My Favorite Bartender in New York City

Photograph by Jose Padua
My favorite bartender in New York
wasn’t much for giving out free rounds
and if you drank all night and ended up
getting a single free drink thrown your
way you were having a pretty good night.
My favorite bartender in New York wasn’t
some hot young thing with a sexy foreign
accent but a woman in her 60s who’d say
“Nice to see youse guys” whenever I went
there with one or two of my friends and
“Nice to see youse” whenever I went there
alone. At the old Scorpio bar on Avenue A
you never saw anyone famous because
anyone who was a celebrity conveniently
seemed to go there only on the days
you didn’t so you could drink in peace
without distraction. If there was anything
on the jukebox more recent than Tony Bennett
singing “I Wanna Be Around to Pick Up
the Pieces” you knew better than to play it
more than once a night if you were a regular
and wanted to stay one. When the simple
neon sign in the plate-glass window was on
and the bar was open you knew the day wasn’t over
nor was your life no matter how fast it seemed
to be going in dangerous directions and whatever
needed to be said or heard could be said or heard
inside. I wish I could say that the day Sally
my favorite bartender in New York died
was when I quit drinking so much but it wasn’t.
That, like many other things, happened slowly
over years that were stretched and twisted into
lovely shapes like so much heavy bleeding,
and bred in different spaces more scattered
than all the beautiful mistakes and lucky errors
ever made by any man or woman and me on
the lower east side of Manhattan, New York, USA.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

I Dreamed You Paid Your Dues in Canada

Photograph by Jose Padua
Does Van Morrison drive and if he does
I wonder if he drives a mini-van?
I started driving a mini-van in 2005
when we thought we were going to have
another baby, but we didn’t have that baby
until 2010, and a mini-van is probably
the sort of vehicle you’d expect a man
like me with a wife, a daughter and
a son to drive. Twenty years ago, before
I left for New York, I drove a Dodge
Charger, just like Frank Booth, the wicked
character Dennis Hopper played in David
Lynch’s 1986 film Blue Velvet, and
before that I drove a red VW bug that
one night got smashed to bits by a
brown Pontiac when I parked it outside
the 9:30 Club in DC to see The Bush Tetras,
a band most people remember for the song
“Too Many Creeps” but which I remember
more for my car getting destroyed while
listening to them play that song live on stage.
That’s when I got my Frank Booth car.
And though Dennis Hopper once said
“I am Frank Booth” to David Lynch
and everyone believed him at least a little
bit, that’s not me, even though I did drive
a Frank Booth car for a number of years,
and even though sometimes, at parties,
I would do a Frank Booth-inspired dance,
jerking out my hands in what might be called
an anti-jazz hands move, when what I wished
I could have done was break out in song
with a voice like Van Morrison’s, singing
hush-a-bye don’t ever think about it,
and taking everyone by surprise like that
because it’s not something, it’s a thing
that people wouldn’t think me capable
of doing, just like when I was in fourth grade,
and while waiting in line at the water fountain
I suddenly broke out and danced like James Brown
(for half a minute) as I listened to the sound
of “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag (Part 1)”
playing in my head the way it sometimes did
in those days. It wasn’t what anyone expected
and it wasn’t even what I expected, especially
since I’m not James Brown and I’m not Frank
Booth or Dennis Hopper or Van Morrison and
I’ve never been mistaken for any of these people
and never been expected to do what they do or did,
because James Brown and Dennis Hopper are dead,
Van Morrison is alive, and Frank Booth never existed,
and I don’t know if Van Morrison is somewhere
right now, behind the wheel of his mini-van,
on the way back home from the grocery store
with a pork roast, a bag of frozen vegetables,
and a half-gallon of strawberry ice cream, but I am,
living my life among the trees and the two-story,
sometimes paint-peeling streets, and though I rarely
get to dance anymore I love these days spent like
leaves floating on low water, and the song that
plays in the background, filling my mind with vision.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

And I Walked Through the Market and Stared at the Harbor Lights Through the Soft Rain

Photograph by Jose Padua
Tonight the check-out clerk
at the Martin’s food market
who looks like Jimmie Dale Gilmore
at around the time
of the Spinning Around the Sun album
replied to my “Good, how are you?”
which was my response to his “Hi, how are you?”
with a half shake of his head
and a plainly drawled,
“Well, I guess it’s another day in paradise.”
It’s what he says every time,
probably not so much
because he thinks it’s a great line
that like a funny story is worth
hearing every day,
but because it’s something
he’d like to believe;
and every time he says it
I laugh,
not because I’m trying to be polite,
nor because I’m genuinely amused
at every instance
when he half slyly/half sarcastically
proclaims this to be paradise,
but because I too
would like to believe it.
And sometimes the best way
to express belief of any kind
is to laugh,
whether it’s intensely or hysterically
or so quietly that the only person
who can hear it is yourself—
ten minutes, an hour,
or several days later
when you’re sitting alone in the house
waiting for everyone to get home.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

