Maggie and Me: My Last Days with the Legendary Maggie Estep
Chloe Caldwell recalls her last days with slam poetry legend Maggie Estep, who passed away at age 50 one year ago today.
Today, February 12, 2015, marks the one-year anniversary of writer, poet, and spoken-word artist Maggie Estep's death.
I thought I saw Maggie Estep across the room from me at hot yoga one night. She stuck out; she was wearing a bright red CBGB T-shirt and a New York City haircut. I'd heard rumors that she'd left NYC for Woodstock, but we were in Hudson. I'd learned of Maggie in my early 20s, had watched her perform Diary of an Emotional Idiot repeatedly. Just a week earlier, I'd bought The KGB Reader because she had a short story in it. I wondered if I should approach her. I didn't want to fan out. But when class ended, she strutted toward me and said, "Hey. I thought you were in Oregon."
Then she laughed, "I just made it sound like you were in a cult."
"I moved back two days ago. How did you know that?" I asked.
"An essay of yours that I read online. I moved to Hudson right after you moved to Portland and when I got here, everyone would mention you to me. Because we both write shit. Apparently, we're supposed to be friends."
She put on her fur coat. She smelled of gum and perfume and dog. She put on lip gloss. (She was never not wearing lip gloss.) We exchanged numbers; she told me she taught yoga on Monday nights and that I should go. She was walking the same way as me. It turned out we lived two blocks from each other.
We were fast friends. We began texting every day, going to yoga twice a week, chatting about books we were writing and reading. It's like that in small towns, especially when you're both female writers. Maggie was THE female writer. The New York Times liked to call her "a spoken-word star." Before feminism was Twitter-trendy, Maggie was putting out work like "Car Guy" and "The Stupid Jerk I'm Obsessed With," breaking doors down for female authors like me. She was personal, political, dirty. She didn't hold back, and she was respected for that. She wrote directly and powerfully about addiction, queers, snorting and shooting drugs, fucking stupid men and dyke-y women in an astute and poignant way. "I'm a Masturbating Idiot and a Sexual Neanderthal. Welcome to my life," she wrote in Diary of an Emotional Idiot. She gave an important voice to not-normal-girls, speaking to them and for them.
A friend emailed: "I can't believe MAGGIE ESTEP is your neighbor."
Neither could I. I knew this was a lucky strike. At 50, Maggie had published seven novels and two spoken-word CDs. And everything she produced was good. She was a real-deal artist. The year I was born, '86, she was at the Jack Kerouac School for Disembodied Poets. She'd lived the gritty life in New York City. She'd gone to rehab and recovered from using heroin. Maggie was someone whose trajectory I could appreciate and admire and learn from. There was something surreal about meeting a writer whose work I'd long respected, something magical about how she exceeded my expectations.
I began going to Maggie's Monday-night class. Instead of playing yoga bhajans, Maggie blasted Patti Smith, the Magnetic Fields, and Fleet Foxes.
She had us chant before class. I couldn't help thinking about how funny it was to be singing with Maggie Estep, and how now she was singing songs about Shiva and Ganesha instead of shouting and slamming "Scab Maids on Speed" or "Sex Goddess of the Western Hemisphere."
We met on a street corner one night in early January to swap books. I gave her Legs Get Led Astray and she gave me her novel, Alice Fantastic. That night, I opened the book in bed. It was signed in blue Sharpie:
Maggie didn't like her apartment because it had bamboo floors, and I was living at home. She emailed: "Do you wanna try being roommates a shot? Two women writing and going to yoga could, after all, be the next sitcom. 21st century Seinfeld style. We will both be Kramer. Lots of falling down into rooms." One night, Maggie, her ex-boyfriend/best friend, my then boyfriend, and I went out for noodles. I'd been re-reading Diary of an Emotional Idiot and there's a line in it where the narrator says, "I have a theory: Masturbating leads to productive behavior."
"Masturbating," Maggie explained, eating a forkful of tofu. "Masturbating makes you want to vacuum." We laughed. The guys said nothing.
I ordered her other books online. I listened to her albums. I could tell I was talking and gushing about her too much to my mom, to my dad, to my boyfriend. I listened to "Car Guy" constantly:
So I'm riding my bike down 50th and this guy rolls down his window and looks up at me and says, "Hey! Bike lady!"
So I look down at him and I go, "Hey! Car guy!"
Maggie worked in a real estate firm on Warren Street. We looked at a couple of apartments together, but nothing panned out. She was adamant about wanting a YARD and a TUB. She always capitalized those words. We kept scouring Craigslist.
