Cocaine Poetry Grant Termination: Puppet Audition With Elizabeth, 1987
We had no idea what to expect, but we knew we loved puppets. My friend Elizabeth and I desperately needed jobs and while I was busy trying to think of ways NOT to get a job, she found an ad in the newspaper looking to hire puppeteers for a traveling theater troupe. After my boyfriend Andy went to prison all the late night parties the rich kids invited us to suddenly came to an abrupt end. Actually a couple of calls came in, but when I told them Andy had been busted they politely uninvited me. After all it was really Andy’s cocaine they were inviting, even though they liked having us around, young, cute stoned warm faggots that we were, in the end it was the drugs they wanted at their party. Gil Ott said one night at a poetry reading, “CA this is not going to end well. Is he actually selling drugs at the bar during the reading?” No one was neutral about Andy, especially me. I loved him.
With the end of Andy’s cocaine also came the end of easy cash. I needed a job; my best friend Elizabeth needed a job. Rent was very difficult to pay without the boyfriend, the motorcycle, and the fulltime party paycheck. “Okay,” I said, “what is this?” The ad promised we would travel America while making money. We loved to travel America and had crossed the country twice already in Elizabeth’s red truck. We loved puppets and wondered if they would provide the puppets for us, or if we needed to buy them, and since we were broke we hoped we could borrow them, at least for the audition.
My unwavering study of poetry didn’t make me any more employable and even though Andy was in prison he at least knew what people wanted to buy. Do puppets make you more money than a firm understanding of Rilke’s intentions in the Duino Elegies? What a terrible world it is to bring such truth to light. The landlord said she didn’t care where the money came from, and I thought, “yeah okay well if you knew where the money was coming from the last two years and still took it then I guess I would have to trust your statement.” Elizabeth was always more responsible than me. My mother was an alcoholic stoner bum while her mother had a steady job down at the Welfare Office. Elizabeth’s work ethic was starting to rub off on me these days and I was willing to give this puppet audition a shot.
Puppets were marvelous. We went to queer anarchist puppet shows in Philadelphia all the time. They were lots of fun, smoking weed and everyone making out at intermission, but they didn’t seem to make money so it was difficult to imagine how money came into the equation. Also I had to admit that while I liked these puppet shows in dirty squatter houses, it was one thing watching them, another thing entirely performing them. I tried dating a cute young anarchist puppeteer once, but he was never quite there when he was there. He had a puppet that was his private puppet, one he never used in shows, and he made this clear when introducing you to it. “Don’t call him it,” he would say, “he has a name, Squishymodo, and he is a him, not an it.” “Okay, sorry, and Hello Squishymodo, nice to meet you.” Squishymodo asked for a kiss in his weird high-pitched voice and I really didn’t want to kiss his fabric-covered paper mache lips. The puppeteer’s lips were what I wanted, were what I had wanted for weeks leading up to this first date. Suddenly Squishymodo was in my face telling me I was cute and asked me to stick my tongue out. Was I stupid agreeing to do this? Squishymodo clamped my tongue with his fabric mouth that instantly tasted like old gym socks and I gagged, puke rising up my throat. I was coughing when Squishymodo tried to soothe me by undoing my belt. Maybe to some people this was kinky, but I wanted the boy, not his repulsive tasting puppet. Anarchist Puppet Land took a dark turn when I tugged my belt back into place and grabbed my jacket. Squishymodo followed after me, yelling apologies for not being normal enough for me “SORRY I’M A FREAK SORRY YOU NEED TO DATE A BANKER!” Squishymodo was wrong about me, but he was probably wrong about a lot of things with his big dumb magic marker violet eyes that never blinked. I thought about telling the cute anarchist puppeteer that he was using Squishymodo to sublimate his internalized homophobia, but Squishymodo was so angry that I just wanted to get away from his spate of insults. To me it was like he was saying “THE PUPPET IS QUEER, NOT ME NOT ME!” It was creepy, but it was more sad than creepy I had to admit.
