I don’t know. I say that a lot these days—though maybe I don’t actually say it and instead just think it. And, when I’m in a particularly bad mood, it’s, “I don’t fucking know.” On these winter days in Front Royal, my musings on what I know or don’t know are, more often than not, accompanied by that expletive. It’s cold and dreary and desolate—and, while I used to wonder how we got here, I must say that I’m over that. I know how we got here. As for how we’re going to get out of here, well, I don’t fucking know.
Even though I’m still working to find a way out of here, I have to say that this winter, for a lot of reasons, I feel better than I did during my previous two winters here (I suppose that during my very first winter here I was in too much of a state of culture shock to feel much of anything). That, unfortunately, makes it harder to get back to the work I have to do.
So we turn the temperature on the thermostat down in an effort to make one tank of oil last the whole winter. There’s nothing like freezing your ass off in your own home to make you move, to make you get back to work. And as I get up from my computer, put on a sweater, a hat, and a scarf, and walk around in circles in an effort to feel a certain measure of warmth, I find myself looking back to the past. Yeah, I become, even though I hate the idea, nostalgic. Nostalgia—remember Happy Days, and Sha-Na-Na, which looked back at the 50s? Well, fuck all that shit. But that’s not as bad as what to me seems like a fair number of people here who actually look back fondly on the Confederacy. And while nostalgia, for some people, leads them to memories of what they see as warm, happy, uncomplicated times, for me nostalgia usually leads to memories of times that weren’t so great, times when I fucked things up, or—in this particular case—a time when I was pretty much being an asshole.
And what I remembered was a winter twenty years ago in New York. My friend Ron Kolm had put out the word that Rick Peabody, editor of the esteemed lit mag out of Washington, DC, Gargoyle, was looking for poems or stories on the subject of Barbie. Not former Playboy model Barbi Benton or Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie, with whom I had at least some passing familiarity, but “Barbie”—the doll manufactured by that toy manufacturing behemoth and corporate bully, Matell, Inc. Beyond that, I knew nothing about Barbie. I had no idea of the effect it had had on girls, how it had warped their minds, planted in them an unrealistic role model whose ideals were impossible to attain. All I knew was that Rick Peabody, from Washington DC, my hometown, had landed a major book contract to edit an entire anthology devoted to the subject and that getting a piece in Mondo Barbie was something I needed to do.
I had never gotten much recognition as a writer when I lived in DC. In DC all that seemed to count was my job (my paying job as an employee with the federal government), how much money I made, and how far up I’d risen on the GS scale. That I was a writer, too, was of no significance, and it wasn’t until 1990 when I moved to New York—the heart of American Capitalism—that how much money I made ceased to matter. Being in a book edited by a well known DC lit figure, then, seemed to me a way of showing DC that my work as a writer did matter.
Besides, it was also something Ron was recommending, and if Ron was telling me there was something I should do, then by God, I’d better do it. Not that Ron had ever told me there was something I needed to do. Indeed, all he ever did was throw out ideas and encourage me. But, in the drunken state of mind I was often in during my New York days, things could get twisted around. Ron, in the beer and bourbon soaked cavities in my brain, was no longer just Ron Kolm—poet, writer, essayist—but “L. Ron Kolm,” my guru, whom I’d better try to please; and the loose assemblage of writers I drank with, the Unbearables, were my cult whose services took place in various dive bars on the Lower East Side or up near Times Square.
It’s not that I was always drunk in those days. But I did drink frequently enough that there was never time between my drunken binges for my mind to recover enough so that some sense of clarity returned. It was always either a drunken haze or the painfully exquisite disconnect with reality known as the extreme hangover, when the physical discomfort you feel while recovering from an extreme drinking session clouds your mind nearly as much as the alcohol did. That and the intoxication of being in New York in those days before everything seemed to completely fall apart ensured that the miles between my mind and real sobriety were a distance too great to cross.
I wrote my best poems like that, while I was recovering from a serious drunk during which I wouldn’t have been able to sit up straight at my electric typewriter for more than five minutes—recovering, while my mind was still wired and crazy, but with a measure of steadiness returning to my hands with which I could transcribe the profound madness that was oozing from my brain. And the poems brought me a certain amount of notoriety within the downtown poetry scene.
