Sunday, November 28, 2010

Chapter Six

Tucker surfed the internet back in his apartment to release the stage tension after the show. It was a ritual. Not a productive one, but a comfortable one. He could lose hours of his life working across the links on the top bar of his screen if he wasn't careful. Being essentially anti-social, he did not start with social networking sites, but had to work up to those.

Tucker liked to start with the Drudge Report as his touchstone and go for a while where the links took him. He hopped links from Drudge's page off to newspapers and aggregators and blogs all over the world. Straight news stories about the President or Congress and their latest standoffs. Sensational news stories and even news of the weird, with at least 80% of them actually being true. There were links at the bottom to all of the news agencies and all of the newspapers and all of the wire services from arond the world. Links to all of the major op-ed writers and their current columns, if you could still call them columns when they were digital and not in newspapers in inches. On rare ocassions Tucker would open Drudge and see the flashing siren announcing a significant breaking news stories. Not tonight, though. There were just placeholder articles giving the last polling results before the election started when the polls opened in about six hours.

Exhausting Drudge's links took a good twenty minutes or so and cleansed his news palate, so to speak. Off to the more specialized sites where Tucker's political bent would come into play and influence his choices of website's to visit. Tucker had arrived at this point of his life as a political conservative, as he defined it within the American political spectrum. He hadn't always been conservative, that was for sure. Back in his younger days, his college days particularly, he was an energetic liberal. He even had a banner poster in his dorm room proclaiming his intention to go to Canada to dodge the draft should it come back. Funny then, that a few short years later he would find himself in a recruiter's office volunteering for military service. The military changed his views on life, and he found himself shifting through a libertarian period and then finally to conservative worldview as he became a factory worker after his service years ended. All of that life experience found it's way into his comedy act now in various bits.

Tucker moved on the next level of news surfing - the partisan opinion aggregators. He liked the conservative websites like TownHall and Newsmax, which were run by think tanks or experienced journalists. There he could find a partisan take on the same newstories that he found on Drudge, as well as editorials from the leading conservative pundits and media stars. After spending himself on the conservative writing that caught his eye, Tucker liked to balance himself with a visit to the Huffington Post - which was mostly liberal in it's selections. While he found himself heckling the site somewhat as he read, he wanted to get their take on the news and peruse the liberal opinion columns.

Surfing on to the most partisan level of news sites, Tucker indulged in the polar opposites of Free Republic vs. Democratic Underground. No hold barred on these sites, with partisans chatting amongst themselves about the dire straights we find ourselves in, the betrayal of the folks by the cowardly political leaders who were selling out their parties, and the last chances to turn things around. Someone would post an article for discussion, and then the partisans would have at it with sequential comments agreeing or disagreeing with the article's point of view and often taking potshots at their polar opposites - the "Freepers" or the DUmmies". Red meat for the partisans, of which Tucker was undoubtedly one.

All of the news sites were focused on the election.  Predictions were all over the map, with optimism running high. Some of it rational, and some of it wishful thinking. In all likelihood the Republicans were set to make major gains and perhaps retake one or both houses of Congress. The President was not up for election in this cycle, but his agenda was. If the Democrats were, in fact, soundly defeated, then his ability to carry further his agenda would be hampered by an emboldened opposition with the ability to block legislative priorities. The President was traveling on a coat-tails tour of the battleground states hoping to pull off some saves. Many of the senior Congressmen in his party had barely survived in the primaries and were facing unexpectedly stiff opposition from the Liberty Movement in the general election. Some may not survive the day if the worst-case scenarios played out.

Feeling sufficiently up to date on the election news, Tucker was ready to sign in to his social networking sites. He had two primary destinations for his social networking needs: Facebook and Twitter.

"Last show on the tour is in the books. Thank you all for coming out to see us. I'll see you on the road again somewhere", Tucker posted on his Facebook wall.

Facebook was mostly still eluding him in terms of being a useful tool. It was a necessary part of his business life as a performer. He had a small fan base on the B-circuit, and was able to keep up with the fans that he "friended". Mostly he listed his club schedule and a way for them to buy his one performance CD. He also posted comments ocassionally on his wall about funny things that happened to him on tour or with links to videoes and articles that he liked. He kept up with his three brother in New York, Birmingham, and Los Angeles since he didn't get to see them often in real life. He also had been accepted as friends by the few celebrities that he knew from the entertainment business.

One of those entertainers - Robert Ingvall - was a prodigious Twitter user, and Tucker had himself become addicted to the pseudo-texting site. Here was a place that he could express himself fully, although concisely with microblogging tweets out into the Twittersphere for his followers to read. His timeline was all over the place in content. Some personal observations from daily life. Some quotes from, and links to, articles that he had read on the op-ed sites. A lot of politics, both original to him and in reply to those he followed. He even engaged in mini-debates on Twitter with followers on current news stories. Twitter-bates was the word he coined for that, and Tucker did that as well as anybody on there.

