The Process of Revolution As Manifested through the Voice of Smokey Robinson

Photograph by Jose Padua
In the car this evening, while I was taking Maggie to the store for some clothes she needed, she said from the seat behind me, “This guy is beautiful.”

I paused for a while. And it was a long time before I finally asked Maggie, “What guy?”

But I wasn’t all that interested in which particular person she was referring to, because what was going through my mind again was how her working on a play called “It’s Not Easy Being A Teen” really seemed to be turning her into one. She’s the youngest of the six girls doing the theater workshop for which this play is the product—and, since she only ten years old soon to be eleven, she’s the only one who isn’t even a real teenager yet.

This morning, while I was on the way to take Julien to his morning session at summer camp, a song from 1987 came on the car stereo. Maggie, who was accompanying us, asked, “What’s that song?”

“It’s called ‘When Smokey Sings,’” I told her. “It’s by a band called ABC. It’s a tribute to the singer Smokey Robinson.”

“Ah,” she said.

“Why, do you like it?”

“Yes!”

Later today, when I picked her up from her theater camp, Maggie said that “When Smokey Sings” was going through her head all day. I then told her how I had the song on a mix tape that I’d play on the train a lot when I was living in New York and going to or from DC. Then I remembered how when I was her age, one of the songs that I certainly must have had going through my head was Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ “Tears of a Clown,” which is probably my favorite of all of Smokey Robinson’s songs—and just one of my favorite songs period.

I marveled, for a moment, at the Smokey Robinson connection. Though one thing that was different was that when I was ten I really don’t think I would have said to either my mother or father that I thought someone was beautiful. Being more on the shy and reserved side, I wouldn’t have been mentioning this sort of thing to them–or to anyone else for that matter—until I was a teenager.

Then, after all this went through my head was when I finally asked Maggie, “What guy?”

“What?” she answered.

“I said, ‘What guy?’ You said, ‘this guy is beautiful?’”

This time Maggie paused. “Wait, you thought I said ‘What guy?’ No, I said ‘The SKY.’ The sky is beautiful.”

“Oh, the SKY,” I said. And I was sort of relieved, because I didn’t know if I was quite ready for who she finds attractive to become a regular topic of conversation.

I parked the car, and as we got out of the car I tried to remember what age Maggie was when I finally didn’t feel I had to hold her hand whenever we got out of the car. I know I must have been doing it way past the age when other parents feel they need to do it. Maggie didn’t seem to mind, though, and I eventually moved on to the next stage. It’s not easy for me, but over the years, from when I was a child to now, I find that somehow I keep evolving, which reminds me—despite whatever the idiots out there may say—that evolution, in its many forms and processes, is life.

After dinner today Maggie played a song for Julien on Heather’s phone. I don’t remember what the song was—all I recall is that it was something current—but I imagine that years from now, Maggie may remember what this song was, and Julien too will remember. And they’ll remember this place, and these days, and all the things we did as acts of evolution and revolution. All the things we did because we had to.

-Jose Padua

Poetry

PoetryIsTwo
Poetry is
giving the
finger to
the biggest
guy in the
room just
to see
what happens.

-Jose Padua

Courtesy

BlackPickUpTruck_Courtesy
While stopped at a light this afternoon
the big black pickup truck beside me was playing
something like Toby Keith
while I was sitting in my minivan
playing “Right Off” from
Miles Davis’s A Tribute to Jack Johnson,
and I was reminded of the line
in the old Simon and Garfunkel song “A Dangling Conversation”
that goes, “And you read your Emily Dickinson,
and I my Robert Frost,”
with my Miles Davis substituting for Emily Dickinson
and his Toby Keith substituting for Robert Frost–
though maybe it’s the other way around–
and instead of being lovers in conflict or at odds
as in the song written by Paul Simon,
I’m just a father taking his kids home from school
and the good ole boy in the pickup truck
is going wherever good ole boys go
when they blast their Toby Keith.
And though I always hated that line
in the Simon and Garfunkel song–
or maybe it was the song’s characters
that I hated because they seemed like
such pretentious fuckwads—
it was because of that song
that I saw myself and the good ole boy
as in a kind of relationship.
So, when he turned up the volume of his car stereo
after he stopped beside me
I, like a guy in a dysfunctional relationship,
leaned over to turn up the volume on mine
to retaliate,
but then I stopped
and kept looking straight ahead,
ready to go my own way
because we had an entire country to live in
filled with small spaces,
here and there,
that I could call home.

-Jose Padua

The Age of Resistance

Photograph by Jose Padua
When all the things I used to whisper
decline into words left unheard like
liquid spilling from a cup away
from the tongue and onto the table
is when I will cease to question
authority. When the things I used
to shout no longer give people
heart attacks or pause, when
the insane minor glimmer in my
eyes recedes like a wave crashing
in on itself is when I’ll begin
to question my reasons for
waking up in the morning and
putting on my beat-up, old shoes.
I speak now in moderate tones.
I neither whisper behind another’s
back nor do I scream to turn the ear
of those too distant to reach with
fist or finger. Resistance is a bone
in the back, a muscle in the arm,
a connection between circle and
square that cannot be removed,
cannot be refuted or refined into
evenly spaced lines. To age gracefully
into contentment is not a vanishing
because resistance is in the blood;
it does not subside, it does not
diminish. It flows, retreats,
expands, ready to whisper, ready
to scream, make peace, bleed.

-Jose Padua

Art and the Significance of Ordinary Objects

Photo by Jose Padua
Yesterday, I spent a good part of the evening tracking down a song Maggie remembered and wanted to hear again. Neither of us, however, could remember the name of the song, and so I was stuck trying to find it simply using search terms describing the video of the song, which Maggie said featured a man, dancing and singing by himself, who was then joined by another man, who turned to be the same person wearing a different outfit. Throughout the video, Maggie said, there were several different versions of this same man, wearing different costumes, singing beside himself. Eventually I found it—a bhangra song by Daler Mehndi called “Tunak Tunak Tun,”—and on the way to finding it I came across another song Maggie used to listen to a lot, Asha Bhosle’s “Saiyan Le Gayi Jiya,” which I also played for her a couple of times. For the last couple of days, whenever we’re in the car, Maggie has wanted to hear the song, “I Will Starve Myself to Death” by the late Cambodian singer, Ros Serey Sothea. Then, this morning, on the way to school, Maggie requested an old favorite, “Bratwurst,” a song by the German musician Quio and which features a guest spoken bit from a writer I know from my New York days, Darius James.

I must say that I am a little bit spoiled by all this. Although Maggie does also listen to some of the standard pop songs other kids listen to, she doesn’t listen to them exclusively and certainly not as much as other kids do. I’ve never had to listen to a single Katy Perry song in the car, and although I have listened to Taylor Swift on occasion, I think Taylor Swift is actually a talented singer and songwriter. All of which means that I’m able to play the music I want to hear while I’m driving—and I’m always the one driving during any long trip—and everyone is happy with it. Although one time Heather did complain about a Stravinsky piece I played during a long drive back from Pennsylvania, more often than not what I’ll hear is Maggie asking, “Is that Jimmie Dale Gilmore?” or “Is that Sun Ra?” or “Is that Lizzy Mercier Descloux?” when we’re on the road somewhere. As for Julien, since he was a tiny infant he’s liked songs like The Go-Betweens’ “Streets of Your Town,” Sade’s “Your Love Is King,” and Serge Gainsbourg’s “Bonnie and Clyde.” And this, I suppose, is what had me experimenting this afternoon when I brought Julien home from school.

I hardly watch television anymore. Part of this is because whenever we do have the television on it’s to watch one or another kids show or movie. We could have solved this problem by having more televisions, perhaps, but we chose not to because we don’t want to have too many TVs in the house because, frankly, when the TV is off it’s just an ugly machine taking up space in the house (and of course, depending on what’s showing, when the TV is on it can actually be even uglier). Right now, in fact, we have only one working cable connection since the cable box in Maggie’s room started malfunctioning. At first, Maggie wanted to get it fixed, because she liked to watch TV right before going to bed, but after a while she got used to it. It’s been maybe a half a year now since her cable box stopped working, and since then she started to just read before bed or, sometimes, look at the one electronic device she’s allowed to have, her iPod.

