David Burstein was not quite sure how it started exactly.
You ride the subway for years and after a while, weird shit just happens, right?
David was with a couple of his new publicists or interns or whatever attractive young women who work for free in a shit economy want to be called — when it happened.
The old woman looked a little bit off.
Disheveled. Dirty. Gross. You name it. You wouldn’t want her rubbing up against you or tongue-kissing you or anything like that, if you get my drift. She had the face of a cretin or a goon or a Boogawooga from an old Popeye cartoon. I hope that describes her a little bit. Either way, as the subway started pulling away, she starts spitting, which was gross enough, but then she lets out a terrifying scream of pure agony at the top of her lungs and she did not stop. She kept screaming louder and louder. The whole scene was quite awful and as David quickly ushered the publicists off the subway, thankful to have reached their destination, he joked, “that’s New York City for you” and “I guess someone switched Sally’s Folger’s crystals with PCP.” The girls, fresh out of their protective collegiate bubbles, were still physically shaking from the ordeal and not quite sure what to make of David Burstein, New York City , the subway, or what they had just witnessed. Burstein told his old TV colleague Knox Manning about the incident a week later and he laughed out loud into the phone as Knox told him “What do you expect?” “I once had a selfish motherfucker who jumped on the tracks and delayed my trip almost twenty minutes.” New Yorkers, as you can tell, are not the most sympathetic lot.
Months later, a British publicist emailed Burstein that he had just finished a temporary gig (got laid off) and had some time to join his rickety lifeboat of a PR firm. What followed were five months of laughs, discussions of soccer, (excuse me, football), philosophy, life, publicity strategy, music and nonsense. Sir Alec was a terrific bloke, a great conversationalist, as most Brits are. A glass half-full. For Burstein, after spending the past ten years steering the lifeboat over choppy waters with mostly female crew-members, Alec was a bit of a novelty. In truth, Alec didn’t do much more than strategize, doodle and join Burstein for pints at the local pub, but at least they could say they talked about client matters—like when a music client would send angry emails from the Netherlands at 3 am. Has-been pop-singer Neon Muckracker was a small-time client and a big-time pain in the ass.
“David,” he texted at 3 am regularly from Amsterdam, “at the moment I’m very, very close to ceasing your services as their (sic) are absolutely no results for the amount of money that I have spent!!!!”
A mere fraction of what my other, better clients pay without complaint, David thought as he read the latest obnoxious text.
“Frankly it has been a very, very bad investment so far! Explain to me why I should bother to keep using your company when all I hear is talk and yet no results,” Neon continued on.
David Burstein quickly texted back a polite list of about ten deliverables and reasons why his PR firm had more than lived up to their end of the bargain… as his blood started to boil.
“You’ve had four weeks to get me new interviews, publicity, booking and celebrity endorsements and have pretty much failed on all accounts. The recent TV interview you got me was a colossal stuff-up, the anchor mispronounced my NAME — the reason that the video has so many hits has nothing to do from your side I personally have arranged 250,000 of those hits.”
Burstein, laughed to himself at how he spent hours and hours crafting Neon’s Music Video, casting it, shooting it, editing it, putting together the social media strategy and team to make it go viral, including the right celebrities and models, such ingratitude. Moments like these made him wonder why he ever got into publicity in the first place and how he had possibly lasted this long without losing his mind.
Oh yeah, Lexapro. 10 Milligrams. Every day.
That was his secret weapon to surviving life as a small business owner during a nasty recession.
Burstein’s wife would greet him after long days of work at his PR “factory” job with a terse, “how is the job search going?” or “Have you sent your resume out to anyone new?” or “we need to talk about taxes and overdue bills.”
At least they always had a lot to talk about.
When it started to get close to the time for his new British friend Alec to return to London, Burstein started calling him Chester, that way it would be easier to say “so long.” Chester was a good apple. Months after he left, Burstein started speaking in a terrible approximation of a British accent to the bemusement of some (like his young jr. publicists) and the annoyance of most, such as his friends and particularly his long-suffering wife. So at this point, dear reader, you might be wondering, and rightfully so, so what? Who cares? And you could well be right. What point is there to any of this? Well, as this true story goes, about a month ago the urge overtook David Burstein to start performing short stand-up routines as a British character named Johnny Thunders. The most logical place to perform, it seemed to Burstein, was on the subway. That, after all was where all sort of other human flotsam felt perfectly comfortable imposing upon others. Burstein posited that if he had truly created a “character” that was an annoying, obnoxious English roust-a-bout then the subway was the place for Johnny Thunders to perform.
