Local comic recounts a dark journey from addiction to prison to the stage

In pursuit of the last laugh on a troubled life

INDEPENDENCE, Ky. -- This is not yet a story of redemption, but it could be.

Jay Armstrong lives in a small yellow house in Independence, Ky. The front door of his home opens onto a red-carpeted living room. There is an office desk in one corner, cluttered with papers, and a curio case full of big-eyed ceramic children and dolls. Armstrong is a big man, short but stocky, with wide ear piercings and a plethora of tattoos. The word “punk” is written across the fingers of his right hand, each of the letters wreathed in flames.

His 2-year-old daughter Julia calls out from the next room. He brings her into the room and changes her on the couch with the methodical precision of a seasoned parent. Julia is blonde, blue-eyed and very small in Armstrong’s arms. Disney’s Sleeping Beauty poses gracefully on the front of her pink shirt. Armstrong tells her to say hello, but she bashfully refuses and laughs.

“She thinks she’s funny,” he said, picking up the girl and resting her on his shoulder.

“So does her dad,” said Kim Tyree from the armchair by the front door. Tyree, 34, came up from Louisville for the weekend to visit Armstrong. They have been friends since 2005, while both were in recovery for heroin addiction. Tyree is not just kidding around about Armstrong being funny. Armstrong is a working comedian in the Covington, Ky., area, where he is paid for his talents, but this story starts much further back.

“I knew him when he was in treatment,” Tyree said. Armstrong helped her through some of the rough patches of early sobriety, she says, telling her to get out and find meetings when she was feeling down. “He’s not half as angry as he used to be. He’s much more responsible.”

Friends led Armstrong into hard drugs. It was a way to hang out with the older kids, to be a part.

“I had some issues with alcohol, and some of my friends who were older than me were like, ‘you can’t drink here anymore, we’re all doing this now,’ ” Armstrong said.

Armstrong started using soft drugs when he was 12, and upgraded to heroin when he was 16. The intervening nine years effectively ruined his life, leading to alienation, homelessness and, ultimately, incarceration. He speaks unhesitatingly about the hard times of his life, moving from subject to subject with an easy, candid cadence. His daughter is with him as he recounts his past, resting on his shoulder but seemingly disinterested in the conversation.

As Armstrong’s addiction worsened, the people in his life slowly and surely moved away from him, no longer willing to put up with the young junkie. He experienced his first bout of homelessness during this period, moving from couch to couch throughout his dwindling social circle. Ostracized by his habit, Armstrong made plans to move out to San Francisco, where he thought it would be easier to support his habit. Just 18 years old, Armstrong bought a one-way bus ticket to San Francisco, bringing nothing more than $100 and a backpack. Once in California, his homelessness became much more literal.

“I did more couch surfing than I did sleeping outside [in Kentucky], but when I went to San Francisco I slept outside for almost 2 ½ to 3 months,” Armstrong said. He supported his habit by selling marijuana to tourists.

“We were selling weed, and so you had to have a cover to stand there and talk to tourists,” Armstrong said. “So me and my buddy John, who’s half-Irish, half-Colombian, he and I would sing Irish folk songs. A lot of tourists would come up, you know, throw a dollar in the cup and be like ‘Hey, you know where we can get some weed?’ And we’d be like, ‘Yeah, as a matter fact, you can get it right here.’”

Armstrong’s stay in San Francisco ended when a girl he had been seeing called him back home.

“She left me again as soon as I came back. She just didn’t want me to die in San Francisco,” Armstrong said with a chuckle.

Armstrong bounced around Covington for the next few years, constantly in and out of trouble with the law. There were the occasional weeks of sobriety, he says, but nothing that ever stuck. He was arrested several times during this period, and when he was 21, something finally did stick. He was arrested and charged with felony possession of heroin and forging the numbers on his identification card. He spent the next 22-½ months in prison, and 18 of which were in prison camps.

Armstrong stops telling his story for a moment. Julia is asking for the bottle of chocolate milk sitting on the table in front of them. He obliges her, and she grabs the two-handled, spill-resistant cup and immediately starts drinking it.

“What do you say?” Armstrong asked, bumping her softly up and down on his knee to get her attention. It takes her few seconds and a couple more prods, but she looks up and squeaks a quiet “thanks” before going back to the chocolate milk.

“I broke my habit in Boone County [jail], just sitting in a cell,” Armstrong says. Over half a decade of addiction had brought him to a very dark place, and Armstrong had to make a choice. “The obsession

to commit suicide outweighed the obsession to drink and use.”

Armstrong’s decision to quit was a matter of pragmatism.

“I had seen some [television] specials about people who had tried to kill themselves, and just ended up disfigured or crippled,” he said. “I’m afraid of failure, basically, and that kept me from offing myself, and if that’d happened, this little one wouldn’t be here.” He bounces Julia on his knee to accentuate the point, but she does not seem to notice. “I’m clean and sober today by the grace of a loving God.”

Five years after regaining his sobriety, Armstrong has begun a promising career as a standup comedian. He pads his income by working odd jobs and as a sometime plumber. Though the jokes have yet to pay the bills, he is happy to be chasing his dream. He recently opened for former Full House star David Coulier at the Funny Bone Comedy Club in Newport, Ky., where Armstrong works as a house emcee.

Like his appearance, Armstrong’s jokes often defy the viewer’s first impression. He takes the obligatory pot shot at his checkered past, telling his audience how easy it is to get arrested, because the police end up doing all the work. But he also gets into more demanding jokes.  He notes how there is a machine (the Large Hadron Collider at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN) that’s making life-shattering discoveries about the universe, but The Discovery Channel is instead airing shows about whether a zombie outbreak is possible. Jays answer: “It’s not.”

“[Armstrong] does great comedy,” said Ryan Meade, general manager of Funny Bone , who made Armstrong one of the house emcees. Emcees have to be dependable, funny and able to warm up a crowd for visiting headliners, Meade says. Not just anybody can do the job. “A lot of guys don’t work enough at it. You have to be very, very persistent and Jay is one of those people.”

Armstrong does not think he is as successful as others believe him to be, and he understands that he is still a small fish in a very big pond. He considers himself an “open miker” a rookie in the world of professional standup comedians. Open mikers, said Armstrong, are comics who have not yet made the jump to being professional, working comedians, because they cannot grasp the difference between often uncensored bar shows, where material can be graphic and experimental, and club shows, where material needs to be reliable and complement visiting headliner’s material.

“I’m way ahead of the time track that I was told to expect,” Armstrong said.

Typically, it can take a new comedian anywhere from five, to upwards of 10 years to be invited to do club sets, said Armstrong. Even that time track is not guaranteed.

In addition to finding steady work at the Funny Bone, Armstrong has landed paid gigs on the side, including shows for RecoveryComedy.com , a booking agency that deals specifically with comedians who are former users.

Armstrong’s story has not yet earned a Hollywood ending. The house he lives in belongs to his parents. He is currently embroiled in a custody battle that he cannot afford. Even though he has kicked his addiction, he still lives with the stigma of having once been a junkie.

“Having the felony keeps me from getting work,” Armstrong said. “But it’s the pressure of everybody looking at you like you’re still junkie that’s probably the worst thing to deal with.”

Regardless of that fact — or in spite of it — Armstrong still pushes forward. All the inspiration he needs, it seems, is in the little blonde girl bouncing on his knee.
His is not yet a story of redemption, but it could be.

Tyler Bell, a journalism student at the University of Cincinnati and a member of the New Media Bureau, reported, videotaped, photographed and wrote this story for WCPO.com.

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