But this time the given subject was Barbie, a subject on which, no matter how drunk I got, I had nothing to say. I pondered the subject long and hard, saying the name “Barbie” aloud over and over until my voice started sounding like that of a half insane character from an Ingmar Bergman film. I tried repeating the name silently in my mind, but silence morphed it into the name of a fast food chain—Arby Arby Arby Arby—making me hungry and distracting me with the thought that all I needed to get going with this project was a cheap but filling meal. But food wasn’t the answer.
Next, I resorted to parody, taking famous poems and slipping in “Barbie” at clever and strategic points:
I placed Barbie in Tennessee,
And round she was, upon a hill.
She made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
It was about as clever as, well—I don’t know—as clever as… shit. My powers of language seemed to be slipping further and further away from me. I tried another parody—
The apparition of Barbie in the toy store;
A big titted doll on a plain, gray shelf—
which turned out even worse. I went on and on like this, channeling poets from John Donne to Ted Berrigan to Wanda Coleman. Nothing worked.
Finally I had a stunning revelation: for my Barbie poem, I should rip myself off; and rip myself off in the most blatant, convenient and—this was the key word here—effortless way. I’d recently done a couple of poems for Michael Gorelick—better known as “Sparrow”—who had put out a special issue of his magazine, Big Fish. Titled “The Council of All Beings,” this issue featured a variety of poems and stories, all told from the point of view of an animal. For this, I wrote two poems, the first of which was the following:
We are meatballs.
We used to be part of a cow
but now we are part
of your spaghetti sauce.
Show us your tits.
The second was this:
I am a guppy.
I live in your aquarium.
You feed me every day.
If I could get out
of here I would
kill you all.
“Meatballs” posed some problems. To say that
We are meatballs
We used to be part of Barbie
but now we are part
of your spaghetti sauce.
Show us your tits
would take the poem in—what I thought at the time—would be an unfortunate direction. I was wrong, of course, but only because “Guppy” seemed to lend itself to adaptation as a Barbie poem much more easily and logically. Thus, I came up with this:
I am Barbie.
I live in your dollhouse.
You change my clothes every day.
If I could get out
of here I would
kill you all.
It seemed to work—at least on a superficial level. But was Barbie—the doll, the character, the icon—somehow filled with homicidal rage? If it were true, I had no idea, and to create this poem I simply ripped myself off—a task which took all of 30 seconds to complete. Still, the poem seemed to work somehow, so I left it at that and sent it and a couple of even lesser efforts to Rick Peabody. Naturally, he chose homicidal Barbie.
Soon after that, I got a check for fifty bucks in the mail, and then, maybe a year later, the actual book—which was when I started to feel funny about the whole thing. First, the cover featured what looked like a photo of a bored, drag queen version of Barbie rolling her eyes on top of some graphic displaying various Barbie accessories on top of an upside down cartoon version of Barbie. It all seemed a little too busy to me, a little too self conscious. Back then, that sort of “wink wink nudge nudge” self conscious hipness was probably what I hated the most about anything. I liked my irony and sarcasm to have a dose of subtlety and was always aghast at things that seemed too obvious in their efforts at being clever or edgy. So, when I lifted the cover of Mondo Barbie to make a horrible discovery, the precise words that went through my mind and were eventually said aloud so that my upstairs and downstairs and across the street neighbors could hear, were, “THESE PAGES ARE FUCKING PINK. OH MY FUCKING GOD! OH! OH! OHHHH!”
I flipped through the book, page after page after page, all of them a sickening shade of pink. I took a deep breath, lit a cigarette, reached for the bottle of Jack Daniel’s on my desk and took a swig.
“Christ,” I said to myself after I’d calmed down a little, “this might be the worst fucking book ever. And I’m in it.”
Luckily, I thought, my poem in it was short. Indeed, it was the shortest piece in the whole book—at least I had that going for me. I shut Mondo Barbie and put it up on a bookshelf, hoping I could forget about it.
But I couldn’t, and what first brought it back to mind was when David Ulin—a writer from the Unbearables crowd who had moved out to Los Angeles—sent me a clipping from the LA Times. It was by their fashion columnist, and at the top of the page were photos of designer Richard Tyler, Mark Wahlberg (in those days he was known more by his rap moniker, “Marky Mark”), and Barbie. Under Barbie’s photo, the caption read, “A killer instinct?” At the end of the column, presented as a “closing thought,” was my poem from Mondo Barbie.
