The readings take place in a building behind Darwin called The Missing Link. The Missing Link was divided into The Peter Brown Room and a few seminar rooms. The Peter Brown Room, in which the Creative Writing readings were held, was a kinda-sorta circular-looking room. The department had arranged a few rows of chairs facing away from the entrance and towards a bunch of windows, and a thin, somewhat stooped-over older woman in a black sweater and thin glasses sat on a table drinking wine and flipping through a book.
The Writer and I walked into the Room and dropped a couple two-pound coins in a pink bucket. (The Writer, I was beginning to think, never changed his clothes.) “Isn’t that hilarious?” he asked me, pointing to the bucket. He shook his head. “Man, you get some fantastically witty people in this department. I mean, who but a Writer, an Emissary of the Muse, would refer to this—as Susie does—as The Infamous Pink Bucket?” He chuckled, took his glasses off, and rubbed his eyes. “Ah, humor. Yes, Narrator, I’m positive you’re going to learn some things tonight.”
“I’m sure I will,” I said. I regretted dressing nicely for this event. Looking around at all the epople in their black shirts and polished shoes, I realized I looked too much like them. What I should have worn was a NASCAR wife beater. Shaken up their world a little.[Redacted. Cause: Aaron is spineless.]
We were spared from more of this by the sweeping arrival of a portly woman at the front of the room. She introduced herself in a manner I felt was repugnant and lacking in any sort of humor, but everyone in the place ate it up like it was cake. A few people, and I’m not kidding, said, “Oh, how frightfully witty.” Then she introduced the thin woman on the table as a poet from New York City who started off in the 70s and gained her literary fame from being a part of the reaction against the death of the hippies. She moved aside and the woman moved forward.
The first thing she said was that New York was a special place. So special, she said, that being an aging lesbian was a normal thing. “Ah ha,” I thought, “that’s her gag. That’s her connection to an alternate audience, something that’ll make her stand out from being a normal aging poet.” Her pre-reading talk was about the 70s and how great it was being part of a counter-culture, and how bad it was that the youth of today just didn’t care, and that she hoped we’d wake up because, and this was the truth, she cared about us. And, of course, she looked at every young person in the room at this point. I almost gagged. It was the same sort of spiel every older generation gave to every younger generation. It seemed, though, that I was the only one in the place turning a skeptical eye to what this woman was saying. To my right, The Writer was nodding along and on the verge of bursting into applause whenever the woman spoke. The goateed, corduroy-draped bastard thought she was smart. This went for everyone else in the audience. They lapped up her faux-sage tone delivered by a low-volume voice and thought it was the most original stuff in the world.
After a few minutes of standing on a worn-down soapbox, she reached behind her onto the table and picked up a well-thumbed edition of a book of poetry. She said the obligatory bullshit about how she hated readings and delivered some quasi-humorous adage about one time she was reading a poem in front of a live audience in The Village. (I had to take issue with this insistence that no writer likes reading their own stuff. It’s a lie of the highest caliber: a lie told to make the liar look humble. No writer would hate readings—they’re too much like performing on stage, and, really, what is writing except for something waiting to be performed: either on stage, screen, or in the minds of someone?)
Then, she cleared her throat, took another sip of water, and started reading. The poem was about making an omelette. Yes, an omelette. Now, I’m in favor of taking joy and pleasure out of the small things, I am. There is a certain poetry in the way a well-timed summer breeze may drive a man to sanity on a hot day, or in a child’s laughter, or whatever you want to say. But an omelette? And people were laughing! As if they, too, had made an omelette and felt moved to compose ballads upon the joy and frustration of getting it perfectly right.
