As you cruise north on New Jersey’s Atlantic Avenue, through the drowsy, middle-class shore towns of Margate and Ventnor, the ice cream parlors and bike shops slowly give way to tattoo parlors, law offices, and pawnshops with “Money to Lend” signs. Imagine The Wire by the beach, and you have the idea. Then suddenly, the shops turn upscale, as if a developer flicked a switch and transformed urban blight into a Banana Republic outdoor mall, with glitzy neon casino hotels rising in the east.
Atlantic City, a place of intense juxtapositions, is where Joel Dias-Porter—aka DJ Renegade, 1990s National Poetry Slam phenom, unrecognized mentor, and old co-worker of mine at DC WritersCorps—has planted himself. In a way, it makes sense—Renegade himself has stark juxtapositions (a math whiz who writes poetry, a gambler who never drinks), and his path has always been different. In the early ’90s, he lived in a homeless shelter in Washington, DC so he wouldn’t need a day job and could go to the Library of Congress every day and focus exclusively on his poetry.
Word on the street is that seven years ago Renegade walked away from a decent-paying job teaching poetry to middle-schoolers and dropped out of the spoken-word scene to move down here and be a full-time gambler. If the story was that he had moved to Idaho to herd goats and suck the milk from their teats with his own mouth so he could be close to nature and have more time to write, it might be more digestible. But gambling? In Atlantic City? Some of us poets openly wondered if he’d lost his mind. As I park my car at the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa it feels as if I’m going to meet Beat poet Bob Kaufman in the midst of his vow of silence.
I have to confess, I have assumed the worst—Renegade down on his luck one night, his baseball cap tilted down over his eyes, the silhouette of his six-foot-four frame in an alleyway as he borrows money from a loan shark, then bad luck hitting him like a clock and him being found one cold morning, behind a Dumpster, both his legs broken. But in reality, Renegade looks pretty good, relaxing in the Borgata’s plush lobby in an oversized leather chair that suits his large frame rather nicely. He’s dressed in the same outfit he’s been wearing the 18 years I’ve known him: a black baseball hat, black T-shirt, black pants, black sneakers. An iMac is lit up on the coffee table in front of him. There’s a petite pizza box from an upscale Italian eatery at his feet.
We chat and he gives me the lay of the land. In the casino, there are table games and there are slots. The poker room is different from other table games because it’s the one table game where the gamblers are not playing against the house. The house just takes a cut of the action; the gamblers play against each other at an oblong table that can seat about 10.
“What characteristics of yours allow you to play poker well?” I ask. I’m thinking he’ll cite a high aptitude for math, but he replies, “I’m very patient. I can sit and wait forever. The second characteristic is I don’t care about the money. They are just chips to me. And I have the ability to process a lot of information quickly. And as it turns out, I’m pretty good at reading people. I was pretty sure I’d be good at the math part, but I wasn’t sure I’d be good at the people part.”
“Do poetry writing and poker playing come from the same place?” I ask.
“In a poem, when you’re creative, your creativity is on display for the world to see. You are given credit for your creativity. In poker, if you execute the perfect bluff, you are being creative, but in order to be successful, you do not want to be found out.”
“What’s the joy you get from poker?”
“The same as I get from chess or Scrabble—that you outsmarted your opponent.”
“How is poker different than blackjack?”
“Blackjack is a simpler game. It has less decision points. There are four or five decision points in every hand of poker.”
“How many decision points are there in a poem?”
“A poem has a very large number; every time you choose a word is a decision point.”
“How has your tendency to write love poems been affected by your life here?”
“I just write love poems for women who work in casinos. ‘The Empress of High Desire’—she’s working at Caesars.”
“What characteristics allow you to write poetry?”
“A love of language, an innate sense of rhythm and musicality in respect to language, an ability to focus on details. I’ve always done well in things that involve creativity: macramé, origami, photography, the trumpet—I haven’t played it since I got my teeth knocked out.”
“You got your teeth knocked out?”
“Yeah, about five times. Once from fighting. Twice from playing sports. It was the same tooth that kept getting knocked out.”
“What characteristics allow you to be an effective reader of other people’s poetry?” I ask this because one of the most fascinating things about Renegade is his influence. A number of younger poets who are having great success in the poetry world—John Murillo, A. Van Jordan, 2010 National Book Award winner Terrance Hayes—all claim him as a major influence.
