Category Archives: 3. Literature

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

The Angel Of 11th Street

Photo by Jose Padua
At the end of another drunken week
of beer and whiskey and wine
I walked home
and on the street I met a woman
who bummed a cigarette from me
and offered a piece of candy in return.
She told me she was heading
to 11th Street by St. Mark’s Church
to make money by giving guys blow jobs.
She was young and beautiful and spoke
in tones of the brightest white light,
and I wished her luck, said goodbye
and walked away.

And I’ve seen people hit by cars
and people OD’ing on the street
as crowds gathered to watch,
and I’ve seen people staring
into space at nothing
because there was nothing left to see
that didn’t make them sad or mad or weary,
and I’ve seen men and women
step from the doorways of buildings
where their friends or lovers live,
each parting a necessary loss
when the only thing left to be
is alone.

And as the days go by
what you remember most
is the distance between things,
the endings of great moments and pleasures,
and as you walk
in the sharp eye of the midday sun
or beneath the cum-colored shining
of a crescent moon
the weather is always
the same.

And tonight
The Angel Of 11th Street
is standing on a corner
selling blow jobs and buying candy
to keep the devil at arms’ length
and heaven close to the steady beating
of her untainted heart.

-Jose Padua

Words and Letters

Photograph by Jose Padu
When I was in first grade
I hated the box of little
cardboard squares
with the letters printed
on them, because
whenever they took it
out and put it on the
desk in front of me
I knew it meant they
wanted me to take
the letters and make
words with them
and I hated making
words with letters,
why, I wondered,
would they not just
let me speak? That
box is long gone
and the letters in it
decayed, disintegrated,
dissolved into dust,
and now, fifty years
later, I am a grown
man who cannot be
told to make words,
which means that
in writing a poem
I’m fulfilling neither
duty nor obligation
but rather am committing
my daily act of revenge.

-Jose Padua

Photograph (Route 11 in Roanoke, VA) by Jose Padua

A Brief History of Empire As Presented by Focusing on a Few Moments at the Old Holiday Cocktail Lounge and a Pop Song from 1992

Photo by Jose Padua
I love how the 1990s were like that.
Beginning with a war and ending with an innocence,
or maybe it was the other way around.
Days that went by like speed,
with sorrow filling out all the weeks
that went too slowly
to feel like anything else.
Subway trains and buses and taxis
rushing like blood through the boroughs
carrying ideas and overdoses,
rolling over anything that dared to stand still and holler,
at a time when I was a young man
without envy
and full of patience.
And I was an early evening drinker
sitting at the bar at the Holiday Cocktail Lounge
on St. Marks Place
when I went to the restroom,
and when I got back to the bar,
“Damn, Wish I Was Your Lover”
was playing on the jukebox.
It wasn’t even on there
before I went to the bathroom,
and it had only been released
by Columbia Records
ten minutes earlier but
there it was,
coming out of the speakers right after
Joey the Ex dropped a quarter in the slot.
I looked and looked then figured out
that it had replaced Neil Young’s
“Only Love Can Break Your Heart,”
which made me mad,
but then I started listening
and suddenly there was a history,
a girlfriend with whom I used to listen
to that song and who told me
I was the first person she thought of
when she first heard it,
and I felt sad because we’d broken up
and I missed her.
And it wasn’t just me,
because everyone in the bar
now had a history with this song.
The gray-haired woman tending bar
knew the lyrics by heart.
The old Polish guy
sitting next to me started tearing up
and grabbed a napkin to wipe his nose,
while the kid with the red bandana wrapped around
his shiny black hair
and who was playing pool
stood back from the table,
and closed his eyes for a half second
that seemed to last forever,
while a woman with pink hair
and horror film lipstick
felt a sudden switch flip
when she exhaled that
last drag from her cigarette
and thought nothing
but words that were so fucking earnest
and slid down from her stool
in a way that was
so goddamn slow.
And I was a young man
full of envy who
couldn’t wait to escape my skin,
wishing to know everything
the city could tell me
and feeling it in the bent straw
I stepped on with the flat
of my shoe,
and through the vast determined stretch
of empire that attempts to pull
everything in its path
up into its warm
and loving embrace.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Kids, Don’t Follow

