The rules were that you had to give your name and occupation before reciting your first poem. Naturally, I tried to evade this unnecessary formality which to me seemed akin to a rooftop sniper announcing his name and address before firing upon the crowd below. But before I could begin they started yelling, “What’s your name?”
I looked around the room. It was jammed full of people.
“José,” I answered with some difficulty.
“What do you do?” they shouted.
That was a even tougher question. I didn’t have a job, and for me to declare that I was a writer at this point would be presumptuous on my part. I thought about it for a second, then said, “I’m an alcoholic. What the hell are you?”
I hadn’t had a drink in weeks, but here I was—shitfaced and hostile, staring out into a crowd of poetry addicts at some place in Washington called The 15 Minutes Club. I’d fallen off the wagon in a horrible way, but it wasn’t because I was drinking. It was because I was reading poetry.
“This first poem is called ‘A Short History Of Everyone In The World,’” I said, and then began to read:
back to my home town
people are laughing at the
drunk who’s making fun
of the bald spot on a guy
a few rows up.
Across the aisle from me
a deaf man is making garbled passes
at all the women walking by
on the way to the club car.
Next to me a girl
with a silly haircut
is drinking a beer and
talking to everyone in sight
between drags of her cigarette.
It’s one of those
holiday weekend party trains
where everyone’s celebrating
and ready to tell their life story…”
The poem was about a train ride I’d taken from New York to Washington, my hometown. I’d left Washington about three years earlier, when George Bush was still president, to explore the possibilities in New York. But now—with the Democrats back in charge—I was living in Washington again, and to my chagrin things didn’t seem all that different from what I remembered of the days of the Republican occupation. In this state of disillusionment, my only recourse was to drink heavily like the guy in my poem.
to Richmond where he’ll find a bar
and drink some more.
The haircut girl is going
to Philadelphia—she plans
on becoming a hairdresser.
The guy with the bald spot
has just gotten out of prison
and he’s trying to stay
calm and out of trouble.
The deaf guy is just horny
and doesn’t bother to read
the lips of the women
who tell him to fuck off…”
I looked up from my poem and out into the crowd again. They were silent, hanging onto to my every word. I had them, as they say, in the palm of my hand—which meant that I hadn’t lost my touch for winning over a crowd. I looked back down to my poem and continued reading, feeling like some desperate junkie rolling drunks on the downtown A-Train.
asks me for my story
I tell her,
‘I saved up my money
to buy this train ticket
so I could visit home
and get there comfortably.
I cut my spending in half
by eating my own shit.
Why I’ve been living off
the same macaroni and cheese
dinner for two months now.’
‘Oh,’ she says, startled, grimacing.
`Excuse me,’ I say, `I have
to go to the bathroom now.’
When I stand up
and I know that when
I get back to my seat
I’ll be able to just relax
No stories, no loud laughter,
no more rude comments,
snide remarks, or subtle innuendos.
I’d put an end to that
because I’d just said all
there was in the world
to be said.”
When the crowd began to cheer I immediately walked off the stage.
“You have to stay up there,” the emcee told me, pointing to a chair at the back of the stage. “You’re supposed to read three poems in each round.”
“I’m just getting my drink,” I said.
I reached to the bar and grabbed my glass of Jack Daniel’s, then walked back to the stage while the poet I was up against began reading his first poem. I sat down and stared at my drink before taking an endless sip… And then another until nothing was left but the barely melted ice cubes. I’d need quite a few more drinks before the night was through, because I was doing a poetry slam, and because from the way things were going it seemed more than likely that I was going to win. I leaned back and nervously chewed on an ice cube, knowing that in my wretched heart I was a long way from Mayberry.
The Wonder Years
Ever since I can remember I wanted to be a poet, and in the early 80s I began sending my poems out to magazines in the hopes of making the transition from being a simple poet to being a published poet. As is the case with most writers of any sort, I had no luck at first. I’d send out batches of poems and then receive a little note two, three, sometimes six months later, saying “Thanks for allowing us to read your poems. We are sorry to report, however, that they didn’t quite work for us.” I’d been warned about this in college where a teacher advised me that I had better be prepared to plaster my walls with rejection slips, because the process of becoming a published writer could take years and years, and that I might even be dead before anyone saw my work as being fit to publish.
Fortunately it didn’t take quite that long, and in 1985 I had my first poem accepted for publication in a literary magazine all the way across the country in Berkeley, California. Finally, one year later, the magazine came out. By then, of course, I didn’t much care for the poem, and seeing it again was something akin to seeing your worst enemy from high school bagging groceries at the supermarket. Which is to say that although it was a triumph of sorts, it was also, because of the amount of time it took, a rather pathetic triumph. I needed a way to get my work out there quickly while it was still fresh in my mind. I needed a way to see my poems into print immediately so that I could move on to newer work and not have to worry about the fate of my past work. The best way to do this, it seemed, was to start a magazine.
In the fall of 1986 I—along with two of my friends from Catholic University in Washington, Michael Randall and Stephen Ciacciarelli—began working on the first issue of Big Cigars. What we wanted was to publish a magazine that was anti-academic, something that would disgust our old professors and make them think that they had wasted all the effort they put into providing us with a classical education. We liked people like Charles Bukowski and William Burroughs, writers the academic establishment tended to sneer at. And in our magazine, Big Cigars, we wanted to publish our own work as well as work by other writers with a similar outlook on literature. As Michael and Stephen had moved to New York after college, while I was still in Washington, it seemed that we would have two different cities from which to attract writers for the magazine. But that wasn’t the case.
Here in Washington it was impossible to get anyone interested in contributing. One writer I met at a reading, on my asking if he would like to contribute some poems, replied, “Why do you want to publish me?” as if I’d just asked him if I could punch his creepy little face in.
