05 Apr, 2018

Stepping Forth on the Fourth

05 Apr, 2018

WASHINGTON, D.C. — I did my first poetry open-mic last night. It wasn’t my first open-mic—that I did 30 years ago for standup. I had never even been to a public poetry reading, though it’s been on my mind lately, as I, nearing a half-century of solar revolutions, have finally begun to appreciate the virtues of poetry. It seemed fitting that yesterday would be the day. And fortuitous that I was in our nation’s capital at this most precarious time for our democracy and the way of life many of us have taken for granted for far too long. 

I was in Washington for work, a project on a timely and engaging subject related to technology with whip-smart clients, in which I conducted 20 interviews with thought leaders in the Federal Government (yes, there are still many, despite the capo and his posse of “misfidiots”). We ended earlier than I had expected on the second day, so I found myself with an evening in the City on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I had to pay tribute in some way. 

I found a walking tour that went from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, retracing the path citizens took during the March on Washington in August 1963, in which Dr. King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. A knowledgeable and caring guide named Robert shared stories and photos from not only that day but other moments from the Civil Rights Movement. The strong winds that created whitecaps on the Wading Pool thwarted Robert’s hope of playing the speech on his computer, but his discussion was compelling nonetheless. I headed to the MLK Memorial on my own, wanting to give reverence to the Reverend before nightfall. 

When I arrived, three young women of color were speaking powerfully,  rhythmically in turn and in unison, reflecting on the current plight of young people, especially African-Americans, especially women, but with a message that should resonate for all of us about the work that remains to be done to live out Dr. King’s dream. Sadly, I arrived in the middle of what they were saying, so I missed their introduction and the speakers who preceded them.

I would love to have stayed longer, but I needed to head uptown to get my name on the first-come-first-served list for the open-mic I had decided would be how I’d spend my late evening. I wanted to walk the 2+ miles to 5th & K—facing the fierce, cold winds were nothing compared to what Dr. King endured and what these three women and millions of others encounter every day. Google Maps was telling me that, even if I hopped on the Metro, I would arrive after the designated time, putting in jeopardy my chance to perform. Even calling a Lyft would have made me late, so I hailed a cab that happened to approach.

While it would be poetic to describe how I contemplated the meaning of freedom and our responsibility to continue to bend the arc of history towards justice, I was too busy sticking my head out the window trying to breathe fresh air rather than the flatulence-infested cabin of the cab driver’s Corolla.  

I arrived at Busboys & Poets by the time I was told, only to find out that they weren’t taking people until 45 minutes later. So I sat at the bar for a glass of wine, a quick dinner, and a chance to reflect on an emotionally rich couple of days in Washington. 

* * *

The day I arrived, I dined with a dear friend from law school, René Bryce-Laporte, the guy with whom I’ve probably seen more live basketball games than anyone else (we had season tickets at UCLA in the years leading up to their last championship). We watched this year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship with friends of his from Villanova at a Villanova Bar called Parlay. The energy was infectious, as we watched Donte DiVincenzo come off the bench to score over 30 points to lead his team to victory.

The next day was a long one. It began at 8am and ran past 8pm—13 back-to-back interviews. It turned out to be one of those days marked by opposing life forces: a near threat of death and a reaffirmation of life. 

I live and work in San Bruno, Calif., my wife’s hometown, a lovely, low-key suburb of San Francisco that had gained notoriety in 2010 because of the natural gas pipe exploration that leveled an entire neighborhood, and was now the site of the latest public shooting to grip our country with a infuriatingly increased regularity. Between interviews, my client asked me if I knew anyone at YouTube. I told him that my office was in a building recently converted into one of their offices and that I didn’t know anyone there, but “I’m sure I could meet people whom we could interview, if we wanted–”

“There’s been a shooting there.”

“Oh, fuck.”

My heart sank. I froze in horror, thinking about my friends and acquaintances who also have office space there. We located the exact location online and determined it wasn’t my building but rather the HQ up the street, right near a plaza of stores and restaurants. I remained stupefied but calm. I called my wife to see if she was okay. Her voice quivered, as she told me our daughter was at the plaza with her friends for brunch at a restaurant, the back of which was across the street from where the shooter had entered YouTube, and then at the Starbucks on the other side of the plaza.   

“She’s okay,” my wife managed to utter. “I was able to pick her up. She’s home now.”  Tears of horror and relief welled up in my eyes (and do so now as I recount the event.) I inhaled deeply, steeled by a perspective born after a “trifuckta” of events 17 years ago—being laid off, 9/11, and expecting our daughter after a year of trying—that has helped me honor what’s most important, recognize the difference between what we can and cannot control, and know how to deal with each. My wife assured me after a couple more phone calls that they were okay and that she did not need or want me to fly home early.