So, this afternoon, when Julien and I got back from school, I decided to try something. Usually, after we eat lunch he’ll either play with toys or ask to see something on television. Yesterday, when we got home he said, “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” which meant he wanted to see the film by Japanese director and animator Hayao Miyazaki. This, I must say, was an excellent choice. Then today, when we got home, he asked for Toy Story, which is okay, but not in Miyazaki’s league as far as films go. And of course, it’s fine if Julien wants to watch something that’s just entertaining but not some great work of art. Still, I wasn’t quite in the mood to watch Toy Story, so I decided to try something.

Last night, after everyone had gone to bed, I was still up for a while as I usually am, but I was too tired to write anything new. Instead, I went into the living room, turned on the television, and pressed the On Demand button. I browsed the selections, and was pleasantly surprised to see that one of the movies available was Finding Vivian Maier, the documentary about a woman who spent most of her adult life working as a nanny but who in her spare time was taking photographs—thousands and thousands of photographs that she pretty much never showed to anyone. Her work wasn’t discovered until after she’d died when a man named John Maloof, who was working on a book about Chicago, bought a box of negatives from an auction house hoping to find stock photos to use for his book. That box contained a sampling of Vivian Maier’s work and Maloof, totally by chance, became the first person to take a look at it.

Then, this afternoon, with Julien asking for Toy Story, I thought about the film I saw last night. I thought about how Vivian Maier died in poverty, how she died without anyone knowing what a great photographer she was. And I thought, yes, my son’s only three years old, but he needs to see this film. Or at least as much as he can deal with at this age—I wasn’t expecting much—so while he continued to ask for Toy Story, I pressed the button to start Finding Vivian Maier again. And the film started to play.

It began, as I remembered, with interviews with people who knew her—the parents of the children she took care of, and the children themselves, now grown up. Julien wasn’t very much interested in it. We were sitting on the living room sofa and he said again, “Toy Story, Toy Story.” But then the film switched from the interviews and began showing some of Vivian Maier’s photographs. As soon as her pictures filled the TV screen, Julien stood up and walked right up to the television to get a closer look. And he kept on looking. After a while, the film went back to more interviews, and Julien lost interest again, and I eventually did put Toy Story on; but whenever one of Vivian Maier’s photographs was on the screen, he looked. Because, somehow, even at his age, he recognized their significance.

We watched Toy Story for a little while, but soon it was time for his afternoon nap. As I took Julien upstairs, carrying his favorite blanket, I thought about Vivian Maier’s photographs, and I wondered if, somehow, Julien was thinking about them too.

This photograph was taken after dinner this evening. Maggie took an old play tunnel of hers, and stood it up, having found some other use for it. Then she put it on, and wore it like a dress, only it wasn’t a dress. And she walked around, even though it was hard to see in it, and she danced, even though it wasn’t the sort of thing you usually danced in. Whatever it was, it was now a work of art, and Maggie recognized that, and she saw its significance. Heather and I—and, I think, Julien—did too.

-Jose Padua

I Have Driven from the Forest and the Mountains

Photo by Jose Padua
I have driven from the forest
and the mountains through
snow, wind, and rain and
various times of day, in heat
and in cold, during love and
during hatred, with money
and without, in uncertainty
and during those rare moments
of overconfidence which somehow
I’ve never learned to regret,
to all these American cities.
Like a man released from prison,
I am grateful for the opportunity
though I have never been in an
actual prison and I spend so little
of my time being grateful.
All the planets whisper songs
or curses to me and for me
in these blank places until
I put down my books and
lift my eyes like a madman.
If I have imagined you to be
a form of insanity, America,
do not be offended because
I do not claim sanity for myself.
I have never tried to embrace
what for me isn’t worth embracing,
so don’t bother asking me my name
or telling me you like the way
I pull things apart and put them back
together with the glue of my brain.
America, I am more fucked up
than you will ever be and I am
really fucked up. America, big hair
on movie stars, blind rats, muddy
possums, and incandescent plastic
surgeons on vacation in the Hamptons.
You have taken away the meaning,
you have taken away the connections
as I move like spilled liquid from
city to city on these endless nights
of dancing.

