In an otherwise familiar scene last Friday night at inner Northeast Portland’s Hipbone Studio, something unusual happened. Veteran storyteller Lawrence Howard walked onstage wearing a little microphone clipped behind his ear. This was odd, because even in a whisper Howard’s easy baritone ordinarily reaches the farthest corners of a room. He fidgeted with the gadget a bit, clearly unaccustomed to the vagaries of artificial amplification. He’d had a little throat procedure, the crowd was told casually, and didn’t want to strain his voice.
Then he started talking, and any clumsiness faded away. “My mother’s name was Gloria Howard,” he said calmly but potently, “and she died in January, just a couple of months ago. She was 86 years old.”
With those simple words, Howard kicked off Portland’s fifth annual “Singlehandedly!” festival of long-form solo oral stories. A shaggy bear of a fellow who seduces listeners with his wry ramblings and then grips them with the incisive tension of his tales, Howard founded the festival’s producing company, Portland Story Theater, with his storytelling wife, Lynne Duddy. He’s one of the city’s most celebrated practitioners of this age-old craft, known in particular for “Shackleton’s Antarctic Nightmare” and other tales of endurance and deprivation on the southern fringes of the world.
On Friday night he was undergoing his own unfolding tale of endurance, a story beneath the story. And if he didn’t tell that story, it’s understandable, because he’s not sure yet how it comes out. But like so many good stories it’s an adventure, filled with obstacles and determination, and it’s dogged by a shadow of mortality.
Howard, 58, has a way of making his stories personal, even when they’re about a Shackleton or a John “Babbacombe” Lee, the Victorian manservant and possible murderer who astonishingly cheated the hangman’s noose three times. This new story he was telling began with his mother’s death and soon looped off into circles of family memory that rambled from a visit with his dad to a whaling museum on Long Island to a recitation of “Casey at the Bat” to camping trips in the Adirondacks and, quite hilariously, odes to the pleasures of unfettered flatulence and the manly art of dirty poems.
“My dad was the limerick king of the Western Hemisphere,” Howard reminisced, and soon, astonishingly, he had Hipbone’s crowd of a hundred-plus laughing and clapping and reciting dirty rhymes along with him. The tale, “Legacy of Limericks,” was a rude and funny re-immersion into the liberating excesses of adolescence, tinged with the rueful shadings of age. His father had died 10 years ago, he noted, and that was a huge loss. His mother survived courageously for another decade, and when she died, the void was somehow different: Losing both parents, Howard noted, leaves you lonelier. Eventually he wound back to Brooklyn and his sister’s cramped apartment and the traditional community farewell to his mother, which ended up being not entirely traditional, after all. “It was pretty clear that no one had ever heard limericks sung at a shiva before,” Howard noted wryly. “But that’s the kind of family we are.”
A helluva story, all in all. And it had a poignant moment early on when Duddy walked through the crowd and gently readjusted Howard’s microphone – his voice was a little too boomy – then smiled and walked back to her seat. “Legacy of Limericks” lasts about an hour, which is an hour of being all alone onstage, speaking the entire time, and even if you’re speaking softly, which much of the time you’re not, it’s an exertion. Howard felt the exertion keenly, and no wonder: only four days before he’d been feeding through a long tube inserted in his nostril. And that’s where the backstory begins. Or rather, continues.
It began last summer, when Howard “started feeling a little burning, an itching in my throat whenever I ate anything sweet or spicy or acidic.” For Howard, who’s a fair hand in the kitchen and bottles his own hot sauce, this was an annoyance. He went to his doctor, who checked him out and didn’t see anything: no strep, no nothing. So he went home and pretty much forgot about it.
Then, in January, he began to notice the burning again. And the timing could hardly have been more complex. He was about to open his new Babbacombe show. As he was giving his first Saturday performance, his sister texted from Brooklyn: Their mom was doing poorly, and might be near the end. Lawrence and his sister talked later, and he decided to stay to complete the next weekend’s run. On the following Saturday morning, his mother died. He did his final show that night, then flew to New York.
Meanwhile, Portland Story Theater had a busy schedule. An Urban Tellers performance, the showcase that follows several weeks of workshops on personal stories with a handful of often novice storytellers, was set for February 9. A special Valentines Day show was in the works at the Alberta Rose Theatre. Finally Howard got back to his doctor, who this time sent him to see ear, nose, and throat specialist Dr. Michael Flaming, who also had operated on Howard’s nose in 2008 to correct a deviated septum from a long-ago injury. Flaming pulled out a laryngoscope, a long tube with a microcamera on the end used to examine a patient’s glottis – the vocal cords and the space between them – from the inside. He inserted the tube down Howard’s nasal passage. “And he says, ‘Oh, yeah, there’s something really ugly down there. Really gnarly. We have to do a biopsy.’”
The result: cancer. Squamous cell carcinoma of the throat. More specifically, the cancer was centered at the base of the tongue, where it attaches to the throat, and very close to the voice box, an essential biological instrument for a storyteller.
On March 28 Howard was wheeled in for surgery at Providence, where Dr. R. Bryan Bell, chief of the hospital’s head, neck and throat cancer clinic, undertook the complicated procedure. “The surgery was very long,” Howard said. “Like nine hours.” And it involved a procedure that not so very long ago might have seemed like science fiction. Bell operated using a Da Vinci Surgical Robot, an expensive apparatus – each machine costs about $2.5 million, in addition to steep maintenance costs – that has up to five arms, each with a separate instrument at the end, and which is capable of doing very tiny and delicate work while the surgeon directs it from a distance via computer screen and controls.
“It’s a crazy machine,” Howard said. But despite some criticism, in cases like Howard’s it has real advantages. The Da Vinci system allows for minimal invasion compared to traditional surgery: “In the old days, to get to the tumor, they would have to fillet your face. So of course nobody did that. They would go straight to radiation, and it’s not as effective.”
