"Dying is easy. Comedy is hard."
-- A credo of British theater
He remembers the voice of the paramedic: "Move your toes! Keep trying to move your toes!" And it was a cool night, he remembers that. And breezy, he remembers that. He remembers everything from the night his life changed forever.
"I was sleeping in the back seat of the car," Jeff Charlebois says. "The car hit a tree. The car wasn't damaged very much, and my two friends in the front seat weren't even hurt. I ended up in the floor well of the back seat. My neck hurt, and everything tingled the way your leg or foot tingles when it falls asleep. And I remember saying, 'I think I'm paralyzed.' My two friends said, 'Come on, Jeff, don't joke,' because I was always making a joke. Then I got to feeling very claustrophobic. So they took me out of the car and put me down on the grass. I remember thinking my legs were bent at the knees, but when I looked down, they were straight. Still, even when I was in the helicopter, headed for Shock-Trauma, I thought it was minor. I didn't want to think it was as serious as it was.
"I remember thinking, at some point, that if I were paralyzed, I didn't want to live."
This all happened 11 years ago. Jeff Charlebois was in his junior year at Calvert Hall.
He thought he'd be out of the hospital the next day. He ended up spending six months there, and many more months learning how to live with half his body paralyzed.
He had been the kid who made family and friends laugh. He told jokes, sprayed the air with puns, and imitated celebrities. "I never intended to be the source of so much pain for my family," he says. "I remember saying to my father, 'I've been in worse situations, Dad.' " And then he said, "No, you haven't."
After two or three days at the hospital, the doctor told him he'd never walk again.
"But I skipped over that part," Jeff says. "I always thought I would walk again. I skipped over the part where a guy in my situation says to himself, 'Wait, you can't walk.' "
After a little while, he started thinking about ways to make the best of a tragedy -- or ways to keep the tragedy from being complete. "I started thinking of things I could do, rather than the things I couldn't do. I figured I had a choice. Either I adapt, or I have a dark outlook and go nowhere."
It was really a choice between living and dying -- a choice between being involved in life or disappearing behind the doors.
Jeff Charlebois chose even more than that.
He chose comedy.
"You want to be a stand-up comic?" someone asked.
"In my case, I'll be a sit-down comic," he said.
And so last night, you could wander into Slapstix, the comedy club in the Brokerage, and see this young man in a wheelchair being lifted onto a stage, preparing for what is widely acknowledged to be one of life's most difficult endeavors -- making people laugh. Jeff Charlebois, who lives in Lutherville and works part time for a Baltimore ad agency, actually travels the East Coast looking for -- and getting -- opportunities to do this.
Last night, he was among the amateurs at Slapstix. There were several on the stage before him -- some with those embarrassingly bad bathroom jokes, others with mildly amusing shtick. There was a very funny Californian, Steve Epstein, and then, after a few more walk-ons, Jeff Charlebois arrived. The room became quiet, almost still. Even the inebriated yappers in the back clammed up when they saw the wheelchair.
Then slowly, as Jeff told jokes -- "I just drove in from Towson. Boy, are my arms tired" -- the place started to warm up. "I hate when I go into a restaurant and see a sign that says, 'Please wait to be seated.' I'm afraid the manager's going to come out and say, 'Look, jerk, if you can't follow the rules, get the hell out of here!' " Soon the audience was so comfortable with his humor -- and satisfied that Jeff wasn't interested in being patronized -- that you could hear the groans over his puns, which is exactly what he deserved.
His "Russian blues singer" was one of the night's best offerings. By the time he was into his imitations of Jack Nicholson, the Bee Gees, Bill Cosby and Kermit the Frog, he was scoring. He wasn't great. But he was pretty good. And afterward, Epstein, the professional, shook Jeff Charlebois' hand and complimented him, which was a way of thanking him -- for making laughter, for being there, for not giving up.