John Murillo says, “Renegade was my first real poetry teacher: gave me a book list, exercises, vocal and breathing exercises, workshopped my poems. The whole nine.”
Terrance Hayes says, “I met Renegade in my second year of graduate school. All of my teachers were terrific, but I think Renegade was my first true mentor. It was definitely never stated in such corny terms, but he was part seasoned big brother, part poetry expert, part know-it-all uncle. Always an honest, encouraging friend. He was my best reader for many years.”
“I’m brutally honest,” Renegade says. “I’m obsessively analytical. A lot of people want to be immersed in the process, but they don’t want to be conscious of the process.”
I look up and become conscious of a man moving through the lobby in a bathing suit and flip-flops. Inside the casino, it’s easy to forget that the ocean is right outside. “Do you ever go to the beach?”
“I’ve only been to the beach twice, in 11 years—once with Gayle Danley, and once when a woman asked me for directions—and it occurred to me that I’d never been there, so I went, dressed as I am now.” Renegade touches the computer screen and zeroes in on a map of Atlantic City, on Google Maps. “Once, when I lived in Brigantine,” he continues, “I tried to walk to the tip of the island.” He shows me exactly where he wanted to go. I’m impressed with his knowledge and authority over a place he has never physically been to. Like the Anthony Hopkins character in The Edge, or the Matt Damon character in Good Will Hunting, Renegade gets an inordinate amount of his knowledge from books and media as opposed to sensory experience. In the belly of a windowless space like a casino, the computer is literally his window to the world. From one angle, he’s the ultimate bookworm.
Renegade grew up in the same public housing projects in Pittsburgh as singer Phyllis Hyman. “My mother is a born-again Christian. I’m an atheist,” he says. “My father was a born-again Christian. He was also a heroin addict, and a thief.”
I met Renegade’s father once—in Pittsburgh, in 1995, outside the AWP conference. He was thin, with slightly hunched shoulders and some flash in his eyes, as if he were able to size up people quickly and look for angles, as if he were a wily pool player with the world as his table, as if he could spin a yarn in a jiff, or talk his way out of a jam on the tips of knife blades, as if he could have been a running buddy of William Burroughs circa Drugstore Cowboy.
I ask him how his mother, a religious woman, got involved with his father. Renegade says his parents separated when he was one or two years old, then recounts a story about how his mother was fixing oatmeal at the kitchen stove when he was a toddler in 1964, and the sleeves of her terrycloth bathrobe got ignited.
“Flames ran up her arms, and her hair caught on fire. She was swinging around, trying to put out the fire, and fell down the stairs. She was at the bottom of the stairs, on fire. I ran and knocked on the neighbor’s door. She had burns on 40 percent of her body. We lived two blocks from the University of Pittsburgh hospital. They saved her life, then she had her religious vision. She used to smoke cigarettes and drink before that. She was in the hospital for six to nine months.”
Renegade stands and slides the 21-inch desktop into a large black bag. I’d assumed it was the hotel’s complimentary computer—quite a load to haul around. I follow him onto the elevator, up to his room.
“Technically I’m homeless, but I stay in four-star hotels every night,” he laughs.
His overnight bag sits on the floor, barely opened; there’s no trace of Renegade in the room. It could be anyone’s room. As a consistent poker player, Renegade gets comped by the casinos, but there are strings attached; he gets his room for only two or three nights in a row, so every couple of days he hops on the AC jitney (a local tourist bus that loops from casino to casino): first taking his computer, then making a return trip for his overnight bag. Each individual casino will comp him only eight rooms in a month, and he can use only two in a week. Until recently he’d been “sharing rooms” with another player. “Sharing rooms” means you find another guy who has a similar deal with the casinos; you book your room for Monday-Tuesday, and he books his for Wednesday-Thursday, and you pool your resources. A couple years ago, Renegade had an apartment of his own in nearby Brigantine.
Renegade walks me through the casino floor of the Borgata, into the poker room; he knows lots of people, but everyone calls him Pittsburgh. People in the poetry world tend to either call him either Joel (his birth name) or Renegade (his DJ and spoken-word moniker). Renegade shouts out hellos to waitresses and other players and dealers. It’s obvious that he’s well liked, which is slightly different from how I remember him in poetry circles—respected: yes, well-liked: insignificant.
