From LA… In an Old Police Station With an Unplugged Microphone: McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern #41

1. 826LA Venice Programs and Social Media Manager, Danny Hom, makes the first introductions of the night. 2. Morgan Gee blasts a violin solo with bass player, Seb Bailey keeping the beat.

Going to the release of the 41st McSweeny’s Quarterly Concern on Wednesday night is the closest I’ve ever come to being arrested. The event was held in Venice at the SPARC building, which is a decommissioned police station. Our host in this repurposed precinct was 826LA, a non-profit organization helping kids improve their writing skills with tutoring, field trips and workshops. (You might have read about it here.) Some people feel like being in school is like being in jail, but with bas-ass storytelling going on it didn’t feel like school or jail. In the classroom setting from behind a long wooden table, with a mic that wasn’t plugged in and wasn’t needed, we heard samplings of fiction and non-fiction from four writers throughout the night.

1. Borel tackling the nerves in her Sex Kittens tank top.

Kathryn Borel wore a Sex Kittens tank top and said she was so nervous that she wouldn’t remember anything she said to us. But thankfully it seemed like that only made her more forthcoming with embarrassing confessions of a previous reading at a fancy stove store in New York involving Gougères (French cheese puffs), too much wine, and ultimately, pooled urine in her new shoes. The book she read from then and now, Corked: A Memoir, covers a trip she took with her relentlessly honest French father in an attempt to get closer to him through his passion for wine. The vinous subject of the title and cover of the book got her gigs at places like the fancy stove store, where the audience probably expected to laugh about Eat, Pray, Love-type father/daughter adventures of French wine enlightenment. They didn’t expect to reflect on Borel’s role in an accidental fatality, or laugh at her father’s “capacity to say the truth at exactly all the wrong moments.”

1. Stradal enlightening us to the revealing subtleties of a grocery list.

J.Ryan Stradal opened with a brief remark, “I have no explanation for this story.” His story was about Rudy Shlomka (sic), a character whose fame erupted through his life’s grocery lists. Stradal held up the lists as he read fictional critics dissections of Shlomka’s life milestones revealed by the items on the list. Stradal’s reading was interrupted early on by a crash in the hall which jolted everyone. After making sure all was well, Stradal persevered post-crash, describing Shlomka’s first list of adulthood, on which he put nail clippers as a higher priority than lettuce for the tacos. A list with the first two items being PBR, maxi pads (in that order) bore the implication of a serious relationship in Shlomka’s life. This clever account of a man and his lists was hysterical in its absurdity and sobering in its tie to non-fictional fame.

1. Bearman gives us context to the excerpt from his book, still a work in progress. 2. Susan Straight showing her love for the texture of her new book published by McSweeney’s.

Joshuah Bearman, in addition to being emcee for the night, was next up to read at the idle microphone. His reading was 800 words of nonfiction from a book he’s currently writing as an extension of a piece he did for This American Life, “the only 800 words out of this entire fucking book that I feel comfortable reading.” The book is about his mother, a career alcoholic, and his half-brother, an aspiring rapper who lived in a retirement community in Florida. The shoeless Bearman read about his encounter with questionable physicians in a Florida hospital where he went to take care of his mother while his half brother was getting arrested. His mother impressively snuck a cigarette into her hospital room.

1. Geronimo Getty serenades the final people in the crowd with one last song. 2. Stradal and Straight’s post-reading hangout with Keith Knight, “the gentleman’s cartoonist.”

Last was Susan Straight. She feels that writing fiction is something writers do to work out a problem they’re facing. Sometimes she turns to writing nonfiction to make herself feel better, but she admits it never does. It was clear why when Straight read her first piece, inspired by her friend James Baldwin’s letter to his nephew. It was a somber letter to her nephew Sensei, featured in the lightning-covered 41st issue of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern. Next, she read a few pages from her forthcoming book Between Heaven and Here, about Victor, a smart boy in some rough circumstances.

The night finished off with a performance by Geronimo Getty, a toe-tappin’ head-noddin’ folk band. In between songs they talked about the most outrageous things you can send in the mail. (Spoiler alert — you can get away with sending a partially-eaten sandwich.) Band member Christopher Harrison reflected on how many people had been arrested in that Venice police station where we had our entertaining evening. Hundreds. Thousands. Maybe millions, but probably not.

If you’re interested in getting involved, spread the word and help them reach 826 members/volunteers by August 26 (8/26) and support this “entirely magical kinda entity.”

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— Katelan Cunningham is a stranger in Los Angeles. She’s finding more work as a writer than a designer, and she’s not sure how she feels about it. You can find her here.

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