What was both disconcerting and reassuring is that our daughter says she wasn’t really fazed. She handled everything in stride, acknowledging, if not with a bit of irony, that it all felt very familiar to her. “People were running into Starbucks. We heard what happened. I’ve seen this on TV a lot recently—and we have HD.”  

I resumed the work interviews, feeling an deepened love for my family and gratitude for their safety, while also chastened by yet another demonstration of the fragility of life and the occurrence of incidents that seemed unthinkable in my youth. How fitting it was to reconnect with my youth that very evening… 

I often dine late when I’m working, and Tuesday was no exception. Yelp and OpenTable helped me find a place near my hotel that was still open and had items on the menu I could eat during Passover. (No, there’s no “Great for Reform Jews Who Try to Keep Passover—no bread or kitniyot and no shellfish or pork, at least not until after Passover”—feature. Uh, developers, you may want to get on that for next year.) I found a small place that ended up being in a nearby hotel. The hostess wanted to seat me at the front or at the bar, but I felt like sitting at a high-table in the back. As I peered around, beginning the people-watching I enjoy when dining solo, I noticed a woman two tables away who looked familiar. Could it be?

I kept looking up to try to reconstruct the visual of whom I thought it was—it had been 20 years since I had seen her, and this woman looked pretty much as I remember, not having aged much at all. I didn’t want to be one of those creepy guys who stares, and she was talking with a couple of other people, so I was hesitant to go over. But it was bothering me not knowing. 

I tried to hear her voice. (Voices, like scents, stick with us a long time—they feel truer than other senses.) I managed to pick it up above the din of the other nearby conversations. Sounded like what I remembered. I heard her mention a cool, unique first name I recalled as the name of the son of the person I thought she was. I had to approach, or else I would have aways wondered.

“Excuse me… Are you Linda?”


“Linda Smith?”

“Yes…” she said, this time wheels turning, curiosity piqued.

“Marc Engel.”

“Oh my God!” she exclaimed, bolting off her chair. 

Linda and I were good friends in high school, in the same classes and social circle. Voted “Most Preppy” girl and boy of our Senior Class, we howled at how our attire hadn’t changed much since the mid-80s. She introduced me to her friends, and we shared recollections of our time together but spared her friends the annoyance of listening to the name-game about classmates they wouldn’t have known. Coincidentally, on my way to the restaurant, I had been texting with two of my closest high school friends, from the same classes and social circle, so it felt like a very powerful, loving force from my youth had enveloped me. I don’t believe that any of this was fated to happen, but I do believe in appreciating it and reveling in its joy when it does.

* * *

8:45 (at Busboys & Poets). Time to line up for sign up. I managed to secure spot #8 (of only 15 slots) and sat down. 

The sign above the stage read:

Busboys & Poets is a community where racial and cultural connections are consciously uplifted …a place to take a deliberate pause and feed your mind, body & soul…a space for art, culture and politics to intentionally collide.  We believe that by creating such a space we can inspire social change & begin to transform the community and the world.”

The patrons made up a tapestry the president would have loved: colorful, young and multi-gender. I was one of very few people not of color. (Well, I have a little color—somewhere between eggshell and ecru.) I was also older than most people by at 10 – 20 years. Yet I felt very at ease. The spirit of love and support was palpable even before the show started, as people greeted each other with smiles. It was reinforced by the charming host, C. Thomas, who emphasized how we were there to support each other and how it was a safe space for people to invent, explore and share. When anyone stumbled, we were all there to pick them up, honoring the courage it took to take the stage and be vulnerable in the first place. 

I was blown away by the talented wordsmiths, their reflections on true love and revelations of true pain. Singers belted out a cappella and acoustic tunes, playful, gritty and celebratory of being oneself, honoring the dignity bestowed upon all of us.  

My poem was far less personal, a playful—some say provocative—paean to paradox, demonstrated in the life of a “diminutive giant who lived in the upscale basement of a downtrodden loft at the corner of a cul-de-sac on the east side of a Western town where the streets were numbered, but not in order.”  Originally penned in 2011, the piece, called “Identity Crisis,” was one of the best things I had written to that point, according to some of my friends.

I had submitted it to a couple of magazines over the years, but it was rejected for publication. Check that… It has not yet been accepted for publication. (Thank you, Carol Dweck, for the “Not Yet” framing, which I read about in an article in Flow magazine, a periodical devoted to creativity out of the Netherlands that set me back a well-spent $23.99.) 

Perhaps it was a seven-year itch, but I had always wanted to do something more with the piece, deeming it worthy of not only publication but also performance. I’ve even been thinking of putting it to some funky, Moby-esque music with a Baz Luhrmann- or Gil Scott Heron-esque overdub. Inspired by MLK, this was the time to put dreams into action, even if this particular dream wasn’t going to change the world. 

Do not wait to do things you want to do. Do not wait to share your voice. How many more reminders does one need?

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