North Richmond Street, Being Blind

Photograph by Jose Padua
My eight-year old son Julien is singing
an East River Pipe song, going “I don’t care
about your blue wings, I don’t care about your
blue wings, baby” and my fifteen year old
daughter Maggie reads The Girl With Curious
Hair
while my wife and I drink beer at the pub
on Main Street (Julien and Maggie, iced tea
and a coke) before we all go back to our old,
dirty, small-town house. This place used to be
called Helltown and some people still call it
that, except at that precise hour when the sky
over the mountains is a perfect flinty lapis lazuli
blue, and the river is a woman named Edna with
the most joyous laugh, or a man named John,
his kidney stone like a 12 gauge shotgun shell.
He hopes to pass it before his Monday night
factory shift, the roughest in all the valley.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

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The Distance Between Ground and Sky as Measured in Units of Work

Photograph by Jose Padua
When we were dropping our son Julien off at school earlier that week, he looked at the boy who was getting out from the car ahead of us. I opened the side door to let Julien out and he yelled, “Shavon!” Julien ran toward the school door and yelled, “Hey, Shavon, Baby!” Shavon, the boy who was in the car ahead of us, turned around and waited for Julien. They walked in together.

I never say “Baby” that way. Nor do I use the variant “Babe.” And as far as I can remember, the only person to regularly call me “Baby” was my landlord in New York. “Jose Baby,” he’d say. It was, I imagine, his way of acknowledging that I was all right. I wasn’t one of the junkies or crackheads in his building (my next door neighbor Anna would often complain about “those junkie people”). And I paid my rent more or less on time—or at least until toward the end of my stay in New York. It made me all right in my landlord’s eyes. It made me “Jose Baby.”

At home with my family, in the small town we live in now, I’m the sort of person who often uses the term “Honey.” I rarely ever call my wife Heather by her name—I always say “Honey.” If I do somehow say “Heather” it’s reason for us to look at each other and pause, as if we’d suddenly been transported to some odd parallel universe where I say “Heather” instead of “Honey.” I also call the kids “Honey” at times, the way my mother would use the work “Anak” with me and my brothers—“Anak” being a Tagalog word for “son”/”daughter” or, simply “child.” It was the sort of term I’d hear if I was coming down with a cold and my mother had just felt my forehead to discover I had a fever. “Anak,” she’d say, out of concern. As such, it was a word that comforted me. It meant that she knew what was wrong, and was taking care of things.

A couple of days earlier, we were a little late dropping our daughter Maggie off at school in the morning. That meant that by the time I got to the drop-off line for Julien’s school, I was a little further back than usual. I was tired and wished I could just close my eyes until the doors for Julien’s school opened, but then I looked out into the distance. Because of where we were in line—right where there’s a break in the woods that surround Julien’s school—I could see clear through to the sky above the tree line where the land slopes down to Leach Run, the stream that lies about a mile east of town. The way the colors were blending made it hard to distinguish between earth and sky, horizon and cloud, near and far. Or maybe it was just my aging eyes. Either way, I liked what I saw, so I took a photograph. Then I had a coughing fit.

I’d been under the weather since the past weekend when Maggie and I saw Yuja Wang perform at the Kennedy Center in DC. I was a running a bit of a fever and was hoping that seeing Yuja Wang might do the same thing Sun Ra did about a quarter century ago when I saw him at a performance at the Bottom Line in New York. That night I was in the middle of a horrible sore throat/flu and I wasn’t sure it was wise for me to attempt to make it out to the Bottom Line. But, because it was Sun Ra, I made the effort. I dragged myself out of my apartment.

That night, I left the Bottom Line after some two or so hours of Sun Ra’s performing (usually he’d play even longer, but this was after he’d had a stroke). And I felt fine. My lungs were clear. I could smoke a cigarette without feeling like I was breathing in fumes from the back of a bus (yes, I was a hard-core smoker back then). And, I could have another Jack Daniel’s on the rocks with my friends and have it slide down my throat as smooth as the overnight DJ on WBAI. I was, in other words, all right. I was, once again, Jose Baby.

