Mandan News

Brian L. Gray: Looking back on the Green Earth Cafe

I’ve been working on a memoir recently.

It’s about when I was 21, back in 2001, when I had big ideas and big plans for the future. I was in my last year at Bismarck State College, and had been accepted into the University of Kansas, where I was going to study playwriting.

But it’s really about the friends I made before leaving Bismarck. The adventures we had together. The futures we were carving out for ourselves. The attitudes we carried. The relationships that came and went. The deep bonds that took place. And the one place we all went on Thursday nights.

We went to Green Earth Cafe in Bismarck, which hosted open mic nights each Thursday night. I’d begun playing music with a guitarist friend of mine, and by the fall of 2001 we were at the point where we were desperate for an audience. So we began performing at Green Earth. This evolved into a year of meeting dozens of artists from all over, both young and old, as we partied together, played together, learned from one another and shared ideas with each other.

I’d never been a part of a movement like that before, and many of the others I got to know hadn’t either. This time in my life became my rite of passage – I think of it as my “Stand By Me” moment, my coming of age period. I was a sheltered guy, but took a chance and let myself out through music and writing, and was astounded when it was received well by others. I soon got hooked on expressing myself, and also got hooked on watching others doing the same. I was able to let myself go and overcome those worst case scenarios that always took place in my head. I learned reality wasn’t such a bad place to be.

We were an artistic community in every sense. We challenged each other and made ourselves better performers and artists. We offered support and criticism, we joined creative forces, challenged one another, as we were together to better ourselves and have fun in the process.

And as my big future plans were being laid out, I was also a twisted mess of confusion. I had no idea what the future had in store for me, despite my plans, and that mortified me. All I knew was that I dug writing, and it was the one thing I’d been doing since I was a child. I don’t know when it began, but as far back as I can remember I always felt safe being alone in a room, facing a notepad, with a pen in my hand. It was my one solace, the place where no one could touch me. It was my place to dream.

But we were all confused, really. All artists are. We were in the wake of 9/11, a war was imminent, and we needed some form of comfort. This was how hundreds of people dealt with the insanity of the time – with a stage. With music, poetry, theatre, dance, comedy, and genuine and honest conversation. We put our trust in others, and shared ourselves. And those who listened did the same.

Even though I was uncertain about my future, the people I spent time with assured me that there were others out there who were genuinely good, caring people, which gave me the fuel to continue on despite my not having a clue where I was headed. It made my world of uncertainty that much easier to walk through.

The weird thing was none of us mentioned how greatly our time together impacted us. It’s safe to say now, but while it was happening it felt like walking on glass. If they were like me, they were afraid to bring it to the forefront of anyone’s attention, at the risk that it might implode and the magic would die. So we merely rode the wave we were all on, and let it carry us, without speaking a word about how special this moment really was.

Now, years later, I’ve decided that in the spirit of creating works of art as we did back then, I would begin my own work of art, a memoir dedicated to that time in our lives.

I never wanted to have this moment in time put on paper, as it felt more poetic if it simply existed in the hearts and minds of those who experienced it.

But I write because it’s my way of understanding things. My purpose in being a writer is to make sense of the things that confuse and mystify me. I still don’t fully know how all of us clicked so well, and why that time in my life still means so much. But when people help you to see the world, it’s common to think the world of them. That’s partly why I realized I should write about this time in my life.

A few questions were answered as I dug into my memories, yet there are still some parts I don’t understand. But I believe finding an answer only leads to more questions, so at some point you have to take satisfaction with what you’ve got.

Maybe it was simply in our nature to bond the way we did back then. But there’s really no reason to keep digging into why. Maybe that’s best to be left alone.

And I’m learning to be okay with that.