Dateline: Downtown

Dateline: Downtown

Dateline: Downtown

Dan Roche

A friend recently brought me to a poetry recital at Brown University. Poetry recitals are artistic autos-da-fe, second only to staged executions in moral nihilism. For the fortune-cherished naiad that has never attended one of these preening sessions, let me explain. First, you cram 100 pompous gasbags into a comfortable room to oh, just impress the bloody hell out of each other. Then you flee. Return in two hours and you will find that poetry was read, hors-d’oeuvres were served and culture became taxidermy.

It’s a dynamic not specific to poetry recitals. Pack enough dopes into an auditorium for any reason-political conventions are famous examples-and the air turns fetid with self-importance. This particular fiasco involved a group of students, including my friend, some of who were actually quite good. It’s not the reading of poetry I object to, it’s the forum; poetry should be ranted on the bus, cried into a bottle, hollered on the street, murmured to a lover, sung in the shower and at baptisms and eulogies. Poetry recitals, the ones I’ve been to, necrotize poetry as Catholic services do God.

But I’m a roll-with-the-punches kind of dude, so I sat and enjoyed. What incensed me about this particular event came afterwards, at the reception. My friend, my buffer, had pals there and was mingling. I was drinking a Pepsi, just watching people. Someone struck up a conversation with me:

“Aren’t you drinking?” a young man asked.

“Yes. I’m drinking a Pepsi,” I replied.

“Yes, but there’s free wine here!” he said, glad.

“I know. I don’t drink anymore.”

My new acquaintance asked why, and I told him it tires me of life. Besides, I’m Irish. I have to be careful.

That ended that. He asked me what I was reading, and I replied, honestly enough, that I was re-reading “War and Peace.”

He’d never read it. He was impressed. I didn’t want him to be; most people don’t have time in their lives to read 2,800 pages of Tolstoy. I’m just lucky. We kept talking about literature, and I told him other than Tolstoy I read true crime serials, Ann Rule being my favorite. He was no longer impressed. “Are you a student?” he asked, setting me up for:

“Where do you go to school?”

“I go to the University of Massachusetts, Boston.”

“Oh,” he smirked. “Party out of your last school?”

No, I said, I’m a working adult, and my school caters to that. That’s what it is there for, and it’s very good at it.

Next question: “What do you do?”

I told him I make sculptures out of broken glass, take Scientology personality tests and skew the answers to make it look like I’m monstrous, and when I have time I ghost ride the whip while playing “Genius of Love” over and over and over and over.

“No, I mean for work.”

“I’m an after-hours walking courier.”

He smirked again. “That’s…interesting.”

Yes, it is interesting. Me, the streetlights, the dead of night and the nocturne of the naked city. Interesting, interesting, interesting.

“Pretty menial.”

That’s when the chips fell. I got up and out of there to wander around Providence for a while. I got to wondering.

When did it become not OK in America to be working class? I felt like one of the Geico cavemen-hurt, bummed and indignant. I remembered my old man telling me “Boy, it doesn’t really matter what you’re going to be when you grow up. Lawyer, banker, ditch digger, it’s all the same. But no matter what happens, make sure you’re the best goddamned ditch digger on the planet.”

That is America. I’m not better than you; I just outwork you, as the great Woody Hayes said. It’s not a bunch of fancy white people eating cheese and drinking Zinfandel while pecking to see who is kallistos, comfortable that all assembled are more beautiful still than the man on the street. All men are created equal, and that means you may be more cultured than I; but I can beat the tar out of you, so we’re even if you really think about it. This idea that the best Harvard student is innately better than your average wino on the street is everything Jefferson and Paine railed against. The Harvard student isn’t better–he made better choices, or had rich parents. This feudalism fluffed up for the 21st century, smirking at you because it’s an executive Vice President and you shell its pistachios for a nickel an hour, is Un-American. Write it in the sky.

Sure we keep up with the Joneses, and maybe feel a little superior if they don’t keep up with us. But what happened to the idea of honest work? Does the fact that I’m a schlep mean I’m less worthy of respect than some junior neoconservative who lands an internship at the “Atlantic Monthly”?

Maybe the kid’s right. Maybe my job is menial, and whatever he hacks away at is of more societal value than safe passage of the sensitive documents and valuables frequently entrusted to my care. Maybe I’ll just get the hell out of here and move somewhere that’ll have me, because I don’t want any part of an America that doesn’t respect people like me, who built this freaking dump from the ground up.

Put that in your poetry, I’m saying to that Brown kid. Whitman did. In so many words, of course.