I sat in the OK Hotel bar fifteen minutes late, but that was all right. Nothing had started yet. I eyed the stage, the microphone, the thin light hitting the dark curtains, melting every color into gray. Poetry at the start of the 21st century had become a smoky art hidden away in the bowels of bars, coffee joints, and private notebooks. I got up and ordered a Pepsi, straight up. The bartender wanted a dollar. I threw him two. I asked myself, Remember when I couldn’t afford to tip anyone?
I answered myself too. Yeah, kid, I remember. Not so long ago really.
I was lonely for something again. What was it this time? It wasn’t the company of a woman. I had a good one this time, and she waited for me outside in the parked car. “Let me do this by myself,” I’d said. She insisted on waiting for me in the car. What was it? Jealousy? Fear I’d take off with another? Come on. I’d been through the wars. And I wasn’t going to leave her with a brand new baby, as my father had done and as my grandfather had done. My whole life had been a negation of family traditions. I told her to go home and she said no. She was going to ride it out in the car. She brought a book with her, opened it, smiled. What was there to do? I kissed her. Then I went into the OK Hotel.
I sipped my Pepsi. I waited for some sign of life on the stage. Maybe this was a minimalist poetry reading. Heh. What was I lonely for now? What was my need? Had I run out of things to say at the typewriter? Was that it? Was this a fishing expedition? How ridiculous. Christ, writers are so vulgar. Human beings aren’t people to them—they’re props, characters to get right. A night out isn’t a night out—you’re a soldier in the field. I’d give my left arm to be anything but a writer. Writers are worse than even doctors. There’s nothing around them but meat. I sipped at my Pepsi and studied the empty stage. Too late for you, kid. Writing is all you can do.
Fifteen minutes went by like a roach kicking after a straight on spray of Raid. I watched a party of fifteen people, laughing, going back to the bar to fill up pitchers. One of them looked like Sherman Alexie. Another Denise Duhamel. My head had been in the books so long I half expected there to be a dust jacket around the bar. Did I want to be famous? After all my mimicry, was that what I wanted, really? Was that my need? Did I want someone I didn’t know to know my name?
I stood up and walked to the bouncer. He was large, though old, as if he’d fought in World War II—the kind of tough that’s still in the eyes long after it has left the body. He was reading the paper. “Poetry slam?” I asked him.
“They moved it.” He took his eyes off the paper just long enough to stare at me. “Ruperts, around the corner on 1st Street.”
“All right,” I said.
I walked back to the car. She was watching a trolley rolling by. I opened the door and told her what was going on. I asked her how she was doing. She said she was doing okay. Then she went back to her book. No separating that woman from her books. Who else but a bibliophile would put up with me? I shut the car door and started walking.
I lived in the suburbs and seldom left the house, so Seattle was a strange city to me. Still, a city is a city. Seattle at night might as well be Chicago or New York or even Jacksonville. In the city the world is above you and you’re a worm wiggling through a maze. People were on every corner. Sirens yawped in the distance. Some kind of waxy steam rose from mysterious holes in the ground and smelled like liquefied death. What was down there? Hell? Or was this hell up here?
I found Ruperts. I peeked inside and there didn’t seem to be anything going on—a couple of bearded college students eating, three or four well dressed yuppies sitting at the bar and watching a ballgame. The bouncer, a tall skinny twenty-something wearing a black T shirt with the word “SECURITY” printed on it in white letters, stood by the entrance chucking and pulling back a yoyo. He was good at it. You could tell he had spent years learning how. He was probably better at the yoyo than anything else. Maybe in his off hours he went looking for yoyo slams.
Everything on 1st street was jammed right next to each other. I didn’t want to bother the bouncer and his yoyo so I stood by the entrance directly in front of an apartment door. The door was glass but behind the glass was a pattern of black iron bars. I lit a cigarette. People strutted by. Most of them carried things—papers, book bags, purses—as if they needed to hold something at all times. The only thing I was holding was some poems I had shoved into my back pocket—and my cigarette. Across the street two paramedics loaded the stretcher into the back of an ambulance. The sheet lay over the body’s head. Somebody had decided to check out of the world. Death was everywhere, if you wanted to pay attention to it. You got to walk around feeling like Holden Caulfield for just so long and then it came for you.
The bouncer flipped his yoyo out and back, out and back. I watched him and I smoked.
