“I’d better be a poet or lay down dead”
A raptor’s talons gripped his shoulders at the base of the neck, its great curved beak pecking at the left side of his head just behind the eye. Wendt used his teeth to tear into the plastic wrap of the packaged bear claw, a tub of latte in his other hand. He stood on the platform awaiting the train to Berkeley. He didn’t want to go there, but he really had no choice.
He had spent a near insensible night with Joan. She had a liquor cabinet stocked with only the finest of desensitizing substances. If the sex had been great, he didn’t exactly remember. What he did remember, though again vaguely, was the litany of her complaints. All the unresolved issues with her ex. Everyone took her for granted. The prima-donna poets she had to put up with at the reading series. She could not trust anyone because they always wanted something from her, there were always strings attached, no one was interested in who she really was. Because of her position at the Catholic university, because of the power she wielded as the director and founding member of the most successful series in city history. And now her former associates were writing their own account, in memoir fashion, of the series, within the dictates of the Abstract Maoist Feminist dialectic, of course, and leaving her entirely out of the picture. The bitches! The politics in the English department at the University where she taught Thirteenth Century Italian poetry and was known as ‘Sahara Dune’ for her parching, brain numbing lectures, were unbearably distracting. Her biggest complaint was about the Jesuits. They hated her, and all women in general, because of her cunt. “Do you think it’s smelly and dirty?”
Wendt chewed the stale papery pastry and washed it down with coffee flavored milk foam. Cunts did smell. It was the aroma that drove men crazy. That’s what the Jesuits were afraid of. And dirty? Not as dirty as their foul holytosis. After all, hadn’t Courbet made it the subject of his painting, The Origins of the World? Not hers specifically, of course, but certainly generically. Rodin made a pencil sketch of one and gave it to Stieglitz who was obsessed with O’Keefe’s. And in the end, he was just another guy who had done Dunn, or whom Dunn had done. There was probably a club, a fraternal organization, if nothing else, a debate society, a tee shirt, maybe.
The Richmond train arrived and Wendt boarded with not a little trepidation. Traveling in a tunnel under the Bay made him uncomfortable. It was earthquake country, after all. He wondered if he could hold his breath until the train surfaced into the light on the opposite shore.
Public transportation was immediate social sensory overload. He didn’t question why people shut down on buses and subways. Wasn’t it obvious? There were so many faces to read, so many stories, the damned, the damaged, and the desperate. It was easier to focus on the page of a book, a newspaper, music streaming into ear buds, eyes closed, texting once above ground.
Wendt had to familiarize himself with the stops again, his back wedged against a chrome pole. His headache was particularly irksome and competed with his concentration on the route map on the wall by the sliding doors, taxing a coin shaped blank in the corner of his right eye as if his blind spot were expanding to encompass his field of vision.
At the MacArthur hub seats freed up as passengers departed and others streamed on. Wendt grabbed a spot by the window to get a view of backyards and empty lots, more stories, more damage, more desperation, before the train returned underground. He stepped out of the car at the Berkeley station and was outside the turnstiles before he realized his mistake. He rode the escalator up to street level cursing himself. The stop he had wanted was the North Berkeley station. He would now have to hike the dozen or more blocks to his destination. He hated walking in Berkeley where even the clouds were big, puffy, white, and smug.
He had just deposited the colossal coffee empty into the overflowing trash container, orienting himself to the direction he would take up Shattuck Avenue when he heard his name called.
The portly woman coming toward him with what looked like a bible in her hand laughed, shook a head of mouse brown hair held down by a large black blob of velvet beret, and bared a mouth full of stubby piss yellow teeth, a left incisor missing. “Jeremessiah.”
“You’re saying I’m the messiah?” He tried not to sound annoyed at having been found out. The woman was Shula, a Berkeley street poet, Shula Raven. She had once been Shula Rabin, Bronx housewife, but now she was poet laureate of the street zombies in the thrall of the mind numbing shadow of the monolithic campus. She’d been around forever it seemed.
He remembered the time he and his friend, Adam “Mountain” Morad, were having coffee at the Med on Telegraph, back when he could still tolerate Berkeley, and Shula had come up to their table offering her book, Your Sex My Sex Bisects, for sale, a cheap copy machine fold of pages with a scribbled cover stapled along the spine. Mountain had tried to be polite in declining by saying, “we’re poets, too” as if that was the secret password. She’d summoned an appropriate sneer and retorted “Yeah, honey, ain’t we all.”