Seeing Yuja Wang perform that weekend didn’t quite do it. Unlike after seeing Sun Ra, I still had my flu and my fever. I still needed that ibuprofen a few times a day to feel at least marginally human. But then, Yuja Wang is only thirty years old. I think that in a few years the power to heal will come along on top of the ability to play a sick-as-fuck encore off the top of her head.

After I’d dropped off Julien, I stopped at the grocery store to pick up some soup, orange juice, and ibuprofen. That’s what I figured I’d need to make it through the rest of the day until it was time to pick up Maggie and Julien from school. As I passed by the magazine rack, I saw something horrible. Wrapped in plastic, it was labeled the “Trump Anniversary Collection,” and beneath those words, peering out into a distance populated solely by wealthy, racist assholes, were the eyes of Donald Trump. At the bottom of the package, underneath Trump’s orange chin, was further explanation that this was a “Patriot’s Kit” and included bumper stickers, a “’Promises Kept’ magazine,” and a “Ready-to-Frame Portrait.” The scream I made in my head was so loud I swore everyone in the store could hear it.

I laid a few copies of Field & Stream on top of the stack of Patriot’s Kits, then walked to the back of the store. There I grabbed a quart of Tropicana 50% Less Sugar/Some Pulp orange juice. I took that, a double pack of the store brand ibuprofen, and two cans of chicken soup and went up to the register. As I drove home, I thought about how the sky by the elementary school, in the clearing between the trees, looked something like a Mark Rothko painting. And I thought about my wife and my children, my mother and father, and all the days of winter we had ahead of us and all the work we had to do.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

A Routine Evaluation of My Accomplishments at This Late Stage of the Middle Part of My Career

Photograph by Jose Padua
Because of a mix tape I played for what
must have been a couple of decades, I can’t
hear Prince’s “I Wanna Be Your Lover”
without expecting to hear T.S. Monk’s
“Bon Bon Vie (Gimme the Good Life)”
right after it. There were train rides when
I was so weary I’d fall asleep in minutes,
days when I was so sad flowers lacked both
scent and color. Weeks were lost like socks
with holes in them and days recalled like
bad products except there was no store
where I could take them back, no class action
lawsuit for squandered opportunities and
essential connections missed. These years
of love have sustained me far beyond
anything I ever could have imagined;
a dusting to an inch of snow overnight
on cold asphalt resulting in a two hour delay
is all part of the good life. I admit I didn’t
always know this, just as I understand
that there are gaps in my resume that
will never be explained, and disturbances
in my sleep that briefly interrupt the dream.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Home, Sorrow, and the Million Ways We Make It Through the World

Photograph by Jose Padua
That weekend was one of those that reminded us of what we love about living in the northern Shenandoah Valley—namely, events like the performance in Castleton, Virginia, some twenty-five miles south of Front Royal, by the 1,000 Faces Mask Theater. An event that brought together some of the eccentric and creative persons who live out here, and placed them prominently on the landscape of open green spaces that lay in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The following Monday, though, brought us back to the other side of life here when, on returning to her car in the Front Royal park-and-ride lot after spending the day at her office in Arlington, my wife Heather found a flyer underneath her windshield wipers bearing the heading “Join the Ku Klux Klan.”

The “klan,” the flyer noted, was an organization that was, among other things, “standing up for whites,” “upholding the 2nd amendment of the constitution,” “was Christian based and upholds the bible.” It ended with the line “Please join before it’s too late.” At the bottom of the flyer was a phone number and addresses for two different websites, as well as an illustration of a hooded klan figure surrounded by the words “The KKK wants you!”

Seeing this flyer here wasn’t exactly surprising. Time and again people had told us how Front Royal is one of the more backwards towns in the Shenandoah Valley. Not that we don’t have any of the sort of people who participated in the 1,000 Faces Mask Theater living here, as well as others who may not be eccentric but who are simply “woke” to one degree or another. Still, any real sort of power, here, is held by folks who are definitely on the other side of “woke.”