Ingvall was up late most nights, well into the early morning hours, and Tucker could see that he was on Twitter now. Strangely, he was tweeting about everything but the election. Probably because Robert was a well known Democrat and had been through enough election cycles in his long life to know that tomorrow was not shaping up well. He was keeping his mind occupied with other things. From that, Tucker knew that he would likely find him more engaged over on his blog.

Before he headed over to the blog to spar with his virtual friends, Tucker threw out a few Tweets. "Don't forget to vote, unless you're not paying attention. You guys stay home." That kind of stuff, plus links to a few op-ed columns that talked about how pivotal this election was for future generations. He saw that Lisa from St. Paul had sent him a Direct Message, and he replied to that. Lisa was recently widowed and trying to re-establish herself and he tried to help as he could with a little humor. Satisfied, he pulled up his favorite haunt - the blog.

Robert Engvall's blog was a pleasant surprise that Tucker had stumbled on a couple of years earlier. He had been reading a review of Engvall's latest movie and saw a reference to a separate blog. Not a film blog, as Tucker had expected a famous film director to have. A general interest blog, where Engvall wrote weekly articles on topics as diverse as politics, religion, science, and culture. Brilliant articles, Tucker found, that showed a breadth of thinking that transcended the blockbuster action thrillers that the Engvall was predominantly know for directing. Or that he used to direct years ago when he was in better health. In recent years health complications had limited his ability to work on location, and he transformed into a gifted film editor - working from home on a suite of computers. Most knew that he had had complications from a virus that he had picked up on a jungle location shoot. What they didn't know was that he had developed a fairly pronounced case of agoraphobia and very rarely ever left his condo in the Willis building downtown Chicago. It didn't matter where he was physically though, as he maintained a near 24/7 presence online.

In the intervening two years since finding Ingvall's blog, Tucker had become a frequent commenter on the site. He read each new article weekly. He appreciated it's brilliance and the eloquent writing. And he disagreed with every one that he read. Tucker respected Ingvall enough to disagree, in a civil manner, in the comments. Not as a debate, but as a conversation. A conversation carried on weekly across the many threads of the blog. Sometimes many threads simultaneously.

Tucker was an old hand at the blog now, and he commented now differently than when he had first found it. That night he had written an angry comment in response to an article that Ingvall had written about a film that he hated, but that Tucker had really liked. It wasn't a vulgar comment by any means, but the anger behind it was palpable and left nothing to the imagination. What he hadn't expected from a comment left on a blog of a celebrity was a response. But he got one, in the form of reply embedded at the end of Tucker's comment as it was posted. Wow! Not only a response, which thrilled him in itself, but a civil one at that. That set Tucker back on his heels, made him think about the nature of online anonymous posting, and set the stage for many hundreds of comments to come.

Many of his friends had posted on the latest thread in the last day or so, and Tucker spent some time catching up with comments. Blogs were a delayed conversation, compared to Twitter's near-instantaneous feedback. You might post a comment on the blog and not get the response you needed for a couple of days. Tucker hit "end" and went down to the bottom of the comments page and then worked his way back up, commenting as he went.

There was a comment from John, a professor at Notre Dame. One from a scientist in France. One from Teddy the horse rancher, also in Minnesota, tweaking him a little. One from GD in Australia, and another from "labrat89" in Canada. Tucker was perhaps overmatched by several of the commenters that he tangled with on the current topic of this thread: Theory of Evolution vs. Intelligent Design Movement. But, he had enough classes at the university and thirty years of studying the topic as a hobby to help him hang in there. He was one of the very few holding up the ID side of the discussion, and it took a while to get all of the comments answered. Fun!

Tucker looked up at the clock. 2 AM! Time had passed quickly online, and now he was noticing how hungry he was. He grabbed a coat and headed out looking for somewhere he could get a filling meal on what was just barely Tuesday morning.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Chapter Five: Meet-up

"Mr. Kelo, your guest is ready to see you now".

"Thank you, Justin. I will be up to the suite momentarily. Would you see that she has refreshments please."

"Of course, sir". Justin Pearce retired from the small private room, leaving his boss alone with the nervous gentleman who had arrived earlier requesting to see him.

It had been a long day for Martin Kelo and it seemed that it was not over yet. He had been in Chicago for two days now and had been in meetings almost non-stop since he had arrived by private jet at Midway Airport. Over the years he had found that he required very little sleep and midnight meetings like this were not uncommon for a driven man. He found that meeting at a late hour gave him an advantage over his business associates who might not be as clear-headed as he was. Justin, who had adapted to this schedule and worked these long hours alongside his boss, assisted by serving only decaffeinated coffee and keeping the lighting rheostats artificially low. Martin had negotiated some of his best deals after his associate was yawning opposite him at a table. As the tired gentleman with him was doing right now.

"I can see that I am keeping you up late tonight," Martin offered by means of closing the meeting and moving on to his next one. "Do you need to be getting back to your servers to run final checks?"

"I think that we have done everything that we can do at this point. Everything is automatic from here out."

