It was supposed to begin with a word of respect to Firewater Poetics and Gentrified Minds.
Brief odes to the defunct – where I started, and the young – my latest inspiration, respectively; meant to recognize their roles in being the exceptionally fiery punctuation that enlivens an otherwise spiritually weak and wearily bleak landscape that has been suffocated with the dusty ash of cliché and overused words. Gratuitous expletives, MFA-laced grandiosity, and coma-inducing self-celebration that have, out of utter fatigue, violently crashed and incinerated into unsightly heaps, littering open mic stages everywhere.
It was supposed to begin with a word of respect to true artists – unencumbered by institutional decorations or secret fantasies of fame via Russell Simmons – who have worked so hard to keep us all awake. But I never got my name on that list.
He was a white man, mature in years on the planet, who took evident pleasure in notions of being down with the Lower East Side; never mind that, for decades now, the LES hasn’t been the working-class, immigrant-powered enclave that infused it with its undeniably rich flavor.
He robotically shook my hand with a cold heart – flimsy fingers and damp palms. He transparently figured that I probably wasn’t much of a writer; he’d never seen me before in his roving circle of aging hipsters and scruffy youngsters. Surely if I had something valuable to offer, he would have heard.
“Open mic? Sure, you can sign into that book right there,” he indicated, lazy with lack of intention. Before my first stroke of ink hit the sparse list of other sign-ups, he added, “There’s a three-minute limit.”
“Oh,” I said, feeling like the girl without a guest list in the opening of Lil Louis’s classic house track, Club Lonely.
“Mine is five minutes,” I said dogmatically, thinking of the women’s stories that begged to be relaunched into consciousness and resignedly planting the pen on its side. “So, never mind.”
Something was funky in this room. Perhaps it was the unsettlingly detectable odor of literary elitism; or, more likely, the acridity woven like deceptively thin barbed wire into the room’s air, which was marked by desire to believe in one’s greatness despite a disparate paucity of one’s skill. Either way, it was a clique-ish scene for sure, and all of the sereneness that the range of aromatic blends served at this cozily accoutered tea house were supposed to purport did nothing to ease my distinct feeling of being precisely in the wrong place right now.
“Five minutes?” The old hipster inquired incredulously. “Why five minutes? What is it, a slam piece?” He asked in great jest, as if, in considering his substantively baseless assessment of my ability, the possibility of my work being a slam piece was most certainly and laughably out of the question.
I watched his dull complexion crinkle into a myriad of crevices as he chuckled and exposed bad teeth. I had no answer to give him.
“Well,” he suddenly shifted, “can’t you shorten it? Can’t you hurry through it to make it three minutes?”
Why, because your open mic sign-up list is bulging with eager participants? I thought. The picture of six names scattered throughout fifteen slots, with lots of white space to spare on that notebook page, sat like a boulder on my squishy mind. The event’s start time was approaching quickly.
“Absolutely not.” A slow, defiant, prolonged shake of the head encompassed my controlled irreverence while I stared straight at him in response.
“Ok well, now I’m curious. Maybe we can let you do it, since it’s your debut and all,” he grinningly conceded, silently congratulating himself on his graciousness.
Debut? I raged inside. Really motherfucker? Debut? I’ve been doing this shit – since you were still bumping around Tompkins Square Park with a pipe and a dream, motherfucker, so don’t get all high and fucking mighty with me now. No I’ve never done a Def Jam, never succumbed to the pseudo-Rican Nuyorican poetry slam, never been published, and never got no goddamned literary degrees, and I’m quite motherfucking proud of all of that. Kiss my unadorned ass, motherfucker.
“Don’t worry about it,” I told him, with no intentions of giving this space a single word of work. “If there’s time, I’ll do it. If not, I won’t. No sweat.”
“I’m gonna need you to sign up then,” he said, motioning toward the still-unfettered page of open mic sign-ups.
Before the featured poets, I sat with everyone else in that warmly-lit space to listen to the company in which I didn’t sign up to include myself.
One after the other, the open mic poets were introduced with great fanfare by the old hipster and his little brass bell – as if they’d all lived in a commune together all these years.
The grey-haired man by the window, who later fell asleep during the featured poets’ sets, creepily relished his memory of sitting in a pizzeria and capturing the sight of a woman’s beguiling ass – which he sophomorically likened to a set of two big round soccer balls. A woman with an alliterated moniker, who seemed more preoccupied with carefully portraying herself as the epitome of cool than anything else, delivered an unmemorable blurb while dressed in requisite black clothing and accessorized with the appropriate hardware and cat glasses. The man with a cap of closely cropped wavy white hair, dressed in head-to-toe denim, used his uniquely gravely, urgent voice to bellow a heartfelt diatribe based on a lifelong feeling of misplacement. The Occupy prototype in a plaid shirt, knit cap, and scruffy beard leapt up to rant about Rush Limbaugh in pure prose, and the proper, published woman in the corner politely read a sleepy, proper piece of poetry. Almost everyone took more than the allotted three minutes.
After enjoying half of the featured set, and merely enduring the other half, I dashed out of the suffocating little tea house while the old hipster and his little brass bell announced the following week’s event.
Heavy with stories untold, I lumbered westward – out of the oddly shiny East Village, which is now so unlike the neighborhood it was when poetry slams didn’t yet exist. The night sky – exactly the type of indigo blue that has birthed so much enduring jazz – miraculously sparked a hope that there was still someplace that might hear me – an old, washed-up nobody.
“But it’s the old, washed-up nobodies who will make revolution,” a nice socialist once said to me.
That was kind of him to say.