I read on Sunday night at Viracocha in the city, as part of Paul Corman Roberts and H.K. Rainey’s Anger Management Series, which was held, quite appropriately, underground in what looked like an old gangster speakeasy. The event showcased many of the usual suspects, the increasingly popular Zarina Zabrisky, Lauren Becker, Aimee Delong (proxy), with Tony DuShane, Evan Karp, and Timothy Crandle in attendance, and a bunch of people I don’t know, because I don’t know that many people; I am sort of a hermit.
I was looking for my keys the other day, thinking maybe my boy, Holden, hid them, because he likes to punch the alarm button and make it beep outside. Repeatedly. Say hello to OCD, son. Anyway, couldn’t find the keys, and Justine was like when did you last see them. I hadn’t. “When did you last leave the house?” she asked. I had to think. I’m guessing for our Valentine’s Day date. “Then you should check your coat.” Sure enough, there they were. Not only had I not not driven, I’d had no occasion to even wear a coat outside. For three days. And I like it that way.
I’ll get to the actual reading in a bit. Couple (mildly) funny things happened on the way to the show. My friend Rich went with me, because, for all intents and purposes, he’s really the only person I do stuff with these days, although I am braving a second trip out into that big scary world tonight with my buddy Matt to see Craig Finn at the Bottom of the Hill. Leaving the house two out of three days? It’s like I’m 20 again. You can just feel the prostate shrink.
We had to take BART because the Bay Bridge was closed. Don’t take BART often otherwise. It’s pretty convenient, and if you give a shit about the environment, it probably makes sense. But there are more people on BART than in my car. Plus, I don’t really care about the environment.
Rich drove us in his truck over to West Oakland, a lovely neighborhood where you don’t feel at all like there is a 50/50 chance you’re getting shot.
When we boarded the train, Rich said, “You remember the last time we were on a BART together?”
Obviously he’s asking me this because something memorable must’ve happened, but I can’t think what.
“Those two girls?”
I started dating Justine almost as soon as I moved here. I don’t remember any two girls. I’m not that kind of a guy.
“Those two girls who were giggling and asked us to sit next to them?” he said.
“Were they cute?”
I’m still drawing a blank. “What did we do.”
“You said no. You said, ‘I’m dating Justine, and that would be disrespectful. She wouldn’t like that.’”
Oh, yeah, now I kinda remember.
At 41, I sometimes wonder if it’d be different. Set aside I’m happily married with a great kid and all that. I just mean, I’ve always been a goddamn nervous wreck around women. Starting with my sweaty palms forking over my entire life savings to Tracey B. at the Berlin Fair when I was 12 so she might win some stupid carnival game (she didn’t); up through college and my golden sombrero, striking out with Jeannie, Amy, Sherry, and Katie; and then out into the so-called real world, the big city of San Francisco, where my looks caught up with me but I never caught up with my confidence. I have dozens of stories of pretty girls coming up to me in bars–approaching me–only to hang around long enough for my mouth to open up and say something retarded.
Pretty much like Micky and the answering machine.
But surely now things have to be different right? Never mind that on my first date with Justine, my neighbor at the time, I told her I wanted to be a private investigator because I, and I quote, “am good at lurking.” These days, I have a little money, am a little more secure in my place in this life. Surely, if I were single, I’d be cleaning up in this town (San Francisco has the highest percentage of attractive single women anywhere in the country).
After BART, Rich and I went to grab a burrito at Cancun, which, as usual was pretty crowded. We snagged the last booth. And we’re talking and laughing, because we’ve known each other our whole lives. In fact, with the exception of my brother, Josh, there is no one (alive) I’ve known longer. I’m feeling pretty relaxed because I won’t be reading for another hour, and it’s the city, memories flooding and all that. Good times (before some not-so-good times). And then this young pretty girl asks if she can sit with us. Couldn’t have been more than 22, and she suckers us, doing the old bait and switch, because after we say Sure, then her dopey boyfriend joins us. She’s sitting next to me. Right next to me in this cramped tiny booth. And suddenly I can’t talk; I freeze up. I’m all nervous and tongue-tied. She tries being polite, making conversation. Rich is OK. Not me, though. I just stare at my burrito and maybe mumble something about her shoes. When we get out of there, Rich asked me what happened. “I don’t know, man. I just get nervous around pretty girls.” Doesn’t matter that I’m an established, happily married father, with no interest in any of the sleezy stuff so many dudes do. Those pretty ones still have a way of making my heart flutter and palms sweat, leaving me feeling stupid.
