Every day my daughter worries when what she thinks are weird thoughts enter her head; I worry when what I know are weird thoughts don’t enter mine. When the beautiful confusion of dreams becomes a stranger to my waking hours I start to panic. All the wrong objects collide in my mind, the corners of my brain that should be speaking turn silent, and all the solemn points of contemplation and vision are filled with noise and corruption. I tell my daughter that everything that isn’t at least a little peculiar is also boring, that any thought that doesn’t also make us worry probably isn’t worth thinking about. Then I add this: stay away from people who are happy all the time, chances are they’re on the wrong medication. The people who are truly interesting are as interesting in a fast car as they are in a bare room with just a pitcher of water and two plastic cups—just keep drinking and stay out of the car. The secret life of people like us is a history of crazy moments that wake us, the serene stillness that follows them, and the sometimes slow, sometimes quick work afterwards that leads to wisdom. When my daughter gets out of the car in the morning to go to school she always asks, “Will I do anything weird? Will I say anything weird?” and I always say “No.” But the day will come when I can say, “Yes, you will do something weird, and the wiser ones among us will appreciate it and remember it,” and we go home and pour our coffee, hers decaffeinated, into stained porcelain cups, add a lot of cream and a lot of sugar as we warm ourselves from the inside out, all caught up in the joy and comfort of our perilous thoughts.
Sometime in the 70’s disco came on the scene. The songs were long and repetitious with lyrics which, more often than not, were either sappy or stupid or both. To say that you liked disco was to say you weren’t cool. And if on hearing the phrase “Disco sucks,” you didn’t at least nod your head slightly or come back with a hearty “Right On” (an expression that was on its last legs when disco came around), then people would give you a funny look. It was the sort of look a communist sympathizer would get in the 50’s during the McCarthy era.
Now, of course, disco is considered rather cool, if only for nostalgic reasons or as an example of 70’s kitsch. Now it’s all right to admit, even in the hippest circles, that you like disco. Now it’s even all right to admit that as a teenager growing up in the 70’s, you had a good time. I know now that I had a good time back then. It’s just that in the 70’s I didn’t know what a good time was.
I was attending the local Jesuit high school then—Gonzaga College High School as it was properly called. I’d gotten there at a time when the Jesuits—who were known for the rigors of their educational system—had loosened up a bit. Thus, while the whole concept of the “me decade” was gathering steam, the Jesuits rebelled by belatedly getting into the hip spirit of the 60’s.
Admittedly, some of their attempts at being hip were somewhat embarrassing, as when one teacher presented to our class the liner notes to Grand Funk Railroad’s Closer To Home. “They are three who belong to the New Culture setting forth on its final voyage through a dying world…” he quoted, “searching to find a way to bring us all CLOSER TO HOME.” It was an attempt by the Jesuits to use contemporary culture as a way of getting us interested in the classics: “Now compare the concept of Grand Funk’s voyage to Odysseus’s own journey home…” he said, “I think you’ll be surprised by the similarities.”
Those of us in my small circle of hip friends all looked at each other and snickered, “Oh cool, heh heh heh…” Still, we appreciated that he didn’t try to find classical references in some disco song, because that would have been completely uncool. We stayed away from disco, preferring to find our classical references in things like The Mothers Of Invention’s We’re Only In It For The Money, Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica, and The Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat.
We played these records and got drunk and nasty with our drunk and nasty girlfriends—the kind of girls who, on meeting your parents, would offer them a beer or a cigarette as a way of breaking the ice. We were what people called “shirkers” or “slackers,” which was a nice way of saying that we were fuck-ups.
But we were smart fuck-ups, with an odd assortment of quirks and obsessions, none of which had anything to do with high school or matters kids of that age are supposed to be concerned with—because we had our own concerns. We drank to excess and wandered around Georgetown, got stoned and caught double features at the old Circle Theater, dropped acid and hung out in the sculpture garden at the Hirshhorn: we needed that “edge” to enjoy ourselves. And in school when we were assigned books like A Separate Peace or Lord Of The Flies—books that were supposed to pique the interest of our young minds—we summarily ignored our assigned reading and turned to books like Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, Naked Lunch, and On The Road.
But while my friends were getting bad grades or were on the verge of flunking out, I was doing well, especially in math and science. I had a knack for these things—it didn’t take any real effort on my part. And in the summer between my junior and senior year, I went to the University of Georgia to study chemistry on a National Science Foundation grant. They set me up in a lab in the pharmacy school, no less, leaving me to work on my own. So when I was done each day with my assigned experiments I got to work learning how to make my own LSD. By the end of the summer I had it, in the form of an entire gallon of what we called “sugar water.”
