My friend Tommy was an old school gay man whose preferred gender pronoun was she or Mary. When I would meet someone at one of his dinners, it would take me a while to realize that the guy talking to me, was the ‘she’ who had the big job at the Pru in Boston. He was the ‘Mary’ who Tommy claimed also had a legendary, lunchtime sex-life in the fens of Boston.
Tommy was one of the funniest people ever, an idiot savant of punchlines. Whenever I was stuck with a set-up, but no punchline, I would call him. “Tommy, men who take Viagra get hard-ons. If women took Viagra, what would they get?” Nano-pause. “Wide-ons.”
He loved to entertain and loved music, especially, of course, Broadway show tunes. During his delicious and basic home-cooked meat, potatoes, salad, green vegetable dinners and dessert he would play Broadway show tunes on shuffle. One night, instead of the shuffle button, he pressed whatever button cued his CD player to play the first song of every show, then the second song, third, etc. until the finale of every show.
Dinner was pleasant enough through the first rounds of each show’s prelude, first act, introduction of characters, themes. But things got tense times six when one after another, West Side Story, Oklahoma, Music Man, Gigi, Hello Dolly and Gypsy crescendoed to their climactic, wrenching, show-stopper song.
Suddenly Tommy’s dining room started shrinking. I started looking for an exit and any excuse to leave. In my panic I eyed my dinner companions and worried that my steak knife was not going to be sharp enough. We were all still rattled during dessert and denouement. We helped clear the table and were gone before his beloved “Jeopardy!” came on.
The next day when Tommy called for our traditional, dishy post-dinner debrief, he said he’d figured out that the uncharacteristically unsettled mood of dinner had been caused, not by his broccoli casserole, but by the serial, unshuffled tracks in his CD tray.
This summer I have flashed back to that night as six different breaking news stories cycled through to their climactic cuts. Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. North Korea: the improvised fire and fury. The peaceful military takeover of the White House. Charlottesville. Trump bemoaning the crumbling infrastructure of white racism with its beautiful statues. He’s looked at crowds from both sides now. Bannon’s departure.
Forgotten are those months of prelude, introduction of theme and character. Our national needle is stuck in the chaotic, claustrophobic loop of hysteria. Our dining rooms are panic rooms. Of course I want the total solar eclipse to be a sign of the beginning of the denouement, then end of the totalitarian rectal prolapse that is the cis-narcissist Donald Trump. We shall see, partially.
But in the meantime to honor Tommy’s dinners and his jonesing for “Jeopardy!,” I took Poetry for $500!
My brain was hurting from trying to wring any humor from the daily breaking shit-storm of news for my summer show in Ptown: “Knock, Knock; Who’sThere? Zombie Apocalypse.” Scaramucci was fun, but I only had the Mooch for 11 days.
I needed a break.
So on my night off, we went to hear poetry at the Fine Arts Work Center. Luckily the extraordinary poets, Natalie Diaz, Brenda Shaughnessy, Rachel Eliza Griffiths and Robin Coste Lewis were all teaching poetry that week. Their evening poetry readings, each different and challenging were generously structured to allow for interpretation and experience. They were a timely reminder that the opposite of fascism is imagination; the opposite of fake news is poetry. Nevertheless; always the more.
Kate Clinton is a longtime humorist. She writes regularly for the Blade.