A Performance to Remember
Pictured here is my 17th cousin, Carmalita “Cookie” Zevon. In Texas, if we are unsure of our relations, everyone becomes a cousin. It’s a big state with a small gene pool.
In the fall of 1958, the first beatnik-style coffee house opened its door in Fort Worth Texas. Calling itself, “The Cellar,” I can assure you that Fort Worth did not welcome its presence or the caliber of inhabitants it attracted. Cousin Carmalita, who preferred the name Cookie, was a perfect fit and secured a gig as the first waitress at the new establishment.
Being 8 years younger, I and the other cousins had limited interaction during her teenage years, but I know from the sordid family stories and the “almost out of earshot whispers” that she was a real hellion of a girl.
Immersing herself in books by Kerouac and Ginsberg that glorified the new lifestyle created by the “beat generation,” Cookie began dressing in black tight-fitting clothing.
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 a cliquish form of petulant bullying, so Cookie dropped 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. 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 next to nothing. 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 the literary unwashed and self-appointed poets made it their rightious digs. 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 serious 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 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 tinsel thin string of snot drips from her left nostril resting on her upper lip catches the spotlight, bathing her face 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 small 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. A beautiful 8×10 glossy photo of her parents is pulled from the box and cut to shreds with the sewing shears. 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 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 I cut my hair.” With that statement, she grabs a chunk of her beautiful lady Godiva length hair and removes a large 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.” 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, fearing her next move may be severing an artery and expiring in front of them. A voice from the back of the room yells “this chick is crazy.”
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.” Carmalita Cookie Zevon performed once more before she and her boyfriend and a nursing baby rode west on a ratty-ass motorcycle to find the meaning of life. We can assume they found something.