’Course, the impetus behind all this is I am one jumpy mutherfucker. Kinds like Martin Short’s neurotic lawyer character, Nathan Thurm.
I’d be kicking off the second set of readers. Before the first set began, this terrific li’l redheaded songbird, Meaghan Owen, twanged a quirky country act, with a touch of 50′s rockabilly pin-up. Justine would’ve loved her.
There were definite winners, and I wish I’d taken notes, but like I said, I was already getting anxious. So I can give you some highlights. Several local poets read the work of other poets since Anger Management took open submissions from all over the country, and many selected couldn’t be there. No one is getting comped plane tickets at this stage of the game. There was a poem about reading Arabic names, just the names, and fooling friends into thinking that you’ve learned a new language, and like the best of poetry, it carried a subtle jarring subtext, commenting on our fears of the unknown and the beauty of the foreign, though not necessarily in that order. But the crown goes to, without a doubt, Ms. Zarina Zabrisky. My words can’t give this woman justice. Let’s just say, with her colorful past and thick accent, acerbic writing skills and penchant for the dramatic, watching Zarina read is a full five-sense experience, like poetic IMAX, sucking you in in surround sound. Her accent can get too think to hear what she is saying at times, and normally this would be a bad thing, but Zabrisky possesses such command of her audience when she is on stage, this isn’t a deterrent; you’d be captivated watching her gargle. Her partner, Sammy, smokes a pipe. They are that kind of couple. Justine has already decided they have to be our friends. So Zarina and Sammy, if you are listening, you can expect a gilded invitation up to the Chateau soon.
Lauren Becker closed out the first set, with a selection from her new book Shut Up, Look Pretty, a heartbreaking piece about losing love and the tiny details that shed away like dead skin cells. Love is a package deal, these interests and memories and sayings become possession, and when divorce occurs, we have to give them back to their rightful owners, which is particularly tough when you’re talking parents and you’re an orphan. Unfortunately, Lauren’s voice was reduced to barely a whisper due to illness. Actually, it didn’t impact the audience so much. But clearly it pained Lauren to speak. Which, in a sick twisted way, only added pathos to the scene.
After Meaghan played another darling intermission, it was my turn. I read Why I Hate Texas. Feel free to read it. It’s about my second wife having an affair with a friend in Texas, and my running into the roommate a year later and punching him in the head. The version there isn’t exactly what I read. That is the blog post, which I used to craft a real story. But you’ll get the idea (and if you’re reading this Mike and Dale, fuck you, too).
And it was hell. I fucking hate reading live. Can’t fucking stand it. I get so goddamn nervous. I wasn’t a paragraph in when my legs began shaking uncontrollably. I’ve shaken before, but never this bad. I thought I was going to have to stop or at least sit down. I don’t know how evident it is to others how much I am suffering up there, because folks always come up afterward to say how much they enjoyed it, how awesome I am, but I think that is part of the overall package, y’know? I have a certain…persona, and it works, is ingratiating, not alienating. Maybe it’s the vulnerability, but I think I work the nervousness to my favor, so that it comes across slightly charming. Or maybe they just say they like it because they feel sorry for a fucktarded 41-year-old dude who still can’t talk in public. To pretty girls or otherwise.
Sorry to say, by the time I got off stage, my head was spinning too much to report back on the remaining six readers. That sucks and it’s a disservice. Apologies. Except the one poem, “Iceberg Is the Asshole of Lettuce,” by Rick Lupert (performed by MG Roberts [no relation to Paul]), which detailed the bane of my staid farmboy, uncultivated existence: Iceberg fucking lettuce. (Best line: “You’re nothing but crunchy water.”) This is for all my Berlin friends. Growing up in my town, we didn’t even realize there was any other kind of lettuce. In Berlin, when your mom made salad, she used iceberg lettuce. That’s it. No other option. I don’t even think Food Mart sold anything else. (There was a rumor of this French kid on the outskirts whose mom used “fancy green stuff” in her salads, but it couldn’t ever be confirmed, and after we kicked his ass a few dozen times for, you know, being French, they moved.) By the time I headed out west and discovered arugula and butterleaf, spinach and kale, tasted my first goddamn spring mix, I was twenty-one. Fucking 21. And it seemed like my whole world was opening up.