I was amused, but at the same time I felt uncomfortable—which isn’t to say that I didn’t appreciate that having a poem printed in a major newspaper had just given me the biggest audience I’d ever had with a poem. What I didn’t appreciate was that the poem was “Barbie,” which had taken me less than a minute to write and wasn’t so much created as sloughed off from the outer layer of my soul in a cheap act of self-parody. At any rate, that’s how I—through my perverse, or perhaps just youthful, earnestness—had come to feel about its creation. Clearly, I still had a lot to learn about the way the world worked.
The next thing to remind me about what had become my Barbie was a phone call I received one afternoon. I hadn’t been awake for very long—I was unemployed at the time and, after spending my nights writing and drinking, would usually awake around one in the afternoon—when I picked up the phone and the man at the other end asked, “Are you Jose Padua?”
“Yes,” I answered.
“The Jose Padua who wrote the poem in Mondo Barbie?”
His voice had a sense of urgency to it. At first, it sounded more accusatory than anything else, and if I were more alert I probably would have hung up on him immediately. But my mind was moving slowly and the words—even though I wasn’t at all sure that it would be prudent to continue speaking to this person—started coming out of my mouth at an even slower pace.
“Yes. That’s. Me.”
“Well,” the man said, and suddenly he sounded enthusiastic. “I just had tell you that this poem really shows what’s going on in this country today.”
He went on to explain that he was calling from Florida, where he was at work, and that after reading my poem he was so moved he had to call all his friends and recite it. He then felt compelled to look up my number—my bio in Mondo Barbie mentioned that I lived in New York—to tell me the effect the poem had on him and to thank me for my work. It was the sort of conversation where I normally would have said, at some point, “You’re kidding” or “You can’t be serious.” But whether I was driven by vanity or rendered inert from being in a state of shock—after realizing that it wasn’t some friend of mine playing a joke on me—I never gave away that I thought my Barbie was simply a poetic scam. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that, for me, it was hack work, that I had no concept of Barbie’s significance in the world of commerce, the world of culture, or the world of art. That, for me, Barbie was nothing more than a name added to a piece of junk mail to make it seem more personal and more real—when it was anything but real.
But what was really odd was when a couple of months later I got a note from Lucinda Ebersole—who was the co-editor of Mondo Barbie with Rick Peabody—
saying that they were coming to New York for a reading celebrating the book and asking if I would participate. What was odd was that despite my feelings about the book, I felt obligated to take part in the reading.
It was like I was working again for the direct mail marketing firm that had laid me off about a year earlier. They sold costume jewelry and were responsible for a large share of the junk mail that middle aged and elderly women completely ignore and throw straight into the trash. The thing is, they knew what most women did to their letters and brochures, but they didn’t let that stop them. They believed that by continuing to send their materials through the mail that they could eventually create, through repetition and their stubborn refusal to stop sending their material, a sense of obligation in these women. After all, if they cared enough and believed enough in their product to keep sending information about it, then by God there must be something worth having there.
During the fifteen months that I worked there I believed in their product, too. But of course I had to—they were my only source of income at the time. So, when they had a company picnic, I had to attend—had to play softball with the company president, had to laugh at the dull jokes the founder of the company told between bites of his gourmet potato salad—lest I put my standing with the company in jeopardy. That I eventually lost this job just meant that I didn’t play the game as well as I could have.
Now, I had a new job, and my new company was Barbie. It wasn’t the job I wanted, but it was the only job I had (after all, I did get paid for it). So, I wrote Lucinda back saying that, yes, I’d do the New York Mondo Barbie reading
Still, I was afraid. And even though there would be at least one person I knew there—Sparrow, who was also in the book—I couldn’t go alone. I recruited two friends to accompany me—Betsey, who was a dancer in Penny Arcade’s Bitch!Dyke!Faghag!Whore! show, and Heather (another Heather, not the Heather I married), who ran a reading series at a gallery in SoHo.
The reading was going to be at 8:00 pm at a theater on Second Ave. Betsey and Heather met me at my apartment on Avenue B to down a few bourbons, and then a few more, before heading off to the reading. By then I was in a good mood, sufficiently detached from reality and from my fear of the company party that lay before me. But when we were greeted at the door by a guy dressed in a Tuxedo and moving very slowly and stiffly as he did his impersonation of Barbie’s sometime boyfriend/partner/male accoutrement, Ken, I started to sober up.
Next to greet us were Rick Peabody and Lucinda Ebersole, each with their personal copies of Mondo Barbie for the authors to sign. I looked up my poem in each copy of the book, crossed out “Barbie” and wrote in “Rick” and then “Lucinda” and gave the books with the newly edited poem back to them. I thought I was starting to sober up by now, but Rick and Lucinda just stood there in silence while they gave me this look that seemed to say, “Man, you are really fucked up.”
