The Fox of Fourth Avenue

The 15-story brick sentinel stands guard at the corner of Ninth Street and Fourth Avenue, in the heart of the Jewel City’s nightlife district.  Only the two Towers dormitories about nine blocks east on Marshall University’s campus rival it in size.

At night, the building is lit in a rainbow of LED lights and the sidewalk below is transformed as if by dripping neon paint.  Erected in 1925 as the Union Bank and Trust Building, the crown jewel of the city skyline has mirrored the state’s history.

Like the mountains that dot its namesake’s landscape, the West Virginia Building casts its shadow over downtown Huntington.

Building Hunt

Various outside speculators have bought and sold it, consequently leading to its disrepair until 2010 when a hometown real estate agent bought it to nurture it back to health.  The lights that illuminate the building in the evening are thanks to that real estate agent.

Since 2009, there’s been a Fox living in that building—a man named Aaron Michael Fox.  Like some mountain folk, Fox used to come down from his downtown ridge frequently to conduct business, but over the years, he’s been becoming more reclusive, more hermit-like.

Upon meeting him, known by many as AMF, three things become evident:

First of all, he is slight in stature and has a perpetual five o’clock shadow covering his cheeks.

Second, his dress (whether business or casual) always includes a piece of Marshall University. Whether it’s a T-shirt, a baseball cap, a tie pin or a cuff link, somewhere he will fly the Herd’s Kelly Green and white.

His eyes are blue, not Kelly green.

But those eyes have seen packed comedy clubs across the Eastern Seaboard, they’ve seen audiences laugh and boo.  He has strained those eyes trying to design logos and edit pictures; they have grown heavy pulling late nights typing out screenplays.  During his forays into politics, those eyes have stared into a potential voter’s while he’s shaken their hand after selling his platform.

West Virginians outside of Huntington have probably never heard of him. But for the past decade, through trial and error, success and failure, Fox has carved himself a spot in the city of 49,000’s jet set.

vance

Comedian, politician, artist, writer, activist, Fox is the city’s answer to both Jay Gatsby and Michelangelo.

More than that, Fox is a proud West Virginian, embodying the Mountaineer ethos to a fault. No matter how many times he’s tripped, fell and skinned up his knee, after a proper amount of cussing, he will stand back up, grab his pick and trudge back to the mines.

Vintage Fox

Aaron Michael is sitting across me from in a sweltering office inside his apartment.  With no air conditioning, Fox uses a system of fans to swirl the hot air around, so it doesn’t become stagnant and soak the summer humidity into our clothing.

“Yeah, in my bedroom, I use a couple of fans to keep it cool, but it still gets bad in August,” he said, pulling out a desk chair.

Next to the door of his threshold is a map of Huntington, below a hat and Marshall pom poms. On the a bookshelf is a Superman and a Batman doll—despite a brief turn toward Marvel in his early adolescence, he’s been a devoted DC fan for years. Opposite the shelf is a stack of VHS tapes and posters lining the wall from the now defunct Funny Bone, a Midwestern comedy club chain that once ran in a club in Huntington.

Pointing at poster of comedian Andy Dick from 2010, AMF said it’s from that show.

“I wasn’t around for when that happened, but I got a hold of a poster when it closed,” Fox said.

The show in question is when Dick, famous for his wild behavior on Comedy Central Roasts and his recurring role on the short-lived Ben Stiller Show in the 1990s, allegedly groped two men at a bar down the block following a show at the Funny Bone. Cabell County prosecutors later dropped the charges if Dick stayed out of trouble.

Looking out the window, I can see the mural Fox painted alongside a 6-story building for a smoothie joint back in 2011. Now a yogurt shop, the mural is due to be scrubbed; palm trees and suns just don’t seem to jive with frozen cow’s milk.

Fox spent a few days on that mural, spending a few hours here and there while adding stroke upon stroke. After emptying can upon can, the mural emerged.

At the time, he was also spearheading a campaign against a gnarly graffiti problem darkening the signs and business of downtown.

“I have no problem with graffiti, as long as it is actually a picture and the property owner consents to it,” Fox said. “I have a room with different stencils I spray on cardboard, so I do think it’s art. But when you’re just writing your name on the side of a sign, you’re just being a vandal.”

graffiti

The attention and dedication Fox put into that legal graffiti work now lives not on brick and mortar, where it will one-day weather away, but forever on the internet. While pumping out the occasional graphic design work, his portfolio of colorized old black-and-whites from around the state has become a Mountaineer favorite.

That’s right, Fox is the eye, hand, and brain behind Vintage West Virginia.

It’s a popular Facebook page that features photographs submitted by followers and others gathered on his own from various libraries.  Fox said he uses Photoshop to “breath life” into old-timey photographs from West Virginian history which include everything from snapshots of a campaigning John F. Kennedy to miners covered in coal dust.

Check your Facebook sometime, it’s likely one of Fox’s pics is bound to pop up in the feed. His logos, like “Separate from Virginia since 1863” or “It’s hard to be humble when you’re from West Virginia” are also crowd pleasers. Those were drawn long before launching Vintage WV in 2014. They originated with a failed t-shirt business he ran back in the early 2010s.

On the surface, the goal is to give West Virginians a fresh taste of life in the state’s early days, Fox said. However, like anything with him, there’s always hope for something more, something deeper.

Vintage West Virginia

Vintage West Virginia

“To me, one of the biggest goals is to help give the state an identity, because it’s struggled with what is ‘really’ West Virginia,” Fox said. “There’s a sense in every part of the state that it’s the ‘real’ West Virginia, and every other part of the state ain’t. The Eastern Panhandle thinks it’s the real West Virginia, while the coal fields think it’s the real West Virginia, and each one thinks the other isn’t.”

Fox then offered me an ashtray from a cigar shop he frequented in his college days. Though he no longer smokes, he likes to keep it around for company.

“By colorizing these pictures from different parts of the state, I’m hoping that people will see that while there are differences in the state’s regions, there a lot of commonalities,” Fox said. “Hopefully, through these pictures, some kind of a coherent identity will rise to the top.”

Regional divides still erupt in the comments sections of his photographs. For example, The Herd vs. Mountaineers divide and sore feelings over the American Civil War occasionally erupt whenever Fox posts a football picture, or a picture of Abe Lincoln.

Surprisingly, the hotdog-pepperoni roll disputes can get just as ugly, Fox said.

“The debate between the southern West Virginian hot dog and the pepperoni roll is definitely a north-south divide in this state,” Fox said. “I don’t know where the line is exactly, maybe somewhere between Flatwoods and Weston on I-79. But once you get above that line, you’re out of hot dog country and in the land of pepperoni rolls.”

Fox is a Fayette County native, and is firmly in the hot dog camp. A proper hotdog, needs sauce (or chili, depending on the dialect), coleslaw, mustard and diced onions on a steamed bun. The steamed bun is non-negotiable, he said.

“You can’t toast it, or else it’s not a Southern West Virginia hot dog, it’s something else entirely,” Fox said. “I’m not going to eat it if it’s toasted. It must be steamed. That’s how they’re supposed to be.”

Being an Eastern Panhandler repulsed by mayonnaise, much less ‘slaw, I respectfully disagreed with him on this point. I believe a hot dog, no matter the garnishments, is still not a West Virginia original. No matter how ubiquitous the ‘slaw and sauce dog is south of Weston’s Sharpe Hospital, the pepperoni roll was invented for miners in the state and is sold in every gas station from Williamson to Wheeling.

“Yeah, well, the fact is you can’t find a hot dog like this outside of West Virginia,” Fox replied. “It’s as original as the pepperoni roll. It’s a good treat people will drive to town for.”

Huntington, deep in dog country, is not without its share of hot dog stands. There’s Stewarts (with its cream soda), Frost Top (known for it’s root beer floats), and  Hillbilly Hotdogs, to name a few. When asked which spot serves the best on the bun, Fox declined.

“No comment,” he said, guardedly, “I’ll go off the record and tell you, but I’m not wading into that issue in print.”

