My friend “Rebel Ruthi” Limper talked me into going to the Toys for Tots planning meeting, a meeting for the biker toy run that commenced with a guy named Animal yelling into a microphone, “Awright everybody, shut the fuck up!”
The Stempien VFW post at 47th and Tripp was brightly lit, flooded with cigarette smoke, and crawling with bikers. Ruthi had convinced me to dress dangerously–lots of leather and a black Spandex dress. She’s convinced me to take lots of chances, like trying to outrun a summer thunderstorm on her Yamaha: she drove, I rode behind.
But it was Ruthi’s friend Santo who convinced me to go to a biker poetry slam. Judging from the scene at the VFW hall, Santo is a pillar of the biker community. In his van he brought the cardboard boxes that would be dispensed to bikers for collecting toys. “Everybody knows Santo,” Ruthi said. He’s known for his orange Harley, his orange cowboy boots, and his orange Hawaiian shirts.
Santo said he’s spent a lot of time at the Green Mill poetry slams, and for the last few years he’s been organizing the occasional biker poetry slam. He handed me a flier that advertised a slam as “the biker life-style told through music and poetry.” The handout warned, “No attitudes, no assholes.”
Later in the week Santo called to make sure I was coming. He said the poetry would probably reflect bikers’ interests: “sex, drugs, and rock and roll.” He also said that it would be much louder than your average poetry slam because bikers tended to be loud. This had been a problem at the Toys for Tots meeting. Animal’s mike “wasn’t loud enough for all the assholes in the back who kept talking,” Santo said. “We’re not going to make that mistake, you’ll definitely be able to hear us.”
At Desperados in Schiller Park the night of the slam I wasn’t anywhere near the speakers and my teeth rattled every time I closed my mouth.
One rather jittery poet named Herb Weinand stood out like an alien in his cloth jacket and corduroy pants. A mild-mannered poet and house painter adrift in a sea of black leather, Weinand is a nonbiker who calls himself the Grim Rhymer. He claimed in a voice of experience that biker audiences can be “brutal.”
We were surrounded by some 300 bikers, mostly large hairy tattooed men wearing leather vests and chaps–imposing figures who entered the bar with heavy footsteps, the chains on their boots jingling like spurs. There were women too: some were casual, but others were something to marvel at, with their big hair and heavy eyeliner, leather miniskirts and hip boots.
No less impressive was the Desperados bouncer, a mountain of a man in red suspenders–tall and wide as a doorway–who refused to yield passage to anyone without payment of the $5 cover charge.
Ted Aliotta, who used to play in Aliotta, Haynes and Jeremiah, also a biker and poet, was serving as emcee. A band he jams with sometimes, Cowboys in Denial, played intermittently throughout the evening. He was dressed for the part of ringmaster in a black cutaway and leather pants. Aliotta was the first poet to perform. He recited something about the wind in the hair, having a free feeling, or something. The crowd seemed only mildly interested. Brutal was the word. Aliotta had all but lost them when he began his poem “Asshole”: “Kissing your two lips,” it went, “you farted in my face / I swallowed my embarrassment….But when you refused to kiss me…said I smelled like shit…” He had the audience’s attention now. Another poem, “Farts,” also generated plenty of laughter, especially the part about the asshole that could hit a high C. Aliotta squeezed his eyes shut and scrunched up his buttocks beneath those tight leather pants when he sang the C note.
“A lot of this poetry is more visceral than intellectual really,” the Grim Rhymer commented.
Jean Howard and Rob Vantuyle, regulars at the Green Mill poetry slams, have an interest in motorcycles that led them to this event. Vantuyle rides one and Howard’s father collected them. They read in unison a romantic poem about a night ride, about holding each other close, feeling one with the bike and the road. “Helmets, we said, when we go, helmets won’t help!”
This time the audience was not brutal, but the Grim Rhymer still had the jitters. Before taking the stage, he borrowed my leather jacket and left his cloth one on a chair. “I really consider myself a bit of an impostor,” he said. “But they insist I do this. I’m always afraid my cover might be blown and someone’s going to kick my ass.”
Rhymer’s poem about a pyromaniac was barely tolerated. No one booed or yelled for him to leave the stage, but the loud talking began to swell ominously. With a paint-spattered loafer nervously tapping the floor, Rhymer seemed to sense he was not reaching his audience.
His next poem, “Written for the Girls at the Green Mill,” went over better.
I love to watch the Bears game
While lying on my bed.
The audience snapped to attention.
I grab my girlfriend by the hair
And make her give me head.
It keeps her from yappin’
While I’m listening to the score,
But I know she loves it
Though her jaw gets mighty sore.
Usually I light up a smoke.
And drink a glass of rum.
And by the time the game is over
Usually I come.
When she asks me to do the same for her
I pretend to fall asleep.
And dream about the Super Bowl
And listen to her weep.
When he got offstage, the Grim Rhymer looked a little shaky; he apologized for the poem, insisting that it was a departure from his usual material.
Jodi Wilson was next to take the stage: she stood legs apart, her hip-high boots grounded solidly on the floor. The crowd quieted down for a moment, if only to assess her outfit, a tight black leather miniskirt and a bustier held up with straps and chains like a suspension bridge.
She announced the title of her poem, “Proud to Be a Biker Bitch,” and then proceeded to recite: “They call us biker bitches and scooter trash / To those who don’t understand / They can all kiss my sweet ass…”
Her next poem had no title. “Fuck me if you can with your throttle wide open.”
“All right!” yelled a male voice. Several hoots and whistles escaped from the crowd before the next line.
“I always heard you were a stroker, always strokin’…”
Wilson teased the audience with a wanton look. “So give me your rod, hard and long / But put that condom where you know it belongs.”
By now, being in the audience was like being inside one big belly laugh.
A male biker by the name of Hack took the stage after Wilson. A huge man, he read from a tiny crumpled piece of paper. His poem was a paean to pan bikes, the antique motorcycles that run on leaded gas and require the use of a tool kit, practically an entire garage, for successful transit. It was received with hearty chants of “Yes, Yes, Yes!” Hack smiled to himself as he left the stage.
I asked to see the poem but Hack refused to hand it over. A friend who claimed to be his publicity agent advised him against sharing it.
Hack’s attention was drifting, but then he said expansively of his friend/publicity agent, “He’s my left-hand man.”
Before the night ended, another woman, “Rose E.,” took the stage. Though her brown hair was long and straight, on top it was short and stuck up defiantly as she read her “Ode to Assholes”:
In the bars where I works,
Serving alcohol to ballistic jerks,
Alcohol is what I serve them all,
Short, fat, skinny, and tall.
In this business I meet a lot of people
In their ass I’d like to insert a steeple.
All the come-on lines that I’ve heard
Make me want to spew and dump a turd…
After she read, Rose E. and I went upstairs to a party room to get away from the crowd and the smoke. One of the Cowboys in Denial was watching the slam on closed-circuit TV. Downstairs Steve Amella was onstage, wielding an eight-inch hunting knife. He screamed into the microphone:
If you live for peace,
I’ll stick you again.
I live for violence!
Amella’s demeanor matched the tone of the poem, but his manner changed when he was joined by Tina Ruffino. Together they read a duet, a spoof on a male biker’s assessment of a woman’s physique and her thoughts: “That creep’s looking at me again.” The audience laughed at his observations and her responses, especially at the end, when she read, “I can’t believe it / Oh, what a sight / Maybe he’s not so bad / He’s got a nice bike.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.