Dear Eliot Spitzer,
Gosh, what a week it's been. You step out your door and see those damned TV satellite trucks lining Fifth Avenue: Once, they raised you up; now they cut you down. You pick up the Times and find they've sent a hockey team's worth of reporters to bodycheck you out of the game. Gawker won't stop squawking. Your favourite 22-year-old - you called her "Kristen," didn't you? - flaunts her lovely wares from the front pages of the Post and the News.
But today, as you hand over the keys to Albany, I want you to know there's a place for you here in this city, a shelter from the storm where you will be accepted for who you are. Yes, this is a newly puritanical town, but there are still some people left who understand that, no matter how satisfying our lives are at home, sometimes we all just need a shot of something else, something a little dark and dirty and unfamiliar.
Which is why, as you were cooped up with your lawyers last week, I slipped on down to SoHo, where ladies like Kristen once tottered on stilettos through the cobblestone streets, their male minders prowling the shadows. Now, the only pimps in the neighbourhood are the contemporary art dealers and the realtors hawking $5-million lofts.
But a hint of the old strut remains.
On Thursday evening, outside a narrow storefront on Crosby Street known by day as the Jonathan Shorr Gallery, a pair of beanpole goons at the curtained front door sized me up. I was there for the poetry, I said with a wink. They winked back and asked for a "donation." Ten dollars, cash money. You'll like this part, Eliot: No interstate wire transfer required.
Beyond the curtain lay a world of desires in the midst of fulfilment, all part of a new monthly reading series known as The Poetry Brothel. A long-limbed tattooed woman wheezed out something French on her accordion; a pair of dandies in jackets and ties tussled over a tense game of blackjack; a sloe-eyed gal lit up something illicit that filled the air with a bittersweet scent. New Orleans jazz - was it from the brothel scene in The Purple Rose of Cairo? - piped in from speakers.
The crowd parted to make way for a 23-year-old redhead with a headdress of peacock feathers, a cigarette holder in her left hand, and an American Spirit package tucked into the right side of her low-cut black dress. In a thick Russian accent, she introduced herself to me as "Madame X" and waved an arm toward the young women behind her: I could have any one of her girls give me a private reading in a makeshift bedroom on the upper landing, she promised.
My weak excuses tumbled out awkwardly: I'd never done anything like this before, I explained. I'm a good man. It's just that my life of verse at home had recently grown predictable, arid. I tear through every new issue of The New Yorker like a teenaged boy, ignoring the cartoons. I subscribe to Brick and Poetry magazine - for the articles, of course - but that's not doing the trick, either. Could she help?
She batted her eyes with understanding. And here, Eliot, she mentioned you. "I sink we could even help zis Meester Speetzer," she said, in her Russian purr. "I sent him letter zis week. I sink I should give blond girl to him. She ees good poet."
As the hours rolled on, each of the girls stood up and performed a poem or two for the crowd. And then, eased upstairs by Madame X, they settled in for a private reading or two, emerging from the encounters with bills spilling from their tops.
"As a poet, I'm always giving it away for free," one explained to me. "Why shouldn't I make a little money?"
I know, I know: Most of these poets are really just young women trying to put themselves through grad school. Many are from broken homes; they've fallen into poetry as a last resort. They are strung out, hooked on verse by older guys, thesis advisers. I wanted to ask them: Does something die inside every time they make money on their poetry? For that is not the purpose of poetry, to profit; it should be given only in an atmosphere of real trust and love.
So I had a few drinks and approached Madame X and finally told her my name: I was John. John Donne. I was going to ask for the blond girl, or maybe the gal who performed something with the aid of a flip chart and a black marker she called The Bad Secretary. How long would the live jazz band upstairs be playing? Because it was hard to hear any poetry with that racket.
She asked if I wanted to go into a room downstairs, a closet, really, outfitted with a couple of throw pillows and a lamp sitting on the floor. She'd be happy to give me a private reading herself, she said. My heart fluttered: My first private poet would be the madam?
We went together into the closet, my legs extending awkwardly beyond the curtain. She pulled out her sheaf of offerings and began.
As she read, her urgent tones cut into my chest. I began to weep. I cried from the gulf between my desires and her poems. Yes, she was eager to please me, but her words were unfamiliar; they were experimental, too youthful for my old soul. I saw myself suddenly as I really was: a middle-aged man on the floor of a closet. Oh, how I longed to be at home now, listening to my wife recite some Billy Collins, some Ondaatje, Atwood, or Bowering. I recalled being in Grade 5, surrounded by my 10-year-old best friends, back when everything was pure, as we learned our very first Robert Frost. I have promises to keep, I realized sombrely. I had miles to go before I'd sleep.
Madame X finished her poem and looked up at me, smiling tentatively. She wanted approval. I muttered something about her skill in blending a perfectly iambic pentameter and a formal sonnet in broken English, but I didn't really know what I was saying: My mind was elsewhere. I struggled to my feet and handed over a few dollars, ashamed at disappointing her.
When I crept in around midnight, my wife was still up. Somehow, I could see, she knew. I stood there by the front door: scared, vulnerable, a mortal man. I searched her eyes for mercy and understanding, and she pulled me close. "There once was a girl from Nantucket," she whispered. I was home.