Still, Howard’s neck was slit from ear to ear: you can see the scar now, which looks like a thick welt running just below his beard. In a traditional part of the surgery not involving the Da Vinci system, Dr. Bell took out 65 lymph nodes. Three were cancerous. Howard spent four days in ICU, and another four days in a hospital room. He had “a million tubes,” for breathing and for feeding, and because his throat was raw, they had to be inserted through his nose. Nerve pain in his ears, neck, and upper chest was intense, and the drugs had him feeling “so loopy. So crazy.” In ICU he woke up disoriented and pulled out his feeding tube: “The nurses were very upset about that.” The surgery had cut into the connecting muscle of his tongue, which is what pushes food down the throat. “Of course I couldn’t eat; I couldn’t swallow. The whole geometry of my throat changed.”
On the ninth day after surgery, Howard came home, still trailing tubes. “Everything I ate or drank had to go through that nose tube. Medicine, we had to crush. It was terrible.” Salt water, at least, was soothing. Finally, he had a little close-to-solid food. “I made a pot of chicken soup and matzo balls,” he said. “The Jewish soul food.” He made sure, he added wryly, to make the matzos light and fluffy.
Post-surgical therapy has concentrated mainly on retraining his muscles for swallowing: His therapists were surprised that his speech seemed barely affected. Howard can tell small differences: “I’m still having a little trouble with my l’s and my r’s.” But to other ears he sounds normal. That’s important, because Howard needs his voice. His car carries a bumper sticker: STORYTELLERS DO IT ORALLY. And he’s not quite sure what he’d do if it stopped. “I love this. I live for this. This is my favorite thing.”
On Monday, April 15 – seventeen days after his surgery, and four days before his scheduled performance of “Legacy of Limericks” – he had a post-surgical checkup. “I all but begged them to take the nose tube out,” he said. “And they did.” Good thing. Otherwise, he’d have canceled his show: “There’s no way I could’ve subjected the audience to that nose tube.” It was, in more ways than one, a healing moment: “The doctors left the room, and Lynne and I were alone there, and we did the happy dance.”
Duddy and Howard made a little joke about the neck scar, which reminded them of the jaw bolts below the ears in movie depictions of Frankenstein’s monster. “My tumor’s name is Frankie,” Howard said, “and Frankie has left the building.”
If you’re looking for an immediate happy ending, you’re running ahead of the story. Because the cancer had spread to Howard’s lymph nodes, he still has to undergo radiation therapy. And that’s an intense, sometimes debilitating process: six weeks of treatments, five days a week, and sometimes it makes people too sick to get through the whole thing. “This is a little window,” Howard said. “Right now I feel good, and I can eat, and I’m talking well.”
Howard also works as a legal researcher and writer for the law firm of Gaylord Eyerman Bradley PC, which has been, he said, immensely supportive. Hospital costs alone have been $148,000 so far, with much more in related costs to come, and “my percentage of it is zero. Thank you, thank you, thank you for health insurance.” He’ll begin radiation treatment in a couple of weeks, and as anyone knows who’s gone through it or knows someone who has, it’s a nasty procedure.
“The radiation basically burns the inside of your throat,” Howard said. “People describe it as getting a very bad sunburn inside your throat on that tender flesh.” It also messes with your salivary glands. And if the radiation goes slightly astray, it can cause damage to the voice box. His chart will note prominently that he tells stories for a living, and he needs to keep his vocal cords unscathed. The danger’s still there. But the potential payoff is worth the risk. If he succeeds in finishing the six-week radiation program, he’ll join the group of people who have a 90 percent chance of living cancer-free long term. “I’m going to endure,” he said. “We’re made of good Russian peasant stock, and that’s what we do.”
All of this was on Howard’s mind last Friday as he prepared to tell a bunch of dirty limericks to a roomful of friends and strangers. “An hour before the show I thought, ‘Oh God, what am I doing? What was I thinking? I just want to go home and take my pain pills and go to bed,’” he said the following morning, after a long night’s sleep. “But then my friends started to show up.”
His friends, in fact, started to pack the place. “The whole time I was up there I was just high on the energy of the crowd. It was great.” Then came the standing ovation, mostly from people who didn’t know the backstory at all.
It’s been a long, perilous journey, and there’s a lot of slogging still to come. Keep listening, because the story isn’t over. But Lawrence Howard is home.
The Singlehandedly! Festival continues this weekend with performances Friday and Saturday nights.
Here’s what’s happened so far:
- Last Friday, Howard’s “Legacy of Limericks” was followed by “A Taste for the Abyss,” Kriya Kaping’s exuberant, funny, and sometimes harrowing tale of her misadventures in South America as an 18-year-old would-be do-gooder who learned much more from her hosts than she could begin to impart. Keep an eye out for Kaping: she’s worth following.
- Last Saturday, Duddy told her tale “Twice Born: A Story of Adoption,” and comedian Brad Fortier told “Improv Junkie,” his tale of “how a mild-mannered, gay, gaming geek learned how to live ‘out loud’ after becoming addicted to improv theater and performing internationally.”
And here’s what’s coming up:
- Friday, April 26: Musician/clown/yoga teacher Annie Rosen tells her story “Cosmic Friend,” and Eric Stern – leader of Portland’s Vagabond Opera – tells “To Catch a Thief,” about some less savory aspects of his pre-vaudevillian life.
- Saturday, April 27: Annie La Ganga tells “The Major Arcana,” a tale about her “long and sometimes troubling relationship with tarot cards”; and storytelling veteran Penny Walter tells “Con Mucho Gusto, With Pleasure,” about her life as a puppeteer.