You might call it a poultry reading.
In the midst of an evening of poetry, storytelling, garbanzo bean salad and rice pudding at Karella’s on Newkirk Street in southeast Baltimore, a young Latina ran out of her rowhouse in pursuit of a rooster. As it jumped the curb and into the brick street, she swooped down and grabbed the cock by the neck. Pet bird safely in her arms, the girl smiled at the writers who’d come out to applaud and went inside.
It was one of those “only in Baltimore” moments, reminding me of good times once had at Miss Bonnie’s Elvis Bar (now an ugly, renovated private home) at the corner of Fleet and Port streets below Patterson Park. Miss Bonnie – Alabama-born Lavonda Hunt; barmaid, proprietor and sole resident of Graceland on the Patapsco – indulged us mightily in the late 1980s.
We had the run of the place, holding literary readings, fiction workshops and bon voyage parties. Her customers were known to travel as easily to Paris as Ocean City, the few merchant seamen left in the neighborhood shipping out to the Far East. A bantam in clown make-up named Ted put hexes on people he didn’t like and our antidote was to duck into the alley to smoke reefer below the moon and a 15-by-12 foot mural of the King.
Bonnie claimed to have met Elvis Presley once in the check-out line of a Florida supermarket — just a simple “hello.” She provided us with cheap beer – “Old German” in brown grenade bottles for 65 cents – toaster-oven pizzas and, in her own quiet way, sipping wine from a juice glass at a corner of the bar, love.
Every so often the electronic “shuffle bowl” near the bathroom would squawk, not unlike the sound the Newkirk Street rooster made upon its rescue.
“I definitely remember the shuffle bowl talking in the background in a loud voice – something like ‘step right up, take your chance!” said Baltimore writer Jen Grow, who took that long-ago workshop and has an essay about con games – “A Catalog of Lies” – in the current Maryland Literary Review.
And take our shots we did: 100-proof Old Grand Dad as we aimed for romance, a dance partner when “Suspicious Minds” came on the jukebox and, though we kept it to ourselves, a seat at the banquet that is literature.
Miss Bonnie died in 1993 at the age of 62, younger than I am now. Nikolakis Karela, son of the cafe’s owners and host of the May 16 reading, is less than half my age. And like Miss Bonnie, Nik is game for just about any idea that brings new faces to 426 South Newkirk Street, an afternoon hangout for aging (and animated) Greek men smoking cigarettes and drinking strong coffee.
To set the proper Greektown tone, I began the reading with a short poem of longing, sentiment and regret. It was perfect not only for my family’s old neighborhood (my father grew up three blocks from Karella’s and worked at a grocery around the corner in the late 1940s), but every block in Baltimore where things ain’t what they used to be.
It’s called “The Afternoon Sun” by C.P. Cavafy [1863-1933], the Egyptian-born son of Hellas. I learned of Cavafy (poet, civil servant, journalist and citizen of Alexandria) from another Greektown restaurateur, the philosopher Xenos Kohilas who presides over Ikaros just up the road.
The poem is an Edward Hopper painting in words.
This room, how well I know it. Now they’re renting it, and the one next to it, as offices. The whole house has become an office building for agents, businessmen, companies.
This room, how familiar it is.
The couch was here, near the door, a Turkish carpet in front of it.
Close by, the shelf with two yellow vases. On the right—no, opposite—a wardrobe with a mirror.
In the middle, the table where he wrote, and the three big wicker chairs. Beside the window, the bed where we made love so many times.
They must still be around somewhere, those old things.
Beside the window the bed; the afternoon sun used to touch half of it.
One afternoon at four o’clock we separated
for a week only. . .
And then— that week became forever.
The plan was for Nik to read each stanza in Greek before I repeated the lines in English but I couldn’t find a copy in the original. When told he didn’t have to read poetry (in any language) before a crowd, he was relieved.
Next up was a remembrance of Leonard “Boogie” Weinglass by longtime newspaperman Michael Olesker, who recently published a biography of his City College classmate, Boogie: Life on a Merry-Go-Round.
Olesker told stories about the scrapper from Violet Avenue near Park Circle who made a fortune in the clothing business in the era of platform shoes, bell bottoms and corduroy overalls in canary yellow, lime green and pink.
How the “didn’t have two nickels to rub together” charmer once stole a cache of blank report cards from the principal’s office and sold them before being called into that same office, busted. Boogie took bets on football games while wearing his basketball uniform before a big game. And how, once fortuna smiled broadly upon Weinglass, he undertook many a clandestine mitzvah, taking care of strangers without making a big, put-my-name-on-the-building deal out of it.
Olesker was followed by Tracy Dimond, a writer/poet from Pigtown who brought enough friends with her to fill the rowhouse bar. Dimond describes her work as “collage” of ideas, often prompted by overheard conversation before the writing “takes a turn” along the way. She read several poems – about the cosmos, carbohydrates and cancer – before introducing “Inheritance.”
The poem, she said, pivots on her Polish Catholic heritage. Her maternal grandparents – Golej is her mother’s maiden name – are said to have run from the Bolsheviks, arriving in the New World via Ellis Island. The mention of potatoes and kielbasa caught my ear. It sparked memories of my mother’s childhood home a mile-and-a-half away on Dillon Street in Canton where my Polish grandmother made Easter kielbasa by pushing spiced pork through a steer’s horn into thin casings of sheep intestines.
Dimond read “Inheritance” from a barstool between the crowd and the Karela family as they prepared pork souvlaki and grilled shrimp in the kitchen. In goes, in part:
A smooth handshake hasn’t prepared 40 pounds of potatoes.
A smooth handshake hasn’t carried firewood.
A smooth handshake hasn’t considered the dog-eared page of a library book.
After Dimond, the headliner stepped forward. A veteran poet from Northern Virginia by-way-of New York City, Mike Maggio was almost eerily calm in his delivery – the air in the room changed – and confident in what he delivered. The spell was cast by “Siren Song,” included in his new collection – Let’s Call It Paradise – published this year by San Francisco Bay Press.
Inspired by Homer, it begins:
Come, let us go now, to a place beyond dreams.
Let us arise and go now
through the fond, murmuring streets
through the blind, stuttering boulevards
where siren song stills the air
where the minute’s wheels wend their way
to that elusive rapturous bliss.
As I walked Maggio to his car on what was once the parking lot of Illona’s Restaurant – which had the best pizza in 21224 this side of Matthews – he told of the long drive from his home in the D.C. suburbs to Crabtown.
“It took two hours due to a storm,” he said. “But it was filled with rainbows that made for distracted driving. In true Homerian fashion, by the time I arrived in Greektown it was completely sunny.”
Rafael Alvarez is the author of The Fountain of Highlandtown. A contributor to the Village Voice, He can be reached via email@example.com