Would Elizabeth and I start talking to one another through puppets? Would we have our own Squishymodos talking from our beds in cheap hotels in Indiana while on the road with the traveling puppet troupe? Maybe I should have had sex with Squishymodo to get to his hot boy whose hand was up inside him. If he had washed Squishymodo once in awhile I might have let him do anything with me, but I just couldn’t get the taste of that nasty puppet off my tongue. I guess I could have rinsed my mouth and gotten back to business, but gagging is never my idea of foreplay, so I decided to endure the screaming puppet on my way back to the streets of Chinatown, Philadelphia.
If I had a Pulitzer I wouldn’t need this puppeteer job (my asshole teenage self) I mean Sylvia Plath didn’t even enjoy her Pulitzer! I have no room in my oven for my head! Poems can pay the bills, I know they can I know they can I know they can I kept saying, trying to will the universe into making things land aright for me. The award wasn’t the award for me, it was the time, and the Pulitzer would pay the bills while I wrote and sifted the libraries for books I had yet to meet. Pulitzer, ha!! That’s funny. All those rich kids who used to invite us to parties didn’t even realize how nice it was to have the electric paid and rent paid and enough cash left over for their all-night cocaine bashes. Those sons of bitches didn’t even care that Andy was in jail, and that I was now living with my best friend because I had been evicted. I thought, “OH the poems I could write with their money.” Yeah, money equals time equals POETRY!
Elizabeth was great to live with; we were the family we always wanted. She dressed as a boy some days and tied her girlfriends to the bed while we smoked weed and cooked beans and rice in the kitchen. Living with her made me feel responsible for my life while still finding time to enjoy things. A couple of painkillers from the poet Etheridge Knight’s girlfriend who worked at the hospital rinsed down with whiskey and we were ready for our puppeteer audition. “Let me untie Tina and let’s get this shit done,” she said. Marijuana, opiates and whiskey were the perfect combination to trail out on a smooth trip. I imagined traveling through my birthplace of Kansas with the puppet job and meeting a nice boy who worked in a diner. Red hair and a sharp jaw, and we would be yelling for him to just jump on this traveling wagon with us, JUST DO IT, “do it for love” I would say. The saddest thing in this world is meeting someone who has never been loved. I think of all the tenderness I’ve known being quiet and held after a fiery fuck and it breaks my heart knowing not everyone gets the love. There should be a law against the deprivation of kindness and kisses. Whenever I am covered by the nuclear warmth of a man’s sleeping torso I’m nearly in tears for these stray dogs of neglect, can’t we just let them in for a little while please, give them all what they need. I missed Andy and hoped he found a nice man in prison, but I knew things were probably awful for him in there, and there was nothing I could do to change that.
Earlier in the morning I had finished sewing a new pair of pants I cut from bright blue Cookie Monster fur. Ah, yeah, they fit PERFECT around the waist, and a bright orange shirt to finish it up! That and glitter nail polish and a little glitter face powder, I looked in the mirror and thought, “yeah you look like someone who should work with puppets, HOW COULD THEY POSSIBLY SAY NO TO THIS?” “C’mon,” Elizabeth said, “let’s go.” We split the last of Etheridge’s pills and started driving to New Jersey. The audition was at a hotel and they needed two new puppeteers before the show could get on the road. “Hmm,” I said, “to go across America making money with a piece of talking fabric around your hand, it just didn’t seem right with my world that that was the meal ticket and not the exquisite verse awaiting the pen. Don’t they know how important poetry is, doesn’t anyone get it, GODDAMMIT WHOSE IDEA WAS THIS PLANET ANYWAY?” “Oh my GOD would you relax,” she said. We laughed. We laughed a lot about my belief that poems could buy us a luxury condo and a hot pool boy. “Honey you can keep that pool boy for yourself,” she said. We were early for the audition and hungry. There was a grocery store next to the hotel but we didn’t have much money. I told Elizabeth to stop counting the coins on her dashboard and that I would take care of it. Ten minutes later I was back in the car with a quart of milk and a box of Pop Tarts. “We don’t have a toaster you know.” “Trust me they’re just fine right out of the box.” “Your mother taught you to shoplift.” “Yeah, sort of, that and a few other skills.” We laughed. She said, “my mother warned me about boys with mothers like yours.” “Yeah but you’re a dyke.” “Yeah and she doesn’t have much to say about that,” we laughed again, getting higher and higher from the pills the whiskey the weed and the new addition of high fructose corn syrup breakfast food. No wonder kids don’t learn anything in America with the shit they eat for breakfast, and I know firsthand because I was always ready for a nap the moment I arrived to class after a meal of chocolate cookie cereal drenched in chocolate milk. Then I was given detention for sleeping. Then I stopped showing up and was given out of school suspension. My mother dragged me into the principal’s office telling him “oh man you’re a genius, he cuts school so you give him a vacation, just how brilliant are you?” After that it was in-school suspension naptimes for me.