-Jose Padua

The Cold War of My American Dream

JP_OnCar_60s_EditCrop
It was in the sixth grade when
Sister Geraldine took us bad
listeners and day dreamers
out into the hall one afternoon
to repeat after her, one by one,
“The key to success is hard work.”
But what was bugging me like
a gnat flying back and forth
from my nose to my ear, and
what was keeping me ill occupied
and slumped in my seat weren’t
the words “hard work” but that
whole concept of “success.”
Fast cars and fancy homes
were nice, OK; and well-pressed
suits and shiny shoes looked cool
in the right light; but if success
was what it took to get there,
I thought, “Forget it, sister,
because as far as I can tell
the people who have all the shit
are the most boring people
on the planet.” But instead I said,
“No, sister, I’m not afraid of
hard work.” Because I was
too young to know how to speak
any other way; too young to say
that what scared me even more
than drugs, failure, and the bomb
was learning how to smile half a smile
to everyone every day; to hold my head
up straight with a soulless swagger;
the possibility of having it all like
in a dream and wanting more clouds, more
snow, more rain, because there are
never enough things falling from the sky.

-Jose Padua

Fear and Whiskey

Photo by Jose Padua
To the young actor between roles
who was my supervisor at my temporary
data entry job at Goldman Sachs,
and who tried to make me get his coffee
when a group of us was standing in the break room
during our after-midnight break on the overnight shift,
and to whom I said, “the coffee machine’s right there”
totally deadpan, a performance better
than any struggling actor could ever dream of,
I saw you in a dreadful commercial one night
years later when I was living back home again,
broke, denied a job down on M St. in DC
that I was a perfect fit for because
the woman who would have been my supervisor there
didn’t feel comfortable working with people like me
who looked like what she called “foreigners.”
Or did I actually get your coffee?
Resisting the urge to spill it on you accidentally with intent,
because I needed the work,
because I liked that beautiful ride
they gave me in a luxury car at five in the morning,
from Broad St. near Beaver, back to Avenue B,
which back then wasn’t the upscale neighborhood it is now,
and I did like those lights,
going home in the last dark hour
of the morning up FDR Drive, to Houston,
to be let out without the need to pay
in front of the brown door with the broken lock
that I pushed open to walk to my fourth floor apartment,
where I turned on the light
and put a tape in my cassette player.
And I listened to a song
about fear and whiskey
that made me feel like I was standing
in the middle of Broadway at 42nd Street,
drinking the best cocktail in town
while the traffic swirled
around me and came close,
but never hit me.
And I honestly don’t remember now what I did,
because the only thing that stayed with me
were the lights, and the song, and the night
I walked home from the job
at five in the morning,
away from the land of bankers
and other goons,
to meet the sun,
as it rose slowly,
over Avenue B,
over me,
and all that lovely dirt and noise,
when I was young
and the world was still
real.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

A Parade of Snakes

Photograph by Jose Padua
The first question might be who put
these motherfucking snakes in this
motherfucking parade?
But it doesn’t
matter—this is the parade we have today
and these are the snakes, crawling on the
asphalt through drums and tubas and fire
trucks and funny cars and fezzes, because
the snakes can’t pick up drums and, if they
could pick up tubas, they wouldn’t be able
to play them, and I don’t even want to
consider what it would involve to have
a snake behind the wheel of a fire truck,
driving down the street as the siren makes its
knife in the ear sounds and flashes its lights
above, below, and around us as we wave
to the snake firemen who can’t wave back,
because they’re snakes and snakes, being
without hands, can’t wave, and I have no
idea how they’d drive, but as I said I’m
not going to think about that. So they crawl,
and because they can’t wave we’re the only
ones waving, the only ones smiling, the only
ones assuming that, if the snakes could, they
would reciprocate with some kind of pleasant
gesture that expresses a sense of affinity or
affection for us. It’s strange, I know, for those
among us who have never attended a snake
parade—the sound of snakes slithering
on the street is surrounded by an almost
frightening silence and there’s no one to throw
out candy for the children. Snakes don’t do that,
of course. They can’t. And because there are
so many things they can’t do there’s not much
left for them to do but parade before us, stretching
and twisting like little rivers we’ll never step into
with rolled up trousers, creating images we’ll
remember for the rest of our lives, creating
a silence that, like the pause between the end
of a performance and the applause, may help
carry us through the difficult days ahead.

-Jose Padua

A Bridge or Two into the Exquisite Distance

Photograph by Jose Padua
Seven years ago on the first day of October, we closed on our house here in Front Royal. It was late in the afternoon. Out in the waiting area at the MBH Settlement Group office were Maggie, my Dad, and my brothers, Tony and Pat. Julien was three years and one month away from being born. Back in the office conference room, Heather and I were seated at a long table with Lisa, our realtor from our old neighborhood in Alexandria, and opposite us was Lilian (the James Madison University anthropology professor whose house we were buying) and her realtor, while at the head of the table was the dark-haired, somewhat daunting woman from MBH who was conducting the closing.

Sitting there, signing page after page of one ridiculously named document after another, I expected her at any minute to say, “OK, let’s speed this shit up so we can get the hell out of here.” Or maybe that was just me thinking that. Maybe it was me, having finally started to feel nervous about this move away from the city and to this small town in the Shenandoah Valley. Yeah, me–having second thoughts at a point when it’s a little too late to do anything about it, because whether I liked it or not, we were about to become part of small town America.

The Front Royal branch of the MBH Settlement Group is no longer where it was back then, when it was on North Shenandoah Avenue, just down from the old bridge that spans the South Fork of the Shenandoah River. This is the bridge that provides my favorite view in town. Going north on it, you’re high over the river; looking east, the river disappears quickly into some dense woods, but looking west you can follow it for a while toward the horizon until it squeezes between the mountains.

As for the bridge itself, it feels, to me, like a structure that would have served well as the backdrop for a few scenes from an old film noir; and whenever I’m going south on it, into town, I imagine that I’m leaving the present time and going back into the past. Of course, the bridge’s significance goes back to the civil war, when Union Colonel John Reese Kenly gave the order to take it–and the bridge several hundred yards north going over the North Fork of the Shenandoah River–and “burn those motherfuckers down.” Well, maybe those weren’t his exact words–but putting out the flames and saving these strategic bridges for the Confederates were men under the command of General Richard Taylor, son of Zachary Taylor.

Zachary Taylor, who himself was a general and, of course, the twelfth president of the United States, has an eight mile stretch of highway south of town named after him. These bridges, though–as far as I know–aren’t named after anyone, not even Richard Taylor. The bridge over South Fork of the Shenandoah River is called, simply, the South Fork Bridge, and the bridge over the North Fork is called the North Fork Bridge. That they’re not named after any confederate general is fine with me. Though perhaps there’s an unofficial name for it, just like back in DC, where I grew up, we started calling the park on 16th Street between W and Euclid streets Malcolm X. Park. Its official name is still Meridian Hill Park, but for us, since the late 60s, it’s been Malcolm X Park.

I suppose there may be some people here who have their own names for these bridges, but no one’s tried to make it official. And with that in mind, I propose, on the occasion of our seven year anniversary of living here in the Shenandoah Valley, renaming the South Fork Bridge the General John Reese Kenly Memorial Bridge (yeah, he was bumped up to general during the course of the war). I know, he was the one who tried to burn these bridges down, but to me, the cause of the Confederates isn’t what we want to commemorate here, or anywhere. We want a name that commemorates the attempt to move into the future, even if that future meant going, for a while, without any bridges directly north of town. As for the bridge over the North Fork of the Shenandoah, I’ll propose we name that the Cosme Tuazon Padua Memorial Bridge, after my father.

I know. Not many people here are going to go for these names. But just like back in DC we call that park Malcolm X Park, I’m going to call these bridges, whenever I talk about them and whenever I write about them, the General John Reese Kenly Memorial Bridge and the Cosme Tuazon Padua Memorial Bridge. Because for me this general’s efforts at taking us toward a better future is worth celebrating–and sometimes burning a bridge is what it takes to do that. And also because my Dad’s gone now and whenever he was visiting here and we’d be driving up north to Winchester or maybe to Shepherdstown or any of those other places I liked to show him, I’d always look over to him, sitting in the passenger seat as we drove over the bridges. Every time we passed that way, I wanted to know what he was seeing–if he was looking at the river, at the dense green of the forest, or at the mountains.

Because sometimes I see the most beautiful things when I imagine what someone else is seeing. When I see that gleam in someone’s eyes, that look of surprise or revelation, that look that says about a thousand ideas and images are coming together in that person’s mind and forming some kind of truth. That look that gets passed on to each generation. That look that sees a certain amount of distance in front of it—a distance that seems too far to travel—and then moves on ahead. Right into it.

-Jose Padua