Downbound Train

“I had a job, I had a girl, I had something going, mister, in this world.”  -Bruce Springsteen

The Covid 19 pandemic hit me hard.  It took away my livelihood, my vehicle for helping others, and my self-esteem.

I’m a standup comic, and I work at a comedy club that does a lot of fundraisers; youth sports leagues, dance troupes, Meals on Wheels, church groups, we did them all.  We put on comedy shows and raised money for worthy causes.

When you’re a standup comic and you’ve passed the age where any possibility of fame and fortune has disappeared quickly beyond the horizon, you struggle to find meaning, and a place to ply your craft that you spent years developing; you don’t just change jobs and suddenly start dishing out ice cream at Cold Stone Creamery, or convince folks that a new mattress is exactly what they need to cure what ails them, or start writing children’s books.  You find stages and you go be funny.  I was extremely lucky to be able to do that, and help people in the process.  I helped raise almost a million dollars for all sorts of groups around Western New York.  Going to work was fun for me, and I was paid to do it, and people sang my praises because of the good things I helped accomplish.

On March 16th, 2020, it all ended.  It ended abruptly, and no one knew what was going to happen next.

We canceled our shows, hoping to rebook them in a few months.  We didn’t know how long this thing was going to stretch out for, or how bad it was going to be.  I didn’t look for a job, because I was certain I’d be back to work right away.

I filed for unemployment.  I didn’t do it right away, because I didn’t know how.  I had never been unemployed before.  Work has been a huge part of my life since I was 13.  I delivered papers, pizza and flowers, I managed convenience stores and grocery stores.  I taught high school kids how to be effective broadcasters.  I worked in radio, both on the air and behind the scenes.  I worked at an amusement park, running rides, selling people on knocking down the bottles to get a prize, and whatever else they wanted me to do.  I worked on the George Carlin tour, driving around the country with merchandise in tow, and working with theater and casino owners and technicians and ushers and everything else.

And I was a standup comic.

All of those other things I refer to in the past tense; I was a grocery store manager, I was a dj, I worked as a tour manager, but I AM a comedian.  I’ve been a comedian so long, I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t.  It’s like asking a chicken if they remember what the inside of the egg looked like.

Work has always been sacred to me.  I have said a thousand times if I said it once, “An honest day’s work should come with an honest day’s pay.”  “Early is on time and on time is late.”  And “If you don’t have pride in your work, you don’t have pride in yourself.’  Work is a constant theme for me, and it eclipses almost everything else.

My heroes are Bruce Springsteen, Mario Cuomo and my father.  

Bruce has been singing about the working man for almost 50 years now; men working in factories, working on the highway, getting a union card and a wedding coat.

In his book Reason To Believe, Governor Cuomo said “…if [we are] failing to provide enough jobs for people, we are denying them one of the best ways of joining in our common value system–work!–the simple experience of holding a job, cooperating with other people, and earning one’s bread with dignity.  

And my father?  He didn’t have to say anything.  He just packed his meager cold cut sandwich in his work bag and headed off in the morning, and came home at night.  And when the heat came on when it was cold, and food was in the refrigerator, and we had clothes and shoes, we knew that whatever it was that he was doing was working.

I stayed home and kept house, because it was all I could do.  My shows were canceled, and they weren’t coming back like I thought.  I washed clothes and cooked meals, unpacked moving boxes and cleaned the new house that we had just bought (great timing), and tried to contribute.  At one point, in August of 2020, I tried to recapture a little bit of the way things were by staging comedy shows on my lawn.  It was fun, but in the end, without much of an audience and without the opportunity to do much good, it didn’t really replace what was missing in my life.  I was depressed, angry, and rudderless.

In the winter, my lovely wife Pamela referred me to a job that the Monroe County Department of Health had openings for, on their Covid-19 response team.  I was very reluctant at first, because I’ve never worked in an office, and I was sure my mouth would get me in trouble with an ill-received joke or quip, and I’d be fired and made to leave in disgrace.

My wife talked me into it, explaining that if it wasn’t a good fit, I could quit and it would be no harm, no foul.

I applied and got hired, and started working on the very first day, sending out quarantine and isolation letters.  We were sending out thousands of them, and I was working four days a week for five hours a day, gradually learning more about the Department of Health’s Covid response and what a big part I was playing.

I picked my child up from school, continued to cook dinners, and binge-watched a lot of television.  And I went to work every day except Wednesday, so I would be available to shuttle my child to doctor’s appointments.  Every so often, a performance opportunity would pop up, and I would go, even though I was very rusty.  I did my best, and in some cases had to listen to my old comedy CDs in my car to remember my act.

Eventually the pandemic slowed down, and all of the new hires left or were let go, except for me.  I continued to work, and asked around the Health Department for other opportunities, including working with Early Childhood Intervention, helping caseworkers do the paperwork for the children they were helping.  I was encouraged to take the Civil Service exam, and scored very well, even though I was certain I had done poorly.  Suddenly, I was being talked to by various people at the Health Department about full-time opportunities that I was under consideration for.  And while I have received no firm offers, it is a great feeling to have people tell me that they want me on their team, that the work I do is good work, and that they enjoy having me around.

And finally, a month ago, the comedy club I was managing reopened, and I was back on stage.  It felt like I never left, and had been away for ever, all rolled up into one.

The pandemic has been a roller coaster for me.  Where I used to contribute on social media, I had purposely been radio silent since the beginning for fear of being ridiculed for getting a “day job,” which was always the sign that a comedian had thrown in the towel and quit comedy; a thing to be ashamed about.

I did two shows for Gilda’s Club, and while they weren’t in the best of circumstances with social distancing, it was good to be a part of something charitable where I could help others once again, even if I was very rusty from not having performed for a long time.

I wish I could say that I used the down time to finally write one of the books I have been planning on writing, or written a new hour of material, or gotten one of the projects I’ve been wanting to do off the ground, but I didn’t do any of those things.  Uncertainty and fear definitely stopped me from even trying, and for that I have nothing but regret.  But new challenges are on the horizon, things are getting better every day, I’m working, and I have hope.

I hope this message finds you healthy and happy, dear reader.

And as Dan Rather was fond of saying when he signed off his nightly news broadcast, I will sign off that way as well.

Courage.

Ralph Tetta

October 2021