Behind me, at the apartment door, a young girl came downstairs and peeked through the iron bars. She was maybe nineteen, a brunette, skinny, pretty. She saw me and I smiled. She looked confused. I smoked some more and turned my head. When I looked back, she was walking upstairs again. A couple of minutes later she came downstairs again with another girl. They both looked at me nervously through the iron bars. Then the one girl opened the door and the pretty brunette slipped out. The other girl watched me closely from behind the iron bars. The pretty brunette walked down the street. When she was far enough away, the other girl turned around and went back upstairs. I could still see the pretty brunette. I stroked my beard and stepped on my cigarette. I looked at my reflection in a car window and wondered what people thought of me when they saw me. A murderer? A rapist? A stalker? Apparently. To hell with it. I decided to go on in.
“Where’s your poetry slam?” I asked the bouncer.
He didn’t take his eyes off the yoyo. It went up and back three times before he answered me. “Downstairs.”
I walked into the bar. I stopped in the john, did what I had to do, and then I went downstairs.
The place was empty save a couple of people moving chairs. I found a booth and sat. There was a bar behind me. The lighting was piss poor, a porno without the sex, but with similar dialogue. Another stage, another microphone, another poetry joint. Everywhere I’d gone they’d been almost identical. You’d think fresh air and sunshine would kill a poet.
I peeked at my poems. Poetry. Nobody wanted it but poets. Hell, even the poets didn’t like it unless it was their own. Most people wrote poetry until they hit eighteen. Then they went on to other things. If you were still writing poetry into your thirties you were one of two things. You were unemployed or you were crazy. What was I? I was both.
“Are you Eric?” a voice said.
I looked up. Homely woman, mustache, heavy in the hips. I imagined she was a sausage patty in another life. She could have been my mother twenty years ago. I wanted her to shut up the minute she talked to me. I dislike when people begin conversations with a question. Then you have all the responsibility of an answer. “No,” I said. “I’m not Eric.”
“Well, you can’t be here.” She smiled for me, made it look hard. “This bar hasn’t a license to have people down here before nine.” She suffered through another smile. “We have no insurance should you get hurt.”
I wondered how I was going to hurt myself sitting there. Maybe I would jam my pencil into my jugular. Maybe some of the bad music being played upstairs would find its way downstairs and gag me. I got up. “What time do you start?” I said.
I looked at my watch. That gave me another half-hour. And I was already tired. Tired before the first poem. Story of my life.
I chose not to spend the time in the bar. I couldn’t stand all those milquetoasts leaning against the bar like the apocalypse had caught them wearing dirty underwear. Instead I went back to the car. She was still reading, halfway through the novel, and she smiled as if she’d been expecting me. I took my seat next to her and told her what happened. Then we sat and looked at the trolleys pass.
I didn’t know what women saw in me. But they saw enough in me to think I was a great catch. One after another—I was rarely without. It was a mystery. I was moody and distant and lazy. I was broke and incompetent. Some men had money and some had looks. Here and there you ran across a really decent fellow. But what was it for me? Maybe soul. Yeah, maybe soul, though I rationed that out as fiercely and stingily as an army sergeant would a platoon’s last canteen of water. One thing was certain. If I was a catch, women had fallen upon tough times.
We talked about the last place I had read. It was in my old hometown, before I moved here, when my poetry was hot and thick and in demand. I was the star of the show back then, I told her. I was the BMOC. But it was a small town and a small audience. It was like being the fattest flea in the flea circus. Everyone who heard me was duly impressed, but I wasn’t going to get in Norton’s Anthology of Poets that way. Or any other way.
The time came for me to leave and I left. I shook my head. What are you doing, kid? Well, I’m walking down the road, heading to a poetry slam for the third time tonight, looking for something I need. That’s what I’m doing, kid. Any more stupid questions?
When I got back to Ruperts, they were just putting out the signs for the poetry slam. The homely woman told me it was now safe to go downstairs. She smiled earnestly at me, as if to make up for before, and I nodded and went downstairs. A couple more people were there this time, but my booth was still open. Since it was my only friend in the joint, I went over to it. Despite the chair moving, the place looked the same as when I left.
