Americaphiles

The Story Of My Fucking Life

Seventy-two

Posted by ilbebe on January 19, 2012

Quantity or quality, that is our question. Quantity is more or less a matter of amount, whereas quality is what we make of it. Equality does not exist unless somewhere between the two, and certainly not online, whereas equanimity is entirely possible as a combination of the two. For example, do I want one really good beer, or four crummy ones? On another note, why do people sometimes mention this ethereal “Joe Six-Pack”, but never “Joe Twelve-Pack”, “Johnny Four Bottles Of Red Wine”, or “Stevie That LOVES Mad Dog”?

Is it better to buy quality shoes less often or cheap shoes more often?

Is it better to walk or take the bus?

Is it better to have one girlfriend or none?

I went to a handful of open mike nights during my time in Arcata, but the first time I ever went to a poetry slam was around February 2003. My pal M Pie’s community college debate team had decided to take a field trip to the Starry Plough in Berkeley to check out their open slam, and he invited me and our friend Casey to come along. I assume the thought was that the trip would be educational, in that the students would see a variety of wordsmiths crafting an artful argument on the fly. This seemed to me to be a reasonable expectation for a well-educated populace such as the Berkeley and Environs area boasts, but holy shit, the evening turned into something much weirder. Beer and Loathing at the Plough…

So the MMC welcomed everybody, laid out the few ground rules, and announced the special bonus word, which I can’t recall. I know, I wish I could remember what it was. It was a fairly innocuous noun, along the lines of ‘cafeteria’ or something. Anyhow, using the special bonus word in your performance would get you extra points that would be added to your regular score. Your regular score was based on your performance, and was composed of your use of flow, wordplay, message, and ultimately, how much of an impact your slam had. The first several performers didn’t leave too much of an impression on me as I stood in the back sipping my Guinness, but shit got real after the intermission.

The first performer after the break prefaced his performance with a taste of what we were in for:

“I want you to know that I love women, and this is about loving women.” His piece was a fairly aimless sequence of G-rated 7th-Grade metaphors for sexual acts and anatomy; “ruby fruit”, “delicate dance”, “milk gift”, “jizz muffin”. Actually, the last one I made up and put in his mouth; I don’t think he had the balls to say jizz. He was the guy I would imagine you would not want to have at your orgy: “Hey man, you gotta stop worshipping these chicks instead of just bangin’ ‘em; yr saltin’ our game with yr ‘sugar moon’ shit.” Beware of slam poets who have trouble putting more than two words together at a time; it seems to represent a certain tunnel vision…

The next fellow blew me away with what I thought was the best performance of the evening. The first portion of his slam I don’t recall too well, but there were some lines towards the end that I will never forget:

“Imagine the East Bay wasn’t always like it is now. There were fields of grass, and in the springtime, the deer would come down from the hills to drink from the streams. And when you think about that, then you know that there is no good reason why the cops had to shoot my uncle in the back seven times.”

It makes me cry every time I think about it.

(I just shed a few tears, and it is raining lightly outside my kitchen window, where I sit writing. We need the rain this year, and here it comes…)

Then the main event, the cherry on top, took the mike. He was a young black dude, probably about my age at the time, 21. He was wearing a red shirt that hung loosely on his large frame, and he had some kind of baseball cap on backwards. When he first took the stage, I thought “Hmm, this guy looks like the sort of person that is an accomplished slam poet.” Then he started talking. It is crucial to note that this guy had no flow.

He started off slow- “Yo, Im’a give to you real, cuz I’m a real man, not some chump.” Pedestrian, I thought, but maybe he’s just warming up. No. “You think you wanna take my girl from me, say you can treat her better than me, than you can have her, I fucked that bitch already.” Some gasps and finger snapping came from the crowd.

This was the beginning of the end. One of the few ground rules laid out by the MMC at the start of the competition was that offensive language, specifically misogynistic and homophobic, was strictly prohibited. A first offense could be called by anyone in the crowd, judges, audience members, and fellow performers alike, and would be signaled by finger snaps, or boos. A second offense was grounds for removal from the mike.

