A Brief History of Empire As Presented by Focusing on a Few Moments at the Old Holiday Cocktail Lounge and a Pop Song from 1992

Photograph by Jose Padua
I love how the 1990s were like that.
Beginning with a war and ending
with an innocence, or maybe it was
the other way around. Days that went by
like speed, with sorrow filling out all
the weeks that went too slowly to feel
like anything else. Subway trains and
buses and taxis rushing like blood through
the boroughs carrying ideas and overdoses,
rolling over anything that dared to stand
still and holler, at a time when I was
a young man without envy and full
of patience. And I was an early evening
drinker sitting at the bar at the Holiday
Cocktail Lounge on St. Marks Place
when I went to the restroom, and
when I got back to the bar, “Damn,
Wish I Was Your Lover” was playing
on the jukebox. It wasn’t even on there
before I went to the bathroom,
and it had only been released by
Columbia Records ten minutes earlier
but there it was, coming out of the speakers
right after Joey the Ex dropped a quarter
from his greasy fingers and into the slot.
I looked and looked then figured out
that “Damn, Wish I Was Your Lover”
had replaced Neil Young’s “Only Love
Can Break Your Heart,” which made me mad,
but then I started listening and suddenly
there was a history: a girlfriend with whom
I used to listen to that song and who told me
I was the first person she thought of
when she heard it, the first person she
thought of whenever she heard about
someone dying but somehow I survived
and I felt sad because we’d broken up
and I missed the way she said the word,
“incredible.” And it wasn’t just me,
because everyone in the bar now had
a history with this song. The gray-haired
woman tending bar knew the lyrics by heart.
The old Polish guy sitting next to me
started tearing up and grabbed a napkin
to wipe his nose, while the kid with the red
bandana wrapped around his shiny black hair
and who was playing pool stood back from
the table and closed his eyes for a half second
that seemed to last forever, while a woman
with pink hair and horror film lipstick felt
a sudden switch flip when she exhaled that
last drag from her cigarette and thought nothing
but words that were so fucking earnest and slid
down from her stool in a way that was so
goddamn beautiful and so goddamn slow.
And I was a young man full of envy who
couldn’t wait to escape my skin, wishing
to know everything the city could tell me
and feeling it in the bent straw I stepped on
with the rubber sole of my flat, black shoe,
and through the vast determined stretch
of empire that stood so sternly before me
and attempted to pull everything in its path
up into its warm and loving embrace.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua. (The poem is a revision of an earlier version.)

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