"Spit that gangsta s**t, D. Watkins!" Twizzle yelled at the top of his lungs from the middle of a chorus of guys who looked just like me. "Tell them about the f**king block!"
I took a hard pause, looked out at the small group of anxious listeners gathered for this impromptu reading, and extended my hand toward Twizzle. "Lemme get that Black."
Twizzle dug in behind his ear, plucked out a wood tip Black & Mild and passed it to me. I cracked the plastic, pointed it at the group like an angry instructor, then let the flame from my Bic illuminate its tobacco-packed tip.
"Man, keep reading," a teenager who looked 40 yelled. We were standing in Old Town Mall, a mostly boarded-up shopping center. In its heyday, Old Town Mall was the hub where we bought the newest Nikes, Coogi sweaters, Triple F.A.T. Goose coats and Starter Jackets, but now only two convenient stores and a barbershop remained. "Come on, D! Read, man!"
I took a long, lung-clutching pull, and read my next paragraph through the dissipating smoke: "But in 2014 it feels the same as Bush, or Clinton, or any other president. The rich are copping new boats and we still are using the oven to heat up our houses in the winter, while eating our cereal with forks to preserve milk. America still feels like America, a place where you have to pay to play, any and everywhere even here at our broke-ass card game."
Twizzle didn't let me finish. Not because he didn't like my story. He loved it — as a matter of fact, he loved it too much, and so did the rest of the audience. Hearing the names of our people, our neighborhood, now published was overwhelming to them, enough so that Twizzle and others kept interrupting. Of course they had seen our names in the papers before — for sports or crime. This was different. This was art. That rowdy impromptu reading was one of the craziest I've ever given. But it wasn't the worst.
When you're an established author, people see your articles and books come out, they hear about your awards and see you on TV, but what they didn't see — literally, because the audiences were that small — is you earning your stripes first in the world of unpaid and underpaid art events. Creative writing students know that grind. It goes with submitting your work again and again after thousands of rejections from journals with tiny audiences, reading pages of feedback from people who don't get your work and sticking it out at wild mixers.
Now that I've published a few books and hundreds of articles, I'd like to celebrate by sharing some readings from hell. This is my toast to the MFA students out there, especially those coming out of virtual classrooms to engage with the public for the first time. Keep submitting your work. Keep doing the readings. You'll keep getting better. And I promise you, it will pay off.
But don't get the wrong idea. Crazy readings don't stop once you've published a book. I could start with the time I read at a nursing home for gunshot survivors on Roosevelt Island, and one of the community members hurled up a puddle of brown chunks on himself, a nurse and my new sneakers. But I won't, because that reading ending up going really well. So I'll begin with an event at my own alma mater, the University of Baltimore.
"I read in front of those 15 people as if there were 10,000 in the crowd."
I thought my audience for this reading would be standing room only. My last event at the school had pulled in about 150 people, and I expected at least 100 to show from the 250 reservations. But it was raining that day, cold like a Chicago winter — and it was May. I imagine people thought about coming, then landed on, hell nah. About 15 people showed up that day. I'm a sport. I didn't complain. I'm still amazed anyone would spend their time to come see me in the first place. So I poked out my chest, hovered above the podium, and I read in front of those 15 people as if there were 10,000 in the crowd. I read as if I would never be able to read again. I even sold about eight books.
The last person in line for the book signing was a young woman with about 2,000 pounds of infinity scarf wound around her neck. She hung around until the very end, even looking around to make sure everyone else had gone before she stepped up with her copy of my book.
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"Write a special note in my book," she said.
"Thank you for coming out," I said. "I know just what to write."
Here's my usual special note for people I don't know: Stay strong and you can beat the devil. She handed me her book and as I opened it to the signature page, she yanked it back before I could start writing, jerking the signing table back with her.
"Too quick!" She laughed absurdly loud, at herself or my confusion or both.
"You can't come up with something special that quick, Mr. Man," she countered. "I'll tell you what — take my number, and maybe you can think of something by the time I let you take me out on a date."