“Well, your stuff is pretty good,” I answered. I had just heard him read, and unlike most of the other poets at this event—he didn’t name all the different kinds of plants he knew or go on about the youthful summers he spent vacationing in Martha’s Vineyard.
“Well, I’ll have to think about it,” he said, before walking off like Captain Kirk after having just destroyed a Klingon warship.
That was as close as I got to getting any Washington writers in the magazine.
Since we weren’t able to attract any of the local crowd for the magazine, we ended up featuring a good number of people from New York. Still, as I was publishing the magazine here in Washington, and as the address for submissions was also here, Big Cigars was for all practical purposes a Washington magazine. But despite this, local bookstores and newsstands declined to carry it. A typical response—as from the manager of Idle Times bookstore in Adams Morgan—was, “We don’t carry that esoteric kind of stuff.” So I’d send the bulk of the copies of Big Cigars to New York. Up there places like St. Marks Books, Spring Street Books, and Coliseum Books would accept huge batches of them which would sell out in a matter of weeks. For a small literary magazine that was very good business, and it soon became apparent that the atmosphere in New York was much better for the sort of things we were doing with Big Cigars.
I began going up to New York several times a year for readings Michael or Stephen had set up. These were always well attended and unpretentious events. I was surprised that few of the writers I met in New York displayed the kind of attitude I found in Washington, where even the most obscure poet would come on with all the neuroses of an Edgar Allan Poe while displaying none of the talent. But in addition to this I also found that, overall, New York was a much more pleasant place to be than Washington, and that, oddly enough, life was much easier there.
So it was with a sense of relief, rather than trepidation, that in the fall of 1990 I made the big move from Washington to New York City. In New York I got more involved in the poetry scene and actually began to make money from my writing. New York was where I first got the idea that I might even make a living from my writing. It was where I did my first poetry slam. It was where I began to get my work published regularly. It was where I first appeared on national television. It was where I fell truly in love for the first time. It was where for the first time in my life I felt I was in a city where I belonged. It was also where, after having cast off the last vestiges of my youthful insanity, I vowed to give up poetry completely.
Part 2: Drunk and Disorderly—The Birth of the Spoken Word Demon
I’d been back in Washington for a month when, standing by the magazine racks at Tower Records, I spotted someone I knew on the cover of High Times. It was Maggie Estep, a writer in New York who didn’t drink, smoke pot, or take acid, and whose only remaining connection to drugs, however tenuous, was her passion for poppy seed bagels. Well, that and caffeine, which was hardly enough reason for High Times to put her on the cover of their magazine. I stared at Maggie’s picture and, for one brief moment, considered dropping her a line to find out how she was doing and, specifically, if she’d fallen off the wagon and was now boozing it up and smoking gigantic spliffs like a rebellious suburban teenager. But, as I was suffering from writer’s block at the time, even the crafting of a simple letter of inquiry was beyond me. So instead I picked High Times off the rack and browsed through it in an attempt to discover just why she was on the cover.
As it turned out there was a story inside on the poetry scene in New York. Maggie was one of the big names in that scene and had been one of the featured readers when MTV presented a poetry reading as part of their Unplugged series. I had thought the article would be about what Maggie and other New York writers did to get high, and whether or not they wrote while they were high. But after scanning the article I saw nothing at all about drugs. It soon became apparent that the reason Maggie was on the cover of this particular magazine was that poetry, after having disappeared from the public eye when the beatnik era ended, was now considered “cool” again.
But while Maggie was still writing poetry I had given it up—as had a lot of other writers I knew—because along with its new found popularity came a lot of ugliness. Though at first it was nice to have a larger audience for our work, it was soon clear that most of that audience was there for all the wrong reasons.
Before the media attention one of the truly “cool” things about the poetry scene—when I was gainfully employed, anyway—was that it was far removed from the world of commerce, and as such contrasted very well with the art world where the big news was never how good a painting was but how much it sold for. And what turned poetry into something that could sell was the birth of a horrible beast called The Poetry Slam, which transformed poetry readings from a presentation of an art form and into a gruesome competition among fragile egos.
At first the Slam was a joke. The winner was paid six dollars, which made it something of an offshoot of the $1.98 Beauty Pageant; it was something for drunken writers to do on a boring Friday night after spending the rest of the week alone at the typewriter. I did one myself soon after I’d arrived in New York, going up against Carl Watson, a friend of mine who—and I’m trying to be objective here—is probably the most talented writer in New York. What we remember most about the evening is not who won, but that afterwards we went out and drank to even greater excesses than we had in the hours leading up to the Slam. That and walking out on a ridiculously steep bar tab. (In New York it’s become something of a tradition to walk away when the damage done at a bar is just too much to deal with in a drunken state of mind. Bartenders don’t mind up there; they know that if you’re a real drinker—and if you run a bar tab up over the two hundred dollar mark, you obviously are a real drinker—then you’ll be back when the next paycheck comes in to settle your accounts. Whereas in Washington they’ll chase you all the way out to P.G. County. No one seems to trust anyone else here.)
Carl and I being for the most part—and despite our drinking habits—fairly sane people, starting avoiding the poetry slam scene, the major venue of which was a place in the East Village called The Nuyorican Poets’ Café. The Café, though at first a pleasant and unpretentious place to go to on a Friday night, had become unbearably “hip.” People began going there not because “cool” things were going on but because it was a “cool” place to be. It had become to poetry what CBGB’s was to music: a place where some good things had happened early on, but which gave way to the simple fostering of an image—an image, however empty, of innovation and sophistication which, most importantly, could be sold to the media. It was a classic example of the triumph of style over substance.
Needless to say, a good number of people ate it up, including a lot of people who saw themselves as writers. They began to see the poetry slam as serious business and went about rehearsing, trying to improve their delivery and developing strategies on the best way to win. It wasn’t long before the thing that was most important to these people was not the poem itself, but its performance, thus bringing about an obnoxious proliferation of people who would either scream and yell their way through their horribly written poems, or else attempt to act them out like first year drama students.
