs. “I was born with an enlarged heart, then I got rheumatic fever when I was a year old.”
Where were you living then?
“Well, I was born in Boston; when I got that they said I was in North Carolina.”
Charlie talks a little of his past, sketchily, and with a tenderness that belies the content of what he’s saying. His mother, he says, “was fucked up, stepdaddies and shit.” His one memory of his real father takes the form of a joke: “My dad cracked up in the Korean War; by the time I was a year old he’d told enough neighbors he was Jesus they put him in the nuthouse for five years. When he came out, he didn’t say he was Jesus anymore. He said he was God — which was fine, ’cause that made me Jesus.”
Charlie doesn’t have any jokes to tell about his childhood in North Carolina, just some bitter, impressionistic memories of being largely uncared for by relatives, of the stigma of his semiorphanage and complete poverty, of being beaten by teachers in class and by the kids after school. “They used to never promote me in school. I used to always get whuppings. The kids used to beat up on us afterward, and it was an embarrassment to play with the Barnett boys. My older brother and me, the black sheeps on the street. My mother dumped us off down there, and I didn’t see her for 11 years.”
When he finally returned to his mother, at the age of 12, she was “still fucked up” and he was practically illiterate, which in the Boston of the early ’60s meant an effective end to his education. (After the Saturday Night Live auditions he taught himself to read.) He remembers adolescence as a series of racist reform schools in Massachusetts, which taught him only “how to fight, to stay alive, and what drugs did what for your head.”
“Comedy,” he says, “came much later, as a kind of gift I never knew I had. I learned I could make people laugh, that I loved to do that, and that after a while I could make a living at it. I never thought of making it, I never thought of auditioning for anything. Everything I ever got came from someone seeing me on the street and wanting me.”
Joel Schumacher, his director on D.C. Cab, remembers an “incredible need to succeed in Charlie, and a shyness and innocence that I formed an immediate attachment to. He was like a kid who’d fallen asleep dreaming up one of his street shows and then woken up on a Hollywood set. A lot of people got very interested in Charlie very quickly,” he recalls, “making him all kinds of offers. It confused him, brought on all sorts of conflicts and doubt. I felt a little culpable, and wondered if I wouldn’t have done better to have left him in the park, where at least he knew the turf. He’s such a complicated, fragile person, a true original. Over the years he’s really paid the price for being so. Even when everything was going so well, there was a kind of Judy Garland-John Belushi side to Charlie, very angry, self-destructive, very much the same anguish, finally the same response. In our Marie Antoinette era, we say, ‘Just Say No to Drugs.’ But what does that mean to someone like Charlie? Just say no to a lifetime of anger?”
Greg Mullins says that Charlie’s is “the saddest case I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been in the business 14 years. I remember one night, during one of Charlie’s drug-free periods, I took a colleague to a show of Charlie’s that just wasn’t working. He was clearly uncomfortable onstage, unfunny, not like himself at all. My friend said, ‘Greg, how do we get him back on drugs?’ It’s a cruel story, but it illustrates the point: Charlie’s humor comes from his life, and his life’s been a cruel one.”
“I’ve had a fucked-up life,” Charlie nods. “My life is fucked up. I’m an angry man, and I’m an angry comic. I’m funniest when I’m mad. But you have to be on, and you’ve got to be quick. My brand of humor, you can’t be, shit, what’s that word? The audience will take over, you have to be so bold they’ll just accept you, so they say, fuck it, we have to, ’cause he’s too crazy for us to reason with him. I say all that vulgarity — sex, all that shit, people will — I get hecklers. They don’t like what I say and speak on it. So I dog ’em. You can’t be laid back worth a fuck. Some women get angry during the shows, ’cause that’s where a lot of my anger comes from and that’s where it goes. I used to have a hell of a temper, used to always beat up on women.
“It’s funny though, my father died this summer, and I went to see my mother, first time in years. When I was a year old, she was in trouble and sent me away for 11 years. When I came home, she was in trouble, and when I saw her this summer she was still in trouble. Only now I was a junkie, and I had to forgive her a lot of shit. We both just started crying.”
“Charlie,” Marcie told me later, “has lots of sides to him: his image side, which is really up for grabs, day-to-day. He’s got a very ‘personal’ side — the ‘Fuck it, I might as well just be honest’ side. He’s got what he calls his nigger side, which is very proud, and pretty cutting. And there’s the real Charlie, that only people like One-Eyed Shorty know, bums and addicts. More important, it’s how Charlie knows himself. King of the Park. Lots of times we wouldn’t have enough money to eat, and Charlie’d give them half of it, ’cause they had nothing. It comes from knowing what it’s like. Sometimes he’d be walking through the park at 7 a.m. after a night of partying, without a dime and hungry. He’d yell, ‘OK, I’m collecting for yesterday’s show,’ and they’d pay up-a quarter, 50 cents. Doesn’t sound like much, but at times like that it can be a lot of money.”
The Village All Stars are retiring for the night. There’s no one left in the park to sing for but the Rastas selling drugs by the chess tables, and they’re here for the night. Charlie really wants to go, rushing Marcie, saying a quick goodbye to me. Last week this time, Charlie was eastbound once the show was over, and it’s clear he’s still programmed that way, strongly, only what he wants now is to go home while he still can. When the five of them head up Fifth Avenue, Charlie’s a few steps ahead of the others and looking back over his shoulder, impatient at their dawdling and singing, which he keeps telling them is “completely homeless.”
