It has been three days since I last cleaned the horse stalls and I believe I have finally dug all the manure out from under my toenails. On day one of lockdown, March 16, I scored a job taking care of nine Arabian horses on the Corralitos farm where I live in my Airstream trailer. It’s a good job—it’s a stable job.
There is no time clock; my day starts at dawn. I push my cart to the horse pens loaded with their hay and grain as the horses paw the ground in anticipation. While the outside human world descends into madness to fight over masks on their faces to prevent infection of their lungs, it’s my job to put fly masks on the horses’ faces to prevent infection of their eyes. The horses do far better with masks than the humans.
The horses can see through their eye masks, but it is still an intimate maneuver for me to reach under their necks and lift the mask over their faces, adjust it over their eyes and fasten it with Velcro. My first two weeks on the job, I am terrified of the 1,200-pound Arabian named Moose. You could put a half-dollar in his nostril. A few years ago Moose was abused by a man and injured. Moose is not mean, but because I am a large man, the minute I come through the gate his eyes go wild, ears go back and he runs in circles, kicking and snorting. I am scared, and he knows it.
By April, I get my breath under control and announce my intention to Moose. I stand still and he comes closer. I whisper to him that I am here to protect his eyes and that’s why we are going to put his mask on. He lowers his nose to my nose and I feel the powerful suction as he inhales me. He lets me scratch his neck and lifts his head with pleasure. He leans into my hands so that I will scratch him harder and it nearly knocks me down. Then he lowers his head to receive the mask.
Moose and I connect through breath. Air connects every one of us on earth. I have read that atoms from Julius Caesar’s last breath are in every breath I take, so I’m glad to hear that the big guy didn’t die of Covid-19. It turns out he had a bad day in the senate. Some things never change.
For my generation’s mantra of “We are the generation of sex, drugs and rock and roll,” I have a punchline: “any one of those three can lead to a hip replacement.” Coronavirus has made my joke obsolete. Sex, drugs, and rock and roll? Any one of those three can kill you.
As a small boy, I knew that I was born to perform in vaudeville but had arrived 40 years too late. Then I discovered standup comedy, and I got to be who I was born to be after all.
Standup is a call and response dialogue with the audience. It’s not intellectual, you feel their response. My body knows where the audience will let me take them; it’s not a calculated transaction, it’s emotional intelligence. When I am doing my job well, I am as sensitive as a horse.
I’ve gone all in on committing to make rooms of drunk people laugh. This is who I am, it’s what I got good at, and I’ve done it 3,000 times. I did my last live show on March 15 at Michael’s on Main in Santa Cruz, and it felt like the crowd was desperate to laugh. There was doom in the room. On March 16, the calls started coming in from agents and bookers—all my clubs, casinos and theaters had closed. By 5pm, my live performance career was over.
I feel obsolete. If I’m not a comedian who makes people laugh, then who am I? I start doing Zoom shows and build my YouTube Channel, Richard Stockton Comedy. At first I love the zero travel time and Zoom seems like the answer for isolation. But Zoom family meetings seem vacuous, and Zoom comedy shows have a built in delay that makes us feel more separated. Computer dating is great if you’re a computer.
I begin smoking weed and binge-watching the news. Starting with CNN, I pour over every news story. Hours pass. When I finally do push myself away from my computer, I am spent and cannot remember 95% of what I read. The news is an intravenous drip of fear into my blood. I walk toward Safeway without my glasses and think I see Trump rising out of the sidewalk. I get closer and see that it is an orange safety cone half buried in gravel. I hold my breath until I can get back on the farm to talk things over with Moose.
I do see news that inspires and lifts me, as even the Statue of Liberty is taking a knee. We thought the times were a-changin’ in the ’60s, and then they didn’t. But this feels different, as people of all colors march for racial equality. I hear from my kids who protest at the capitol in Sacramento. The image of my children running from rubber bullets terrifies me, but it makes me so proud of them. I pray they wear their goggles and masks while my heart soars to hear how they are finding their defining moment; they could be the generation to bring equality home.
My two kids and I become a family again. Before the pandemic I was estranged from my children, but when the disease spread they came back to me. This is the best thing that has happened to me since their birth. There is nothing like an apocalypse to bring a family together.
I succumb to the cheap thrills of Google and read The Dangers Of Letting Your Lawn Go To Seed! And How Not To Let Your Cannabis Go To Seed! What I want to know is how to keep myself from going to seed. I have stopped shaving and stopped addressing ear hair, nose hair, and eyebrow hair. I lose the will to remove the manure from under my nails. I call Julie and tell her that I have turned into a sloth and she sends me a video of a sloth scratching his ass. As I watch this video, I find myself scratching my ass.
For financial reasons, Julie and I shelter in place 500 miles apart. I’m afraid that I’ll never work again, and on the farm I do have a job. So Julie gets a puppy, I get nine horses, and the animals keep us alive. We have experienced being apart for a month before, so we thought a few weeks would be easy. Turns out that the coronavirus did not decide to take a summer vacation.
I am crazy about this woman. Julie is half-Italian and half-Chardonnay. We are Weedo and Wino. Julie is a scientist and she says that moving at the speed of light is when you take a wine bottle out of the refrigerator before the light comes on. I find a substitute for my horse job and plan our wild weekend. Julie asks me to quarantine for two weeks before I drive down. I consider boiling myself.
I came of age during the glorious experiment of Free Love, before HIV and herpes and just three years after the arrival of the pill that unlocked sex and marriage. A woman with several lovers was considered “popular.” And now 50 years later I have to quarantine for two weeks before I see my wife. I always thought the apocalypse would somehow be more exciting.
Back in the trailer on June 19, I come down with the symptoms of Covid-19: fever, cough, sore throat, aches, weakness, and the onset is like a fire hose running through my alimentary canal. One end just loses its steam in time for the other end to take over. This continues until I am completely empty Monday morning.
I sleep all day, through the night and Tuesday morning my throat is so sore I cannot swallow. I try to coax water down but my throat squeezes shut. I keep my EpiPen handy.
Tuesday night my delirium turns into scenes where I kill my friends with disease. I hallucinate living through Revelations as a horse of the Apocalypse. I have done bad things in my life, but I have never killed anyone. Kind of a low bar I know, but I’d like to be able to take that one with me.
When I wake Wednesday morning, I feel like days have passed. I think it’s Friday. I look at my laptop, “What? No way!” Surely a timer got switched on, it says Wednesday! I look at my phone, “My phone is wrong, too!”
Then my head starts spinning, the walls of the trailer whirl to the left, I realize I’m losing it and push off my kitchen sink to fall backwards onto the bed. That’s the beautiful thing about passing out in the Airstream—the soft landing.
I pull out of the sickness, but have to take two weeks off from the horses. I obsess over how I intend to make a living. I have been offered performance opportunities at outdoor wineries, but wonder if this is the time to gather people to drink alcohol. Laughter does heal in ways, but I doubt that hospital nurses are shouting down the halls outside of ICUs, “Somebody quick! We need to get a comedian in here!”
Off the Clock
Now I have a new appreciation of time. I go to bed early and get up at dawn because I am in alignment with the sun. Moose doesn’t care what day it is, he cares about getting fed at daylight. I feel like I’m living in an earlier human time, in rhythm with the animals and the sun, a time when it is natural to stay home.
Since we got off the clock we have enjoyed the glorious experience of living with less pollution and we may see a path to our survival. Civil rights seems to be at a tipping point and we may see Harriet Tubman’s picture on the twenty dollar bill. And if I ever do get to stand in front of a comedy crowd again I will be a better comic when I breathe them in like Moose.