To them the slam was a way of becoming a star in the growing poetry scene. To me, however, this was just about the most pathetic ambition imaginable for anyone who considered himself a writer, and after that first slam I never ventured to do another. I took to heart the advice of Max Blagg, the poet who did a commercial for The Gap which got heavy airplay for several months. He told me at a reading, for which we were getting well paid, “Don’t bother with this bloody nonsense unless there’s decent money involved.” He was echoing Samuel Johnson’s statement, made some two hundred years ago, that “no one but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.” So I stopped doing readings unless it was for an event arranged by friends of mine—in which case I knew it would be an enjoyable evening. Or if I was getting paid.
The Washington Bodysnatchers v. the Unbearable Beatniks of New York
I had been going back to visit Washington regularly while I was living in New York. It didn’t seem at all like the same place where I grew up, a place where people would fuck with you for reasons out of some pulp western—reasons like “this town ain’t big enough for the two of us, pilgrim,” or “you crossed my line of vision, motherfucker.” In New York people accept it that there just isn’t enough space; they’re used to being crowded in like fish in a tin can. Washington, however, still has some of the frontier mentality that there’s territory to be had—and that you’ve got to fight to get your share. It’s like “Barter Town” from the Mad Max movies—that horrible hellhole where people are simple commodities and a person’s “soul” was merely a bizarre expression introduced by some peace loving cult leader—the sort of mild mannered svengali who would bid you to “turn the other cheek” and who, while nailed to the crucifixion tree, would lament, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Although I’m not at all a religious person, I’d always looked at Washington, my hometown, as being a kind of “pagan place,” where the supreme being was a golden calf: a place which, to bring us up to more recent times, was bypassed by the idealism of the sixties. Because while sixties era Washingtonians did deck themselves in love beads, then smoke pot or drop acid before heading down to Georgetown, their major concern was still making it big with the almighty dollar. Washington’s hippies, save for a few sincere misfits, were weekend hippies, and as such were seduced not by the substance of these radical times, but by the style. As for the substance Washingtonians went for—well again, that was something from out of the wild west. Which is to say that the only thing Washingtonians believed in then—as well as now—was that two headed dog of money and sex. And with this in mind one would have to consider it a kind of pre-twelve step denial to try to refute, as did some residents a few years ago, that the initials “D.C.” could appropriately be said to stand for “Dodge City.”
But Washington, during my periodic escapes from New York, didn’t seem at all like a “Dodge City” or a “Barter Town.” I suppose my being here on what were essentially vacations had a lot to do with this false impression—that and dumb luck as my visits never coincided with things like the riot in Mt. Pleasant or the situation in Adams Morgan when that disgruntled security guard was shooting people from his car. Furthermore, it was during my trips to Washington when things would go crazy in New York: I missed the last of the Tompkins Square riots, the subway crash caused by a drunken train operator, and then, just this past fall, the mass murder on the Long Island Railroad where the killer left behind that ominous note detailing his “reasons for this.” Finally, I was never in Washington long enough to get a real taste of the city, since all I did on these trips was meet my friends for drinks at our old hangouts or go to parties where a strange mix of people seemed to take to one another like New York art scene denizens to black clothes and pony tails. And so with a little bit of wishful thinking, and poor research that consisted solely of going to bars and parties, I rashly came to the conclusion that Washington was now a place where people knew how to get along.
What was perhaps most responsible for this specious conclusion was the party in Washington my friend Neal had, the driving purpose of which was to unveil a painting of an obscure character from Moby Dick. The concept of this party might have seemed, at first, like the sort of fanciful notion that would come out of the head of a fictional character—a character created by an author who’d spent way too many of his daylight hours in writers’ workshops, and who’d spent an even more absurd amount of time watching PBS literary profiles. But that wasn’t the case here as Neal had come up with this idea after watching, of all things, an episode of Baywatch.
Neal, who had something of an obsession for the work of Herman Melville, had commissioned a painting from Dave Ellis, an up and coming artist from Richmond. While the image of a bikini clad woman faded into the credits at the end of Baywatch, Neal decided that the best way to bring this work of art into the world was to have a huge party with an abundance of food, drink, and beautiful women. When I spoke to him over the phone from New York I suggested that he hire some dancing girls—some sort of entertainment that would keep the proceedings from going too far in the direction of high culture, something that would keep things honest. I knew that in Washington any event with even the slightest measure of “culture” would inevitably make a turn towards the pretentious. But he declined to implement my suggestion.
“Listen, we don’t need strippers,” he said, then added, “I know what you’re trying to do…but believe me, I can pull this off. This party will be both classy and unpretentious.” And what he decided was to have a fiddle band provide music and me a poetry reading.
I was skeptical. I’d seen people have a good time at a cultural event, but only in New York, where I had hooked up with a group of writers who called themselves “The Unbearables.” This loosely knit group—though perhaps “knit” is too strong a word for the connection within the group, as “unraveled” is the word that best describes them—was the antithesis of the New York slam crowd.
The Unbearables had no patience for the careerism of the slam people, and given the choice of going to some book party where we might network with publishers and editors or going out to the Homestead bar to drink beer and play pool, we would inevitably choose the latter. And where other literary groups were organizing events that would pay homage to our elders in the poetry scene, we were organizing events the sole purpose of which was to trash our elders. Among the events we organized were “The Crimes Of The Beats,” in which we attempted to undo the deification of Jack Kerouac and the whole Beatnik movement. Another event was a mock poetry slam in which we presented “translations” of poems from the New Yorker into plain, everyday English.
