The inaugural poem by Elizabeth Alexander had one of the greatest audiences for poetry in the past 16 years or so, ever since Maya Angelou in 1993.  It seeped over its huge audience just yesterday.  Do you remember any of it?  How about the opening?

“Praise song for the day.”

How about the opening two words?  These were repeated several times in the poem as an unstructured refrain.  I wonder if you remembered any of it, even those two leading words, by the time John Roberts misremembered the thirty-five words of the constitution’s presidential oath.  If you didn’t, does it make you question the entire point of the inaugural poem?



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Picture the scene.

It was the early 90’s.

REM was singing about losing their religion.

President Bill Clinton had appeared on the Arsenio Hall Show, playing sax with the band.

The “Rachel” Friends-style haircut was on the way in.

The mullet haircut was on the way out.

I was on the way out, too.

At that point in my life my San Francisco band and love relationship had crash-and-burned simultaneously.

In response my personal Magnetic North had spun completely out of whack.

My up was down. My down was sideways and backwards.

I was feeling just like the title of that REM album: Out of Time.

I hastily devised escape routes: I’d move to Boston. No. Austin. No. Seattle. No. Athens, Georgia. No.Norman, Oklahoma.

Prior to this time I’d made a few musical connections in LA.

One of those people suggested that before leaving the west coast I check out LA.

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I decided to give it a year. If it worked: great. If not: Anywhere USA here I come.

Very soon I realized the City of Angels was way too sprawling and disconnected for my liking.

I had a hard time making friends.
Had a hard time connecting with musicians.
My car eventually was rear-ended and totaled by a UPS truck on the freeway.

I’d only lasted seven-and-a-half months and already I was screwed. I wanted out. Way out.

The same friend who’d advised me to come to LA now told me she had a friend in London that might be willing to put me up if I wanted out. Way out.

I did.

A few phone calls were made and before I knew it I’d purchased a one-way ticket to London.

Screw America, I thought.

I’d been giving it my heart and soul for years.

Now was time to do the expat thing. Be just like Chrissie Hynde from The Pretenders.

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Say goodbye to the states, get a band together in London. Then have Uncle Sam get down on his knees to beg me back.

Before I left my homeland for good I hopped a Greyhound back to the East Coast to visit family and friends.

The night before I left for London I visited an old college buddy in New York City.

We proceeded to get seriously wasted.

While stumbling through the East Village, we began spotting these business cards strewn about. They were in gutters, pinned under windshield wipers, pried into doorjambs.

The cards advertised a 1-900 sex phone line.

Each card had a different model on it.

One was African-American. Another Puerto Rican. Still another: Corn-fed White Girl.

They all had pillowy lips and come-hither looks.

Each card had a saying on it.

Something like:

“Sex without the hang-ups.” Or, “Cum closer to hear sex the way it should really be.”

My buddy and I thought the cards were hilarious. We began picking them up, stuffing them into our pockets.

By the end of the evening, I could barely find my money on account of all the sex cards I’d jammed into my jacket.

The next morning I got up early and grabbed my flight out of Newark.

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From there it was expat rock and roll stardom here I come.

On the flight I ended up sitting next to some guy. He was decked-out in a rumpled white button-up shirt with stains beneath the armpits. His glasses were taped across the bridge of his nose. He sported one of those pocket protectors jam-packed with pens and such. His forehead was sweat shiny. His hair was short, greasy and slightly unkempt.

About an hour into our flight he offered to buy me a drink.

I politely declined.

About a half hour later he asked again.

This time I figured what the hell. If I don’t say yes, he’ll just keep bugging me the whole trip. Besides, he seemed harmless enough—albeit a little weird in that Dungeons and Dragons, computer nerd, holed-up recluse kind of way.

The first J.D. and Coke went down nicely.

The second even better.

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That’s when my seatmate really began talking.

He leaned into me, whispered into my ear:

“Kill one person and you’re called a Murderer. Kill a million people and you’re called a King. Kill everyone on Earth and you’re called a God…”

That one had me practically spitting out my third drink.

“Excuse me?” I said.

His eyes grew wide with delight. “Ever heard of white magic?”

I gulped. “Is that anything like black magic?”

He began spouting out phrases like The Witchcraft Act in 1951; Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn; neo-paganism; Earth religions; magical religions, pentagrams and the like.

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My head was reeling. I wasn’t sure if it was due to the alcohol, or the fact that I’d been stuck on a Trans-Atlantic flight next to the bastard child of Aleister Crowley.

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“Here,” he said, “check this out.”

From his pocket protector he discretely slipped out a tiny stone dagger.

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“Pretty cool. Huh?”

I nodded. I wasn’t sure whether that nod was due to genuine curiosity or the fact that I didn’t want to upset a guy who had a knife pointed at me.

“How did you get it past security?” I asked.

He tapped it against my knee.

“It’s stone. Goes right through metal detectors.”

“What are you gonna do with it?” I said. “Use it in some kind of white magic ritual?”

He smiled a wicked smile.

Now things were getting kind of interesting.

“You ever sacrifice anyone?” I said.

He flashed another smile. “Want another drink?”

That was the last thing I needed at that point. If I had any more, I thought, I might risk passing out.

The next thing I knew I’d wake up dead from having my throat slit by a stone dagger.

“That’s cool,” I said. “I’m fine.”

We didn’t talk much after that.

It was only when we’d reached Heathrow that he said as we were deplaning:

“You know, the funny thing is, the way you’re looking like some kind of hippy, and with me looking like I am, I’ll sail right through security, but you won’t.”

At first I thought, Screw You. You’re Full of Shit.

But soon I realized he was right.

Just as we’d reached Heathrow security he was allowed to pass. But I was stopped for interrogation and inspection.

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Up ahead, I noticed him glance back over his shoulder, and flash one of those I Told You So looks.

Part of me wanted to rat him out.

But another part of me thought fine. This already messed-up world won’t be much different with another white magic nerd lurking about.

The security guards gave me the once over.

They scrutinized my long hair, my straw hat, sleepy eyes, rumpled clothes, and guitar slung over my shoulder.

“Empty your pockets,” one of them said.

Without thinking, I dug down deep, pulled out a wad of something and threw it across the counter.

Tons of those sex cards spilled out.

Puerto Rican girls. Corn-fed White girls. African American girls.

They were everywhere.

Their pillowly lips and come-hither looks were telling one and all to call that 1-900 number for a good time.

The guards scoped out the cards then checked out each other.

“Empty your other pockets,” the same guard said.

More sex cards spilled out.

Asian girls. Hispanic girls. Russian girls.

Now I was really screwed. I’d never make it into London.

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Thinking fast, I said:

“Oh those cards. Pretty crazy, huh? We Americans are pretty silly.”

I went on to explain how I was a student writing a paper on the commercialization of sex in the U.S.

I’m not sure whether they bought it, or if they just felt sorry for me, or if they just wanted to get rid of me so they could gather up those cards and start making some long distance booty calls.

Either way, they let me go.

I was officially off American soil and had my whole expat rock-and-roll fantasy waiting for me just beyond those airport doors.

But I was minus about sixty sexy girls in tow.


Authors Note: I’d like thank fellow TNB writer Jen Burke for her keen observations and editorial assistance while creating this post.