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"It's an Open Mike, Who Cares?"

Hanging With the Poets on a Monday Night at Weeds

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Sergio Mayora blows into Weeds around nine o'clock. His hair's in a ponytail, and he's wearing OshKosh overalls, a white T-shirt, and dark sunglasses. He's tall and wide and looks like he could lift a horse.

Weeds looks like it always does: a dark and smoky bar with high-heeled shoes and dozens of brassieres hanging from the ceiling. There's an elk's head on the wall with a plastic skeleton dangling from its antlers. A burning stick of incense protrudes from the eye of a mannequin head. Christmas lights are everywhere, and colorful handmade posters are pasted to the wall. On the counter is a recent addition: a painted plaster bust of Sergio holding a bottle of tequila and pointing a thumb upward, as though he were saying "I own this joint." Which he does.

Sergio dumps the contents of a paper bag onto the counter: a quart of orange juice, a can of Cool Cola, three chocolate bars, and a package of incense. He chugs down the juice and belches loudly.

"Oh fuck," he says, reaching behind the bar, pulling out a bottle of Cuervo Especial, and pouring himself a shot. "Yep, here we go again."

"Hey Sergio, that a union gut you got?" asks one of his patrons.

"Whatever," he growls. "My gut ain't goin' on strike. I may be a union man, but there ain't no union in my gut."

Meanwhile, a film crew is setting up equipment. They're making a documentary on the origins of the barroom poetry scene in Chicago. A member of the crew approaches Sergio. They apparently know each other.

"How you doing?"

"Like shit." Sergio says, "You're here."

"No, really, how you doin'?"

"I'm alive."

He keeps pressing. "How you doin'?"

"Like shit."

"Yeah, well you look like shit."

"Better to look like shit than smell like piss," Sergio says. "Oh man, you smell."

Although Sergio may seem a bit crude and intimidating at first, once you get to know him he's really quite crude and intimidating. I called him at home, and I was scared.

The phone rang several times, and when he answered his voice boomed with annoyance.

"Yeah? What?"

I hung up. A few seconds later my phone rang.

"Whaddya want?"

"Um, urgh, um."

"Who is this? What?"

"Is this, uh, Sergio?"

"Yeah."

I told him I was interested in writing a story about his bar's Monday-night poetry readings. Weeds differs from other open mikes for a number of reasons: the poets are a mix of old-timers and newcomers, many of them are black and Latino, and often what they read is extremely offensive to nearly everyone. I asked Sergio, "Would it be OK if I came in tonight?"

"Come in? I don't care what the fuck you do! What're we gonna do, throw you out on the street? I don't give a fuck. Come in, have a shot."

"OK. I'll see you around 8:30 then."

"Yeah, come in, whatever. I don't care what you do."

Weeds has been owned by the Mayora family for 35 years, but they used to call it the 1555 Club until Sergio took it over 15 years ago. It catered to factory workers, "back when there were factories in the area," Sergio says. "My father, me, my uncles and aunts, we all worked here." The place was also a restaurant, but Sergio has stopped serving food. "The refrigerator broke about seven or eight years ago, and I took it as an omen," he says. "But some people still ask for the food."

His father and mother both came to Chicago from Mexico, and Sergio grew up in various neighborhoods on the west side. He says his family "was not at all interested in poetry. They wouldn't know how to spell it." Then in 1986 disc jockey, rock critic, and former White Panther Party "propaganda minister" Bob "Righteous" Rudnick approached Sergio about staging "literary bouts." The idea was based on the competitive readings started by local poets Al Simmons and Terry Jacobus around 1980; these poetry "fights" would eventually abandon the boxing metaphor in favor of wrestling, becoming more commonly known as "slams." Rudnick, who passed away last month, had participated in those early contests, and he eventually enlisted several area taverns to host poetry nights. "If anyone else had come in, I don't know how I would have reacted," Sergio says. "I was still a little rough around the edges, but I could tell he was for real. He was a great guy, man, and I said do it."

Since 1986 Monday has been poetry night at Weeds. Rudnick was the first emcee. Poets who came to read expected to be mocked and denigrated if their poetry was bad. Even if their poetry was good, there was always the chance they'd get booed off the stage. As with most open mikes, the poets tended to come and go. A flyer, designed by Sergio for a 1987 Valentine's poetry night, lists some early Weeds poets: Chris "Man Defender" Chandler, "Sultry" Sue McDonald, John "the Cooler" Petrie, Sally "Shy" Baigi, Judith "Erotically Long" Loydd, Susie "Mellow" Greenspan, "and the one and only "I Hate All Lesbians' Mr. Thurman Valentine."

