The Reading I Went To Last Night
was staged at a hotel near Lake Merritt. I was not featured but was still motivated to leave the house since two of the features were people I knew and liked. The bus let me off a few blocks away and I happily strolled through a tree-lined neighborhood I always liked with its dense collection of apartments and crystalline lake at the end of the block. One street over to my left was a café that once held a series that was so supportive and essential to my growth. Right there at the corner my friend Jon once lived and we’d take philosophical laps around the lake, return to his apartment for black tea and challah. Over there lived another friend who’s now a DJ and living in the Filmore district of The City. And… who did I help move into this building? How long ago was that? One complex at the end of the block was a old building my cousin John Edward once briefly lived. I watched a line of men walk mournfully towards it as if a curfew whistle had just gone off. I thought of that beat up room Johnny was eventually kicked out of, him preferring to break things and live in the park under the counsel of birds. Rest In Peace, Johnny.
The hotel was a gorgeous old building with a bouquet of balloons at the door. I climbed the stairs and went in. To my left a huge dining hall full of people who’d just begun applauding. I heard a man on a mic and approached, but it didn’t feel right. I knew I was late, but this… is more ceremonial, a gathering or reunion. I returned to the front desk where two older ladies were talking. One woman pointed to the bar I’d shyly approached and told me to follow it around to the right. Just as I turned to do so, Roger, one of the folks I came to hear, bumped into me and greeted me warmly. He was carrying sheets of paper in one hand and heading outdoors, I presumed, to burn off nervousness and shuffle pages. She told you right, he said and pointed to where I should go and we separated.
There was another smaller bar where one blond woman worked. Usually this is my night off, she said breathless. The area had plush seats and several people sat around. I stood before the bar, kinda hungry and ordered a beer before thinking to do anything else. Roger came back and sat next to me with his pages. My beer arrived; I offered him a drink even as I was pretty sure he’d be comp-ed one as a feature. Better: a flatbread pizza was placed before him and he said it was free to him and demanded I take a slice. Man, was I hungry.
We chatted a moment before another poet came up and greeted him and sat on the other side. I waved, recognizing her but she looked at me, then through me, and I dropped my eyes to the table. He asked her help in eating pizza too and then we all sat there for a while talking about writing habits and what readings any of us were doing. I looked up and another woman approached, one who I was checking out before I realized I knew who it was. Did I ever tell you the time when I had courage to comb through dating websites and she once appeared as a suggested match? She never responded to or acknowledged my message and I’ve since had to file that away as a memory that didn’t happen, or think of it as if I was tripping. So: we just talked. She said she never sees me and I said, as if it were breaking news, how I realized I was a recluse and she said we’re writers, we’re all recluses. She asked if I was reading anywhere and then brow-beat me for not sending out any announcements. For some reason (what did I have to lose?) I told her I hated gambling on how popular I wished I was with how rarely anyone shows up when I’ve advertised readings. Not long after that did the reading start. Behind the bar is a smaller dining area and people had filled many of the tables. Some were having dinner with waiters swirling through the crowd. I saw the host, who I didn’t immediately recognize but he looked happy to see me and stopped.
I haven’t seen you since Above Paradise, he said of the now historical reading from the 90’s. That reading was my university, I said. It was my kindergarten he said and went about working the room and getting things together. I sat at a small table across from Roger and realized he and I were the only two black men here. I felt glad I showed up. We didn’t talk. I finished my beer and listened.
The reading was great. A woman with her arms heavily tattooed sang a couple of songs on guitar. A man read a couple of funny short stories. Another poet was quite good; his writing voice close to Bukowski’s and his poems have gorgeous three-point landings. Roger read some very fine stories, the audience with him on every breath. The other reader whom I knew was funny–why I showed up– especially after opening his set with a dark poem, all I remember of was two characters bleeding while standing in a river. This, followed by poems imagining him hanging out with Frida Kahlo or good poems from deleted Facebook posts. The woman with the guitar came back and closed, playing an unfinished original blues song that sounds like something PJ Harvey would like. Everyone was really good and the reading and me getting out of the house worth it and a success.
And then there’s the ending. I didn’t immediately leave, neither did I know what to do with myself. People eventually crowded around Roger like smoke and I backed off choosing to shake hands with the man who organized the reading and who mentioned the Above Paradise. I greeted the poet who made me think of Bukowski. While standing there another poet surprised and greeted me. I wouldn’t have recognized him, his ubiquitous long hair now shorn down and his face a little fuller than I remembered. I stood there watching the room mingle and stir itself. When I remembered I wasn’t waiting for anyone and felt myself loitering, I turned and left.