One case in point is the lawsuit a man in our neighborhood was involved in a number of years ago. Sam, one of two African-Americans employed by the Front Royal Department of Public Works, was continually passed over for promotions to positions he was well qualified for. What’s more, Sam was also subjected to verbal abuse from his bosses, who had no reservations about using the “N” word in reference to him and other African-Americans. Sam, in his lawsuit, contended that his immediate boss claimed to be a member of the KKK and that the director of the Front Royal office of Public Works was, in fact, the local head of the KKK.

In 2001, the Town of Front Royal reached a settlement with Sam and the other plaintiff, with the town having to pay their legal fees, provide compensation, and issue a formal apology. As for the director of the town Department of Public Works, he retired from that position, after which he was elected mayor of Front Royal. He’d already been on the town council for several terms and the lawsuit, apparently, did little to damage him politically.

A few years ago, Sam was able to retire from his position with the town. He’s one of the nicest, friendliest people in my neighborhood. I can’t imagine how hard it must have been for him to work with the people he had to work with. Of course he had no choice—you make a living however you can. I also can’t imagine how he manages to keep up that smile after all the shit he had to deal with, but he does it, and Sam, to me, is one of the heroes in this town.

The day after Heather found the KKK flyer on her car, Johnny came over to the house. Johnny runs a lawn service in town, and he did our lawn that day. He’d just started working on our yard when our neighbor came over to yell at him. She was furious. Johnny, she said, had sent some grass clippings flying from our yard over into hers. I was out picking up Maggie and Julien from school, but Heather was home and phoned me to tell me what was going on. Our neighbor, Heather said, then started calling Johnny the “N” word over and over. Then our neighbor said, “I’m gonna call the KKK on you” and used the “N” word several more times. Heather tried to calm our neighbor down, but our neighbor kept on yelling. After a while, though, Johnny started working on our lawn again, and our neighbor went back into her house, slamming the door behind her.

Heather had to go out on an errand, and when I got home with Maggie and Julien, Johnny had just finished doing the lawn. I told him sorry. What could I tell him that he didn’t already know? I certainly wasn’t going to tell him how I, as an Asian-American or whatever the racist goons here think I am, experience some of this shit, too. Not to the degree he does, of course, and not in the same way, but I do. I could try to tell him what helps me deal with it, but what may diminish the sadness and rage for me won’t necessarily diminish it for him. It’s one of those things—you experience being the object of hate in your own way and the sadness and rage that goes with it is all yours. Like Sam and Johnny, you learn to live with it, and you learn to survive. And no matter where you are or who’s with you, you basically have to learn it on your own.

So that’s what I said to Johnny—“sorry”—and I looked him in the eyes as well and as real as I could and shook his hand. “Sorry.” It’s better than so much of the other shit that gets said at times like this. It’s like sorry, there’s love in the world, but there’s this too. The hate, it seems, isn’t going anywhere, and sometimes neither are we. So I went inside our house with Maggie and Julien, my legs slightly unsteady, and waited for Heather to come home.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Pulp Fiction, Part Two

Photo by Jose Padua
Putting on my shoes
this autumn morning
I notice how my ankles
aren’t swollen
and that the skin
on my lower legs
is no longer taut and dry
the way it was
this past summer;
and the poem
that comes to mind,
as spoken by
my vascular specialist,
is a simple one:
compression socks.
And now,
for the rest
of my days,
whenever I walk
the Earth like Caine
in Kung Fu,
or like the bad motherfucker
Samuel L. Jackson plays
in Pulp Fiction,
I’ll be wearing
my compressions socks,
gliding across sidewalks,
travelling over dirt roads,
forging new paths
under the starry sky,
ready for what happens
next.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

A Short History of Monsters—Coming March 2019, University of Arkansas Press

A Short History of Monsters by Jose Padua
My book, A Short History of Monsters, is now available for pre-order at Barnes and Noble (this early listing says 60 pages, but it’s actually a little over a hundred pages, so it’s a short history but not that short):

“We are the happy riders on the stream of Padua’s consciousness . . . a smart, sympathetic mind at work.”
—Billy Collins