Indeed, the events put together by The Unbearables were more like punk rock shows than anything else. I remember one of our readings at a gallery in Soho where the audience, and many of the readers, ended up throwing rolls of toilet paper, chocolate éclairs (my girlfriend had brought dessert), cigarette butts, and paper airplanes at each other. Then we started dousing one another with beer or wine, falling from our chairs, and shouting obscenities to whoever was reading at the time—all out of our active appreciation of culture. No one took the least bit umbrage at the unruliness of the event, not the audience, not the readers, not even the gallery owner. But I thought that it was only in New York where an event with this kind of spirit could happen. And although not all our readings there were like this, I believed that New York was the only place with an environment where there was always the possibility that things could happen this way.
Part 3: The Bartertown Ball
When I got into Washington my friend Eddie met me at the train station and took me directly to Neal’s. Neal had drafted Eddie to be the master of ceremonies, a role Neal didn’t wish to play so he could concentrate on simply being the host. Eddie and I were the first guests to arrive and immediately opened up a bottle of Bushmill’s while Neal fixed his bow tie—he was wearing a tuxedo.
Very soon people began to arrive. They came alone, in couples, in groups of ten. They came wearing suits, tuxedos, ripped blue jeans, evening gowns, halter tops, tee shirts. There were lawyers, doctors, students, postal workers, grocery store clerks, as well as people who had no jobs. Somehow word had gotten out that this was the place to be. When the fiddle band arrived they set up in the living room and began playing. Soon the whole room was shaking with people dancing, drinking, eating; and despite the great differences among them, these people were getting along.
But then it was time for the poetry reading and the unveiling. This was the real test, because it meant stopping the music, which had been going on for two hours, and getting the crowd, which had been drinking heavily in this time, to stop dancing and talking and instead just stand still and listen. I didn’t think it was possible but Neal did it, and without so much as a single protest from the crowd. And it wasn’t because everyone knew him that they paid attention; Neal had told me and Eddie moments earlier that he hardly knew any of these people, and that among those he did know were a number of “acquaintances”—namely, people he or one of his colleagues had saved from lengthy jail terms for offenses such as assault with a deadly weapon or manslaughter. “No,” he had said, “the really bad criminal element isn’t represented here at all. I wouldn’t worry about it if I were you.” And so with the crowd gathered round, Eddie walked into the middle of the room and, with some trepidation, took on his role as master of ceremonies.
“Okay,” he announced, “we got this guy here who’s gonna read you some poems.” He quickly walked away.
I wished I were back in New York, walking down Avenue B at four in the morning past the crackheads and heroin dealers—at least I knew what those people were about; but here, who knows what could happen, and how these people would react to a goddamn poetry reading. They’d probably expect some sort of poetry slam, as news of that beast had recently hit Washington in the form of a cover story in the Post Style section on the burgeoning local slam scene. On seeing that this was a simple poetry reading, with me being the unopposed poet, they’d make themselves the opposition and employ not words but a more physical means of beating me into submission. I took a deep breath and walked into the fray.
“Okay,” I said, “this first poem is about getting drunk.”
To my relief the crowd cheered. I’d found their common ground. I began to read:
my friend Eddie and I
are sitting in this girl’s apartment
watching a Depeche Mode video…”
It seemed like a good poem to start out with. It was the same poem Good Morning America had decided to show me reading after they’d filmed some event up in New York. If the producers of that show thought it was a proper poem to present to sleepy, cranky people waking up and getting ready for work, then maybe it would work with this crowd as well. I went on with the poem, where I talk about both of us leaving the girl’s apartment rather than competing with each other for her affections, then going to the 711 where we get the fixings for a drunkard’s meal from hell; I talk about eating that meal then feeling sick—then getting sick—and how after all that we went ahead and drank some more:
to canned meatballs with gravy,
to all night parties,
to amateur drunks,
to England and its fancy haircuts,
to all the pretty young girls in the world,
and to the sun
which rises high in the sky
over us all.”
The crowd ate it up—they applauded, they cheered, they raised their beer bottles and cocktail glasses. I read more and more poems to the same response. Finally, when I was done, Eddie came back. He was much more confident now in introducing Jim, who was going to be reading the passage from Moby Dick in which the character represented in the soon to be unveiled painting appears.
“God bless ye, and have ye in his holy keeping, men,” Jim read. And onwards until closing with the words, “Don’t keep that cheese too long down in the hold, Mr. Starbuck; it’ll spoil…” at which point Neal walked over and, pulling away the linen cloth that had been covering the painting, revealed a portrait of Bildad, the retired captain whose ceaseless words of advice before the launching of the Pequod seem to be coming not from an experienced seafarer but from an escapee from an insane asylum. At first the people in the room were silent, pondering the creases on Bildad’s wind blanched skin, then gazing into the eyes of a man too caught up in the absurdity of it all to realize that he was, for all practical purposes, already dead. Then came the applause, the cheers, followed by the raising of champagne glasses and the sound of a lone fiddle starting up the band.
During my first year in New York I had a job keeping track of sales statistics for a direct mail marketing firm—”Well, Charlie, the Jennifer O’Neill faux pearl earrings are moving like cheetahs to wild boar meat in the African grasslands, but the Arlene Dahl cubic zirconium pendants are just sitting there like shit in a Penn Station toilet bowl. I guess people just don’t give a fuck about Arlene Dahl anymore.” It was a steady work and not very difficult at all, but when they realized I wasn’t the sort of person who should make a career of this business they laid me off, giving me two months of severance pay and enabling me to collect unemployment benefits. This freed me to spend more time writing, and what I wanted to write was fiction, nonfiction, reviews—anything but poetry. A poem I could knock off in an hour or two—which, while I was working, was about all the time I had at night for writing. I started working on a novel and doing freelance work for a downtown weekly. With my unemployment benefits, plus the money I made from occasional articles for the paper, I was able to live comfortably.