"Well, let's hope so. Tomorrow is game day. The day that we bring fundamental change to your country, which has needed change for so very long."

"Yes", the Dr. said. "It has been a long struggle. I've wanted change since I was a freshman at Berkeley in the Sixties. We must stop being oppressors and give our government back to the people."

"Does the young man share your admirable devotion to the cause?"

"He does not. He is brilliant and gifted - more than any student I have ever had in my classes - but politically apathetic I am afraid, as is typical of his spoiled generation. His part of the work is done though, and I have it from here. He does not need to be involved tomorrow for this to work. He helped the people whether he knows it or not."

"I am confident that you can complete your task tomorrow. The people may never know of your contribution. They cannot know. But I know, as do my associates. Only you can do what you are doing for the people tonight, and we appreciate your skills and more importantly your actions on behalf of the people".

These words from a luminary in the movement like Martin Kelo had the desired effect of revitalizing the scientist and putting steel in his spine and fire in his eyes.

"Is there anything else that you need from me?", Martin asked.

His spine now steeled, he went one step too far. "Well, given the difficulty of the task, and the risk to my professional future that I am taking, I think that I should be getting double what I've gotten so far..."

"Dr. Evans, don't be foolish". Martin's charm dropped several degrees to the icy stare that had folded experienced businessmen before. "You have been well compensated and you should not ask for more. Not from me and not from any of my associates. You should know that you can be at risk in more ways than one."

Dr. Evans was startled and frightened, and wanted to apologize to minimize the danger that he suddenly felt. But, there was no one to apologize to as Mr. Kelo was already up and out of a side door and his assistant Mr. Pearce was there in his place ushering him out of the room and into a freight elevator to leave the hotel through the kitchen and out into a back alley into the night.

Martin used the elevator ride up to his suite to clear his mind and to transition to his meeting with his guest upstairs. It had been a whirlwind of meetings since he had arrived in Chicago, and had just one more before the event that he was here for - the United State's mid-term election - began.

Before he left Toronto for the States, Martin had seen to it that his business ventures were in good shape with a strategy developed for each division for the coming year. Martin Kelo Enterprises was a global conglomerate with several subsidiaries and front companies and boards of directors for each. Martin was the driving force for the rapid growth of the company in the last ten years, and was perhaps the only one who knew the complete organizational reach. He had started with a nest egg of inherited money and had entered the field brashly in the money markets. Hedge funds, which did quite well in the run-up to the housing-bubble crash. Venture capital investments in companies in the growing health care fields. Currency speculation - famously shorting countries that he predicted would have major fluctuations in their currency. Global companies knew no nationalist loyalty, Martin's least of all. There was a greater good to be serviced than any national need, and for Martin that good was accumulating wealth rapidly.

The money market companies that were the core of  Martin's success were now safely diversified into more tangible assets under the directorship of some able managers that ran the day to day business in his absence. Martin had been one of the very few to see the recession coming in the States, and had moved his money out of securitized mortgages and heavily into U.S. Treasury Bills. After the downturn happened in 2009, Martin had begun buying distressed companies that had laid off half of their workforce, betting that they would return to fiscal health as the demand for industrial products would inevitably come back. With the price of minerals and precious minerals depressed, Martin bought mines in Africa, and set up an office in Johannesburg. With the mining businesses in hand, he bought mining equipment manufacturing companies in the U.S. and South America, and idle shale oil mines in Canada. He choose Toronto to base his headquarters for the Kelo Americas subsidiary, where he was currently building Kelo Towers.

Those risks that Martin had taken in 2009 in buying the distressed companies, against the worried advice of some of his board members from the financial services sectors, had begun paying back in slowly burgeoning recovery of early 2010. His personal wealth was growing, pushing him well into the billionaires club. Martin began investing in a different line altogether - political activism. He formed new organizations, with new directors and new boards to influence the direction of progressive politics in Canada, in the Eastern European countries that were still finding their way after the breakup of the Soviet Union, and in the United States that was transforming itself in the wake of the election of a charismatic and forward thinking President in 2008. The political activities were his new passion, and were the reason for his visit here in Chicago.

Martin was proud of the impact that his umbrella organization Progress for A New Century had made on the American political landscape in a short timeframe. He was confident that his spending had been able to blunt the unexpected rise of the Liberty Movement that had grown up in the wake of the recession to demand a halt to out-of-control spending and the expansive growth of the federal government. Growth that Martin liked and sought to accelerate through his political front groups, which he met with yesterday.

Martin had chosen his team well. Leaders all, with a passion for social justice and skills at electioneering. Each with a necessary niche.

Kamillah Washington headed up the community organizer organization that was handling voter registration among the disenfranchised. She ran a network of paid volunteers that enrolled voters on college campuses, at unemployment offices, at rallies, and at union halls. Kamillah was arranging buses from those locations to the polls for election day tomorrow.

