“Fame is a form of incomprehension, perhaps the worst”
—Jorge Luis Borges—
The TV above the bar had the sound off. No one was paying it much attention, as if it were a window on the bus to nowhere passing monotonous or too familiar scenery. The closed captioning unfolded across the bottom of the screen like so many domino tiles reporting the jocular jowly man’s monologue: |STOP ME IF| |YOU’VE HEARD THIS| |ONE PICASSO WALKS| |INTO A BAR| |APOLLINAIRE| |IS THE BARTENDER| |HE HAS| |A BLIND DATE WITH A FAT| |GIRL HER LOVE LETTERS| |ARE LIKE STRING| | CHEESE AND SHE| |HAS A FETISH| |FOR ODD CONDOMS| |ONES THAT ARE| |MADE LIKE BUGGY| |WHIPS OR DOOR HANDLES| |OR EGG| |BEATERS THAT PICASSO| |IS SUCH A CAD!|
He had just stepped out of Bud’s on Powell for a smoke. A gaggle of tourists were gathered near where he was smoking. I’m an artist, honey. It’s my job to do nothing and to do it well. Wendt said it to himself in answer to the curious stare of a young woman who was part of the tour group disembarking from the cable car. They were all women, younger women, and from their musical chatter he could tell that it wasn’t English. French. But of course! For the French, it’s April in Frisco. Their outfits were worn with too much panache to be native. He had picked out a tall strawberry blond and her friend, possibly a bottle blonde but with the fine facial features of a thoroughbred. The one had the long freckled Modigliani face of a French actress he liked and the other, a wide upper lip and overbite whose smile could crack ice. She caught that he was watching them. From ecstasy to despair in the wink of her eye. An abyss of regret spawned of a universe of desire. He gazed at the young women, instruments of his lust, and was hit by the Baudelarian frappe, that his time had come and gone. It was like a slap to the face that he felt in his gut which translated to a weakness in his knees as if he were seeing the ghost of his former self shimmer and fade. Hoisted by his own impertinence.
He had been plagued by more than his usual allotment of ghosts of late. Stopping at the newsstand on Market on the way over and picking up a copy of the weekly, it was just a picture on the cover of a fashion magazine clipped to the rack. A woman. A celebrity. With Val’s smile. The way the eyes crinkled at the corners, the perfect bow of her lips, her well shaped teeth. Then Eve showed up at his elbow as he was crossing Union Square. She was a blonde now, and a grandmother. She ran the Cosmetics Dept. at Macy’s. She was wearing a bronze colored collarless jacket with matching skirt, gorgeous as usual. He hadn’t seen her in nearly a dozen years. She was on her lunch break. She had a question. Did he think she was deep? Before he answered, she interjected that she thought he was the devil.
Did it matter he thought the part just before Coltrane’s solo in Miles’ version of Round Midnight was the most beautiful, understated, lyrically anticipatory prelude to a solo in modern jazz, and Coltrane’s solo, do they even make silk that smooth anymore? Why did he have a tiny yellow post-it square in his pocket with the number six on it? Or was that a nine?
A patrol car was parked at the curb, light bar pulsing blue. A young cop stood with his fists to his hips while Shula Raven, in what looked like an old Girl Scout uniform a dozen sizes too small and a tube of orange material that made a funnel atop the slack hemp of her mane, gave him what for. Wendt watched from a distance. He was familiar with the Reed Hotel, the “seedy Reedy” as it had been known in the day, right around the corner from the old Greyhound Bus Station on Seventh. He’d never stayed there but he had friends who had, though, come to think of it, they were mostly Val’s friends. Jake and Polly’s place was part of that block scheduled for demolition to make room for high turnover rental slots. Parking spaces were not even close to the hassle of live tenants and the profits were immeasurably more.
He stood on his butt end and strode to the entrance blowing out a stream of cigarette smoke. The doorway was partially blocked by a large well used drop cloth that someone had graffitied with fat bubble letters, CIRQUE DE PENUMBROI, and below it in astonishingly precise block letters Your Walls—Our Shadows. A battered construction sawhorse created a barrier as well. Someone had scrawled with large black marker pen on the crossbar Hope abandoned all who entered her. Behind the barrier stood a crusty old guy in an orange safety vest, a white hard hat, and a clipboard.
“That’ll be twenty bucks,” he said as Wendt approached.
“I’m on the guest list.” Wendt looked over the man’s shoulder into the dim interior and the source of the noise passing itself off as music or worse, poetry. He was having his doubts about crashing the event.
The man gave Wendt an attentive look that meant the name had prompted a glimmer of recognition. “Right.” And scanned down the list of names and on to the next page as well. He shook his head. “Doesn’t look like you made the cut, Carl.”
“Hey, I write for the weekly.” He dug out a square of laminated plastic from his wallet. “Here, here’s my press pass.”
The doorman had a longish face creased with the folds of a few chins onto which it appeared tufts of white hair had been randomly glued. He turned a baleful eye to the examination of the card and then with increasing incredulity at Wendt. “It just says Press Pass.”
“That’s because that’s what it is! A Press Pass!”
