For me, life is a series of obsessions. Some I take on only to discard at some point. Others I keep while, like a polygamist of obsessions, I find more—of different shapes and sizes—to add to the group. So, in addition to my actual family, I have, in my mind, a parallel family of obsessions. It was one of these obsessions—my obsession with the name “Front Royal”—that brought us to this town and took us away from the city life that suited us so well for so many years. It was a move that took a lot of effort and, above all, energy. And what gave me the energy to come here and drag Heather and Maggie along was that obsession. For a number of years now—with my days of heavy drinking behind me—alcohol has been replaced by obsession as my primary fuel. Indeed, obsessions aren’t just something I have: for me, obsessions are everything.
Lately, what I’ve been obsessed with is America—the country and the concept. I’ve been writing poem after poem about America, about what I see in it and what I don’t see, what I love about it and what I hate about it. I’m obsessed with its long stretches of highway that take you from city to suburb to country, then on into mountains and desert and, finally, out to the ocean on the other side of the continent. And, I’m obsessed with being on that road—I’d be perfectly happy spending years going from town to town, and hotel to hotel, with Heather and Maggie. I love being on the road and, I must say, I love being on the road even more now since we moved to the valley.
I can’t say that I’ve never had a sad moment on the road, but there’s something about that motion, that sensation that you’re floating over the asphalt like some entity that’s half flesh and blood and half ghost—that helps make the bad things seem, if not insignificant, then at least small enough so that hiding them in the back of your mind is a lot easier. As for those ugly Hummers you see or cars with bumper stickers like “I’ll Keep My Freedom, My Guns, and My Money, and You Can Keep the Change”—well, I can slow down, or speed up so that I stay a comfortable and safe distance from them. A distance that will decrease the chances of me giving in to another of my obsessions: giving people the finger.
Getting away from these things that make me want to stretch my arm, make a tight fist, then extend my middle finger isn’t easy to do when I’m home—home being not my house where I feel fine, but the town I live in. A town which, because I live here, I’m supposed to call home.
That’s another reason why I’m obsessed with being on the road now. When I’m on the road, I’m a tourist: I don’t need to feel at home. Or, at any rate, when I’m on the road, I’m not missing anything if I don’t feel like I belong. Because when I’m home I think, for some strange, fucked up reason, that I’m supposed to feel like I belong there.
I have felt at home before, such as in my old Mt. Pleasant neighborhood in DC—but that was where I grew up. The things that annoyed people who were new to the neighborhood like the drunks peeing in the alley behind the house—shit, even I did that myself sometimes—never bothered me. I also felt at home when I lived in New York City. Home, even when I’d walk in the door of my apartment building on Avenue B to see some junkie shooting up in the foyer in front of the mailboxes. Home, even when the middle-aged couple down the hall would have an argument and yell at each other for half an hour, after which he would finally stomp off and she would sing that old Olivia Newton-John song, “Come On Over.” She’d sing it, in Spanish, while sitting in the hallway all forlorn, her voice getting louder and louder as she cleared the smoker’s phlegm from her lungs. Then she’d pace back and forth, still singing, her voice going even more horribly off key than when she started.
I hated that song when it was sung pitch perfect, by Olivia herself, and I hated it even more after hearing my neighbor sing it. But, despite her horrible voice, and the actual physical pain it caused, I still felt that I was home. And that I belonged there.
After being here in Front Royal for over two years, I still don’t feel that way. I know, I seem to keep saying that over and over, but that’s another one of my obsessions—my obsession with the concept of home and that moment of revelation when, after being in some new place for a little while, you nod and say to yourself Yeah, this is where I belong. It sure as hell hasn’t happened to me yet here in the valley.
Of course it’s hard to get that homey feeling when not a day goes by when I don’t get that look from someone. And I don’t even mean that gawking where-the-fuck-are-you-from stare I get from time to time from people to whom I seem like a lizard being who just fell to earth from another planet. I mean that quick look that takes an extra split second more than just a casual glance. It’s that glance I get from people who all of sudden seem to think they’ve got a job with Homeland Security and are excited that, with me, they may have just spotted one of those evil-doing invaders—or some illegal alien who’s going to take his job away from him and move next door and spoil the complexion of his neighborhood.