Kim Woodruff ran the County Clerks Project, and ambitious plan that recognized the importance of county officials in the counting and reporting of results on election day. Martin had watched the 2000 Presidential election recounts in Florida from overseas and was fascinated by the county clerks sitting in rooms counting the hanging chads and was struck by how few votes in one location could affect a nation-wide election. He became convinced that having progressive champions in those positions could make the difference in a close election, and was putting a serious amount of his money behind that proposition.

David Hallstrom supervised the think tank that produced white papers on various topics that advanced the progressive movement for distribution to journalists around the country. David also fed stories to a network of libreral bloggers that blew stories up to the mainstream aggreagator sites for immediate impact on the casual web surfers. David also headed up a separate journalistic pseudo professional organization that provided funding for hundreds of new correspondents at public radio member stations with a mission to focus on human interest stories about the downtrodden and oppressed peoples of America.

Finally, Juanita Alvarez handled direct funding of the campaigns of Congressman in the moderate to liberal ranks. She was a master of financial bundling and was funneling money through the various house caucases to the member's re-election committees. Lately, Juanita had significant success attracting donors throughout Martin's international connections through the use of untraceable prepaid debit cards by encouraging members to disable the verification systems required by the election laws. Those might or might not be challenged after the election, but were very useful to fund ad campaigns before the election.

One other, retired master sargeant Malcolm Gunn, had reported separately about the black ops activities that he was personally handling for Martin. Operations that he was about to share with his last guest.

Bing. The doors of the direct elevator openend and Martin stepped out to find himself face to face with Ms. Vivianne Luo. CEO of the South Asia exports, and his partner in tomorrow's activities.

"Martin, it's so good to see you again."

"A pleasure, Vivianne, as always."

"Did you get good reports from your team?", Vivianne asked

"I did indeed. Everything is going as planned."

"Well", Vivianne sighed, "I guess now we just our chances with the voters tomorrow."

"Who said that I was leaving it up to chance".

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Chapter Four

Midnight. The show had gone a little long. Last show of the tour - might as well use it all up. The four of them had thrown out all of the regular bits, plus trying some new stuff that they might want to use on the club circuit as they waited for another steady gig to come along. Thus was the life of a comedian.

What to do now, now that the show was over? Tucker was too keyed up to be able to go home and sleep right away. He knew from these many nights on the road that it would take a couple of hours more to burn off the energy and be able to lay down for some zzzz's. The difference tonight, though, was that he was back in his hometown.

Tucker had been invited over to a fraternity's after-hours parties, and had declined. Really, he was past that in his life. Not that he hadn't had plenty of nights in his life where he had gone out after a show on the road and found any of the myriad ways to get in trouble when no one knows you personally. He had. He had his share of wild nights, both enjoyed and regretted. But, he was grown up now. Now he was into more sedate entertainments. The other comedians had taken up the frat on their offer though, especially Courteny - who would be worshipped there. Tucker wished them all good luck and said he would see them out on the circuit in some dive somewhere sometime. He had spent enough time with them in the last 6 months that he didn't need to draw out the good-bye.

It was just a quick walk over to his off-campus apartment. Down past the Student Union and over across the Quad. Past the Performing Arts Center and down some side streets to a small apartment building, where he had found a short-term sublet on an efficiency apartment from a student who was departing the campus early. He had gotten a good deal on it actually, and had gotten it mostly furnished. He had moved his few possesions, a TV and Stereo and some books and bedding, in earlier yesterday. That was before his disorienting afternoon nap before the show.

Tucker turned on the TV and flicked through the channels while his laptop was booting up. He had recently been to the phone store and purchased an aircard for it so that he could get online wherever he was on the road and stay connected to his social network sites. He had a pretty strong signal on campus and would be online quickly, networked in with his vitural buddies. It was an everyday addiction, enabled by Verizon and Blogger, and Twitter, and all of the other sites that he frequented and participated in. What could he say? He was an online addict, and he knew it. It was his way of dealing with loneliness.

He could put nice face on it and call it "solitude" instead of loneliness in the times when it bothered him. Strange that a man who made most of his living on stage entertaining hundreds or thousands in his best gigs preferred solitude. Reveled in it, actually. But, that was just who he was, honestly. On-stage a clown. Off-stage a loner. Not having many friends IRL - in real life - was an occupational hazard for Tucker. That was certainly one tangible cost of living life on the road. Out of a suitcase. Transient. On the rare ocassions when he stopped to consider that cost, Tucker would admit to himself that what he had were more like acquaintances. Some, at church for example, were long-term acquaintainces that had never really progressed to more than that.

Virtual friendships and virtual habits had come to compensate for what he lacked in his life in the flesh-and-blood department. Wherever he was, whatever town he was in, wherever he was staying, he had the internet to keep him company. He could connect, sign on, and surf and meet up with his network of online friends. Facebook for keeping up with family, coworkers, and old high school buddies. Twitter was for expressing himself out into the world 140 characters at a time - micro-opinions - and for keeping his small coterie of fans up to date on his travels and gigs.