And maybe I was, though I felt that I was simply being charming. Betsey, Heather, and I walked off and found seats near the back of the theater.
The proceedings were to begin with a performance piece, followed by a brief intermission after which a reading of the pieces in the book would take place. In a few minutes the lights went down and onto the stage came a plump woman wearing a blonde wig and a brightly colored party dress. She was supposed to be “Barbie.” As the performance went on I found myself sinking lower and lower into my seat. The woman smiled constantly as she went on, in a voice that seemed to slide out of her throat like Elmer’s Glue out of a plastic bottle, about how hard it was being a “living doll” or how strange it was being plastic in a flesh and blood world.
The audience was laughing, a little too politely it seemed to me, while me and my friends just sat there. Of course, we were more in tune with performance pieces like Bitch!Dyke!Faghag!Whore! and this Barbie performance was too far on the polite side and perhaps a little bit too subtle for our tastes. And besides, we were starting to sober up to an absurdly dangerous level. When the performance piece was over, it was time for intermission. We stood up, headed for the door and then the nearest bar; and even though I was supposed to read after the intermission, I never went back.
When I woke up the next morning I was still drunk and my head was pounding. Sometime much later that day, I finally got the energy to go outside and get something to eat. I was walking up to a bodega on Avenue A when I ran into Sparrow.
“Hey, what happened to you last night?” he asked, surprised. Sparrow wasn’t someone who seemed surprised very often. “It was your turn to read, but you were gone!”
I didn’t quite know what to say.
“Well,” I finally answered. “I guess I just got lost.”
I got lost. That was what happened—though other people might call what I did fucking up. But whatever one chooses to call it, it was what I tended to do; and, back then, I like to think that it was what I needed to do.
Naturally, I lost my job with Barbie that night; then, after mentioning Mondo Barbie in a rather disparaging way in pieces I wrote over the next two years, I tried to just forget about it. Nevertheless, I crossed paths with Barbie from time to time, even after I left New York. The first was when I somehow ended up doing the National Poetry Slam in Ann Arbor, Michigan. These were, obviously, desperate times. I’d gotten involved with the poetry scene in DC, where I moved back after leaving New York. I was drinking even more now, and oddly enough, poetry was the only thing that anyone would hire me for at the time. So, when DC poet Jeff McDaniel asked me to go to Ann Arbor as part of the DC slam team—and made sure to remind me of the possibility that we could actually win and make money—I said OK.
It was in Ann Arbor, during the opening party where hundreds of poets had gathered—a number which frightened me considerably—that the team from Worcester, Massachusetts sought me out after hearing that I was there with the DC team.
“Are you Jose Padua?” one of them asked.
“Yes,” I answered.
He then recited my poem from Mondo Barbie, after which he and two other poets from Worcester got down on their knees, raised their hands above their heads, and bowed before me several times. That they were fans because of my Barbie poem didn’t bother me the way it would have a few years earlier; and I was, in fact, amused, charmed, and perhaps even slightly proud of the compliment they’d paid to me. I’d begun to realize that, sometimes, it’s your lesser efforts that pay off the most; and that there’s nothing you can do about it, nothing you can do or perhaps even should do differently.
My next encounter with Barbie was when I discovered my poem, translated into Italian, printed in a column by an Italian journalist named Claudio Rossi Marcelli:
Sono la Barbie
Vivo nella vostra casa di bambole
Ogni giorno mi cambiate i vestiti.
Se ce la faccio a uscire di qua
Vi ammazzo tutti.
This I liked immediately, imagining the words as spoken by an aimless, disconnected character from a Michelangelo Antonioni film. Sono la Barbie. I could hear a character repeat these words over and over, by herself, in a empty room in a silent city where there’s no one to respond to her. Then, going back to the poem in English, I found that I was actually beginning to like it. It surprised me, that now, somehow, I was ready for it; ready, finally, to accept the poem I’d written in half a minute nearly ten years ago.
But one thing I wasn’t quite prepared for was to run into Rick Peabody.
Heather and I had gotten married by then, and after an event where she read—I’d stopped writing for a while, but Heather was still active—I saw him, standing several feet away from me talking to someone else. I turned my face away, hoping he wouldn’t notice me, but then I heard someone call my name. I turned around to finally face, after some ten years, Rick Peabody.
