I had decided to try a new place that I'd heard a lot about, the Air Lounge in Downtown Oakland. It opened a few months back in the post-burgeoning but not quite buzzing section known as "All That New Stuff Over By The Le Cheval Restaurant" (Clay and Washington streets, south of 10th).
I thought I would just grab a drink and tootle about, chat up some mofo, and then call it a night. But when I walked in it became apparent that there was some sort of event going on. An event with hors d'oeuvres, no less. Score! I made my way past the crisp aqua-blue and white interior to the bar and let my eyes focus completely. A guy was at a microphone and people were packed into the seating that ran the entire parameter of the place. "Oh crappo," I thought, as soon as it became obvious that I was at some sort of a poetry slam. Jesus Christ, I hate fucking poetry slams.
The night is called Mouth Off and it has a big following. Pretty much the whole crowd was African-American, save for some other white chick who looked like Debi Mazar. Actually, no, scratch that, there was a small group of obnoxious honkies at the bar who were completely wasted.
So I had managed to land myself at an Afrocentric poetry slam. I let out a low moan and ordered a Sierra Nevada. I tried my best to blend in and hoped against hope that every reading wasn't about wack-ass white chicks trying to be black.
Here's the deal with me and poetry slams: It's not that I am a poetry snob who can't handle amateurs. It's not that they are too "hippie." It's that they come too close to The Truth, my brothers and sisters. They are too intimate for me. Seeing people that vulnerable makes me very, very anxious. I come from a family that communicates through sarcasm and zero physical touch. The amount of balls that it takes to stand in front of people and read something that you wrote out loud, something so personal, is scary to me.
That said, most of the time these slams are all the same, anyway. Women invariably talk about their sexuality, which usually involves repeating some verboten word a few times for effect ("He ate my pussy, my PUSSY, MY PUSSY!"), and the guys ask a series of questions, "Mr Bush, who did you kill today? Another coffin, returning to the States. Mr. Rumsfeld, whose death certificate did you sign? Another coffin, returning to the States ..." etc.
The host for the evening, An NerCity (pronounced "inner city") was introducing the next poet. I had placed myself on a stool at the bar right next to the stage area, unfortunately right in front of the group of loud white guys. They seemed completely oblivious to the fact that there was a spoken word event going on. The next poet came up to the stage, a hesitant, slight woman with blond tips and big glasses, just the sort of person you want to cheer on at things like this. She cleared her throat and began to read, but all I could hear was the guy behind me.
"Duuuude! This drink is fucking strong! I mean, this is a DRINK! You gotta try this shit! It will fuck you up!" A few people were turning to deliver daggerlike looks to him but he continued, unabated. "Fuck, I am so wasted! Dude, this is a DRINK!" Strange as it may sound, these guys saved my life, because if it hadn't been for them, I wouldn't have been pulling so hard for that girl on the stage. I wouldn't have been straining to hear what she had to say and been moved by it, which I was. Poet after poet went up to read and slowly I was pulled into this place, this cool, inviting crowd that was allowing people to speak their truth. It wasn't so scary to me anymore. It was OK that I was white, and it was OK that I was at a poetry slam.
An NerCity got up to the mike and, without looking at the loud assholes, calmly stated that the next time someone talked during the reading he would "Snatch they ass up." We all repeated "Snatch they ass up!" for effect. Sure enough, the next person got up there, and the dipshits continued hooting and hollering about thong underwear. "Snatch they ass up!" I yelled, after which others followed. An NerCity came over and one of the guys asked, "Can we have one more chance?" to a resounding "Nooooo" from the crowd. To the drunken fools' credit, they left. Yet it took a village; I was part of the struggle, and we all emerged, victorious!
A few other people came up on stage, the most talented being a guy named Mad Poet who spoke about a date he'd recently had. Then not one but two Vietnam vets got up and blew everyone's minds. I was trying to remember the last time I felt that stimulated and energized. Had to be the finale of Hell's Kitchen.
NerCity said a few words about hip hop's attitudes about women. "Now I ain't going to say that I only listen to the Poor Righteous Teachers," he said as an aside, to which I let out a big whoop of a laugh, my version of "Go 'head with your bad self!"
Soon the event began to wrap up. The stool I was on was hard and had made the left lip of my vagina fall asleep. Girls, you know what I am talking about. Yes, there was a tingling in my pussy, my PUSSY, MY PUSSY! I stood up.
"The next poet up," said NerCity, "is The Truth! Give it up for The Truth!"
Everyone looked around the room to see The Truth emerge, but alas, he or she never did.
"I guess The Truth lied to us!" quipped NerCity, moving on to the next one on the list. It didn't matter, because we all knew that the truth was indeed in the room that night. And you know what? I could handle it.