Been There, Smoked That

If you want street cred at a spoken-word event, it helps to be blunt.

On the last Wednesday in May, during the monthly convergence of the South Florida hip-hop scene at the Poor House (a night also known as "The Art of Moving Butts"), the Night Rider was given a title of distinction.

"This is my homegirl, Marya," said Darin, one of the event promoters, as he introduced me around. He'd remembered me from my days as a spoken-word poet and event organizer at Dada in Delray Beach. His introduction established me as an insider, even though it had been several years since I'd worked the spoken-word (and, by association, rap) circuit.

In a scene were people regularly call one another brotha and sistah, I'd always felt like a redheaded stepcousin. My poetry seldom rhymes predictably, and my golf-community upbringing prevents me from writing about thug life, since I aim to keep it real. So I was grateful for what cred Darin provided me.

Tony Gleeson

I sat at one of the outdoor tables waiting for the "Girls will B-girls" showcase of female rappers to begin, eavesdropping on conversations. These street linguists, dreamers, rhyming revolutionaries — these felt like my people, fellow DIY creative types who lived outside the conventions of society.

"There's a rap scene here in South Florida. We just need the superstars to back us up," DJ Stevie D. asserted to a table full of guys rocking skater fashion — Vans or Converse, long shorts, and T-shirts. "New York is playing our music — the South's music."

The dude behind me blazed up a blunt, casually smoking like he was kicking it in Amsterdam rather than Fort Lauderdale until the doorman intervened about ten minutes later: "Could you not smoke pot in front of the place?"

Hello! Especially if you don't have enough to share! Blunt Boy had smoked the thing down to a nub anyway, and before the smoke cleared, he had some vague THC-inspired observations of his own: "He knows some shit from listening to rappers and shit."

I wasn't sure who or what he was talking about, but he reminded me of the first rule of talking "street" — that is, employ a repetitive catch phrase, regardless of originality.

"As long as I remember to add 'and shit' to the end of everything I say, I'll fit right in," I remarked to Darin.

Soon, I was sitting with a young woman who demonstrated that keeping it real doesn't necessarily mean being tethered to reality. She called her whimsical, cartoon tattoos "food art": on her right calf, a "pure" cupcake that looked like an angel, blue and yellow wings fluttering from the pink-frosted confection. On her left, a "poisonous" cupcake with skull and crossbones behind it.

Before we could delve into the implications of her love-hate relationship with single-serving desserts, she was showing me more of her body art.

"Oh, and a mosquito. Well, it was supposed to be a dragonfly, but I was 15, and it was done by a crackhead," she said only half-serious about the artlessly rendered insect on her lower back. "It looks like my ass farted out a dragonfly. I wish my ass would just get huge and eat the thing."

Perhaps getting such a "tramp stamp" (as I've heard these tattoos called) would help women feel better about their ever-growing derrieres.

Darin's introductions also resulted in an association with the comic duo Jeff and Roy.

"Roy's just an Afro-punk with a dream," a tall Jeff joked about his shorter friend.

"I used to have a fake 'zine so I could get into shows for free," straight-man Roy claimed before explaining that The Inhaler Ways of Entry wasn't actually fake but a small-circulation enterprise that he pirated from undisclosed companies' photocopiers, before wheat-pasting them around west Broward.

"I used to think it was OK to steal from large corporations, but then I found Jesus and started paying for them," he testified, "for half of them, anyway."

"Born again half the thief you were before?" I snorted with a laugh, turning to face Jeff's broad smile.

"What about you?" I asked. "You born again?"

"Hey, I was born once," Jeff said, gesturing with his arms to showcase his considerable height. "I already put my momma through enough."

Soon, a wiry guy whose head looked like it was perfectly shaped for a yarmulke (I picked up such phrenologic expertise in Hebrew school) joined our clan. The fact that he was moving to New York to continue his career in stage-light design and that he could mimic a perfect Brooklyn accent didn't dispel the notion either. But his name did.

"His name is Christopher Robinson," one of the dynamic duo said.

"Like in Winnie the Pooh," the other said.

Mr. Robinson just smiled by way of affirmation.

Later, my new posse quizzed me on my musical tastes.

"You don't like Wu-Tang Clan?" Jeff asked incredulously.

"Not a fan of rap that goes 'nigga, nigga, nigga' or 'ass, ass, ass,'" I said, feeling like I'd just thrown down the hip-hop gauntlet.

"C'mon, Ol' Dirty Bastard changed his name to Big Baby Jesus! You still can't give 'em no love?" Jeff laughed.

Inside, the MC was announcing the night's entertainment: "The ladies're up here doing their thing on the microphone, not just up here shakin' their ass."

Red Dawn took the stage in a black halter-top and open-sided black jeans that exposed her leg from hip to ankle through little x's. She began the ubiquitous hip-hop arm bob — you know, like exaggerated musical conduction by someone who can count only to two.

"Yo, yo, mic check. This is for my bitches... even though all I see out there is dudes! Yo, turn that shit up," she called out before launching into her debut live performance of a rap that boasted, among other things, that no one knows about her habit of "smoking the hydro." Maybe I'd have appreciated her perspective if I had been smoking the hydro too, but Blunt Boy had bogarted the only stash I knew of, and now the point was moot.

After Red Dawn's debut, the DJ started spinning, and a few B-boys began busting moves in front of the stage. Soon, the next lady MC improved upon my theory about upping my street cred.

With lines like "I come with the real shit" and "You want that street shit. I'm down wid it." I learned that I could simply substitute shit more liberally for other nouns and shit. Shit, I'm a writer. Why didn't I think of this shit?

When Soulflower and Fresh Air Fund were doing their things, I was outside drinking beer, which, I was told later, was my biggest mistake of the night. As far as mistakes go, I can honestly say I wasn't sweating this one.

"Do you even like hip-hop?" Christopher Robinson asked me when we were driven inside once a light rain became a torrential downpour.

I assured him I did — I was just tired, I told him, though he wasn't buying it. So I shared my beef, which was that as a wordsmith, I wanted to hear the words, but the sound system was busting out beats it wasn't equipped to handle, so I couldn't understand much of the lyrics.

The performances ended in a free-for-all cipher as the band Hashbrown provided the rhythmic accompaniment. When the MC's call "Who's next to flex?" produced no more freestyle rhymers, the crowd should have dispersed, but the masses huddled while a flash flood began to roll down the sidewalk and through the streets and the rain started dripping through the holes in the ceiling.

While the Poor House lived up to its name, I stayed for one more beer and seized upon the gentle percussion of the rain and the poetry within the silence to say something to Mr. Robinson that had been bothering me all night: "You know, the Winnie the Pooh character's name is Christopher Robin."

And though I was no Tigger, I did have to bounce — it was 3 a.m., and I had to work in the morning. So I rolled up my jeans and pushed my notepad up my T-shirt, prepared to be steeped in an altogether different kind of hydro.

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