Love is everything that isn’t despair.
I am almost tempted to say this even
though I don’t believe it’s true because
there are so many things in-between.
A competition lost is sad but not quite
despair and doesn’t come anywhere
close to being love. But there’s something
about love that’s as beautiful as losing,
as essential as that failure, that falling
from which you stand up because there’s
a blackbird on a branch that that you need
a better look at. And I love these evenings
when it seems I’ve accomplished so little.
When we feel as if we’re lying back on
damp grass when we’re really indoors, sitting
on these creaky wooden chairs, inspired by
the sounds that escape every time we move.
Photograph by Jose Padua
The mix tape I made for myself in 1982
and can no longer find begins with
Luther Vandross singing “Never Too Much.”
I lost it in 1992 in New York.
Maybe I lent it to my painter friend, who’d
been painting in his studio in Dumbo listening
to Captain Beefheart and Earth, Wind & Fire
and wanted to try something different.
After all, inspiration is a variable thing,
and what one sees while listening to
That’s the Way of the World is different
from what one sees when Trout Mask Replica
is playing on the boombox in his studio.
We did a lot of drinking, then, of course.
I lived above the laundrymat on Avenue B
between 3rd and 4th streets. Sometimes junkies
would shoot up in the tiny foyer of my
building. Sometimes people would just
die on the street, some guy would collapse,
some beautiful woman would just stop
singing. Sometimes after smoking and
drinking I’d get to my fourth floor apartment
out of breath, thinking I could be dead too,
just another young fuck dying young,
then I’d sit down, turn on the stereo,
and listen, hearing something like “Jesus right
beside me, he never buys and he smokes.”
Maybe I heard it wrong, but those were
the words that stuck to me like the gum
on my shoe, that made me get up again
when I’d caught my breath and smiled
to myself, by myself, so high and lonesome.
Walking up a deserted Fifth Avenue
on a Sunday morning after staying up all
night, the music in my head was Sun Ra’s
“The Magic City” because I felt like
a black and white science fiction film
full of cold granite and gray skies.
Other cities had moments of silence,
but every moment of my life in New York City
had a soundtrack. Lou Reed was the mumbling
heat-seeking voice behind the junkies;
Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 18 was for
waking up unemployed on a Wednesday morning
just before the clock struck noon. Luther Vandross
played so many afternoons before I hit the bars
or met my friends. How many of them knew?
When I moved to New York I brought my paintings
with me but I never painted. I smoked cigarettes
and I wrote—about color, shape, and movement—
as I listened to my soundtrack, as I ate cheap
chicken and rice, washed my hands, splashed
water on my face, maybe ran a comb through
my hair, just once, that was enough. And I was always
by myself when I listened to Luther Vandross.
Sitting on the sofa in my apartment in the early evening,
waking up from whatever was missing during the day.
Stretching my arms, turning away from the window,
looking back toward the sink, as the sunlight seemed
to slide down the walls like liquid, when everything
would turn dark. I’d stand, light my cigarette,
open and close my door to walk down the dirty stairs,
and suddenly I wasn’t alone anymore.
Photograph (taken on Houston Street, August 2014) by Jose Padua
Posted in 3. Literature, 5. Music, Memoir, New York, Poetry
Tagged Captain Beefheart, Jose Padua, Lou Reed, lower east side, Luther Vandross, poem, Poetry, Sun Ra
If I were better at facilitating
meetings I might have something
resembling a career by now. If
I could pursue a lifestyle instead
of just being alive, my coworkers
might be more comfortable sitting
near me at lunchtime when I
open my brown bag and fill the air
with the aroma of cinnamon and
garlic. If I thrived in a fast-paced
work environment and excelled at
putting out metaphorical business
fires, I’d have an office with a
window looking out over the alley
behind the building, which is where
the rats play at night. If I could
troubleshoot like a feasibility study
conducted by creepily upbeat sub-
contractors, I’d have a parking space
and season tickets for every professional
sports team in town. If I could apply
the word ‘synergy’ in a sentence while
speaking with the boss and not laugh
hysterically and make it look like I’m
trying to help, I could be making millions
by now, but of course I’m not. You are.
And I am coming to take your verbs away.
Photograph by Jose Padua
At first it was just the summer of rock.
Every burger I ate was fast, every morning
had a beat, every hour out of school was
a guitar chord no one had ever heard before.
