April 1999

By David Trumbull

If Poems are Outlawed only Outlaws will Read Poems


"Do you have a license for that poem?"--No, the cops are not pulling over unlicensed poets, but woe to the coffeehouse or bar that holds a poetry reading without getting a $500 entertainment permit. Yes, poetry is one of the many categories of entertainment licensed here in my city of Cambridge. Imagine the outcry if the Republican Congress tried to impose a tax on poetry! Well, what is this $500 poetry "license" but a tax? And, to the one being taxed, a tax by any other name still stinks.

Since its creation in the prohibition era, the Cambridge Licensing Commission has administered rules for innholders, hackney carriages, festivals, carnivals, used car dealers, peddlers, one-day events, and even fortune tellers (who, presumably, are not inspected for accuracy). For every license there is a corresponding fee ranging from a few to several hundred dollars.

We all pay, as business owners or consumers.

Almost everyone agrees that some businesses, such as food service, need to be licensed and inspected. Nevertheless, the official name for this permit, "Common Victualer License," suggests to me that this law has been on the books a very long time and may be ready for review. Any guesses on when was the last time the word "victualer"--one who sells "victuals" (pronounced "vittles," as by Granny on the Beverly Hillbillies )--was in common usage? And why a separate milk license? Isn't milk food? Or in Licensing Commission lingo, a "victual"?

Alcohol, victualer, and milk licenses are just the beginning for many restaurants and bars. Want a juke box in your business? That will be $135 to the City, please. Live music, $500. Dancing by patrons, also $500. When I asked Richard Scali, Administrator of the Cambridge Licensing Commission, about the $110 per board charge for dart board licenses he replied that "they [the bar owners] make a lot of money off those boards at tournaments." Why the city is entitled to a "cut" from that income I do not know.

A few years ago a bar owner who lived in Cambridge lamented to me about all the regulations and licensing requirements he had to contend with just to do business. He has since sold his business and moved to New Hampshire. The new owner apparently knew the reputation of Cambridge for he proposed changing the name of the pub to "The Peoples Republik." Even the name change needed the approval of the License Commission! --And was not without controversy.

Repression of Alternative Views

Large mainstream commercial operations simply absorb these license fees as part of the cost of doing business. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, for examples, may have millions of visitors annually, and whatever fees it pays are minor relative to its size. But for an alternative or avant-garde venue, such as the Zeitgeist Gallery in Cambridge, a $500 entertainment license may be enough to kill a proposed experimental or non-mainstream event.

And what of the consumers? State and federal taxes on tobacco, it is claimed, reduce the amount of smoking. If that is true, then is the City of Cambridge trying to reduce the amount of poetry heard by imposing a $500 poetry tax?. Unnecessary taxes, or license fees, result in higher prices, fewer choices for consumers, and less freedom.

Friday, April 30, is the last day of National Poetry Month. I plan, in cerebration, an act of civic disobedience. With a few friends, I will enter a bar in East Cambridge and, without a license from the city, read a poem.


David Trumbull is Chairman of the Cambridge Republican City Committee.