“Hey! Wendt!” The shout came from inside. Michel Brezon hove into view out of the interior dimness. “Wendt! Hey!” He slapped an arm across Wendt’s shoulder and led him inside. He was high on something. And he’d been drinking. “You made it. Just in time. I’m going on in about twenty minutes.”
“Enjoy it while you can,” the doorman shouted after them, “the cops are gonna be closing this clusterfuck down real soon!”
“Sheesh, get a new doorman.” Wendt went along with Brezon, curious but cautious.
“What doorman?” Brezon glanced back at the entrance. “That’s just some homeless guy trolling the unwary. Man’s gotta make a buck.”
“Listen, you’re not still pissed about the stunt I pulled at the reading the other night, are you?” Wendt wanted to know where he stood before he went any further.
“Naw, you know my motto, friendship is those thousand tiny betrayals overlooked.” Brezon said it grandly as if it were up in lights.
He felt slightly chagrined. If Brezon considered that a tiny betrayal then he might have to start feeling sorry for the guy.
“Besides I wanted you to hear the address I’ll be making.”
“I didn’t know you were one of the Penumbroi.”
“I’m not. I’m here in the capacity of interim regional secretary for IFIRP.”
“Did you just hiccup or was that a word?”
“IFIRP, the International Federation of Independent Revolutionary Poets. Vince Crane was the regional secretary until they found him swinging from a rafter in his A-frame cabin up in the Sierras.”
“Really, Vince Crane? The punster poet, joke a minute, leave ‘em laughing Vince Crane decided to cash in?”
“Well, if it’s any consolation, the suicide note was a hoot. ‘I heard the angel of death dancing on the roof and decided to join her. Why am I still hanging around?’”
Brezon hailed someone else he knew and disappeared into the shadows of the dim lit lobby. Wendt sized up the situation with a quick glance. There was no overhead lighting, air thick with plaster dust from the first phase of demolition as if he were underground in a mine. Placed strategically around the lobby were arrays of halogen worklights on bright yellow tripods. A steady undertone of engines hummed distantly as almost a vibration. The dust seemed connected somehow. Under or near the halogen lights, vendors had set up tables using their own auxiliary lighting schemes ranging from battery powered camping lanterns, merchandise highlighted by ranks of tiny LED reading lights or personal headlamps and colorful fluorescent glow sticks. They were selling books, DVDs, CDs, T-shirts, buttons and bumperstickers, all with poetry related themes. A lot of the local small presses were represented which surprised him since he always considered the whole Penumbroi scene just a bunch of poetry sewer rats. Apparently they were well organized sewer rats. A large banner-sized portrait of The Buk, the Penumbroi’s patron saint, hung near the entrance to what had once been the hotel’s bar and restaurant and now the site of the main stage from the kinds of amplified verbal hubbub emanating from inside. Another Chairman Mao-ish portrait of Chinaski hung over the stairway leading to the upper floors.
One booth in particular stood out from the rest because of the professional brightness of its display. Wendt thought he recognized the vendor, a woman. The name on the banner hanging from the edge of the display table reminded him. June Hardwicke of Hardwicke Press. Still the same parrot feather hairstyle and beak to match. Wendt scanned the display as she greeted him.
“Hey Junie, surprised to see you at this venue.”
The other vendor, a tall skinny man with narrow face and serious demeanor, had come to stand by June. “Carl, do you know my husband, Bob Bobson?” She kept her expression blank as she made the introduction, a what-happens-in-Vegas-stays-in-Vegas kind of blank. “Carl Wendt,” she said, tone flat and nonchalant.
“Hello, Carl.” Bob Bobson extended his hand. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”
Wendt watched June hold her breath. “Nothing good, I hope,” he said with a reassuring laugh. He wasn’t about to blurt out that he’d had a night of blistering hot sex with Junie a few years back at her apartment on Stanyan Street while her husband, assuming it was the same guy, was a away at a book faire in the Midwest. “What gives with the lighting? You have to provide your own?”
Junie shrugged, “No power to the whole building. Nada, not a spark. We knew that coming in.” She looked at Bob like it was his turn. Bob’s voice was a quiet rumble. “We’re used to extreme conditions because we do Burning Man, too. Although out there we use solar panels. Here we have to use these government surplus high efficiency batteries that were used in Iraq and Afghanistan for satellite communications and with these LEDs. . . .”
“What Bob’s trying to say is that our little operation here is energy self-sufficient and very green. . . .”
“Except for the batteries,” Bob interjected the footnote.
June narrowed her eyes. “Right, and like I was saying, we were told up front that there would be limited power and to come prepared. The Penumbroi have a bank of generators for the general lighting and such.” She pointed at the halogen tripods, “But everything else is on us.”
“Hope it’s worth it for you guys.” There didn’t seem to be many customers at any of the tables.
“Oh, the lobby fills up during the breaks. We carry many of the poets reading here today,” she said pointing at the book display. “We do quite well at these kinds of extreme events.”
“Last year’s Penumbroi Poetry Fest was held on Mt Umunum in the South Bay. One of our best selling venues yet,” Bob assured.
“You’d be surprised how passionate people are about picking up souvenirs. We don’t sell that many books, but the bumper stickers and performance DVDs. . . .”
“And the dolls. . . ?” Wendt had noticed the arrangement of small figurines in period appropriate costumes. “Ok, I’m gonna guess that’s Oscar Wilde just from the hairdo, but who is that?”
“E. M. Forster,” Bob said reverentially.
“Alright, old Walt, right? Either that or an aging Chia pet. Is that Poe?”
“They also come in sets. The Surrealists, The Objectivists, The New York, School, First and Second Generation. This is the Bloomsbury group set.” June pointed at each of the figures, “This is Lytton Strachey, Virginia Woolf, Duncan Grant, Roger. . . .”
Wendt had picked up the Woolf figurine. “These are just repurposed Barbie dolls if I’m correct.”
“Well, yes, but the clothing is sewn to period and wigs made. I had to do a little plastic surgery on her nose to make it more aquiline.”
Wendt didn’t know if he approved. “Poetry action figures,” he said turning Virginia Woolf upside down and looking up her skirt. “Are there any literary bedroom sets?”
Bob and June exchanged glances. “Limited editions, for private collectors, of course,” Bob explained. “And June has almost all of world literary history represented by little figurines such as these on display all over our house.” He added, “Some in very compromising positions.”
Wendt laughed. “Really, do you have one of me?”
Red-faced, June shook her head closing her eyes. “I only make them of poets who have died.” She seemed to be emphasizing her words by pointing to the white on black bumper sticker that read American Poetry Is Not Dead—It Has Simply Been Misled.
A young couple had wandered over, the man with a backpack slung over a shoulder, looking at the book display, the woman struggling with her English. Wendt ran his eyes over the sayings and slogans. Wallace Stevens is for Grannies. Maybe, if he had a car. Professional Poets Are Oxymorons. Naw, what if a professional poet pulled up behind you in traffic. There you’d be. What Poem? What Poet? Overused. For Poets There Is No Reverse. Good one to have on a rear bumper though it might get you pulled over for defective equipment. Well, just being a poet would warrant that. The Wasteland Is Anal. Finally, somebody figured that out. The muse is not amused. Too bad there wasn’t a lapel button, he’d wear it. Official Poet Laureate Vehicle: Stops At All Bars. Follow that car. Caution: Free Verse. He was beginning to succumb to lame meme overload.
I’ve Got Your Poet Hanging (also available as a CD, DVD, and eBook).
Write a poem, go to jail.
Poetry! There’s An App For That!
Make Poetry, Not Politics.
The Price Of Immortality Is Death.
“Hah! Ya, you are Carl Wendt?” The young woman pronounced his name the way it used to be spoken in the Black Forest. “I take you picture, ya?” She had her phone poised at arm’s length and a little strobe flashed in the corner of the rectangle.
Wendt didn’t hide his surprise. “How did you recognize me?”
It was the young man’s turn. He brandished a fat well-worn green paperback. “Ve haf guide buk.” He’d flipped it open. “You picture,” and pointed to the square photo next to the text. “Frisco poet,” he said with the pride of a taxonomist.
Wendt bent closer to examine the photo. He had a moustache back then, and his hair was considerably darker. “You recognized me from that?”
The young woman smiled and pointed to Bob Bobson. “And he saying so.” She had her wallet out and had produced a wad of cash, laying down three Jackson and getting a Lincoln in return along with a square grey volume that he immediately recognized as his book of poems, Synthetic Lament. She held up a pen and the book and demanded cheerily, “You sign.”
Wendt inflicted his usual scrawl on the title page as she captured the moment with her phone. He turned to Bobson after handing the book back to the pretty poetry tourist. “You got fifty five clams for my book?”
Bobson looked puzzled. “Didn’t you know? This is a very hard edition to come by.”
Wendt thought about the box full of Synthetic Laments under his bed on Balboa. “I was at the auction,” Bobson continued, “after the printer went bankrupt. Harry Croft bought up the remainder of the edition that never got distribution beyond the initial release.”
Wendt nodded impatiently. He knew that. The publisher, Terry Smallville, of Poetrytown Editions , was a friend and a fan. In the presence of the gods, some people have a tendency to overcompensate. Terry packed his nose with coke and said good-bye to the planet. And the few dozen or so copies he had managed to charm out of the printer’s assistant-probably-mistress were now worth more than the occasional calling card memorabilia for his casual encounters. He might be sitting on a gold mine. But Croft, too, sitting on a pile, gambling on a postmortem surge? Probably waiting for the next book to spike demand for the phantom edition. And the bastard never even mentioned, after all the years they had done business together, that he had a reserve of his books. Of course they’d probably be worth more if he was dead.
Next Time: Wendt follows the Muse into the inner sanctum at the Penumbroi event where he is warned not to flush, learns about the seven chakras of poetry, and ends up in the self-devouring stew of literary lights. To review what has transpired so far, reference the episodes listed in the sidebar, or click The Complete DAY & WEEK to read the pdf file.