Posts Tagged ‘Ten Years On’

The Time I Turned a Poetry Slam Into A Riot

September 23, 2011


OK, I admit that on my previous post, I put it out there as a bit of a tease that the second time I performed The Tower I accidentally caused a riot. Fishing, fishing! So THANKS for rising to the bait go to my lovely friend Jan of Zurich (with whom I had an affair in San Francisco many years ago, the ridiculous brevity of which was counter-balanced by its painlessness, spontaneity and sense of effortless intellectual fun…) who went ahead and asked me to tell the story. That conversation was taking place on FB, so I put it there but then thought to meself: hey, as long as I’m sort of revisiting the events of a decade ago (lagging behind by a few days because, well you know, just cuz), I really ought to put the story on 66witches, or the next bit, where the cops come for me, won’t have as good of a context. It’s important for me to convey exactly how much insanity took place in such a short amount of time. People living in the US then will remember that we were also being told that we were under a major Anthrax attack.
*
The 2nd time I performed The Tower was probably September 14th or 15th 2001. I was under the impression that I was one of the featured poets at a local poetry slam, around the corner from my house, a place called the Black Box, run by friends from grad school. I hate poetry slams by the way. In between the contestants, not a single one of whom was addressing the WTC disaster of a couple days earlier, were the featured poets who had longer sets; incidentally none of them mentioned it either.

It was the usual shit, mostly in the hip hop style, urban confessional, sexual politics yawn blah blah. I couldn’t fucking believe it. Then my name was called and so I went up there to do my thang. You’ve read the poem so you know it aint short. In fact, it’s nearly 2000 words, including the song quotes, and clocks in at anywhere from 12-17 minutes, depending on things like how I do the song bits, or if there’s a lot of audience reaction.

When I was about 3/4 of the way through you coulda heard a pin drop in that place. People were paying rapt attention. I was at the very bleakest part, the death and destruction and confusion part when all of a sudden I notice some kind of conferring going on at the back of the room between what looked like some of the event organizers. (cuz when you’re on stage, every movement in the house is like there’s a spotlight on it) This was in Oakland and the audience was pretty racially mixed, but there was a definite trend towards favouring the African-American rap style (which I love in music but don’t really like at a poetry recital…but I digress) and the MC was a twenty something black female intellectual type. (Just for purposes of setting the scene.) So I’m doing my poem but clocking what’s going on in the back of the room and then one of the persons emerges from the darkness and I recognize her as the MC. And she’s weaving her way through the crowd and coming straight towards me. I don’t know why she’s doing this, but try to ignore it and keep going. Then, she’s actually on the stage. Then she’s beside me! I try to keep going but of course I look over at her and that’s when she puts her hands on the Mic and sez:

“You know, we’re all really moved by whatchoo bin sayin’ an’ all but like, we really gotta move on to the next contestant..you’ve gone way over the 3 minute time limit…”

WHAT? What the hell was she talking about?

I don’t let go of a microphone too easily and my hand was still on it and so I say something like “I’m not in the contest! I was asked to come here and read this tonight by my friends who own this place!”

But where the fuck were they to back me up? I couldn’t see any of em.

A tussle began. This woman and I were literally having a tug of war with the microphone. She was being really nice but also VERY insistent. The audience started getting restless.

“Listen lady! I’m sorry if I broke your rules. I did not come down here to compete in your poetry slam. I came down here because in case you hadn’t noticed a KIND OF FUCKING MAJOR SOMETHING JUST HAPPENED LIKE 2 DAYS AGO AND NOT ONE OF YOUR SO CALLED POETS HAS SAID A FUCKING WORD ABOUT IT! FORGET YOUR CONTEST! THIS IS REAL LIFE! I’M TRYING TO SAY SOMETHING HERE AND YOU ARE STOPPING ME IN THE MOST HOPELESS, DARK AND EVIL PIECE OF THIS POEM. I’M SORRY I WENT OVER YOUR TIME LIMIT BUT I’LL BE DONE IN LIKE 2 MINUTES AND I PROMISE YOU WE WILL BE ENDING ON A HIGH NOTE IF YOU JUST LET ME CONTINUE! I HEREBY DISQUALIFY MYSELF OK?!!!”

Or something like that.

A few shouts started to come from the crowd. So I decided to put it to them.

“Who wants me to keep going?”

Well, quite a lot did and started to shout “let her finish!”

But there was also quite a few (most likely “poets” who hadn’t had their turn yet) who most definitely did not.

“Get her off! She’s gone on long enough!”