He could also indulge his hobby of browsing site after site of news and political opinion. He would start with the news aggregator sites like the DrudgeReport and browse article after article on current events. Then he was off to the mainstream partisan sites for links to editorial columnists, which formed a lot of his understanding about more complex issues of the day. Finally to the highly-partisan forums, both left and right, for flame-thrower chat from the commenters. Those were always highly entertaining, as long as you remained a lurker like Tucker did and stayed out of the line of fire.

No doubt about it. Tucker was a news junkie.

And tomorrow was the super bowl for news junkies. Election day.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Chapter Three

Tucker took a look back from the side of the lecture platfrom to soak in the applause as the crowd's attention was re-directing from his set to Courtney's. She had asked him offstage earlier what Big Ten school was Illinois's rival in basketball, and was using that information to insult Purdue as she opened her act. Beta was out of his seat fist-pumping that joke. His distracted ex-roomie was exiting the ampitheater classroom up one of the steep aisles, taking two or three at a time like he was on a mission. The two Men-in-Black types were the only ones in the room still looking at Tucker, strangely, while talking into their Blackberries.

The sponsoring frat had set up a green room of sorts down the hallway from the lecture hall in a teacher's lounge. Easy chairs and a TV and some refreshments for the talent. Not rock star level refreshments. They weren't celebrities on that level. Sandwiches and soda and, being a fraternity, beer. A keg of the cheap stuff. Roberto Juarez and Venkat were in there getting psyched up for their shows. Talking to themselves and they ran through their sets semi-verbally, mimicking the practiced physical movements that would enhance the bits. Exaggerated hand gestures. Exaggerated facial tics. Slapstick stuff at points. Roberto did a set mostly about dating pitfalls, which always went over with this age crowd, and Venkat did some ethnic impressions and cultural jokes . They were getting into character and would not be chatty at the moment. Tucker needed to unwind and decided to skip the Green Room for a while and started wandering the halls instead.

Had it really been 30 years since he had classes in this very building? It still looked very familiar and unchanged. The campus had grown North continually since then, with shiny new red-bricked buildings trying to maintain the architectural theme of the campus. Lots of new bicycle paths threading through between the campus with empty bicycle racks at each building entrance. Even a second Quad of sorts in the middle of the new complex for the engineering students to congregate on and socialize with their peers. But this historic building that they were occupying tonight was still in active use. First year orientation type classes mostly. Nothing requiring the state-of-the-art equipment that research required elsewhere. Hell, when he was here thirty years ago state-of-the-art had a different look to it. Crude robotic steel structures with giant-sized CPU's following lines marked out on the floor. "Touch-screen" panels that were hugh and thick and operated by a matrix of beams of light that your finger would interrupt when you touched the glass. State-of-the-art was a concept that implied a constantly changing state, and the evolution of technology in Tucker's lifetime was staggering.

Tucker poked his head into some classrooms just for grins, letting the memory tour unwind his tension from the being on stage. From being "on" in the tightrope act that was stand-up comedy. Picturing himself as a much younger man sitting behind these desks. Having flashbacks to a simpler time. Remembering some successes and traumas.

This room that he was in, for example, was where he had earned his first "D" in college on a paper. Ah, yes. Rhetoric 105 - writing for engineers. What, engineers have to write differently from everyone else? Yes. Logical. Technical. Readable. Understandable. Concise, which is where he had gone wrong.

What was the topic, again? Ah yes. The teacher had assigned an impromptu writing instruction on the first day of class. One page on "your pet peeve". Scratching his head, he had stumbled about before he set on the topic of people who were bad sports, in sports. He easily filled the page with the flourishing soaring rhetoric that had gotten him so many "A"'s in high school, but would find the red-penned scorn of a teacher at this level. In fact, to his horror, his teacher had singly recognized his work as the example for the rest of the class to dissect the next week. An example of truly bad writing, that is. Ouch! That session hurt. He was paying tuition to get this much ridicule? Ouch. He raced into his teacher's next office hours on fire with hurt and anger. How could he be that good in high school and that bad here? It wasn't fair. Patiently, the teacher walked him through where he could do better. Knock off of the big words just for the sake of big words. Brevity. Clarity. She challenged him to do better in her class, or else the bad grades would keep coming. And, slowly and surely, he did. He got it. And his writing greatly improved, and by the end of the semester he was back in his office thanking Mrs. Tanner.

"Thank you, again tonight, Mrs. Tanner", he thought as he silently saluted her. He didn't know at that moment what his career choices would be - and would never have guessed at the turn of events that would have him on stage tonight performing. But he did realize right at this moment that what she had taught him - brevity and clarity - would be instrumental to his skill as a stand-up comic and ventriloquist. Brief. Clear. And hopefully funny. The funny part seemed incongrous to his technical nature, and he had to work at it, but he did have some natural skills. He could still make his ex-wife laugh every time that they talked, which came in hand at times when things got tense all over again. He was thankful for that.