"That's nice, but I'm about to go on tour," I said. "So it could be a while."
"HAAAAA! The publishing industry is a sinking ship," she laughed, whipping the massive scarf around her shoulder. "I'm sure you won't be gone that long."
The nerve, I thought, but I took her number and told her I'd catch up when I got back.
Like the hungry, ambitious writer I was, I hit every stop on my tour hard, as if each reading could be my last. Some were great and some were terrible, but I did my job, happy to be in front of people who love words. About two months later, I had made my way back to Baltimore and things were slowing down. One July day I posted up in Artifact Coffee Shop, and Captain Infinity Scarf waltzed in — without the scarf, but I recognized her — and sat down, uninvited, at my table.
"Hey, Mr. Man," she said. "I need to buy a copy of your book. I heard it was really good."
"Nice seeing you," I said. "Didn't you grab a copy from that signing? Did you give it away?"
"The bookseller was Barnes and Noble," she said. "And one day I was in the store having a coffee, looked in my bag and saw your book. And since I thought we were never going on that date, I returned it and got my $20 back."
And maybe this is why my industry is a sinking ship.
"So if I don't date you, you can't own one of my books?" I said.
"Not saying that," she said. "But when are we going to go on that date? Do you like Thai?"
I laughed, told her to enjoy her coffee, and gave her my table. Imagine me pimping myself out like that to sell a book. But that wasn't the worst reading by far, even with the delayed punchline.
* * *
When my third book came out a couple of years ago, my very pregnant wife Caron and I drove to Busboys and Poets, the restaurant and bookstore on 14th Street in Washington, D.C., so I could give a reading. Busboys has long been one of my favorite spots, and since I gave two packed readings there for my previous books, I assumed this one would be more of the same. RSVPs were strong. The manager said it would be a night to remember.
I couldn't wait. I really needed the win, too, because promotion for this book wasn't going that well. I felt like I wasn't getting any love from the publisher. But the people who read me, and who read the book, were generally happy with it. And that's who I write and perform for.
On the way over, Caron told me her good friends Kevin and Jill would be at the reading.
"They've never seen you read before," she said. "I can't wait for you to meet them."
"Maybe we can all go out afterwards," I suggested.
"They were all probably there for me, I thought. Tonight is going to be epic."
I love making my wife proud. I was ready to put on a show, thinking about how I would customize my talk for the crowd, even insert some new jokes, as I pulled into the special parking spot reserved for visiting authors. I was lucky to have that spot, too, because the street was jammed with Liberalmobiles — Volvos and VW wagons from corner to corner. They were all probably there for me, I thought. Tonight is going to be epic.
We walked in and the place was completely empty. How? There were literally no parking spots outside. This spot is normally crowded at this time, too, with people at the bar, strolling through the bookstore looking for new titles, grabbing cups of coffee, and then a huge section filled with folks eating dinner. That night it was so empty you would think they had just had a bomb threat.
"Mr. Watkins, I'm not sure what's happening," the store manager said, walking over me with her hand extended for a shake. "Let's give it about ten to 15 minutes, and I'm pretty sure people will start rolling in. Are you hungry?"
"I can eat. My wife probably can as well — she's eating for two."
Caron and I took our seats near the stage and ordered some food. I had the catfish. Shortly after, her friends Kevin and Jill walked in and I got the chance to formally meet them. We began to joke and have a good time, but I kind of checked out, because the venue around us was still empty. What was happening? Am I canceled and don't know it?
Then my good friend Jason Reynolds — bestselling, award-winning author, literature superhero, All Star of our writer's group chat — walked in. Jason had been telling his friend Aaron about some of my work and thought it would be a great time to introduce us.
"Yo, where is everybody?" I asked myself and Jason at the same time. "This has never happened to me in D.C."
"Oh, you didn't know?" Jason replied, with an eyebrow raised. "Coates and Kendi are having an event around the corner right now. Their event had so much of an overflow last night they had to do another."
The store manager came running from the other room to make me aware of the bomb Jason had just dropped. Authors Ta-Nehisi Coates and Ibram X. Kendi — the Jordan and Pippen, the Magic and Kareem, of anti-racist rhetoric, two of the biggest voices on race in the history of voices and race — were holding a last-minute surprise event about a block away from Busboys, completely blowing my reading out of the water.
That explained the fleet of Volvos and VWs.
About five people in total attended my reading. And I read to those five people as if there were 10,000 in the room. I read as if I would never be able to read again. And I enjoyed myself, because as much as it stung in the moment to lose my audience to bigger names, I knew it could have been worse, because it had been worse.
* * *
Which brings me to the reading from hell.
"Yo dummy, I know you come to homecoming!" my friend Light Skin Larry from high school said. "Big time New York Times bestselling author times something else, back on the football field down the jects, we takin flicks, we throwin money, we layin it down. Everybody gonna come out to see you, stupid!"
"Writers don't really throw money. We are better at being owed money," I laughed. "I really wanna come, man. Not to show off, I really miss everybody. But I gotta speaking event in Charlotte. Gotta hit the road and sell these books, bro."
About a month before the legendary Dunbar Poets Homecoming, I had received a message from a woman on Twitter, saying that she loved my book "The Beast Side," really enjoyed watching my interviews, and would love to bring me to Charlotte so that I could read and speak in front of a packed house.
We spoke on the phone and I told her it sounded amazing. I couldn't wait to come. Two days later, I forwarded my information, and she responded with a Southwest confirmation number and booking reservation for The Dunhill Hotel.
"Awe, man, stupid," Light Skin Larry breathed into the phone. "I already told everybody you was comin. You gonna make me look like a liar."
"You definitely known for lying," I shot back. "So it's on brand."
"Have fun in Charlotte, blockhead," he said before hanging up.
The day before homecoming, I drove past my old high school football field, imagining the laughs, good times and memories my old friends would be creating the next day. I really wanted to be there with them, but books don't sell themselves. On the way to catch my flight to Charlotte, my phone buzzed as I pulled into the airport's short term parking lot.
"Mr. Watkins," the woman from Twitter said in a soft but direct voice. "Just making sure you will be on time for your flight. You are checked at A5. I also looked up the status and it's not delayed."
"This is like VIP service," I laughed. "I'm parking at the airport now. I'm looking forward to meeting you and all the great people who put this event together."
"You are too kind. The limo will pick you up right outside of the airport. The driver will be holding a card with your name," she said. "There is a delicious restaurant in the hotel that you will be staying in. I took the liberty of making you an 8 o'clock reservation. That should give you time to change, relax and have a drink."
"Wow. It's just a reading. You didn't have to go through all of that trouble," I said. "I'm D. Watkins, not Drake."
"You are too funny," she said without laughing. "What kind of alcohol would you like left in your room? Vodka, scotch, cognac?"
I told her I didn't need liquor left in my room and that I'll be looking forward to the event. Everything happened as she said it would. The flight was on time, and a driver greeted me with a big white card that said WATKINS in bold, black letters. He drove me to the Dunhill, which was really nice. There was a big bottle of Grey Goose that I didn't even ask for on the desk in my room, accompanied by a hand-written note that read, "Good Luck D. XO"
I went down to the restaurant attached to the hotel for my dinner reservation, and after I decided to wander the streets of downtown Charlotte. I spent the rest of the night and early the next day writing, working on a new book, before it was time for me to figure out what I would be reading to the packed crowd waiting for me.
"It looked like something they'd display at my funeral."
I threw on my favorite black T-shirt, black slacks and a pair of Air Force 1s. The limo driver took me to the venue. To reach the room where the reading was to be held, I walked through a nice pastry shop full of people eating croissants and sipping espressos, then past a few open doors until I landed at one with a sign attached, showing my latest book's cover art. I walked in and saw a huge banner for "THE BEAST SIDE" stretched across the wall behind a wooden lectern. To the left, about 150 copies of my books were stacked into a beautiful pyramid. To the right, an easel holding up a giant photo of my face. It looked like something they'd display at my funeral. It was about 5 p.m., the event was scheduled to start at 5:30, and the room of books and banners was empty. Not even any staff. No bookseller. Who knows who arranged the pyramid of books and photo of my face? I sat down and waited.