In 1987 the poetry night's second host was Marc Smith, who's since gone on to fame as the founder of the Green Mill poetry slam, and with whom the poets at Weeds basically share an unfriendly rivalry. "He did it for two weeks," Sergio says. "He said to me, "Fuck you, you're so drunk and you never show up on time,' so he was outta here." Gregorio Gomez, who was reading at Weeds at the time, stepped in and has remained in charge ever since. Gomez, who works for the Latino Chicago Theater Company, enters at about 9:30, dressed in black jeans, a black shirt, and black Converse All-Stars. He has a goatee and slicked-back black hair.

"This is the greatest man in the world," Sergio says, putting his arm around Gregorio's shoulder. "I love him so much, I'm gonna suck his fuckin' ugly ass fuckin' cock."

"Lovely," Gregorio says, as Sergio wanders away, muttering to himself.

Gregorio has set some basic rules for poetry night. "Do three poems. If they're real long, then do two and move on," he says. "We don't do second sets anymore, but I would bring up poets again if I thought the audience was into it. It's not whether I liked them or not. It's a show, but I try not to make it too much of Entertainment Tonight. I'm not the reincarnation of Ed Sullivan. Ed Sullivan was always a Latino, you know that?

"I don't have to agree with a poet to like what they may be saying," Gregorio says. "I think they try very hard to do their art, and this is a place to do it. . . . Not only do I encourage Latino writers to come and do their poetry, but they can do it in Spanish. A lot of times they are hesitant because their audience is not necessarily bilingual. But I say, look, poetry's poetry. And I try to give the poet a little bit of an intro to the audience, so that even if they might not understand the language I want them to listen to the rhythm. I want them to listen to the words and just get into it. Most of the time, the audience will really pay attention. I don't tell a poet, 'Sorry man, you're not mainly English, fuck it.' . . . We have had nights where the punks have shown up, nights where the lesbians have shown up, nights when the black radicals have shown up, and all of them get their chance, just like any other night. It's an open mike, who cares? Some guys get up there and improvise. As long as they don't take 20 minutes to do their shit, it's OK."

Gregorio says Weeds helped him develop his voice, even though he's been writing poetry for 30 years. He came to Chicago from Veracruz, Mexico, in 1963, but doesn't consider himself an exclusively "Latino" writer. "A lot of my writing doesn't reflect the so-called Latino style of the southwest," he says. "Of course not. It's the experience of the city, growing up in the city. I've played with styles as I become older and become smarter and my vocabulary develops and shit like that."

Sergio's responsible for the success of poetry at Weeds, says Tony Aguilera, who's working on the poetry documentary and reads under the name "the Fly."

"When Sergio opened up this place, he was like a pioneer," Aguilera says. "There was nobody around here. This beer garden that we're standing in now was a junkyard stacked full of cars. Sergio opened this place and designed it with stuff he found in the alley. He put in incense, and he put carpet in, and he had crazy events. He'd have Squirt Gun Night; he'd have Condom Night; he'd have Bird Brains and Big Shoes nights; he'd have Transvestite Night for Halloween. He did stuff nobody else did, nobody else would dare to do, and that's the type of creativity that this came out of."

Sergio brings out a bottle of tequila and pours one shot for himself, one for Gregorio. He moves to pour one for me, but he pauses and says, "Oh wait, you're writin' shit."

He pours it anyway.

"You ain't writin' shit," he says.

Around ten o'clock the poets start to gather. One of them, Alfredo Matias, a middle-aged black man with a Puerto Rican accent and a long face, sits at the end of the bar and studies a notebook. Sergio takes his chocolate bars--two Cloud Nines and a Chocolat Lindt--and slaps them down in front of Matias. "He give those to me supposedly because he thinks I'm one of the best poets in Chicago," Matias says.

Sergio's playing a variety of tunes on his CD player: Willie Nelson, Harry Chapin, the Lord's Prayer in Spanish. He dishes out tequila shots, spritzing out and drying the shot glasses as fast as people can drink. A balding guy wearing a Gold Star T-shirt says, "There's no shit goin' on on Mondays, man. I can't wait until Monday Night Football comes back so I can make some fuckin' money on Mondays, man."

