Did I Know You at the Two Bells?

I had dreams about the poet Jesse Bernstein after he died. Jesse was the gravel voice of grunge that opened for Burroughs when he came to Seattle and can still be heard spewing out of the radio in the opening of Natural Born Killers. The dreams were vivid. In one, I was in a vast banquet hall of white conversing with Jesse as he and a host of others dined at a long rectangle of table draped in white. He was telling me he was OK in this place, wherever it was.

My friend, David Hines, had a startling dream about Jesse, too. At least, it certainly startled me. We were at a poetry reading at the Emerald City Diner, one of those old haunts run by Dave Meinert that made, and still make, Seattle the Seattle we love. I ran into David in a narrow hallway off the stage area during a break in the reading and told him about my dream of Jesse at the banquet in white. The reading resumed, and David rushed to tell me about a dream he had had: In his dream, he was in a car at night at the Pike Place Market with Jesse at the wheel. He was in the back seat because the car was missing its front passenger seat. My skin began to crawl. When David got to the detail in his dream that the car had water in the floorboard, I screamed right in the middle of the reading: This was a ride that I had taken with Jesse once in real life, down to the last little detail.

I woke this morning to a second dream about Seattle’s boarded-up Two Bells Tavern, the first place I ever saw a play or poetry performed in a bar. The dream started with me in bed in the dark talking with someone on the phone, a real phone with a receiver that I am holding up to my ear. I am making arrangements to work at the Two Bells. The next morning in the dream, I am outside the Bells unlocking the door right at opening time while the phone rings inside. I make it behind the bar in time to answer. It is a male voice checking to see if I have showed up on time to work. I hang up and find myself standing in the shadows of the Two Bells’ original one room, but in place of the red booths and black tables where I sat in real life editing for hours, there are well-worn wood tables and chairs strewn about as if no one has used them in years. Just inside the door, I look up and study one of three large vertical photographs framed in black and mounted high on the wall. They are portraits that act like plastic-grooved postcards – they change image as I change perspective. I stare at one in particular that changes from Audrey Hepburn to a second face to a third whom I think I recognize from the Bells, a face that seems tantalizingly familiar. I sway right and left in the dream to bring this face back to the fore so I can pinpoint who … that … person … is. But the image is fleeting and its features morph, leaving me to wonder what face I have seen or if I knew the person at all. At some point in the dream, the lights are up and people have come in. In a blink, the entryway to the Two Bells’ second room appears, and the room is furnished in the red booths and black tables I remember.

I eventually dragged myself out of bed to write down this dream before it faded away. But I had to fight first with Bob Dylan. There is a line in his song “Gates of Eden” that bedeviled me with pointlessness: “At dawn my lover comes to me and tells me of her dreams with no attempts to shovel a glimpse into the ditch of what each one means.” This line has always spoken to me of a male ideal: a woman who knows it’s pointless to interpret the subconscious – but, oh, if it’s a man’s subconscious, by all means, let’s spend our lives dissecting it, one song at a time. I do not say lightly that Bob Dylan is my Bible. He gave me my original sense of righteousness in life. But, before I could write down my dream, I had to say “Fuck you, Bob” – there are reflections in this dreamscape that I want to interpret. The first is that I was late to work. I am always late. I always have been late. I always will be late because there is always some little scrap of time that I toss myself for writing when there’s someplace else I’m supposed to be. It’s a strange psychic trick that has gotten me through many deadlines and cost me several jobs. I have finally learned to bend to the life of the worker-bee and now show up at work mere minutes late – largely because I do risk writing and the late nights that getting involved with my own ideas can cause. This is one of the profound lies I tell myself: that writing will disrupt my life, when, in fact, I have no life without writing. Being late to work at the Two Bells in my dream is being late to my life as a writer.

Second, I have had only fleeting moments of friendship in life, largely, I’ve been told, because I cross boundaries that I still struggle to recognize – the curse of an abandoned child. In my dream, I am studying the changeling face in the photograph the way I once studied the beautiful portraits that Art Aubry or Tom Van de Ven took every year of the Two Bells staff. I always wanted to be in one of those photos. I wanted the poets and painters and performers at the Two Bells to be my friends. I wanted to be one of them. Thirty years later, I was still looking for those friends on my last night at the Bells before it closed. I searched and searched the faces in the crowd for my people, asking the same question I asked myself in the dream: Did I know that person? Were we ever friends?

David Kane is a painter who shared a studio years ago in a building just behind the Two Bells. He made a set of square tavern coasters that stand propped up near me now in my writing room, a room where I have never finished anything except journalism, always with great insight, always very late. I bought the coasters from David at his last Seattle art studio before he moved his painting and life out of town. I fancied the coasters for the price ($10) and the journalist’s drill questions that are printed on them – Who? What? Where? When? Why? and How? I thought I might use the coasters as writing prompts. Just now, they stare me down asking: Who are my friends? How is it that the Two Bells has closed and I have not finished a single piece of prose? When will I be more than a postscript on the Internet reading someone else’s poetry? When will I strangle the voice that has always said it’s pointless?