A Brief Meditation on the Clouds That Hover Over the DNA Building in York, Pennsylvania

Photograph by Jose Padua
I always knew this was
where the instructions
were written;
it always felt
like a fever
when an illness was finally
lifting;
it’s just that
I was never sure
what the exact words were
whenever I looked up
to the sky reading
mist and vapor;
there was no
dictionary,
no brake to step on
or way to slow down
their subtle movements,
not that speed or
the lack thereof
would do anything
to change things—
not that in an entire lifetime
there was a single action
I could take
to overcome the odds
against me
in this continuing struggle,
and improve my ability to
comprehend clouds.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Hard-Boiled Fatherhood

Photograph by Maggie Padua
Whenever I think about fatherhood
I can’t help thinking that
each time I’ve become father to a child
I’ve managed to dodge that really hard
part at the beginning. If
I were the one who had to carry
a child and have it come out of me
I can tell you I’d be screaming in pain
like the most insane
motherfucker on the planet
on the day of its birth.
Fuck, I’ve seen photographs
of crime scenes
with less blood, less stress,
less sturm und drang
than a goddamn birthing room.
Still, who else but a mother
could challenge me when I take
on that tone of voice,
could tell me when I say that I’m suffering
that my suffering has only begun
and that my suffering ain’t shit
compared to what she’s gone through
and isn’t it about time I stopped
being such a bitch?
Endurance is a mother raising her child,
fatherhood is driving slowly in a fast car
when you’re an hour late and
a loud song that makes you want to pump your fist
then play air guitar
is playing on the fucking radio.
You keep your hands on the wheel
even though your kid’s in the back
screaming and ready to puke
and has a diaper that stinks and needs changing
and you keep your eyes on the road
even though you need to piss
like right now
like a whiny asshole with a tiny bladder
because the asphalt is hot in the summer,
and cold in the winter,
and you’re driving into the kind of sunset
you never see anymore except
in old black and white movies.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Maggie Padua

A Slightly Hard-Boiled History of my Life as it Moves Slowly away from Cities

Jose Padua and Heather Davis in Chicago
It was the summer of 1996. I’d just gotten the money from my discrimination settlement, so Heather and I celebrated by meeting in the great city of Chicago when her two week residency at Ragdale artist’s colony, about thirty miles north, was finishing up. We stayed at the old Ambassador East hotel in Chicago’s Gold Coast district. It was a much fancier place than the motel where we’d stayed a couple of months earlier.

That motel was near Harrisburg, PA, where we’d gone to attend a wedding. Heather had booked it from DC by phone, and when we got to Harrisburg, it wasn’t all that hard to find because it had an easily recognizable landmark right in front of it—a graveyard. When the motel owner took us to our room, he sprayed Lysol in the air before letting us enter. Looking out for our health and safety, he was killing germs and freshening up the place. We thanked him, then looked over to the bed, which sagged so deeply in the middle that if it could hold water it would make a decent sized kiddie pool.

While we were in Chicago we did a lot of the usual tourist things. First was the elevator ride to the top of the Hancock building and to the Signature Lounge on the 96th floor where we took big gulps of our mixed drinks, looked out of the floor to ceiling windows, then had to catch our breath because you can’t look out of a window that high without imagining that you’re about to fall. Well, anyone with any kind of imagination. We also went uptown to the Green Mill, which where the poetry slam first got big.

It was at a poetry slam in DC at the old 15 Minutes Club where Heather and I first crossed paths in January of 1994. I was onstage, drunk, reading poetry, having just gotten back to DC after leaving New York. Having failed at my practical ways of making money, I was now reduced to impractical ways, which was why I ventured to do a slam, the winner of which received thirty or forty tax-free dollars. It was here at the 15 Minutes Club where I got to know a good number of poets—Silvana Straw, Jeffrey McDaniel, Joel Dias-Porter, Kenny Carroll, Brian Gilmore, Andy Fenwick. Twenty years later, some of us had a reunion reading at the Dance Place. Of course, a lot of things happened during that time in between.

A few years after Heather and I got together, I pretty much stopped writing. I’d quit drinking to an insane degree, quit smoking, worked a couple of straight, full-time jobs, and even, at various times, had an active membership at a gym. I was, in other words, being content, and trying to remain healthy—two things which, at the time, poetry did not help me achieve.