It started to get quite loud and heavy. Some people stood up and started shouting at each other. The MC and I were still grappling over the microphone. Then I looked out at the scene and noticed something else that really pissed me off and was so typical and indicative of the obtuse attitude I was facing and it was this: despite the place packed with people, so that they were even lining the walls and perimeter of the room, there were 3 or 4 perfectly good empty cocktail tables and chairs right at the front.

Why the fuck do people do that? I used to call it the “semi-circle of fear” and when I played in bands around San Francisco it was one of the things that really got my goat. This giant fucking hole right in front of the stage cuz…what…everyone needs to be near the exit in case it sucks and they gotta go? Are they afraid of having to have their reactions visible to others? Are they too cool for school? What’s the goddamn problem?

So imagine the above paragraph, complete with flashback pictures, happening in about 2 seconds inside my brain. Things suddenly came to a head.

With a final wrench I got possession of the mic in my left hand, simultaneously grabbing my papers and music stand and sticking them under my right arm.

I shouted my parting words into the microphone:

“GO ON THEN! HAVE YOUR CONTEST! WIN SOME PRIZES!”

And with that, I hurled the mic and mic stand into the empty front row, sending shit flying all over the shop, simultaneously (and rather gracefully, if completely dementedly) leaping from the stage and making a super-fast run for it!

By the time I got to the door the whole place had erupted into complete chaos. I took one look back and saw people one step away from fisticuffs and overheard little snippets of the many dozens of individual arguments that were now taking place.


..but she’s a fucking hypocrite, she was talking about peace but then she was violent…no you asshole she was making a fucking point…..i just wanted to hear how it turned out…..fuck you…. saddam hussein…well I didn’t vote for Bush…

They’d forgotten all about me and I ran home.

About 20 minutes later, a couple of my friends who’d been at the gig came to my house to see how I was. They told me that the Black Box had had to kick everyone out and shut down the event and lock the doors because it had gotten so out of hand that there was absolutely no chance of restoring order and returning to the regular program. So I guess nobody won any prizes.

This pleased me immensely but I was still really pissed off about not getting to finish and the whole thing confirmed how much I dislike the slam format, which I’ve stupidly proven to myself a couple more times even since then.

So I wrote another poem. This one was called “Slam Slam” and it was basically this story I’ve just told you, but in poem form.

When I finished it, about 7 the next morning, I printed it out and went and GLUED it to the front door of the Black Box.

I later found out, to my total horror, that the event had been videotaped. Several of my classmates from grad school then ambushed me at the peace concert in Dolores Park that took place one or 2 days later, where Spearhead played. Apparently these friends had been studying the tape and had a lot of advice to give me about my personality and wanted to help me through some kind of healing by watching it.

It was hard for me to accept their offer because I really couldn’t quite get past the part where a) it was on tape and b) they’d been watching it. One of these people was the very guy who ran the venue and whose crappy communication skills were actually responsible for the whole misunderstanding in the first place. I mean, why the fuck didn’t he tell me that I was booked into the slam and only had 3 minutes?

But they didn’t want to talk about that, just my reaction. It was a very new age scene and these were the very same people who had recently forced a very reluctant me into the centre of a bogus and very embarrassing forgiveness ritual that I absolutely hated and had to act my way out of. I’m sure they were right in the sense that I could have learned something from watching the tape but at that very moment it struck me as the most monumentally besides-the-fucking-point-thing to be bringing to my attention considering everything that was happening in the world, plus their own complicity in what had happened at the gig.

And then either the next day or the day after was when I was raided by the Oakland Police Force. It was an extremely intense period of my life and super-dramatic and traumatic shit continued happening for about 3 or 4 months.

Next time I’m in Oakland I am going to visit the Black Box which is still there. I have a good excuse to visit because when I left the country I also loaned them a piece of original art (a painting of Buddha reclining on a settee in a garden that I bought from the homeless people art project in the Tenderloin district in SF on a grad school field trip) that I’d like back.

But just between you and me, I’m also hoping they still keep the archive of past events in the same location as it used to be because I fully intend to find and remove that tape. I never signed a model release and while I am now finally ready to watch it, I think it should be up to me if anyone else gets to see it from now on.

I’m not sure what happened to the Slam Slam poem. This was all several corrupted hard drives and international moves ago. Pretty sure there’s a copy in my stuff in L.A. so maybe I’ll dig it out again someday. I seem to remember it as being pretty funny.

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Sharing Tragedy With a Stranger

September 8, 2011

The BBC has been airing a lot of programmes relating to the events of September 11, 2001 for the obvious reason that the 10 year anniversary is fast approaching. On their website they asked people to write in on the theme of “where were you”.

So, here is what I sent in, a story I’ve told many times but never before actually written about. If any reader thinks they can identify the people in my story, please do get in touch.

*
Very late on the night of September 10th, I dropped off a new boyfriend I’d met at Burning Man Festival at the San Francisco airport where he was taking an American Airlines flight to Chicago. Instead of driving back across the bridge to Oakland, I decided to spend the night at a friend’s place in the city, on Valencia Street in the Mission district, a sprawling sort of open-plan live-work space.

For some reason I woke up really early the next morning. It was before 6 a.m. when I usually got up around 9. But I couldn’t seem to get back to sleep and so I got up. A few minutes later the phone rang, odd as it was so early. The call was picked up by the old fashioned tape-based answering machine my friend had, so I could hear the message as it was being left. It was her mother who lived on the east coast. She had an odd tense sound in her voice as she asked Lisa to call her as soon as she got up.

I heard Lisa shift around and so I called out to her asking if she was awake.

She grumbled something about her mother never getting the hang of the time difference and how annoying it was to be woken up this early. But I’m really into voices and her mother’s sounded odd.

“You know, I really think you should call her back. It sounded like it was important.”

Some more grumbling, then she got up and stumbled sleepily to the phone.

“Hi Mom.. you know it’s super early here and…”

Suddenly she stopped talking. I was trying to make coffee and had just realized there wasn’t any so wasn’t paying that much attention, when abruptly I heard Lisa cry out.

“WHAT?”

I turned around and all the sleep was gone out of her now, she was sitting bolt upright, her eyes like saucers.

“OMIGOD, OMIGOD! DIANA TURN ON THE TV! TURN ON THE TV!”

I happened to be standing right in front of the shelf that the small TV set was on, so I switched it on, saying as I did so.

“What channel?”

Usually when people wanted you to switch on the TV it was to get a specific station.

The screen flickered to life and I saw an image of the instantly recognizable World Trade Centre in NYC, one of the towers apparently ablaze, with big puffs of smoke coming out the sides. I’d lived there in ‘93 when it had been bombed and for a moment I wondered if they were revisiting the story, only that fire had come from the parking garage, so…

Was this a movie or something? The sequel to “Independence Day” or “Mars Attacks”? I was really confused!

“Uh! What are we supposed to be looking at?!” I said, turning to Lisa, but as soon as I turned back around it was obvious: I watched in incredulous disbelief as a jet airplane glided directly into the second tower.

“WHAT THE FUCK?!”

The mute button had been on so now I hit it so I could hear the announcers’ voices: there’d been hijackings and I’d just seen the second plane hit the second of the twin towers, live on TV. It was an American Airlines flight. Wait, could this be the one my new boyfriend was on? No, he would’ve got to his destination by now! (This was before details had come through about how long the planes had been in the air or where they originated.)

I really couldn’t process this. I needed a coffee. COFFEE COFFEE! WE WERE OUT OF COFFEE!

I guess it’s a shock reflex to do something mundane in an emergency or maybe it’s just because there was something I could do about it, but I became completely focused on the coffee situation.

I ran down the long corridor to the gate to the street, remembering that the café at the corner opened really early. But when I got to the gate and opened it, I froze.

I looked out at the people walking along the sidewalk, riding on the buses, driving in their cars, pedalling their bicycles, shooting along on their skateboards…. and realized that not one of the people I was looking at knew about what had just happened. They couldn’t possibly just be going about their business otherwise!

I had a sudden premonition that I was witnessing the last moment of an entire era, of a way, of a time. It sounds corny to say “a time of innocence” but it was something like that. In a few minutes or hours, every single one of those smiling, or harried, or hurried, or hung-over people, whatever they were, whoever they were, in a very short time they would know what had just happened, what was still happening. And nothing would ever be the same.

Should I tell them? Sound the alarm? No. Why rob them of this last few minutes of ignorant bliss. What reason would I have to ruin that?

In a weird daze, I went to the corner and into the café. I ordered two coffees to go and looked around at all the people in there. They didn’t know either. They were all reading that morning’s papers that were already as out of date as yesterday’s news. Should I tell them? I was the only one who knew, the only one who knew….

Then I walked out on the pavement and I saw someone else who knew, who must’ve known. Why else would he be hugging the lamp post on the corner of 22nd and Valencia, hugging it like it was gonna save him from something, sobbing in anguished despair? But this was San Francisco, and the Mission district to boot, haven of crazies and druggies and homeless; on any other day, I too might have walked straight past the screaming, crying man who held on to that lamp post for dear life. But I didn’t because I knew why he was crying. I knew he knew.

