23 March, 2012

Yea Verily, the Cheese Didst Fly

The closing of our favorite coffeehouse precipitated a panic among its clientele. Where do we hang out now? we asked, desperate because we were young, therefore prone to lassitude, and conscious of the legitimacy imparted upon time-wasting by turning it into a group activity. The choice of which coffeehouse to frequent is not lightly nor easily made. As with a favorite restaurant, club, or bar, it speaks volumes about a person and is as individualized as taste in clothes. Unlike clothing, however, you can’t just strip yourself of your coffeehouse whenever the occasion suits — like a marriage, you’re stuck with it until one of you dies. (Or so my friends and I believed.) It is, in other words, crucial for one to select wisely.

So the onetime patrons of “our” coffeehouse became a diaspora. Some migrated to the sleek new establishment down the street — the one with the halogen lamps and brushed steel accents. Others dispersed downtown, to that spot resembling a sitcom set, with its overstuffed chairs and over-eclectic decor. Still others resorted to the stuffy standby with the downstairs theater and that Simpsons pinball machine in the corner that was beneath everyone to play. Starbucks was not part of anyone’s equation.

My friends Brahm and Paul found a lovably shabby place called Webstirs, a couple of blocks from where our former hangout now sat unoccupied. The personable owner was middle-aged, with a couple of inches’ beard and John Lennon glasses. He explained to us that he’d bought the erstwhile church for the building’s space, even after half the capital vanished with his runaway business partner. “We’d planned on it being an Internet café?” he said in his habitual way, with the interrogatoroy rising inflection that always made me think he was posing a riddle. “Web-stirs — get it?”

He served good enough java, but instead of a cybercafé he had ended up with a big space dotted with vacant sofas and a low stage serving no purpose. As if to prove to ourselves we hadn’t picked the wrong coffeehouse (thereby admitting to a host of unspeakable character flaws), Brahm, Paul, and I were determined to help fill those sofa seats with patrons and make Webstirs a wild success. Maybe then its owner could actually invest in a few computers and stop having to explain his business’s name to people. The three of us dipped into our own pockets to pay for promotional flyers, donated novelty mugs to the assortment decorating the coffeehouse’s walls, and, in a singular moment of brilliance, thought up a weekly event to make use of that stage.

“Poetry open-mics are horrible,” said Brahm from the sofa across from mine, his long legs splayed out like he owned the place. At a minimum, Webstirs was like our foster child.

“Right,” I said. “So we strip away the pretension, ramp up the irony. Why not? Everybody loves irony.”

Paul broke in, always ready with a qualification. “Actually, a lot of people don’t get irony. But people would like Bad Poetry Night because it pokes fun at all the self-conscious crap you get at real poetry nights.” He took a violent slurp of coffee that fogged the lenses of his thick-framed glasses. 
Oh, and here’s one: we’ll let the audience throw cheese at people onstage! That’ll break down some boundaries.”

Brahm and I were accustomed to this sort of ambiguous remark from him. Paul loved keeping people in suspense. We waited impassively for an explanation as his eyeballs slowly defogged.

“Wadded-up balls of paper — yellow paper, only we call it cheese,” he said at last. “Then it’s interactive, not passive. Everybody gets some paper cheese when they walk in the door, and we encourage ‘em to pelt the worst poet.”

“Dude,” said Brahm, impassioned by the premise. “At the end we could give the worst poet a prize.”

“First place wins a jar of Vienna sausages,” I said.

“Or a can of potted meat food product substitute stuff,” said Brahm. We were on a roll.

“Some Always Save mackerel,” Paul threw in.

“Man, you guys are great?” said the owner as he brought us all congratulatory free refills of the house blend.

For its inaugural evening, the turnout for Bad Poetry Night was surprising. People we’d never seen at Webstirs before appeared in the seats we’d rearranged opposite the stage. The flyers we had left in bookstores and tacked to the bulletin boards of rival coffeehouses had worked to draw a near-full house. Paul tottered around with a wicker basket, encouraging everyone to take from it their allotment of "cheese." As the only really sociable one of us, emcee duties fell to him by default. His big, dimply smile attested to how well he took to them.

“Hey, everybody, welcome to Webstirs and our first-ever Bad Poetry Night,” he announced into the microphone. It sounded odd to hear his nasal voice amplified in a space I was accustomed to being quiet. “Our host” — he motioned to the owner at the counter — “and I will be doing the judging tonight, so I’m gonna recuse myself from performing, but let me get a show of hands and we’ll put someone entertaining on this stage.”

