I can remember it like it was yesterday. There I was, twenty years old. There should be a law against making decisions when you are that young because you are as dense as the concrete you pound your feet on. Despite my misgivings, I was back at NYU for a second year. First year had been a nightmare, but through that darkness I discovered I had the ability to make people laugh.
Climbing down the stairs to the Village Lantern with May in my suitcase, I didn’t know what I was getting into. My blonde hair was sweaty from a long day of dance and acting classes. The lipstick was red, now smeared from my umpteenth cup of coffee. Under my joke book were flashcards for my Psych 101 class that I did in between comics so I had a chance of maintaining a good grade. The weather had begun to get cold, and the only warmth I was beginning to know was these basements. My then roommate had a boyfriend and I had a broken heart. This was it for me.
Staring around the room, with my five dollars and my pipe dream, I sat down not knowing anyone. They were much older than me. Just then, I was approached by a black guy with a white knit beany type hat on his head. He was skinny in stature and had deep, big brownish black eyes that were warm and stormy all at once. “I’m Ray Payton.” He said.
“April.” I looked down at the ground not knowing what to say except I had only been here once and never seen him.
Ray then proceeded to hit on me. He offered to buy me a drink and asked for my phone number. I told him I wasn’t interested. Heartbroken, I explained I had retired from dating. Ray returned the quip with, “You can do other things, right? I mean, you’re retired. What do you care?” Part of me wanted to deck him. As a mere tadpole in the stream, older male comedians who were more like sharks were always trying to snatch me in their jaws for the kill. I had been saying no like Nancy Reagan. On the other hand, I found myself trying not to laugh. That was a good comeback.
The show began and I was drawn out of the bucket. I remember I was after some guy telling rape jokes en masse. Climbing up to the stage, I began my act with May. Most of the stuff on my list hit. Now I was safe, the sharks couldn’t eat me without a fight. With every inch in me I hit the punchlines like Tyson hits a bag. When my set was finished I dismounted the stage. Waiting to shake my hand was my new friend Ray Payton.
Ray explained that he was surprised I was as good as I was and even more surprised I knew my way around the stage. He also mentioned that aside from thinking that I was sexy, he respected my comedic talents. Ray also mentioned he booked a room. It was a theatre where comedians opened for various plays. He said that he liked what I did and would love for me to do some time, and he would also recommend me to other shows. Ray also mentioned that it was a nonbringer, music to the ears of a newbie.
I did the theatre shows several times and honed my act there. The place always proved to be a supportive, peaceful environment that welcomed my twenty year old brazen boldness. Ray also recommended me to several other people. I still remember the phone calls, “You came highly recommended and I heard lots of good things about you from Ray Payton.”
Sure, Ray did hit on me but overtime I came to realize he hit on everyone. It was part of his charm and part of his character along with the bitter, sarcastic, cutting comments. However, he was like an onion. Under all those layers was something deeper. It was someone who understood what it was like to have talent and face bullshit, and that’s why he was such a friend to new people. I also came to respect him as an artist whether he was performing onstage, writing/directing a play, drawing/writing a comic book, or making a movie.
His hitting on me and me rejecting him in time became part of our schtick as friends. Once,during a stint as a videographer, Ray got a job videotaping couples having sex. With a possible spot on A Current Affair, Ray wanted to know if I had gotten back together with my then beau. I told him it would be a no go because my mother’s head would explode and my father would shoot him. When Ray asked about the beau, I told him it was over. Sensing I was hurting, Ray said, “Well his loss. You would have looked hot on camera.” Being that we were chilling and drinking coffee, I took a Splenda pack and hurled it at him. Ray ducked and we both laughed.
Ray was also my friend when things were more serious. At twenty one, I found myself in the throws of an abusive relationship. My ex-fiance snowed many of my friends in the beginning with his immediate devotion and over attentive nature. While I chirped about Mr. Wrong to anyone who would listen, I remember Ray somehow knew better. I remember he said to me, “Just watch out and be careful, you are settling. This is going to be one relationship where you are going to learn something.”
In a fashion that was not short of prophetic, Ray called my relationship with my ex. After one fight, shortly after things ended, I saw Ray. It was before one of his surgeries. I just remember telling him that he was right. My ex didn’t want to work, was abusive, had tried to kill himself in front of me twice, and didn’t want me using my puppets as well as made me choose. Ray didn’t say, “I told you so.” Instead he just nodded, smiled, gave me a hug, and bought me a drink. That’s when Ray asked me why I wasn’t talking about my ex onstage.
Soon I did.
I wrote a set about the breakup that became a hit. Unfortunately though, Ray and I crossed paths less and less. First he lost his toe, then his leg, and then he got progressively sicker with diabetes. All the while, he never played victim and always was in my corner. When I heard he had passed I read his funeral and service was in the Bronx. Part of me didn’t want to travel that far. It had been a long week. I was tired.
On the other hand, I am at a point in my life where the work is starting to pay off. Sometimes I can only focus on the people who have been unkind to me. This was someone who had always been good to me. This was someone who was one of the first friends I made doing comedy and was one of the first to give me a shot. He was willing to risk it with me when people were saying I was crazy, would always be an open micer, and was a hack prop act. Ray saw beyond all that.
At his funeral his cousin encouraged us to tell stories. Yes I mentioned Ray hit on me as did every woman in the room. Yes, I mentioned he gave me a shot. But there was so much I wanted to tell him. I wanted to tell him about the book I had written and how it would soon be out. I wanted to mention that I wanted to make myself a superhero in my own comic book and could he draw me please. I wanted to tell him about my single “Stay”being number one for five weeks. I wanted to tell him about the TV shows, the pilot, the movie.
Then I realized I couldn’t. Ray’s dead. The only way to talk to a dead person is via Ouija Board. But then I it occurred to me that he knows just like all those that passed on that were close to me know. And he will be in my corner along with Roger and his designer clothing filing his nails. Of course Joe will be there too with an idea for my next book as he redecorates the window. Jorge will jounce in like Tigger. John will have his great laugh and impressive hug. Amy will have made a sculpture or write a symphony. Julissa will look great now that she is a brunette again. Adira will tease me about being politically incorrect. Spenser will tell me he’s glad I am doing comedy but still won’t know his lines for scene study. Chris will be booking a show and telling me I am starting the evening because he knows my energy is strong. Aunt Peggy will be there with her glass of Scotch and cigarette in hand shaking her head, wondering where I find my crazy friends and asking why I didn’t write my book sooner. Ray of course will be joining this posse.
It’s a posse one cannot see but feels in spirit. Ray is now a part of this group. Right now he is probably waiting to get onstage in heaven. Comedy being comedy, Richard Pryor may have accidentally bumped him. Nonetheless, he is sketching a comic book and will soon find a new friend. Or he is trying to get a date with the good looking angel in the front row. Sure, she might shoot him down but if she knows what’s good for her she’ll see a good friend. Or better yet, Richard Pryor is signing off and bringing up the newbie in the sky. He’ll have his caustic wit and he will kill them. I can feel St. Pete laughing now.
Ray, you were one of the good guys. You were willing to give me a shot when a lot of people were not. Blessed is he who gives a newbie a nonbringer spot.
Rest in peace dear heart.