The Set


Our Daily Correspondent


William Evans Burton, comedian. Illustration from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, February, 25, 1860.

The problem is the beaming. For whatever reason, I frequently boast a huge smile when in public, and as any city-dweller will tell you, this is a bad idea. I may be grinning about a doll, a muffin, a soda label. “She’s mad happy,” a teenager once remarked to another as I passed their school.

Yesterday, at the Ninety-Sixth Street subway station, I know exactly what I was smiling about. I had overheard one woman remark to another, “As soon as we get to the baby gym, all he wants to do is take off his pants and get on the trampoline.” It was all I could think about as I prepared to see my psychiatrist—specifically, I was thinking that this was utterly reasonable on the (presumed) baby’s part, and that if I ever found a gym where de-pantsing and jumping on a trampoline was SOP, maybe I would join a gym. And all of which would have been fine, if I had not been the only person grinning while everyone else avoided the eyes of the man strolling down the subway platform.

Whether he was homeless or not, I cannot say. Drunk? Perhaps. Certainly not completely well, as society defines such things. In any case, he, like me, seemed delighted. And when his twinkling eyes met mine, he recognized a comrade-in-arms.

He parked himself in front of me, and said, “Who’s the only man in America who cares? Obamacares!”

I wasn’t sure what to say; but nothing was required. It soon became clear that this was not a mere political endorsement, but the first bit in a topical comedy set.

“America’s the only country in the world where you get to pay to be poisoned with radiation!” he said, staring fixedly at me.

I saw no alternative but to continue grinning and nod my head encouragingly. No one else on the platform seemed to agree.

“How do you know radiation is killing the cancer?” he demanded. “Because you’re dying!”

I didn’t think his material was very good, but the delivery was excellent.

The train pulled into the station and I boarded, giving him a friendly nod of farewell. I sat down and—there he was before me.

“America’s the only country in the world,” he said, “where doctors staple your stomach shut. I’ve got an operation for you: stop eating! Give me a million dollars!”

I had, myself, signed up for insurance not a week prior. I had paid a little extra for some mental-health benefits. Prescriptions are expensive, but as I always say to the pharmacists, you wouldn’t want anything cheap in your brain.

“America’s the only country in the world where the food in the hospitals makes you sick,” said the comedian. He tipped his hat to me and exited at the next express stop.

The young guy across the aisle met my eye now, and gave me a weary, conspiratorial look. “Crazies,” he said, sympathetically.

“You have no idea,” I said.