Electric Forest 2015: Last Customers of the Night
by Mister Charley
“As if in a dream, you enter a broken photo booth, a door opens, and now you’ve stumbled upon the Poetry Brothel.” I wanted it to sound like a Choose Your Own Adventure to all the surprised patrons as they walked in. Confusion leads to delight. Faces light up. Experiences occur. Magic and transformation, all in a night’s work.
I can explain: we are the Poetry Brothel, an eclectic group of poets, performers, and artists. “Unlike a regular brothel we don’t deal in sex, we deal in poetry,” I say as I usher the Johns into the parlor (and some of them understand what’s going on). “But like all houses of ill repute, we do deal in intimacy and scandal.” This is what I want to tell them, but it’s too damn loud and the moment has passed anyway.
I’m Mister Charley, by the bye. I’m not a poet, but a master of ceremonies. Tonight I’m playing host, welcoming our guests, and giving them a little accordion serenade in this mysterious installation in one of the Electric Forest’s new tents, The Hangar. Normally, I’d be back in New York, in some dimly lit speakeasy, putting on an evening, a decadent soiree complete with absinthe, hot jazz, burlesque, portrait drawings, tarot, body painting, and of course, poetry. It’s an event in which our poetry “whores”, suggestively dressed men and women of Bohemia, give public readings to attract customers. If someone likes what they hear, they can pay the whore to take them into a private room for a one-on-one reading.
But this installation is a horse of a different color. There’s no big show, only private readings, and we’re luring in small groups of audience under false pretense. A little bait-and-switch and then cut to the chase. I kinda like it.
The Hangar, a large 40’s-style aviation tent, houses a big stage, a Hemmingway-esque Cuban bar, a temporary tattoo parlor, a massage station filled with Rosie Riveters buffing backs with car buffers, an actual photo studio, and a functioning barbershop (hippies beware!). Then off in a dark corner just left of the stage there’s a red photo booth next to a wall adorned with paper lanterns. There’s a sign which reads “OUT OF ORDER” hanging outside of the booth’s curtain but it seems to do little to deter the curious. Then again, that’s who we’re after.
Ignoring the sign, couples and loners sit in the booth on a red swivel chair. Often they hold a dollar, not knowing what to do with it. I see them through the scrim of the door, flush to the wall inside the booth. I open the door and offer a hand to pull them into the unknown. Some gasps and startles but no freakouts and runaways, thankfully. Then they’re inside.
In the parlor, I entertain our guests until a whore is available. When ready, the whore then takes our customer to one of three rooms, either one of the two big rooms with large, lavish beds lovingly dubbed “Las Vegas” and “Florence” (and decorated accordingly) or the small room with a light blue chaise lounge. Candles and tchotchkes everywhere. It’s all beautifully built and thoughtfully designed, all aimed at creating an entirely different world apart from where you just came from. And it’s working. Our whores are good at what they do and the poetry dribbles like so much heavenly and base nectar.
But on the last night of the festival, the magic and whimsy are beginning to wane. After four solid days of Dubstep, EDM, and jam bands, you can see the drugs and fatigue have caught up with people. Word got around that the photo booth isn’t actually out of order so the crowds become unruly, banging on the door to be let in on the secret. The glamour is fading. I’m half-starved, sleep-deprived, walking on blisters and thoroughly exhausted from trying to play this heavy accordion for 12 hours a day over that damn racket in the Hangar. I marvel that anyone could hear our poets! Or my playing. What if they couldn’t? Was it all a lie? Maybe everybody just wanted to lie down for a few moments and couldn’t care less about magic and poetry. My heart sinks.
Now it’s the last hour of the last day of the Poetry Brothel in the Electric Forest. Audience is sparse but we’re not complaining. People are surly! Whores and Johns alike. Preparing for what will be a lengthy late-night breakdown of the set, we surreptitiously steal tchotchkes from all the rooms to pack them away. “Please no more customers!” we plea in our heads. Most of them are too high or drunk to comprehend what’s happening anyway. My dear Cosette is fading. She’s hoarse from yelling her poems, feels faint and wants to stop now. I’m angry because she hasn’t worked nearly as much as me on this trip and a fight is about to erupt.
Then there’s a knock on the door. Three 20-something kids are in the booth and I’m yelling “Closed!” as I give them the official New York neck-slit gesture. The knocking persists over the din of the band outside. Frustrated, I open the door to shoo away these brats. But I’m blindsided. The leader is terribly cute. A little face-paint, pigtails, and enthusiasm like in a homecoming pep rally. I try to explain that we’re closed, then she shows me a note from her phone: “Sorry to bother you but the lady said we could have a look around. Is that alright? :) ” For a moment, I wonder why she didn’t simply speak that me. I mean, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band is on stage right now closing the night; though they’re bigger and louder than the regular show they do in New Orleans, they’re still not as clamorous as Bart & Baker, The Gentlemen Callers, or Vourteque. And after a few fumbling moments of misunderstanding, I finally realize that the words she’s mouthing as she points to her ear are “I’m deaf.”
She’s deaf. So is her friend and her friend’s boyfriend. And I learned later they weren’t the only ones at the Forest; apparently there’s a growing number of deaf attendees who come every year. It’s becoming an awesome community! I suppose it makes sense at a festival like this with so much RRRRVVVVVZZZZZWOPWOPWOPBUUUHHHHHAAAAAHHHHH, etc. At least a deaf person could feel the intense bass rumbling throughout his body the way it rumbles through just about everything. So here they are: three deaf kids eager for a poetry reading. They are cute and I am smitten.
They come into the parlor and are blown away, mouthing wows at all the details and decor. I wondered if maybe they were tripping and seeing extra furniture and paintings that weren’t there. But they seem lucid and thoroughly pleasant. They all smile and laugh silently when they read the explanation typed on my phone of what this place is. Pigtails was especially bouncy. I put her hand on my accordion while playing for her to feel the vibrations like I’m a smug pregnant lady feeling the baby’s kick. Cosette Chapiteau enters the parlor, upset that I let anyone in after closing. She’s on the verge of collapse. I explain the situation and assure her she won’t have to read aloud if she’s tired. So we all retire to the Vegas boudoir, with its trashy-chic black silk linens and matching ceramic dogs on both sides of the bed. Cosette opens her book and hands out individual poems to each of our patrons. They read intently and their reactions to Cosette’s beautiful words make her cry. Pigtails starts signing as she reads and, in response to the extreme and violent imagery on the page, a barrage of vigorous gestures ensue like she’s conducting Wagner or dancing to Sia. We’re all transformed, even heartbroken. Changed. Connected.
After the poems, a text dialogue on my phone:
Mister Charley: You guys are the most enthusiastic patrons we’ve seen all day. Everyone is mostly stoned or dead tired.
Pigtails: Who wrote the poems
(Cosette gestures to herself.)
Pigtails: They are really good !! You have amazing way of using words.
Mister Charley: Where are you all from?
Boyfriend: I’m from Indiana and they are from Chicago
Cosette: We’re from NYC. also I’m so glad you like them :)
Pigtails: Poetry is a fascinating thing, and we use the sign language and it’s a poetry within every sentence, it’s cool :)
I show them the chaise lounge and the Florence Room, warm, stony, and golden as if perpetually bathed in sunset. More wows and wonder. And then sadly it’s time to close the Brothel. I can’t hug Pigtails long enough without becoming indecorous. It was like meeting a long-time friend on her layover. So glad to see her when you can but then she’s gone too soon from your arms and life. But not before reminding you that there are people who can give you so much of themselves so freely. Thankfully, I met quite a few of them in the Electric Forest. People with hearts so big, that “stranger” isn’t a word that ever enters their minds. And neither is “Goodbye.” So if you have to leave someone when you’re in there, you don’t say “Goodbye.” You tell them, “Happy Forest!” So as Pigtails leaves, all smiles, she places her left hand, fingers flat and palm down, under her right elbow while her right hand, pointing upwards, rotates back and forth at the wrist. “Forest.”