I sunk in my chair and groaned. The Writer shot me a brief look and returned to gazing upon this woman who he would, no doubt, refer to as A Worthy Muse Vessel or some shit. I started trying to figure out what exactly this woman was on about. Was she trying to say that the omelette was a metaphor for--what? Sex? Sex was the most obvious, but nothing I’d seen in lesbian porn had made me think of omelettes. Maybe she was bi and had—but omelettes? Money, then? Money buys omelettes, but that doesn’t necessarily pertain to making omelettes, unless you’re also paying someone to watch them make the omelette. But that would be weird. Death? Well, a chick embryo has to die in order for this omelette to be made, but that’s too obvious. I shook my head. I didn’t, I decided, have the time for poetry.
She finished reading that, looked up, blinked behind her giant, magnifying glasses and said, “That’s called ‘Omelette.’” People laughed again. They were so far up her ass that she’d be constipated for a year. She flipped through the book to another page, marked by a yellow Post-It Note and happened upon a poem she called, “Why Couldn’t I Have A Bar Mitzvah?”
“Because you’re a chick!” I shouted.
I sunk into my chair and pulled my hat over my eyes. Luckily, I’d worn a ballcap.
“Right,” said the woman, blinking. Other than that, she ignored the comment, and so did most of the other people—except for The Writer, who punched me so hard I thought that he must, after all, have some cajones on him. She started reading the poem and, even if it had been written in the 70s, the fact that she was reading it in 2009, told me that she was gleefully ignoring the changes in Reform Judaism that took place, oh, at its inception in the 1870s. One of which was that women could have Bat Mitzvahs. (The name change was necessary, as having a Bar Mitzvah would have meant the woman was probably a tranny.) Now, yes, I understand that the woman was making A Point about disenfranchisement of women, and it’s a good and important point to make and good for her, but, Jesus Christ, really, lady? I figured these goy would walk away thinking all Jews in the world were the Orthodox ones they saw in North London with the funky hats.
She read one more poem after that, but I honestly couldn’t tell you what it was about. I zoned out after hearing some line in the Bar Mitzvah poem like “You preach about seeking knowledge/But how can I when I can’t read Hebrew?” I spent the rest of the time thinking, “Go fuck yourself, you hack.” Eventually, she stopped rambling about her persecution complex and started the Q&A session.
The Writer was the first one to shoot up his hand. “Brilliantly done,” he said, in the same English accent. “Where do you get your Inspiration?”
“Coffee,” the woman said. That was probably the first honest thing she said the whole night. There were a few chuckles.
There were more questions, and a lot of them were vapid and the same sorts of shit creative people ask each other, like, “Don’t you hate the business side of things?” We’re all guilty of it, and I do it just as much as anyone else, but, damn it, that doesn’t mean I don’t get to twitch when I hear other people do it as well.
The woman from earlier—Susie with the terrible sense of humor—stood up and demanded a large round of applause, which, of course, we gave her. Just because she lied about not wanting to do a reading doesn’t mean it takes chutzpah to actually do it. It’s the same as acting, once again. Everyone really wants to be up on stage, but once you’re there, there’s an initial five minutes of mortal terror.
I stood up to leave and The Writer said, “I’m going to go apologize for you.”
“What?” I asked.
“What you did earlier. That was unforgivable. You won’t apologize, so I will.”
“Look,” I said, “do what you want, but if I see her on the street again, I will call her a charlatan and demand that she writes a story about space monsters. You can apologize for me all you want, but I’ll still hold the beliefs I have.”
“Whatever,” he said. “I hope you get knocked out and raped on the way back to Woolf.”
I blinked. “That’s a little harsh, don’t you think?”
“No, not at all. You disrespected a Vessel of the Muse.” He turned and walked to the front of the room to push his way through to the woman at the center of the crowd of writers.
I shrugged and walked out of the Peter Brown Room, through the front doors of the Missing Link.
Then I heard, “Ello, guv. Do you have the time?”
I turned to my left and saw a man in a black suit, white shirt, black tie, and a bowler cap. In his hand, he held a hypodermic needle. He squirted it and flashed me a grin.
“Son of a bitch,” I said.
There wasn’t any pain as the needle went clean through my pea coat, broke the skin, and the warm flush of tranquilizer once again entered my bloodstream.