“What, I’m too real for y’all? Shit, you just like that bitch then. And damn man, you wanna say that I got a problem, well I had a problem, and it was that bitch, and now you the bitch.”

More finger snaps, a few boos, some people started talking to the person next to them.

“WTF is this guy’s problem?”

“Well, it sounds like a friend of his took his girlfriend.”

“Small Wonder.”

“Oh shit, do you know if that’s out on DVD yet?”

He was raising the crowd’s ire, which ironically was only raising their interest as well. The MMC stood up from his chair and warned him about the language.

“All right, all right,” the angry red dude said, and looked at the ground in an effort to collect his thought. “But I’m just so angry.” He then looked over at the easel where the special bonus word was written on a notepad, and just said the word without attempting to work it into his flow, which as I mentioned before, was entirely non-existent. He then continued with “I mean, you take my girl, that makes me just wanna fuck you. I mean, I ain’t gay, I’m straight as hell, but I will fuck you. Repeat: I will fuck you.”

The MMC stood up again, and the crowd started to get flat-out noisy. Calls of “Get off the stage” came from more than one person, perhaps including the amateur erotic poet. Me and my pal Casey just stood in the back with huge grins on our faces. “Did he just say ‘I will fuck you’?”

He raised the temperature further: “Man, if I’m too real for y’all, then fuck you. I’ma fly over to Afghanistan and smoke a blunt with bin Laden and then come back here and crash into some buildings.”

The power to the PA was cut by somebody, and the crowd angrily booed the dude off the stage. Me and Casey were in consensus: “Someone needs to buy that dude a beer.”

“Seriously. Also, I think I’ve seen enough now.”

We left a few minutes later, and passed the angry red dude smoking a cigarette outside on the sidewalk, alone. Casey said Hey Man, That Was Awesome. The dude’s response was Thanks.

A few years later, in August 2008, I went to the free SoCo Music Festival in San Diego with some friends, and caught several great acts; among them Grand Ole Party, The Black Keys, and Common. But my favorite of the day was Saul Stacey Williams; the former slam poet who was touring in support of his second album, The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust! His performance was a game-changer. I sipped on my disgusting six-dollar SoCo-based soda cocktail and grew ever more dehydrated as I stood rapt while he stormed onto the stage and began throwing down.

In the middle of his set, he slew me with the back to back performance of NiggyTardust and U2’s Sunday Bloody Sunday.

“When I say Niggy, you say nothing. Niggy. (silence)”

Holy shit.

“How long, How long must we sing this song…Sunday Bloody Sunday.”

Holy Holy shit. I realized slam poetry could go many, many different directions, and some of them, if not many, had the power to change people’s hearts.

The following month, September 2008 to be specific, I found myself back at the Plough drinking Guinness at their weekly Tuesday open mike. I wanted to read a selection from the beginning of these Americaphiles, which I had just started writing the week before. It is crucial to note that I called in sick to work in order to attend, because I was deeply motivated by the new stream of creativity flooding out of me, and I was eager to get a response on it. I was sort of worried that my literature would not sit well amongst the rest of the line-up, which was all music, but I figured that a hip Berkeley crowd would be open-minded enough to endure five minutes of storytelling. Wrong.

I was so drunk by the time they called my name toward the very end of the program that I took the mike and described what I had intended to do instead of actually doing it. In the middle of my brief monologue I started crying, and then decided to wrap it up by simply saying “Thank you for listening. You guys are great.” A few people clapped, but the rest of the crowd was completely unimpressed except for one guy who actually came up to me afterwards and congratulated me on my courage. Then he recommended I not get so drunk the next time.

The next day I called in sick again and went back to the Plough for the Wednesday Poetry Slam. I hoped that a more literary audience would be more open to receiving my performance, though I did worry about my ability to do slam poetry, since I had never once before tried. But in the spirit of the times, I figured it couldn’t hurt to try something new. I got my friend Mile-Five to accompany me for moral support, and my girlfriend/ex-girlfriend W was supposed to meet up later as well.