When my benefits ran out I found temp work at a Wall Street brokerage, inputting data for their annual personnel review. It was a great job for me because I could work whenever I wanted to, listen to music on my walkman while I worked, and get a cab ride home when my shift was over. I always worked the lobster shift. Going home at the hour when everyone else is just getting to work felt good to me. It was something like the feeling of accomplishment that goes along with staying out all night, except instead of having spent a lot of money I was making money. I thought that this was the best possible job for me, leaving me plenty of time in the evenings, before heading down to Wall Street, to do my freelance work. But then something even better came along, a job where I would be able to make a living on my writing alone—a job writing a porno novel.
Well, it wasn’t exactly a porno novel; it was what is euphemistically referred to as erotica, the difference being that while a porno novel would pay about three hundred dollars a shot and be sold in dirty book stores on Times Square, an erotic novel would get an advance of up to five thousand dollars—after which you’d collect royalties—and would be sold simultaneously in respectable bookstores and through book clubs such as The Literary Guild. All it took for me to get this job was to take a walk up to 14th St. and Third Avenue, a block away from the offices of one of the major publishing houses in New York. It was at this corner where I ran into a man who was with this publisher and who had seen me, at various events, reading excerpts from my novel in progress. My novel was rife with explicit sex scenes, and although this caught his attention he was unable to speak to me about his plans on restarting a line of “Victorian Novels”—all because of my habit of leaving the scene of a reading immediately after getting paid. But then, on the day after my job on Wall Street was finished, while taking a peaceful afternoon stroll, I just happened to run into him.
Soon after this meeting I began work on Three Men And A Lady, the story of a young woman who, after having studied in London, returns to live in the country inn where she grew up. In London she was but one of many beautiful young ladies, whereas away from the city she was now, what with her education and sophistication, the most desirable woman the country squires could imagine. “This novel is basically going to be a stroke book for women,” the guy from the publisher said, “but a stroke book with class and elegance, which is why we’re able to sell this shit in respectable places.”
It was while I was working on Three Men And A Lady that I took a break to go to Washington for Neal’s party—the party which made me think that Washington was an easy place to live. When I went back to New York after the party I began to miss Washington, its slow pace, and its wide open skyline. Since working on this erotic novel was not going to tie me down to a particular place I decided to leave New York. I left in a couple of weeks, planning on finishing the novel in Washington, but when I got there I found myself unable to write a single word. And not only that, I couldn’t even come up with any dirty ideas for the novel. And although some people find that a sense of danger—which was the pervasive feeling I had after returning to Washington—acts as an aphrodisiac and leads them to sexual fantasies they normally couldn’t imagine, I was not among them. I began to miss New York, where I felt safe and where, as long as I kept my eyes open, opportunities seemed to just fall in my lap. And above all I missed the inspiration New York provided.
Part 4: NYDC Blues
After having returned to Washington I found myself watching television all the time. I’d watch Late Night with David Letterman every night, waiting for him to do one of those bits where he turns on the remote camera outside the Ed Sullivan Theater to check the goings-on there at 53d and Broadway. I’d seen him send a guy wearing a bear suit into Flashdancers, the strip joint down the street. I’d seen him call the phone booth on the corner to talk to some tourist who wasn’t able to get in to see the show, then bring him inside to give him ear muffs to help keep the poor soul warm in the cold New York air. I’d seen him bring the entire cast of Miss Saigon, all dressed to the nines in their red satin decadence, out onto the catwalk of the Broadway Theater to blow a collective kiss to the camera. After moving back to Washington I’d been watching the show faithfully in order to get even the tiniest dose of New York. Because after having lived there New York had become, for me, a habit as bad as that of the junkies on the corner of Avenue B and 4th St., which was where I lived during my tenure there. All I could think about was New York. And although in the past I had always been able to write despite whatever obsession or addiction afflicted me, for some reason I found that for me to write with this particular monkey on my back—a monkey with a Big Apple in its mouth—was impossible.
My friend Jim suggested that to solve this problem I should just lay on the sofa all day reading. He figured that reading the work of other writers would inspire me to pick up a pen or start hitting the keys on the typewriter. My friend Leah thought I should consider how old I was—that a person in his mid-thirties like myself should be much further along in his career, and that to have a case of writer’s block at this early phase was totally absurd. She figured that, if I were to concentrate on these pathetic truths, the guilt emanating from my superego would put words in my head and, subsequently, down on the page. Finally, my friend Eddie advised me to do the local poetry slam. “Because you have to go as low as you can possibly imagine,” he said, “and that poetry slam shit is about the lowest thing I can think of. And when you clean house there at the bottom of the dung heap—and you will clean house—you’ll be inspired.”
It seemed that everyone I knew in Washington had suggestions on how I could get myself started again. Everyone except Neal.
“I have no advice for you,” he told me over dinner at Kenny Rogers’ Roasters.
He picked up a spoonful of macaroni and cheese, but instead of putting it in his mouth he gestured with it.
“Your not being able to write is just laziness,” he said, pointing the macaroni and cheese at my nose. Pulling back the spoon he added, “And this whole concept of writer’s block is just bullshit.” He paused, then quickly brought the spoonful of macaroni and cheese into his mouth and swallowed.
I went home that night and sat in front of the typewriter. I sat there for what seemed like hours and still nothing was happening in my mind save for a lengthy series of ruminations on New York, none of which I could translate into even the simplest poem or short story. So I turned on the television. And as I watched I took inventory, in my mind, of the differences between New York and Washington. By noting the differences I thought I might find, if not the solution, then at least a clue as to why my obsession with New York was preventing me from writing here in Washington.