I was ten years old or eleven though I wished
I could be twenty-five. My blood felt like
it flowed through a wah-wah pedal, and
even all the strings and voices in Beethoven’s
ninth seemed to rock out until I went dizzy,
until I was spinning around and around,
digging my way to the center of the original
Earth. Jimi Hendrix was the real thing, and
The Doors were on the car radio too as we
rode across town with the voice of Jim Morrison,
wild and cool, but even then I thought he was
also just kind of a dick. I would have rather
hung out with the fat guy Billy Stewart
who sang a version of “Summertime and
the living is easy” and made this weird
beautiful bird sound with his lips that was
more than enough to show me what it meant
to get high when I was a child before he drove
off the road and died. And I learned I could run,
imagining I was an Olympic runner with his
hands held high at the finishing line even
when I was just running out of breath
because it was the summer when I discovered
how hard it was to breathe sometimes. Everyone
could take me when it came to running for
distance, but if it was a quick dash to the bus
stop, or across the street from the old burlesque
clubs on 14th Street in DC, I could beat anyone.
Like Professor Irwin Corey I was the world’s
foremost authority—of running fast for half
a minute. And back in school I could dance
in class for half a minute like James Brown,
holding up my arms, swiveling my grade school
hips like the cool guys and getting smiles from
all the girls. And there was a girl named Barbara
and a girl named Vanessa and a girl named Nancy
and a girl named Dolly, and these names all
sounded like abracadabra magic to me because
I was young then and the summer of rock
happened before I was old enough to really think
about this. Before I realized for the first time,
that no matter how fast I ran, or how long I danced
that chance could soon force me to leave it all
behind. Because at first it was the summer of rock,
and everyone I had ever loved was still alive
or else hadn’t been born yet. But it was also
another summer of war, the way just about
every summer is a summer of war. And with
so many dying young—looking into the battle
to feel its slimy heat, bite and gnaw on its grit
with their teeth and never coming back and
never telling anyone what it did to them—
I wondered what I’d do when I turned eighteen,
if I’d do anything, like stop trying to breathe,
just to be able to go the distance.
Photograph by Jose Padua
Posted in 3. Literature, 5. Music, Memoir, Poetry, Washington DC
Tagged Billy Stewart, Irwin Corey, James Brown, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Jose Padua, poem, Poetry, summer of rock, The Doors
Every evening is a train. The floor
is covered with toys, and every minute
of the day a moment to imagine how
colors begin, how sound arises from
solid objects, and how the dirt on our
hands is a dazzling thing, giving us
magical powers we need to wash away
before we sleep, before their odd shapes
twist and run off to corners and closets
to become nightmares that belong to
everyone. We are born into this world
an ocean floor, dry, but slowly filling
with water and tiny swimming creatures
that grow into blue whales and flying
fish, our feelings for everything nearly
all affection, borne upon the lightness
of our wings. We practice being green,
yellow, black, purple, red. We paint
things the color orange without worrying
if we’re getting it wrong because we
don’t understand the meaning of mistakes.
Tonight I will practice being all the things
I am not—the sound of a saxophone gliding
over the clanging of the cymbals, a picture
taken of the mist in the distant mountains
in the slow and solemn days before I arrived.
Photograph by Jose Padua
They stop to stare and gawk. I am not
impressed. The “badass truck” as one
kid proclaimed with a twang walking
by, his hair in his face as he considered
the flames painted on the hood. It’s been
parked there for months now, in our other
neighbor’s driveway, in the house where
the woman who lives there now used
to live with another man, Jed, who we
sort of liked after he finally spoke to us
after he and she and their two year old
boy spent their first three noisy months
there never looking us in the eye. It was
at Tharpe’s ice cream truck where we
finally spoke on a summer afternoon,
like, oh, yeah, we can talk to you too,
you’re not so strange is the way it must
have seemed for them and maybe even
for us too. Now Jed’s got another wife
or girlfriend, in some other part of town,
and he’s got the old kid, too, and he still
drops by from time to time and the woman’s
new boyfriend lives in the house now,
on and off when he isn’t in trouble, but
his truck is always there in the driveway.
People drive by slowly, point and whisper,
or speak of their emotions on seeing it as
if they were cold hard facts to accept and
that explained what’s magnificent on the
street, in the valley, in the world—words
like hydraulics and horsepower and other
terms in whose beauty I will never believe,
having no trust in, much less love of
loud, fast machines. And the woman
looks younger now than she did with Jed,
her hair combed in the morning, even when
the new boyfriend is gone; and when she
comes home, the bass sound pounding
from her car, she rolls the windows up
and turns it off. She stares straight ahead,
never looking at the truck as she opens
the door, and walks what must be several
hard steps toward her quiet, empty house.
Bob can eat anything, he has iron castanets.
Baby, you have the Swedish pussy.
And then we’re going to rub her back on Main Street.
I’m afraid we’ll have to put her out of her symmetry.
I could have been a bartender, I could have been
your buddy, my head on your rump, pass the ham.
I’d like to wake up Carl, at 7 am. Cramps.
You’re so plain, you probably sink like stones
in the fountain. Mashed potatoes, they’re so glam.
My name is enema, and this is the plan.
Cream soda for the lover in your flies.
Fuck! Charles Ives. And Jessica Tandy.
Bells and little nether inches. The creosote
leather instance of international time.
We weep for the lost thongs, on yonder golden shore.
Blue shadows stain the sliding room carpets.
Pale see-though blouses on prize-winning hogs.
Men and women and cuts of meat in tiny shoes.
Let it snow, then, between your thighs,
when the screaming lets out from this guy.
Yellow is the color of my true love’s spectacles.
Be at peace, my lazy river. My newborn swallow
in the medium distance of these blossoming trees,
oh my lucky cod. Oh my loosening pants. This
winter. With six yards of rain on the ground.
Photograph by Jose Padua
When not done properly a simple action can have incredible consequences:
sometimes I have to touch things twice, sometimes I have to close a door
with my eyes closed, sometimes I have to say “your tits are nice” to the man
who’s come to fix the toilet. He doesn’t seem to understand that I’m not really
talking about him. Though one time when a woman plumber came I managed
to say “I watched spectacular gymnastics on the Olympics last night” as my
eyes focused on her pliers. She gave me that look of perpetual ambiguity,
which meant that she thought I might be a liar but I wasn’t. I wear something
gray on Saturday, I can’t wear black on Monday or Friday, and when
I leave the house I have to think about Al Green. Sometimes he’s singing
“Let’s Stay Together” and the rest of the time I imagine he’s eating a plate
of spaghetti. I get tired, though, of feeling like I’m walking through these
woods in this rain, and I wish I could go at normal speed without interruption
but this is my mind’s idea of order. It’s a music that never rests: color, sound,
and rhythm stretched—a Shakespearian play about a king in ill health that’s
half comedy and half history with so many paths leading to so few possibilities.
Photograph by Jose Padua
When I gave the panhandler some spare change
he looked at me and said Thank You then he
looked at the person next to me and said
Thank You again. I was alone, at the time,
and this was thirty years ago, but ever since
that moment I’ve been waiting for the day
when I can see that other person beside me—
the person the panhandler said Thank You
to right after he thanked me. I know there
will be days ahead when I’ve taken a break
from knowing things. When things stop
coming to me and instead begin slipping away
like the sound of voices sliding through a city’s
blank spaces, or long goodbyes that never
seem to finish and never bring an end to things.
I think by then it will be good to see that person
no one else sees now. Because I’m sure that person
will have the answers to all the questions
I never get around to asking anymore. Like
where is there to go this early spring night as I
stand tilted in my winter coat against the wind?
The photograph was taken in Baltimore, MD by Jose Padua.
Walking down New Street in Staunton,
Heather, Maggie, Julien, and I are in a line,
and lurching toward us are three big guys
in big coats, big baggy pants, snapback hats
or do-rags on their heads, looking all tough
and serious, and the first one looks down
to Julien, who’s sitting back in his stroller
still sleepy from a nap, and says all bright
and cheery, “Hey, little man!” The next
guy passes right by me, looks me close
in the eyes like he’s examining the poker hand
he’s just been dealt and says quietly,
almost whispering, “Hey, playah,”
while the last guy looks over to me and
nods approvingly. And I have to ask Heather,
in case she wasn’t paying attention,
“Did you hear that? He called me a player!”
But she’s not impressed, and Maggie asks,
“What’s a player?” and we find ourselves
having to explain, in ways appropriate
for an eight year old girl, that some people,
in some places, are perceptive enough
to recognize, that in my own way, I am
a total badass. And we realize that
no matter how hard we try, we can’t think
of another word for “badass.” And just like
up north they don’t really have
a hundred different words for snow,
there’s no other word in English
that means everything “badass” means;
no other expression where you open your mouth
so widely, daring everyone who’s watching
to gaze into the length and breadth of your soul.
The photograph was taken in Staunton, Virginia earlier today by Jose Padua.