I penned this story a few years back. It’s based on my actual cousin, who sadly has passed on. The names have been changed to protect the offenders and the innocents.
In the fall of 1958, the first beatnik-style coffee house opened its door in Fort Worth, Texas. Calling itself “The Cellar.”
Fort Worth did not welcome its presence or the caliber of inhabitants it attracted. Conservative city fathers asked, ” where in God did these people come from? Have they always been here.” It was a town of shit-kicking cowboys mingling with the country club debutants. Cousin Carmalita, who preferred the name Cookie, was a perfect fit for the coffee house and secured a gig as the first waitress at the new establishment.
Being eight years younger, the other cousins and I had limited interaction during her teenage years. Still, I know from the family stories and the “almost out of earshot whispers” that she was a real hellion of a girl. Her mother believed her daughter was mentally disturbed or processed by demons. She was neither, just a rebellious girl born twenty years too early for the decent society of the 1950s.
Immersing herself in books by Kerouac and Ginsberg that glorified the new lifestyle created by the “beat generation.” Cookie began dressing in the style of “the Beats.” She envisioned herself traveling west with Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise as they motored their way to New Mexico in search of God and the meaning of life fueled by Marijuana sticks and two-dollar a bottle liquor. Jack Kerouac was her hero.
Waist-length black hair and a resemblance to a young Ava Gardner didn’t endear her to the Sandra Dee girls club at school, which resulted in Cookie dropping out of Paschal High School at sixteen to live in sin with her next to worthless hoodlum boyfriend; a motorcycle riding teenage hubcap stealing thief from the north side of town. This decision resulted in her instant banishment from the family.
Polled by a phone-in family vote, she was christened the “little trollop.” Her name was not to be spoken at gatherings, and her mother requested all photographs containing images of Cookie be returned to her for proper disposal by fire in the family BBQ pit. Her father, unable to watch her sweet sixteen birthday present, a Ford Fairlane convertible, sit abandoned in his driveway, sold it to Frank Kent for a loss. The rebellious type was not tolerated well in the 1950s, especially in Texas and our extended family.
“The Cellar” grew in popularity, and crowds of unwashed literary and self-appointed poets found their way to their righteous digs. But, unfortunately, high-octane coffee and bad poetry create a tolerated misery for the sake of being cool.
Cookie grew tired of the bland poetry readings from ancient books and tried her hand at writing. Engulfed in her rebellion and possessing a heart full of childish resentment, it didn’t take long for her to dish on everyone, and everything she felt had “done her wrong.” Her parents were the main course in her cauldron of teenage hate. She petitioned the club owner to let her perform a personal poem about her life, and he agreed.
Saturday evening is reserved for the severe night-dwelling “hip beats.” They convene and hold literary court to any who will listen. Mixed groups of the hairy educated gather around small tables, arguing about poetry, politics, sex, and the meaning of life. Old Crow adds the extra kick to the java. An occasional strange cigarette makes the rounds.
Cookie senses the time is right and takes the stage cradling a cardboard box under her left arm and a large pair of sewing shears in her right hand. She sets the box on the floor next to a tall stool. Tears stream from her sad eyes, forming dark streams of melting mascara onto her peach-pale cheeks. A thin tinsel string of snot drips from her left nostril, resting on her upper lip, and glitters in the spotlight that is bathing her face with an ethereal glow. She gags a few times, composes herself, and begins her poem.
Retrieving her favorite childhood doll baby from the box, she places the doll on the stool, produces a gleaming meat cleaver, and beheads the poor toy. A gasp erupts from the crowd. Earlier, for maximum effect, she filled the doll’s plastic head with Heinz Ketchup and potted ham to simulate blood and brains. When the doll’s head is guillotined and bounces onto the table nearest the stage, the ketchup-splattered patrons recoil in horror.
Next, a beautiful 8×10 glossy photo of her parents is pulled from the box and cut to shreds with the sewing shears. Next, she produces a Girl Scout uniform and rips it to pieces, throwing the all-American remnants of the uniform into the audience.
Cookie leans into the microphone, takes a long drag from a Pall Mall, and in a low growl, says, ” I never liked dolls or toys, but you made me treat the little shits like real people. I fed them imaginary food, bathed them in imaginary water, changed their tiny poopless diapers, and dressed them in stupid clothes, and for that, I hate you and cut my hair.” With that statement, she grabs a chunk of her beautiful lady Godiva’s length hair and removes a six-inch portion with the sewing shears.
She continues, ” I didn’t want to be a Bluebird, but no, I had to be like the other girls on our street, you know, I don’t like the color blue, and for that, I hate you, and I cut my hair.” Then, whack, another large section falls to the stage. ” you hate my boyfriend because he is a bad boy, and he is all that, but I love him and want to spend my life on the back of his ratty-ass motorcycle holding a nursing baby in each arm as we travel west to find the meaning of life.” She then whacks the left side of her hair to within inches of her scalp.
The audience is on the verge of bolting for the door, fearing her next move may sever an artery and expire in front of them. A voice from the back of the room yells, “this chick is crazy, man.”
Cookie ends her act and exits the stage leaving a pile of black hair mixed with ketchup and photo paper. The crowd of poets and hip cats give her a lukewarm reception. This performance was too unhinged for the normally unshakable.
That performance at the Cellar that night was the debut of what would come to be known as “Performance Art.”
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