The poet gets on the subway and starts to yell at me, “Excuse me ladies and gentlemen! I am a poet!”
The train groans. People sink farther into their paperback books, cellphones, even just stare at the floor extra hard. But the man goes on, “I am here today to perform a poem for you that is both focused and brief and I hope you do not meet it with indifference because there is enough of that in this world! Do not meet my poem or the art you encounter in the world with indifference.”
I’m torn on this one. He starts to yell a cliched wall of rhymes at us. The poem takes about thirty seconds, and when it’s done, he says, “Thank you for your time! I am raising money for the production of my first book of poetry!”
I give him a dollar. People all around me give the man a dollar. He is maybe forty years old. He is wearing a derby cap. He is dirty like he just got off of work somewhere. The subway stops. The door opens.
The poet gets off into a sea of faces. I stay on the Q train. Can you believe it, I’m on my way to a poetry reading as it is. The subway poet probably just made eight bucks for that one poem. He’s the highest paid poet I can think of.
Nothing else happens on the train. Just a lot of dinging cellphone games.
Erv’s bar, I’m the third reader at the event. This is Prospect Park, Brooklyn. The bar is small, about as large as my living room. The girl running the event squeezes her way through the people waiting in line for the bathroom and standing at the bar trying to order drinks.
She’s kind to me for a reason that’s not a reason. She’s just kind. She hugs me and thanks me for coming. I have a backpack full of paperback books, I don’t sell many of them at readings. I give her a copy of my second novel, and she tells me that I’ll get a few free drinks for coming to this thing.
The bartender is a dick. I see that almost immediately. He’s smashing things around. Ice whacked in the sink. Slamming glasses. Stirriing spoons richocheting off the wall.
I say hello, I say, “Can I get an old fashioned?”
“Rye or bourbon?”
He starts to make my drink, and he takes it real serious. It probably takes him five minutes to make this one drink. All kinds of artisans ice cubes and special ice hammers and mixing it in three nitrogen chilled glasses, dumping it in here and dumping it in there and I’m waiting and waiting, and it takes me forty seconds to make this drink at home.
A woman has come in off the street though, she’s wearing purple nursing scrubs, and she’s in tears.
She wedges herself past the entrance and its pink neon sign and falls against the bar. The bartender is still shaking my drink in some magic metal cup thing. He’s been shaking the stupid drink now for six months.
She says, “Excuse me.” But he doesn’t hear. She says, “EXCUSE ME!”
The bartender slams down the cup with my stupid drink and he screams, “WHAT! I’M WORKING HERE!”
“Can’t you see I’m in tears? All I want is a napkin, have some decency as a person. Don’t speak to me that way.”
The nurse leaves in even more tears and the bartender says to us, “Fuck this shit! Everyone comes in here with their problems, I didn’t cheat on her, I didn’t get her pregnant and not call—stay the fuck out of here with that shit.”
Finally he pours my drink into a goddamn glass and hands it to me.
The first reader gets up on the stage and reads some poems, but they are different from the ones I heard on the Q train. She doesn’t need to tell everyone not to be indifferent. People are packed in the place, and they are all leaning forward and they are all listening to every word, they travel here for this, they are happy to hear her talk.
The second reader, does a short story about a building that burns down every night. It’s a love story not so much about people who fall in love but of one woman figuring out the dark indifference of the universe. Out on the street there are children screaming and it goes perfect with her story. The fire burns the building down floor by floor and the children in Prospect Park on this dead end street scream and throw a basketball around at 10pm on a Sunday night.
During the drink break, I get a can of beer because it’ll be faster. The bartender has his shirt off now and he’s pointing at himself saying how great he is. “I got my shirt off! Look at this, shirtless!”
My backpack is sitting one of the chairs, open, books sticking out a little bit. And when I get up to read, I’m loud and more like a standup comedian than a guy reading a section of a novel.
I’m reading this thing from my novel F 250 about all the car crashes I’ve been in, well caused, really, when I lived in NJ in 2003.
I’m not reading off a piece of paper, I’ve got the paper in my right hand and the mic in my left and as I’m telling my story, direct to the audience. The bartender is right in front of me, making motions with his arms.
I’m being motherfucking heckled.
Haha. It’s the funniest thing ever, you can get heckled at a literary reading by a psycho bartender? Had no idea.
I call him out on it with the mic, and he hands me a free shot of whiskey in the middle of the reading, as like apology thing.
I go back to telling my story. Everyone in the bar is there to see the literary event.
And now the bartender is mocking the way I talk, because I’m from New Jersey.
When it’s all over, my car crash story, I say, “How about this guy, huh? Everybody make sure you tip your bartender well.”
Some people come up right after and seem worried that I’m gonna beat the guy up, but it’s all good.
I talk to the girls that read before me, and someone comes back with another beer for me. The girl running the event takes some polaroids of the readers, sitting there, a group hug shot dealy.
