I recently had the pleasure of returning to the place that I called home for seven years: New York City. Although, I should mention that name isn’t exactly accurate because, for me, NYC included the Hudson County area of New Jersey where all the wonderful Freaks are moving to because of the cheaper rent. Jersey City is the place that is advertised as “alternative lifestyle friendly,” whatever that means. Anyway, by the end of the trip my husband, Toro, and I were reeling at the diversity of places that we had encountered in one short week. Let me take you on that virtual journey, my friends.
We both arrived in New Jersey to be part of the Geraldine Dodge Foundation’s Annual East Brunswick Poetry Festival and Workshop Series, which featured Li-Young Lee this year. How lucky are we? Well, the poets were more diverse than I thought – there were spoken word poets from the LouderArts scene, sweet older wisdom type poets, and crazy working class crass poets that are always refreshing when things get too deep. I was really nervous, as usual, but everyone made me feel pretty welcome. In fact, and I just have to record this because if I don’t I won’t believe it happened; Li-Young Lee himself came up to yours truly (and he is known for never coming up to anyone) and literally stopped me from exiting the auditorium to tell me that he thought my work was beautiful. When I told my husband the cynical side of me came out and I wondered if he was some sort of pervert that was just saying that because he wanted to flirt or something but hubby assured me that Mr. Lee is a righteous family man. Well, either way, it was way cool to get some props from a person who we call an “academic” poet, especially when I consider myself a hardcore chica.
That experience would’ve been enough, right? Well, it gets better. Somehow we managed to get a nice group of our friends together at The White Horse Tavern, the historic bar that was frequented by Dylan Thomas. After going crazy at Know Know – the absolute best place to buy cheap cool clothes (rags in Texas are so overpriced it’s disgusting) – we met our pals at the spot at 5 p.m. We got to see: Jay Rhoderick, the actor actor actor who is funny funny funny and who brings oodles of life to any production or conversation he is a part of; Nick Marvalous, the hip hop Italian turned punk rock rebel gone straightedge; Joe Jacovino, the healthy guitar-playing, marathon bike running, poet songwriter who reminds me of the Muppet band dude with the bass; Carmen Rivera, the Latina playwright who has won awards for her numerous plays and happens to be Toro’s cousin; Christine Goodman and Jack Halpin, the dynamic duo who have taken the NYC Fringe Fest and poetry/arts scene in Joisey by storm with their rockin’ Art House; Bill and Rachel Rood (well, they’ll share the last name officially in Sept.), the computer whizzes and innovative thinkers who imagine telephone booth homes and slides in the middle of bars; Onome, the singing poet who studied under Tracie Morris uh-huh and Village Voice lady who is always up for meeting new people; Greg Segarra, Hilti man extraordinaire, collector of languages and all world politics information, the human crossword puzzle, the Puerto Rican Costanza; Alyssa (ooooh, I’m gonna forget her new last name – she got married last year in the coolest place ever) Gutierrez, the math wizard who is developing alternative ways to teach math so some of you literary thinkers can participate with the rest of the world (hee, hee); Nova Gutierrez, the Bill Gates Millennium scholar at Columbia who has her art in This Bridge We Call Home and who does poetry and art and is compiling the stories of the women in her family; Bobby De Jesus, Mr. Crazyforcarisma, actor, writer, educator and hilarious friend with a heart and muchisimo talento; Diana Diaz, Ms. yes, BOTH of my gorgeous kids are chess champions and by the way I have my own life too, that includes being an educator, journalist and writer – whew!; Marina Gutierrez, artist and the head of Cooper Union’s Saturday Program which gives diverse students throughout the NYC area the chance for free studio art classes and portfolio prep and who has weathered the many storms that try to destroy this blessing; Charles Fambro, music genius and innovative thinker who wonders if low-frequency sounds are transmitted from city centers in order to keep us from breaking our set patterns; Claudio Nolasco, the only photographer I know who has recorded the effects of gentrification on hip Brooklyn and who also knows how to go hunting in the Dominican Republic; and last but not less, Gary Santana, the always cool dude (when you gonna paint again?) who put together multiple events for the NYC Latino Film Fest – yo, he got Piri Thomas, Pedro Pietri and Candido Tirado together in the same room – stories for days!
Yes, we caused a fire hazard in the bar, but the storytelling was beautiful and funny and amazing and I wanted to laugh and cry and scream all night. We were eating and drinking until about two in the morning. That’s right, from 5 p.m. – 2 a.m., and it felt too short. We even stopped at Kim’s! What was really interesting about the night was all the technology, which is really telling about New York. Everyone was showing pictures and movies on their iPods, Blackberries, and whatever else they’ve invented. Claudio had some sort of gadget that can show two and a half movies in a row before the power dies. And, everyone thoroughly enjoyed dissing the supposed smoke signals that Toro and I have forced people to use to contact us given that we don’t have a cell phone or answering machine at home. Yeah, well, we all made it there, didn’t we, uh-huh.