THE COMIC STRIP on 82nd & Second is a welcome anachronism among the nouveau quiche cafés and boutiques of the Upper East Side, a place you’d sooner expect to pop up in some Jack Webb vehicle of the ’50s. Inside is the warm comfort of old wood, old beer, and old jokes; the clientele at the dimly lit bar (ex-comics, mostly, and comics waiting to go on) arguing about George Bush seem like they might as well be talking about Duke Snider or Abe Beame. I find Charlie, glum and angry, sitting with Marcie in a graffiti-scarred oak booth opposite the bar. He’s been given the best spot, at 1 a.m., but there are four comics on before him, and he says he doesn’t want to be here, he doesn’t want to be anywhere.
It’s been a month or so since I first met Charlie. I’ve gotten a powerful secondhand taste of what running good and bad with a major league drug habit’s like, the good time spent largely recuperating, the bad in tremendous isolation, in a place where I certainly can’t follow him. Charlie is remorselessly candid about his life (it’s the source of his comedy, and he doesn’t seem to know how to be any other way), but piecing it together from what he says is puzzle work. Events he describes in a deeply historical tone often turn out to have taken place two days before, and his mood swings are baffling and sudden: one afternoon, I’d find him performing in the fountain at the top of his form, wearing his sleeveless CHOOSE LIFE T-shirt, doing a perfect moonwalk as he explains he’s just trying to get the shit off his shoes, then I’d witness one of his $10 corner shows and quick getaways later that week. The end of it all seems to be the mood I find him in now, depressed, hostile, confused, utterly disgusted.
Still, things are looking up. There’s a tentative two-week offer from a big club in Fort Lauderdale, coinciding nicely with the sea monsters he’ll be costarring with nearby. Charlie, a professional comedian above all else, knows how to take the good in the same stride as the worst of it. Though he’s feeling like shit, he’s all business tonight, hustling agents who’ve come to see him, talking shop with club-owner Richard Tinken, a big man in the comedy field and someone in a position to do him some good. He settles back in the booth and tells me about life in L.A., how he got sick of the condo swimming pool after a month, then retired every afternoon to the sauna in his apartment, sweating the drugs out. After a cold shower he’d walk down Sunset Boulevard past the Chateau Marmont (the luxury hotel where John Belushi OD’ed) to the Comedy Store or over to Venice Beach to do a street show. I ask Charlie how the clubs in L.A. compare to New York. “Same shit,” he says, “nice places.”
The Comic Strip’s eight-by-10-foot stage is only a few inches above the audience level, so well-lit it’s practically glowing in the dark, 200-seat room surrounding it. It’s a full house tonight, 98 per cent white: aging jocks from the boroughs in threes and fours, awkward, half-drunk couples, flocks of tourists. A lot of the women look like they’ve been dragged here, and it is a fairly macho scene. The beginning of a 10-man, all-night bachelor party has a lock on the first-row tables; the groom, a kind of Spuds MacKenzie on two legs, has an audible head start in the booze department and pride of place under the microphone. He’s been heckling the shit out of the last two comics.
Limited to 15 minutes, Charlie hits the stage running, and by his second joke is walking up and down in front of the first-row tables, asking the two black couples in back to smile so he can see them, giving high-fives to Bachelor #1, yelling “How the hell are you, fuckin’ A, how’s the wife, how’s my kids?” then stepping onto a second-row table to ask a stony-faced middle-aged woman where she’s from. “From St. Louis,” she says. “Do the women there masturbate?” Charlie asks politely. Apparently they don’t, or would rather not say, and this enrages Charlie. “You lying bitch,” he yells, walking to the stage and flopping on his back. “What the fuck is this?” He puts a finger to his groin and starts convulsing up and down the stage until the woman, who can’t believe what she’s looking at, snickers under her hand a little. Charlie keeps it up, his mouth open and gagging, his eyes going white, and finally the woman starts roaring, louder than the bachelors in front of her. When he finishes, Charlie leans back on an elbow. “Now you remember?” he asks, nodding his head. “I thought you would.”
AFTER HIS SET, I offer Charlie and Marcie a ride to Port Authority in the cab I’m taking downtown. Turning onto Times Square, wall-to-wall crowds at 3:00 a.m., I ask Charlie, who’s been pretty quiet the whole ride, if he’d ever perform in a place like this. “I do perform here, all the fuckin’ time,” he says. “That corner over there.”
I take a long look at the furtive little congregations forming and unforming at the “Meat Market,” the corner of 42nd and Eighth; it’s been said that over $1 million changes hands on this corner every day. To me, it’s like watching a beehive, only more alien, dozens and dozens of people moving back and forth, no one seeming to leave. To Charlie it’s just another crowd: “Huge audiences,” he says, looking out the window with me, “any time of the night. Hookers, winos, crack dealers, heroin addicts, drag queens, pimps. They pay real well. You’d be amazed at how well they pay here. Good place to work on your heckler lines, any new material. I learn how to time my routines here.”
I’ve never heard Charlie talk about material before, or timing or routines, any of the buzzwords of his work; it’s easy to lose sight of his craft. I ask if there are any other comedians he likes, and he says, “Richie,” really softly, with incredible tenderness. “Lenny.”
At risk of patronizing Charlie, I ask him: “Why on earth would men like that destroy themselves with drugs?”
Charlie turns to Marcie and says he wants to go for a bite before getting on the bus back to Jersey. I wonder if he hasn’t heard me, or if he’s just impervious to such questions. “Because he’s a drug addict,” he finally says, looking lost in thought as he steps out of the cab. “What more reason do you need?” ■