Good friends take care of each other. So, this fall, Lower East Side poet Fay Chiang took on a fellow poet’s woes. Patricia Spears Jones had spent two years out of a job, her unemployment checks had run out, and Chiang said she was worrying out loud that she couldn’t make rent. So Chiang got an idea: “Oh! We can do a rent party!” she told Jones.
In Harlem during the early years of the Depression, one way friends helped each other get by was throwing rent parties. Jazz or blues musicians would play in a friend’s apartment and the guests would pay for admission and drinks -- homebrewed during the years of Prohibition.
Jones was at first lukewarm about the idea of her own rent party. “She was a little doubtful about it,” said Chiang. Jones elaborated, “I’m a very proud woman and I hate being in this position. Nobody wants to be in this position,” Jones said, “Nobody, nobody, nobody.”
But there she sat on a bar stool on a recent Saturday afternoon, while her friends gathered at the Bowery Poetry Club to party for her next month’s rent.
“We are here today for our wonderful sister diva poet, Patricia Spears Jones,” began Sandra Maria Esteves, as a supportive crowd of friends whooped and hollered. “Because we love her and we want to make sure that her rent is paid!” Esteves said with a warm smile.
Patricia Spear Jones waffled over whether this was a real rent party. There was no bathtub gin and guests would not be carrying on until five in the morning, as they did in Harlem during the Depression. This event could have been called a fundraiser. “We’re poets,” Jones said, “Everything is a metaphor.”
But despite the timing (mid-afternoon) and the setting (like their home, Chiang insisted), Jones’ rent party had the same idea as any other: friends of Patricia Spears Jones pitching in to keep her in her home.
“This is for you Pat,” a young singer named Justin LaBoy cooed into the mic. Then he belted out the Sam Cooke song, "A Change is Gonna Come."
“I was born by the river in a little tent.
And oh, just like that river
I’ve been running ever since …”
For an hour plus, the sounds of musicians and poets filled the Club. LaBoy was by far the youngest, a college student. Many of the others have been writing and reading on the Lower East Side for several decades.
“Our next poet is another diva momma poet,” Esteves told the audience as she introduced Lower East Side poet Hettie Jones, also known for her marriage to Amiri Baraka Jones.
Hettie Jones read one poem about being called ‘spry’ by The New York Times. And she introduced another by asking the crowd, “Uh, you know how you save your good clothes for good? Well, this is called, ‘Wearing the Sweater.’”
As you advised, I’m wearing the sweater
I won’t be wearing after I’m dead.
I’m wearing it while I still have choices
to leave myself open or buttoned.
During the course of the afternoon, poet Willie Perdomo got up and assured Patricia Spears Jones, “We’re going to work this out.” He read his memoir, ‘Another Kind of Open,’ the audience laughing at some lines, sighing at others.
"Last night Mark comes to me in my sleep. He’s driving...and pulls up in front of my desk. 'Get in,' he says. I said 'No, I’m staying right here.' I hear your voice in the ceiling, 'Don’t go with the dead when the dead come calling in your dreams.'
Half a dozen poets read poems or prose and spoke about the ways Patricia Spears Jones has inspired them. Composer and musician Jason Hwang improvised on the violin. And finally, Esteves introduced the woman of the hour, the honorable recipient of next month’s rent.
“Welcome the divine, erudite,” began Esteves, listing her longtime friend’s best qualities. “Our wonderful sister, Patricia Spears Jones. And we’re here whenever you need us!”
Spears Jones thanked the adoring crowd. “The last couple years of my life have been very challenging on the financial tip,” she said, “but on the creative side, it’s been amazing.”
Jones read three poems to her friends and guests. Here’s some of the last.
I feel as if my life were held together by wishful thinking and krazy glue.
Somehow it works.
Somehow all our lives work.
Full moons on Friday the thirteenth.
Mysterious are the ways of the spirit,
are the ways we dream ourselves awake …
Is a rent party in 2010 a sign of the times? Before Willie Perdomo and his middle school-aged son, Naruda, said their goodbyes, Perdomo answered yes it is. At least for writers and artists.
“If you’re not leaving town,” he said, “you’re throwing a rent party right now.”
And outside, just before crossing the Bowery to return to her Lower East Side apartment, Hettie Jones said the idea of artists coming together to support each other will never go away.
“Of course, I hope there are many more events like this for people who need them,” she said. “I’ll certainly go,” she said, starting to giggle, “as long as I don’t need one myself.”
Patricia Spears Jones is an adjunct at two different colleges this semester, searching for a full-time gig. She just published a third poetry collection, called Painkiller. And she is still in her apartment, though looking for a cheaper one. In an email just before Thanksgiving, Jones wrote that without the rent party, she would be completely broke.
“I am grateful,” she wrote, “very, very grateful for my friends. They saved my life.”