Tucker was lost in reverie as he wandered through remembrances of missed opportunities at school and, now that he thought about it, in his married life too when he ran smack into a guy who had his back to him around the corner. It was Steve, the distracted guy, in an animated conversation with an older man who was probably a grad student and / or teaching assistant at the University.

"Sorry, man. Didn't see you there", Tucker apologized profusely.

Steve didn't even hear him or acknowledge Tucker. He had a point to make to his companion and was locked in on that.

"Dr. Evans, I'm telling you they've been in our work. It's been hacked. Taken. Gotten into!"

"Steve", Dr. Evans said somberly, "they are entitled to access to the work. They sponsored it with financing, and are in fact our partners on the project - even if they are not around any time. Remember that."

"Okay. I get that. But I'm worried about what they are going to use it for." Steve was still agitated and was gesturing wildly. Tucker worked his way around them and left them there in the hallway as he worked his way back to the Green Room to get ready for the encore. He had been gone longer than he he thought.

Stephanie, their tour producer, was standing at the door looking around apprehensively.

"Hey man. Get in there! Venkat is just finishing and we need you for the wrap-up. You don't want to miss your last applause of the tour".

No, he did not. It had been a long time on the road this time around. And he wanted the payoff.

"Give it up for Tucker and Courtney and Roberto and Venkat", Stephanie was saying at the mike. "The Professors of Comedy!" And the crowd's standing ovation was the payoff that he needed and craved. He left the lecture hall and the campus finally feeling like a success.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Chapter Two

"So, is the dummy in the suitcase or behind the microphone!"

Really, Tucker thought? The frat boys filling the front rows were drunker than they were at most of the college venues that he had been playing lately. And louder. Some less likely to graduate.

As the future professor had observed, the "Tucker Elliot Show" had not yet segued into the ventriloquism portion - which left him on his own to handle the heckler. When he had the puppets out he could really let fly in a projected voice. Eddie the Purple Monkey was wicked sharp with the retorts and could flay any hapless heckler into either silence or an ally. But, Tucker had lingered in the observational humor, with dating stories to entertain the sorority girls that were starting to realize that their dates could be less than couth in a social setting. Eddie had yet to make his first appearance and was, in fact, still in the suitcase.

"Shouldn't you be in class?", Eddie shot out with a stage smile  that poorly hid his irritation at the interruption.

"We don't have class at night, you idiot."

"...or sucking on a keg with some guy smacking you on the butt with a paddle with letters on it?"

Eddie had been a dorm guy in college and wasn't a big fan of the fraternity system. If he let this guy go on very long, his animosity to the Greek system would surface and this would turn nasty.

"Dude, you wish you were a Beta Sigma. You wish."

"Dude", Elliot smiled - walking over to the other side of the stage to change the flow of the show and get this guy of off his back with minimal damage - "I'm alpha. I'm the alpha male with the microphone that these other folks paid to see tonight. What say we move on?"

Eddie was calling to Tucker from the suitcase. He was itching to get out and jump into the sorry state of this particular drunken fratboy's love life and mix it up a bit. If it was a small club gig, Tucker would have given in to that urge and run with it for a while. He needed to have some entertainment too some nights. But, these college lecture hall gigs had a different ambience and he was choosing to redirect back to the lighthearted funny.

"Bring out the next act already. You're boring, grandpa."

Boring? Sure, he was the only comic of the four on the "Comedy Professors" campus tour who didn't work blue, and this particular crowd would get rolling later on when the four letter words started flying from Courtney, Rob, and Venkat. That's why he was the opening act.  But that didn't mean you couldn't be funny with wholesome observational humor and well-crafted bits. You could especially be funny at a heckler's expense, and that opportunity was cueing up nicely here. It was on.

Tucker made the split-second decision to switch up his planned bits, and began projecting.

"I vote with Beta there", came a new voice from the suitcase. "This guy's boring. Who votes with us?"

Tucker got a pained look on his face, and asked the crowd "Ah geesh. Who wants to meet Senator FlushPockets?"

The crowd roared. Tucker bent and unfolded the Senator puppet from his suitcase as he mentally geared up to take on that arrogant and snaky political personality and the glib voice that went with it. This was a new character that he was aching to try out before the tour ended and see how it played to a college crowd. Tonight's show was the wind-down to a fairly successful B-circuit tour of college campuses and small town civic center theaters. Tucker was a local at this campus, and had arranged this low-key show in a large engineering lecture hall North of Green St. where the ampitheater seating gave them a close-up club feel and immediacy of feedback. Ticket sales had been mostly through the Greek system - one of the largest in the country. Normally college kids were politically apathetic, self-absorbed as they were in their pursuit of a degree, but the election was coming up Tomorrow - 1st Tuesday in November, and the get-out-the-vote drives had been active in stirring their attention to the various races.

"Well Senator, welcome to University of Illinois". The crowd roared again at the mention of their school. "I-L-L...", Tucker started.

"I-N-I" the Senator replied, and the crowd cheered again. "Go Illini!"

"Hello Senator. Welcome to the group."

