“A man of letters is the enemy of the world.”
— Charles Baudelaire
Wendt ducked his head into the door of the bookstore and caught the clerk’s eye. “Larry around?”
The clerk, a mop of tight curls and equally wooly beard, shook his head. “He’s up at the office or at home.”
“How about Nancy?” He stepped in and stood at the counter. The store was crowded with tourists.
“Naw, she’s out of town.” The clerk placed a small book in a paper bag with the store logo for a shapely redhead in a tight fitting black dress with a cowl collar. “You heading over to hear Charles St. Charles at the Unitarian tonight?”
Wendt looked over at the large poster advertising the reading above the stairway leading down to the book jammed basement. He gave a wry smile and shook his head, “Too ivy league for me.”
He stepped to the door and crowded past a gaggle of Asian youngsters making their way in. “Tell Larry I came by,” he called over his shoulder.
On the sidewalk a mob had bunched up at the open door of a Muni bus and he had to skirt them to step into the alleyway where he could look down to the end of the short paved passage between buildings named in honor of St. Jack and see a scene that could have easily been thousands of miles away. He bowed his head briefly and repeated the mantra he always intoned at this spot. “The world belongs to me because I am poor.”
Thrusting open the colorfully painted door, Wendt stepped in and surveyed the lava field in Vesuvio’s. There were the regular denizens with the best seats by the windows onto the alleyway, and the mushrooms who never left a particular bar stool. He wondered when the Portuguese Fisherman’s hat would go out of style. It had long outlived its expiration date. And the few aging relics of the bohemian past, square shouldered in sleeveless tops, long armed gold bracelet beauties evoking a bygone era.
Wendt nodded to the scowling bushy browed ruddy faced red bearded character hunched over the table by the front window. The man wasn’t seeing any one. A poetry casualty, someone with a lot of talent and quick celebrity that had gone to his head as did the coke, smack, and booze. He had razed the field of his creativity and was now just the hollow burnt-out shell of a promising poet. Henry Longtree, that was the name. Edited a magazine, Trigger Point, named after an obscure islet in Puget Sound. He was younger by a couple of years. Friends with Gerald Mignon.
Carl hated the way Frank rolled the r when he said his name. Frances Fitzpatrick was in his usual spot where the bar met the red velvet wallpaper, draped like a lanky Irish lemur. Some people were relics of the past and others were affectations of those days. Frank was the latter. He dressed like a British intellectual from before the war, the tweeds, wool slacks, brown oxfords. He affected a sweep of sandy bang across his sallow forehead. The tiny cookie duster draped over a weak mouth showed a hint of gray. His eyes were like green olives with a just a hint of pimento, a narrow ridge of nose separating them. He held up his glass, “Carrrl, drink with me.”
It was an invitation he wasn’t going to refuse.
Frank called the bartender over. “For my friend. . . .”
“Jameson,” Carl spoke.
“You are in one hell of a deep shite hole,” Frank confided when the drink arrived.
“Why’s that?” Wendt knocked the shot back and centered the empty glass on the cocktail napkin in front of him.
“That fecking St. Paddy’s day hatchet job, you fecking ejit!”
Wendt hated it when Fitzpatrick affected an Irish accent, born and raised in the Mission District, for cry’s sake. “What are you talking about?” He pointed at his glass and with Frank’s nodded ok called the barman down and pushed the napkin and glass toward him.
“You’ve desecrated a Saint’s feast day. A nation’s saint. Do you think they’re going to sit by and take this lightly, boyo?”
“You know the real Irish never gave a rat’s ass about St. Pat until the sheenies over here made it a rallying point. It’s a holiday adopted worldwide. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. I mean it’s an excuse to get drunk, eat boiled meat and over-cooked vegetables. Maybe we need more of those kinds of holidays. I’d prefer more drinking and less meat, but to each his own.”
“That’s not what I’m talking about, lad, it’s what you said about it being a pagan holiday!”
“I just pointed out that that date was an ancient Roman holiday in which people drank to excess and fucked like a bunch of Bonobos. I merely mentioned that, because of the Catholic Church, the fucking part of the celebration had been cut out and so an Irishman is left with only one choice, drink and fight. Fucking, you might have heard, is a sin, but fighting isn’t. If that’s not fucked up, I don’t know what is.” Wendt drained the glass and dropped it back on the napkin. He eyed Frank with his head turned to the side.
Frank shrank back into the shadows of the velvet flock. “Sure, I know that, I know that, it’s just that you don’t want to be fucking with an Irishman with thin skin. They’re the worst kind.”
The drink had glazed the nerves in Wendt’s cheeks and forehead with a pleasant gold glow. A flag went up. Food! “Frank, get serious, for one, what Irishman isn’t thin skinned, and two, it’s a newspaper column in a throwaway rag that nobody reads except you and some terminally bored people who need to get a life.”
Frank nodded his head gravely. “Don’t underestimate the bored.”
The art at Turtle Island was by an artist who could be excused if he had never heard of Jean-Michel Basquiat and prosecuted if he had. Wendt had timed his arrival to just before peak attendance. The art critic from the daily was standing in front of a painting that looked like bad graffiti.
“Carl, nice spread tonight.”
“Thanks for the tip.”
Wendt headed for the buffet and acquired a small ceramic plate. He appreciated real crockery. Paper plates sagged under the weight of the food he usually piled on. Prawns, half a dozen olives, stuffed grape leaves, some sushi, a stack of crackers and a wedge of Brie. He paused before the fondue and the steam table with the meatballs. He would have to return for them. He positioned himself out of the flow of traffic and with his back to the increasing throng so he could discreetly stuff his gullet.
He was finishing up the prawns when he felt a tug at his sleeve and turned to look down into the moist eyes of a dark haired woman, a girl in his book, her lips twisted in a smile that held back another emotion.
“Help, I’m a rock.”
“You told me a million times why I should think that’s funny but remind me again, it was a song by the what, The Motherfuckers?”
“Mothers, Mothers of Invention, but that’s neither here nor there. It’s great to see you!” He spread his arms out. “I’d give you a big hug but my hands are full.”
Courtney heaved a big sigh like the worst was over. She pulled on the elbow of the young man standing next to her. “This is my friend, David.”
Wendt switched the plate to his other hand and balanced his wine glass on it. “Dave?”
“David, David Bloom. Carl, wonderful to meet you.” Some people can grow the best looking beards. Bloom was one of them. It was almost Christ-like in its perfection. He was a short man, Courtney’s height without her heels so she appeared to have a couple of inches on him.
“He’s a big fan of yours, Wendt.” She smiled as if she were offering a gift or a sacrifice. Bloom’s cheeks pinked.
A fan meant two things to Wendt, a resource and a liability. Fans were always good for a few bucks, a meal once in a while, drinks. On the other hand, they thought that by providing those favors that it privileged them to something that he didn’t have and something they didn’t really want but didn’t know it. It was like paying interest on a loan and he hated paying interest.
“So, David, what do you do?” Wendt’s tone was almost fatherly.
“I’m a writer, a poet.”
Wendt nodded gravely as Courtney explained. “We met at a graduate seminar at the Washington Institute of Modern Poetics in Seattle. David taught the class on prewar populist poets, Rexroth, Fearing, Patchen, Williams, Hughes.”
Bloom cleared his throat slightly embarrassed. “There were some post-war, too, up to the early fifties. The New Critics,” he added, “You know, Ransom, Tate, Brooks, Warren.”
Wendt knew them all too well, the gang of four that had essentially chained American poetry to the British model. He glanced over Bloom’s head at the increasing throng of potential noshers. He knew he would have to make another pass at the buffet and refill his wine glass. He looked down at the young man. “You don’t smoke, do you?”
Bloom reacted as if he’d been accused of a crime. “No, no, of course not!”
Wendt nodded, “Yeah, yeah, too bad. Think you could loan me a couple of bucks to buy a pack? All I have is a hundred dollar bill and none of the markets in Chinatown will break a hundred just for a pack of smokes. I can pay you right back, later tonight, if you’re going to be around.” Wendt said it like he didn’t mean it.
“We’re on our way to hear Charles St. Charles at the Unitarian. Aren’t you going?” Courtney was wise to Wendt and tugged her boyfriend’s arm.
Bloom had pulled out his wallet and was staring into the gap of the fold. “All I have is a twenty.”
“Oh, that’ll do.” Wendt held out his hand. “Come by Enrico’s after the reading, I’ll have it for you.”
Bloom extracted the bill slowly and handed it to Wendt. “Maybe there’s something you could do for me?”
Wendt winced. Interest. “What would that be?”
“A group of friends, poets, are putting on a memorial reading for a young poet who died recently, tragically, and I was wondering if you would consent to participate. It would be a great honor, and Ian, Ian Blake, the poet who died admired your work enormously. He even dedicated a poem to you in the manuscript of his we’re trying to publish. We hope to raise enough money at the memorial and if you’re on the bill, we’re certain of a good turn out.”
Wendt eyed the dwindling offerings on the buffet table. He knew when a poet died tragically that it was usually by their own hand. He inched sideways to the end of the table and had to reach over to secure a few rounds of dry baguette with some kind of vegetarian goop on them. He stuck one in his mouth. Not bad actually.
