Drinking: Of course
I finally got behind a mic last night.
It’s been much too long. When I lived in Chicago, you couldn’t keep me off the stage. I grabbed a microphone every chance I could get. I slammed at The Green Mill (and won a coupla lottery tickets) and did the open mic there, too. I read at churches and tea houses and parties and concerts. I was addicted to the sound of a real, live audience.
And then I moved 2,000 miles west and shut up.
There were a lot of reasons for the silence. I packed a couple of serious life changes into a few month’s time. I left all my friends and history behind me for the promised land of fog and inspiration. But when I got here, I was bereft of all that anticipated inspiration.
It didn’t seem so at first. I’ll never forget the moment our U-Haul (bearing all our worldy possessions, including our only vehicle since we sold our cars–Boy’s old yellow motorcycle) rounded the corner and rolled out of the Waldo tunnel and we saw the red towers of the Golden Gate bridge shining up ahead. Boy and I looked at each other and grinned. “We’re home!” I said.
The first few weeks were full of the fun of finding a flat, exploring the city, starting a new job (downtown at a fancy agency that was spitting distance from the Transamerica Building). We were giddy. But not for long.
Just days after we signed the lease on a gorgeous 2 bedroom flat with an ocean view and a garbage disposal, the bottom fell out. Seems we had arrived on the west coast just in time for the dot com crash. And since my fancy agency was chock full of dot com clients, well, they crashed. And as the newest employee, my head was the first on the chopping block.
I was wearing pigtails, a miniskirt, big stompy boots and a David Bowie t-shirt (with glitter) on the day I got laid off.
All I could think as I sat there trying to comprehend the pitying looks and conciliatory tones was, “I should have worn something more serious today. I look like a 15-year old.” Followed by, “David Bowie is bad luck!”
I didn’t know, as I collected the requisite box full of office belongings and stood on the corner, whimpering and waiting for Boy on his yellow motorcycle, I didn’t know that this was just the first of four layoffs I would experience in a single year. The world was definitely crashing.
For the next couple of weeks I woke up with panic attacks and lay on the couch in flannel pajama pants, eating Tostitos and watching the sideburns grow on 90210. When I got laid off, Boy didn’t even have a job yet–we had moved west on my shiny new salary. Somehow he managed to land one quickly, but his monthly salary just paid our exorbitant San Francisco rent, with $2 left over.
We bought groceries with unemployment checks. I had never felt like such a failure.
I refused to answer phone calls from my friends back in Chicago. I didn’t want them to know. I didn’t want them to talk to me about giving up and moving back “home.” San Francisco was my home, and no matter how much it hurt, I was determined to stay.
For a girl who got through college on an honors scholarship, a teacher’s pet and chronic overachiever, being laid off was unthinkable. I spent hours at the Kinko’s on Sloat, copying my resume over and over. I sent out hundreds. But all over the city, all over the Bay Area, there were thousands of people like me, and we were all desperately applying for the same job.
I finally took a temp job as a secretary for a scary non-profit organization. And got laid off. I landed a job at an online radio station that I was completely overqualified for. They offered me much less than my old salary. I took it without blinking. I showed up for my first day of work and the doors were locked. Another dot com, bankrupt.
Every rejection, every defeat, just pushed me further into panicky blackness. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t write. And I certainly couldn’t get up onstage.
It’s been almost five years now since we first arrived and I’ve had the same job for two years. I started writing for myself again and making plans and working on projects and shooting cinepoems. But I still didn’t get back onstage. I visited the Berkeley Poetry Slam last fall, the one at the Starry Plough on Shattuck. I knew I could write circles around most of the poets who performed, but I didn’t sign up. I even told the host that I used to slam at the Green Mill. He got all excited and told me to come back. It took me six months.
When I finally returned, I got there early. I was the first person to sign my name on the list of readers. But they do a lottery at the Berkeley Slam. They pull your name from a hat, and they didn’t pull mine. So I sat there all night with a fistful of poems and a head full of adrenaline, and I didn’t get onstage.
But since that one wasn’t for lack of trying on my part, I just got more determined. And when I heard that local heroine Daphne Gottlieb (who kindly met me for drinks a coupla weeks ago, thanks, Daphne!) was reading at an open mic in the Castro, well, that was it.
I got to SMACKdab early last night. I signed my name at lucky #7. The fabulous Kirk Read was all smiles with his pink feather boa and made me feel right at home, even though I was the only straight person in the room. Way I figure it, there’s no better place for your poetic coming-out than at a gay men’s community center. And I was right.
The audience was warm, respectful and appreciative and my fellow performers were by turns adorable, hilarious and brilliant. (Some unintentionally so.) So, after 5 long years, I consider the cherry re-popped and I’m eagerly anticipating my next microphone.
Although this isn’t the poem I read last night (I’m saving that one ‘cuz she’s extra-special), this is a poem that I wrote shortly after the whole shock treatment of being laid off finally started to wear off. I actually wrote it at the request of Wil Foster (of Sheltershed), who sent me some music tracks from his “International Plastic” album that he wanted me to write poetry for. The track I wrote this poem for was called “Dreams”. (You can listen to the finished version in The Library.)
Here it is in print:
I am living in a dream
with skin on.
Vision formed of things to touch,
things to see.
And it is much more complicated now.
Once it was a someday thing.
(wish i may, wish i might)
But now it’s real and I am here.
(look and touch, taste and see)
What do you do
when the dream comes alive?
When the white statue breathes
and the marble flesh grows warm.
(does it come alive just in time to die)
Step down from the pedestal now.
Draw a deep newborn breath
and leave perfection far behind.
To be flawless is a dreamland thing.
(now we live and fall apart)
The porcelain shows pores.
The mouth opens sores.
And this is what happens
when dreams come true.
-Lo, who knows that sometimes the fantasy is better than the reality, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the fantasy is better for you.