Barback

Honestly, my checkered past is probably not half as interesting as I like to make it out to be. The dual curse (or blessing?) of being a writer and being responsible when it comes to substances is that you end up doing nothing but observing the train wrecks of other people’s lives when the opportunity presents itself. So I have a lot of things I’ve seen and danced along the edges of, but always wondered what it would be like if I were in the middle of them. (Of course, that’s still interesting enough for plenty of people, and I have been in the middle of some things which had ample craziness, but the grass is always greener in someone else’s story.) I think that’s why I keep wanting to branch out into prose, because as I’ve said before, I find it much harder to outright lie in poems. Bending the truth is pretty easy.

Donna’s Poetry Mix Tape prompt is to talk about a place where we worked when we were younger, warts and all. (And/or to add food as a prominent component.) The first year after college was a pretty chaotic one for me, and recent enough that it stands out in my mind as one of the wackiest, best times of my life. I lived in South Jersey, then Philadelphia; I worked, at any given time, at least three jobs (and up to six) before things got a bit more settled; I lived in one of the best parts of town, near the gay village, and did the shoestring (not starving) artist thing for a while. (There’s a coffeeshop in Philly where I used to sit at the window and write my novel, but my roommate was the painter type.) One of those jobs, which I held for a summer and fall, was barbacking/bartending at a gay bar on Saturday nights. Trying to condense all (even most) of the stories from that relatively small handful of weekend hours into this poem was a chore.

I’m a firm believer in leading many lives at once. At the same time, I was a receptionist at the gay community center; I worked at That Coffee Chain I Won’t Name; I wrote copy for the local newspaper; and I taught SAT Prep. Each required its own particular set of skills and demeanor (although dealing with meth-heads coming to the center for NA meetings and dealing with meth-heads coming to the coffeeshop for free pastries were surprisingly similar), and I learned a lot about balancing all of that. I’m in a balancing mood today, with the equinox and the change into Libra, but I don’t believe you can achieve balance through stasis; I believe in living as diverse an arrangement of experiences as possible.

I try not to have regrets, either. Life’s too short, but still with so much yet to do.

Barback

Between the green webs of laser light and the scanners
bobbing like mosaic UFOs in the steam, the mirror wall
showing DL brothas the silhouettes of themselves
and the discoballs swaying in time to the beat, it was like
the Nineties never ended.
You came in the back, through a half-lit alley
laced with concertina wire and nervous energy of actions
yet undone. Then there was this throwback chapel,
under-the-table but yearning up to the light-polluted heavens,
where the ladies’ room was a seven-minute confessional
with its lockable door,
where the manager told us to unbutton our shirts
and suck on lollipops in the dark,
where the strobes, now and then, caught an archipelago
of broken glass and black blood.
And the lot of us, barely old enough to be there,
twenty-one and twenty-two, dicing fruit and pouring drinks,
going joyfully deaf, watching the trysts unfold against
columns, thrusted in ultraviolet and baptized with
rum-flavored sweat. We wiped down the altars; we took
communion with the flock;
like attracts like; an aesthetics of want is the most true.
But afterward, we were still counting out the drawers
when time had re-asserted itself, and faces had again
taken on their proper shapes. Every climb into
memory is matched with a descent into the real world,
all of it mercilessly defined. Though,
if we gathered at diner tables with plates of fries and S.O.S.,
cups of coffee discreetly blessed
and still feeling the music in our circulation, if we could
tell stories over banana splits at the hour when even
cabs have stopped running, if we pulled our collars up
against the night’s love bites
and ambled by the last stragglers looking to pick up
a trick on the corner, then we could creep into our beds
wrapped up with the glorious
thing that is being. And caffeination goes out with the tide,
and particolored starfish dreams wash up on inner shores.
And every one of us that could dream on those nights,
dreamt of something beautiful, and complete.

4 thoughts on “Barback

  1. kelly says:

    “an aesthetics of want is the most true” very intriguing all the way through, and the ending is just fabulous.

  2. Sara V says:

    Your imagination, word weaving of images, never ceases to amaze me. “still feeling the music in our circulation” “particolored starfish dreams” Wonderful!

  3. Emily says:

    Tons of energy in this and so many gems. “an aesthetics of want”…”and caffeination goes out with the tide”…brilliant recapturing of an experience. I like the many religious words here, too…blessings and altars and confessionals. Wonderful!

  4. danadampier says:

    What an interesting story! Great poem.

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