“What’s it called?” Wendt eyed the second savoring the first.
“No, the poem.”
“Ode To Sunset.”
Wendt repressed his gag reflex. “That’s original. What’s the book called?”
“Ode To Sunset.”
“Might as well stick with what works.”
“Come on, Wendt, it’s for a good cause.” Courtney put on pouty lips that he had never believed.
“I’d love to, man, but I can’t. Rules of the game. I have an agent, Nora White. She has a policy. You have to go through her, even for a benefit. My rate is a hundred bucks an hour or any portion thereof. Of that fee, twenty percent goes to paying down a loan I was foolish enough to accept from her, fifteen percent is her cut, and I get the rest. Now that may not sound like a lot to you but that’s the way I live. You want my time, you have to pay for it, nothing personal, that’s just the way it is. Now you can go to her and ask her to waive the policy for just this one time, but she’ll tell you that if she lets you get me for free she’d have to allow it for every memorial for every dead poet north of Fresno. It’s business, baby.”
“I’d like the opportunity to talk her into allowing it.” Bloom’s handsomely bearded face was sincere, sincere and humorless. “Ian was an incredible poet. I’m surprised you haven’t heard of him. He’d just won the Lambert Prize.”
“I won the Lambert Prize. Years ago. What’s it worth now?”
“Five K, I think.”
Wendt grunted. “I got five hundred.”
“I hope that we can get you to agree. It would be such an honor, especially Ian’s honor.”
Pious shit. “Listen Dave, good luck convincing Nora, but let me just warn you, she’s a mean skinny little blonde who would rip out your pineal gland and replace it with your sphincter just as soon as look at you.”
Bloom’s shocked look indicated that he understood exactly what that entailed. Courtney dragged him by the arm. “Come on, we’re gonna be late.” She flashed Wendt that little wistful smile. “See you at Enrico’s.” Taking a few steps she looked back over her shoulder. “Maybe.”
Wendt turned his attention to the buffet table. The repast was disappearing fast. The fondue was overdue. He found a few scraps of bread and a skewer. There were what appeared to be meatballs.
The tattooed young man in the white serving jacket watched Wendt cautiously eye the last of the gray clumps in the oily orange slick. “They’re soy,” he volunteered.
Wendt pulled back. “No, no soy. Do you know what that stuff does to your sex drive? I’ll pass.”
“Performance anxiety, Carl?” Diane McCracken spoke the words with a heavily rouged mouth set in a plump peaches and cream complexion that highlighted the small broken veins in her cheeks framed by a retro Doris Day coif. She always traveled with an entourage of hangers-on who tried to appear bored by everything but only managed vacuous. He knew a few of them. Raynelle Boyce, an angry black woman who just really wanted to be loved by another angry black woman. That she didn’t realize this gave her that sour look of someone with a leather fetish. Cory Chap was a rich kid who still used his father’s tailor and self-published his own books of poems. One anonymous reviewer had suggested that future Chap books be accompanied by a recycle symbol on the cover. And a couple of giggly ingénues in black strapless dresses.
“Lady Di, what an unpleasant surprise.” Wendt looked at the soy balls and then at the short but imposing woman and then back at the faux meatballs. Maybe he was being too hasty.
“Carl, you are so impertinent.” She gave it her best false smile.
Wendt nodded his head. “At your service.”
She waved a bare arm at the walls, the art. “This has all the infantile self-expression of crayon scribblings on restaurant placemats.”
“I think that’s where he got the idea.”
“Though that one is rather impressive, the colors, I mean.”
“The one that looks like a big dildo?”
Diane McCracken managed a pained painted smile. “We’re all going to La Mar, that fab new retro bistro in the financial district. You’ll join us, won’t you?” The way she said it, it was a command. “I’m anxious to hear why you aren’t going to the Charles St Charles reading.”
“I could ask you the same thing. After all, you are the publisher of Elbow Press. You published his latest book.”
“Alba Press.” She half closed her eyes and looked at him sideways. “Wendt, dear, don’t be so obvious. I’m not there for the same reasons you aren’t there. All those sad people with their sad sad ambitions and their sad sad sad naked envy wishing that they were the ones up at the podium.”
“That’s not why I’m not there.”
“Oh?” Diane had cocked an eyebrow.
“No food at a poetry reading.”
“Carl, that’s a scream! Come with us. I crave your quotidian wit.” She leaned forward confidentially. “These people are brain dead,” she spoke huskily.
Next Time (12/26/14): Wendt lands a ringside table at Enrico’s and meets a fellow Bud Powell enthusiast and learns of the “poet regeneration theory” from a local crackhead.