Monday, June 23, 2008

George Carlin, 1937-2008

In the summer of 1971, I was an Army second lieutenant going through the field artillery officer basic course at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. The Sooner State in summertime is no treat, but my three month stay did produce close encounters with two famous entertainers. The first was Lou Rawls, who was featured on Soul Night at the Fort Sill Officers' Club. He sang on the patio as I went through the buffet line, getting ribs, black-eyed peas, greens, cornbread, and (yes!) watermelon.

The other occurred on a long weekend when I got in my car and headed west with the intention of getting to high mountains. After driving most of a day and part of a night, including a spectacular run north and west of Tucumcari on a road that skirted the edge of a deep canyon, along which I saw working cowboys on horses, I ended up in Taos, New Mexico. After checking into a motel and having the best Mexican dinner since I'd left San Antonio at the age of five, I went looking for action. At the center of town was a shopping complex done in the worst sort of 1960s brutalist style, a bunker-like structure with great expanses of exposed, unpainted concrete. On one of these walls I saw a sign pointing down a staircase that descended from street level, saying "Downstairs at the Sunshine Company".

I went down and found a small bistro, fairly lively but not overcrowded, was able to get a small table not far from a stage that was unoccupied at the time, and ordered a beer. As I was about halfway through my first beer, a man dressed in black pants and shirt, with thinning brown hair and a scruffy beard, took the stage without any introduction and started a routine about parochial school, where the object was to get girls to throw up ("Hey, Mary Margaret, looka this! BLEAGGGGH!") He then shifted into a discussion of drugs: how the word had become a synonym of everything wrong with the younger (i.e. my) generation, yet how prevalent drugs of legal varieties were ("Coffee, the little daily cup of speed."). Next he riffed a bit on the misunderstandings arising from the hipster usage of "shit" as a synonym for marijuana. When he got onto serious theological stuff, I nearly fell out of my chair.

I finished my beer, and waved to the waitress to get another. When she delivered it, I asked who was the comedian. "That's George Carlin," she said. "He's a friend of the owner and he's doing the gig for free."

Update: Jerry Seinfeld has this appreciation on the op-ed page of today's New York Times. "[L]ike a train hobo with a chicken bone" is a simile I will treasure.