Last night at Traxx Bar in Union Station, J. David Gonzalez and I put on a reading for Writ Large Press’ 90 for 90 series, which is basically 90 events in 90 days. It’s an ambitious project that Writ Large Press seems to be handling seamlessly. We invited Hank Cherry, Shawnacy Kiker Perez, Yago S. Cura, and Joe Donnelly to read poems, essays, or stories about work — a subject that has always been on my mind.
For some of my favorite artists, work has been a central theme. Think about Van Gogh’s earlier work: the potato eaters, the men and women working the field like lost saints. Think about the work of Millet (the painting below) who influenced Van Gogh. Think about Philip Levine’s “What Work Is”: the understanding of why men drink gin or stand in line for work at an axle plant. Think about Denis Johnson’s famous story “Work”: two addicts stripping copper wire from abandoned homes. When you know how to work, it can inspire, it can become poetic, it can make words real. Work is such a part of our lives; therefore it naturally becomes a major part of art.
Honestly, the crowd was slim last night for the readings about work. It was mostly the readers and their significant others and the people who showed up to get shitfaced before a ride on the surfliner to San Diego. The late-night commuters shuffled in and some unsuspecting people sat down and ordered drinks and listened to us read. It was a great reading filled with writers I admire. But I wasn’t sure if the people at the bar, the strangers, would give a shit about us.
But what I found was that there were three people who stayed for all the readings. Their names were James, Paul, and Mark, and they would sometimes yell in the middle of a story, shouting a loud cry of appreciation over the recollection of a place they’ve been before, a certain phrase, a certain moment. At the end of the reading, I went and thanked the three men for listening. That’s when a young man named Paul grabbed my hand, and he said, “I never thought I would like this shit, but you guys are speaking truth. All those bangers out there, they’re always trying to be tough, but this is what they should be talking about.” He had tattoos on his arms and a bald head, and he was wearing a cut off and a pair of basketball shorts. There was a brown liquor in front of him, and he had that spaced off look that showed he had already polished off a couple of other drinks before. He was shaking my hand for a bit of an awkward beat too long.
Sometimes, the toughest guys in the world, at least in my experience, when no one else is looking and their defenses are down, will admit a soft spot for poetry, for the man in the bar speaking truth, for words, for culture, for music. But when you put a bunch of these tough guys together in a room, it’s as if they are all dogs in the dog park, and one glimpse of weakness will alert everyone else. In these situations, showing an interest in poetry or any form of emotional expression is a mistake. But there always surprises.
I’ll never forget one of these moments, when a tough guy admitted he liked poetry and reading and books. I used to play pool at bar in Miami called Billy’s Pub Two. The photo above is the pool tables where I used to play. One day, I was playing in a tournament, and I had to go against this pudgy bald guy who came in the door with about five other friends. He looked hard. He looked unapproachable. And he didn’t want to play me for his first round match up — whatever it was — and when I reached out my hand to introduce myself, he looked away and started racking the balls. He didn’t have any respect for me as a player, and he just kept trying to bank every shot — he was sinking some — and he never took the game seriously.
Finally, I called him out on it. To my surprise, he just really didn’t care about playing the game. We started talking, and he became fascinated with what I was doing in Miami. At the time, I was teaching composition at Florida International University while trying to learn how to write. So I told him. He was all of a sudden fascinated that I was a teacher, and then he pulled me so his friends couldn’t hear, and he asked me, “Will you teach me how to read?”
I was shocked. He was about 35-years old. I wasn’t necessarily shocked that a 35-year old wouldn’t know how to read, but I was shocked with how easily he shared this information that would have been used by others to ridicule him and point out his weakness. He told me that he tried “Hooked on Phonics,” but it just wasn’t working, and he really wanted me to teach him how to read. Honestly, I really didn’t want to teach him how to read.
That’s when his buddies started to yell at him for taking so long, and they called him over to the table. You could tell in the tone by how he responded that he didn’t want his buddies to think he was talking about reading or books or teaching. Then he surprised me again. He grabbed me by the shirt collar, and he pulled me in close and said: “Your job, your friends, your family, it’s a prison. I need to change, man, and I don’t know how.”
His friends called him again, and he quit the game. He didn’t even say goodbye.