Monthly Archives: January 2015

4 – The Back Fence

“The shells go on the floor.”

That was Brigid’s command to her clientele at The Back Fence. She worked there as the weekend cocktail waitress for decades, taking delight in sticking the adjective ‘sober’ onto her job description. The Fence has been on the corner of Bleecker and Thompson Streets since the end of WWII. Its ceiling and walls were painted black to hide the cobwebs and create a thirsty gloom. Tiny tables draped with red-and-white checked tablecloths clustered around the bar. Sawdust covered the floor. Brigid swanned around with her pencil stub and little pad, pitching bowls of whole peanuts onto customers’ tables, along with her terse injunction to dispose of the shells.

Sunday afternoons, the management let her host a poetry reading. The readers were twitchy or mopey and the poetry was rarely very good. Lots of poems about not getting – laid, paid, heat, respect, enough beer. One poem was all you were allowed; two if they were short or you were aggressive. You put your name on the list and waited to be called.

Brigid had been the grande dame of this salon for eons. She offered me my first-ever opportunity to read my work in public. I was inordinately proud of a sonnet I had composed while flunking out of college. In a fanciful attempt to graduate, I had taken a poetry workshop. I called the poem ‘Kissing My Ass Good-bye,’ applying what I hoped were Elizabethan cadences to a fantasy of having my backside actually disappear. The fourteen lines rhymed in hit-or-miss fashion, up to and including the final couplet – Condemned to wander celestial halls / A eunuch for want of ass, not balls.

Adding my name, I waited my turn. Nothing came of my poetic debut at The Fence, but I had taken a baby step. Every single creative undertaking I have attempted however tentatively; Brigid played a part. She has been my crabby muse.


I liked to show up at the Fence in the clear cold light of a late Sunday afternoon. With the place empty I could hang with her, sip on a diet Coke, and try to get a word in edgewise. One snowy Sunday, however, I found myself stuck sitting there with Alice, my nine-year-old daughter, listening with half an ear to a parade of luckless poems. Things perked up when Brigid announced the next reader would be two people.

The twosome jumped up, bouncy gray curls spilling out from the hoods of their puffy parkas. They clapped their mittens together and beamed. “We are the Acrobatic Poets.”

They unzipped their coats and kept peeling off their clothes. Uh-oh, here we go. Quickly and efficiently, they shimmied down to shiny lycra unitards, one red and one blue, and it became apparent they were a man and corresponding woman. “We believe poetry has been divorced from physicality for too long.” Backstroke flourish of four arms.

The red one crumpled to the floor in a slo-mo ‘S’ motion and lay on his back in the sawdust and peanut shells, then raised his arms and legs into the air in unison. Blue faced Red and, shifting her weight from one leg to the other, settled her midsection onto his outstretched feet and, stiffening, rose until she was parallel to the floor, one hand in his and the other holding a small leather-bound book. She craned her head back and read some verse that was completely beside the point. Several more dramatized contortions followed.

The grand finale consisted of a Y-shaped pose accomplished by Blue again faced Red and, holding his hands, stepped onto his bended knees. The pair leaned away from each another. As they balanced carefully, they let go of their near hands and faced the room, arms out-stretched, transported.

A swell of murmuring rose from the peanut shells and was, after several long moments, supplanted by erratic clapping. Acrobatic poetry: we are still astonished.

3 – The Recommendation

So, here we were, almost twenty-five years later, both of us going through changes. I had finally decided to apply to a masters writing program after decades of dissembling. Brigid had always told me to write; not ‘if I really wanted to’, not ‘because I had the gift’, and not ‘when I stopped fucking around.’ No conditional baloney, no argument. She was one of those very persuasive, full-of-shit people who, despite their utter lack of grace, could bend you to their will. Without her persistence, my literary inkling would have winked out long ago.

I sat by her bedside on the room’s sole piece of movable furniture, a wooden folding chair, the chair where her Bangladeshi home health aide sat, except when she prayed by the front door. In addition to my offerings, I brought along a couple of the short essays I had banged out as an application portfolio, including an anecdote recently published in The New York Times Metropolitan Diary section about shopping for styrofoam with a nickel stuck to my forehead. I read it aloud to her. “Oh, V,” she said, “That’s fuckin’ brilliant.” I chuckled with pride and disbelief.

“So, Bridge, do you have that recommendation?”

“Yeah, it’s in my black notebook,” she said.

“All your notebooks are black.”

“Here,” she said, pulling a folded piece of paper from a black notebook. Her longhand was a fine cursive, every third word illegible.

“I may have to transcribe it onto my computer and get it notarized,” I said.

“You and your fancy-pants machines.”

to whom

it’s like a dream come true that V. – Robert V. Hansmann – has made up his mind to write. as a poet and playwright i’ve been after him for years and as a smart shy man, he’d just smile …

and now that he has taken the giant step, the world is a better place. thank you for your kindness for reading this and thank you for V., he’ll make you proud.

as ever

                                    brigid m———–

I slipped the thing into my inside jacket pocket.