Photograph by Jose Padua

Kids, don’t follow stars, don’t follow
wise men or women. Don’t follow the
folds on a woman’s forehead
or the muscles on a strong man’s arm.
Don’t follow those who are faster than flies,
don’t follow those who are slower
than extinct flightless birds. Don’t follow
the classmate who has all the answers
without having to even read the book,
don’t follow the girl who sits in the corner
staring at the table covered with dead flowers
left over from a stranger’s wedding. Don’t wish
for the great wealth of successful businessmen,
don’t sit and do nothing because you’re drunk
and listening to the ticking of a clock when
your house is on fire. Don’t follow the guides
you find in paperback books with the sort
of glossy covers you used to find
on old porn magazines, don’t follow
the people who tell you not to.
Don’t follow the roads that have
already been paved for you, don’t follow
the damp grass and dirt that surrounds them,
especially if you live in a fucking swamp.
Don’t follow those who are too eager
to set you straight, don’t follow those
who scratch their chins and feel their nipples
when you ask for help jump starting your car.
And of course don’t follow heroes
with automatic weapons, don’t follow anti-heroes
with baby grand pianos. Don’t follow angels
with white feather wings who fly through clouds
with wide beatific smiles on their faces,
don’t drink straight from the milk carton,
for Christ’s sake get a cup. Above all,
and above this, do not follow unsolicited advice.
Ignore those who say they know what’s going on.
Do not listen to them, or to me, or to this,
kids. Just remember that what you’re
reading, or hearing, right now, is a poem,
and that this poem is changing your life.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

If Poets Were Like Porn Stars

Photo by Jose Padua
If poets were like
porn stars what
would it take
to fluff us up,
to get us ready
to perform, place
word after word,
then plunge down
to the next line,
or sometimes just
keep going, over
and over, pushing
forth into the blank
white space of the page,
moaning and moaning,
screaming the beautiful
words of this discerning
art we compose with
heart, mind, and tongue?
With tragedy, loss,
injustice, the many colors
of the morning sky, or
the plain image, that
solitary figure against
the black background
of an evening silhouette
or shadow to move us,
can the industry of poetry
ever really be in peril?
Can a poet ever do
anything but walk
off into the sunset,
glowing over the
landscape, losing it all,
losing it everywhere,
our lives so exquisitely
lovely, so exquisitely
lost?

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

What I Keep Coming Back To

Photo by Jose Padua
One of my fondest memories
of my mother is this—
seeing her on the corner of Mt. Pleasant
and Hobart when I’d caught up
with her and my dad
after I’d gone back to the house
to get my warm coat,
then watching her lean forward,
tilted like a bell about to ring,
to shake hands with the man
who always panhandled there.
I have lived so many years
now in other places
and spent so many days thinking
of all the right things to say
but what I keep coming back to
is this—
the way she lifted
her arm without hesitation
on that cool, clear morning;
shaking the old man’s hand
just the same
as if she were greeting
a president or a queen.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

September Song

Photo by Jose Padua
When I was a kid in grade school
the teacher once made us repeat after her,
“The key to success is hard work.”
Years later, in college, another teacher told us,
“You have to work hard to get an A
and you have to work hard to get an F.”
One thing they never told you
was that sometimes you could make it
without any effort at all.
This you had to learn on your own.
And though it’s true
that most of the time
you have to slave away
to get anywhere,
the most beautiful moments
are those when you find yourself
in the right place at the right time,
or when, after doing something easy,
you find yourself suddenly
on top of the mountain.

It’s like when you’re at the racetrack
and you forget about the jockey,
the odds and past performance
and bet big on a horse
because you like its name,
and you go home with a hundred dollars
you didn’t have that morning.
It’s like wandering the streets aimlessly,
looking for nothing,
just walking like a zombie,
when you run into a friend
and end up drinking and laughing,
ready once again to look
at the world that surrounds you.

It’s the beauty of the moment
that comes alive without artifice,
the beauty of the mountain
that is built without industry
without business,
without blueprints and guidelines
and a right way
and a wrong way.

It’s the beauty of being human,
of not always making sense,
the beauty of falling and getting up
not because there are things to do,
but simply because you have fallen
too deeply into the realm of the possible,
and it’s time to do
what you were told
you couldn’t do
and you do it effortlessly
and easily high
and wide
and running on these
still golden days.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua