How Will I Know

In the Summer of 2005 I decided to go to New Orleans in the fall. I planned to leave at the end of September. I wanted to attend the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival in the spring.

I spent part of the summer at a special library, a library that claimed to have the second largest collection of metaphysical material in the world. By “the world” of course they meant this planet because no one really knows what’s out there. The largest metaphysical collection, according to their brochure, is in the Vatican. Originally I wanted to see one thing which wasn’t available. Nevertheless I went there everyday for several weeks. The highlight of that time was seeing a 1950’s film of an interview with Carl Jung.

Later that summer, when most of my research was done, my days were spent alone in a very quiet condo. There were about a thousand CDs strewn about this condo, but there was no stereo. There was cable and a big old tv. The cable on the tv had 800 channels of muzak. I had never subscribed to cable, so it was a novelty, but it got boring pretty fast and I didn’t have an iPod at the time. So the days were quiet and my routine became such that late afternoons I would take a break and watch an hour or so of tv; mainly the cooking channel, Rachel Ray was my favorite, or one of the home design shows.

On August 29th, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Every channel broadcast the hurricane with imagry of the flooding – people on rooftops, waiting or hoping to be rescued, and people floating on debris in flood waters.

For the next three days all we saw was Anderson Cooper standing in the rain night and day, day and night. Which raised the question, at least in my mind: where does Anderson Cooper sleep? I wasn’t the only one who wanted to know because the answer is revealed to us later.

I negotiated another month in the condo. And since I was already planning to go to New Orleans, I decided to go as a volunteer. it was my fate. I went online and found a place to volunteer.

Driving to New Orleans from the east coast I knew I would be driving through Atlanta. It is not the only way, but it is a way and there was something I wanted to see there too.

Atlanta is a city, maybe there are open mics there. I hadn’t been to an open mic in a while. There is this one story that people seem to like. People come up to me after and say something nice about it. I want to make sure the response isn’t a fluke, so I keep telling it in different places. Storytelling hadn’t caught on back then like it is now, so I always went to either “literary” open mics or “any genre” open mics.

I looked up open mics in Atlanta. I found three taking place over a four day period. I can do that, I thought. I even printed out a handful of chapbooks before I left. The subtitle on the cover said “stories of kindness and grace.”

The first open mic I went to in Atlanta was called The Red Door Café. It was the nicest open mic I’d ever been to. Nice stage, nice mic, nice sound system, nice people. The lady who ran the place gave me a nice comment as I came off the stage and someone came up to me during a break to tell me he liked the story.

The second open mic on my list, well, I’m not going to say the name, or even spell it. It was some kind of acronym. It stood for something like “Confederate Ladies Into Lit”. I thought they’d like the story, but I couldn’t find it.

Listen, if anybody in Atlanta tells you something is on Peachtree something or other, get more details. In Atlanta ninety per cent of the streets are named Peachtree something, east, north, south, west, northeast, northwest, east east west south Peachtree street, road, lane, highway, byway. The rest of the streets are named after Martin Luther King.

The third one was at the edge of downtown Atlanta. The streets were deserted. No one on the streets at all. Only the stop lights were working. I found the place on a half block cul-de-sac off a wide thoroughfare. It was lit up, there were people hanging out outside. The biggest, brightest light near the place was a sign that said “Park, $15”. I thought, Why would anyone pay $15 to park when the streets were empty and the parking was free? I drove around the corner, parked, and walked back to the place.

As I entered the cul-de-sac a young man came up to me. I confirmed with him that this was the place, open mic, any genre. Oh, and he’ll take the money, outside. OK. I thought he was being helpful.

The sign up sheet was inside at the end of the bar and it’s a legal size sheet of paper. Legal paper has 30 lines. The lines are numbered and 15 are filled in already. I think this is good. In an unfamiliar place I don’t want to be first and don’t want to be last.

I estimate this place can hold 150 to 200 people and I vaguely recall an occupancy sign that said 174 and that sounds about right. There are small cocktail tables and chairs as far as the eye can see and a pool table way in the back. There is also a sofa that acts more or less as a room divider near the front so people are funneled to the bar as they come in. I decide to sit there so as not to take up a table.

It begins. The young man from outside is the MC. His name is Marcel. He has a nice smile, nice personality. He is good at the MC gig. He reminds people to tip everytime he is up there. I think maybe I’ll change his name for this story, but Marcel is his real name. The first few acts are musicians and they are ok. Most say they are playing somewhere else another night. Then there are poets, and the quality drops off quickly. Some only make announcements about a block party, house party, or backyard barbeque.

During some of the acts Marcel comes over and sits next to me on the sofa. He says a few words but nothing specific, nothing that would elicit a conversation. He acts flirtatious, and he is finely cute, but I don’t get his game during these visits. Maybe he wants to get me to buy a drink; everytime he comes over, a waitress checks in. But I am stoic about not drinking anything before I go onstage. It would be ok after, but then I mostly just want water.

Time passes and I think more than 15 people have been up. I decide to wait and see what happens.

Marcel sits next to me again and says, “There’s Whitney Houston.”

I look up. I see perfect make-up, perfect hair. And I say, “That’s someone in drag, isn’t it?”

