Have you ever?
Two readings in four days with entirely different faces and entirely different vibes and entirely different scenes in entirely different parts of Brooklyn. One space familiar and full of love and light and people with huge hearts and huge smiles and blood that moves pushed around by the love of words and the love of people and the love of community. One space new and unknown full of confusion and noise and locals and the feeling that the whole joint was about to go shithouse at any second and oh holy fuck in the half-light did it.
Did a fucking rad reading at my favorite spot—Mellow Pages Library—surrounded by some of my favorite people—Eric Nelson, Juliet Escoria, Jacob Perkins, Matty Nelson, and all that comes with them. Big crowd sitting on the floor. Standing room only. So much love and respect and kindness and appreciation for one another. Eric Nelson hosted and was a joy in his nun’s habit. So kind, so much enthusiasm for every reader, for every face in the space. Everyone who read was lovely and fun and shared things from their hearts. As Eric so lovingly said on Twitter after the event, it should have been called “Night of Joy,” because that is what it was—fucking joyful.
I am going to do my best here to be kind, to be diplomatic, to be as truthful as I can possibly be.
Did a reading in Ditmas Park, at a bar called Bar Chord. Ditmas Park is deep in the belly of Brooklyn—not too terribly far from where I was spawned, where I first had my teeth kicked in, where I first touched a nipple through a thick-as-fuck bra, where I first read books on stoops and saw a world outside of my immediate world and knew the world was out there for me to slide into. When I walked into Bar Chord and saw the layout, I knew the night would get interesting. Elongated space with the stage near the front door. Cavern darkness. Locals on stools they probably occupy every night. A bartendress that vibrated in a way that told me if I were still a drinker she’d be my favorite nurse and I would most probably beg her for hugs or baths together or early morning migas and cuddles. The young man running the reading was already there so when I walked in I walked right into him. He is gregarious and kind and I asked him if maybe they served food, but they didn’t and he was kind and recommended a Mexican joint down the block. My Canadian houseguests/family and I went and feasted, all the while my innermost warning system was on high alert: tonight was going to get fucking weird and I knew it.
When we came back to the bar it was packed—so many people gathered near the front at the tables near the stage that we ended up plopping ourselves down at a table near the back door to the patio area, right next to a jukebox that had no less than nine Bob Marley albums in it. Everyone should know by now that I do not like reggae. Another sign.
Directly in our line of vision toward the stage were the locals. As the reading began and the young poets took to the mic—almost an hour after the stated start time, mind you—the locals began to shift on their stools, whispering to one another about what was taking place in their place. The Knicks were on the screen with the closed captioning on. One gentleman ordered Chinese to be delivered to him and he shared it with the bartendress as the young poets unfurled themselves like peacocks for all of their friends.
The unfurling is always so beautiful. The unfurling is what I live for.
A very different unfurling was about to happen, though.
After a quick break, during which a large chunk of the crowd left[which always happens at readings, because people who book readings have a tendency to book too many readers, and really, who the fuck wants to listen to people yammer on and on eight-deep?], some musicians sets up to play a short set. I am a musician. My entire life is music, even the words I try to string together. I get it. But having a raucous and screechy set of music in a bar that is obviously uncomfortable with the new faces and sounds and attitudes within in, well, probably not the wisest move of all? Let alone allowing said raucous and screechy band to clang along for upward of twenty minutes while the obviously intoxicated front man curses loudly into the mic he has halfway down his gullet.
Again, let me reiterate—I love music. Just not a good idea at a reading. Not just in a new place, but probably not ever. Breaks up whatever momentum there is and sets sail for doom. Doom is not where a reading should ever hope to float.
I had to follow one of the musicians who read some awesome poems, but he wasn’t very organized and took some time between poems and was obviously full of enthusiasm and fire after playing and getting hooted and hollered at by his pals as he read his poems. There were some lines in his poems that I wish I could remember, but all I remember was the group of locals near where I was sitting getting even more restless and hearing them no longer mumbling to one another and hearing their alcohol-infused anger rise up. The gregarious and kind host came over and spoke to them, but I couldn’t make out his words. I understand why he did it, but it really just made them more upset, especially with him laying hands on them.
Never touch a local as if you own the joint. Remember this always.
When I went to the mic to read I made a point of giving shouts to the locals at the end of the bar, and asked them to let me know what the score was on the Knicks game. In my own way, I was trying to show them I respected them, respected their space, and was thankful they were allowing people to read in their space. As I began to read, their voices rose. The gregarious and kind host walked back to where they were and then the whole thing went to shit. I heard yelling, saw scuffling, saw hands on a throat, heard a man yell “YOU DON’T PUT YOUR HANDS ON ME, YOU SOCIALIST NAZI FUCK,” and I decided, in that moment, that it was up to me, a grown-ass man, to put the fire out.
If you know me, or know anything about me, you know that violence runs in my blood. I have no problem with it, nor do I shy away from it, ever. You never really know someone unless you’ve spilled one another’s blood. As I made my way through the crowd to where the violence had just occurred, all I could think was “do not strike anyone, envelope them in your love—but show them no fear.” I felt adrenalized, primal, like a wolf in a room full of stray dogs. I walked right to the man who yelled about Nazis and put my hand on his angry friend’s shoulder.
“Are you okay?”
He stared at me in disbelief.
“I’m serious here – are you okay?”
“No. No, I’m not.”
“What happened? What can I do to make you okay?”
He told me he felt like he was being scolded in his own bar, like he was being asked to treat it like he was in church. I told him I was sorry, and I understood, and that the reading would be over shortly. He told me that he wasn’t going to apologize to the kid he choked. I told him he didn’t need to do any such thing, and asked him again if he was okay. He stared at me. My hand was still on his friend’s shoulder and I felt his friend’s tension leave. I watched the tension leave his face and he smiled. I held out my hand.
He took my hand and started to laugh.
“I’m John. Same fucking thing—I’m English, you’re Irish.”
“True. I promise no troubles. I would love it if you’d allow me the honor of going back up there to finish my story. Is that cool with you, John?”
“Yeah. Fuck yeah. Absolutely.”
I squeezed his friend’s shoulder while nodding at him and made my way back through the crowd to the tiny stage and took the mic. People made a lot of noise but at that point I was no longer reading for them, I was reading for the locals at the other end of the bar, trying to find a way to let them know that hearts are hearts no matter who they belong to and we’re all going to die some fucking day and it’s all going to be okay. The room was silent and still as I read. I finished my story and instead of doing anything else, I walked right back to the locals and thanked them, shaking all of their hands and asking them their names and thanking them individually for allowing me to hang out in their space.
One of the stranger nights I have had in a while, but one I will probably think about for an long time to come.
Here’s the thing: I am not trying to tell people how to handle their business, I assure you. BUT. If you’re having a reading in a new space goodly enough to allow you to throw your thing there, it will always be in your best interest to be not only respectful, but also be gracious at every turn, irrespective of how you may or may not feel. Sure, the bar is making money off of you and your friends and the drinks and all that. But the locals? The locals are the blood. The locals keep the doors open and new faces in the room when they bring their friends to the place they feel at home and respected and expected. Isn’t that what we all want with readings, for people to come because they feel those same things?
I certainly want that.
So should everyone.
Please tip your bartenders.
And please be respectful of the locals.
Take heed, there is a moral to this story….