Maybe he feared backlash from the local stand owners, or maybe he didn’t want to further divide hot dog country, for fear the ‘roll would win.

Sly Fox

Around the corner of the West Virginia Building, down 9th Street past the Marshall Café, across Third Avenue is Pullman Square. Like the city itself, the plaza is named after a Gilded Age captain of industry, George Pullman. Known for the sleeping cars he built in the late 19th Century, Pullman’s prestige left its mark on Huntington, just like railroad tycoon Collis P. Huntington.

“You know, back when I was making t-shirts, I wanted to get in on the more urban markets, so I made a shirt that said, ‘Moneyinton’ and replaced Franklin’s on the $100 bill with Collis P. Huntington’s,” Fox said, as he searched for other samples from the days he hocked cotton shirts at festivals and fairs.

“It was about 2011 I was doing that,” Fox said. “It was just me and the shirts, no other partners or employees. I designed them and had them printed, then sold them without bathroom breaks and having to keep an eye on teenagers trying to steal them.”

It was at Pullman Square that Troy Winter, a former manager of the Funny Bone, first began to see Fox’s entrepreneurial spirit.

City of Huntington

City of Huntington

“He’s always had the entrepreneurial spirit, at least since I’ve known him. He’s got a hustle to him you don’t see in everyone, no matter what he tries to do,” Winter said. “Seeing some of the things he did at the Funny Bone, I can say he honed in on that there.”

For about five years, the Funny Bone showcased both traveling and hometown acts. Today, like many a large venue left around town, it has been filled with a church congregation. For a few years, the chattering teeth painted on the floor entering into the club still led its way to the church’s door.

But in the early 2000s, Fox didn’t want to be a businessman; the Marshall University undergrad didn’t quite know what he wanted to do. He’d been a music composition major, before switching to music education, then to theatre and finally settling on sociology. It’s not as if Fox was an outlier—plenty of undergrads change their majors.

Fox said as a student, he was a bit of an attention hound, hamming it up for his fraternity brothers at Sigma Tau Gamma.

That dream to make people laugh can be traced back to the mid 1990s, Fox said.

“Growing up in Fayette, I was raised up listening to Alabama, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. But when I was 10 or 11, a friend popped in the Foxworthy CD and I was blown away. Here was a guy just talking and people were listening and laughing. I wanted to do that. I hate to admit that’s how I caught the bug.”

His earliest sets consisted of re-telling friends and family the “tatter salad” bit by Ron White—another fixture on the Blue Collar Comedy Tours. While his comedy tastes might have shifted to greats like Richard Pryor and George Carlin, Fox’s worthy dream of taking the stage remained all those years later.

“So I walked into the Funny Bone and said I wanted to be a comedian,” he said. “The manager at the time told me, ‘that’s not how that works.’ So they threw me on an open mic slot, right at the bottom with the least experienced comedians.”

The first performance, roughly a month later, resulted in a few chuckles and an admonishment from the club manager that “there was only one Mitch Hedberg”—a pick at Aaron-Michael’s disheveled, shaggy appearance.

Ditching the sunglasses and the long hair made famous in Hedberg’s burnt-out hippy act on HBO and Comedy Central Specials, Fox rejiggered his act. At a stand-up competition between local talent at the club, Fox said he came in second place behind eastern Kentucky comedian Jeremy Moore. Ever bold, ever direct, Fox seized the win to ask for a job at the club.

“The manager said to me, ‘the first place guy didn’t ask for a job, so why in the hell should I give you one?’” Fox said, pausing to crack a grin. “I told him that’s because he’s an idiot for not asking for one, so he should give it to me.”

But the manager relented once Fox took home the gold at the following competition, giving him a slot as the club’s master of ceremonies.

Huntington Funny Bone Nostalgia

Huntington Funny Bone Nostalgia

He was serving in that capacity when Winter met him in 2007. Winter had been managing clubs in Kansas since the 1990s prior to pulling up the stakes and heading to Huntington to oversee the Funny Bone.

