Jimmy (not pictured) sent me this email:
Party After Art&Soul Saturday. At my spot, 8pm. Potluck is cool. Incidentally, where you been??? I’m sorry, that’s inerect language. I shoulda said ” where you been …at! Ah knows mah Anglish purty damn good.
I called him during a break at work. The last time I spoke to and saw him was last month at Geoffrey’s. After a while, Jimmy said: So, you coming to the party.
I don’t know, I said. I hate parties. We’ll see.
Nobody’s seen you since Geoffrey’s. Man, you tore it up. You must explain to me how you feel more comfortable on stage than being at a party. That’s where all the fun is.
I don’t know, I said.
Jimmy is in his 70’s. We met at Laney college years ago in the television production department. He is still producing a locally made talk show which I’ve hosted and interviewed guests a couple of times. I told him I’d rather skip the party and just come talk to him personally sometime next week. He said that made no sense to him. He stopped compulsively talking long enough for me to explain myself. I couldn’t.
Geoffreys is a social club available for parties and special events. The last time I was there was an anniversary party for Jimmy’s talk show, Oakland Is.
That night, some councilman was hosting a book signing in the main room, in another a dj was setting up for a birthday party. Our group was given a small room next to the birthday party. There was the briefest sense of urgency to finish our ceremony and performances since we had no mic and would be competing with music.
There weren’t many of us: 20? A five man doo-wop style group performed. One brother did a vocal solo, another did a dance solo. The lead singer of the group gave Jimmy an honorary plaque for his work. I stood and read some poems. The music began pulsing in from next door. I raised my voice above it.
The audience was just folks, like reading for a family reunion. A group of women sat against the wall in folding chairs listening. I paced and read loud, slow and clear. Three tables were set up in the room and I walked around them. The reading went fine. I read for about 7 minutes and it felt good. The audience seemed to really be with me. But what about when it was over?
Everyone got up, began snapping photos, then mingled. I knew a few of the people here, naturally. But I felt useless as an asshole on a jar of peanuts. Some people came up to me, smiled. Others walked around me snapping photographs. Jimmy started talking about crashing the birthday party, bringing his talented group into the pool of strangers growing next door. I felt anxious. Now that I was finished reading, I didn’t know what to do with myself. People began gathering in circles, talking. And I ducked into the bathroom, came out and saw everyone’s back turned towards me, and I disappeared.
Two men from the doo-wop group were standing near the stairs leading out onto the street. I felt obligated to say something since I could do nothing else but walk past them. I liked their music and told them so. They seemed to stare through me, taking my complement like a ticket for a show they’d never attend. I walked out. I walked home. I never said goodbye to anybody, I was just gone. Apparently, there is a name for this and its name is Ghosting.
And I did it again, for a different audience, event and reason roughly three weeks later.
This time it was the closing event for Beast Crawl, a literary pub event in Oakland. The Host reached out to me weeks before and I was more than happy to do it. Turns out, that same weekend a friend of mine I went to school with and who now lives back east in Staten Island, returned to the Bay Area with his wife. He’d never seen me read and didn’t know my work, so they wanted to see me. My best friend gave me a lift to the bar and we arrived just minutes before start time. I bought him a whiskey sour for his trouble.
The Host wore exactly what I almost wore that night: blue jeans and a huge white dress shirt that flowed around him like a sacred dashiki. He pointed to a table set up in the back room where I could put whatever books I had back there, then went back to setting up the mics. I made my way to the area, but somehow felt too bashful to put any books out. I leaned against the wall with my friend and waited to see what would happen.
The room filled. People sat on the floors, lined the bar and took up all the seats in the back of the room. I think I was second or third to read. I got on stage. From that vantage point, you can intuitively feel what is happening in the space. And the room felt fatigued. It was hot, late in the day after an all-day spoken word event. If there was any juice left, I wouldn’t be able to tap it. I tried. What I wanted to share was too much about language. What the room needed was fire and I couldn’t ignite it. I read my first poem and wanted to run. I wished I was my younger, more aggressive self. Back then I could galvanize then make a room explode, as a preacher might with a sermon — but that’s writing to emotion. Lately I’ve felt myself writing to language. I got off stage feeling vaguely defeated, somehow. Did I really read my full time or was I pulled down early? I returned to my corner, stood next to my friend. A tall skinny brother reached past his girl friend and handed me a five dollar bill for my book. My best friend smiled. Yet what I was thinking: I wonder if he did that just to be nice?
My friends visiting from back east wriggled through the crowd and came to me. We watched the remainder of the show and the performers got better and better. I kept re-arranging my set in my head. I wish I’d done this, I should have done that…
The reading ended. The crowd began rippling. My best friend had a date and left, so I stayed with my friends from back east, both of whom wanted to leave and smoke out with me, but also wanted to be respectful of whatever it was I needed to do. I myself didn’t know.
One of the performers, this remarkable woman who worked with music, gathered a lot of people around to buy her CD. She went from performer to business woman like you’d flip on a light. My friends looked at me. I looked around the room, yet beyond the Host, didn’t recognize anybody and no one seemed to see me. People began passing money to the woman with the CD’s. I turned to my friends: “Tell you what,” I said. “Follow me to the door. If anybody says anything or stops me, we’ll deal with that. Otherwise, we can leave.”
Carefully, I walked past the women at the bar, stepping through people standing and talking. I wanted to be a different man, for the women– for myself, even. I wanted to say something to the Host, who is a far more efficient mingler than I’ll ever hope to be. But my heart couldn’t stay. I made it to the door, past the security dude and back out onto the quiet street.
I didn’t want to be in the bar. I wished I was the kind of brother who DID, but that brother is not me. I didn’t know where my heart belonged. I should have said something to the Host, but I couldn’t go back inside. Selling books didn’t mean that much to me. The five dollar bill, the support of my tiny clutch of friends, was more than I even expected. I was… happy?
You ready to go, my friends asked.
I sighed: Yeah