I ran over to him and set the coffees down on the pavement. He was oblivious to me standing there.

“Hey! Hey you! Do you have people in New York!?”

Then he noticed me and turned to face me – here was someone else who knew!

He left the post and reached out his arms to me. His eyes were spinning, his face red and wet, he was blubbering with a lack of inhibition that can only be triggered by the most extreme of human crises: life or death.

“YES!” he cried, “YES! MY COUSIN!” and he fell into my arms and we clung to each other on the street while he cried and sobbed his story to me.

“ SHE’S IN THERE! SHE’S IN THE SECOND TOWER! I WAS JUST TALKING TO HER ON THE PHONE – SHE WAS IN THE STAIRWELL AND SHE CALLED ME AND I WAS TALKING TO HER AND THE PHONE’S GONE DEAD! THE PHONE’S GONE DEAD!”

We were both crying by now and must have looked a crazy sight to all those people who didn’t know. But then again, this was the Mission in San Francisco, so maybe not. Certainly nobody else stopped to find out what was wrong. Probably just thought it was something personal between us. He obviously hadn’t been able to bring himself to tell anybody who didn’t already know either.

I couldn’t think what to say to comfort him. I’d just seen the plane crash into the building, so “it’s gonna be fine” wasn’t gonna cut it. Anyway, I don’t believe in making optimistic predictions in emergencies; it’s more important to have courage to face whatever may happen.

“What’s her name?”
“Debbie. Debbie Golden.”

“OK. Debbie Golden. Debbie Golden. I’ll never forget it. I wish for Debbie Golden to be OK. I pray for Debbie Golden to be OK. I’ll always think her name I promise you I promise you! Debbie Golden. Debbie Golden! I’ll tell people her name. ”

Reading between the lines, I guess I was saying I’d remember her name whether she lived or died. That she wouldn’t be forgotten if she didn’t make it. But that I’d keep her name alive as long as there was uncertainty about whether or not she was alive. I meant all that and I know that he understood every unspoken word of it.

We were in complete hysterics by this point with him actually spasming with fear and grief as I repeated this stranger’s name like it was a holy mantra. Our fingernails were digging into eachother’s arms as we shook and trembled together on that street corner while people just walked around us.

What good was remembering this woman’s name gonna do? What did it matter if I told people her name or prayed for her or not? But for some reason it seemed comforting, both to him and to me.

I don’t know how long we were there but finally things subsided enough to release our embrace.

“I gotta go make some calls.”

“Of course. Of course. Debbie Golden. Debbie Golden..”

We parted and I picked up my coffees, now lukewarm, and headed back to Lisa’s where she was glued to the TV.

“I just met someone whose cousin is in there! They were just on the phone right when it happened! Her name is Debbie Golden!”

I told her the story and she explained that her mother, an early riser, had just happened to be watching the news when the first reports came on. She wasn’t in New York and was in no danger though. Whew. Pretty soon, my guy rang me from Chicago to let me know he was completely unaffected, so that was obviously a huge relief even though I’d sort of already worked it out. Double Whew.

But what about that poor guy’s cousin? What happened to Debbie Golden? Debbie Golden? Debbie Golden? Debbie Golden?

It took quite some time before definitive lists of victims were published and reliable. So for many years I would check and check again, seeing if the name Debbie Golden appeared on any of them. It never was but it was many years before I stopped checking and could finally feel 100% certain in the knowledge that she’d made it down the rest of the stairs to freedom, safety and life. Over the years I had occasion to tell the story many times and of course, always told her name.

In all the emotion, I never did ask the guy what his own name was, nor he mine, but I’m sure he remembers our encounter as vividly as I do. I must be the first person he saw after his phone went dead.

I’d sure like to meet him again and let him know how glad I was that his cousin got out alive and that I kept my promise and never forget her name. Could the BBC help with that? I bet a similiar scenario was played out between other pairs and groups of strangers all over the place. I see it as a tiny story with a big resonance.

Maybe it would mean something too, to this woman Debbie Golden, to know that in the middle of that awful tragedy and many thousands of miles away, specifically she (her name anyway) made a huge effect on, and thus created a weird bond with, someone she has never met. That some woman named Diana Trimble, who now lives in England, cried for her safety in her cousin’s arms on a street corner in San Francisco during those exact moments as she was anxiously making her way down that stairwell for the hope of life itself. And that I will always carry her name with me because of that moment in which I briefly shared a stranger’s anguish. I’d like to think it helped him a tiny bit. May the good luck that was fortunately hers that day ever be with Debbie Golden and her cousin, wherever they may be. And may it rub off on me a little too.