He got to know Shula, in passing, from his participation in the all day poetry ego competitions that used to be held on certain pagan holidays in the park by the Civic Center. Over the years she added to the original version of her book of poems, in the manner of her antecedent, Whitman, and now, perfect-bound and professionally printed, it was the size of a small bible that she hawked all over town, including the University station egress.
“I didn’t think I’d ever see you on this side of the Bay again, Wendt.” Now she was standing in front of him, a dark blue cape with red piping that looked like it might have belonged to a female official of the Salvation Army from days gone by. A shimmering dirt blotched green velveteen frock topped a pair of scuffed red plastic rain boots. There was no dearth of bangles, bracelets, rings, and random jewelry in her adornment, either. Shula wanted to be noticed. “Someone might recognize you from your picture in the weekly and then remember the bum rap you’ve given this fair and liberal community.”
“Oh dear, I‘ve made a wrong turn and now I’m in danger of being mugged by the politically correct.” Wendt arched an eyebrow. “What was that you said about my being a messiah?”
“No, Wendt, certainly not you. Jeremessiah. Have you seen Jeremessiah?”
“I’m having a hard time understanding what you’re saying.” There was something quite overpoweringly earthy about her scent and Wendt took a step back.
“Jeremy, Jeremiah. Jeremessiah, that’s what we call him. You know, the kid, the North Beach poet.”
“Right,” Wendt agreed reluctantly, “Jeremy. What about him?”
“Have you seen him around? He was supposed to pick up a bundle of flyers to hand out for our annual Poetry Is The Cruelest Month event. We had it in San Jose last year and what a fucking mistake that was.”
There were two things that would not have immediately concerned him. One, the whereabouts of Jeremy, the cracked crackhead poet, and two, that it was time for the annual poetry gathering put on by the Penumbras. The Penumbras, and their literary organ, Doubt, as an international underground poetry organization weren’t so much secret as invisible, invisible at least to the culture commissars and those in the literary world who believed that only they mattered. That the kid was known among the shadow poets as Jeremessiah plucked a deep bass string of irony and made him smile. “Not like we’re circling in the same gyre, Shula, Jeremy and me, we’re hardly compadres, if you know what I mean.”
“Ah, you don’t have to get all literary on me. A simple yes or no will do. Keep it simple stupid, that’s my motto. You should take that as advice. I’ve read your poems. You’ve got too many gears turning all at once. I keep wanting to say, ‘Let the clutch out! Let the clutch out!’ And I’m not at all surprised to hear you blow Jeremy off as a nobody, so typical of you poetry snobs. The kid’s a genius, a visionary. He’s the next Rimbaud!”
Wendt nodded impatiently and looked away in the direction of his escape.
Shula took a step closer to perhaps block his path. “But let me tell you this, that boy looks up to you. It’s always Carl Wendt this and Carl Wendt that. He thinks you’re a great poet and nothing I say or anyone else says will change his mind!”
Wendt was laughing. “Thanks. I think.”
“If it weren’t for Jeremy this book would never have been published.” She waved the book in Wendt’s face. “He came up with the money that paid for most of the printing.”
Reflexively, as any author would, Wendt focused on the cover. It wasn’t Shula’s book. “Wait a minute, is that an anthology?”
Shula’s smile was triumphant. “Right you are! Published by Penumbras Press, it’s the first collection of real American poets since.” She had to think. “Since the thirties, this is Populist poetry not that inbred middle class technocrat horseshit.”
“What’s it titled?” Wendt was trying to make out the wording on the busy day-glo collage of the cover.
“Urine Year Out.” And then as an afterthought, “Too bad, Wendt, you didn’t make the cut.”
Wendt took a closer look and shrugged. The title actually read UR In, UR Out. “You know what anthology means, don’t you? A collection of flowers. I’m no flower.”
“See, that’s exactly what I’m talking about!”Shula beamed with spiderish glee.”
Next Time: Carl Wendt seeks the advice of his ex-wife’s husband about something that’s been bothering him all week. To review what has transpired so far, reference the episodes listed in the sidebar, or click The Complete DAY to read the pdf file.