Back in Washington my friends and I began taking a lot of it—it was good stuff. But sometimes I was the only one taking any, and it was on one of these occasions, while turning the dial on my girlfriend’s car radio from station to station, that I first heard the song. It began with a chunky bass line, a snapping of the high hat, and a vampish piano. And then the words—bold words, daring words—words which, while I was high on acid, seemed to speak to my soul. And the words were:
Fly robin fly Fly robin fly Fly robin fly UP UP TO THE SKY!
And with the line “Up up to the sky” I took off. I was up there, in the sky. I was a fucking bird, a robin, flying over Washington, over the monuments, over the Potomac river, going who knows where. Eventually I reached another city—I hoped it would be Paris or London—but it turned out to be Baltimore. Still, this was the best trip I’d ever had.
A week later I heard the song again over the sound system at the Post Cafeteria across the street from Gonzaga. Though I was completely straight this time I still liked it, loved it even. I thought that this song by The Silver Convention, “Fly Robin Fly,” was the coolest thing I’d ever heard. And not only was it cool, it was also, to use a word which I’d never before ascribed to anything in my life, beautiful.
I immediately went out and bought the record—the twelve inch Disco Night In Purgatory mix. This version went on forever, building up slowly with the girls singing “fly robin fly” about a hundred times before finally taking off with that orgasmic “Up up to the sky!”
My friends thought I’d lost my mind—a teenage acid casualty. My girlfriend thought I was joking at first, but when she realized I was serious about liking this song she was not amused. If I actually liked that song what was next, she wondered. Going to football games? Church? The Senior prom?
Well, it wasn’t long before I stopped seeing her and my other friends. I suppose that in the back of my mind I felt my old crowd was holding me back; and though it would bean exaggeration to say that “Fly Robin Fly” was what moved me away from them, this song was, at the very least, a catalyst for this departure.
Soon I was hanging out with the straight crowd, the kids the teachers liked, the kids who were supposed to be going places. I ended up doing all the typical high school activities. I joined the science club, the math club, the military strategy club; I got a part in the school play; I even went to the senior prom where the band played my song, the song that had inadvertently given me what my teenage spirit was looking for—namely, a sense of direction.
My old crowd I now considered unsafe or, at best, a dead end. But there were things about the good kids that bothered me too, and what bothered me most was that they didn’t seem to have a proper sense of doubt about themselves, which was perhaps the very reason they were going places. Me, I had a different approach to moving ahead. I wanted to move ahead with my sense of doubt intact. It seemed, at that time when a strange sense of idealism was creeping upon me, to be a more honest approach.
Towards the end of senior year my new friends and I had all been accepted at some of the best schools—Harvard, Yale, MIT. I was accepted at Cal Tech, which gave me a full tuition scholarship, room and board, even travel expenses. It wouldn’t cost me a dime to go there, to sunny Pasadena, California with its palm trees and leggy blonde California girls. But now that I saw myself on a path to success and well-being, I realized that these were two things I was ill equipped to handle. After all, how on earth could a freaked out loser like me turn himself around and become some sort of a big wheel or one of the mover and shaker types? It could happen, I knew, but I also believed it would be unnatural and that success, for me, would be nothing more than a surface affectation, an act, a scam. Because although there were many things I’d believed in since I was a child—things like ghosts, UFOs, mental telepathy, and the lost continent of Atlantis—one thing I’d never believed in was the so-called American Dream.
Hence, I turned down the scholarship. I went to college in town—to Catholic University—a school where I’d have to pay my own way through. I turned away from science and math and studied English literature instead, which was something I was interested in but had no great talent for. In doing this I thought I was guaranteeing that I’d never become a success.
There’s not much to say about my college years. Although it was a time spent mostly with the straight crowd, I still managed to avoid things like fraternities, school sporting events, and homecoming. I also tended to avoid the campus Rathskeller, preferring to do my drinking at Fred’s, one of the bars in the local Brookland neighborhood near Catholic. When I did, through some odd circumstance, find myself at the Rathskeller my friends would put songs like “We Are Family” or “Disco Inferno” on the jukebox, songs I actually liked. But I kept to myself that I also liked bands such as The Sex Pistols, The Ramones, and Joy Division. Instead, I’d bring up the subject of “Fly Robin Fly.” “It’s kind of stupid,” I’d say, “but also kind of catchy.” “Yeah,” they’d answer with a shrug, “it’s okay.” And then I’d go off to Fred’s to drink by myself.