“Ladies and gentlemen… oym not ‘omeless… although I am a bit behind on the rent at me flat… I don’t do no drugs, although I did go to University so feel free to infer all you loyk…”
Am I insane…? Burstein suddenly thought to himself… as strangers stared at him nervously… have I turned into a pan-handler? What am I doing? The shuttle to Times Square takes only about ninety seconds but David Burstein was able to feel time slow down as the entire shuttle car looked at him in a state of unease and confusion and annoyance. Mission accomplished. As the shuttle pulled to a stop, Burstein concluded his “routine.”
“Moy name is Johnny Thunders, you can watch me on HBO whenever they decide to give me moy own special.”
No one applauded. No one offered money. As David Burstein got off the shuttle amongst the crowd of commuters he was awash in a state of elation. He had done it and nothing bad had happened. People had ignored him mostly. One woman moved away from him during his routine in annoyance.
“Don’t be afraid darling, I’m just a subway performer moy agent told me he had booked me a standing room only gig – boy he wasn’t joking” Burstein was so bad that a group of subway singers who watched his act asked him after his performance if he ever did stand-up in the comedy clubs (perhaps mockingly) “Nope, just the subways, not good enough for the clubs just yet.”
Besides, Burstein thought, a subway performance is more real than an open mic. I feel one with my people, Burstein thought to himself. Johnny Thunders started to feel connected to his fellow commuters and other subway performers like the Ebony Hillbillies and the Yaz Band… like never before. The feeling JT would get as he approached the shuttle would be akin to a shot of adrenaline, a performance buzz. Would he do an old routine, maybe a new riff off an item in the news.
“Oh moy goodness, That Moyley Coyrus sure is getting cheeky isn’t she… but she sure is talented don’t you think?”
Sometimes, the skit would be a send up of a scene from a movie.
“Allo, moy name is Jerry McLiar, Jim Sugar just fired me this morning… y’know there’s such a thing as manners! I helped build that sports agency — it’s not my fault that they didn’t like my memo about getting rid of steroids and high ticket prices… my clients all said to me Jerry, Jerry McLiar, Show me the money… and I would keep telling em, help me … to help you… help me… to help you!”
All David Burstein needed was just one “knowing look” or smirk from a commuter to let him know at least someone got the goof.
“If you want to join me and the Jerry McLiar Sports Agency, we’re located in Times Square.”
“Hallo there, moy name is Owen Wilson, Moy friend Vince Vaughn and Oy just started working for Google today and our bosses asked us to conduct a focus group on what type of smartphone I should get instead of this old blackberry… I have no idea about new techmologies or what a focus group is so I thought I’d ask you folk what your thoughts were on the matter,”
A tall, attractive blonde woman giggled incredulously in David Burstein’s face during this skit as others just showed him their iPhones. Total success, Burstein thought to himself.
Another fun skit was playing a music therapist who used lyrics from 80’s pop songs to solve the problems of modernity.
“Don’t stand so close to me, Sting would sing and he was quite roight wasn’t he? I know I don’t loik people standing too close to me on the subway that’s for sure… “Don’t look around NO NO NOOOOO!!!! Der Kommisars in town… HO… HO… HOOOOOO… what is Der Kommisar then if it isn’t extreme and uncontrolled paranoia, roight?”
Burstein noticed that folks over-40 on the train would often smirk at this “routine” while the youngsters would totally ignore it. “Somebody, looked under a dock and there they found a rock… It wasn’t a rock it was a rock lobster… Well clearly, a “Rock Lobster” could be any sort of unresolved subliminal issue entirely, dontcha think?”
On some rides JT would ask fellow subway riders help him with his crossword puzzle.
“Allo there, a British rock group… three letters … blank, leppard… three letters … blank, leppard… anyone know the answer?”