People started arriving. They paid their two dollars to the doorman. I had paid two dollars too. It had been the same the last place I read too. They charged people to read their poetry. What a scam. You charge people to enter, get them to provide the entertainment, and overcharge for drinks too. Of course, winning the poetry slam scored you twenty-five dollars—though that was how much it would cost to fill the room with enough friends who were going to scream over the voices of other people’s friends. It was all a cozenage with everyone getting rich off the poet. I decided not to read that night. To hell with it. For my two bucks, they would be my monkeys.
The homely woman took the stage. She was the hostess. On the right of me was a man who had a green notebook and was busy writing last minute poems. The hostess let us know what would go down. First there would be an open mic, then something called a scramble slam, then the regular slam. I looked around the room. Everyone seemed young and pretty. It might have been a high school pep rally.
The hostess said there was time for five open mic readers, four scramble slammers, and five slammers. What a bunch of bull. At the old place we used to fit in thirty readers a night. But that was without all the nonsense, without the judging and the horse clapping, without the fooling around. But these people didn’t come for the poetry. They came for the fooling around. Take away the horseshit and they’d have gone up the Space Needle for the ninetieth time.
The first reader got up and read. It was the guy who was sitting to my right. He read a poem about drugs. Now, it’s not hard to spot an honest to goodness drug addict. And this guy was no such thing. Maybe he experimented with pot and heard of the rest of the drugs on CSPAN. But he was all about taking drugs. Hell, I’d done drugs. There was nothing hip or poetic about them. They made you do stupid things. That was all. I supposed if you survived the stupid things you could write about having done them. But there were no war stories from this guy. He just thought drugs were cool. He thought they should be legal. He thought he was being avant-garde. I listened to him and hoped the next reader would be better. When the second reader got up and started reciting a poem about drugs, I knew I was in for a long night.
The open mic readers came up, one after another, and read. No, they didn’t read. They had the poems memorized. Jesus Christ. A real poet doesn’t memorize his poems. He hasn’t the time. A real poet is always busy writing his next poem. Besides, it’s bad news to memorize a poem. Every writer knows that. You get your brain stuck there in that one world and it doesn’t allow you to move on to other worlds. There are writers and there are performers. I was a writer. What the hell was I doing there with the performers?
Searching, kid, searching.
I went to the bar for another Pepsi. The barmaid filled the glass to the top with ice and splashed in an ounce of soda. She had the body of Aphrodite but the personality of Persephone. She charged me two bucks. I handed her three. What the hell. Even an ounce of Pepsi was worth at least a buck more than this show.
I looked around. There was a large group of poets near the back. They had on hats and sunglasses. Their faces could have been on a Kool billboard somewhere. A couple of them were carrying canes. Why? An aura of phoniness surrounded them, something you could almost peel off if you got close enough, like the membrane between the shell and egg white. If I was searching, what the hell where they doing?
Nothing. They weren’t doing anything.
The scramble slam was no better. In this version of the slam people came up to the stage and read other people’s work, famous poets, some dead and some alive. I didn’t see the point. What were you judging people on? Well, performance. It might as well have been an actor’s slam rather than a poetry slam.
They got to the slam. Finally. The poetry was flat, predictable, dull. It was a bad stand up comedy followed by a bad Sunday sermon. The judges gave scores between zero and ten—like judges at a wet T-shirt contest. If I had enlisted, I would have won the thing on sheer genuineness alone. No, I wouldn’t have. They would have given it to the girl with the most friends. It didn’t matter. Twenty-five dollars wasn’t worth the horror. I was beat. I’d had it. I waited until the last poet read his poem, but before the winner was decided I left.
In the car we didn’t talk much. She asked me how it was and I told her it was all right. We drove. The streets were still busy, though it was nearing midnight, until we jumped on the freeway. Then the road opened up and I felt good to be getting some distance between myself and that farce of a poetry reading.
The miles rolled off. The night was thick and black and full of forgiveness. I was still on the lookout—still searching for who knows what. All I had managed to do this night was to cross off one place where I wasn’t going to find it. I wasn’t going to find it in the cold notes of long ago memorized and over-rehearsed verses. I wasn’t going to find it in barroom faces and bodies and what passed for conversation among the sad and angry. Not there, kid, I told myself. Not there.
Driving home, deciding I’d look elsewhere, that was victory enough.
Check out more of James’ work on his website, valvis.net, and follow him on Twitter @JamesValvis.
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