A couple of weeks after graduating from college I got a job driving a car out to some people in San Mateo, California, just south of San Francisco. It was a silver Mercedes Benz with power windows, cruise control, sun roof—the works. After dropping it off and getting paid, I went up to San Francisco and stayed with a girl I’d known from my high school days—someone from my old crowd. She’d moved out there a year earlier and was now, to my surprise, preparing to go to law school. She was the only person from my old crowd that I’d stayed in touch with. That I’d stayed in touch with her had to do, I suppose, with the fact that I’d always secretly had a thing for her. And I also suppose that the reason I took the job driving the car out west was not so much to escape Washington but to see her.
So there I was, in San Francisco, three thousand miles away from Washington, and things were going well. She and I got close very quickly. I was with her for a month, at the end of which I left town. And though I could say that I left because the sense of well-being that had come over me out there was beginning to frighten me somehow—that I still didn’t think I could handle success in any form—the real reason for my leaving was that she’d decided, after a day of heavy reflection, that I really wasn’t the sort of person she should be with. After all, she was going to law school in the fall, and I was someone who just liked to go out and get drunk, someone without any real plans for the future, someone without a dream.
I took the bus to Los Angeles and checked into a cheap hotel. I’d been there for two days when one afternoon I went to Pasadena and saw the Cal Tech campus. The next day I was on the bus again, making my way slowly back to Washington.
It was a long, depressing ride and somewhere in Texas—I think in the town of Fort Stockton—we had a one hour dinner stop. There was a diner in the bus station there, but I went next door to the local convenience store and got one of those small apple pies and a can of beer. I stood outside, ate the pie, then started on the beer. I was beginning to feel nauseous when a young guy who’d been on the bus came out of the diner carrying his boom box with him. He nonchalantly brushed back his hair, pressed a button on the boom box, then set it down on the ground. To my amazement it began to blast “Fly Robin Fly.” As the guy listened to the song he started practicing his disco dance moves, shifting his feet and making these swirling motions with his index fingers.
It was a hideous sight and that song, which I had enjoyed so much in the past, now seemed equally hideous. Because just as Circe had turned Odysseus’s men into beasts, “Fly Robin Fly” had transformed me into a creature of ambition at a time when I wasn’t at all prepared for it, leaving me here, standing by the roadside in some two-story Texas town ready for a pointless confrontation with an itinerant disco punk.
“Turn that shit down!” I yelled at him.
He looked over to me and sneered. “Who are you to tell me what to do?”
“Just turn the fucking thing down,” I yelled again, sneering back at him.
I’d been on the bus some twenty-four hours, while he’d only gotten on at the last stop. I was unwashed and unshaven. I was angry and disgusted. It must have made me look pretty tough. He turned the music down.
I finished my beer, then got on the bus and sat back, waiting for the ride to continue.
[Originally written at the request of Gillian McCain for the St. Mark’s Poetry Project’s reading Epiphany Albums: The Record That Changed My Life, in 1992.]
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 original Earth.
Jimi Hendrix was the real thing,
and The Doors were on the car radio too,
and 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
somewhere in North Carolina.
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 all 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 bloody 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.
I have never had what anyone in his or her right mind would call a bitchin’ bod. I have never been what anyone who wasn’t incredibly drunk would refer to as a hunk or grand specimen of American manhood, because like the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow my status as simply specimen is rarely debated in the country of my birth. Though I have consumed many a six pack over the years, I have never had six pack abs, and of course the reason for that may have something to do with all the six packs I drank and is, I think, the subject of several other poems—no, not this one. The only time I ever had sexy buns was for eight hours one Saturday night when I lived in New York and had purchased pork buns from Chinatown, but somehow wasn’t hungry by the time I got them home. I was asleep for most of those hours, and it was the middle of a Lower East Side winter and the heat in my apartment that night was up so high, after being completely out for a week, that I couldn’t help but feel sexy, knowing I had pork buns in my tiny fridge. But like a tree falling in the forest when there’s no one there to hear it, there was no one for me to talk to, no one to see my chest, expanding and contracting, breathing in warm Manhattan air, then breathing it out—no landlord, who went home after getting the heat fixed, gathering his rent checks like drug money; no drunks drinking next to me; no addicts shooting up in the hallway; no partyers partying anywhere near me, not even at Save the Robots, the afterhours joint down the street from me; indeed, with everyone in the universe but my landlord seemingly unaware of my warmth, can that really be called sexy? I had a dream that night, which I’ve long since forgotten, and a job, from which I was laid off the following spring; yet I was alive, in love with the world, and making incredible sound.
