Last Saturday, Baltimore writers and musicians gathered at the G-Spot Audio-Visual Playground for the city’s second Literary Cabaret. The Literary Cabaret isn’t exactly an official annual event; it’s just something I cooked up to gather writers together and raise a little money for AWP, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. I was the president of that organization for two years and am still on its board. Last year’s Literary Cabaret went well enough that I figured I’d try it again this year, only do it better.

Better meant asking the twenty-two readers this year to limit their time at the microphone. Now, this is a touchy topic because once you get a writer in front of a mic, anything can happen. The worst that can happen is that the writer will not leave the microphone. Last year, I must confess, we did have some problems with time limits. Said one reader (last year) when another reader kept on and on, “What’s so complicated about the concept of five minutes?” This year, I limited readers to two double-spaced pages and, happily, they took this seriously. As a result, the readings were fast and punchy–just enough to give us a taste of the writer’s work and leave us wanting more. It made for a heady mix. I recall hearing about sex and chickens and war and marriage and killing a dog and breasts and growing old and growing up and fist fights and sex and everything except flying to the moon. Local presses and publishers — like Smartish Pace , Shattered Wig Press, and the Potomac Review — picked the readers.

These readings were interspersed with music by writers who are musicians, as well as professional musicians. There was internationally renown novelist Madison Smartt Bell performing some of his music (he has two albums produced by famous indie songwriter-producer Don Dixon). Flannery O’Connor winner Geoff Becker — whose latest novel, Hot Springs, was a recent NYT editor’s pick — performed his rocking version of a few standards. Geoff used to be a pro and he plays his Stratocaster with the kind of authority that makes listeners say, “Holy shit!” (Pardon moi.) Speaking of which, we also had Kevin Robinson, who may be Baltimore’s reincarnation of Jimi Hendrix. Good god, the man holds forth. My own Jazz Caravan showcased one of the city’s musical treasures: Atlay Washington. She is one of the best performers I’ve seen in any genre. When she sings, she brings joy to the room. Dave Hughes, from Jazz Caravan and Oblivion Sun, was the house bass player and anchored the stage all night. You just can’t do a show like this without an outstanding bassist.

Our music headliners were the incomporable Victoria Vox, who has just released her third album, Exact Change. Vox plays pop-powered ukulele. She has a clear, sweet voice to match a sweet, mischievous stage persona. You may have caught her recently on a Jay Leno spot playing her mouth trumpet: she can mimic the music of trumpet beatifully (look for this on YouTube). If you don’t have her in your I-pod, you’re missing someting special. Our other headliner, Greg Holden, I brought down from NYC because I thought Baltimore needed to hear him. He’s very talented singer-song writer in the acoustic indie tradition. Greg and his manager stayed in an apartment at the G-spot, thanks to a generous loan of space from Heather Rounds. When you bring in musicians you haven’t met — for an overnight stay — you never know what might happen. I’ve been at gigs where the lead singer shows up two hours late or doesn’t show up at all. When I married Jill, I enlisted my own band to perform and our bass player at the time never showed up (we called another at the last minute and, remarkably, he was available and did a great job and became the bass player we now have.) In short, I’ve been around a lot of musicians and seen a lot of quirk and weirdness — because musicians are, well, just out there — but Greg was sweet and thoroughly professional. I wish I could have spent more time with him and his manager, David Margolis. Greg puts on a great show, very personable and humorous. He’s got an outstanding voice and well-developed melodic sensibility. He sold lots of albums. Check him out.

One of our participating editors, Clarinda Harris, had a little trouble finding the event site, because it’s off the beaten path, in the Mill Center area of Hampden. She said, “Now I know why they call it the G-Spot: you hear about it and you’re eager to get to it, but you look and look for it and can’t find it, though you’re pretty sure you’re in the right vicinity. When you DO find it, you’re not sure you’re really there. And then, when we’re you’re pretty sure you’re there at last, that this is indeed the spot, you’re not sure you’ll ever find it again!”