2 – My Brigid

Brigid was an Irish Stoic: you knew better than to ask what was wrong. For nine months, she had been triangulating between St. Vincent’s Hospital, the Village Nursing Home, and her walk-up on Bleecker Street. She waved away all concerns about a diagnosis, but process of elimination indicated Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. About once every two months, she’d recover from pneumonia or something equally grave, get out of bed, pull on her clothes, head downstairs, and wind up in the hospital the next day. Her health had stabilized in recent weeks, which was why she was back on Bleecker Street.

In 1985, when we met, I was a pup of thirty-five and she was my age now, fifty-eight. Brigid was there at my second AA meeting. Not drinking was new to me: the whole idea ridiculous, appealing, and terrifying. In a room full of stiffs in suits, she blazed like a comet of anarchy trailing great clouds of profanity. Cocksucker this: motherfucker that. And when I discovered she had run away and joined the circus at age forty, I adored her absolutely. She left her elementary school-age daughter with her mother in the Bronx and followed a one-ring operation around the Midwest for eighteen months.

She liked me, it seemed. I could make her laugh. I teased her about her preposterous opinions, while her no-bullshit compassion blew an enormous hole in my middle-class depressive’s complacency. She insisted I not take myself too seriously. “Booze. Now that’s fuckin’ serious.” Her love of beauty, acute sense of personal injustice, and heedless vulgarity could erupt into great, baroque rants. I would hear her out, every last cockamamie riff. And, man, could we dish.

She had the dazzling capacity to juggle as many as four trains of thought at the same time. A simple conversation might devolve into a breathtaking scramble up one side of the space/time continuum and down the other. You could find yourself entangled in an elaborate discussion of James Joyce (she called him ‘Jimmy’), Asian women’s alleged propensity for bossiness, and coleslaw, ingredients of.

Her passion for experience, to go and see and hear and read and do, was a quality I envied. I envied her contradictions and her chutzpah. One winter we took a trip to Rome and she initiated a willy-nilly treasure hunt to see all the Caravaggios in the city. We tracked them down – every last incandescent altarpiece and every sassy, naked man hiding out in a long row of sleepy women in gilded frames.

More than anything, Brigid loved words. She filled notebook after notebook with, I don’t know, notes. Notes, quotes, resentments, epiphanies, dialogue, scribbles. Fairly soon after that first meeting, she would let you know she was a poet of ‘The Beat Gen.’ One of her poems, ‘Daisy,’ is occasionally included in Beat anthologies. It’s a lovely little thing; probably included more on account of her gender than anything else, for you can count the women Beats on one hand. In addition to poetry, she wrote stage plays. She always had some project underway.

1 – My Last Visit to Brigid

Brigid’s door always stood slightly ajar. This gesture expressed either her bohemian nonchalance or the fact that, if it closed, the door would seal with such powerful molecular adhesion that to gain entry would require firemen with crowbars and possibly acetylene. I pushed and it gave way a little, smacking into something soft. I tucked my head in and saw a woman sitting on the floor wrapped in green fabric. She looked up at me. “I’m so sorry,” I mumbled and squeezed by.

At the distant end of a dim series of chambers, a television cast wan shadows. I approached. Brigid reclined upon her bed, a tatty odalisque in faded leopard print pajamas and a housecoat the lurid sheen of motor oil on a puddle. Her gray hair, clinging desperately to an ancient blond tint, was in pin curls. “How’re you feeling?” I asked.

“How the fuck do ya think I’m feeling?”

“There was an impediment in the corridor.”

“She’s Muslim.”

“Of course.”

She raised the remote, muted the TV, and fixed her fierce, black eyes on me.

“So. Did you bring the money?” she said.

“One of these days, Bridge, I expect a freebie.”

“Fuck you, V.”

“But look! I brought chocolate and nylons.”

I handed her an envelope with eight twenties, then took a license-plate-sized Hershey’s chocolate bar and a couple bottles of San Pellegrino from my bag and carried them to the kitchen. Her refrigerator had only two shelves, both full. In the time it took me to find space for the water, she’d misplaced the money. After much whooping and digging and rolling from side to side, the bills were found.

“So, you keep all your money under the mattress?”

“Oh, go fuck yourself. I knew where it was.”

This was mid-winter 2009 and I’d come to pick up a recommendation for graduate school. The document was ready, so I had been summoned. As an afterthought, Brigid had asked me to bring some cash. “Ya know, just some ‘walking around’ money, V.” Ever since she emigrated to the Village as a teenager from ‘the Holy Land of the Bronx’, she had had an extremely relaxed relationship with personal finance and now that she was more or less confined to her Bleecker Street apartment, she had become dependent on the kindness of friends.