These past two weeks whenever I walk by the magazine rack
at the supermarket down the street I’ve noticed that there’s always
a magazine that’s been flipped over so the ad on the back is displayed
and not the cover on which, when I first turned it around, was a photograph
of model Kate Upton revealing a generous amount of cleavage on the cover
of what turned out to be the October issue of Vanity Fair and I gathered
that the person or persons who keep turning the magazine over face down
are one of the many folks in this small conservative town who are probably
scandalized, outraged, offended by so much exposed flesh. Me, I’m not bothered
by it at all, because to me flesh is something divine and mystical and whatever
reminds me of this is never offensive and never indecent, and even if you
think it immodest I find other things much more disturbing in the grand scheme
of living in cities or villages, towns or country roads, or hidden clearings
in unmapped and unknown forests on a planet with over seven billion
other human beings, so last night, after turning the magazine over, cleavage side up,
I walked down to the next rack of magazines to where a stack of Guns & Ammo: “The World’s Most Widely Read Firearms Magazine” was displayed, and I turned
the magazine over only to find that on the back cover, unlike Vanity Fair—where
there was an ad for perfume—was an ad featuring more pictures of guns and rifles
and automatic weapons, so I found a nearby copy of Field and Stream, which just had
a picture of a moose on the cover, and I put that on top of the pile of Guns & Ammo
only to see that next to it was a stack of Guns magazine (just guns, no ammo), and
next to that a stack of Handguns magazine, and figuring that the moose on the cover
of Field & Stream probably got shot right after the photo was taken, I decided to just
give up on this sad protest, and I got in line to pay for my baby wipes and brown rice
and yogurt in a world where too many people believe in the divinity of guns and
the indignity of cleavage and breasts and flesh and goddamn true love and all the
other things that keep us alive without killing something else first.
Be still like a knife on the table after late dinner with rice and lamb and grapes. The curtains are not yet drawn over the breezy spring windows and lamplight from the street illuminates dimly the faint yellow of the stucco walls. Listen: the star tango’s accordion vibrates through blue smoke. We breathe in the smoke and sound until our lungs hurt, until when the storm covers the city center with rain and electricity, and our arms tighten as if struck, and our backs bend as if breaking, and our mouths are pried open with indelicacy and the neighbors pound on the walls with their hands as we sing.
Photo by Jose Padua. Originally published in Pea River Journal.
The first night Heather and I spent together, she slept in her upstairs room in the group house she lived in while I slept downstairs on the living room sofa. It was winter. We weren’t quite a couple yet, but I knew something was there. So, even though she was upstairs sleeping and I was downstairs, it already felt as if we were together. In the morning, I walked her to the bus stop on 16th street and waited with her for the city bus downtown, where she would catch another bus taking her to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, for a party celebrating her mother’s 50th birthday. Although Heather had talked about her mother before, I’m pretty sure that was when I found out her name was Suzanne.
Later that year, in the spring, Heather and I rented a car and drove up to Pennsylvania for a wedding and to visit with her family. The Davises were living at an old farmhouse by a two-lane highway back then. There was a dilapidated swimming pool covered with an orange tarp—or maybe it was some kind of faded green. From what I understood, it hadn’t been used in a long time, but there was a long front porch, and I immediately thought that if I had grown up there I would have spent a lot of time on that porch, watching the traffic go by during the day, and listening to the crickets and owls or whatever creatures might have been spending their nights sleepless like me.
Walking into the house with Heather, we headed straight for the kitchen. Suzanne was sitting at an oval, wooden table, with children coming in and out. Heather’s brother Brent was eight; her brother Tim, six. Her six foot five brother Bryan was 25, I think. After that I lost track of the ages. Also in the house were sisters Kara, and Sarah, and Kara’s infant son, Ethan. Not at the house were Heather’s brother Jeff, and sister Jenni, but from what I saw at the farmhouse was evidence that Heather did, indeed, come from a big family. My own mother had died two years earlier—Heather never got to meet her—but with Suzanne, I once again had a mother in my life.