"Is this a fundraiser?", the Senator asked - looking around the room. "Doesn't seem like anyone here has any money. How much have we made?"

"Senator, it's not all about money. This is your chance to meet your voters."

"I have to meet them? That seems a little uncalled for. I'm a Senator."

Tucker was scanning the crowd as he got the banter going with Senator FlushPockets. Getting the rythym of the back and forth with the projected voice. Though he had walked across the lecture platform with his wireless mike, he had not lost sight of, or focus on, his heckler target. He was also mentally cataloguing the rest of the room in the uncomfortable lecture hall seats. Fraternity guys in groups, paired up with their sister sororities. Immaculatley dressed cute co-eds looking semi-comfortable with the various states of inebriation of their dates for the evening. They were half paying attention to Tucker, half checking their texts on their smartphones. Some were there as couples, some part of a wide circle of group dates which had become the norm in their generation. Behind them a few rows were the dorm guys and girls in jeans and t-shirts or grunge or emo attire, looking like laundry day was still a few days away. Teaching assistants, a few full professors, and some athletes filled out the room.

Tucker completed his rapid scan of the room by noting the two well-dressed twenty-somethings in button-down shirts and ties in the top row by the exit looking out-of-place and pre-occupied as they worked their Blackberries and laptops. If you're going to rely on observational humor, you have to observe. And process those obeservations. And react, turning it quickly to humor. Scan done in an eye-blink, back to the humor.

"So, Senator. Do you really think you're going to get re-elected this year? They say there's a tsunami brewing with the voters this year?"
Senator FlushPockets was answering his question. "Frankly, there is no question about my re-election. I am, after all, a servant of the people and am grateful to have served this great nation of ours and this wonderful state for the last five decades."

"Five decades?" Tucker asked.

"Dude, get a real job!" Ah, the heckler hadn't passed out yet and was an equal opportunity insulter. Tucker had worked his way back across the platform and was lined up in close proximity to the young man, his now-horrified date on one side, and a distracted-looking guy on the other side with a Greek-lettered sweatshirt that Tucker recognized as high-grade-average engineering frat that he had been asked to join a long long time ago.

"Son, please tell me that you don't vote", Tucker said pointedly.

"Wait just a minute there, Tucker! Let's not be discouraging the voters now. I need them all tomorrow."

"Yeah! I vote."

"Seriously, son" said the Senator, arching his pinewood eyebrows skeptically at Beta. "For America's sake, please tell me that you don't vote?"

"I vote. Probably. I'm voting your ass out. Probably." Beta wasn't sounding so sure now.

"Hmm. Donate first. They'll be passing a bucket in a minute now."

"Senator" Tucker said, pointing the Senator's head back to look at him. "Is it always about money with you guys?"

"Well, of course it is. I don't get elected through the good will of the voters."

"Of course not"

"And you certainly don't have any money I'm guessing, since you're playing a B-circuit gig at a university on a Monday night".

"Well..." But he had lost the attention of the Senator, who had swiveled back to look at Beta's sorority-girl date.

"And what about you, darling", Tucker said for the Senator - turning on his famous Senatorial charm. "You look like your daddy's got money? How about a generous donation to my meager little effort to represent this fine state in Washington? $20,000 will get you into the Liberty Club and get you a private dinner with yours truly where we can discuss matters of state and whatnot..."

"Senator!", Tucker exclaimed - leaving the Senator's head leering at Miss Kappa. "Behave".

"Don't bother me young man. I'm having a perfectly appropriate conversation with this lovely young lady about relieving her of the burden of her father's ill-gotten gains for a noble purpose. My re-election."

It was Tucker's turn to address Miss Kappa. "Please tell me that you are going to vote, and that you're going to cancel Beta here out tomorrow." Beta looked sharply at his date and started in on her and how she would not dare to vote differently than him like it was suddenly an important thing to him. She was demurring. She didn't come to a comedy show to debate voting with her boyfriend.

Satisfied that he had begun the process of splitting up Beta and his no-longer-laughing date, Tucker moved to amplify the pain to his new rival by addressing the guy on the other side of him. It bothered Tucker that he wasn't paying attention to the show.

The Senator was already ahead of him. Looking at Tucker, the Senator said "How about brain-boy there. You think he knows Beta?"

No reaction. Beta's antics had broken through his distraction, and he hadn't heard the Senator either.

Tucker leaned down into the young man's sight line. "Hey buddy. What's your name?"

"Steve", he said looking up. Charles Steven, actually. But he went by Steve.

"What's the deal? You here with Beta?"

"Yeah. We used to be roommates in the dorms."

"Really? Beta, what do you study?", Tucker asked.

"Football! Well, I play football. Study communications."

"And you have a gift for it, we've seen", said Senator Flushpockets. "Would you ask people to vote for me tomorrow?"

"Alright, Senator. We get it. You need votes." Tucker ping-ponged back to the ex-roomie, to see if he could break through the distraction.

"How about you roomie. What do you study?"

