Hard-Ramblin’ Poets

Poet for Hire

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – At the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, I met some poets for hire. The three of them sat in a prim line in front of their old typewriters, waiting for those in need of a poem.

The came from all over. From Duluth, Minnesota; from Austin, Texas; from deep Oregon. They had been traveling as bluegrass musicians and were just barely getting by. But in New Orleans they met some street poets – it seems there’s a lot of that going on down there – and learned that it was a more lucrative profession. So in brazen pursuit of the American Dream, they all bought old typewriters, put out their shingle and set up shop as street poets. I guess everything in this world is relative.

They were two men and a woman. Of the three, the woman – who was wearing a top that said “Some people think I’m strange” – seemed the most earnest. Between clients, who often came with children who had never seen such a contraption, she would peck away at the old machine. Clack. Clack. Whirrr. Clack. Clack. Her passion was contagious and inevitably those in need of poems would line up before her even though the other poets were available.

People seem happy in San Francisco. They’re making music, they’re smoking pot, they’re watching the sunsets. There’s a lot of cleavage on view; breasts seem to be in fashion this year. There are also a lot of bare-chested men with admirable physiques. Tie-dye is still popular with a segment of the concert-going population but it is fused with Burning Man-chic where clothing is made of rough fabrics and cut in ways that reveal thighs and bosoms and pecs and biceps and often adorned with shiny, found things. It is as if we were transported into a dystopian future where the system had crashed and we all had to fend for ourselves but still had plenty of time for sex.

Which may be the great attraction of this vision: it’s a world that comes crashing down around us not too far in the future but we salvage the good things: the wild creativity, some technological prowess, the playfulness, the free love – and maybe we all go vegan for good measure.

Looking around, it seems to me that there’s not a lot of difference between the clothes of those who dress up for a festival like this and the buskers with their beat-up instruments, their black clothes, hair in various states of unwash, their leathery skin, and their dogs. The difference between the normal people with jobs and those who wander and make do, is only a matter of degree – and routine access to showers.

San Francisco is a place where disparate things, impossible things, come together. Hell, this city-wide party was created by a private equity billionaire, Warren Hellman, who loved playing the banjo. Go figure. This is a place of contrasts that are somehow resolved. Free thinking to go with the free love.

The world may come crashing down around us, the electrical grid collapse, but the musicians with their fiddles and mandolins and banjos and the poets with their mechanical typewriters will make it through and point us the old way forward.

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