She was a good, kind person and all that, of course, which wasn’t surprising. But what was interesting was that despite her not being one to seek any kind of spotlight, her presence in any room was deeply felt. You might not have been paying attention to her the entire time you were a room with her, but as soon as she spoke or just moved, that’s where everyone’s attention would be—as if you all you were doing and your great purpose for the moment was to wait for what Suzanne would say or do next.
Suzanne was also someone you felt safe with. I remember one time, riding in the family van with Heather, and her brothers Brent and Tim (when they were still just kids), we somehow got into a discussion of who loved whom.
“Do you love Heather?” Brent asked Suzanne.
“Of course,” she answered.
“Do you love Tim?”
“Do you love me?”
“Do love Jose?”
“Yes, Jose too.”
At that point, some car ran a stop sign in front of us, but Suzanne managed to brake and avoid hitting the reckless driver.
“Did you see that?” Brent said. “We almost got killed while we were busy lovin’ each other!”
“Yes, but we’re fine,” Suzanne said. And we were and we felt safe. All of us.
In more recent times Suzanne, even though she was more on the conservative side and religious, would often express her utter dislike of Donald Trump. She wasn’t one to fall for all the bullshit a lot of other people did. I know, you’re not supposed to get political in times like this, but the political is the way forward. Our politics speak of the way we conduct ourselves and plan for the future and future generations. Indeed, there is no future without political efforts. Suzanne’s politics were, ultimately, about sharing (though that didn’t mean you could take the last slice of pie or whatever it was she was saving for herself in the fridge).
Unlike a lot of so-called Christians today, she was not as concerned about someone getting something they didn’t earn as she was about someone not getting what they needed. I’m pretty sure she also understood that there were a lot more people not getting what they needed than there were people who got things they didn’t work for. I know, some people might say I’m turning her into a radical socialist like me now that she’s gone. But the truth is that as she got older, she woke up more and more to the times.
This isn’t to say that she became something of a liberal craft-making hippie woman in these last years. It wasn’t that long ago that I remember her asking me, “Are you still writing those things?”—meaning was I still writing poetry. As she said “things” I could almost sense her catching an uncomfortable chill from the word she didn’t want to say.
“Yes,” I answered. “I’m still writing them. I’m writing a lot of them. Haven’t you ever read any poetry you liked?”
“Well, maybe a few that Gary wrote for me,” she said—Gary being her husband/Heather’s dad.
“Well, maybe give some others a try,” I said. Of course I knew that my own book, with its gritty poems about my drunken days, was the sort of poetry she wouldn’t like. But I was fine with that.
And I loved the way she avoided saying the word “poem” as if it were the smelliest shit in the universe. That, although she didn’t realize it at the time, was in itself poetic. And, although the thought and possibility probably never occurred to her, she leaves behind an almost immeasurable amount of poetry that lives on and on. Because poetry isn’t just words, it’s more like a state of grace, an interruption in the basic structure of subject and predicate that moves you into spaces you didn’t know existed. I will feel that poetry in my bones for a long time to come, just as those who’ve come after Heather and me—our daughter, our son—carry it off toward some gloaming light in the faintly visible distance.
I can’t remember the quick way out of town anymore, and while we were stuck in traffic on North Capitol Street this morning, we saw this man standing at the entrance to this building, which is listed as the address of the Ida Mae Campbell Wellness & Resource Center. From behind the man looked like he was perhaps a businessman or even a doctor, but as we waited in traffic he remained at the door, and after a moment I could see that he was staring at a sign above the doorknob. When he turned around briefly, I could see he had a totally blank expression on his face, the look of someone who is far beyond just being lost. Then he turned back around to stare at the sign.
The DC Department of Mental Health lists The Ida Mae Campbell center as a resource, but this building has also recently been listed as on the market, so it may be that the wellness center no longer operates in this building. This reminds me of when I was in high school and worked in a church rectory which in the evening was a place where homeless men and women could see a social worker from the local St. Vincent dePaul Society. On occasion the social worker wouldn’t show up, and I’d have a waiting room full of homeless and mostly mentally ill people needing assistance. Since the priests weren’t to be bothered with this task, I had to talk to them and tell them there was no one there to help. I didn’t like having to tell them there was no one there to help, but as for time I spent talking to them, that was one of greatest educational experiences of my life. Because it was then that I realized that, hidden within the gibberish, the hallucinations, the paranoia, and all the other things so far removed from reality were some great truths and observations about the world.