When I look up at the bar, behind the bar, though, I see the craziest thing.
A copy of my novel is hidden up in the alcohol bottles. Slid facing out in front of the whiskey.
Someone has either gone in my bag and taken it out or someone else brought it to the event … but anyways, there’s my book sticking up there by the booze.
I figure that the bartender did it.
But I don’t say anything because I give a lot of books away for free and I could care less if someone legit stole a book from me.
Matter of fact, if you want a book, just say you want a book. I’ll give you a book. For like, all time.
I have another beer outside of the bar on the sidewalk and I make a new friend. This kid from California who tells me all about this time he was driving around the cliffs and his buddy Johnny drove off a cliff and his car tumbled end over end like 12 times. And my new friend from California and a bunch of girls slid down the cliff and got to where the wreck was—in someones’s back yard actually.
The home owners called the police and the way the story ended, was Johnny getting interviewed on TV saying, “Man, I just miss my car.” And in the news footage, a crane is lifting the vehicle up over the fence and into the street, onto a wrecker.
I get back on the Q train, leaving Brooklyn, going into Manhatten. It’s midnight, still Sunday to me but really Monday morning now.
My wife and her friend are texting that they are going to go to Pyramid club, this funny 80s dance club place that’s dusty and run down and full of strange people. Meet them there they say.
I get off at Union Square.
14th Street and 5th ave.
I’m walking towards fourth ave going east because I need to get to Avenue A and 10th street, but there’s something strange going on up ahead.
The sprinklers are on, they are these little black plastic heads popping out of the grass.
A woman is hiding behind a tree, crouched down, and she is manipulating the sprinklers, by moving them with her fingers, so when people walk by, she sprays them with the water.
This isn’t a homeless person. She’s in her forties. Thick framed glasses, stylishly dressed.
She’s just nuts.
I see her soak two women walking out of a cab and through the park, but they have no idea of the prankster.
Then I see the woman’s boyfriend or husband and he’s crazy as fuck too.
He’s got a big pile of cardboard boxes wrapped in twine and he’s trying to light the boxes on fire by using the twine as like a fuse, but the twine just burns off and the boxes fall apart.
The sprinkler lady says to her man, “Just light the boxes themselves.”
And he starts to do that, and she continues to crouch and wait to soak the next person coming by. I’m just standing there watching this like I’m at at the movies and they see me watching them and it’s no big deal.
But the boxes won’t light.
And the sprinklers turn off.
I keep walking.
I find my wife at a bar in a basement. Down below the street. It feels like we’re in Bavaria.
Pyramid is closed. No new wave 80s dance night.
Culture Club is closed for good. Can I fucking believe that? We’re in this Bavaria bar instead.
I buy her friend Karen a beer and my wife a beer and a beer for myself and they ask how the event thing in Brooklyn went and I tell them the same story that I just told all of you. The nurse off the street. The heckling bartender. The stolen book in the booze bottles. The sprinkler psycho and the box burner.
They laugh because they’re drunk and I laugh too because when drunk people laugh I laugh with them.
They say, “You’ve gotta write this down!”
So here I am Monday morning, 10 am writing this down.
But something else funny happened in the Bavaria bar. There is a jukebox in the back of the bar, and there was a group of people in there with us at this table, only other customers.
Maybe seven of them.
But then the jukebox comes on, and the jukebox plays songs for like a half hour straight and all the songs are Beatles songs.
“So weird. Another Beatles song? Who plays Beatles songs?”
I say, “Remember when you were sixteen and you loved the Beatles?”
“Yeah, everyone on earth loves the Beatles when they’re sixteen.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard people play the Beatles at a bar …”
We look over at the customers, they’re kids, I look even harder now. And they all look so young. Little kids.
What the fuck.
We talk about it, we joke around amongst ourselves about it.
The song changes and it’s Why Don’t We Do It In The Road and all the kids are swaying back and forth with their beers and bopping their heads.
I stand up and walk over.
“Bud Smith, NYPD, let me see some identification.”
They all get white faced. Then green faced.
“Licenses, hand them over,” I say.
The kids are frozen, all of them.
“How old are you guys?”
No one says jack.
I say, “Don’t play the Beatles at a bar if you’re gonna drink underage. That’s a dead give away. And I’m not a cop.”
“We knew that.”
“What should we play?”
“If you’re going to act 17 play Led Zeppelin, if you’re going to act 18 play Pink Floyd, if you’re going to act 19 or 20 play Velvet Underground, if you want to pass for 21 probably play T Rex.”
“Cool, cool, thanks.”
One of them shakes my hand.
I tap him on the shoulder and say, “Here to help.”
My wife is in the bathroom when I walk back over. Her friend is smiling, she’s looking all over at the inside of the bar.
I realize why she’s happy.
New York City is a strange place, beautiful as it transitions from Sunday night, into Monday morning, and none of us going to work. No apparent reason.