By the time Maggie was born in 2003, Heather wasn’t writing all that much either, but it was then that we decided we should get serious about writing again. We wanted to leave something for them other than fucking money, which was all gone by then anyway. Something with real substance but which can’t be so easily taken away or spent. Yeah, we wanted to leave a legacy of words from which they might draw whenever the need came around. Or whenever they needed inspiration.

Heather published her first book of poems, The Lost Tribe of Us–which won the Main Street Rag poetry prize–in 2007. That was when, after eight or nine years when I hardly did a thing, and after moving here to the Shenandoah Valley, I started writing every day again. I’ve probably written around four or five hundred poems and short essays since then. Somehow, after the crazy years of drinking and chain smoking, poetry became something that helped me survive. Maybe it was all along—it just that before Heather and then Maggie and Julien came along, survival kind of bored me. Because for a lot of us, when we were young, survival wasn’t the most compelling of subjects. Indeed, if it were a class in school, it’s the class I would have skipped the most, and then gone off to pursue other interests.

This photograph of Heather and me was taken by the man who waited on us at the Pump Room, the restaurant that was on the ground floor of the Ambassador East in Chicago. It was one of those fancy restaurants with pictures of celebrities lining the walls and entrees that cost something like thirty/forty dollars, which was way more than either of us had ever paid for a meal. Even though I’d just gotten that nice chunk of money from my legal settlement, we weren’t about to pay that much, so we made our visit to the Pump Room during breakfast for a much more moderately priced meal. From there, it was off to O’Hare for a flight back to DC. Then, in a couple of years, we got married, then had kids, then moved farther and farther away from the city.

The city was what I knew best. Whether it was DC, where I grew up, New York, where I lived for a number of years, or even a place like Chicago, which I only visited—a city was what I knew and what I understood. Now, after living outside of them for these years, I’m not so sure. And I’m not so sure that it’s a bad thing. But that’s a function of time. And sometimes, I think that the greatest function–and greatest benefit of time, along with aging–is to take one away from what one knows best.

As for illustration of time’s inescapable function of aging, I can look at this picture. One immediate but trivial thought that comes to mind is that we’re not quite as pretty as we were so many years ago. But then, as I’ve said before, Fuck Pretty. Because we’re fucking beautiful. Pretty is for kids—at least until they learn that pretty is mostly a load of bullshit. That pretty is OK if it happens, but it’s nothing worth pursuing. Of course, some kids never learn that, do they?

-Jose Padua

First published in Vox Populi. The photograph of Jose Padua and Heather Davis was taken in Chicago in 1996.

A Poem for Jimi Hendrix and All the Superheroes of My Youth Who Lacked the Power to Live Forever

Photograph by Jose Padua
When I was a child
considering the hierarchy
of superheroes
I wondered why
when they got to Superman
all the other creators
of superheroes
didn’t just quit.
After all,
except for the kryptonite,
Superman was invincible,
so what was the point of
the Fantastic Four,
for example,
each possessing a single superpower,
and as for Batman
who didn’t have
even one superpower
what the hell was the deal
with that?
Of course when I got older
I realized
that what was really interesting
wasn’t what they could do
but what they couldn’t do,
and what moved me
the most wasn’t
what some fictional superhero could do
but what a real person could do
that I wished I could do too—
like play electric guitar with my teeth
then make it sound
like an airplane,
then a machine gun,
then a breeze
when all that’s left
after the sun goes
down is the sound
of the wind carving
its invisible path
through late summer trees.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

A Brief Reflection on the Passage of Time As Seen Through an Old Burn Mark on My Skin

