DigitalUnderground-TheHumptyDance

I Like My Oatmeal Lumpy, or How I Came To Rap The Humpty Dance in front of New York’s Literary Elite

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On an unseasonably warm day in October, I was invited to participate in The Happy Ending Reading and Music Series, alongside Zadie Smith and Vanessa Veselka. After ten incredible years, Amanda Stern was ending her series, which required its participants to perform a “public risk.” It would be my last reading of the year to support my debut collection of stories, Safe as Houses. It has been a wild, beautiful time and I loved the idea of ending it with such a firework of a reading. I only had to figure out what my risk would be.

My well-meaning boyfriend Ted suggested I rap “The Humpty Dance” by The Digital Underground. He had seen me do it at a deserted late-night karaoke place and it remained, he said, the best thing I’ve ever done.

“There is no way on god’s green earth I could do that,” I told him. “There will be people there. With ears.” Instead I would sing a song and play guitar, something stirring, possibly a ballad from the 80s.

Ted made the face he makes when I am chickening out. “Isn’t that what everyone does?” he said.  “Play a song on guitar?”

“No,” I insisted, having no idea. I assured him playing guitar in front of people was rife with potential catastrophe. I’ve been taking lessons for only a year and have yet to make a bar chord that doesn’t sound like a microwave being smashed by a hammer. Sure, I told him, I’ve sung in public before, but not in front of Zadie Smith.

If you ever want to remember an important future date, a big anniversary or a friend’s birthday, arrange to do it with Zadie Smith. Then, everyone in your life will remind you about it on a daily basis. Attempting to describe her, people who had met Zadie Smith would lapse into a poetic daze. They’d stammer, “She’s just so…” and then their words would dissolve into a dreamy sigh.

I settled my anxiety by practicing my song, “True Colors” by Cyndi Lauper. The more nervous I got, the more earnest the song became. I sang with my eyes closed. I did the voice floaty thing at the end. I told myself I was beautiful, like a rainbow. I ignored the inner voice telling me I was chickening out. I checked out the list of risks readers before me had performed. With pain, I noticed how many had sung songs and played guitar. Then I had lunch with a dear friend of mine who had been to the series a bunch of times. I asked her what the risks were usually like. “Usually people play the guitar,” she said. “Or they perform a risk that they are secretly very good at, and feign like they’re not.”

My mind made a series of quick connections and then one brutal conclusion.

“I’m going to rap ‘The Humpty Dance’ at the Happy Endings Reading,” I told Ted that night.

He made the face he makes when he is proud of me.

I am from Philadelphia. This means I have an allergy to phonies and a base knowledge of all hip-hop songs. I was happy to find I already knew most of the lyrics to “The Humpty Dance.” However, I didn’t want to just rap it, I wanted to kill it. I wanted to send a message to the members of New York’s literary elite who had gathered for a civilized reading on the eve of Thanksgiving, and that message was: I LIKE MY OATMEAL LUMPY.

Being from Philly also means I tend to prepare for things ala the training montage in Rocky. Every morning I ran in Prospect Park, song on repeat, rapping to myself. I drank raw eggs. I did pull-ups on my shower bar. I practiced dope moves in front of the mirror. Every night, Ted quizzed me.

“Where did you once get busy?”

“The Burger King bathroom!”

“How are you steppin’ to the rappers in the Top Ten?”

“Tall!”

“How do you know you got the Humpty Dance down?”

“If you appear to be in pain!”

To my surprise, rapping is fun. What Shock G does isn’t that different than what I’ve done to support my debut: introduce myself, say why I deserve to be here and then do my dance. More and more the girl who wanted to hide behind a quivery-eyed version of “True Colors” seemed like a chump: a girl who couldn’t drink up all the Hennesy ya’ got on yo’ shelf.

Two nights before the big reading, after our quiz, Ted placed a blindfold over my eyes. Lower Manhattan post-Hurricane Sandy had been riddled with blackouts and, he said, I had to be ready for anything. Sightless, I rapped all three verses, the choruses, even the break. I remembered every word.

He nodded.  “You’re ready.”

***

On the night of the reading, I put my gloves on the wrong hands and was having trouble swallowing. To make nervous matters unbearable, the F train quit when we were still six stops away from the venue. We hailed the only cab in New York driven by a slow, conscientious driver who refused to cut other cars off. I was already 20 minutes late.

“Sir,” I used my most polite voice. “Could you please drive less safely?”

Outside the venue, there was a line. A line at a literary reading. That’s like a pancake telling a knock-knock joke: I had never seen it before. Amanda Stern welcomed me warmly and I introduced myself to Vanessa and Zadie.

A short prayer about being a female writer. Every year venerable publishing houses, newspapers, literary magazines, etc… show us that no one wants to publish us. Every year some maroon gets quoted saying how funny we aren’t. Every year VIDA publishes numbers detailing exactly how far we haven’t come. But, let me tell you something. The combined brilliance of Vanessa Veselka and Zadie Smith that night could have powered the earth. They were humble and badass and lovely.  That is to say, meeting them was like….sigh. Amen.

I wish I could say I heard any of the songs Sondre Lerche played before Amanda introduced me to the stage. I think one of them had to do with a girl…? I was thinking, just get the first line out: Alright, stop what you’re doin’, cause I’m about to ruin the image and the style that you’re used to. Then hopefully training and adrenaline would take over and with any luck I would achieve the blissful amnesia that happens after a good performance. What happened up there, I would ask my friends? Did anyone get hurt?

I read the first few pages of my story “North Of.” It is about a girl who brings Bob Dylan home for Thanksgiving to try to connect to her brother who is leaving to fight in Iraq. I normally don’t read “North Of,” but I saved it for Happy Endings. You know, Bob Dylan has accomplished everything bands like The Stones have only he’s done it alone. How like a writer! The reading part over, I took a deep breath and announced stiffly to the audience: I AM GOING TO RAP NOW. I paused for the length of a heart attack. The lights were hot on my face. Am I really going to do this? The audience, sensing I needed some support, began to cheer. And then I told them to stop what they were doing, ‘cause I was about to ruin the image and the style they were used to.

I don’t remember anything else.


Marie is the author of Safe as Houses, winner of the 2012 2012 Iowa Short Fiction Award (University of Iowa Press; October 2012). Contest judge Jim Shepard raved, “Marie-Helene Bertino’s stories are hilarious and heartbreaking and wildly inventive, and her narrators are endlessly appealing and both fiercely proactive and stubbornly self-defeating. That’s more than enough for me.” Marie's short stories have been published in The Mississippi Review, North American Review, Indiana Review, The Common, and American Short Fiction, among others, and she was awarded a Pushcart Prize in 2009. Marie was a 2011 Center for Fiction Fellow, and she was the Associate Editor of One Story for six years. More from this author →