Rhea Butcher and I walk into Mississippi Studios for a sound check. It’s around 5:30 p.m. on a Saturday in January and the sky outside is gray and heavy and spitting that bullshit non-rain that doesn’t soak you but leaves you freezing.
Rhea’s my opener—and Portland, home to Mississippi Studios, is the eighth stop on our rock club tour to support the release of my most recent album. We spaced the tour out a bit—it started back in October, and some of the remaining six cities stretch into the spring. Between dates we’ve spent time back home in Los Angeles and done club dates and festivals. We’ve visited family and spent New Year’s Eve in an RV parked on a farm in a Wild West movie-set-lookalike California mountain town named Ojai.
Rhea is also my fiancée.
We walk into the rock club and the owner, Jim, greets us from the stage. I’ve met him once before, at a different venue he owns in town, but I’m especially glad to see him here. He’s a cool, jovial guy and the last time I was at Mississippi Studios I recorded an album there—the same album we are touring on now. The release has done well—sold well, made a bunch of Best Of end-of-year lists—and I’m proud of it. And I’m proud it was recorded in this venue in this town, which I love.
Jim calls Rhea and me over, asks how the release is doing. I’m happy to be able to report on its success and happy to thank him for having us back. I can see that Jim is sitting with a few folks, but their backs are to us, and I can’t immediately see who they are. Jim introduces Rhea and me, and the two people sitting with him on the stage turn around. “Cheryl Strayed. Steve Almond. Meet Cameron Esposito and Rhea Butcher.”
Cheryl is the bestselling author of Wild, the book I’d been reading an hour before on the plane as we flew to Portland. Steve is someone whose work I found in my early 20s, while I was coming out and trying to figure out who to trust and who to like and how to talk about sex.
I’m reading Wild on Rhea’s recommendation. Yes, the book is everywhere now, and the movie it inspired is in theaters, but I’m reading it for Rhea, who lost her grandmother during the first leg of this tour. Rhea and her grandmother were incredibly close, sharing a roof for most of Rhea’s childhood, and this book is one of the things that got her through the last few months. I’m reading it to try and understand.
And a week before Rhea heard me talk about Steve—a writer I’ve mentioned to her before. We were at my parents’ house for Christmas and I saw Steve’s book My Life In Heavy Metal on the bookshelf in my old room and picked it up and turned it over in my hands. “I’ve read this book 12 times. You’re going to have to read it,” I said before placing it back on the shelf and climbing into bed. I meant to pack it and take it with me when we left but in the flurry of goodbyes, left it there alongside the few things that still feel familiar in a room I haven’t lived in for 15 years.
I tell Cheryl, “I’m reading Wild right now! Huge congratulations on your big year,” as I shake her hand and I tell Steve, “My Life In Heavy Metal is one of my all-time favorite books. I’ve read and reread it for the last decade,” as I shake his. We chat for a while—Cheryl and Steve and Jim and Rhea and me—about the show that night and the album and their new podcast and it’s actually lovely and intimate and normal feeling—it’s most natural thing in the world.
It’s not always like that. I’ve had moments meeting folks I revere when I suddenly realize I have exactly nothing to say to them. This isn’t that. This is one of those rare times when, “I’ve read and reread it for the last decade,” quickly fades into normal, easy conversation. We talk for a bit, make plans to meet up the next morning to be part of a new project Cheryl and Steve are working on. They head out into the night. We sound check, we do our shows, and we meet up with them the next morning, then Rhea and I drive up to Seattle where, somehow, we sold out a matinee performance.
I’ve never done a stand-up matinee—I’m not sure anyone has—but our later show sold out and this is the time the venue was able to accommodate, so we walk into Re-bar, our Seattle venue, at 2 p.m. for get ready for the 3 p.m. show. We have a two-hour gap between shows, which is also rare as shows are usually crammed as close together as possible, allowing just enough time for the venue to turn over the audience.
We walk into Re-bar and the producer welcomes us, shows us to the green room, gives us a rundown of the night. After business has been taken care of, she brings up non-business.
“I got an email today that I think you should see. Zero pressure on it from my end, but I thought you should know about it and read it yourself,” she says and she shows us an email from a young woman who will be attending the show. The woman’s friend has a ticket to the show as well but went into the hospital on New Year’s Day. The woman’s tone is kind and hopeful, not pushy, as she asks if I might have any time during my visit to stop at the hospital and visit her friend. She gives honest, concise details about her friend’s life and personality, the medical condition she is facing, and where I could visit her.
This is a new request for me. The specifics of our day were unique: Our shows start earlier than any stand-up show ever has, there is a large gap between them, I’ve got Rhea with me, and our producer has offered to drive us to the hospital. Most importantly, the email is kind and hopeful and its tone is unassuming. It’s the Perfect Storm starring Amal Alamuddin’s husband.
But today, we have time between shows and the producer has offered to drive us and the email is perfectly unassuming and the woman who wrote it is clearly hurting. So we do our first show and then we go to the hospital.
At the hospital, we meet the young woman who is struggling with her health. We met her family and friends. She has a huge group of friends. I wear my hospital mask upside down by accident and she makes fun of me for it and I love her for giving me shit. I put my hand on her arm and ask if there’s anything I can do for her. She asks me to describe my favorite joke from the show and I try to, with Rhea standing at my side, though it’s hard to describe jokes and I’m kind of failing at doing so. I make the young woman laugh at one point. I make her friends laugh a bit too. We thank her mother for letting us visit. Her sister takes a photo. We shake hands and leave. We drive back to Re-bar and do the second show—it’s most natural thing in the world.
It’s hard as a comic to not spend your life pointing out stupid nonsense—stupid nonsense perpetrated by a person or a group of people or myself or everyone. And, Jesus, there’s a lot we can all fix. That’s the whole job really—to point out stupid nonsense so we can all improve, be better, connect. Well, that and to help the bar or club or theater where we’re performing sell vodka sodas or beer buckets or stale-ass stadium-cheese nachos.
My columns offer nonsense-pointing too. “Can you believe this dude said this?” could be the title of probably half of them, and the other half, “Shut up a goddamn minute because I’m about to explain my experience.” I wrote about Snoop Dogg, but other than that, it’s mostly those two titles. (SECRET MESSAGE: 90 percent of all stand-up could also be categorized by those two titles.)
This column is different. This column is simply about people I met while doing my job or because of my job that I’m grateful to have met, and it’s about interactions that needed no fixing. I mean, of course a hospital visit needs fixing—I’d so much rather have met that young woman at my show than at the hospital—but it’s not fixing she or I can do. Or any of us can do. This column is to say, as we start a new year and continue the general floundering in the void that makes up a lifetime, that we can get it right with one another and that we often do—just not quite so much as to put me out of a job.