So Toro and I moved from the very academic circles of poetry to the very hip circles of New York writers, artists and educators. But wait…there’s more. Have you ever been to New Jersey? It has a flavor all its own, something like good Italian sausage stewed in chemical waste. That is, it tastes really good, but you know there’s probably something in there that might be bad for you. But we like the bad stuff. It’s what makes us stronger, no?
Jeff, Vinny’s (Toro’s) childhood friend, decided he wanted to do a barbecue for us and after picking us up he took us to the local Shop-Rite and loaded up on goodies like fresh basil for grilled pizza and a big bottle of tequila (ah, San Antonio is not so far away). Jeff is an interesting guy. He is an artist – that’s what he went to school for – a bartender, a chef, and a certified masseuse. Dude likes to work with his hands. Vinny and I were somewhat comatose from the night before, but we tried to be as lively as possible in order to help Jeff out with the eats. That is, until he set forth some fruity margaritas before us. I was washing and drying the basil and then I needed to sit down for a minute, which turned out to be the rest of the night. As I sat, I was happy to listen to the stories Vinny’s other friends told. Rocco talked about endless camping stories, how he used to be so angry and his wife changed all that, and got into a serious political debate with Vinny. Noel and Chris, our favorite couple who now owns a van rock on, showed up and they talked about their new gig as roadies for musical equipment which gave me romantic ideas of carrying around upright bases and French horns.
But the storyteller of the evening was Steve. The storyteller is always Steve. Perhaps we shouldn’t have told Steve, in the past, that he is a great storyteller because that is all he does now. One story right after the other. He doesn’t provide a segway. He just keeps going. Let me explain something about Steve. He works in the porn industry. Steve manages a pornography store and he has recently started giving x-rated “Tupperware” parties which have become very popular among brides-to-be. So his stories are…acid stories on crack. Not for the stiff intolerant folks. For example, he has stories about the guy who came in and asked for a film with urine and a goat. Oh, that’s tame. Believe me. No matter how grossed out or weirded out you might get, his stories are…addictive. You have to keep listening because you wonder, how far will humanity go? We’ve begged him to write them down. We’ve told him that he would make millions. He could sell his book at his and other stores. He told me that his writing comes out poetically, not in prose form. I told him to write porn poetry. I mentioned Tsaurah Litzky and how she has taught erotic poetry/prose at the New School and how big she is and how she’s like 80 years old which shows that there’s all kinds of markets for this stuff.
Vinny’s New Jersey friends tell mad stories. It’s like this culture they have. You have to one-up the last story that was told. And all of them are really, really good at it. They have crazy accents that I just want to hear over and over and along with storytelling it makes me think that they are linguistic geniuses and don’t know it. They have other aspects to this culture, too. They are religious about good food. Our friend Andrew doesn’t fuck around when it comes to cooking. He makes fettuccini alfredo in the woods. Not joking at all. They also like to build stuff. Andrew and Jeff and some others built some sort of structure that supposed to give them a shelter when they go camping; I know I’m getting it wrong, but that just shows my ignorance when compared. Jeff built this contraption that can hold a 40 lb. block of ice for the sheer purpose of taking a shot off of the ice. They have pictures of all the people who have taken a shot off of the ice. Apparently, it makes for a tasty shot.
They are even artful when it comes to pranks. Their pranks are elaborate plans that take time and energy. Let me provide one example. Jeff, as I said before, is a bartender. He started working at the Cadillac Bar in Hoboken (home of Frank Sinatra). Well, the fella who owned the Cadillac Bar sold it and it became The Cage, which started out as a place that had chicks in cages. Interestingly, the chicks in cages didn’t sell. Business was bad. So, they decided to make The Cage into a gay bar. Jeff asked Vinny, at the time, what he thought of that. Vinny asked Jeff who pays for drinks at bars. Jeff answered, “Usually guys.” Vinny answered, “Well, now you’ve doubled your clientele.” Jeff was sold. He decided to stay at The Cage. I don’t want to answer any questions about Jeff’s sexuality, but ironically, after the bar turned gay, Jeff has to fight women off. Nonetheless, Jeff’s friends happened to come across a promotional photograph that was taken of Jeff and another bartender (damn, not on the site anymore). It was a very cute picture. In fact, Andrew thought it was so cute, he decided to print it out. He also decided to copy it. About a hundred times. So, when Jeff and all his buddies decided to go camping again, as is their custom, Jeff was delighted to find said picture posted upon EVERY SINGLE TREE along the path to the clearing of the campground. One hundred trees. And I believe the pictures were left up the whole weekend.
When it was time to go after visiting, I was still so tipsy I told Rocco that it was nice meeting him. He didn’t hesitate to make fun of me, so I guess that means I’m family.
The last few days of the trip were back in Academia. I met Raquel Z. Rivera, a professor at Hunter College who wrote an amazing book about Puerto Ricans and hip hop. Vincent met with ACTION Project people about the student exchange that is to take place here in San Antonio this summer. When we arrived in San Anto, we were in the midst of Fiesta but we couldn’t enjoy because work beckoned. We didn’t feel so guilty later when we found out that Fiesta is a celebration of Mexico’s defeat. Hmmph.
I love my Freaks. In all their forms, I love my Freaks.