I was invited to perform for Green Collar Comedy, at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, as one of several radical comedians in the Bay Area.
One problem: I’m not a comedian.
They said no problem; I could do anything as long as it was about environmental justice and required no tech.
The result: “EXIT 11.”
I played myself, shaped by New Jersey, New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago, a bit lost in the lovely yogic/chakra-laden culture of the Bay Area. I explained that growing up in New Jersey, one becomes used to elitist and regionalist taunts. “What exit?” was a common one (the joke: there’s nothing of value in New Jersey except a lot of highways, so the only thing to ask someone from New Jersey is what exit they live near). My hometown was Exit 11 on the New Jersey Turnpike, and from a young age I would reply to “What exit?” with “ELEVEN, MOTHERFUCKER!” gesturing with both middle fingers up to represent the number 11 and a double FUCK YOU.
I explored the differences between industrial/suburban New Jersey and the organic, holistic, gentrified San Francisco Bay Area, before moving on to issues of environmental justice. My hometown was a Superfund site. Toxic chemicals from factories being dumped in the woods and marshes was a matter of routine without regulation; the local military arsenal stored old chemical weapons that rusted, cracked open, and leeched their poisons into the groundwater. Neon green rabbits had been seen in the woods. One cold winter in the 90s, the huge, old underground gas pipeline, which was not properly maintained, exploded in different places: first a friend’s house exploded, then a strip mall, then an entire housing development.
As I recounted these stories of class, ecology, and environmental degradation, I got so “New Jersey Angry” that I had to soothe myself with Northern California techniques; I unpocketed a small sound device and played directly into the microphone: first Vivaldi, then, later, the sound of chanting Buddhist monks, and finally, soothing whalesong. I got the audience to join me and make whale sounds, to “wail with the whales,” the ultimate Northern Californian sound effect of self-care, while I made obscene gestures towards Alcoa, Dow, and Chevron…
The idea was to amuse the audience with the culture/style clash of “New Jersey versus the Bay Area,” and then to dig into deeper issues of class and environmental justice.