Photograph by Jose Padua
More than twenty years later I still have
the slight trace of a brown burn mark
on my left forearm from when I was
at the stove in my lower east side apartment
holding with a fork in my right hand
the pork chop I got on sale at Key Foods
on the corner of Avenue A and Fourth
and which slipped off the tines into the hot oil
that splattered all over my lowered arm.
I cursed and screamed and kicked
the television that was on the floor
next to the oven and I began to feel better
then kicked the television again
because it was a good way to focus
on something other than the pain I was feeling
and besides the television was already broken,
I just hadn’t bothered to take it down to the curb
or wherever it was you were supposed leave
your useless old machines in New York City.
After the burn and the pain came several seasons
when all I had was the radio and nothing
to watch The Tonight Show with or the news
or sports which I was starting to lose interest in anyway,
and whenever I needed to see what the weather
was like I looked out the window,
opened it a crack to feel the air that came in,
which always made me want to open it all the way
and stick my head out and maybe sometimes
go ahead and take the fast way down to the street,
and I listened to the radio during the first war
in the Persian Gulf and during the uprising in LA
after a gang of cops tried to bash Rodney King’s head in,
listening to the stories and hearing the sounds
of wars and riots and listening for but never hearing
the easy silence that surrounded whoever
was in charge saying who should be shot,
who should be hung or electrocuted
or else made to work until his or her fingers started to bleed;
and I had to imagine what everything looked like,
picturing in my mind who was hurt and who was killed,
pondering what would be left when it was all over
and feeling something less like confidence
and more like despair that anything could ever change
here in America or anyplace America touched.
And whenever I look at the brown burn on my arm
I think about both evil dictator and elder statesman;
I think about the guys who carry the guns
and for whom the law is like an insurance policy
they carry in their wallets ready to flash
whenever somebody needs to be reminded that
the laws were written to protect not us but them.
I think of all the immortal conflicts they bring
upon us, each of them feeding their great hunger
in nearly the same way I feed my own
but on an epic scale while rarely ever getting burned
during the long, slow process of living.
And I am reminded that too often in life
it’s the person who’s the biggest asshole who wins,
pushing aside what’s left of our bones to clear his way
from the unbearable heat of a dangerous summer
and all the other seasons of discord and urgency
to the comfort of everything that’s not beautiful but cool,
falling asleep in front of the giant TV screen,
snoring loudly then breathing deeply,
unable to be moved.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

One Night at the Nuyorican

Photograph by Jose Padua
One night at the Nuyorican I opened the bathroom
door to see a poet whose work I didn’t like
standing bare-assed, ass side facing me, while her left hand
was moving downward mid-wipe. Now I know there are
people who hide out in port-a-potties to see this sort
of thing, and I know that singer GG Allin, who
overdosed across the street from my apartment in

New York one night, had a strange appreciation for
fecal matter, and although I’m certainly weird I’m
not that weird, and the reality is that no one
looks good bent over the toilet and wiping, and I
have no idea why her ass was facing away
from the toilet while she wiped, and I can’t
say that I’m at all curious about this, and if

somehow you knew why and were to try to tell me
I probably wouldn’t believe you anyway and
my opinion of you would diminish so swiftly
you’d swear I’d just smacked you in the face. I’d seen some
horrible things in my New York days, and her “jazz”
poetry and her “in-the-moment” performances
were two of them, but the only thing I can say I

wished I’d never experienced was the sight of her
wiping her ass. Maybe if I’d liked her work my
reaction would have been different. Maybe I would
have remembered a line from one of her poems. Maybe
I would have gone right home, picked up one of her books and
just read madly and uncontrollably for the rest
of the night. Maybe I would have jumped up, raised my arms

in celebration and declared I’ve seen Judy Woolworth
wiping her ass
, or I have been blessed or Is there no
one here to challenge me?
Judy Woolworth, of course, was
not this poet’s real name. I do not and have never
had any of her books. I don’t remember if she
used my name when she turned toward the open bathroom
door and said “Sorry, Jose, I’ll be out in a minute”

or just “Sorry, I’ll be out in a minute” without any
name, which would mean, perhaps, that she didn’t know
it was me. And maybe, for that matter, she didn’t like
my work. I never told her that her readings made me cringe—
we never spoke about these things—I never asked her, “Did
you know it was me who saw you wiping your ass at
the Nuyorican the other night?” These were the days when

New York was taller and the rest of the world seemed farther
away, and a few days after I saw Judy Woolworth’s ass
was when I spent a quiet night at home while GG Allin,
whose shows I never saw and never wanted to see, deep
fried his fucked up ass so close to where I was that I
probably heard the same sounds he did—the car alarms,
the drunks arguing on the corner—before everything went blank.

-Jose Padua

First published in The New Guard, Volume III, 2013.

Elegy for the American Dream on a Warm Summer’s Day

Photograph by Jose Padua
Walking out for lunch
with my family
in my old city neighborhood
the woman coming our way
using a black umbrella
as a parasol on this warm sunny day
is the mother of Henry,
the kid who grew up on my street—
a dwarf just under four feet
who had good years
and bad years and
who when he was on the run
for going up Georgia Avenue one evening
and shooting a man to death ,
a man who may or may not
have said something about
his size and heritage,
was described in news alerts as
a “possible Hispanic adult midget,”
as if that was all that was
you needed to know about my neighbor’s life
here in the city.
And the woman with the black parasol,
her son in prison
for thirty-five years,
greets us warmly as she smiles
like a subtle rise from the wind,
and remembers me from the old days,
the kid whose house she’d walk by
on the way to the bus stop
or church or the corner store,
wherever it was you went in those days
when we lived near each other
in this beautiful city
and didn’t have far to go.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua