Despite a torrential downpour that flooded streets and sidewalks, a diverse, enthusiastic crowd gathered in the World Monuments Fund Gallery at the Prince George Hotel in NYC for a reading by Garrett Davidson, a writer who received wide praise for his first collection of poetry: “King Lear of the Taxi: Musings of a New York City Actor/Taxi Driver.”
Indeed, his appearance closely followed a recent celebrated event presented by the PEN World Voices Festival at the Public Theater, where he was joined by 2 other taxi driver poets to read from their work, earning them the designation for the day as “The Three Cabbies.”
For the Prince George event, however, his presentation in the World Monuments Fund Gallery evoked the ambience of a salon afternoon of another era with strains of operetta music wafting through the lobby and a cluster of gold wooden chairs gathered for the audience, followed by light refreshments, an evocative “High Tea” in respite from today’s urban frenzy.
For this occasion he would read selections from his new chapbook, “To Tell the Truth I Wanted to be Kitty Carlisle.” This new collection of poems and the presentation for the afternoon merged autobiographical memories from the past with elegiac celebrations of iconic cultural personages who have inspired him throughout his life.
The autobiographical poems referenced his childhood in the Deep South in “the decades where life was less complicated,” the world of the small town stores, the traveling carnivals, abundant local gardens, “a place where the Church was your anchor,” and where the opportunity to see a weekly show on a black and white television was a cultural event, and the show he remembers most especially was the game show, “To Tell the Truth,” which inspired the title poem of his new collection.
Davidson Garrett is also an accomplished actor and teacher, and his readings were marked by his clear presentation of the elegiac and eloquent with a mellifluous voice, but what made this occasion most special was the series of anecdotes and stories that bridge and background the poems, for Mr. Garrett is a wonderful raconteur. His memories of family and the particular circumstances of growing up in the segregated South were striking, where the discrepancies in society had a major impact on his emerging world view, but it was through music that he was able to lift his spirit, and his early love for opera would be a way to lift himself out of a stifling atmosphere of prescribed social distinctions.
He tells the story of going to the local record store as a child and discovering a recording of Aida with the striking photo of Leontyne Price as the fabled princess on the cover. When he asks his mother to purchase it for him, she tells him she would be “too embarrassed to go to a saleslady to buy an album with a colored lady on the cover.” But eventually she will relent, and for the rest of his life he will follow the career of this iconic singer as she breaks barriers most gloriously throughout the world.
The richness of his stories bring with them a universal dimension, and on this occasion he shared these stories so eloquently with insight and emotion that the afternoon could not fail to resonate with the listeners in many ways, with parallels and contrasts to their own personal memories. The stories connected powerfully with the audience in their evocations of childhood experience, musical performers and their music, and a reverberating spirituality that also has been central to his journey. Considerable art resides in the writing and the telling, with his memories and tales evoking past and present emotion, that he shared with us in real time with cadence, rhythm and words that blossomed forth to provide images and a music of which his celebrated divas are only a part, for on this day, Mr. Garrett, as he remarkably engaged his audience, as he would say in one of his poems, “A precious day of childhood evanesces into the mist of memory.” On this stormy day, the memories burst through the mists to bring forth a sunshine that warmed all in attendance.