There are 20 people in the audience, perhaps 30, and the numbers fluctuate as the evening moves along. Gregorio steps up to the microphone, and the reading begins.

"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to W-E-E-D, Chi-town, 1555 North Dayton, where poetry, poetry, poetry has an attitude, and we don't give a fuck," he says.

"The microphone's too loud!" complains someone in the audience.

"Loud microphone, bright lights, that's what makes Weeds one of the . . . "

"Worst places on earth!" someone else shouts, to much jeering.

"Thank you very much," Gregorio says.

"Listen up, please!" shouts Sergio from behind the bar, and the crowd hushes.

"I'm going to start out with a couple of poems," Gregorio says. "It's been going around like wildfire this evening that Mr. Bob Rudnick, one of the forefathers of the poetry slam, passed away last Sunday, so I hope that he's resting comfortably in the poetry stage up in the sky."

"I didn't know he was dead," says someone in the audience.

"Yeah, he passed on, finally. Finally gave in."

"He ever get a new liver?"

"Uh, no. I think he did, but he just reacted to it."

"No!" Sergio says.

"What, he never got one?" asks Gregorio.

"It was his pancreas."

"The liver rejected him," someone says.

"Probably," Gregorio says. "Pancreatic cancer's one of the worst."

Gregorio starts by reading one of his own poems, called "Dancer." It receives some light applause.

"Thank you, thank you, all four of you," he says. "Don't forget, the more you applaud the better we sound. And if you buy that piece of shit, this one's entitled "Silhouette."' He points out a member of the film crew, who's filming his performance.

"This is supposed to be an underground poetry reading, and here we are," he says. "Yeah, Lucifer is here. I signed my soul to the camera devil."

"I'll take you to a porno flick," Sergio says.

"Thank you very much. Let's give a big warm hand to Sergio, the proprietor of this joint, man." There's a smattering of applause, jeers, and whistles. Gregorio reads "Silhouette" as well as a poem of Bob Rudnick's, "A Grand Old Lady and Two Rich Dogs," about the old Comiskey Park's demolition at the hands of "cultural criminals" Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn.

Once it's over, Gregorio takes it from the top. "Hello, ladies and gentlemen," he says. "Welcome to W-E-E-D, Chi-town, one block from hell, Bub City, and a million miles from nowhere. It's purgatory, where poetry, poetry, poetry has an attitude, and we don't give a fuck. I'd like to bring up the next poet, ladies and gentlemen, who's been one of the pioneers of the poetry scene, who's been around since back in '86 or something like that, ladies and gentlemen, put your hands together and bring up to the microphone one of the voices of poetry . . . "

He introduces Irving Karchmar, a middle-aged bald guy who wears glasses. Karchmar, a onetime real estate agent, uses his deep, sonorous voice to transform himself into--as he's known at Weeds--"the Shadow."

"Weeds is the kind of horrible, crappy place where real poets hang out," Karchmar says. "The poetry sucks, the beer's watered down, but it's real. Hey, you have to suffer. You go to a bar like the Green Mill, it's a place where yuppie poets go. Some of them come here and we go there, but not often. Poets are poor. Fourteen dollars at the Green Mill, seven to get in and seven to read? Jesus Christ!"

Still, Karchmar admits that some of what he presents at Weeds has grown stale. "I've been reading the same three goddamn poems since 1987. People come here and think it's new. What a shell game this is."

The Shadow takes the stage and says, "Very, very nice introduction." He pauses. "I write love poetry."

"Awwwww," goes the crowd.

"I'm sorry," he says.

Karchmar reads two poems. The second one goes:

Believe not in astrologers

Who tell fortunes by the stars

Nor in dark-eyed women in black silk robes

Who turn the tarot cards.

Believe not in the witch's curse

Nor in sorcery of any kind.

The shaman seeks to steal your purse,

The voodoo man to steal your mind.

Believe not in satanic spell.

Seek not solace in the gypsy's ball.

Planets will not the future tell

Nor black magic one last soul recall.

Believe instead in love, my friend

For by its harmony the world endures

Without certainty, perhaps, yet without end

As proof . . . the moon ensures.

Believe not in the promise of a promised land

Or they who would lead and have you follow.

Or cast coins of everlasting gold upon the sand.

The coins are brass . . . the promise hollow.

Believe not the ruins that can be found

On pyramid and Stonehenge round

Or in ancient rhymes that wizards sound

Or in juju bones thrown on the ground.