Marcel says, “No, look again.”

I do. I see not only perfect make-up and perfect hair, but perfect figure, and the figure is preceeded by a uniformed and armed man. And she is being led to a table in the front near the wall that wasn’t vacant a few minutes ago. It is Whitney Houston.

Marcel didn’t mention it, but now he is not the MC for the rest of the night. The new MC is a terse, stiff guy. He reads the names on the signup sheet and walks away.

A few more poets take the stage, then there is a young woman with blond dreds. She does a hip hop rap poem and she is good. I think to myself, “If Eminem was a girl he would be this woman and I’m glad I saw the movie Eight Mile, otherwise I wouldn’t know who Eminem was.” Also it dawns on me that she and I are the only pale people in the place.

My name is called. I go to the stage. After all this time, my mouth is dry, but never mind that. I begin. I say three or four words and Whitney Houston starts laughing like crazy, like nearly falling off her chair. I wait. She stops. I begin again and she starts again, and then everyone in the place is laughing crudely. I think, “she knows better, she wouldn’t like it if someone did that to her.” I shoosh into the microphone. She stops and starts again. I look at the uniformed guy. I make eye contact with him. He is helpless to help. He switches his gaze to a stare into nothing. I think I can say now there was empathy in his eyes. I think “We Are the World”, sung by her cousin Dionne Warwick and “That’s What Friends Are For” which won the Grammy Award in 1986 for Song of the Year; Whitney Houston was in the audience (and nominated for Record of the Year, “Greatest Love of All”). I think of the eighties music video, “How Will I Know”. I think “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” and her godmother Aretha Franklin. All this goes through my mind in a minute or so as this takes place. I shoosh Whitney Houston into the microphone looking straight at her. It occurs to me to spell out R-E-S-P-E-C-T, but I don’t. My time is up.

still from the music video, How Will I Know
still from the music video, How Will I Know.
"How will I know? I’m asking you because you know about these things."

I didn’t know what to do. But my story was not offended, I only never said more than four words of it. I am humbled, but my craft is protected.

A year and a half passes and someone has brought in a cartoon, puts it on a bulletin board; it depicts Whitney Houston having to decide between her husband and a drug dealer. This has to be explained to me. I look up Whitney Houston and I find she has done something similar at other shows. Prince banned her from his concerts.

I consider writing the story, and putting it on the web, but everytime I think about it, Whitney Houston is in the news, rehab, relapse, rehab, relapse, and I refuse to do the clickbait thing. I don’t want my work to ride on those kinds of articles.

I happened to run across the video of two guys who had a lion cub for a pet. When it got too big to take care of they released it into the wild. A year later they go back to see it, even though they are told not to. The lion comes out and hugs them both. In the background Whitney Houston is singing I Will Always Love You.

A 15 year old boy with echolalia (my guess) in China sung I Will Always Love You, perfectly.

I visit some place is where Dancing With the Stars is on tv. Whitney Houston is the guest. Camera focuses on her shoes, high heels, coming down the stairs, her feet are wobbling. In the music video How Will I Know, she is going up a ladder in high heels, her feet are not wobbling.

Then she dies. I want to put something on twitter (an account of which I had at the time). Something I remember. I look it up because I’ve only heard it in Danish with subtitles in a movie based on a story by Karen Blixen, Babette’s Feast:

Grace makes no conditions.
It takes all unto its bosom and declares amnesty.

Gorge Luis Borges wrote a story about a character who has a difficulty understanding why the same word is used for something we see from the front and when we see the same thing from the side. This is an interesting concept because what you’ve just read was my experience with Whitney Houston. There are other sides, other experiences.

Among the other sides of Whitney Houston I am aware of are two articles written after she slipped away in a bathtub. Both articles were written by Diamanda Galás within a few days of each other. The first criticized Clive Davis for having Whitney Houston perform before her voice had recovered. Diamanda Galás knows about vocal training. The second article blasts Clive Davis for continuing the pre-Grammy party which was in the same hotel where Whitney Houston had been found dead. Those two articles, written in 2012, are still online and here.

I do not know Clive Davis. I wouldn’t know anything about him except that he did a “Meet The Author” event at the Apple Store in SOHO in 2013. This was distributed as a podcast. I subscribed to it at the time. It was available in video and audio. I saw the video, but kept only the audio version. Clive Davis was asked about Whitney Houston. I listened to his words about Whitney Houston again a few days ago. He does seem to be defensive when answering the question and he breaks in to his own answer to say that the book has sold X number of copies and was on the NYT bestseller list. He continued about Whitney Houston’s smoking. He said Whitney said she was going to give up cigarettes completely, not just cut down this time.

The name, the last name of Diamanda Galás seemed familiar. I had to do a little more research to see if there was a connection. There was/is. Diamanda Galás is the sister of Phillip-Dimitri Galás who wrote the monologue/play/performance art piece called Mona Rogers In Person, a work I am familiar with. This is the Mona Rogers I referred to in this Brief post. There is a section of the piece, near the end, called Mona Rogers for President. Mona Rogers In Person was written in 1985 and performed in 1986. Phillip-Dimitri Galás passed away in 1987 of AIDS. Diamanda Galás became an ardent activist for human rights.