January 2004–The funny thing about the little club is how totally unremarkable it is. From the outside it is thoroughly unimpressive. The main streets surrounding it are chronically blocked off because of construction, and the side streets that are open are scarred and pitted with potholes deep enough to land aircraft in. The park behind the building, and most of the area immediately surrounding it, is swarming with homeless people. Sunday is their day. Houston’s forgotten hide during the week and come out at night to carry on with the secret rituals of their very public lives. But Sunday’s, much like holidays, are their days. The area is deserted, and they are free to do as they please. For twenty four hours, the destitute don’t have to hide. And it’s ironic, because in the north west corner of the building that houses a bank and a restaurant, is a club called Paesano’s Lounge, where I don’t have to hide.
It’s a Sunday night in January of 2003. it’s rainy, it’s cold, it’s slick and it’s miserable. I’m way underage for anything, just seventeen years old, in a club that serves liquor. The last time I was here, I did a horrible job. It was Super Bowl Sunday and the crowd was abnormally small. I rushed a piece that I had tried to write earlier the same day, and I was, frankly, garbage. I tried to dress to impress, look dapper. I was focused on entirely the wrong thing. Thankfully, the crowd was small. Tonight, it’s all about redemption. I’m dressed in a blackish, grayish zip up hoodie, baggy, faded jeans and hiking boots. This is the third time I’ve been to Peasano’s Lounge, but it will act as my initiation. Baptism by fire.
The inside of the club is as unimpressive as the outside. Maybe to a person who enjoys the club experience it’s nice, but I don’t like clubs. I don’t like small, smoky, enclosed areas where the music is loud and sexually frustrated strangers grind on each other in a drunken stupor. That really doesn’t appeal to me at all. When you walk in, the first thing you notice is that the place is about the size you’d expect of anything that gets the space left over from a bank and a restaurant. It can hold maybe two hundred and fifty people comfortably, three hundred if you’re looking to start a fight. The bar is against the right wall, and there’s a row of stools pulled up to it, though later on tonight, people will be three or four deep at the bar, most of them drinking. The seats on what is the main dance floor, when there’s dancing going on, are arranged for an intimate crowd to observe the poets. Against the back left corner, there is a raised section of the floor with a long sofa that curves to fit the wall. In the back, behind the badly positioned stage, and behind an area that has couches and no real purpose, is what is considered the “VIP” room. In all actuality, it’s just a sitting room dimly lit by cheap, low wattage red bulbs. The bathrooms are off to the right, and colored strobe lights play against the wall, occasionally hitting a disco ball hanging on the ceiling at the far end of the bar.
I have my notebook in one pocket, my beat up red CD player in the other, headphones clamped firmly to my ears, music blaring, as I make my way to the bathroom. The stalls have no doors, and there is no soap. But I’m clean, so after I pee, I zip up and stand in front of one of the two mirrors and begin to practice my piece. I think it’s good. No. I know it’s good. But the problem is, I don’t know if these people will. They’re not used to my style of writing. I know this because I have my own unique style. When I perform, I have a quick pace with a complicated, multi-syllabic rhyme scheme, heavy on alliteration and word play. I touch on subjects that aren’t common for the poets that take the stage here, subjects that are near to my heart, that I have to confront every day that they just don’t. Or are too scared to touch on. All of which are reasons I don’t consider what I do spoken word poetry. It’s more like rap, but without the music. In fact, in the piece I’m doing tonight, I label my style “spoken word with a rap swagger.” I walk outside and pace in the cold night air, mumbling my piece over and over to myself.
When I go back in, the host, a man named Se7en (pronounced of course, Seven), is calling all of the poets who signed up to the VIP room. He runs down the rules of the house for us (“I don’t care about the sign up sheet. I’ll call you in whatever order I want, so stay close to the stage. Don’t make the crowd wait while you come all the way up from the back. There’s too many of y’all, and we’re running late. But fuck it, I’m drunk and I need a challenge.”). We’re dismissed, and he goes out to take the stage.