“You know, in the old days, a master of ceremonies  just hung around the club and got a little bit of time and $50 a night,” Winter said. “Things have changed, but a lot of the times, I’ve seen MCs that will only stay MCs. I’d be out of a town for a few years and come back and there’s the same MC doing his thing. Aaron-Michael was different.

 But despite some rock’n roll antics, not uncommon in the comedy world, Winter said Fox became an invaluable right-hand man at the club. Fox used his connections at the university to promote traveling acts, turn out the Herd to fill the seats and to scout up-and-coming talent, Winter said.

“He really worked his ass off to get that club going,” Winter said. “For some reason, previous management didn’t try to tap into the college just down the street. Fox saw there was potential there and did his best to develop it.”

Winter still admires Fox’s contributions at the club, and believes it would be thriving today with him in charge.

“Aaron-Michael did something you don’t see often, if at all,” Winter said. “See, no comedian really makes it at their hometown club. They gotta go elsewhere, travel. M.C.s usually doesn’t do that sort of thing. But the road acts saw what Aaron-Michael was doing and took him along for some tours.”

The Road Fox

You can take the boy out of West Virginia, but you can’t take the West Virginia out of the boy. Those Country Roads will always lead you home; your heart already wants you there.

“You know, I used to say all the time all I wanted to do was get the hell out of this state,” Fox said. “When I got that opportunity, I got right up to the state line and said, ‘nah, maybe not.’”

That decision, to stick and stay in a state undergoing a brain-drain with youths seeking better pay and work elsewhere, was made during Fox’s touring days. While not a “road dog”—a comedian who travels from the club to club for majority of the year—Fox would leave his beloved mountains for spells lasting up to 6 weeks.

Early in those days, he performed a New York City gig.  Everyone he ran into, including a bus driver in Jersey City, told him not to mention he was from West-By-God. He received that same advice from the club manager just 10 minutes before taking the stage.

“‘Tell them you’re from Ohio, that’s bad enough,’” Fox recalled the club manager saying.. “Well, when I went on stage, I figured there were a lot of people from New Jersey, so I took a gamble to see if any of them went to WVU.”

An audience member was a Mountaineer alumni—which commenced a slew of ad-libbed jokes about the Morgantown-Jersey pipeline, Fox said. It “killed” and threw the  whole room went into a ruckus.

When the lights dimmed and the audience poured out into the streets to go on with their evenings, Fox crossed the Hudson River to Jersey City to rest up in his cheap motel room.

At 2 a.m., Fox found himself alone with his thoughts, despite the millions of people hustling and bustling outside of his door. So like anyone on a business trip, Fox picked up the remote and channel hopped, in hopes of finding that one infomercial to help him go to sleep.

“I will never forget this, but I found a PBS special about West Virginia narrated by Billy Ray Cyrus,” Fox said. “You know, I was still playing with the idea of moving up to New York to be a comic, but here I was hundreds of miles away and home was still having this pull on me.”

Fox paused and nodded his head, looking just above my head for a moment.

“I guess that was life’s way of telling me I needed to stay home.”

From there on, Fox said he wanted to make sure audiences knew he was a West Virginian.

But he didn’t want the state to be the punchline.

He trimmed his weight to appeal to Northern audiences—he felt a bit like a slob his first time the Big Apple. He bought blazers and dress shirts, tightened up his jeans, opting for boot cut.

He worked on his Appalachian accent—a Boston waitress told him  she couldn’t tell if he was from the north or the south, rather fitting for a man who came from a state neither direction wants to claim.

“I wanted to show that I can be a comic and acknowledge I was from West Virginia without it being my entire act,” Fox said. “I think that’s a trap a lot of people can fall into, so I was trying to avoid that.”

But Winter said he saw the Mountain State’s influence on Fox long before he started touring.

While Fox didn’t “run with that whole redneck comedy shtick,” a bit of Fayette still found its way into his act.

“He loves his state. At his heart, Fox is a hometown, small town kind of guy. You can see where he grew up, how he grew up is in an influence in his act, in his style,” he said.

