I've done a lot of readings in my brief literary career. I've read at colleges, bookstores, and featured at dozens of open-mics in a number of states. This, by the way, is not boasting or a sad attempt at a resume. Anyone who has done the reading scenes will tell you that readings can range from exhilarating to "slit-my-wrists-and-drop-me-in-a-warm-tub" depressing. I've read to large, enthusiastic audiences and audiences you could pack into a bathroom stall. It's really crap shoot when you agree to read at a venue.
There's one thing, however, that I can ascertain: reading in Portland, Maine is always going to be interesting. Last night I featured at The North Star Cafe. Now, I should note that The North Star Cafe is a lesbian coffee shop---that serves booze---that has been kind and generous enough to provide a venue for The Port Veritas open-mic series in Portland. The reason I mention this is because the information will become quite relevant later.
The evening was almost Shakespearean in its foreshadowing. Early on, the host, whose name also happens to be Nate, and I were smoking cigarettes outside the cafe. "Man," he said, "something is off tonight. There's something strange about it." It would not have surprised me, in hindsight, to find three witches stirring a cauldron on a side street outside The North Star Cafe.
For the sake of brevity, I'm only going to stick to main events. First, any open-mic, by default, is going to draw its share psychos wandering off from a halfway house somewhere in town. This was no different. One of the readers, a regular who I will call Leo, introduced a new component to the weekly reading series. Generously, Leo has decided to start reading directly from his personal journals, something he has broken up into 15 chapters and has promised to read one, languorous chapter each week at the open mic. Book your plane tickets, folks. This is "don't miss." While Leo was a reading a young, rather pugnacious woman in a black wife-beater was restlessly searching for an acoustic guitar. Apparently, her reading, which she saw as the night's true "feature", required one.
After Leo finished with something utterly and mind-numbingly incoherent that stretched the five-minute time limit to close to half an hour of journal entry, I went on for my feature. And it went well. I read some new poems, a couple of family-oriented pieces from Honey, I'm Home (there was a young couple with their newborn in attendance and it seemed fitting), then I launched into the new material from Teaching Metaphors. The audience was receptive and kind, and it seemed that the night was going to take a turn for the better. Nate's instincts were erroneous, maybe even paranoid.
Then it all came down.
It started with an older man in a two-ton electric wheelchair and an American flag on the back (a friend of Leo's) reading fifteen-minutes of "Roses are red" poems, while the angry lesbian in the wife-beater brooded on-deck. She had found an acoustic guitar and was carrying it like lumberjack carrying an ax. She was pissed off that the crippled man was taking so long and holding up her show.
Finally, the wheelchair man finished, and the angry lesbian came stomping on stage, grabbed the microphone like it was phallus she was trying to tear off a male, and went into this acerbic rant that included post-it notes. Apparently, she had been writing some of it down while I was reading.
"And I don't give a fuck about hearing about people with a wife and kids complaining about having nothing," she went on.
I nudged my friend Jonell, who went with me to the reading. "Is she talking about me?"
Jonell nodded. "Oh, yeah," she said. "She wants to kick your ass."
So I spent the rest of the night afraid that the angry lesbian was going to sucker punch me outside the cafe because I read about my family. Didn't she know my marriage was on the rocks? I wanted to go up to her and make something up to get in her good graces. "Listen, that was all an act. My wife and I actually hate each other and the institution of marriage. Let's go buy some wife-beaters then slam some shots of whiskey, maybe punch some street signs after we're good and drunk."
It never happened. The angry lesbian played her song (in spite of some small details, such as she didn't know how to play the guitar) and didn't end up kicking my ass; however, I did end up carrying the man, in his wheelchair, out of the cafe with Nate and pulling a muscle in my back. Before leaving, the wheelchair man asked me if I'd give him a free book. Apparently, transporting him in his wheelchair out of the cafe wasn't enough. I gave him an old copy of Frostbite.
Later, at an Irish bar next to the cafe, Nate, Jonell and myself had a beer while some seventy year-old man next to us made out with his twenty-year-old girlfriend who was wearing a t-shirt that read Hottie.
"Looks like you were right, Nate," I said. "This was, indeed, a very strange night."
"I knew it, man. I sensed it in the air."
As I was leaving, a copy of Teaching Metaphors fell out of the box of books I was carrying. Hottie picked it up. "You write books? That's soooooo cool. He's trying to right a book," she said, pointing to her septuagenarian boyfriend. The man glanced coldly at me.
"Don't bother," I said to him. "The lesbians will hate you."