Se7en is not a tall man by any standards. He stands maybe five foot eight to five foot ten, with extremely light brown skin and wild hair that is normally braided, or at least should be. Tonight he’s wearing dark glasses, as he was the times before now, and will be in times to come. He’s a born MC, he has crowd control down to a science. It’s a Paesano’s tradition to get up and hug three people you didn’t come in with (“Damnit, get y’alls asses up and hug!”) That said and done, the lights go low, and it’s almost show time. But he has more to say, telling the crowd how to conduct themselves. Don’t yell out loud, but if you agree with what the poet has to say, snap your fingers, tap your ring on your glass, or your glass or knuckles on the table. People will do all this, including yell out loud, when the show is underway. Then comes the cell phone announcement (“Turn the shit off. Because if it goes off and one of the poets jump off stage and kick your ass, that’s your fault.”) usually at this point, there’s another announcement. (“The views and opinions of the poet are not the views and opinions of Renaissance Entertainment, or Paesano’s Lounge. If a poet say something you don’t agree with, go home, write a poem about it, and come back next Sunday. If you don’t write, meet the poet outside.”) But sometimes this one goes forgotten until the first poem that really gets people stirred up.
Finally, it’s show time. The crowd is small, but as Se7en was talking, people trickled in, some signed up to perform, some just sat down and ordered a drink. The crowd is generally genuinely friendly, but they go to a whole other level when the room starts to fill up. Chuckles turn to throaty laughs, good poets are suddenly excellent preachers, and the whole place is their amen corner now. Drinks are flowing, people are laughing, talking, having a good time. At the same time, the poets get full respect. People might whisper, but nobody out and out talks.
I can’t really focus on the poets. I’m jittery, but it’s not just that. It’s the fact that I’m cocky. I don’t feel that there’s a poet here that’s better than me. They’re good, I’m just better. There’s something about the soft anonymity of being on stage in front of a dark room full of strangers. It’s like alcohol, it’s a type of false confidence. They don’t know me, so I don’t have to hold anything back. So to hell with whoever fees otherwise, because everybody is brave in a crowd, and there’s not a person in the place who can write like me. It’s my one constant passion, the talent God gave me. And here, this place, with this particular blend of people, is the perfect place where my passion and my swaggering, cocky attitude can be combined.
And it is this combination that makes Paesano’s my sanctuary. Starting tonight, I will be living Sunday to Sunday, recharging myself for each new week by beginning it on stage in front of strangers. Because Paesano’s is where I can reclaim my self esteem, leaving insecurities and life’s harsh realities behind me. From here on out, when my name is called, I will stroll calmly, slowly, to the stage, look out at the crowd, and begin to speak. I will usually start with some sort of preamble, an introduction. Tonight’s is the admission that I messed up last Sunday, and tonight is all about redemption, as well as that I have performed my second piece already. But I don’t think they were paying attention the first time, so I’m going to do it again so they understand fully. And then, for the next three to five minutes, I purge my soul to people who don’t care about me in the least bit. Jeremy ceases to be, and tonight, Paesano’s Lounge is introduced to Causal Swagger.
I can’t see the audience at all, because the lights that illuminate the stage are beaming down on me relentlessly, and I’m silently thankful. The sight of a hundred or so strangers staring and sizing me up will more than make me nervous. But, they might as well not be there at all, because all that fills my vision is the microphone and my gesturing right hand. I begin to float, and for a blissful moment, here on stage, wrapped in a warm jacket on a cold night, all that exists is me and the microphone.
It is now that I realize that the microphone is magic, but it will be a long time until I can figure out why. Paesano’s is a club on the outskirts of the dirty center of the fourth larges, and most polluted, city in America. It’s intimate, but in the same way that sex with a stranger is: somebody you don’t know gets to see parts of you that no one else does. Because in any club, a certain side of you comes out. It’s a side you don’t display on your job, or with your parents, or in church. It’s a hidden you that you can only let loose when no one is looking. And what better way to make sure no one is looking at you, than to go to a place where everybody is hoping no one will be looking at them.
And therein lies the magic of the microphone on a small stage in the tiny room that houses a little known club in a great big city. It isn’t like a poetry group, where you are invited to discuss your feelings with anyone, or make any lasting relationships. It’s quick, it’s painless, it’s anonymous. You’re encouraged to do nothing but say your piece and move on. You’ll get patted on the back if you do well, it’s entirely possible to make friends. But mostly for the poets, for me, it’s five minutes of total, boundless freedom with no consequences. And it begs the question, what would you do if you knew you could get away with it? How addictive would it be?
Personally, I take the opportunity to hide in plain sight, tucked away in the private subculture of artistic escapists where anybody can gain entrance for a seven dollar fee. And as I walk off stage, having given myself completely to my new addiction, I realize that I have found what I’ve been looking for. Every Sunday until early June, I will swagger confidently to the microphone, take the stage for the entertainment of people looking to do exactly what I’m doing: escaping into a shadowy community where everybody can be anybody because nobody cares.