A few words about planning an event. If you’ve ever built a house of cards or played Jenga (stacking little small blocks of wood in tall precarious piles), you have some idea of what it’s like to put on an event with 22 readers, ten magazines, 6 bands, 6 volunteers, a caterer, and so on. You can read about my getting a liquor license in an earlier blog. Two days before the event, the septic pump at the G-spot went out — which meant we had no toilets and no water. Ruben Kroiz, who runs the G-Spot, assured me that it’d be fixed. But, man of the world that he is, he couldn’t promise that it’d be fixed in time. Twenty-four hours before show time, the septic-system pump was working again, thankfully. The day of the event, my watch stopped, the battery dead, apparently. I tried not to be superstitious about it. The night of the event, we had a little electrical fire, probably because I overloaded an outlet with lights. But Ruben came to the rescue here too. And everything went off very well, the readers were fabulous, the music marvelous, and we made a little money for a good cause too. Special thanks to Ruben Kroiz, Joe Bradley, Heather Rounds, Tim Finnegan, and Rosalia Scalia for their help.

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I need a one-day liquor license for a fund-raiser I’m doing in Baltimore next week (Baltimore’s Literary Cabaret). Someone told me it’s easy to get: “Just go downtown and pay fifty bucks. It’ll take an hour, tops.”¬† He didn’t say where downtown, though I assumed it’d be at or near Baltimore City Hall.

I approach City Hall and its environs with great hesitation, if not fear. Civil servants — those underpaid, under-appreciated form-scribblers and data-shovelers who have seen too much of the public and, as a result, don’t really want to hear about your problems, no matter how special you think your case may be — these people scare me. They seem like weary participants of a psychology lab experiment gone wrong. You know, like that experiment that proved anybody could be a tyrant and torturer if given the chance? This is an unfair generalization, I know, but it’s how I feel.

So: despite my best intentions to keep a good attitude, I had a sinking feeling as I approached the crowded counter at the Liquor Board yesterday. My first misgiving came when I saw an announcement taped to the wall: “As of May 1, all one-day licenses must be obtained 10 days in advance of the event. No exceptions.” When I’d phoned the Liquor Board earlier, a man told me that I had to come in today because of this rule. But he’d said nothing about it being a new rule that would start on May 1. It was only April 28. “You come in today you just made it in time,” he said. But he was wrong, wasn’t he? It wasn’t May 1 yet, so the rule didn’t apply, did it? But I wasn’t about to argue.

I’ve noticed that most civilians are ingratingly self-effacing, even shy, when interacting with clerks at city offices for fear of incurring the wrath of the bureaucracy. We submit ourselves to these clerks as a lost five-year-old would submit himself to a store manager or a police officer, our opened hands outstretched, palms up, our eyes begging for mercy.

I didn’t have very long to wait until I was escorted to the desk of a Ms. Robinson, a middle-aged woman with close-cut hair and big eyeglasses. I’m sure she’s somebody’s happy grandma. She looked at my yellow form and said, “I can’t do anything with this.” Before I could reply, she looked at my other piece of paper. It was the official stationery I’d brought with the tax exempt number of the non-profit I serve.

Ms. Robinson said, “What’s this number?”

“That’s my tax exempt number,” I said.

“I don’t know that,” she said.

“But that’s what it is,’ I said. “The man said that’s all I needed.”

“What man?” she asked.

“The man I talked to on the phone.” Why hadn’t I thought to ask his name?

Ms. Robinson said: “No, sir, you need a letter from the IRS.”

“A letter from the IRS?”

“That says you are tax exempt.”

“Where would I get such a letter?” I asked. “My event is in 10 days.”

Ms. Robinson shook her head in dismay. “You should have that letter already if you are tax exempt.”

It occurred to me that I could call AWP headquarters and have them fax me the IRS letter right away. So I asked Ms. Robinson to write down her fax number.

“This sheet,” she said of my yellow form, “I can’t do anything with because you don’t have a zoning permit.”

“Zoning permit?” I hated that all I could do was echo everything she said.

“All you got on this form is an address.” She pointed. “I don’t know how it’s zoned.”

I thought: Holy shit, what have I gotten into? I’m renting an art gallery for the event. Is the place even zoned for public use? Does the place have to be inspected? Am I going to get the place shut down?

“You got to go over to the Zoning Board and get a permit,” Ms. Robinson instructed. She wrote down the address. I drew a deep breath, glanced at the clock: I had two hours before closing.