The first and most obvious difference between the two cities was that compared to New York, Washington was slow, very slow. Rush hour in D.C is like 4am in Manhattan. As for 4am in Washington—well, there’s no equivalent of that in New York, nothing quite as scary, nothing that will make the adrenalin rush so quickly through your body that you feel your veins will burst. And although New York may have it over D.C. as far as the speed of life goes, when it comes to the danger one feels being out on the street late at night, Washington is the clear winner. This is a fact New Yorkers are beginning to be aware of, and when I went to rent a truck to move my belongings back to Washington, the guy behind the bullet proof glass at the U-Haul office in East Harlem asked me, “Is it as bad down there in Washington as they say?”
“Worse,” I answered, even though at the time I had changed my mind about the difficulties of living in Washington. “And it won’t be enough to call in the National Guard. Mayor Kelly should bring in the Marines at the very least. And if they call in the Army, Navy, and Air Force too, then so much the better.”
“Man,” he said, his mouth agape, “and I thought things were tough in this neighborhood.”
“No, things up here are fine. In fact I moved up to New York so I could relax and take it easy. I wanted to live in a place where I could walk the streets at dawn and not have to watch my back. But with the situation in Washington being what it is I have no choice but to go back. I’ve got family down there, you know.”
“I hear you, man. Things are really tough down there.”
Which, upon my homecoming, turned out to be the truth; because when you get down to it New York, despite its reputation for being a cold and crazy town—and despite one of the fastest paces of life in the Western world—is perhaps one of the easiest places in which to live. If you don’t mind the pace in New York, which I didn’t, you’ve got it made. And even though Frank Sinatra sings, “If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere,” the ability to make it in New York doesn’t mean a thing once you get past the city limits. Because despite what people may say, success in New York isn’t all that difficult to come by.
And what makes New York an easy place to succeed is that, unlike Washington, it grants a certain amount of space for failure, and leaves room for even the most ill conceived decisions. In Washington, if you fail, you’re through; and if you make a bad decision, they hold it over your head for the rest of your life: there are no second chances here. In New York, however, they give you time to heal—and time to forget. So if, after some catastrophic event, you find yourself being little more than a shadow, New York gives you the opportunity to develop that shadow, to give it color and depth. There’s no reason there, when looking down at your shadow on the day after losing your job or your girlfriend, to feel distraught and powerless. New York is a city where dreams and the chance to realize them never cease. It’s a city that allows you to dream the most fantastic dreams imaginable—dreams that cross the line from the whimsical to the absurd. But most importantly it’s a city where it’s safe to do so. And among the many reckless things one can do in one’s lifetime, one of the most reckless is to take a New York dream out of New York and attempt to keep it alive. Which is exactly what I had attempted to do.
Exile from Mayberry
In addition to watching David Letterman, I’d also watch Conan O’Brien, NYPD Blue, Law And Order—anything that came out of or dealt with New York. But what was most significant for me were reruns of the old Andy Griffith Show; because, as ludicrous as it may seem, Andy Griffith’s Mayberry had become—for me and only for me—the fictional equivalent of New York. In Sheriff Andy Taylor I saw a bearing similar to that of my landlord in New York. Barney Fife seemed like a rural translation of the man who ran the Bodega around the corner from me. And of course there was the lovely Helen Crump, whose real life counterpart was constantly in my thoughts.
But I had made the move, and to go back to my Mayberry so soon would be admitting that I’d made a mistake and, worst of all, that Washington—my Mt. Pilot—had defeated me. So whenever I got a call from my publisher in New York asking how the novel was coming, I’d lie.
“It’s going like clockwork,” I’d tell him, turning the sound off on the television. “It’s just that Washington is one horny fucking town to write in, which means that more and more horny scenes keep coming to mind… Yeah, it’s taking a little longer than I thought it would, but when it’s done it’ll make you shit.”
But I wasn’t getting any work done on it at all, and in the meantime the money I had made from my job on Wall Street had run out. I was living off my credit cards but now my creditors were after me. I was getting phone calls from various banks asking for their money. “I mailed it a month ago,” I’d say, “maybe it got lost.” But they weren’t buying my lies the way the publisher in New York was. My creditors weren’t from there—they were from other places around the country and weren’t as easily charmed. What was happening was a failure to communicate, because I was speaking a language no one but a New Yorker could understand. And furthermore I was trying to lead a life no one but a New Yorker—a New Yorker in New York—could lead.
But I went on this way, stubbornly clinging to strategies that worked in New York and accomplishing nothing… Until one night when, after having been unable to do so in weeks, I got drunk.
I was at Chief Ike’s Mambo Room, a bar in my Washington neighborhood. Because I was broke, Eddie and Jim had been buying me drinks—a lot of drinks. Knowing that I was desperate for money, and needed to get some sort of momentum going as far as making money, Eddie suggested that I do a reading in Washington. “It wouldn’t be much money,” he said, “but at least it’s a start.”
“What reading can I do here?” I asked.
He paused a moment then mumbled, “The poetry slam.”
“The poetry slam!”
“No fucking way,” I said, shaking my head. “I quit reading poetry over a year ago.”
“Shit, man,” he said. “You need to get back on track making money with your writing. All you need is that start. And the place to start is at the bottom.”
“The slam is the bottom, all right. But, still, this is D.C. My stuff will never go over here.”
“It did at Neal’s party,” Jim said. “You had everyone in the palm of your hand.”
“But that was a fluke, something that was totally Neal’s creation. I’ve seen readings here, and what people go for are poets who know the names of a hundred different kinds of flowers, poets who reminisce about growing up in the country, shit like that. They want poetry that will take them away from this hellhole they live in.”
“No,” Eddie interrupted, “there are people here who know what’s going on—well, up to a point. But that’s enough. You’ll win, and it’ll get you going.”
By this time I was already very drunk and in no condition to argue. They took me to my place to pick up some of my poems, then down to the 15 Minutes Club, which was where the poetry slam was held in Washington.
Part 5: The Rules of the Game
We got there right before the guy who ran the slam started coming around with the sign up sheet, and as he walked by I said to him, “I’ll try it.”
