Saturday, December 5, 2009

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’ 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.

-Jose Padua

First published as a chapbook, by Pan Semantics Press, in 1995.

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