I answered the ad: SWM likes to dance. Called him up (said his name was Jay), suggested we meet at the local cafe Tuesday night, something different, a performance poet performing. Free coffee and cookies, the place rocking with middle-aged angst.
He shows up, dark-haired, pink-cheeked, somewhere in his forties, wearing a yellow plastic rape alarm attached to his waist. “I’ll be wearing a black turtleneck,” I’d said. Watch him approaching several other women first, also in black turtlenecks, fresh lipstick, clean nails. Finally catch his eye, wave him over; we shake damp hands. Tell him my name is Serena.
The emcee stands before the audience, says, “Thank you for coming.” Says, “Tonight we have from England, fresh from a cross-Canada tour, Attila the Bookseller!”
Attila comes forward, a small man, chubby, late thirties, wearing a black turtleneck sweater, black pants, black watch cap. Says, “Thank you very much it’s great to be here.” Says, “I’ve got books and tapes for sale after the show.”
Begins performing. Screams the word “Vomit.” Shouts, “Libyan Students from Hell.” Shouts, “Love is like two maggots colliding at the bottom of a dirty pail.”
Jay whispers, “Excuse me,” and departs for the back of the cafe.
Attila grabs his mandolin, sings a song called “Grrrr.” Sings, “I’m a rapping mole from a leaky hole.” Sings, “Every time I eat vegetables it makes me think of you.”
The audience giggles, claps. A man with a grey beard yells, “Awright!”
Jay returns with coffee for himself and two chocolate chip cookies, also for himself.
Attila gets serious, wipes his brow, says he’s got something heavy to read, says he wrote it last week and hopes he can get through it, a poem about a young mother dying from cancer. He gets through it, voice trembling.
Beside me Jay is crying silently—wet cheeks, quivering jaw.
Attila picks up his mandolin again, asks, “Do you want to hear more?” Someone yells, “Go for it!” And Attila reads: “Here’s to you the septic few, here’s to ’84 and ’5 when all our dreams took another dive...”
It goes on for fifteen minutes.
When he’s done he delivers his pitch, shows us where his books are stacked on a table by the wall, thirty copies of a single title and tapes by the same name. Tells us he’s one of the few poets he knows who makes a living off his work. Says he’s been all over—Australia, the States, Germany—and he’s been doing this for fifteen years. Says he’s a dedicated man.
He’s selling books by the fistload; there’s a lineup at the book table. He’s charging twenty dollars for a sixty-two page book that has a price of five pounds clearly marked on the cover. “One at a time,” he’s telling the crowd. “Easy does it.”
A woman in a wheelchair who’s been parked behind me leands forward and taps me on the shoulder. “You know,” she says proudly, “I’m also a writer. I wonder if you’d move these chairs out of my way so I can get to the book table.” She’s anxious Attila will sell all his books before she gets there. “Save one for me!” she shouts above the din.
I wheel her to the table. “Excuse me, please, make way...”
When I return to my table, Jay has gone.
I pack up to leave the cafe. By now Attila has sold all his books and tapes and is arguing with the emcee. Saying, “Can you give me another two hundred for the reading?” Saying, “I know we agreed on the price, but go ask your Arts Council, okay?”