This is not, mind you, that romantic view of madness as a thing that frees the mind to see things that the sane mind neglects. What’s often missed with this view is that madness takes a lot of work. These men and women had no homes and no jobs, but no one can tell me they weren’t working. With all the things they had going through their minds—the enormity of which I got a sense of from talking to them and which I know of somewhat through my own relatively minor issues—no one can tell me that what they go through isn’t hard labor.
And just as great wisdom can be found in a book five hundred pages long, you can also find it in that brief snippet of clarity from a man who’s so far gone he can barely stand still without his eyes going wild over everything that surrounds him, from a woman who can say everything that needs to be said in response to the question “How are you?” with a simple “I sell flowers on the street.” Just like the five hundred page book, it took a lot of work and a lot of years to be able to say “I sell flowers on the street.”
That night, after dinner on one of those days when the cold and snow had kept us inside for what seemed too long a time, we found ourselves sitting around the dining room table listening to some old songs. (We were still living in the Shenandoah Valley, then, in our hundred year old house. Maggie, our daughter was only ten; our son Julien, three—Heather and I were a little younger, too, of course.) Normally, my obsessive compulsive mind requires that we clear the table, put the food away, and wash the dishes before we do these things, but there we were with the rice and roast pork, the squash, the pitcher of water, and our plates and silverware all still in front of us, and in the middle of this, the laptop set to YouTube on which we took turns picking songs to play.
Heather had remembered the old Bauhaus song, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” which Maggie found too spooky (she was beginning to move away from her fascination with ghosts and such and on to other things) But she still hadn’t lost her affection for more dramatic songs, and when it was her turn she chose the Pet Shop Boys—with special guest Dusty Springfield—singing “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” a song I first played for her several years earlier and which Julien had grown to like as well. When it was my turn, I chose the Raincoats’ “No Side to Fall In”—a quick, beautiful song from 1979 that’s part cacophony and part harmony and goes,
I… I hear the music outside
And I am the music inside
Inside… inside… inside
No side to fall in
No fall to live until
My mind… my mind…
Is still… is still…
My mind, my life
I don’t mind… today
Today… today… today…
We all listened closely, but Julien was particularly entranced, and as soon as it was over he said, “More Side! More Side!” So, given that it was Julien’s turn to pick a song, we played it again. I imagine that first time I put the Raincoats first album (on which this is the first song) onto the turntable, that I may have done the same thing and immediately played this song again—though with a turntable what I had to do was pick up the tone arm then lower back it down at the outer edge of the LP. Now all we need to do is press replay or rewind, though on occasion, when I’m not in a rush, I’ll pull out the old LP and lay it down on the turntable to get that full recorded sound you can only get from the relatively primitive technology of a needle winding its way through the groove on a vinyl record.
When it was my turn again, I picked “Geno” from Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ wonderful first LP, Searching for the Young Soul Rebels. Whenever I heard something from this record, I couldn’t help seeing in my mind the image that adorns the album’s cover—a photograph of a young Irish Catholic boy carrying his suitcase after being forced to leave his home during the British army’s Operation Demetrius in Northern Ireland. What Maggie thought of when she heard this song was a much happier thing, because this time when I played the song she explained how she remembered the first time I played it for her.
“It was before school one morning,” she said. “You were sitting with Julien at the dining room table. I was sitting on the other side of the table, eating some leftover barbeque chicken tenders, when you put this song on!”
As always, I was amazed by the details Maggie remembered. And though I, too, retain details like this, I don’t think I do it as to the degree she does. Over the years, I know there are so many things I’ve lost—all that science I once knew, the mathematics I once understood, as well all the images and particulars, the names and faces that are now gone.
Still, I remember more than a lot of people. Talking to friends, I’ll sometimes mention people we both knew, and they’ll be completely gone from their memory. I’ll say how we did this or that with them, but they don’t even register as ghosts—which makes these seem like instances of what I sometimes call tiny deaths. That chipping away at our existence, and a continual diminishing of our presence in the world that continues until the big one comes along.
And though I may speak from time to time about the possible existence of the soul or something like it, I’m not at all confident about these things and I’m not about to blindly partake of some religious vision of an afterlife. But neither am I about to completely shut the door as to the possibilities of such things. All of which is to say that this is part of why I am obsessed with telling these stories and putting down as many of the details as I can manage to drag up from the depths of my memory. That I seem to be even more obsessed with memory and the defiance of death right now is because February was once a month I associated only with the ending of things. That changed when, on Valentine’s Day in 1996, Heather and I became a couple. That’s why now, during the month of February, I try to think, as much as I can, about today.