I stepped away from the desk and opened my phone to find the number of AWP headquarters. I hate my phone because the screen is the size of a saltine cracker and the download time is interminable and I can never find anything on the screen once I’ve downloaded a web page anyway. The phone numbers I needed were contained in emails, not in my “contacts” folder — that’s the way I run my messy life, never anything where it should be. I couldn’t get my email client to open. Then I realized I had AWP stationery in my hand–and there was the phone number I needed as part of the letterhead. Ah, serendipity! Or was it synchronicity? I phoned AWP but nobody was in, so I left a message.

The Zoning Board was two blocks away. When I arrived I was relieved to see that there was no line. A pleasant Admin. Assistant gave me a form to fill out. I decided that I could spend the afternoon collecting forms. This one asked for all kinds of information I didn’t have. As I tried again to access my email via my phone, the AA told me I couldn’t do phone work in the office. This seemed to be the case in every city office: cell phone use prohibited in this office! I wondered why. It wasn’t like an airplane. The AA said I had to get another office to stamp the form anyway before I could hand it back to her.

So I went to that other office, which looked like a DMV waiting area, with its cordoned lines and clerk stalls. I borrowed a pen from a clerk at the nearest counter. She and her co-worker were chatting about their mutual friend’s amazing cupcakes, which¬† look like miniature wedding cakes.

I stared at my Zoning form. It asked for the name of the building’s owner. I couldn’t remember his last name. It asked for the square footage. I had overheard somebody saying that the Zoning Board will charge your event according to square footage you’re using. This gave me pause. The form asked for more phone numbers I didn’t have.There’s phone email and there’s regular email. I needed regular but it takes up so much bandwidth I couldn’t pull it in. Did I mention that I hate my phone?

I filled in a few lines of my form in a gesure of wishful thinking then handed it to one of the cupcake clerks. She said, “You’ve still got to fill out these lines. And then this section that describes your event.” Then she turned to her co-worker, “The description with the square footage is all that counts, right?” I returned to the end of the counter and made up names and phone numbers for all of the lines, anything to complete the form. I figured all the city wanted was my money, not accurate information. Was I wrong? When I handed the completed form back to the cupcake clerk, she glanced at it, then stamped it. Then I returned to the other Zoning office, where an assessor took my form and directed me to return to the DMV room again, where I sat at a clerk’s stall and received my Zoning Permit bill: $25. A note in her stall said: “No curbing permits will be issued in Baltimore City. Basements may continue to be lowered using the underpinning method.” Perfect, I thought.

After paying my Zoning bill, I returned to the Liquor Board two blocks away. My detour had taken less than an hour. At this point, I asked myself, When did governments start regulating the consumption of alcohol? Is it unreasonable? Is it a scam? Later, a little research told me that governments big and small, local and national, have been regulating or attempting to regulate alcohol for as long as there has been alcohol — for millennia — because humans are determined to get high on the stuff. So, asking the question, “Who says the government can tell me what to serve and where?” will get you nowhere. If your local government can tell you where to park, it can tell you where you can and cannot drink.

When I inquired after my fax at the Liquor Board front desk, the clerk (another middle-aged woman, not Ms. Robinson) said, “Why’d you need something faxed?” After I explained that I needed the official IRS tax-exempt corporation verification letter, she said, “You didn’t need that.” I shrugged whatever. The crackerjack AWP staff had indeed fired the fax over. As I waited for the clerk to process the paper, the other clerk behind the counter — a guy with sly humor — said, “You still here?” I nodded and he chuckled.

Ten minutes later, the other clerk said my documents we in order. Then I handed her my Zoning Permit receipt. She said, “That’s not a Zoning Permit.”

“I know,” I said, “it’s a receipt for the permit — which has been approved. They say the permit will be ready in a day or two.”

“I can’t issue you a liquor license without a zoning permit,” she said.

I looked at her over the tops of my eyeglasses, one of those Come-on-now-let’s-work-together looks. I said, “If I don’t get my liquor permit today, you people aren’t going to give it to me later.” I pointed to the new May 1 regulation.

She raised one eyebrow, nodded her head in agreement, then pulled over a date/time stamp and gave my form the mark. “There you go,” she said. “Now you’re on record. You can bring this back the day OF your event and you’ll still get your permit.”

I thanked her and was grateful to get away. When I returned to my car and its expired meter, I expected to find a ticket on the windshield, but there was none.

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