On February 8 of last year we had a reading at Oblong Books in Rhinebeck, New York, for an anthology we were both in. "Wait, is this a panel?" she said. "I HATE panels."
While getting ready for the reading, my self-esteem plummeted. I texted Maggie.
"Anxiety about my acne. This too shall pass?"
She replied within a beat, like a true spoken-word artist: "I'm old and fat and stupid."
On our way to Rhinebeck, we pulled into a gas station for chocolate and coffees. I got out of the car, and Maggie told me to put a fuck ton of sugars in her coffee. I worried that three wouldn't be enough, so I put two more packets into my coat pocket.
Maggie took a sip of her coffee and announced, "This coffee is vile." She said the Rolos were stale but kept asking for them, holding open her fingerless-gloved hand.
I told her about the dream I'd had the night before, something about having to insert a glitter kit into my vagina.
"I don't know what the eff was up with that dream," I said.
"You know, you can actually say 'fuck' in my car," Maggie said.
Later, when I describe someone as a "biatch," she said, "You can say 'bitch' in my car, too."
You wouldn't have known Maggie hated panels when we sat down in front of the audience. She charmed everyone's pants off. During the Q&A, we were still drinking our gas station coffees. We took our gum out of our mouths and placed it, so classily, on the lids of our cups. I asked Maggie if she wore a helmet when she rode her bike all over New York City, like she described in her essay. She looked at me and said, deadpan, "No. I was an organ donor." The crowd laughed.
After the reading, we mingled. Someone took our photo, and in it we are clearly laughing loudly, smiling huge, arms tight around each other, both dressed in black. She posted it on her Facebook page, "With Darling Chloe last night at Oblong Books." I put it on Twitter and called it "Caffeinated Lovebirds."
It was the last reading Maggie did, and quite possibly the last photograph ever taken of her. When she died, three days later, USA Today published the photo, among other sites.
The next morning I went to her yoga class. Maggie was sitting at the desk. "Long time no see," I said. In Warrior 1 pose Maggie walked to me and adjusted my body. "Fix me," I joked to her. She looked into my eyes and smiled. It was our last interaction in person. I didn't say goodbye when I left yoga, just booked it down the stairs.
That night, texting with Maggie, she asked, "Am I a stupid yoga jerk?"
"What do you mean?" I texted back.
"I mean, when I am teaching class, do you think, God, what a moron?"
I told her no. I told her she knew what she is doing, and that she was a wonderful yoga teacher. "God, I love you," she responded. "I love you too," I wrote.
Sunday morning, lying in bed, my boyfriend and I watched videos of Maggie performing. "Maybe we should see if she wants to get coffee," I mumbled, but I didn't follow through.
Monday afternoon my phone rang: Maggie. I figured she was calling to remind me to go to yoga that night, or had found an apartment for us to look at. "Heyyy!" I answered. But it was a male voice on the other line. Maggie's ex.
"Maggie and I were just hanging out at my place, and she had a heart attack. I took her to the ER, and now she's being transported by medevac to the Albany Medical Center. Will you drive to the hospital with me?" He picked me up 20 minutes later.
"She was always obsessed with medevacs," he said, shaking his head.
At the hospital, Maggie's best friend, Laura the Hot Farmer, was already there. (Maggie had names for everyone. Monikers, she called them. She had the whole town calling Laura "Laura the Hot Farmer." Maggie did this in her art as well: "The Hefty Lesbian," "Dave with Long Dick.")
The three of us—ex-boyfriend, best friend, and me, the new friend—sat for hours. They didn't let us see her.
We drove to the hospital again the next day. Maggie was in a coma. She was being cooled down and then heated back up. Or something. I couldn't follow the medical procedure. After I saw her, I had a very clear feeling she would probably die. Like Laura the Hot Farmer said, Maggie looked dead.
We tried to stay positive. We took photos of Maggie, to show her when she woke up. We'd show her how many machines she was hooked up to, how frail and pale she looked. We decided we would start a blog while she was hospitalized. We wrote letters to Maggie every day, so she would have something to read and laugh at when she woke up.
And then there was the email Maggie had sent me the month before.
"I woke up at 6 convinced I was dying (had this weird horrible burning in my chest) and actually contemplated going to hospital, then managed to fall back asleep and slept too late, though at least I am not dead and mysterious chest burning is gone."
"I'm so glad you're not dead!" I responded.
But she was the picture of health, we told the doctors. But she was a yoga teacher. But sometimes she taught yoga and went to the gym in the same day. But she's been sober for twenty years. But she was vegan, we whined.
In the car on the way home from the hospital after midnight, during a bleak silence, eating apples and chips, Maggie's ex-boyfriend said to me, "You should know, Maggie's moniker for you was 'My New BFF.'"
The next day I didn't go to the hospital. There had been a blizzard, and that afternoon I curled up into the fetal position on my couch and fell asleep in all of my clothes, my hat still on. I woke at nine, ate a tuna melt, and went to bed. Aching. Knowing.
At 7 AM my phone rang. Laura the Hot Farmer.
"Hey. Maggie died last night."
She invited me over to the ex-boyfriend's apartment. The light outside was too bright, like coming down from an acid trip, everything too real. In my coat pocket, the sugar packets from the gas station remained, and I rubbed them like worry stones.
I didn't stop shitting all day. There were doughnuts and fruit on the table we sat around. People dropped by. It was a crystal cold clear freezing day. We sat at the table, made lists, planned the memorial. Someone dies, and too quickly it's all "Who's gonna design the flyer?"
We walked to Maggie's apartment to choose what she'd wear in the grave. I held her dog Mickey's leash while he bolted upstairs. We chose silver hoop earrings and a burgundy shirt. When no one was looking, I grabbed a shiny silver sequined bracelet and shoved it in my pocket.
I drove to the burial alone, through the flurries. Crosby, Stills & Nash played on the radio. We stood in the snow. I was alone, arms wrapped around myself until Laura walked to me and put her arms around me. I took her hands in mine. I remember feeling so grateful for her. The owner of the yoga studio where Maggie taught said a few words, about how some people are suns and some people are moons, but then there was Maggie, who was a shooting star.
We put sticks of Maggie's favorite gum and rose petals on the casket, before they lowered her into the ground.
At the memorial I was in a foul mood. My boyfriend kept touching my leg and shoulder, and all I could think of was Maggie's line: "Don't TOUCH me, what am I your fucking CAT?"
John S. Hall slammed Maggie's poetry. Stephin Merritt played "The Book of Love," all choked up. Steve Buscemi made a surprise appearance and read his emails with Maggie, lamenting that he hadn't responded to her last one. There was a reception with food and wine and a fire-eater. (Maggie has a song on her album Love Is a Dog From Hell in which she sings, "Let's go to Coney Island, I wanna see the freak show, I wanna see fire-eater, I wanna be a part of it.") Blown up photos of Maggie all around.
In the weeks after Maggie's death, my boyfriend and I were never awoke more than ten minutes before we were watching videos of her. We watched "Happy" and listened to "Car Guy" and "Pee Lady." This is the blessing of being an artist: When you go you leave behind some fantastic trail, physical things that those who love you can cling to, to remember.
On my bookshelf, I put Maggie's books next to my own.
"Where's your new book, darling Chloe?
"I think this is the year we both get big book deals.
"Get your ass to yoga, you trollop.
"Ever seen those yoga mats that say FUCK YOGA on them? We should get those.
"I have an idea: Let's put new books out at the same time and go on book tour together."
At Maggie's memorial I received an email that my new book would, in fact, be published. Two weeks later I found an apartment with a YARD and a claw-foot TUB. "I think you got those good things because of Maggie," my friend said. I dedicated my new book to her.
Six months later, in the summer, there is finally a tombstone. I couldn't find it, so I drove all over the graveyard, the sun in my face. I'd brought a flower but I was mad, so I throw it out the window.
I don't know what I was expecting the stone to say. But I was touched and surprised to kneel to the grave and read the precise words:
"I know you might think this is eccentric and woo-woo," Maggie told the yoga class one day. "But singing is good. Like REALLY good. It's the healthiest thing you can do." Then she lit the candles on the altar, bowed to the ground, walked to the sound system, pushed play and turned up Patti Smith, and began teaching us.
I always understood that Maggie's well-known poem "Happy" is sarcastic satire. But after knowing Maggie, I'm beginning to question that. Watch her performance on Def Jam Poetry. She walks on stage, radiant, with her unmistakable commanding energy. All she has to say is, "This is called 'Happy'" and her delivery makes the audience chuckle. Maggie throws her head back and laughs with them. That signature laugh, her beautiful mouth wide. It gives me shivers.
The last line of the poem is how I like to remember Maggie:
to be here
to be alive to be here to be alive
and I'm happy.
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