The photograph above was taken in the late afternoon on Valentine’s day, 2014. We were driving down Route 522 north of Front Royal on a stretch of highway which, depending on where you are, is called either Winchester Road, Front Royal Pike, or Stonewall Jackson Highway. Suddenly, on that drive, Maggie said, “Look at those clouds—they sort of look like UFOs!”
“Where? WHERE?” I asked.
“There,” Maggie answered. Of course, I didn’t know where “there” was, so I just kept looking until I spotted them. Then, to satisfy my obsessions, I had to find a place to stop. Heather and Julien, by now, have learned to make accommodations for them, while Maggie seems to be partaking and, now, even surpassing me in accumulating one obsession after another.
I stepped out of the car, looked over to the west, then took a photograph. And then another and another. Until, finally, I felt that I’d taken enough. That there were plenty of images in my camera and in my mind. Then I got into the car and—with my family beside me—we headed back home.
One way to tell that summer had begun in these parts was by the number of Confederate flags that were out and about again—on pickup trucks, motorcycles, flying from front porches in celebration of the season of warm weather in America. Of course there were some who refrained from displaying the rebel battle flag and for whom the good old stars and stripes was more than enough, such as the SUV we saw one day that proudly bore a bumper sticker with the standard United States flag and the words “Does my American flag offend you? Dial 1-800-LEAVE-USA.” The bumper sticker was new to me, then—four years ago—so the words that went through my head were “What the fuck is this idiotic shit?” Words I might not have been able to refrain from saying out loud had my daughter Maggie–who was twelve at the time—not had her friend Anna with us in our car on the way to Winchester. Words which I did, however, end up saying more and more over the past four and a half years.
That day started pleasantly enough. My wife Heather was using a present from Christmas finally and took herself and Maggie for a pedicure at a local spa. To read during her appointment she brought along Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which she was having another go at. In the middle of her session she looked over to Maggie to see what she was reading and was surprised to see her reading about things like disaster capitalism and the 1974 U.S./Henry Kissinger master-minded coup that put Augusto Pinochet in place in Chile—she was reading Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine.
I suppose that with the presidential election upon us—and having heard me speak of my high school classmate whose father was assassinated by Pinochet’s forces right across the street from where my own father worked, and having heard Heather and me discuss how galling it was to hear a supposed progressive politician like Hillary Clinton speak glowingly of the aforementioned war criminal Henry Kissinger—that Maggie might have wanted to get some background information on all of this. She might not have understood everything in The Shock Doctrine, and it certainly wasn’t “feel-good” reading, but I was more than glad that she’d taken such great interest in learning about the world and how it works.
When we got to Winchester, we went to the downtown walking mall on Loudon Street, which was busy with people out for the holiday weekend. Our son Julien was happy to be running around past the shops and chasing after Anna and his big sister. In one photograph I took that day, though, he was taking a pause from the chase, and giving someone his old side-eye look. It was something he did quite often in our years out there. In Winchester and the Shenandoah Valley there were some nice people—like the writer Joe Bageant, who wrote a lot about inequality and the working poor in America. He went off to the west coast when he was a young man, but later in life returned to Winchester—the “bigoted, murderous redneck town I grew up in”—to kick some ass. We got to meet him a few years a few years before he died, and then some other good folks who lived on and were our friends the entire time we lived out there. But there were always those “bigoted, murderous” types you had to watch out for. And soon after I took that picture, we encountered some of them.
We were leaving the walking mall—crossing Piccadilly Street with Maggie, Anna, and Julien holding hands as they walked—when we passed by one of those pickup trucks equipped with smoke stacks waiting to turn onto Piccadilly. Sometimes called “Prius Repellents,” these trucks can let loose with clouds of noxious black smoke that for the asshole occupants of these vehicles are a protest statement against liberals, tree-huggers, Obama, etc., and as we walked past them they started jeering at us. Heather and I figured out that seeing Maggie and Anna holding hands as they walked past must have looked “gay” to them. And then, with me looking like some illegal alien, and Heather and me together being one of those horrible mixed-race couples, and Maggie and Julien our half-breed children, there was just so much to offend their delicate sensibilities. So when they turned, they let loose with the black smoke—“rolling coal” the act is sometimes called—which engulfed all of us. In other words, they had no reservations about letting the noxious fumes loose on two twelve year old girls, a five year old boy, and a middle-aged couple minding their own business, before roaring off to wherever it is dickheads like them like to spend their Saturday nights.