Believe in courage and desire

Leave the mystery in life, my love.

Be gladly warmed by mortal fire.

Embrace the eagle and the dove.

For this I know by my heart's blood

What we may be may not be told.

Yet each of us, though born apart

May each the other's heart enfold.

Before this crystal truth, let the naked spirit stand.

Human hope and laughter are bought, at times, with human tears.

Yet we may walk in starlight . . . hand in hand

And live, and love in peace . . . and have no fear.

Over much applause, Sergio shouts, "Right on, Shadow! That was beautiful. Now do the one I like." He pauses. "Oh, that is the one I like."

Karchmar continues. "Here's a poem written for a special friend of mine. Her name is Kelly." She's sitting in the audience and is much younger than the Shadow. The poem is short, and once it's over he joins her at a table.

Gregorio comes back onstage and looks at Kelly. He says:

Believe not in poets who speak in forked tongue

And write poetry of love my dear.

Believe not a word they say

'Cause they just bullshittin' you.

But have no fear.

They want to take you into bed

So you can spread it wide

Like eagles fly.

They can then penetrate

The caverns between your thighs.

Believe not in poets who have glasses

And have the name of Shadow.

He read that poem to the last woman he brought here

About two weeks ago.

Soon it's Alfredo Matias's turn. He's wearing black shorts and a black T-shirt, has very long legs, and reads shyly with a bit of hesitation. His first poem is called "Untitled." His second is called "Alfredo," and includes the lines: "People tell me Alfredo / you are not a poet / you are not a William Shakespeare. / And you are right. / I'm only Alfredo Matias. / I never never want to be a William Shakespeare. / You see, Shakespeare would never be an African or a Puerto Rican / and I am both of those things."

When Tony Aguilera gets up to read, he asks for a moment of silence for Bob Rudnick. People chatter, and glasses clink. The picture on the television behind the bar is on the fritz, and Sergio smacks it with his palm. When that doesn't work, he sits on a stool in the corner.

"That's as close to silence as we get here," Aguilera says.

Later, Gregorio takes the stage and points to some people in the back. "We have this group from 708 area sitting up there on the veranda, hiding behind that Red Dog beer. They thought they were gonna get away with it. They said, "Hey, we're white people, man. We're gonna sit up here in the corner, in the dark.' But you know," he says, grinning, "I see you up there." The group is not amused and quietly gets up to leave.

"Who the fuck's next?" says Gregorio.

The routines of poetry night at Weeds are easy and familiar to its participants, and have come to be regarded as tradition. Specifically, two things never change.

First, no matter who else has shown up, Joffre Stewart will be there. The 70-year-old Stewart describes himself as an "anarchist" and has been reading poetry in Chicago since the 1950s. He was immortalized in Allen Ginsberg's "Howl," and carries the poem around just to show disbelievers. Ginsberg wrote of Stewart having "big pacifist eyes sexy in their dark skin passing / out incomprehensible leaflets." Last year Stewart was thrown out of Barnes & Noble in Evanston because they thought he was homeless, which he is not. He was trying to attend a poetry reading in the bookstore, but ended up getting arrested and spending 11 days in jail. Afterward he would not show up in court and told Reader writer Ben Joravsky, "Not believing in courts, I do not try appearing in them." Stewart has since written extensively about this act of "censorship."

He has a long frosty beard, and "looks like a black Moses," Gregorio says, though Stewart detests Israel, a hatred that appears in many of his poems and upsets some people. Stewart tells the documentary filmmakers: "My name is Joffre Lamar Stewart. What do I do? I think I am engaged in involving you and others in making a nonviolent rrrrrevolution against authority. Most people know me, however, as a poet, and I spread these ideas and values very often. As a pacifist I believe that we should get rid of the death penalty, and as an anarchist I believe that the way to get rid of the death penalty is to get rid of the state!" Stewart always gets to read his three poems at Weeds, and people listen, more or less.

"Great legs, Joffre!" shouts someone in the crowd. Stewart, who is wearing shorts, ignores him.

The second immutable tradition at Weeds is that Sergio must read, always the same poems with the same introduction delivered by Gregorio: "Now ladies and gentlemen, the moment you have been all waiting for, the moment you have been hush-hush about. Ladies and gentlemen, the poet of poets, the dude of dudes, the one who ran for mayor of city of Chicago and only lost by 99 percent, a very close race. Laaaaaadies and gentlemen, my friend and brother, put your hands together for Sergio Mayorrrrrra."