“But he didn’t let it become his entire act, which allowed him to be relevant to audiences outside of Huntington. He was a topical comic, and was good at getting a rise out of an audience. He was really good with handling hecklers, that’s for sure,” Winter added.

Sometimes, Fox’s controversial style collided with his unapologetic love for what he terms “the Best Virginia.” For instance, Fox said he “drove a whole week of shows straight into the toilet” while performing in the heart of the Old Dominion.

“I have no love loss for Richmond (Va.), and that’s putting it mildly,” Fox said, leaning back in his computer chair. “They screwed us when we were a part of them they’ve kept screwing us all these years later, so when I had to perform in Richmond, I wasn’t pulling any punches.”

Opening the act with “I’m from West Virginia and I have some things to say,” Fox launched into a tirade about how Virginia should be called East Virginia, since there’s a North Carolina and a South Carolina, a North Dakota and a South Dakota.

“You know, to compliment the pattern we have going on here,” Fox said.

Then Fox suggested Virginia be renamed New Virginia, since they decided to pick up their marbles and leave the United States back in 1861.

“Listen, the Commonwealth known as Virginia left in 1861, so to me, what we call Virginia now isn’t the same Virginia,” Fox said. “They were traitors, so I say if they wanted back into the Union, they should be called New Virginia to reflect they aren’t the old Virginians that left.”

The audiences didn’t take too kindly to it. They booed. The club manager begged Fox not to open with the tongue-lashing, but he refused. Eventually the tour took him to Virginia Beach and beyond.

But like every tour, no matter if it took him to Dallas, Akron, Boston and Atlanta, his beloved country roads eventually took Fox home.

AA Roads

AA Roads

Fox and Friends

Eric Crusan is a slight, bespectacled man whose jeans and t-shirts hang on his waif-like frame. Though raised in Harrisonburg, Old Virginia, Crusan has lived on and off in Huntington for years, working a variety of service industry gigs. Before his health took a turn and he moved to live with family in Central Florida, he worked at the Go-Mart across from Cabell-Huntington Hospital.

The same Go-Mart with a bulletproof glass window where the clerks once slid cigarettes and money through after 10 p.m. Today, it’s a parking lot, and that doesn’t bother Crusan at all.

For years, Crusan said his friends pushed him to try comedy. Every time they hung out, he made them laugh, but Crusan said he was a bit reluctant to try his hand at stand-up—too many people for him, he said. A few months prior to the Funny Bone’s shuttering, Crusan said he hit rock bottom and tried to commit suicide.

“A week to the day after I did that, I did my first open mic at the Funny Bone,” Crusan said. “I felt like I had absolutely nothing to lose, so I tried it out.”

It turns out his friends were right; he could make people laugh.

He had “it” as Winter would say. Crusan makes it look easy on the stage. The material seems to roll effortlessly off his tongue, as he clutches a microphone in one hand and a beer bottle in the other. He sways as he cracks jokes about his life, but that sway is not from too much port—it seems to be his way of keeping rhythm, the way a guitarist taps his foot while ripping a solo along a fret board.

As easy and as cool as it looks, Crusan said he is in pain.

“Most of the time, I want to cry because my body hurts so bad,” Crusan said. “I don’t complain about it, I don’t tell anyone, but it’s the truth. That had a part in trying to take my own life.”

While now a fixture in the Huntington comedy scene, he splits his time between the mountains and the sunshine. Llittle did he know, one of the first people he met in the local comedy scene would become one his best friends and confidants.

“When I met AMF, he was standing by the sound booth at an open mic,” Crusan said. “I said something, he was like ‘really?’ and walked away all pissed off like he does sometimes. If somebody would’ve told me I’d be great friends with this guy, I would’ve asked what they were smoking.”

A Facebook post, however, planted the seed for a friendship between the two men.

Fox asked his friends and followers if they’d come out to downtown help plant flowers in empty flower pots—about a dozen or so people agreed to help. It was a Sunday, after all. And the weather called for it to be sunny, so it shouldn’t have been a problem.

Only Crusan showed up.

