It is crowded inside the Whistle Stop Bar tonight and if there’s one thing I hate, it is crowds.
“I’m still surprised by how packed it gets on VAMP night,” the bartender told me as I ordered my drink. It’s called the “The Harlot.” The ale tasted refreshing, subduing the anxious butterflies in my stomach.
I was there for VAMP, a monthly event held at The Whistle Stop Bar put on by So Say We All, a non-profit organization that hosts writing workshops and has a publishing imprint that gives people from all walks of life the chance to tell their stories in a safe environment.
I turned to look at the throng of loud, laughing inebriated people. Suddenly my crippling social anxiety kicked in, my mind started to reel and I felt the immense need to get the hell out. I took a couple big gulps of “The Harlot” for encouragement, offered a little prayer to a picture of The Artist Once Again Known As Prince and wade into the madness.
The stage was bare. A bright spotlight highlighted a lone microphone set to the left of a projector screen. The lights dimmed and the stories begin.
Ken Grimes, a thin man with a quaint British accent, talked of his adventure one summer in the ‘70s when he flew from the UK to the U.S. with no money, but plenty of gumption. He had dreams of going to San Francisco, joining the counter culture movement in Haight-Ashbury and getting majorly stoned. Audience members found that last fact particularly funny and I laughed right alongside them. He told of how he did everything from working as an ice cream truck driver to doing a short stint as a rail yard tramp just to get that sweet smell of California air.
Seth Combs took the stage. His bearded, bespectacled face, long hair and lanky frame made him a dead ringer for Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker. His story, about getting a job as a Pharmacy Technician in the South and becoming Douglas County’s leading supplier of illegal pharmaceuticals, was hilarious, full of dark humor reminiscent of Scottish author Irvine Welsh.
I laughed quietly throughout the whole piece.
Some stories were amusing, such as Annemarie Houghtailing’s story about the hazards of taking freelance photography jobs, which for her included a dubious encounter with Coco-T in which she found herself rubbing baby oil onto the shapely model’s thighs, and Allison Gauss’ tale about moving to the South and working at a Rent-A-Center with a cast of colorful characters.
As I looked around the bar seemed more crowded than earlier and my anxiety skyrocketed. There were too many people there. I felt ill. Giddiness and fortitude the ale had given me earlier were gone, replaced by sheer panic.
I have been to numerous literary readings before, even gotten the courage to get up and read some of my own pieces. The concept is unique. People getting together just to hear others talk, to hear stories being told. It feels almost primal, like gathering around a campfire and regaling each other with tales of adventure, tragedy and heartbreak.
Some deal with sensitive issues like Esther Woodman’s disturbing story about dealing with an obscene crank caller while she worked as a waitress at a Ruby’s Diner and Cecile Estelle’s politically-charged tale about her time working as a teacher’s aide to a homophobic high school coach who would routinely berate his students and call them “fags.”
Then there’s Patricia Dwyer’s tale about a memorable Christmas Eve waiting tables at an On The Border restaurant, which was in a category all its own.
She told of a lone young woman who entered the establishment. The woman was quiet and melancholy and orders nothing but three rounds of Pacifica. When she finished, Dwyer gave her the bill and left her to pay.
“When I come back she’s gone,” Dwyer says. “No money, just the bill I left her. On the back of the bill she wrote, ‘The love of my life just committed suicide. I just can’t handle this right now. I’m sorry.’”
The bar went silent.
That was my favorite story of the night. Dwyer was a particularly deft storyteller and the tale felt like a punch to the gut.
When all the stories were told the lights turned back on. Everyone awakened from their trances and clapped one last time for the seven brave readers who dared to bare their hearts and souls.
The bar patrons shambled about. Some stayed to chat with friends, have another couple of rounds. Others, like myself, stepped out into the slightly chilly night air and head home.
As I waited for my ride, I watched all the people milling about on the sidewalk. I wondered which one of them had a story to tell, which one had experienced something that no one else had.
Then I remembered that I had my own story to write, my own experience to share, which you have just finished reading. Ironic, isn’t?