Steve answered, but wasn't into it. "Math, Well, kind of math. Algorithms. Computer Science. Cryptography. Stuff."

"Code-breaking? Do you think you can crack the mystery of Beta here?" Tucker got a fair laugh from the crowd on that one, but he could tell he needed to move on and get back to his bits. It was time for the second act to come out.

"Say goodnight to these fine folks, Senator".

The Senator took his cue to depart back into the suitcase, but with one last pitch.

"Goodnight you fine people of Illinois. Don't forget to study. Most importantly, don't foget to donate to my campaign. And, oh yeah, don't foget to vote tomorrow." With a diminshing voice as he was going back into suitcase "...except for you there, Beta."

Tucker finished his set with a flair, working his way quickly to his most popular puppet in these campus shows -  Murphy the Stoner. Pot jokes worked easily with this crowd, and with a referendum on the ballot this year to legalize small quantities he had a twofer with an election week tie-in. Perfect for a newsjunkie like Tucker. He was pulling laughs easily with bong jokes - just that word was funny - and jokes about getting the munchies. Many in crowd could relate this time of night. Some in the back row were even partaking as the show went along. He could smell it.

"All right Murph, we've got to call it a night my friend. Say good night to the folks."

"Later dudes. Peace and love and stuff. Go roll some big fatties. Hey Tucker?"

"Yeah Murph"

"Please tell me that Beta is not going to vote." Crowd roars

"Goodnight everyone. Give it up for the queen of Tempe Arizona - Miss Courtney Rae."

And Tucker was off to the wings to the sound of his second-to-last ovation for this tour season.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Chapter One

Tucker sensed the early darkness settling in before he actually openened his eyes, and a momentary panic set in. Was he late to the show? Instantly the familiar panic that plagued him often on the road set in. Being late was for showtime was unforgivable for a professional.

His clouded eyes searched for the glowing dial of an alarm clock somewhere in the room. He hoped he had remembered to set it before he laid down for a nap. He didn't always. Scanning the room, he settled on a red number with two dots on the bedstand. One dot for PM. One dot for alarm on. Good. And it was five minutes until the time he had set in. Better. Five more minutes. Could he sleep for five minutes? He wanted to try, as unlikely as it was.

Still, the room seemed inordinately dark for this time of year. Wasn't it brighter a just a couple of days ago? Wasn't he used to waking from these afternoon naps in the daylight? Daylight...Ah, yes. Daylight Savings Time, his foggy brain was trying to tell him. Change of clocks last night. Which way did it go? Spring back, fall ahead? Or was it the other way around. He didn't have anyone around to ask, and so he guessed as best as he could.  Fall back. Fall back? Yes, fall back.  And fall back to sleep...Buzzzzzz! Damn, five minutes went fast when you really wanted it to last for an hour. He wanted to hit snooze and get nine more minutes of sleep. But, he knew it would be fitful sleep at best, and he was in fact a professional. Get up, he told himself. Get yourself together. Get to the show.

Tucker forced himself into a sitting position on the bed and stretched a little as he tried to orient himself to the room. This was always the difficult part for him on the road. Where was he? What was the layout of this room? What side of the bed was the bathroom on? Was there anything to trip over on the way there? He had slept in so many different rooms in the last few months that disorientation was a familiar feeling. Comforting even, if it could be so.

Sitting, but not yet moving. As he wiped the crust from the corner of his eyes, he let his mind wander to the blur that the Summer had been, extending on in to the Fall. A new city almost every night. Campus towns, mostly. All looking the same after a while. Quads to walk around during the afternoons, full of kids skipping class to sprawl out across the grass to read or flip a frisbee or football around. Bookstore cafes to catch some free wi-fi in around the used textbooks to blow a couple of hours surfing the web for social networking, blogging, or hitting the news forums for his version of fun - newsjunkie debates in the virtual world. Ivy covered classroom buildings that reminded him of the hours he had spent in classrooms a lifetime ago. Eventually, as night rolled around, hooking back up with his three coworkers again onstage in a theater or large lecture hall to dazzle the crowds again with their wit.

He had a ritual that he had developed over the months to find his will to move. Feel around. Find the remote. Turn on the TV. Scan to a news channel to hear a voice. Use the unbearably bright light of the TV to scout your way to the bathroom. Exert your will to stand up and move. Find the small wrapped soap and the tiny bottle of shampoo and get showered. Groom and dress. Leave, looking back to remember the number on the door that night so that you could come back to it in the early morning hours after the show. What number room of what floor of what budget hotel was he in tonight? Remember that night after night, that was a trick.

He looked and felt around in the covers and found the remote and pointed it at...

His TV. His widescreen TV. Not a generic 25" GE TV with scuffmarks. His familiar big LCD with the picture-in-a-picture that took a few seconds to warm up and come on. Ah, that did the trick. Now he was awake. Now Tucker knew where he was.

He was home, in his own apartment, and not in a hotel room. And he knew what that meant. If he didn't get up and get moving he would be late for the last show of the tour.