As the two men planted flowers and poured soil, they fertilized a friendship that has since been going strong for six years. Cracking jokes and talking about life, the two funny men cultivated a creative companionship that has weathered failures, successes and the occasional spat.

“It took the whole day, well at least the afternoon, to plant those flowers,” Fox recalled. “Now go ahead and use that as some kind of metaphor for planting a friendship or something.”

Today, Crusan—a self-styled slacker—and the ever-ambitious Fox put their heads together to write screen plays and scripts for film and television.

Sure, nothing has been picked up, but Crusan said he hopes if the two keep going at it, something could hit. For instance, one idea was Home Town Heroes (ironically an award now given by a local TV station)in which men who dress as superheroes for children’s birthday parties must become actual crime fighters. Their sense of humor and their willingness to be completely honest with each other is what keeps the partnership thriving, Fox said.

“We can make each other laugh,” Fox said. “We’re not afraid to challenge each other, so it works out pretty well.”

Crusan puts it a bit more flippantly.

“Basically, he does all the work and I just tell him if I like it or not, then add in some stuff to make it funnier,” Crusan said. “You know, kind of like Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David.”

Since Crusan took up more or less full-time residency in Florida, the two mainly toss their ideas around via email. But when Crusan comes to town, Fox picks him up from the Huntington airport and a jam of jokes and ideas commences. Inside the Fox’s den, the duo write rapidly, pushing one another to chuck as much material on the page as they can muster. Before getting to work, the two enjoy a few drinks, chatting and laughing.

From those pre-writing sessions, a podcast was borne.

“We figured we were coming up with some pretty funny crap, so why not just record it?” Crusan said. “Just a microphone, a couple of drinks and see what happens.”

Now with almost 40 episodes released on Facebook, “For Posterity” has a small, but dedicated following amongst Huntingtonians. Recorded in Fox’s home office, the two parade various local comedians and friends on the show to discuss current events, movies and whatever rolls off their tongues after a few belts.

Crusan, for the record, calls in from Florida.

“It isn’t huge, but it’s just fun to do,” Crusan said. “We used to have topics prepared and a new brand of booze every show, but now we just drink and shoot the crap. It’s a cool little project, but I don’t ever expect it to be any bigger than that.”

Despite four screenplays, hundreds of jokes and about 1,200 minutes of time recorded on their podcast,  Fox’s temper can still get the best of him, according to Crusan.

“You’d swear we were dating by the way we fight,” Crusan said. “He’s blocked and unblocked me so many times on Facebook, I lost count. Whenever things get that way, I just wait patiently and he’ll pop back up.”

“Here’s the thing about AMF. He has a temper, he can be downright spoiled, and many people have written him off because of that. I know he’s a good guy who’ll do anything for you. If we were fighting, but I got a flat on I-64, he’d still come to pick me up. A lot of people have given up on him, but I haven’t. I refuse to.”

Fox and Crusan have agreed the two have a Batman-Joker dynamic, though Fox will admit he can be either depending on “my mood and how much I might’ve had to drink.” Fox would like to save the city, but Crusan could care less.

Fighting Fox

His 2012 campaign for District 3 on the Huntington City Council started as a joke, according to Fox.

When a rash of graffiti hit downtown, Fox organized community efforts to clean up the markings, with the property owner’s permission. He personally scrubbed walls and signs up and down Fourth Avenue. The work and pressure eventually paid off with the passing of statewide anti-graffiti law in the 2013 legislative session, stiffening criminal penalties for the offense.

“I started joking I should to run for mayor and legalize weed in the city, but then the right people started telling me, ‘you could do this if you get serious. Run for council.’” Fox said. “That boosted my ego just enough to try it.”

So Fox launched a primary challenge against 3-term city council woman Francis Jackson. While Jackson enjoyed unanimous labor support within the Democrat Party, Fox said he was still able to attack her from the left, gaining a decent bit of support from card-carrying, rank and file union members.

“I even got support from the chamber of commerce, which is the exact opposite of the base I was trying to attract,” Fox said.