“You’ll TRY it?” he replied snobbishly.
Already I was getting an attitude from him, as if I’d just asked him if I could fuck his girlfriend.
“Yeah, I’ll TRY it,” I answered.
“Do you have anything WITH you?” he asked.
I looked around at the other people who had signed up. They were all carrying thick notebooks or folders full of their poems, while I had just folded up my poems and stuck them in my pocket.
“Yes, I have poems WITH me.”
He began to explain the rules, saying the poets were judged by the amount of applause they receive.
“Oh,” I said, “it’s not like New York, where they give you a number rating.”
“Well, if you want numbers,” he said nastily, “then go back to New York.”
“All right,” I said, “applause, applause.”
He took my name down and walked away. I was a long way from Mayberry, which meant that in order to survive I couldn’t act the way I would in that country town.
“That prickly motherfucker’s asking for it,” I said turning to Eddie. “I’m going to blow this fucking place away.”
“Shit, man,” he said. “That’s the spirit.”
The first round consisted of four pairs of poets going against each other. In this round I went up against an older man who, in my drunken haze, seemed to take on what can only be described as aspects of the supernatural.
He read first, and as he read I thought I was witnessing the resurrection of Ezra Pound. It was as if it was Easter Sunday, and they’d rolled away that huge stone to reveal Ezra, set aglow by some otherworldly light and coming forth with the aid of a walking stick. “Christ,” I thought, “I have to beat out a cripple.”
Whether he actually was a cripple or not I don’t remember, and neither Jim nor Eddie would give me a straight answer in this regard when the reading was over. What they did tell me was that the applause during this round was resoundingly in my favor, thus moving me on to the second round. But first I had to wait through the other pairings of the first round and then a brief open reading. In the meantime Leah and Neal had shown up. Apparently Eddie or Jim had made some phone calls to tell everyone I still knew in Washington that I was here, ready to make a terrible spectacle of myself—which made me drink even more.
All I remember about the second round, and this I remember rather vaguely, was asking the woman I was going against to marry me. For some reason I got the notion that doing this would be the proper thing to do: marry her or else pay for the abortion. As to whether or not she agreed to take me up on either of these offers, I have no recollection. Again, my friends later confirmed that I won in this round as well.
Which must have been the case, because for some reason I do remember being in the final round. That might have been because the poet I was going up against, a nineteen year old kid named Adam, was quite good. It shocked me that someone that young could write well. But what impressed me more was when between poems he turned to me to says words to the effect that “Shit, man, you know this is all bullshit—just hang loose and accept the spare change they give you at the end.” This sobered me up a bit and I read my poems more clearly, more forcefully, and I actually began to have fun standing up there on stage making out like some slick crooner with a lounge act in Vegas. After all, it wasn’t like I intended to make a career of this business.
When the round was over Adam and I stood at the front of the stage, ready to the receive the applause which would indicate who had won. The emcee first presented Adam, to whom the audience gave a load roar—a roar of approval. Then he presented me.
What I heard was a sound which, to my bourbon enhanced sense of hearing, was almost deafening. And looking out into the audience it was clear, even to me, that I had won.
“And the winner is José,” the emcee announced confidently. I was, admittedly, happy with the outcome; but what was more important to me was that possible element of romance. I looked around for the woman I’d asked to marry me, but not only had I forgotten what she looked like, I’d also forgotten her name. I was about to yell out “Adrienne! Adrienne!” thinking she might happen to have the same name as Sylvester Stallone’s wife in the Rocky movies. But I didn’t, as my thoughts suddenly turned to Helen Crump and that time up in Mayberry when, after leaving that unruly gallery reading, we kissed on the street and shared the only chocolate éclair we hadn’t thrown at anyone. Though losing myself in such a sentimental moment should have brought a sense of clarity to me, I found myself confused.
It was in the middle of this confusion when I saw the emcee reach into his pocket for the prize money. To Adam, the runner up, he gave what looked like two twenty dollar bills, while when I looked at what he gave me I saw a ten and a twenty—ten dollars less than what he’d given Adam. I was about to say something to the emcee when one of that evening’s ongoing series of disconcerting revelations came upon me. And that revelation was that in Washington the price of winning was ten dollars. Whereas in most places winning means that you come out ahead, in Washington winning means that you come out just a little bit behind. Which isn’t to say that they didn’t end up loving my song and dance act at the 15 Minutes Club that night. It’s just that what they and perhaps the entire city of Washington were inadvertently giving me was, to use an expression that would occur to me only in my more vulnerable moments, “tough love”: namely, a twelve step program for someone who, through his addiction to New York (among other things), finds himself without a sense of place.
The Complete Failure of Everything
The next day, when my painful hangover was winding down, I went to the typewriter. To my amazement the words were coming and they kept on coming with no end in sight. After doing the poetry slam my case of writer’s block was gone: Eddie had known the cure all along.
By the end of the week I had the first draft of Three Men And A Lady finished. I called up my publisher in New York to tell him I was done and that the resurgence of his “Victorian Library” was under way. But after dialing his direct line I heard that “click” that tells you your call is being rerouted. A woman answered and when I asked for him she said, “I’m sorry, he’s left the company.”
“Oh, okay,” I said meekly and hung up.
Dialing his home number I got the message that the line had been disconnected. I paced the room for a while, then called up someone else I knew in the publishing business, thinking that he would have the scoop and give it to me. When he told me what had happened I could hardly believe it. It sounded like some story from the Weekly World News, only it was true.
“Well,” he told me, “John kind of freaked out. He went down to Venezuela for a vacation. He wanted to take a break from New York and go to some out of the way place. But when he got back to town he was completely different. He’d…you know, completely changed his life style.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. “So he’s got a new life style now. You mean he isn’t living it up the way he used to?”