As Renegade points out various characters and whispers a synopsis of each, it’s as though I’m walking through a mystery novel: “That guy in the salmon-colored sweater was one of the top players, but then he sprung a leak” (a term for developing an undermining liability—from something like alcohol or drugs or bad romantic partners). The roster of spirits who operate full-time in the casino often falls into certain clearly defined categories: “grinders”—gamblers who are trying to grind out an existence through steady, heady play; “degenerate gamblers”—gamblers who lose more than they win; “credit hustlers”—people who walk around the slot machines and look for abandoned or forgotten credits (“They sound like zombies,” I say. “‘Vampires’ is probably a closer analogy,” Renegade replies); plus the obligatory cast of prostitutes, loan sharks, casino employees, and various grifters.
Renegade is a grinder.
“For a grinder, Saturdays were the hardest night. They didn’t use to have comp rooms on Saturday nights. You had to get a room on the Strip or play poker all night.”
These days, with the tough economy, the casinos are letting professional poker players use their comps on Saturday nights too.
We sit at an empty poker table. It’s early, not even 7PM.
“How have things been going lately at the tables?” I ask.
Renegade grins, the absent tooth in his mouth seeming to shine, as he throws down a wad of hundreds in a money clip.
“I’m the only homeless guy with $4,000 in his pocket.”
“Are you ever afraid someone will jump you?”
“I could walk past a bunch of drug dealers in the middle of the night in Atlantic City, and who’s trying to rob me? I look like a crackhead,” he laughs. “My hair’s uncombed. Dandruff on my shoulders. My clothes aren’t ironed.”
When I ask Renegade if he sees any correlative in American letters with his current situation, he mentions Charles Bukowski, adding that “he was a degenerate gambler; he always lost.”
I mention that Bukowski was also a postal worker and had a steady job for years. “Do you have any poems about gambling?” He takes one out: “The Bukowski in You.” “The red deck, the blue deck, / the shuffle machine, / have conspired to / make you feel like / the darkness under / the dealer’s manicured nails.” It’s one of the finest poems by Renegade I’ve ever read, a mixture of Etheridge Knight, Dostoevsky, and Sylvia Plath. If Renegade is able to fully inhabit and excavate the psychological truth of his life in Atlantic City in a dozen more poems, he’ll have the makings of a wonderful book that could make ripples in the poetry world. Thus far, Renegade has had a lot more success in the world of performance than in the realm of print.
Later that night, as we walk the boardwalk, I ask Renegade about gambling and the possibility of addiction. He gives a long, winding answer crammed with factual evidence, stating that a far lower percentage of people who gamble are addicted than people who drink, or smoke, or do heroin. Several things stand out about his response: first, the length—most of his other answers have been quick and exact, and this one meanders; second, he responds with statistics and completely avoids an emotional response.
In a phone call a week later I bring this to his attention, and he replies, “I tend not to personalize things. It’s not how I interact with the world.”
I keep wondering how one is able to have and sustain deeper emotional connections in this setting that is ultimately designed for gambling. I ask Renegade how he thinks living in a casino’s controlled environment influences his interactions with other human beings.
“The casino is just a place I walk through to get to the poker room,” Renegade says, as if the casino and the poker room are separate places.
He tells me that he is connected to other poets via the Internet. I ask if he misses anything about face-to-face contact—for instance, the nonverbal communication that happens when you’re in the same room with someone. He responds, “I’m not an ambiance person. Some people want important information delivered face to face. To me it’s all information. The information is more important than the means that it’s delivered.”
When the movie Good Will Hunting came out, Renegade felt a deep connection with the Matt Damon character, a self-taught genius who has a gift for outsmarting people; but I’m also beginning to see shades of the Damon character in The Bourne Identity—specifically, a detachment from what might be called the emotional core.
Around midnight I sit with Renegade at a poker table with seven other players, all male. It quickly becomes apparent that the poker table is fertile territory for quick, witty, fact-oriented banter and riddles. Renegade barely seems to look at his cards as he engages the other players in conversation. He even gets into a verbal jousting match about the trial of baseball player Barry Bonds with a fellow poker player (hyperlogical, linguistically pugnacious—that’s the Renegade I remember). The guy gets flustered, but Renegade just sips his soda, subtly reading the faces of his peers.
His night is just beginning.
