Incident at Café Insomnia


I came across this story while trying to clean out and impose some semblance of order on the paper files. It was first published on my old blog Memo from the Fringes on July 24, 2005. As those who find their way to this space regularly might expect, minor edits were made to the previously published story. I hope you find it amusing.

What follows is a product of the author's twisted imagination. Resemblance to any person or poetry reading, living, dead, or institutionalized, is purely coincidental.

These days it is difficult not to be dismayed and depressed by events. The election, the war, the rollback of every progressive program of the twentieth century, the disgraceful episode in Detroit last winter where a riot broke out at a basketball game. Closer to home, the incident at Café Insomnia left many shaking their heads. In retrospect, that one, like the outcome of the election, like the spectacle in Detroit, could almost have been predicted. That's how things are in retrospect.

No one noticed as the group of animal rights activists infiltrated the irregulars who regularly make the Café Insomnia scene for the Tuesday night Write Makes Mic poetry reading. Nobody suspected they came with the intent of protesting Lucas Black Barry's notorious "Dead Puppy" poem. You could have seen it coming, except you couldn't, and anyway no one did. There were many faces none of the irregulars who regularly make the Café Insomnia scene recognized that night, but it happens that way sometimes. No one gave a thought to the bulky coats and jackets these strangers wore. This is Portland and it was the rainy season after all.

Perhaps it was just a simple twist of fate that had our lovely host Amelia Kelly declare Lucas Black Barry the evening's sacrificial poet of doom, her designation for the first reader called to the mic because no one ever wants to be the opening act, and some wag, some troublemaker, rumor has it a big Indian, spotted earlier at the Bonfire accompanied by his entourage and drinking heavily, growled, "Dead puppy, dirty hippie, it's all the same to me." Predictably, Mr. Black Barry was only too happy to take the bait and launch into the poem for which he is known among psychotics and coffee addicts across this great land of ours, eliciting a chorus of boos and hisses from the animal rightsters as they surged toward the stage. Undeterred, Mr. Black Barry ratcheted up the stakes by droning on in his William Burroughs voice.

The confrontation escalated when a member of a splinter group of vegetarians who smoke spotted the poet known as Jean-Claude hunched in the corner muttering small talk at the wall in his Richard Nixon voice. Upon making eye contact, the vegetarian blew an imaginary smoke ring, or it could have been a kiss, at Jean-Claude, who thus provoked unleashed a torrent of withering polysyllabic invective delivered in rhymed couplets laced with multiple entendres, layers of irony, and at least five types of ambiguity, all in his John F. Kennedy voice. Jean-Claude's blistering wit and erudition were lost on his antagonists, whose literary tastes ran more to Euell Gibbons' Stalking the Wild Asparagus. Sensing they had been insulted, the vegetarians launched a barrage of tofu, seaweed, and Marlboros that had Jean-Claude and everyone around him diving for cover.

All hell broke loose when Mr. Black Barry was struck by a cup of herbal tea that left a noticeable stain on the vintage corduroy "sport coat of poets and adjunct professors" he has worn with pride since purchasing it for a dollar last September at a swap meet in North Portland. "I hope you're ready to meet Jesus," the poet howled and launched his scrawny frame into the fray, sprinting past the woman built like a fire hydrant who actually threw the cup of herbal tea and hurling himself upon a lissome, blonde Reed College sophomore who was not even an animal rightster. Her cute self was just standing there. The poet flailed wildly at public-spirited individuals who came to her aid and pulled him away. Fortunately, Mr. Black Barry punches like a little kid and no one was injured.

The furious animal rightsters unleashed a fresh barrage of tofu, seaweed, and Marlboros. When Horn Dog Buck stepped forward with the intent of being a peacemaker and reining in the out-of-control Mr. Black Barry, now running amok in the center of the room, the woman built like a fire hydrant taunted him, "Bring it on, Corn Dog." Incensed by this deliberate and not especially clever parody of his name and, possibly, slur on his manhood, Horn Dog leaped forward to pound her about the head and shoulders with a sock filled with an undetermined but definitely icky substance. Toward the back of the room, Ian Cain, wearing the sweater he has not removed in three and a half years and a sardonic smile, was heard to mumble, almost coherently, "That's what comes of reading Bukowski," as he picked a Marlboro up off the floor and stepped outside for a smoke.

"Make them stop," someone cried out to the lovely Amelia Kelly, perched back by the espresso machine. The lovely Amelia Kelly responded, "Why would I make them stop? This is the most fun I've had on Tuesday night in years."

Like a fool I stepped forth, as if a cool head might have a shot at prevailing, but I felt I ought to do something. It was my misfortune that I wore leather clogs that night instead of the customary old running shoes. Next thing I knew, I'd been knocked off my feet, the leather shoes had been violently removed, and animal rightsters were thrashing me about the head and shoulders with them. "Have I not rights?" I cried, somehow getting to my feet and beating a hasty retreat. "Am I not an animal too?" My antagonists, failing to grasp the metaphysical implications of the question, or maybe they just took it to be rhetorical, caressed the shoes while chanting incantations of gibberish as if this might somehow induce a dead cow back to life.

Some good citizen must have dialed 9-1-1, or maybe it's just the authorities have the place under surveillance since Bashir the owner inaugurated those Bush Sundays to raise money for the Democratic candidate for president, because the cops showed up, three on motorcycle, two patrol cars, and one uniform pounding it down from Belmont clutching a half-eaten donut. They were booed and hissed and pelted with Marlboros by poets and animal rightsters alike. The scene could have gotten really ugly had not most of the poets been too busy taking notes for the epic poems they intended to write about it to join in the fracas.

Somehow the animal rightsters melted into the night. The Reed College girl declined to press charges. She gave Lucas Black Barry her phone number and asked if he'd like to look at her poems. It turned out she was turned on by his William Burroughs voice. If only he had a phone. The cops did not know what to make of Horn Dog Buck. They cut him loose because it was easier than trying to figure him out. I was the only one charged. Impersonating a grownup. Lucky for me, it's a misdemeanor.

#LiteraryampIntellectual

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David Matthews

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