At the time, I’d never had a close encounter with the smoke from a Prius Repellent, and because I have respiratory issues, I had trouble breathing for few minutes. Julien, aware that something had just happened, asked, “Are those bad guys?”
“Yes,” we answered, aware that he now had a few new faces besides Donald Trump’s to add to the gallery of bad guys.
Luckily, we were just down the block from the Hideaway Café, which was where we going to see a drag show benefitting the theater where Maggie had been taking acting classes. The Hideaway calls itself “a safe space for all our guests, regardless of race, color, national origin, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, religion, etc.” and that night, for us, it was precisely that and provided a welcome antidote to the smoke stack pickup truck goons.
It took me a little while to get back in a decent mood, but I did. The drag show helped in that regard, as did Victoria, the woman who runs the Hideaway. What helped even more was running into our friend Larry Yates there. Larry was about ten years older than me, and had been an activist most of his life. He’d even lived in Washington DC for a few years, in the neighborhood where I grew up. I must have crossed paths with him at some point. Maybe at 18th and Columbia Road, back when the neighborhood was scary for all those people from the suburbs. Maybe even at something like the Rock Against Reagan concert at the mall in ’83 when the Dead Kennedys played.
Decades later, in Winchester and the Shenandoah Valley, hanging out with Larry was like having Noam Chomsky to bounce questions off of and learn from (Larry wasn’t a linguist himself, like Chomsky, but his father was). He helped keep our spirits going for the ten years we lived in Front Royal—that scarily conservative town a little bit south of Winchester. It was the sort of place where, when progressive people we met in Winchester found out we lived there would go, “You live in Front Royal? Oh my god!”
When Larry tried to run for the 29th District in Virginia’s House of Delegates in 2013, he was clobbered by the conservative Republican candidate. We all knew that taking down a Republican in the Shenandoah Valley was longshot, but with Larry, you always had hope. He made you believe you could change the backwardness of this this town, this place, this country. I think that’s why news of his death this week from an apparent heart attack hit those of us who knew him so hard. Somehow, we didn’t think anything could stop him. Winchester, the Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, the United States, the world, the universe—none of it’s going to be the same now. There’s always going to be that piece missing—the piece he brought along with him whether he was grumpy, laughing, talking obscure concepts or real life actions. The piece, now gone all loose and lost in the fading of stars in a distance we can’t see.
That night in Winchester, after we left the drag show, we went with Larry back to the walking mall to eat dinner at El Centro, a Mexican restaurant on Boscawen Street. It was a nice, easy-going spot, where we could dine under the early summer skies and we figured we weren’t likely to run into the goons there. It would just be us, feeling like we belonged there.
When we were done, we said goodbye to Larry. We’d been meaning to get together with him like that for some time, but things were always so busy, so hectic, and sometimes so strange and so sad. Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to find the time and space for an old friend, to just spend an evening talking about the world and where we’ve been and what we’ve seen. That night, though, we managed to do that, despite the bad guys that were out there and despite their stupid machines. Then we headed home, down the highway between the slumbering mountains under a milky night of stars, as I slowly—very slowly—began to think of more beautiful things.
Welcome to Shenandoah Breakdown
Other than being the name of a bluegrass instrumental by Bill Monroe, "Shenandoah Breakdown" describes what can happen when you decide that relocating to the boonies will be a great adventure, so you move from the city to the country only to discover you now inhabit not another county but another country. Shenandoah Breakdown is a song, a blog, a way of life. Visit us here for observations of local people, culture, cuisine, and varieties of monster truck. We'll break down the pros and cons, the ups and downs, the funny, the sad, and the scary aspects of living in the Shenandoah Valley and, specifically, of life in the confounding little town of Front Royal, VA.
HEATHER LYNNE DAVIS and JOSE PADUA
In October 2007, Heather and Jose moved with their four year-old daughter from Alexandria, VA to Front Royal, VA to dodge the inflated DC-area housing market and gain some modicum of financial security. Although the wisdom of that decision remains to be seen, they're working hard to embrace their new small town home with open arms. Outside their day jobs, Heather and Jose write poetry, fiction, and nonfiction and have been published widely.