Elizabeth and I were stoned in that way that makes you feel ready for the world ready to prove we deserved those puppet jobs. We were young and hot and fun and who wouldn’t want us around? Yeah! Of course they would hire us! We entered the hotel lobby and I immediately locked eyes with the cute man behind the desk. Elizabeth asked where the audition room was. He told us but I was still lost in his dimples and clean white teeth. “Hello” I said. “Hello” he said with an inviting grin and nostril flare. “C’mon,” she said and shoved me toward the elevator. “But I’m in love with him” I said and we laughed trying to get the elevator doors to close. Suddenly the cute hotel clerk reached inside and flipped a switch. We exchanged smiles and I said, “I love a man who knows how to make me go up in the world.” “You’re corny” she said and took his hand away from the door, telling him we’d see him after we did what we came here to do. “But I see exactly what I came here to do” I said. He blew me a kiss just as the doors closed. She shook her head, “you’re such a whore,” she said, and we laughed.
We had no idea what to expect, but we knew we loved puppets. Were we thinking everyone waiting their try at the job would be like the queer anarchist puppeteers of Philadelphia getting high and always trying to see how to get the orgy started? The room we walked into was very different from a pre-orgy setup. It wasn’t just that we did a few too many pills before the Pop Tarts it was a strange, cold scene. No matter how high she got Elizabeth could get a job done, and she asked where we should sign in. There were a half dozen people waiting, around our age, but serious looking, actually they were angry looking, wearing suits and spit shine shoes, and was that a bible in one woman’s hands, and was she really wearing white gloves? Who are these people, and did they actually think THEY would get the puppet job over US? “For this job” I thought to myself, “you would certainly need to be FUN and outgoing, but this was the stiffest room I had been in in years.” They looked at my Cookie Monster blue fur pants and Elizabeth’s slicked back dyke hair with contempt and I was sure we were in the wrong room. “Elizabeth this has to be the wrong place.” “Shut up,” she said, “it’s not, just sit down.”
One guy looked like a twenty year old Piggy from Lord of the Flies. Once I dreamed I met Piggy. He was an old man and when he told me who he was I had some questions, but he wanted to say what he wanted to say no matter what I asked. For instance I asked “was the island real?” “Let me tell you something,” he said, “that bastard William Golding never paid me a cent.” “You’re kidding” I said, “that book sells millions of copies each year for English classes all over the world.” “Yeah well,” he said, “when I played in the movie Deliverance years later he paid the director to make me squeal like a pig and I said no way, I’m not doing it, and the director said oh yeah well if you want to get a paycheck chump you better squeal Piggy Piggy squeal now for us Piggy!” “THAT WAS YOU IN DELIVERANCE?” “Fuck you I said to him because in the first story I was crawling all over the fucking island with broken glasses while these horny bastards were trying to rape me.” “RAPE YOU?” “Things are much better now that I’m collecting my pension. I outlived them all you see, so I guess that’s good.” “What the HELL is he talking about” I thought? “Wow, I’m really talking to PIGGY FROM LORD OF THE FLIES!” You always have to wake up though, right?
“Do you have experience with puppets” asked an annoyed looking woman with a tidy haircut and pursed lips. Wow, I had checked out for a bit, maybe a little too stoned because I didn’t remember her coming in the room. “Yes,” Elizabeth lied, “we do puppet shows all the time in Philadelphia.” “Yeah,” I said, “we love it and when the puppets die from cancer or car accidents I skin them and make them into pants, see?” I laughed. “Yes I see your pants,” she said without so much as a smile and handed us both clipboards with a lot of questions like “what church are you affiliated with?” And “will your pastor act as a reference?” Okay so this was all wrong, clearly all wrong. We sat there giggling over the forms together, I mean what the HELL are we supposed to be answering here, and is this really even happening? The newspaper ad hadn’t said anything about mean church people; it said travel America with puppets, you know, making it sound like some kind of Ginsberg-Kerouac animation road trip.