“Jose,” he said. “I thought I recognized you. How are you doing?”
Rick greeted me warmly and cheerfully, never mentioning the reading I walked out on or the bad things I’d said about Mondo Barbie. I’d expected that if I ever ran into him again he’d be cold, snobbish, and bitter, but he was incredibly nice, which made me feel like even more of an asshole. I then had a revelation, and that was that I was the person who, for whatever unfounded reasons, had often been cold, snobbish, and bitter. And then I had yet another perhaps even more important revelation—and the revelation was that in the years I’d spent trying to forget about Mondo Barbie, one crucial thing I also forgot about was that I never actually read Mondo Barbie. Other than my poem, and the brief story Sparrow wrote, I didn’t read a single word of it. I had simply judged the book by its cover—and the color of its pages.
I continued to run into Rick Peabody from time to time. He was always friendly and gracious and never once brought up my Mondo Barbie era behavior. Maybe he’d forgotten all about it, effortlessly, while I, although doing my best to forget it, never could forget it. I’ve never asked him, and I never will, because now, finally, it seems so long ago.
Sometime after our daughter, Maggie, was born, I started writing again—just a little bit, one or two poems, a couple of music reviews. Then, after I got laid off from my day job, we sold our house in a rather affluent area of Alexandria, Virginia where we’d lived for the past few years and moved here to Front Royal, this small town about seventy miles west of DC and at least seventy years behind DC. Leaving the comfort of the suburbs, I started writing more. I even began to do readings, at first just in DC, where we’d spend the night at my Dad’s house, welcoming the time spent in a real city, then going back to our small town in the morning.
At the end of one reading where we brought Maggie, she asked, “Why did you take me to this place? I hate these poems.”
I laughed and was pleased to see that she’d inherited at least some of my attitude.
“I hate them, too,” I explained. “But this is what we have to do.”
Later, for the first reading we ever did in Front Royal, Heather used my Barbie poem on the flyer she made for the event. By then, I had no more reservations about the poem. It was, as far as I was concerned, a nice quick introduction to my work.
Looking back at everything, I saw that fucking up was my way of achieving everything I wanted—whether it was the comfort of those days when nothing was happening and nothing was possible, or that testing of fate where you tried to see just how much you could get away with and still come out on top. There were times when I found myself getting close to some kind of prize, however great or small that prize was; but if getting that prize was too easy, if getting that prize was something any asshole could do just by following some easy, well worn path, then the prize just wasn’t worth it for me. If, however, I could find some new, totally absurd path to it. Then, maybe, just maybe, it was worth pursuing.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t some things I could have done differently. Certainly, I know more now and understand more about the way things work. But to go back to those days with the knowledge I have now would be cheating myself out of the adventure; it would be a taking away of the maze, the very puzzle that, for me, is the entire point of everything.
A couple of months later, Heather and I were sitting at the dining room table, after having just gotten home from dropping Maggie off at school, when the phone rang. Heather picked it up, and after a moment said, “Oh, hi, how are you?” in that tone of voice that said it was someone neither she nor I had heard from in a while. After hearing her end of the conversation for a minute, I could tell that it was Ron on the phone.
Heather had met Ron a couple of times, the last time being nearly ten years ago, which was the last time I made a trip to New York. He had called to remind us that the deadline for the Unbearables’ Worst Book I Ever Read anthology was coming up and wanted to see if we had anything we could send in for it. Then Ron gave her all the news about my old crowd, let her know how he was doing, how his kids were—in other words, answers to all the questions that would come to mind whenever the thought “I wonder how Ron is doing?” ran through my head.
After about twenty minutes Heather said, “Well great! Do you want to talk to Jose now?” I could faintly hear his voice now, saying, “No, I gotta run.” Heather said goodbye, hung up the phone, then told me everything Ron had told her. It had been maybe three years since I last had Ron on the phone, but what mattered to Ron was not that he actually spoke to you. It was the message. The news. The word. It didn’t matter how you stayed in touch, just that you did.
Heather stood up and, before heading out to do some errands, took a big gulp from a glass of water. I kissed her goodbye, then went upstairs and began to work.
This originally appeared, in a slightly different version, as “My Last Day Job in the Unreal City,” in the anthology, The Worst Book I Ever Read, edited by Ron Kolm, Carol Wierzbicki, Alfred Vitale, Shalom Neuman, and Jim Feast; Autonomedia, 2009.