The many past lives of Joe Clifford aren't all inscribed directly on his body — if they were, he wouldn't have the rakish features and crisp, flinty glow of a well-kept 41-year-old. That said, he does wear an indelible hagiography to several ex-wives.
"That's the first one," Clifford said, pulling down his shirt to reveal a tattoo of a rose with barbed wire thorns and the name "Sara" threaded through its petals. "If you look closely, it covers up 'Lisa,'" he said. Then he showed off another tattoo scrolled across his right bicep with the words "Kathy Forever" in cursive script. His current wife, a Hollywood-gorgeous blond named Justine, looked bemused.
Three aborted marriages aren't all that bad for someone with such a bizarrely scattered biography. Clifford grew up in Connecticut and attended college at Central Connecticut State University, where he majored in "whatever class had the most pretty girls," and, by his own admission, read way too many Kerouac books. Midway through college he absconded to San Francisco, took a job as a supervisor in a print shop, joined a band, became a painter, got heavily addicted to speed, had a nervous breakdown, lost the job, tried to kick speed by using heroin, moved into a dilapidated house in Potrero Hill called "Hepatitis Heights," slept among rats, shot those rats with a BB gun, got into a forgery scam, racked up several felony arrest warrants, married and divorced, tried to commit suicide, and eventually fled back to the East Coast to finish school and get back on the straight and narrow. In the process, he became a great writer.
So it isn't surprising that Clifford generated a small cult of celebrity in the East Bay lit scene after returning here a few years ago. He'd been co-producing a storytelling event in Miami, where he attended grad school for English literature and did some creative writing on the side. The event, called Lip Service, featured true-life personal accounts by mostly unknown authors. Clifford had entered the fray after submitting a piece about a devastating motorcycle accident that shattered several bones on the right side of his body; the other producer, a woman named Andrea Askowitz, wrote a book called My Miserable, Lonely, Lesbian Pregnancy. When Clifford resettled on the West Coast — hopefully for good, this time — he thought it prudent to start his own iteration of Lip Service, albeit with a different sensibility than its progenitor.
He put it thus: "Miami is very sunny. Their website is turquoise, and pink, and fuchsia. Ours is a blood-spattered bug on a windshield."
In other words, the whole idea behind Lip Service West is to showcase the less-pretty underside of the literary world — what Clifford would fondly call "the downtrodden." With that in mind, he's featured people like recovered bank-robber-turned-writer Joe Loya and famed novelist Alan Kaufman, whose mother was a Holocaust survivor. But he has also enlisted a lot of regular people to share first-person accounts of their warty, gritty lives. Most of the writers at Lip Service aren't very well known. They often work unglamorous day jobs as plumbers, building inspectors, or customer service reps, write surreptitiously, and publish their work in 'zines or on fiction sites that bear little, if any name recognition outside of the insular scene — outlets like Breadcrumb Scabs poetry magazine, or Red Fez Monthly. But their stories are almost always compelling, Clifford insists. More importantly, they invite a kind of morbid voyeurism that, he hopes, will draw more people into the writerly underground and make it a veritable subculture.
That idea certainly held promise at last Friday's installment of Lip Service at Pegasus Books in Berkeley. (He currently switches off between that store and 50 Mason Social House, on the edge of San Francisco's Tenderloin District.) It featured a vivid account of the October 25 Occupy Oakland raid, a testimonial about cough syrup addiction, and an anecdote about holding a friend's hand during his vasectomy. The readers didn't have to brandish their street cred for it to be readily apparent. Mckay Williams, who read the Occupy story, had been injured by a projectile during the protest and whisked off to safety by a medic "with prison tattoos." Cough syrup author Kyrsten Bean is the current poet of the month at The Railroad Poetry Project, a web portal designed to honor the Beat generation. Lauren Becker, who wrote the vasectomy story, runs her own quarterly reading series at the Layover bar in Oakland, called East Bay on the Brain.
The stories at Lip Service vary in quality as much as one would expect. But they do have occasional moments of brilliance. On Friday, those mostly emanated from a writer named Sean Craven, who'd spent most of his working life doing manual labor. His story, about being hopelessly obsessed with a watercolor painting of a suicide, included a vivid description of the man in the painting showing the woman in the painting his handgun. Craven imagined him doing "that thing where he spins the cylinder ... and shows her how to work the safety." In prose as blunt and brittle as that of a police procedural, he described "the quiet click of solid greased metal against solid greased metal."
More interesting than the actual writing, though, was the audience it attracted. Clifford has a certain mystique that extends to the series at large, even though he prefers not to be its centerpiece. Still, the motley crowd that showed up to Pegasus on Friday indicated that in many ways, this wasn't your stereotypical hoity-toity lit crowd. Among the older Berkleyites in their rumpled jeans and sensible shoes sat younger punks with septum piercings and neck tattoos, unabashedly beautiful hipsters, college-age kids, and a guy who wore big headphones over his ears the whole time but appeared to be listening, nonetheless. Co-presenters Idan Levin and Tracey Snelling, of the San Pablo Arts District, sat in the back row. They'd brought several bottles of red wine and bowls of chocolate malt balls for the audience.
In many ways, it's the type of scene that Clifford envisioned when he first conceived the event. It dovetails with the long-entrenched literary subculture that has coalesced in San Francisco, mostly around the annual Litquake festival. Oakland's spinoff version is gradually becoming more visible, with more happy hour events in bars and more readings at bookstores and in art galleries — in addition to Lip Service, Pegasus also hosts a monthly series called Lyrics and Dirges. Such events are useful not only because they provide a space for bookworms to socialize, but also because they allow fledgling, unknown, or unheralded writers to showcase their work. The fact that they're surviving — let alone expanding — at a time when bookstores are imperiled is pretty phenomenal. Maybe it's part of the nostalgia wave in pop culture, or of our desire for experiences that aren't mediated by technology.
The popularity of Lip Service could be a sign that bookstores are getting hipper as well, and that's underscored by Pegasus' hours of operation — the Berkeley store stays open until 11 p.m. on Friday nights. It's become sort of sexy to forgo your date at the nightclub and browse bookshelves instead. Clifford isn't wholly responsible for that development, but he enjoys being an improbable icon. "Before, I wasn't spending much time in bookstores," he confessed. "Unless I was stealing books to sell."