Fifteen Bucks and the Passing Glory of Every Gone Year

Photograph by Jose Padua
I’ve somehow forgotten the name of the place, but back in 1990 I got a call from Matthew Courtney asking me to do a reading there. It was somewhere on the Lower East Side, which meant it would be easy for me to hop down from my place on Avenue B and 3rd to get there; plus, with Matthew hosting the event, I knew it would be a fun gig as well—he was, at the time, one of the most entertaining poets/actors/artists on the downtown scene. But what most sold me on doing the reading was what he said I’d get in return for my performance: “Fifteen bucks, and all the glory.”

Back then, fifteen bucks could pay for a least part of a decent evening, and the glory part was the icing on the metaphorical cake, even if the glory was only being bestowed upon me by an audience of fifteen people. I wasn’t all that picky back then–I didn’t even have a chapbook out at that point if I remember correctly—so there really was no reason why I should have turned it down, and I didn’t.

As it was, the audience at this reading turned out to be of a fairly decent size, and I ended up meeting a number of other writers with whom I’m still in touch to this day. But what I most remember about that night and that reading is that it was here when I first met Maggie Estep and heard her read her poem, “The Stupid Jerk I’m Obsessed With.” Right away the poem blew me away, and like a lot of other guys, I too wished I could be that stupid jerk. She was a cool, smart, gorgeous woman—the sort I thought would want nothing to do with me. So when she came up to the table where I was sitting after I’d read and told me that she was blown away by my work, I just went “Wow” and “Thanks” and “Cool” and I was pretty drunk (as I usually was at any reading back then) and I thought I must have sounded like an idiot.

About a week later, on my way into work one still sleepy morning, I was catching the bus to go cross town on 23th Street when I saw her waiting at the bus shelter. (As big as New York City was, I was always running into people I knew.) I was more coherent at this hour and we talked and talked and it was here that she gave me her phone number, saying, “Call me, call me” and that was how I started to get to know her—which isn’t to say that I called her. It’s just that there were soon so many readings and events going on that I didn’t have to in order to see people. I’d see Maggie at one event or another, and we’d talk, but I’d always just leave it at that, because I was a drinker and she—having lived beyond her own days of wine and roses and other substances—wasn’t. Back then, liquor was a big part of both my social life and my poetic process.

Still, she’d call me; and I remember one time getting the most amazing phone message from her in which she told this long, surrealistic story about how these microscopic dwarves had invaded her blood vessels and made her ill, all of which was a way of explaining why she wouldn’t be able to see me at some important reading I was doing. In addition to that, even though we only lived a few blocks apart, we’d write each other letters. Her letters were like her phone messages, filled with stories and imagination and far out ideas—all written in a state of total sobriety while I always liked to have a few sips of something before writing my replies.

She eventually started seeing this guy I knew who was one of the nicest guys on our scene, and I was happy to see that she’d hooked up with him. In the meantime, I went on in my own way, in search of poetry and drinkers, and never once imagining that I could separate the two.

Maggie, of course, went on to hit it pretty big, appearing on MTV, fronting her own band and recording CDs of her work, and then on to writing novels, and working and playing with some pretty well-known people. The last time I saw her in person was in 1995 when she played the old 9:30 club in downtown DC, my hometown, where I’d moved back when I left New York. It had been a couple of years since I’d last seen her, and when I went down to the dressing room after the show she was surprised and genuinely happy to see me, introducing me to people as this “tremendous poet.” But this time—even though she was as nice as she always was—I just felt like some kind of a fuckup talking to her. After that, I’d only be in touch with her every few years or so with email exchanges that began enthusiastically with the sharing of news and other life changing events before eventually turning quiet. SkepReading_1992_Blog
Over time, I found a way to separate poetry and drink—though in doing so I spent around eight years when I hardly wrote a damn thing. They were years when I just sat back to enjoy one drink a week—though most of the time it was even less frequent than that—and a life of domestic tranquility with my wife and kids. Then, after thinking there was no way for me to be content and still write, I found a way to write again. Or perhaps, to be more accurate, I should say that the words started coming again, because those years when I didn’t write were years when certain uses of language just seemed beyond me—in particular, the sort of writing where I had no idea if I’d ever get paid or not. Because, now that I think about it, I did do some writing during those years, but it was always for one job or another. Writing for which I knew there was both immediate purpose and payment—never poetry or fiction or anything where I was taking a risk of some sort.

A year ago this month, when a friend sent me a message telling me that Maggie Estep had suffered a massive heart attack, I was shocked. I’d always thought of her as the healthy artist, the one who’d found a way to keep her edge and angst and still be healthy and content. Even though I’d been living a much healthier—no, I can’t use this horrible word, but what the hell, I’ll go ahead and use it—lifestyle, I never imagined that someone like Maggie Estep would die before me. Me, with my high blood pressure, my heart condition, and my high-strung OCD attitudes and impractical worries and Tourette’s rages—older and outliving a writer like her. And taking more and more risks, even if they’re only in my mind. But then again, sometimes the risks you take in your mind can be just as dangerous as the ones you take with your feet or your hands or your fists—well, that is, if it’s a risk worth taking.

So here I am after all those years, writing poem after poem and story after story and feeling bored or sad in those moments in between, before I’m quite ready to start the next one. And then I start it. It isn’t, by any means, a logical sort of storyline. But, then, no one becomes an artist of any kind because it’s the logical thing to do—and anyone who does become an artist because he or she thinks it’s the logical thing to do is probably more of an asshole than an artist. Which isn’t to say that that person can’t still get some work done.

And of course what I’ve felt through all this is not just sadness but fear as well. Sadness, still, over an old friend’s death, and fear from thinking about all the damage that’s been done over the years. Yes, damage, because to live and survive means spending time being damaged, being hit and bruised and getting back up, losing blood, hair, teeth, muscle, and all those other things that make living an easier thing to accomplish, and it’s only when one dies that the damage stops.

And though it’s yet another thing that isn’t logical, I like to think that once the damage stops that there’s something that continues somehow. It may not be life as we know it, but it is, nevertheless, a form of existence. Call it soul or spirit or the collective unconscious or whatever you want, but I think it’s something that somehow gets released into the air. Something like that early spring breeze that hits you on the cheek like a surprise. That sweet feeling in your gut that’s part ache and part hunger when you look toward the mountains and think you can almost touch the colors you see. Or that joke from years ago that you’re only now beginning to understand.

-Jose Padua

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