Off his “high” proposals, Fox offered common sense reforms to help bring economic growth to the city. For instance, he proposed “idea exchanges” in which Huntington and other cities, such as Charleston and Morgantown, would pool together their resources for marketing strategies in hopes of attracting new industries.

“Sometimes, it’s just the W and the V after the town’s name that can turn companies off because there’s a stereotype that we’re a bunch of heroin-addicted, toothless hillbillies,” Fox said, forlornly.

“Take Morgantown for example. Here you have a city with a nationally recognized university that companies would flock to if it were in another state.  There’s a challenge there just by virtue of it being in West Virginia.”

Other proposals were admittedly too far-fetched, or at least too technical for the average voter, Fox conceded. Like thorium. Just doesn’t roll off the tongue like “Make America Great Again” or “Hope and Change.”

“The idea was to repurpose coal residue for nuclear power. See, thorium can be stripped off coal and used in nuclear power, but it can’t be weaponized and it isn’t as volatile so there’s no issues with meltdowns or that sort of thing,” Fox said.

“Huntington could’ve had a plant here for that and powered the state and a good chunk of the Midwest. But I think it was too in the weeds for the average voter.”

After putting up signs (complete with his trademark silhouette of the Huntington skyline), knocking on doors, shaking hands and marketing extensively on social media, Fox pushed his campaign up until the May 8, 2012 primary.

Despite the hustle, Fox said he figured he would be slaughtered by the well-known incumbent. Instead, he lost by the thinnest of margins: five measly votes.

The Herald Dispatch

The Herald Dispatch

“I thought I took it pretty well, but a lot of my Facebook friends might say otherwise,” Fox said. “I was prepared to lose in a blowout, but when it was so close, I questioned everything I did, every interaction with a voter, every handshake and tried to figure out where I went wrong.”

Steve Williams, a former city manager and state delegate, took Fox on as a deputy campaign manager during his run against incumbent mayor Kim Wolfe. After serving a year in the administration, Fox bowed out of politics.

Three years later, as Trump-a-mania swept the country; Fox got a call from his landlord to meet him for a beer. After that sip of suds, Fox was back in the game.

Alex Vence bought the West Virginia building in 2013. His grandfather briefly owned it in the late 1970s, but he quickly sold it because he didn’t know much about building management. But the realtor grandson did and has since tried to rechristen the building back as the crown jewel of the Jewel City’s skyline.

“It feels good have the building and be a part of the effort to make Huntington into a better place to live,” Vence said.

While inheriting a legacy, Vence also inherited a Fox.

“I knew Aaron Michael from when he was at the Funny Bone, and I heard all sorts of things about him, but those people didn’t really know him,” Vence said. “I do know he was pretty good with hecklers. I definitely remember that.”

Over the years, Vence also tried his hand in politics with two unsuccessful city council runs in ’04 and ’08. Putting Fox’s social media and graphic design skills to task, Vence finally got enough votes to put him on the city council.

The freshman councilman said Fox’s blunt honesty and eye for design helped craft a message that resonated with the voters, despite the overall rightward trajectory of the state’s politics.

“He’s very open and candid,” Vence said. “He has no problems telling me what I need to hear, which is sometimes hard to find in politics. He’s great to bounce ideas off of, and is a reliable sounding board.”

If Fox enjoys a creative partnership with Crusan, then his partnership with Vence is much more practical. Sometimes an idea can be pure garbage, but it will go a long way, both men said.

For years, Fox hated being awoken at 4 a.m. by  what sounded like a “massive explosion in the alley.”

“It was the garbage truck collecting the dumpster,” Fox said. “I told Alex about it when he moved in and he didn’t pay too much attention to it. He called me the next morning and I said, ‘I told you so.’”

With 300-400 people living downtown, the dawn dumpster collections were a real problem for rest, Vence said. Working together, Vence and Fox pushed through council an ordinance to change trash collection times to 7 a.m. Mayor Williams signed the bill into law that year.

WCHS

WCHS

“I can’t tell you how many people I’ve run into that have thanked me for getting through,” Vence said. “Sometimes, a policy doesn’t have to be some huge, sweeping change.”

