It was 10 o’clock of a Thursday night in the city of brotherly love, the witching hour in some circles, when only the crazies and pseudo-crazies were out and about on South Street, so you know I was there. The year was 1995, but it could have been 1996 or 1997 as well, because it was almost like time stood still on South Street then, where you could lose yourself in the record shops, the hole-in-the-wall restaurants, and the coffeehouses that seemed to spring up overnight. Not to mention the parade of goths who made it their home then. Dark of night, dark of clothing, it was a dark and magical time and place.
So on that particular Thursday night (it was a school night, but I didn’t care) I was out with a work colleague, who also styled himself a writer, because we were going to meet his writing group at a cafe just off of South Street. Now, I had been intrigued by his tales of the group for a few weeks by then, but no time had been the right time for introductions until that particular night. Until then, I had only written mostly for myself, the poems and short stories tied up and twisted in my own head for no one’s eyes but my own, so it was going to be a jarring experience, to say the least. But I was ready.
When we walked into that small cafe and made our way to the back, I inhaled the sharp aroma of coffee and unwashed saints, which was okay because it meant I was really in an artistic place, and not just some kind of generic Starbucks where the ambiance is never true. This was an honest to goodness old-style cafe, the kind that never stay around for long, but when they’re around they mean something. And in the back of that small cafe were a group of… bohemians, but they were more than that, a ragtag band of disparate souls who somehow also shared a soul. It was evident from the start that they had been together a while (I found out later that the group was three months old) and they knew their identity. I was introduced to them all, and I knew instantly that I had found a family. This skinny black guy was accepted by a group for the first time in his life, and he liked the cozy feeling.
Then the readings began. One after another the sharing was palpable, from the loud baritone of one to the quiet tones of another. From the angry vibe of one poem, to the sweet, calming groove of another. They kept rolling into each other, twisting around, and coming back again for more, and once everyone else had gone, it was my turn. Now, I had come prepared but after hearing all of them, I was reticent to share what I felt was inferior material. But after some prodding, I stood up and recited this:
She glanced at me a minute
a day ago
Lost in her blinding idea of
who I am supposed to be
Fractured by the sight of me
And conscious of the passage of time
I sit on the hard-wire chair
in the backyard
by the barn
With the bugs flying nearby
As the dogs begin to cry
And she looks away at the encroaching underbrush
A game of tennis scheduled for noon
Small-town waves as we slowly pass
Leaves gathered in piles across the grass
I run my hands through my hair
and turn to go
As she walks into the house
and I vanish from her mind.
Then there was silence. A silence that seemed so vast that I lost myself in it. I looked up from the page to find all eyes locked on me, and gradually, like the rising tide, they began snapping their fingers in a rhythm that drowned out my fears. I really had found a family, I thought then, and for the next year it was exactly that way. We spent our nights at the cafe, or on a street corner enacting impromptu performances for the populace. We even went so far as to do some major improv work as well.
But the major piece to our group, the thing I would remember the most, was just about to begin. One of our members had a cousin who owned a printing press and could get a periodical published for us for a nominal fee. That’s how Siren’s Silence was born, from the blood, sweat, and tears of fourteen people with a vision, with imagination, and with a cousin who owned a printing press. Armed with these wonderful gifts, we set about to edit and publish not only poetry, but short stories, plays, and artwork from submissions we would receive and cull from the general populace of Philadelphia. It was grandiose and took a lot more time than we had spent together previously, but it also brought us closer together as a unit. In the end, we came up with a monthly publication that almost spanned that entire year, we had more than 1000 submissions from all over the great city, and we created a bond that I didn’t even realize was possible.
And then it came to an end. Parts of our group began to move away, the cousin lost his printing press, and the group drifted apart. But forever and always, we will have that year, and we will have the proof of that year in the periodicals that I still have locked in my box of memories upstairs. We will always have Siren’s Silence, and the memories that started in that small cafe just off of South Street.