After weeks of hearing her name pop up around the Bay Area lit scene, I finally had the pleasure to hear Ali Liebegott read from her books The Beautifully Worthless and Cha-Ching!, and I now understand why she’s a favorite local author. Her wit and intensely beautiful writing shone during her time on the mic, and produced a harmony of laughter throughout the room that I have never seen one writer create in such a short period of time.
I walked into City Lights a few minutes before the show began, and a large crowd had already taken their seats, many cramming themselves into the corners of the book-lined walls of the beloved store. I found a stool in the furthest corner from the small podium in the front of the room, and settled into a cozy nest between two smiling women. Michelle Tea, founder of Sister Spit, was the first to speak. She introduced the opening act, Carmella Fleming, who read her poems in a fast paced monotone, touching on hilarious and honest subjects from tampons and Plan B to lipstick and drugs. The crowd cheered after her short set, and Michelle came up once again, this time making way for Ali in one of the most heartfelt and touching intros that I have ever experienced at a reading. She explained how she had met Ali 20 years before, and she admired her writing so much that she was determined to become Ali’s friend. She explained that Ali had “the perfect balance of absurdity, humor, and heartbreaking tenderness” to make her such a captivating writer.
Ali came up to the mic with tears in her eyes after the introduction, and thanked everyone for supporting her. Before she began reading, she took out an envelope filled with lucky pennies that she had oxidized herself, and told everyone in the room to take one as a token of her appreciation, saying she was grateful we were all healthy and together instead of on the internet. As the envelope was passed from hand to hand, Ali began reading from her book length poem The Beautifully Worthless, which features a girl and her dalmatian Rorschach searching for an imaginary town named Camus, Idaho.
In the section Ali read us, the girl happens upon a tourist trap called “The Cave” and ventures inside to find out what secrets it beholds. The girl has many qualms with the cave, and asks the boy at the front desk a myriad of questions, including whether there were animals living in it and if it’s alright if she enters with flip flops. As she explores inside, she begins to have doubts about her safety, and a hilarious internal monologue ensues, with great quotes like “I’m not cool enough to die this way.” My favorite part of the story was when the girl encounters a sign saying that she has reached the end of the cave, and that “You can now see why caves were great places for bears, slaves on the run, moonshiners and murderers!”, which elicited so many laughs because the absurdity had truth to it. I would expect to see such a strange sign in a random tourist cave in Idaho.
Ali finished her reading of The Beautifully Worthless and moved onto her newest book, Cha- Ching!, which was my favorite reading of the night. The section from the book that she read honed in on a girl named Theo and her dog, Cary Grant (proving Ali’s aptitude for naming fictional dogs is impressive). Theo is young, broke, and queer, searching the New York streets for help wanted signs. She happens upon a group of middle aged men, all smoking and swearing and throwing white tickets on the ground with ferocity, who she thinks look like “movie set extras vying for the role of losing gamblers”. She asks one of the younger patrons what is happening, and finds out that they are betting horses, so she asks him to put her bet on the longshot, Buttercup, at 255 to 1. Theo puts down twenty dollars on the egregious bet, and ends up winning five grand after Buttercup wins. Theo then buys a new pair of work boots and muses on her irrational hatred of buying socks: she can bet horses and buy Cary Grant a forty dollar sweater without a thought, but her toes poking through her socks is not enough reason to get new ones? She finally convinces herself to buy a pair, and can’t believe the difference they make. “For three dollars”, she thinks, “your feet can always feel this good”.
As I watched Ali read aloud, I could see the passion she puts into her writing. Each story grabbed the audience with soft and tender moments balanced by witty insights and dirty words. She has the rare ability to make characters so human that the reader will want to root for them even after the story is over. I bought both The Beautifully Worthless and Cha-Ching! right after she finished reading, and look forward to adding them to my tattered collection of books I will reread for the rest of my life.
- Read a recent profile of Ali in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, which includes a link to a recent podcast interview Ali did with City Lights
- Check out Ali’s series of interviews with female poets at The Believer
- Watch some of Ali’s past performances: new sh!t show • Literary Death Match • Sister Spit • Quiet Lightning
- Watch the entire evening:
Michelle Greenberg is a Litseen intern and Creative Writing student at SFSU. She likes to play drums and write poetry in her free time, and is obsessed with Charles Bukowski, Mexican food, and cats. She wants to publish at least one book of her original poetry and/ or own a guinea pig farm when she grows up.