Then there are those looks that aren’t quite as long, but still last longer than they should. Sometimes it’s a person behind the counter of some business here—a person who will look at me and, believing that I’m some kind of outsider who doesn’t belong here (or maybe anywhere else in America), never look at me in the eye again throughout the entire transaction. Usually that person will ask me for my ID, even though he or she hasn’t bothered asking for the ID of the people in line before me who used a bank card to pay. But the thing they don’t realize when they ask for my ID is that, after they look at my ID, they have to look at me again to see if there’s a match. And, if their intent is just to avoid looking at me—to avoid seeing invaders like me—then they’ve lost. So when they look up from my ID and back at me is when I give them my scary make-them-pee-in-their-pants face. It is, in certain ways, more effective than saying “Go fuck yourself”—except that I never know for sure if I’ve made someone pee in his or her pants, whereas when I say “Go fuck yourself” I get that warm and fuzzy but palpable feeling that goes along with that phrase.
When they’re not afraid or suspicious of me, then they want to laugh or belittle me—or, at any rate, make me something so far removed from reality that I can’t possibly pose a threat anymore. Recently, during a ghost tour of downtown Front Royal, one of the tour guides told me that I reminded him of the mystical amulet seller in The Golden Child, an Eddie Murphy vehicle from more than twenty years ago. I wasn’t that offended—my first unspoken reaction being Of all the movies of the last twenty years , you remember that fucking movie?—but again, I was being singled out as the other, the alien, the exotic being.
Still, I would have to say that reminding him of the amulet seller was better than reminding him, for example, of Mickey Rooney’s idiotic bucktoothed portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Or Gedde Watanabe’s portrayal of the clueless, just-off-the-boat Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles. (Looking back on that role years later, Watanabe admitted that he was a bit naïve in gleefully presenting this offensively stereotypical character.) And, if the tour guide had said I reminded him not of the amulet seller, but of the actor who played that role, Victor Wong, that would have been a different thing altogether.
Before he started acting, Victor Wong was a painter, a poet, a photographer, a journalist. He’d studied painting under Mark Rothko, was portrayed as “Arthur Ma” in Jack Kerouac’s novel Big Sur, was a part of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters crowd, and was even a TV reporter. Far from being some exotic other, Victor Wong was an American. Born in San Francisco in 1927, he died in 2001, the day after attacks on September 11th.
For some people, though, that’s not enough to give him consideration as a real American—after all, his last name was Wong. As Glenn Beck recently commented about Barack Obama, “You don’t take the name Barack to identify with America.” For Beck and other like-minded goons, American names have a European, preferably Anglo-Saxon origin. Obviously, with my name being Jose Padua, I could never be a real American, at least not in Beck’s world.
Which brings me to another obsession—my obsession with how there’s no difference between what comes out of Glenn Beck’s mouth and the gas that escapes to the free world through his hemorrhoid-besieged anus. (“I had surgery on my ass,” Beck explained while talking about the procedure performed on his hemorrhoids during his old show on Headline News back in 2008.) I think about Glenn Beck’s ass a lot—even more than I think about the hate-filled drivel he tries to pass off as social commentary.
You know how they say that when you’re speaking in front of a crowd of people, it helps calm your nerves if you imagine that the entire audience is naked? Well, back in 2008 I did the first full poetry reading I’d done in years. I felt rusty and I was, I must day, a little nervous. But as soon as I got up before that crowd of people at the bookstore in Winchester, I started thinking about Glenn Beck and his hemorrhoids and how difficult it must have been for him sometimes to sit and do a show when his ass was in so much pain. Then I began to read a poem—the first poem I’d read in public in a long time—and when I was done I looked up at the audience to see them looking at me and applauding, waiting on my next words.
Sometimes my obsessions make it hard for me. Sometimes, they get things done.
And what it always comes back to is this: my obsessions clash with theirs. Their obsessions include guns, god, taxes, illegal immigrants—a set of obsessions that goes along with a vision of America as homogenous Homeland. My great obsession is that I’m an American, too, but here, in the valley, I don’t really feel like it—and I worry that as the years go by this valley isn’t shrinking but expanding.