About an hour passed. A young woman walked in and asked me if I'd be a guest on her podcast that hadn't launched yet. The studio was down the hall.
I said sure, even though I probably wouldn't need the promo for "The Beast Side" by the time the podcast came out, because the book would be old by then. But I thought maybe while we were recording the podcast someone would come through who knew what was going on at the reading. Maybe they would want to buy some books, if anyone showed up who could take their money.
That didn't happen.
If you think reading to only five or ten people is bad, imagine a reading so empty the organizer doesn't even show up.
But the limo driver was still outside. I hopped back into the car and dialed the organizer's number only to get her voicemail. I thanked her for everything and asked her to give me a call when she got a chance. There was no need for me to hang out in Charlotte for an extra day, so I switched my flight to one heading out around five in the morning, which meant I had to be at the airport by 3:45 a.m at the latest.
"Bro, can you take me to the airport around 3, 4 in the morning?" I asked the driver.
"Can't do it, champ," he said. "You may have to get a cab or one of those U-Burr things."
I called an Uber around 3 a.m. and they cancelled. I called another, who made me wait about 10 minutes before cancelling too. I finally found a driver willing to take me. The app said he was about 10 minutes away. He arrived about half an hour later, bolting past me then banging a hard U-turn and skidding to a stop in front of the hotel.
"Aye, young fella, you good?" the driver, an older Black man, yelled. A Kangol hat hugged his gray Afro, and he wore tinted frames even though it was jet black out. An unlit cigarette dangled from his bottom lip. "Where you goin, young fella?"
"It should tell you on the app," I replied. "The airport!"
"That's all you had to say, young fella!" the driver replied. "Hop in!"
I tossed my bag in the back. I was really missing the limo driver at this point. The old dude peeled off before I got the door shut. The inside of his Cadillac smelled like a bottle of Hennessy had exploded.
"Where you headed?" the driver asked again, looking back at me and not the road.
"Airport, man!" I yelled. "Turn around and watch the road!"
"No, where you from, young fella!" he said, turning around.
"Baltimore. East Baltimore."
"You know where I'm from, young n***a!" the old head spat. "Da real Charlotte!"
At this point I couldn't do nothing but laugh. I looked down at my phone, hoping and praying the guy didn't kill me. Dying after an empty reading sounded horrible. I opened Twitter and typed something like, "My Uber driver is wetter than a goldfish in the ocean, I hope he don't kill us both #drunk."
Uber instantly responded to my post, asking me if I was OK, wanting me to report the car. I didn't want to get the guy in trouble. Maybe he just smelled like alcohol? I wasn't sure if he was drunk or not, so I just deleted the tweet.
"Aye man, you drunk?" I asked as I put my seat belt on. "If you drunk, I can drive. I can't miss this plane, old man!"
"You wont miss the plane young n***a!" he yelled as he whipped past the exit and sent us down into a slight ditch instead. "Oh sh*tttttt, nephew!"
Dude apologized repeatedly as he backed the car up and hit a sharp right back onto the exit we missed. The excitement from the embarrassing mistake made him switch up his tone. Maybe it even sobered him up, if he was actually drunk. The old man dug his hand around near the floor mat on the passenger side and whipped out a couple bottles of water, taking one for himself and tossing me the other. We guzzled in silence as we reached the airport. And then, limo style, he hopped out and opened my door for me.
"Take ya old ass home," I said. "You need some rest, and you almost made me miss my plane!"
"No five star?" he grinned. "Well, get the f**k back to Baltimore!"
And I gladly did. Because at home, I know — no matter what else happens in Baltimore — I can always count on at least 10 people showing up when I read.
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