“Def” a middle aged woman sitting nearby answered cautiously.
“That’s brilliant moy dear, that’s absolutely genius, that is.”
Another favorite bit was to pretend Johnny Thunders was a hung-over embezzler looking for a quick buck offering swampland.
“My associates call me Johnny Thunders on account of I loyk to drink Johnny Walker Black When I play Blackjack, which is what I was doing quite recently at the behest of Donald Trump at his Hotel Casino, when my associates and I met up with some ladies of quite ill-repute I’m afraid to say, Muffy, Mildred and Bambi, as I came to discover when I woke up many hours later and a million dollars lighter in our company’s business account… fortunately, I have a way out of my dilemma that might also be of quite a bit of benefit to some smart New Yorkers… Oy, now I see I’ve piqued your interest, I have…”
Most of Burstein’s bits were total scams for his amusement.
“I am willing to accept checks today for $50 thousand dollars for my new hedge fund — by a show of hands how many of you can I put down as moy new silent partners?”
The commuters on the shuttle trains seemed mostly confused by his antics and before they knew what had happened the ninety second ride was over.
How could Johnny Thunders confuse and annoy these people and then by the end of the ride let them in on the joke? Andy Kaufman-esque performance art with a self-effacing, uncomfortable Ben Stiller edge — but of course not as funny or as well delivered. In fact, David Burstein’s routines were so poorly delivered that they always left the audiences on the subway cars wondering… what was that? Who is Johnny Thunders and why is he singing a Doors medley in a terrible fake British accent on my train?
“Don’t give up your day job” one middle-aged female commuter advised with a smile.
The few friends Burstein told about Johnny Thunders were all mildly amused.
“You’ve lost your mind I think,” replied a friend from the West Coast, “just don’t get arrested.”
David’s shrink wasn’t even alarmed. No need to adjust his current anxiety meds whatsoever.
Burstein even convinced himself that he was engaging in this mild form of acting out/anti-social performance art because he was preparing himself for the real rejection of a hostile job market when he would eventually be forced to shutter his ten year old PR firm later that year in order to improve his marriage, attempt to make more money and sell his independence and manhood and soul to become a corporate yes-man with no real value or meaning in his work-life. Yes, David Burstein was going to sell out and buy-in and become a shadow or a machine part, a marionette of sorts who would scrape and bow and become something much less than what he currently was. What Johnny Thunders was.
It was inevitable then that on a hot July afternoon, when no one had much patience for anything, that David Burstein thought he and Johnny Thunders would try to push the creative envelope just a bit further. Clearly, it was that goonish old spitting woman who served as the inspiration. David decided he would try his own version of “The Scream” But unlike the version he saw, he would qualify his as a communal exercise in primal screaming.
“Alroight everybody! It’s so bleeding hot out there and since there’s no A/C in here oym, going to do something we all want to do … oym going to let out a primal scream… and you can all join me… here’s goes …
“ahhhhhhhhhh… ahhhhhhhh… ahhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!”
The faces in the car looked confused, scared, annoyed, concerned, angry and before David Burstein knew it he felt a series of hard thuds on the back of his skull… and as he started to slowly fall forward into unconsciousness, he heard something he had never heard before in three months of Johnny Thunder’s subway performances… laughter and loud applause.
The first thing David recognized as his eyes opened slowly was the smell of urine and noises one normally associates with a busy Hospital.
“Welcome back Mr. Thunders… you’ve been asleep for a while, the face of an attractive young Hispanic nurse offered.
David Burstein immediately was overcome with a wave of extreme nausea and dizziness.
“Burstein… my name is David Burstein.”
“Oh I’m sorry Mr. Burstein… it’s just that all the newspapers have been referring to you as Johnny Thunders, at which, the nurse held up the cover of the New York Post featuring a grainy photo from inside a subway car and a headline that read:
Subway Screamer Inspires Punch Line
David Burstein looked to his right and was slightly startled to see his wife standing there. The look in her eyes told him everything else he needed to know.
New York subway artwork – IMG_20140914_111504_edit_edit_editGNSC by kind permission of Adam Kluger