The details of that night may be fuzzy after a certain point, as I was loaded on Jameson.
The night Tess Collins took ownership of the (Real) Lark Tavern was my last night as a bartender. It was bittersweet but my run had come to an end and I knew my destiny was elsewhere. I was in the Tavern a lot and was close to the staff and it was still my second home. From the night Tess took over she wanted me to do a poetry open mic. I was starting my current career and working on other things involving Albany Poets and our market was being overrun with open mics. I was a real bridge burner and make no apologies for who I was then. I did what did. I was who I was. Besides, who the hell wanted another poetry open mic? Especially one that I was hosting.
Thom Francis and I meet frequently at the Tavern to discuss events we wanted to do and it was a real artist haven – writers, musicians, visual artists, photographers, comedians, journalists, drag queens, strippers, wannabes and hangers on. It was really lots of fun. Thom finally said to me that we needed to do something at the tavern. We had a backroom, a stage and (finally) someone who would do whatever it took to help us. Before I go on, Tess, from the bottom of my battered heart, Thank You.
So we ran through the calendar of events that we have on our website to choose a night. We decided that we would honor our mentor and champion, Tom Nattell, and have our event on the last Monday of the month. That is important to us because Tom hosted the first wildly successful open mic for poets at the QE2 on the last Monday of each month. Tom was dying of cancer and we wanted to show respect to our history and roots. What do we call it? It had to have a name to set us apart.
While Thom and I were batting around ideas, Tess comes flying by and said, “Panza, I can hear your big mouth at the bar. Call it ‘Poets Speak Loud’.”
And so it was born.
We made this decision in the late summer/early fall to do the mic. We would wait until January to begin and asked Tom if he would be the first featured reader. I can remember calling him to ask and his response was simply this, “If I am around.”
I wanted to say something profound but I just told him that if he was feeling up to it, we would love to see him.
That was the last actual conversation I ever had with him.
So, we fast forward that night in January 2005. I was down at the Empire State Plaza working a health fair. It was boring and I wanted to go home and change and get ready for my open mic when my cell phone rang. It was Dan Wilcox’s phone number. I knew. I went outside to get reception and Dan told me that Tom had passed away in the night, peacefully, beautifully.
I held back tears as Dan said, “Tom would want us to go on. See you tonight.”
I told my boss I needed to go. Called Thom and told him that we would go on. I got to the tavern at around 5:00 pm. We weren’t starting until 7pm. I had a cheeseburger, cheddar, medium rare, fries and a diet coke. What? I am me, after all. When I told the staff, they were so kind as I was in and out of tears for about an hour. At 6:00 pm, Thom arrived. He began setting up the mic and he put an extra chair on stage.
“Why two chairs?” I asked him
“One will always be for Tom.” He replied.
At around 6:45-7ish people began to arrive. I waited by the back door and just let people know as they came in that Tom had passed so if you wanted to say something about your memories of him or the scene, please do so. Flowers started pouring in. We ended up putting some of them in beer pitchers. I remember getting up to the mic and saying that were Tom is I am sure he is laughing at me. We all hated it when the featured poet is a no show.
Three hours later, the open mic was over. Thom spent most of the night on the phone giving statements to the papers about what Tom meant to us. I invited everyone to go to the bar and drink up. Then I think it was my idea to go to the Robert Burns statue where Tom would host Poets in the Park every year and toast him. I must have been drunk because I hate the cold and I try not to go outside if I can help it. We went to the statue and placed some flowers and someone (not me) had the bright idea of putting a beret on the statue. Nicole Peyrafitte climbed the statue and placed the beret on the head of Robert Burns. I remember it getting quiet. It had become real. Our friend was gone and part of our lives was really history.
By the time I went home, I was drunk and exhausted.
Just like a poet.
We will be gathering for the 12th Annual Tom Nattell Memorial Open Mic and Beret Toss on Monday, January 30, 2017. The Beret Toss will take place at the Robert Burns Statue in Washington Park at 6:30 pm. We will then meet at McGeary’s (4 Clinton Square, Albany) for the open mic, with guest host Dan Wilcox, starting at 8:00 pm.
This event will be a classic open mic, in the style of the monthly open mics run by Tom Nattell at the QE2 on the last Monday of each month in the 1980s and 1990s. While it is expected that some poets will read tribute poems to Nattell, or old favorites from past readings, poets are invited to read poems on any theme and share in the spirit of poetry.