You read that correctly. I was asked to do a poetry reading for The Headstrong Project's charity fundraiser in New York City and the "headliner" who read after me was the amazing actor Jake Gyllenhaal. Let me give you a brief play-by-play of my trip.
First off, let me explain The Headstrong Project: an organization dedicated to providing red-tape free treatment for those suffering from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). It's really an amazing concept. If you've ever been around the military's health care system you'd know why this is such a great idea. The military's health care system is often bogged down with thousands of members trying to get treatment from a myriad of ailments and it often lets people fall through its cracks, not necessarily maliciously, but with the massive amount of personnel it has to attend to, and the mountains of paperwork patients and medical personnel must fill out, getting proper healthcare becomes a daunting task that people don't exactly "look forward" to.
Cue The Headstrong Project and their push for immediate treatment in order to get the patient well, or at least on a road to recovery first, before everything else. It's a "patient comes first" type of mentality and I hope it's contagious.
Okay, so skip back to the reading. Originally, I was supposed to show up in NYC at 11 a.m. and kick back and relax, maybe sight see for the next five hours, as the Google Hangout that was supposed to happen pre-event didn't start until 6:30 and the main shindig was at 7. Well, for anyone that has flown to NY can attest, my flight was delayed for four hours because of "bad weather." Wait. It gets worse.
So, I show up to La Guardia at 4 p.m. Not bad. Still time to at least check in to my paid for hotel that was in the middle of downtown NYC.
Oh what's that airline?
You don't have my bag that happens to have MY SUIT!!!!
Come to find out, my flight didn't have "room on it" for my bag so they put it on a later flight. Had to wait another hour and a half.
So, I checked in with my shuttle to the airport and learned that the shuttle isn't scheduled to show up until 6:15 p.m....time was getting really short. At that point, I was definitely going to miss the Google Hangout, but I could still show up to the reading on time, so I did what any desperate poet would do and I changed into my suit in the airport's tiny 3' x 3' bathroom (I doubt if those are the exact dimensions, but it sure felt like it as my broad shoulders slammed up against the stall walls and I did my best to avoid falling into the open toilet ).
As if time wasn't short enough, as I was finally throwing my suit pants on I heard a shuttle driver call out my name in the restroom, apparently the shuttle was ten minutes early and was leaving NOW, he said. Great. No time to comb the hair (I was so stressed out I could feel it thinning), or brush my teeth after an entire day of hanging out in airports.
I got in the shuttle and found out that my hotel stop was the last one and that there were four other stops in front of me. We pulled out and headed downtown from La Guardia in some beautiful rush hour traffic (sarcasm). I made it to the first stop and decided it was time to get out and cab it because it was already 6:40. So, not knowing where I was, I put on a New York'esque scowl on my face and angrily waved my arm around like I was swatting a swarm of bees like I had seen some locals do when flagging down cabs, and magically, a yellow cab appeared.
So, I asked my Asian cabdriver how long it would take to get to the IAC building in Chelsea and he replied 25 minutes in this traffic. It was 6:45. I offered him double the cab fair if I could get there before 7. We got there at 6:55. Finally, something went right on this trip.
I walked into what I could only describe as a fancy New York party from the movies, or the stuff you see in Glamour Magazine (uhhhh, they're my wife's, I swear). I walked in and a young stocky man wearing a headset and all black clothing immediately grabbed my two bags I had with me (since I couldn't check into my hotel room) and carried them to a nearby coat room while I was escorted by another man wearing all black garb to a strip of red carpet with a line of twenty or so photographers ready to snap away.
This would be my first experience with the infamous "red carpet." This was also when I discovered that I am an incredibly unphotogenic and awkward-smiling person. I approached the red carpet and stood at its beginning while two photographers began their shutter assault of my likeness. Then, I was asked to take two steps to the right and two new photographers began firing away. This repeated, two steps and two new photographers at a time, all the way until the end. It was a miserable twenty foot journey as I knew I would look tired from the travel, and by the end of the carpet I couldn't even muster my usually wide smile. I just did my best to look stoic. I didn't do that well either.
By this time it was 7 on the dot. They started the event by playing one of my war poetry videos for my friend Gary Johnston as the introduction. I had just enough time to grab an extremely stiff Jack and Coke. Or maybe it should've been called a Jack and ice. I chugged half of it and began looking for my seat.
After being ushered to the "talent" table, and then not being able to find a seat because some guy's rude girlfriend was in it and informed me in a slow and loud tone, in case I didn't understand english, that this table was for "the talent." I replied passive-aggressively with a "thanks, I can read. I'm actually performing first. What are you doing for this?"
I didn't even wait for what was probably going to be a floundering and stutter'y reply as the pistons in her brain worked overtime to come up with a reply, a la Miss Teen North Carolina 2007, so I simply turned around to the table nearest the stage and asked out loud to no one in particular as I grabbed an empty seat, because nobody was going to stop me from sitting and chugging more of my Jack and ice, "is this seat taken?"
To my surprise Jake Gyllenhaal turned around from doing something important on his phone like confirming his next mega-budget Oscar shoe-in movie deal, or possibly the equally important beating of Star Wars Angry Birds, and he looked at me and said, "Yeah dude, go right ahead," while giving me what I assumed was a large grin, although it was hidden behind the large beard he was currently sporting. Sadly, this was the extent of our conversation for the evening.
Upon sitting, and after I gently slammed my empty drink cup down on the table, wiping my mouth with the back of my sleeve for dramatic effect, a woman dressed in all black who was also wearing a headset pointed at me as my video finished playing. Looks like I was on. I went up on stage. I did not trip. I crushed the reading. I sat back down.
Now that may sound a bit cocky, but in reality, this is a poem I have performed/read aloud probably fifty times over the last two years. It's memorized. The way I perform it is memorized. Plus, a large glass of Jack Daniels on an empty stomach really helps ease the nerves.
Afterwards, some other people read their poems and then Jake Gyllenhaal took the stage and read Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum est" and did a very nice undramatic reading of it, which was great to see him do something different from the rest of us. As he came down off the stage I gave him an awkward pat on the back and said "nice job," as if he needed any sort of affirmation of his talents from a struggling nobody poet / high school English teacher.
Following our readings was an auction to help raise money for the free treatment of PTSD sufferers. They raised over what I believe was $100,000 dollars, and I watched Jake Gyllenhaal personally donate $5,000 during the initial opening bid. It's incredible what Zach (the founder and owner of The Headstrong Project) and his crew was able to pull off that night. I felt so blessed to be a part of such a great cause, like I was actually giving something of myself to others. It really helped me see that all those years of slaving away at writing my poems/stories with zero recognition and a giant drawer full of rejection letters (yes I keep as many as I can because I'm a masochist and it makes success stories like these that much better when I can reflect on them) actually worth it.
And to conclude this monster post I will clarify the questions I know some of you might have:
No. I did not get Jake's number and will not be "best friends" with him like I had hoped.
Yes. I stole the pen that Jake left on "our" table that he used to sign his check and most likely a few autographs.
For my military friends that relentlessly question my "manliness," YES - it was an open bar and I drank many more delicious drinks that night, not just the single Jack and Coke mentioned above.
Here's a video of the event: