than the Mouth

Chris Hewitt

~ Sometimes, on a "contact high" from the other guests at a party, I can still turn on the wit and the funny stories. Now, though, I can tell when it's appropriate to play the entertainer.

When I was drinking, I was what could be called a "mouth on wheels."

I would hold court at the Café Flore in San Francisco in the late seventies, where I was, by all accounts, very entertaining. I did impressions, told funny stories (often at other people's expense). The man I see now as the King (or should I say Queen!) of the Café was a frightened, lonely person, trying to deflect attention from his disability and small stature by being fabulously witty and brilliant—or so I thought.

I kept people always around me, but not too close, lest they should see the pain I felt inside. It was pain I was medicating with booze on a daily basis, often alone in a dingy bar in the Castro, far from the café.

These days I talk a lot less. My goal is to write more than I speak, a tall order for a chatterbox like me. Thanks to being sober for many years, and practicing intensive meditation for several, I have calmed down a lot, slowed down, and am able to rein in my compulsive showing off. I am no longer a "rolling resume."

During my drinking years my poems were clever and abstract. I never talked about my feelings. I cringe now when I remember speaking of other disabled poets who wrote honestly about themselves as writing "sentimental, self-pitying crap." These days I speak more about myself with my pen than with my mouth and I use my resume to get jobs rather than to impress friends and acquaintances.

However, I occasionally find myself slipping back into my old Queen of the Café routine. Recently I went on two dates with two different guys. The first guy was a professional musician. Because I felt intimidated by his impressive array of degrees and talents, I slipped back into the rolling resume act without really noticing. I realized afterwards that I had overwhelmed him with a torrent of words—all about me! Not surprisingly, he expressed no desire to see me again.

The second date was with a meteorologist (yes, a weatherman). Because he was not a fellow—implicitly rival— artist I didn't feel as intimidated by him as I had been by date number one. I asked the weatherman questions about his career and he asked me questions about mine. I did not lapse into cruel (if accurate) impressions of some of today's well-known poets, as I had with the musician.

This second date was a mutual exchange. I had a better time. The weatherman did, too. In fact, he asked me out again, thus validating my new policy of self-restraint.

Sometimes, on a "contact high" from the other guests at a party, I can still turn on the wit and the funny stories. Now, though, I can tell when it's appropriate to play the entertainer.

I used to be a character who wrote very little. Now I am less of a character who writes a lot more. I try to put my complete and adequate gay self into my work. In public I no longer try to be the guy you won't mind is disabled because "he's such a card, isn't he?"

I have learned from the overwhelmingly positive response to my new poems and the recently published chapters of this book that I am respected more as a writer because I speak from the heart. Not only that, I find that my friends love the real me; they don't stick around just because I'm clever and witty, an entertainer about whom they know nothing else. Now we take turns at being the entertainer. "Tell me another, willya?"

©Chris Hewitt 2000


CHRIS HEWITT's poems and translations have appeared in The New Yorker, American Poetry Review, The Advocate, and The James White Review. He has has 'brittle bone disease," osteogenesis imperfecta, and has gotten around in a wheelchair since he was nine.