I lost my love last weekend and consoled myself with a poetry whore. Three times.
I didn’t know what I was getting myself into that night, though that seems to be how most stories that end at secret brothels start. I had fallen on rough times that day. A previous night of pint-sized cups of whiskey had led to my ultimate demise: I lost my one, true love. A whiskey hangover is bad enough, but I had awoken to learn that my drunken antics had cost me my Laptop in the back of a NYC taxi. I was in the classic downward, Hemingway spiral: late nights, dark drinks, self sabotage, self loathing…
And then I remembered something I’d heard about a place — a secret, unmarked place — where others down on their luck can meet monthly and ease their sorry sufferings in dimly lit backrooms with scantily clad women, nefarious men, and sensual syntax.
Somewhere on the Lower East Side between Delancey and Rivington I found my way into a damp, darkened alley. Without any signs to guide me (because “Whores Here” would be too obvious), I hoped I was going the right way.
Up a rickety metal staircase was a single, black door — like one that would lead to a restaurant’s kitchen. On the other side I could faintly make out the sounds of bouncing piano keys and a plunky bass. Cracking it open just enough for a burst of jazz to escape, I slipped inside and found myself in a swirl of candlelight, elaborate Victorian ball gowns, lingerie, and the lusty recital of poetry. Oh yeah, this was the spot.
The Poetry Brothel is a monthly series that kicks up the typical poetry reading to a whimsical (borderline naughty) level. It’s designed as an immersive poetry experience that brings the words to life outside of one-dimensional classrooms and inside an opulent purple-and-rouge bordello. The event is held at The Backroom Bar, a bona fide speakeasy that harkens back to the days of Prohibition, and is one of the only true speakeasies that still operates as a bar in New York. The wonderfully executed themes take poetry and time-travel buffs back to the days of the back rooms of New Orleans and Paris. The Poetry “Madame” manages a cast of sexy poet characters, known as “whores,” each of which has his or own carefully constructed character and performs spontaneous readings for the crowd. The evening is punctuated with live music and burlesque. However most of interest is the private one-on-one readings available for purchase, which allow hungry customers to engage on a more intimate, passionate level.
I ordered a drink from the bar — something with tequila (dear god no more whiskey) — and it came to me in a ceramic teacup. This is Prohibition, after all. Up a few steps I made my way to the salon and settled into a cozy wingback chair. Around me was a sea of black lace and exposed flesh. Women in crimson lipstick and men with elaborate mustaches toured the floor, hoping to catch the eye of any poetry junkie with a dollar to spend.
The music died down and the Madame took the mic to welcome the newest tribe of lost boys and girls to the show. Her ring of whores came up one by one to introduce themselves and give a little preview of what exactly they could do with words. If any whore(s) struck your fancy, you were invited to purchase a private reading with him or her.
They were all sensual, aloof, eyes outlined in dark liner and just enough poetry to leave you wanting a little bit more. And then I saw her; her hair a wild, auburn mane around her face, and a gold gypsy necklace that softly tinkled when she moved. I watched as she puckered her lips around the words she had written, and all thoughts of that gorgeous, wretched 13-inch, 1.4Ghz dual-core Intel Core i5 with 4GB memory flew right out of my head.
When the Madame dispersed her gaggle, I watched as the one I was after came nearby. “First time here?” she asked me. I nodded. I awkwardly held out the chip I had purchased (one chip gets you one reading, unless you are buying the Madame herself). “Can I buy you?” I stupidly asked. “Sure, are you ready now?”
She took my hand and gathered her flowing skirt, leading me to the back of the salon. “How are you feeling today?” she asked me. “I’ve been better. My Laptop left me last night,” I replied. “Oh…you poor thing…”
With those words she approached a bookcase and pushed the shelves back, revealing a secret door to a dark room. Through the faded, fuzzy flicker of candles I could make out hanging curtains and scattered pillows. All around I could hear the buzzing hum of poetry as other whores were busy reading to paying customers. She sat me down on a plush bench and handed me a pillow so I could be comfortable. She took a pillow for herself and placed it on the floor, resting her knees on it and looking up at me. Slowly, she opened the cover of a small book and tenderly ran her fingers down the pages selecting the perfect poem. “I know you had a rough day. Let’s see what I can do.”