Click here to pre-order from Barnes and Noble

A Self-Portrait of the Artist Written in the Early Off-Season of the Universe

Photograph by Jose Padua
It was during my sophomore year in college when the professor for my Introduction to Poetry course laid the tone arm down onto the record that was spinning on the portable turntable. This, she assured us, was poetry we might already be familiar with. In a moment, we heard a voice on the record singing “Morning has broken like the first morning/ Blackbird has spoken like the first bird/ Praise for the singing/ Praise for the morning/ Praise for them springing fresh from the world…”

I was sitting near the front of the class, and upon hearing the first sung notes of this song, I turned around to see how the rest of the class was reacting to it. That’s when I saw Claude, a big grin on his face, looking like this was the happiest moment of his academic career. He was a political science major—maybe even a “college republican.” Whatever it was, there was something about him smiling at recognizing a Cat Stevens song that was sickening.

I mean, Cat Stevens was OK. I might have liked his music more back then if I’d seen the film Harold and Maude, in which his music plays a big part in setting the atmosphere for what happens between Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon, but at the time I hadn’t. I only saw Harold and Maude recently, watching it with Heather and Maggie one weekend night after Julien had fallen asleep early. After several decades, I started to like Cat Stevens more. Back in 1976, though, my idea of poetic language in music included things like the work of Gil Scott-Heron and Chicago Beauchamp’s spoken word performance in Archie Shepp’s Black Gipsy. My poetry professor, I gathered, had a different idea. She let all of Cat Stevens’s “Morning Has Broken” play, and when it was finished declared, her eyes wide with the passion of a million sonnets, “Poetry is about the beauty of language, as such.”

That, of course, was the worst part of it. Hearing that cheap and easy declaration, I was sure, had to be both the lamest and most frightening moment of my poetic life. I felt like I’d been abducted by some horrible cult. It was sort of like that time between my Junior and Senior year in high school when I was at the University of Georgia on a program run by the National Science Foundation. A group of students from the university had befriended a number of us from the NSF program, and one weekend took us on a picnic in Watson Mill Bridge Park, then tubing down the shallow south fork of Broad River.

It was a fun afternoon. I was tubing down the river holding hands with Anne, this girl with long blonde hair from Texas who was studying math for her NSF program. She was beautiful and smart and, as I was a little slow in these matters, she was the first girl I ever held hands with. Everything was going fine until after we’d gone tubing, where our older friends from the university had one other stop to make. That stop was to their church. We had to listen to a talk about Jesus and being born again and all this other stuff. My mind wandered off toward thoughts I found much more pleasant, and I kept trying to distract Anne, but she was paying attention to all the Jesus talk.

I avoided our so-called friends from the university after that day, but Anne had come to the conclusion that they were cool. I started hanging out with Janet, who was also studying math in the NSF program but was an atheist, idolized Orson Welles, and at the time was making her way through the works of Aldous Huxley.

As for the poetry class with the professor whose mantra was “Poetry is about the beauty of language as such,” I zoned out for the rest of the semester. I sat in the back, staying out of it, wondering if, perhaps, this whole poetry thing wasn’t for me. Forty years later, not a day goes by when I don’t still wonder that. But then words start coming to mind again along with the sounds. Sometimes I just let them bounce off of each other in my head for a while. Sometimes I write them down immediately. Either way, it’s my work. It’s what I do, whether anyone likes it or not (and some people don’t). My poetry presents my ideas, my aesthetic, my view, my way of connecting with the world—as such. And every time I write a new poem, it is as if I am born again.