The movie I would make about the life of Renegade would be about his friendship with Kenny Carroll and Brian Gilmore (the three of them were in 8-Rock, a DC poetry collective in the early ’90s). The movie would be about the complexities of their friendship and would culminate with Renegade’s dilemma: whether or not to buy and wear a suit to Brian’s wedding. (A middle-school teacher in DC once politely asked Renegade to take off his baseball hat in the classroom so he could set an example for the students, who weren’t allowed to wear hats in class. Renegade flatly told her, “I don’t do that.”)
From one angle, the life Renegade has chosen looks pretty carefree getting to play cards for a living, but from another angle it looks like hard work, a different kind of grind but still a grind, and then there’s the fact of being in a constant state of transit, having nowhere to call your own; I keep thinking of Renegade schlepping his stuff around on the jitney from hotel to hotel.
“Most people can’t deal with the moving every few days; musicians on the road complain about it all the time. My time in the shelter freed me up from my attachment to material goods. They’re cool, but I no longer see them as essential. There is no safety net for me; some guys have one (they have pensions or other outside money coming in). The lack of a safety net is a real problem for most people, but probably just makes things more exciting for me.”
I ask Carroll, his friend of 20-plus years, author of So What (for the White Dude who said this ain’t poetry), “Were you surprised when Renegade began to make poker the focus of his life?”
Carroll replied, “Actually, I wasn’t. From the time I met Renegade, he carried around a deck of cards. Poker is perfect for his OCD. I’m not surprised that he’s managed to make a ‘life’ of poker playing, given especially that he has no desire to work like the rest of us stiffs. From his days of voluntary homelessness to his three-year obsession with finding the true author of Shakespeare’s writing, he must find something to obsess about, and usually it involves poetry, poker, or women he has no chance of ever getting.”
Brian Gilmore, an old friend and the author of Elvis Presley Is Alive and Well and Living in Harlem, added, “He likes the social aspect, he likes the isolation, he likes living on the edge, and there is a chance, of course, to make that paper. I say go for it, but it don’t really surprise me at all. If this ends, he will find something else to challenge himself intellectually but also quench his need to isolate himself from everyone and everything, and focus on it and be on the edge.”
Gilmore’s comment makes me think of how all the people in the casino called Renegade “Pittsburgh” and wonder what his peer group might be calling him 10 years from now, and in what community he’ll be. Most likely it won’t be the safe choice, but if he’s holding a pen, he just might string together a few more aces.
The Bukowski in You
When the last pile of chips
gets shipped the other way,
when your wallet yawns
like a two-coated man prone
on a park bench,
what else is there to do
but stagger out of
the Taj Mahal’s poker room
and return to the shadows
of an empty womb,
then curl up like
the last macaroni
stuck to a paper plate?
You sense even the women,
and dumping the trash’s last odors,
wouldn’t sweep you
into their dusty pans.
The red deck, the blue deck,
the shuffle machine,
have conspired to
make you feel like
the darkness under
the dealer’s manicured nails,
his Rolex stopped to watch.
Damn. Damn. Damn.
Everything you touch stutters.
You can’t remember
what singing sounded like
before the Ace of Hearts
punctured your last lung,
can’t feel your buddy
tapping your shoulder
asking, “How much you down?”
You remember the elevator
ride to your room,
39 floors of sunk stomach
before the white smile
of a towel spread across
the bathroom floor.
Suppose you were nothing
but a hand towel
in a $49 motel?
Suppose you lived
to lick beads of brightness
from a working girl’s back,
but all you had
was parched lips
and a swollen tongue?
That’s why whisky
clings to the bottle,
slight burn in the beginning,
then oak smooth and
polished as an expensive casket,
that’s why when
the last card turns,
whatever you hear
sounds like a bullet.
More so if you dig
digging in moist earth.
Even more so, if
you’re not a gardener
or a man in a straw hat
wanding the beach for beeps.
You’re addicted to
the dance of the Blue deck,
but also the way
the Red deck parts like
a pair of painted lips.
You’re addicted to
knowing that even
a gypsy psychic
can’t find your card first,
no matter how far she
follows a palm’s
like wood grain.
You’re addicted to
knowing the cards love
but the last hands
to hold them.
Is there anything
putting it all-in and
having the moment
Morse code thru your veins?
than the way
hugs her hips?
That’s why you return,
why you tease your chair
to the table’s edge
and post a blind bet,
why you peel the corner
of your hole cards
like they're prosperity’s
of good panties.