When Poetry Hurts

The Loring labor fight takes an obscene turn

Peter Rachleff says the evening "was like something out of The Discreet Charms of the Bourgeoisie. If you stood on that picket line, and saw the cars that were being parked by valet parking--these are Audis and BMWs and Mercedes. It's a high-buck crowd at the Loring. And remember, the schmuck who owns the Loring and pressed this obscenity arrest is a guy who performs naked and presents himself as a radical."

Naked? "Yes, I have appeared on stage in the buff," confirms Loring Bar and Playhouse and Loring Cafe owner and former actor Jason McLean, "in Brimstone and Treacle and in The Elephant Man. But that was to an audience who bought a ticket for it. It wasn't shoved in their face. In a theater, people pay their money and take their chances." Whereas when they protest on the steps of his café, they take their chances on an arrest for reading "indecent" poetry.

But back up a minute--to July 31, specifically, when Rachleff and about a dozen other labor activists from the National Writers Union and Hotel and Restaurant Employees (HERE) Local 17 lined up outside the Loring for a "poetry picket." The gimmick was the latest round in an ongoing fight between McLean and the union, which last March lost a bid to represent Loring workers. HERE claims McLean used threats and intimidation to quash the union drive. McLean disputes the charges, but in a settlement brokered by the National Labor Relations Board, he posted an agreement that he would not engage in the tactics alleged by union organizers. As part of that agreement, the union is tentatively scheduled to hold a new vote next Friday; since most of the pro-union employees have quit their jobs, neither side expects a yes vote. Still, HERE has maintained a sporadic picketing presence at the Loring, to which McLean has responded by hanging a large banner reading "PICKETS UNFAIR" from his door.

On the night of the poetry picket--which fell into the opening weekend of the Fringe Festival series of performances at locations including the Loring Playhouse--the activists assembled on the sidewalk next to the café's outdoor tables. "After marching around for a bit, we decided that we would give our poetry reading," says Rachleff, a Writers Union member and labor history professor at Macalester College. "We used a bullhorn with a trigger. Some of us read from our own work and some of us from works we liked. I read from a collection called Poetry Like Bread of largely Latin American activist poetry."

Then came Jeff Nygaard's turn. Nygaard, a writer, odd-jobber, and sometime bike courier, read an original poem called "Elevator." "It's a poem I'd written a few years back after I had this conversation in an elevator in 1995 about a front-page article in the New York Times," he says. "A study had been released that the rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer. I said, 'What do you think?' to these two executives in the elevator. One of them said, 'It doesn't surprise me.' And the poem related that experience." Midway through the poem, Nygaard inserted what he calls a rant, a chronicle of his internal ravings against the executives:

WELL THIS ISN'T JUST A FUCKIN NEWS
STORY
YOU ASSHOLE THEY'RE TALKIN
ABOUT YOU AND ME
RIGHT HERE IN THIS ELEVATOR YOU
GOIN UP
TO YOUR FILTHY PIMPING JOB WHERE
YOU MAKE
25 TIMES MORE THAN ME
AND ME ME ME
ME DELIVERING THIS PACKAGE TO
YOUR RECEPTIONIST
PROBABLY ADVERTISING COPY
FOR YOU TO APPROVE
SO YOUR COMPANY CAN RAM
SOME NEW AND USELESS PRODUCT
DOWN OUR THROATS
THEN YOU'LL MAKE EVEN MORE
MONEY

"This was not the best poem read that night by any means," Nygaard admits readily. "There was a wonderful poem, much better than mine. But the quality of the poem was never the issue."

The issues, it appears, were language and volume. Shortly after Nygaard finished reading, a pair of squad cars approached the scene. "I called 911," McLean recalls, "because they were using a bullhorn to talk at the customers and using a lot of four-letter words. It seemed like they were stepping over the line. And it didn't strike me as an appropriate use of poetic license." McLean went out to speak to the officers along with a customer who'd complained about the performance's "foul language." But instead of Nygaard, the customer pointed the cop to Blake Harwell, a former baker and line cook at the Loring and an organizer for HERE.

Harwell's protestations--that he'd strictly been "observing, holding a sign, and taking pictures of the event"--didn't convince the officer, who issued him a trespass warning allowing police to arrest Harwell if he returns to the Loring within 90 days. Harwell also received a misdemeanor citation for disorderly conduct, which carries a penalty of up to $700 and 90 days in jail.

HERE intends to dispute both the citation and the trespass warning in court--not only to correct the mix-up, says Local 17 Secretary-Treasurer Jaye Rykunyk, but to establish a point of principle. "I'm a big supporter of outdoor restaurants," she explains. "But the right to serve the public on the public sidewalk does not mean that the employer's property has somehow expanded into the public space. Mr. McLean has confused the public property with his private property."

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