Politics can be revolutionary, it can be mundane, it can be treacherous—at least that’s how the movies depict it.

But to Fox, it truly comes down to how decisions affects the lives of people.

“When I worked the Funny Bone, sometimes I wondered was how long people worked to get the money to pay the cover charge and the two item minimum (fairly common in comedy clubs) to go to the show,” Fox said. “When you’re running for office, you get out there and learn how people get by in their day-to-day and find out how you can help them.”

“I think everyone should run for public office and see how it works in the belly of the beast.”

Final Fox

I was a wet-behind the ears, acne scarred freshman two weeks into my first semester at Marshall University when I met Aaron Michael Fox. We were on the porch of his beloved Sig Tau drinking beer. It was my first frat party, and honestly, one of the few I ever attended—I was more of a bar drinker, and the spots downtown at the time were pretty loose about serving underage.

Over cigarettes and red Solo cups filled with mixed spirits, I chatted with the slick-looking Fox, decked to the nines in his blazer and jeans. He was much skinner then; I was too.

“I’m a comedian at the Funny Bone,” he said, at least that’s all I remember.

Through the years, I would run into Fox. I had friends and acquaintances in the comedy scene, so a few “hi, byes” were inevitable. One of my first articles, written for the Parthenon—Marshall’s five-day a week student paper—was about Fox’s effort to start a Saturday night comedy show in the back of one of my favorite Fourth Avenue watering holes.

Called “Huntington Live,” I would later learn Fox had plans to spin it off into a brick and mortar club, but the deal fell through. It was a sizzling September afternoon when I interviewed him; he was standing on a ladder painting the mural across the street from the West Virginia Building.

There’s been times I’ve wanted to kill AMF, and there’s been times I’m pretty sure he’s wanted to kill me. But despite those spats—, which are inevitable with two ego-maniacal artsy types—we’ve gotten along for the most part.

So when I pitched this story to We Heart West Virginia Editor Jenni Vincent—whom I consider a friend and a mentor—I was excited when she commissioned it in the parking lot of a Martinsburg Waffle House. It’s a story I had wanted to tell for years. I’d pitched this story once in 2014 to The Parthenon, but the editorial staff was tepid about it, at best.

Time has changed Fox and I since that initial pitch. I’ve grown up, and he’s grown more reclusive—life has beaten us both down, so to speak.

But with Fox, one thing has never changed and that’s his drive to strive.

Some marks he’s left on the town, other marks have weathered away. That’s OK, because Fox always has a project in the hopper—there’s always that Diamond Teeth Mary screenplay he’s writing and now envisions as a mini-series.

“Who’s Diamond Teeth Mary? You asked the wrong question,” Fox said. “She was a blues singer from Huntington who hopped a train when she was a kid and became a star. She put diamonds in her teeth but took them out to pawn them in the ‘50s to pay for her mother’s cancer treatments.”

The extent to which Fox has researched her life is staggering—he has a binder full of newspaper clippings tucked away on a shelf.

From his perch on the West Virginia Building, Fox can see some of the changes coming to Huntington, including the new bars, restaurants and other new construction. To say Fox has his hand in it would be a bold face lie. It’s people like Fox—who never give up, no matter how many times they fall down—driving the change.

Crusan never gives up on Fox, Vence never gives up on Fox, Winter never gives up on Fox, and Fox never gives up on Huntington.

“To be blunt, this town has been colossally screwed by fate, from the 1937 flood and the 1970 Marshall plane crash, to the heroin crisis and all those media accounts about how we’re the fattest, most mentally ill city in the country,” Fox said.

“Well, the people in Huntington don’t do anything to deserve it. They’re hardworking people who are doing what they can to survive.”

But if the city will turn the corner, a corner it’s been trying to turn for years, Fox said people like himself—educated and hardworking—need to stay.

“I’m not saying I’m special, or I’m going to save this city, but I refuse to be a part of the brain drain,” Fox said. “If we want to fix this city and this state, for that matter, we need young, educated people to stay, tough it out and do what they can to make it a better place to live.”

 

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