Paul called up a young brunette in a summer dress. After a hearty round of applause, she bravely recited a bad piece of free verse about a stray dog in a grocery store parking lot. A couple of balls of cheese arced up at the stage, probably hurled by the woman’s friends. It was bad, sure, just not bad in a good way. No one laughed out loud.

Next was a girl with pink-and-blonde hair and a labret. She set the badness bar high, doing what looked like a half-improvised riff on the feminist free verse that sometimes got trotted out at other poetry free-for-alls: frequent invocation of her “sacred vagina,” coupled with a burlesque of flailing arms and sneers. I thought she was hilarious, and assailed her with more than half my cheese, but a lot of the audience were too uncomfortable with the talk of lady-parts to react.

Paul called me to the stage next. Maybe it was because the first couple of performances had warmed them up, but I’d no sooner introduced myself — “My name is Byron, and the poem I’m reading tonight is about the best thing to write the worst poetry about: my ex-girlfriend” — than my vision filled with flying yellow balls. A couple of people groaned. The girl with the piercing threw all her cheese at me at once, then bent to pick pieces off the floor and throw those, too. From way in the back, Brahm heckled me, shouting, “You suck!"

“If you’re through,” I said, mock-smug, “I’d like to proceed. These twenty-four rhymed couplets are entitled ‘Tears and Vomit.’”

More cheese, even more emphatic groans. It was great.

After my reading, just five more people went up to perform. One was a skinny kid in a backwards baseball cap. He was probably a couple of years younger than me, maybe seventeen. He took the stage meekly, shrinking from view into the bagginess of his black jeans, then mumbled into the mic, “’Sup, everybody. I’ma spit a little rhyme for y’all.”

What followed was a five-minute rap full of pride and bluster and conviction that all but erased from memory the shy presence that had introduced it. Even unhip as I am, I could tell his rap was epic. He made growing up in white, middle-class suburbs sound like an actual struggle — grappling with identity, paying no mind to haters, arguing with Moms. Brahm’s early scoff was put down quickly by Paul, who hissed, “So what if he doesn’t get our idea of bad? At least he’s got the balls to go up there and do his thing.”

When the kid was done, he got a standing ovation while he slunk offstage, a wallflower once more. I was reminded of my first time performing for an audience — how liberating that had been, how shockingly rewarding to be so appreciated. The white Midwestern homeboy with the wallet chain had something in common with me. How weird, I thought.

“Okay, everybody, the judges have conferred,” said Paul, mounting the stage one last time. “We’d like to thank you all for coming tonight, and the poets for sharing their, um, talent. We’ve decided to present the award for worst poem of the evening to Byron, who gave us that godawful rhyming verse about lost love. Byron, jeez, that was awful. Come up here and get your official Bad Poetry Night first-place ham loaf!”

The ham loaf had been an ideal prize choice. Its weight was almost enough to make you feel proud, holding it up and waving while twenty-odd strangers struck you appreciatively with balls of colored paper.

I wish I could say that our efforts with Bad Poetry Night were enough to save Webstirs from going out of business, like a fundraiser organized to save the beloved summer camp in some bawdy 1980s teen comedy. It would satisfy me to claim that the event reaped sufficient dividends for Webstirs to become the Internet café it was intended to be. Unfortunately, it didn’t last the year. Our friendly hippie host closed shop overnight, without so much as returning the mugs we’d contributed. As divorcés, we swallowed our pride and moved on. Paul joined the downtown sitcom cast for awhile, slumped in one of many pastel armchairs for a season before coming to his senses. Brahm and I fell back in with prior acquaintances at a casual place near the university. Good coffee there; I liked the Sumatran. And the red-haired barista. If you’re wondering about my ham loaf, it was re-awarded to a more deserving stranger at one of the final Bad Poetry Nights. I was unsentimental about it, and thus never learned if it was eventually eaten.


  1. I was just telling the story of the Brains Challenge the other day.... you forgot that we had another prize, the suet. Every prize was guaranteed not to be fit for human consumption, just like the poems and the brains. (I still remember the vast quantities of mustard and Heinz 57 that it took to cover up the flavor and texture of that nightmare of a meal.)

    1. Byron wrote a post about the Brains Challenge in November 2012. You can read it here.


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