There were a more people there than for the open mike, and almost all of them were there to sign up for a chance to perform. I think there were about forty people competing for sixteen spots. Bottom line, after being there for two hours and trying to be a supportive audience member for all the people who did get a spot, I asked the MMC if I had any chance of getting called.

“No.”

So I settled my bar tab, and then me, Mile-Five and W left in a huff. At the end of the block, walking to my car, we came across a couple of A-frame construction barriers sitting on the sidewalk for no apparent reason. Me and Mile-Five smashed the shit out of them, while W looked on in disapproval.

I dropped Mile-Five off at home, and me and W went back to my place and got it on. Feeling better, a few hours later we stepped out to the front of house for a smoke, and that’s when I discovered my car was gone; stolen for the third time in eighteen months. Please note that my job those days was in pizza delivery, so I could not do my job without my car. There seemed to be fairly obvious karmic reasons for the theft to have occurred; the calling in sick, the sign smashing, the cheating on my long-distance teenaged girlfriend with my ex behind her out-of-state back; but I was still pissed, and I took my shoes off and put a cig out on the side of my left foot.

Perhaps it was that act of penitence that led to a phone call an hour later from the Oakland PD letting me know that they had found my car in East Oakland, and I could come pick it up with no penalties if I could get there in half an hour. A quick ride courtesy of my roommate Z accomplished this, and I got my car back. I was stunned; I had paid upwards of six hundred dollars in recovery fees the first two times my car had been stolen, so to get it back in a few hours for free was amazing. I supposed the third time was the charm, and perhaps that’s why I went back to the Plough the following Tuesday, October Second, 2008.

I arrived early to secure a good spot in the line-up, and sat back and watched a Presidential debate on TV. Or maybe it was the VP candidate’s debate; God, it’s funny to think back on that time when there were people in this country that actually thought McCain/Palin did not pale in comparison to Obama/Biden.

So there I was, bidin’ my time, sipping at a Guinness and deciding which chapter to read. When sign-ups closed and the order was drawn, I was told I was going tenth, the second act after the intermission. I took this as a good sign, and heartily applauded all the first-act acts while running my bar tab past fifty bucks, as I had on each of the previous week’s visits. The first act after the break was a musical one; a collaboration between a guitarist/singer and a violinist. They were good, and got a good round of applause. Then it was my turn.

As I took the stage, the audience deemed it time to stop being polite, and started talking loudly to one another about this, that, and every other thing besides me. I set my glass down, introduced myself, and started reading. I was a few minutes into my story when my irritation with the crowd’s disrespect grew to a point that I started wantonly hurling insults at various people.

“Yeah you, chubby chick in the yellow shirt at the bar. I’ll be bangin’ you later.”

“Hey, ponytail guy in the back- I listened to you, show me some attention in kind.”

“Hey all you Berkeley morons, when did you forget how to listen?”

Disgusted, I said thanks, picked up my beer, and left the stage, handing the mike over to the MC as I stepped down. A few people clapped. The MC put the mike back into the stand and said “All right, I’d like to remind all of our acts to respect the crowd.” Disgust turning into fury, I turned back towards him, shrugged my shoulders and threw my hands up in the universal gesture of What Do You Want Me To Do? Apparently, when I did that, the last half-ounce of Guinness in my pint flew out and onto one of the monitor speakers at the foot of the stage.

I was making my way to the bar to hit on the chubby chick in yellow who had been watching the TV while I insulted her from the stage when a firm hand tapped me on the shoulder. It was the door guy, telling me the MC had asked that I be asked to leave.

“Huh?”

“Yeah, he said you threw beer on the monitors, and we can’t have that kind of behavior. They’re expensive, like thousands of dollars, and I don’t think you want to pay for ‘em if you break ‘em.”

Astonished, I said Okay, Fine, I’ll Go. I called to the barman for my tab, and he had a mournful look on his face as he handed it to me and lamented “You’re one of the only people here that tips.” I signed my tab, and left without further incident. I have yet to go back, and I suspect I never will.

And so; quantity or quality?

I say it makes no difference. The mystery endures.

Occupy your own body…

-3:44PM, Thursday, January 19th, 2012, home, looking out the window expecting more rain…

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