“You’re next” the woman said walking back into the room. We shrugged and followed her through a long hall, up some stairs and into a large room with cameras and screens. We were each given Muppet rip-offs with thick braids of hair and insanely happy eyes. A man introduced himself as the director and asked if we could work more than one puppet at a time. What? Holy shit. A young woman informed us we would be judged by how well we lip sync the puppets to the words we sang off the Teleprompters.
The music started and I burst out laughing. They started again, and then the words, “DON’T DO DRUGS, DON’T DO DRUGS, HERE WE ARE KIDS TO TELL YOU DON’T DO DRUGS, DON’T DO DRUGS!” Don’t do drugs? “LISTEN TO YOUR PARENTS AND DON’T DO DRUGS, DON’T DO DRUGS!” I burst out laughing again, gasping for air and Elizabeth caught the contagion of laughter with me. When I caught my breath I said, “but my mother is my drug dealer and I have a line of credit for acid and pot!” With that we were on our knees laughing to the point of causing pains in the stomach, a tummy ache, like puppets feel from too much joy and church music.
We were asked to leave of course, the woman with the clipboards escorted us out, chattering angrily all the way saying “we’re trying to do God’s work” and blah blah blah she said. “HEY KIDS, LET’S DO DRUGS, LET’S DO DRUGS,” I started to sing at the elevator. The woman threatened to call the police if we didn’t leave immediately. “Jesus fucking Christ lady,” Elizabeth said, “we’re leaving as fast as we can!” “Don’t you take the Lord’s name IN VAIN in front of me!” “Fine” I said, “then we’ll do it when you’re back is turned!” This was one of those moments that made me think of how my friend Charles would respond. Since he’s been in grad school he says the most annoying things we wind up arguing about. Like one day he said, “everything is fiction.” “What does that mean,” I said. “There is no such thing as nonfiction he said, it’s all fiction.” “That’s stupid” I said, “so you mean my grandmother isn’t really dead Charles, is that what you’re saying, you’re saying she’s just hiding from me, but why would she do that, did she really not love me, was her love fiction?” “No, that’s not what my professor meant.” “Your professor?” “Yeah, he started off creative writing class today by saying everything is fiction.” “And?” “And he went on from there.” “Charles did you ever think he WANTS someone in the room to challenge him, to argue with him, I mean you’re in college now, you’re not just supposed to go around repeating professors like a parrot.” Charles is a really nice guy, and it broke my heart when he took my advice and started arguing with the “everything is fiction” professor and was asked to leave the classroom. Maybe I’m not the best one for advice about college.
Here we were waiting for the elevator left with nothing but belligerence on our side, so I started laughing and found that I simply couldn’t STOP MYSELF! “You think it’s funny” she said slamming her clipboards together, “well we have twenty five churches to do Sunday School puppet shows for in the next several months all across America and we intend to bring God’s word” blah blah blah she went on and on until the elevator doors finally cut her off. How fucking horrible is the idea of doing puppet shows for Sunday Schools across the United States of America? I make neon blue fake fur pants on a sewing machine my grandmother gave me for my twelfth birthday after I told her I was secretly a girl. My best friend is a dyke who drives a red truck with a sticker on the bumper that says “REAL WOMEN DRIVE TRUCKS!” I grew up around people like these puppet evangelists, and they REALLY DID think I should kill myself, not a figure of speech whatsoever. “Oh Elizabeth, it’s a long messy story honey, let’s just smile and get on with it.” The cute hotel clerk laughed with us when he saw us roaring out of the elevator. “You BASTARD,” I said, “YOU KNEW what we were walking into!” I forgave him over drinks later but no longer remember his name.
Poet CAConrad grew up in Pennsylvania, where he helped to support his single mother during his difficult youth. Influenced by Eileen Myles, Audre Lorde, Alice Notley, and Emily Dickinson, he writes poems in which stark images of sex, violence, and defiance build a bridge between fable and confession. In a 2010...