Sergio, who was once referred to by the Sun-Times as a "former welder, former street person, and current part-time artist," shuffles onto the stage. He stands with his hands stuffed into the pockets of his overalls, his legs apart, chest forward, neck tilted to the right. He does not move, and leaves his sunglasses on.

"I made two poems in my life, one in sixth grade and one in seventh grade," he says.

"Awwwww, bullshit!" the crowd jeers. Sergio doesn't react.

"I will do my sixth-grade poem first," he says.

"Aw, shaddup!"

"Do your eighth-grade poem."

"What about your ninth-grade poem?"

Sergio will not be deterred. "I will do my sixth-grade poem first. It's called "My People.' It goes like this. . . "

My people are poor

And oppressed for that.

My people were robbed of the money hat.

The white man, he wears this rich cap.

He uses it to kill and outlast.

He stepped on browns, blacks, and also reds.

He's aching to get killed.

He's gonna be dead

For my people have had enough of him.

And once we get started

We'll tear him from limb to limb.

Although the innocent will die with them

This is how the white man wants his end.

For proud am I and proud as can be

And I won't let no white man step on me.

Sergio quickly apologizes for his former attitude. "I'll have you know that poem was written in 1966," he says. "I was in the sixth grade. I didn't know that poems were poems then. I've been married to three white women. I've got a whole bunch of half-white kids running around the world now. I'm almost a Republican now. I pay taxes, and I've been through many social changes since 1966. And I'm almost not that much prejudiced no more. Almost. No more. Almost." He reads his seventh-grade poem, which is called "Shivering Through." Then he says, "This next poem I learned from my father. It's got two titles to it. One of them is called 'If They Didn't Have Cunts No One Would Talk to Them.'"

Some of the crowd laughs. Some boo.

"The second title is "Dad, What's Life All About?"'

"Whadda you call it? Whadda you call it?" shouts Gregorio.

"I call it 'The Hole.'"

"Hey!"

"It goes like this . . . "

We see outta holes.

We smell outta holes.

We eat,

We talk,

We hear,

We breathe,

We sweat outta holes.

We all piss outta holes.

And we all shit outta holes.

When we were born, we all came out of a hole.

And when we die, they put us all in a hole.

Life is one big hole.

It's a can of worms any way you open it up,

So you might as well dive right in and enjoy your whole life.

The crowd whoops as Sergio leaves the stage and Gregorio takes his place. Sergio gets himself some more tequila, and smacks the television again. This time the picture straightens out.

"And I want you to know exactly where you are, ladies and gentlemen," Gregorio says. "You're hanging out in a hole. This is 1555 North Dayton, W-E-E-D, Weeds, Chi-town, where every Tuesday and Wednesday nothing the fuck is going on except for a loud jukebox, and Thursdays is jazz, jazz, jazz. The best thing about it is it's free. On Fridays it's a local rock and roll band that will rock you till the . . . night . . . "

"They'll what?" Sergio shouts. "They'll what?"

"I don't know what the fuck I was going to say. Rock you till something or other."

More poets get up and read. Some of them are young and intense, others old and laconic. Some are men, some are women; some are good, some are not. Everyone's drunk, or near drunk. Joffre Stewart glowers in a corner, shuffling through his papers. A mutt wanders around the bar, sniffing at corners, looking for food. "Who let that bitch in?" Gregorio asks. It's nearly 1 AM. The bar is very loud.

"Shut up, shut up. Hey, hey, hey, we got poetry here!" Sergio shouts, but no one listens. He's now wearing a brown top hat that doesn't quite fit. He pours me another shot of tequila.

"Are you one of us?" he asks.

"I don't know," I say. But to prove my worthiness, I offer a toast in Spanish. "Arriba, a bajo, al centro," I say, moving my shot glass around.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah, al dentro, I know," Gregorio says. "Whatever."

"Hey, I got one thing to ask you," Sergio says, putting his arm around Gregorio again. "Say a nice thing about this guy, or I'll come over to the Reader and hunt you down."

"Well," I say, "you won't find me."

"I don't wanna find you!" he says, waving his arms around. "Do I look like the kind of person who goes around trying to find someone? Jesus fuckin' Christ! I can't wait to get the fuck out of here and go to sleep!"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Chip Williams.

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