“No, he’s not…”
“And? Come on, tell me.”
“Well, what happened was that he found God.”
“Christ, what do you mean?”
“That he found GOD. He’s a born again Christian now. And the idea of starting up the line of erotica just didn’t sit well with his religious beliefs.”
“You’re kidding me,” I said frantically. “This is a joke. You’re remembering way back when I was putting out a magazine and that guy who’d submitted some poems wrote me back after seeing the magazine saying that he didn’t want me to publish his poems anymore because of his religious beliefs.”
“I remember that,” he said seriously. “But this is no joke. He really freaked.”
“Shit, and I just finished the first book,” I gasped.
“And then he decided that the other stuff his company was putting out didn’t sit well with his beliefs either.”
“So he’s out of the business completely?”
“Well, considering his experience, he could end up at some Christian publisher.”
“Shit. So the whole erotica line is dead?”
“Yeah, at least for a good while. No one else there has the time to take over the project.”
So the deal was dead and all my work was for nothing. I had no choice but to start opening up the want ads and looking for steady office work. There was no way for me here, in Washington, to make connections for the sort of writing jobs I had in New York. Which meant that again, and like a blockhead, I would be writing for something other than money.
So I started making phone calls in response to ads in the paper. I’d walk down to the subway to make my way to interviews. I’d slip my raggedy dollar bills into the fare card machines, banging on them until they finally, after dozens of attempts, went into the slot. Sometimes I’d skip the subway and walk all the way. Twice during these trips I saw the then Mayor of Washington, Sharon Pratt Kelly, walking with her entourage—and with her school principle from hell expression planted immovably on her face—as she slid into some fancy downtown restaurant. These horrible visions reminded me that I would have to find a way to make it here in Washington, this “Dodge City,” this “Barter Town” where even Mel Gibson, as Mad Max, would throw up his hands in despair and hop on the next gyrocopter out of town. But at least, after my brief but perhaps necessary return to the poetry scene, I was able to write again. And maybe with a little bit of luck and not a little bit of perseverance, I’d be able to make it.
And I now knew that if I could make it here, I could make it anywhere—and that this was where I would have to do it. Because it would be a long time before I had the money to go back to New York, my Mayberry; where Andy Taylor would have a cramped but comfortable apartment for me to rent; where Barney Fife would sell me a fifty cent bag of potato chips and a 16 ounce can of Budweiser at two in the morning; where Helen Crump might be at my side whispering kind words to soothe the unbearable beast within me; where even though the pace isn’t slow the living is easy; where if one opportunity dies, another will fall into your lap just as easily as sunlight falls to the sidewalk; and where, during your leisurely afternoon stroll, you cast a cool and tranquil shadow.
A Short History of Everyone in the World
Needless to say, I didn’t make it. And no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t give up poetry, because poetry had become a way to make—if not a living—at least some spare change. Because having failed in all my attempts at finding regular work, I found myself doing poetry readings to make money.
The last time I was when I did what was called a “Cyberslam” for a hundred dollars. It was some kind of computer hook up in which a team of three people here in Washington went against a team in New York. There on the computer screen I could see the New York poets, all of whom I knew from my years up there. They were waving at me, their movements appearing jagged, like in an old film reel from the early days of motion pictures. Although they were just some two hundred miles distant, it seemed like they were light years away, their images being sent here from some other planet, some other universe.
Before that it was another slam at the Fifteen Minutes Club. Art, the guy who ran the slam there turned out to be an all right guy. (In fact, of all the people I’ve met since moving back to Washington, those in the poetry scene were usually the nicest, and a few even turned out to be good writers.) And after I won that slam some of us went out for more drinks at another bar, where I drank two dollar cans of Pabst in what was ultimately a futile attempt to make my money last.
And before that were readings at Lollapalooza, The Black Cat Club, Flying Saucer Discs… It went on and on. And back in November I went to Washington’s 9:30 Club to see Maggie Estep perform. She’d taken her poems, transformed them into a spoken word/music hybrid, and in the process became a bit of a celebrity. After her set I went down to the dressing room to see her. She was surprised to see me, not having known that I’d left New York. We chatted a while and then at some point in our conversation she commented that I had a “clarity” about me. It was an odd comment for her to make.
“Are you not drinking as much?” she asked.”
I was, at that moment, completely drunk.
“No, I’ve cut down a lot,” I answered.
In a little while I left, saying I’d stay in touch.
Although I was tired, I walked all the way home. It was a nice autumn evening, and I thought that taking a walk would do me some good.
When I got home I turned on the television. Late Night with David Letterman was on—I was just in time to see him do his Top Ten list. I stood there in front of the television as he went down the list from number ten to number one. I stood there without laughing, without thinking. Then I went into the kitchen.
And sitting down at the table, I opened up a pint bottle of Jack Daniel’s, poured some into a glass filled with ice, and drank it. Then poured another one.
I didn’t stay in touch.UG
José Padua’s poetry and fiction have appeared in Bomb, Salon.com, Exquisite Corpse, Another Chicago Magazine, Unbearables, Crimes of the Beats, Up is Up, but So Is Down: New York’s Downtown Literary Scene, 1974-1992, and many other journals and anthologies. He has also written features and reviews for NYPress, Washington City Paper, the Brooklyn Rail and the New York Times. He has read his work at the Lollapalooza Festival, CBGBs, the Knitting Factory, the Black Cat Club, the Public Theater, the Washington Project for the Arts, and many other venues. José also blogs at Shenandoah Breakdown with his life partner, poet Heather Davis, and at the blog, Kings of the Road, and for Salon.com. José Padua’s most recent collection of poetry is a chapbook, The Complete Failure of Everything (2008: The Apathy Press Poets, Baltimore).
NYDC BLUES was first published as a chapbook, by Pan Semantics Press, in 1995.