This is a photograph of the birds that flew over my wife, my daughter, my son, and I last year after we’d arrived in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware in the early off-season of the universe.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Reflections on a Song by Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson and Other Intervals Between Two Points in Time

Photograph by Jose Padua
Looking out
the kitchen
window in the
dim early evening
light I’m waiting
for the stray cat
in the back
yard to move
just scratch its
nose with its
paw or else
dash out between
gaps in the
run-down picket
fence when I
realize it’s not
a stray cat
I’m looking at
but a black flower
pot knocked over
on its side and
in that instant
I remember all
those years I lost
being obsessed
searching for meaning
in places where
there was none.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

These Nights We Lived Under Bourbon and Small Planets

Photo by Jose Padua

Her name was Sarah Star
and though the “Sarah” was
probably her real name,
the “Star” we weren’t so sure of.
She was one of our favorite bartenders
in one of our favorite bars,
the Scorpio on Avenue A,
and it was something like 1992
when I, going back and forth
from unemployment to temp jobs
and paying $700 a month on time,
sometimes not, for my apartment
on Avenue B, was in many ways
one of the well-off people in the
neighborhood. Sarah dressed like
a character from The Great Gatsby
and did it so well it was neither
affect nor pretense nor performance
but evidence of the manifestation
of celestial light in the souls
and shoulders of certain residents
of the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
She was short but walked tall,
thin as an alley even though she
moved like Park Avenue right below
Grand Central Station just a little
before eight in the morning. One night
after last call she asked me and my friend
to walk her home and right away
we started singing Fats Domino
to her over what was left of our bourbon,
crooning “I want to walk you home,
please let me walk you home…”
and we sang it again on the way
across town, “I want to walk you
home” even though we were already
walking her home, and we talked about
galaxies and planets, the beer and bourbon
replaced by four-in-the-morning
New York air, breathing it in like
cigarette smoke, breathing it
back out. At the door of her building
we each said good night to her,
each gave her a hug, then walked back
to our side of town feeling enormous
like the sky, like a song only Fats Domino
could have written but which we sang,
into every corner of the night,
as if it were ours. And at Bowery
and Houston, my friend and I said
our “See You Later”s and he headed up
the street toward his apartment
as I kept going east, my feet moving
like the fingers on Fats Domino’s
right hand.

-Jose Padua

Until the End of the Rain and the Sudden Demise of Endless Rainy Nights

Photograph by Jose Padua
And I was waiting at my local dive bar
for a woman who never showed up
and the longer I waited
and the greater the amount of time
without seeing her face at the other end
of the swinging front door
the less I liked my friends
the less I liked my bourbon and my beers
and instead of leaning on them
I just wished I were somewhere I could be alone
which if I remember correctly
is what I finally did though
I had to go to a different neighborhood
where I didn’t know anyone
because these were the days when I knew
so many people and so many people knew me.

One night in New York I met a woman
whose parents came from Asia like mine
and she was in her late twenties/early thirties like me
but she was already a widow
and she worked at a bar called America
and I walked her home from the old Village bar
up to her building just below Chelsea
and whenever I went to America she was never there
so I never stayed for more than one drink
and it wasn’t long before I figured out
that drinking in America wasn’t the right thing
for me and one night I walked away from America
down busy brightly lit streets and dark deserted streets
every one of them sad like dirty dishes lying
in a broken sink in an abandoned building.

As for everything else if it wasn’t strange
it wasn’t alive enough for me to want;
if love and death never occurred at least once
in the same sentence there wasn’t much
reason to continue speaking
nor desire to look at stars scattering slowly like junkies
when I opened the door to my building and walked
up the stairs over the chicken bones
and heroin wrappers along with stepped-on cigarette butts
while catching whiffs of empty 40 oz. bottles
still alive with the drunken visions of romantics
more desperate than I would ever be.

And so until the end of the rain
and until the sudden demise of endless rainy nights
waiting on friends who never come
let us gather our objects of grief like fierce weapons
against the kingdom of the ruling class;
let us stalk the nightmares of long disappeared lovers
and drown the dark apparitions that haunted them
so they may sleep with both eyes closed;
may the next door that opens be carrying through it
someone of more than passing acquaintance,
rescued at last as if from the slow scattering of stars travelling
through the vacancies of three dimensional space;
and may you raise your tumblers to one another
then let the liquid in them grow warm
the more lost you get amongst
sidewalk cracks on dark corners,
sinkholes on every boulevard and side street,
and everything else in the world
that’s so broken
so beautiful and
so gone.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua