Monthly Archives: May 2016

Walking the Bridge with My Young Daughter in the Late American Spring

Photograph by Jose Padua
If we were walking over the Brooklyn Bridge,
the voice I’d be hearing might be Lena Horne’s,
but we’re walking over the Key Bridge
from Virginia into DC so the voice is probably
Marvin Gaye’s and the song “What’s Going On,”
and with the water below us and boats floating
like slow footsteps toward the distance,
I’m thinking about motion and flight,
and though we aren’t flying we’re high,
and we’re not really walking over the bridge
as I told my daughter we’re walking on the bridge
because if we could walk through the bridge
as she mentioned we’d be able to walk
through traffic, too, and save time and be
fine and be fast and be pretty much invincible,
but we can’t and we aren’t, so we’re on the
bridge and walking to the other side and I’m
holding my daughter’s hand all the way
hearing one song or another over the sound
of traffic, the clamor of cities, and other conflicts
and we’re stepping lightly, interrupting the noise
and pledging our allegiance to nothing but the
warm air until our feet are on solid ground again.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

A Slightly Uncomfortable Seat at the Edge of the World


I can’t remember the last time I went to the movies alone. This, I suppose, is a sign of how normal my life is now. Indeed, if you were to see a man my age at the movies by himself, you might wonder What is the deal with that guy? Because going to the movies, especially in a small town like Front Royal, is usually considered something of a social event; and to go to the movies alone begs the question, What, exactly, is wrong with you? Or Are you violating your parole by being here?

Since I was around fourteen years old, going to the movies by myself was a regular and quite normal thing—for me, unlike a lot of other teenagers, going to the movies was not a social event. Or at least I didn’t see any need for it to be one. It wasn’t that I never went to movies with my friends. But, more often than not, I went alone, because if there was a film I really wanted to see back then, I knew that among my friends there wouldn’t be a single one who’d want to see it too. After all, when you’re a freshman in high school, how do you get someone to go the theater with you to watch all 363 minutes of Louis Malle’s documentary, L’ Inde fantome (Phantom India). Or attend a showing of Joseph Strick’s film of James Joyce’s Ulysses to see how it compares with the book? Well, I guess there are other misfits out there who, at that age, had friends they could connect with that way, but I wasn’t so fortunate.

Still, I never felt that I was missing out on anything. It was with friends that I’d see things like The Exorcist or American Graffiti, films that were entertaining but didn’t exactly move me. But it was when I was by myself that I saw what I really wanted to see. And, sitting alone in the old Circle Theater in Washington DC—a theater notorious for its stiff, uncomfortable seats—seeing for the first time the works of Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, or Robert Downey Sr. (a prince), I was having a great time. Alone with my thoughts and a cinematic masterpiece or two at a bargain price (admittance during the day was only a dollar), there really wasn’t anywhere else I’d rather be. Or, anyone I wanted to be with.

The first time I set foot in the Royal Cinemas on Main Street in Front Royal brought back that feeling of going to the movies alone—even though I was with Heather and Maggie. Because even though I wasn’t alone, we were alone. It happens from time to time that when we go there to see a movie at the Royal Cinemas—a new movie—we find that we’re the only ones in the theater.


Call me anti-social, but I like it when we’re the only ones there. Plus, I like going to the movies at the Royal Cinemas anyway, because when you’re there you’re not at one of those slick, new multiplexes with stadium seating and a concession stand that sells cappuccino, flavored water, and appetizers like bruschetta with cherry tomato and avocado. No, the Royal Cinemas is one of those older, slightly decaying movie houses. Yes, the smell of fresh popcorn is in the air, but so is the smell of popcorn from several years ago. And, at the end of a movie, you’re more than happy to be getting up from your rock hard seat.

Every time we go there to see some popular film (and that’s all they show there—this is certainly not an “art house” theater), I’m reminded of what is probably my favorite film of all time, Kings of the Road. A film Wim Wenders made in 1974—its German title, Im Lauf der Zeit, translates as “In the Course of Time”—Kings of the Road is one of those films that a lot of people find unbearably boring, and when I first saw it at an afternoon showing at the east wing of the National Gallery in Washington, DC, less than half the audience that was there at the beginning of the film remained at the completion of its three hour running time. But for me, it was the most compelling film I’d seen since Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura (yeah, another film that leaves a lot of people utterly bored or baffled) and it accomplished this without any special effects. And without much action or even plot.

Maybe that’s precisely why I find it so engrossing. Me, I don’t give a rat’s ass about what effects CGI or Industrial Light and Magic or Pixar can produce—the cinematic spectacles so many people rave about (e.g., The Lord of the Rings trilogy) put me to sleep. And so what I remember about the Lord of the Rings trilogy is that I slept through about a third of Fellowship of the Ring, over half of The Two Towers, and by the time The Return of the King came out Heather figured that maybe I should just take my nap at home while she went with her brother to see it.

Because, and I guess here I am going against the grain again, I don’t go to the movies to escape the real world or even to see the real world disguised to look like some happy acid trip. I actually hate that shit. As for Kings of the Road, this is the kind of trip I like. On the surface it may look like there’s little going on: Bruno, whose job maintaining and repairing film projectors takes him to run-down movie theaters in West Germany, close to the East-German border, travels for a while with Robert, a man who has just split up with his wife—and then they go their separate ways again. But the revelation comes from seeing how they interact with each other, with the people they meet during their travels, and with the sometimes beautiful, sometimes desolate landscape through which they move. It’s a landscape and a speed of life (or, rather, a lack of speed) that reminds me a lot of Front Royal. And the Royal Cinemas feels exactly like the sort of theater where Bruno would work on a projector.

Since the first time I saw it, Kings of the Road has always been at least somewhere close to the back of my mind. So it’s not surprising that, soon after Heather and I first got together in the mid 90s, I felt compelled to show this film to her. I found it on a VHS double cassette (Kings of the Road still hadn’t come out on DVD in the U.S.) at Potomac Video on Connecticut Avenue in DC, a store that, like all the other video stores, has since gone out of business.

Showing her the film wasn’t quite a litmus test for seeing how compatible we were, but seeing that she appreciated the film was, for me, a very good thing. We watched it in our apartment across from the Zoo. And although it was as compelling as ever for me, watching it at home on a television, I now realize that the perfect place to see this film would be the Royal Cinemas on Main Street. That, of course, will never happen. But just as seeing David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive at the decaying Foxchase theater in Alexandria back in the early summer of 2001 added to our experience of that film—a triplex, the Foxchase showed mainstream and indie films in two theaters and porn in the third—seeing Im Lauf der Zeit at the Royal Cinemas would add immeasurably to our experience of this film.


Because there’s something about the Royal Cinemas, and Front Royal as a whole, that makes me feel like I’m actually living in an early Wim Wenders film. The wide open landscape, the silence, the way everything one does here feels like it’s taking place at the edge of the known world: it’s like if you take one more step—or perhaps the wrong step—you’ll be leaving the civilized world completely and be entering into Lord of the Flies territory.

Oddly enough, this is something I actually like about Front Royal. I like that living here feels like we’re living in some sort of limbo, that—especially in the dead of winter when all the bright fall colors are gone and all the tourists are safely back in civilization—it feels like a bit of a ghost town. Or a place where they forgot to tell the residents that, “Oh, by the way, the world has ended.”

If anything, Front Royal is a place on the edge of something. To simply call it a small, conservative, and rather backward town is to miss the point—even though Front Royal is, without a doubt, all of those things—and what it’s on the edge of, I’m not quite sure. Sometimes I think it may be taking a turn for the better, even though most of the time I’m prepared for it to do the opposite.

All I know for sure is that feeling I get from being here. That feeling I got the first time we drove on one of those low-water bridges that cross the Shenandoah. Looking at it, this rough concrete strip that’s barely above the water, we weren’t sure that it was actually passable. We stopped to think about it for a while. We waited, hoping the answer would come to us like some strange revelation from the woods. Finally, we went ahead, slowly, over the muddy brown water of the Shenandoah River. Then, when we got to the other side, it didn’t seem like we were getting anywhere—the trees on both sides of the road bore signs saying POSTED. NO TRESPASSING.

It was hard to tell where we were—were we on someone’s private property now? Someone who believes in shooting first and asking questions later? And had we, in fact, gone past the city limits? Sometimes I get the feeling that Front Royal never ends, that it continues simply because it doesn’t know how to go forward to some sort of conclusion.

We turned around and went back over the low-water bridge. We kept going—quietly, as if we were being followed— until we reached a place where we recognized our surroundings. We kept going, away from the river which, as it winds through the valley, always looks like it’s chasing us. Away from the low-water bridge, which always looks like it could collapse at any moment.

Yes, we kept going, as one must do in these parts, until we were sure, once again, that we weren’t about to fall off the edge of the world.

-Jose Padua

Real Words and Other Journeys Under the Splendid Sky

Photograph by Jose Padua
Earlier that evening, the overture to Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie came on the car stereo as I took Maggie to her theater class. Over the years, The Thieving Magpie has brought different things to mind, not all them pleasant or comforting, but as of late I’d found listening to it exhilarating. That it can have this effect on me much of the time was why, about a year ago, I put it in the mix of jazz, classical, and pop music I have on the mp3 player I use in the car. (How much music I have on it I’m not sure—just that morning Maggie asked me how many songs I had on it, and I had no idea).

Usually when The Thieving Magpie starts playing out of the random mix, I’ll turn up the volume, because listening to it feels like several shots of good bourbon—except unlike the alcohol, it doesn’t impair my driving skills. But that night, when it came on, I felt a certain amount of trepidation.

Although I had come to think of the more whimsical aspects of Haruki Murakami’s novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle whenever I heard it—The Thieving Magpie is what the novel’s protagonist Toru Okada is listening to when the novel begins—this time I began to think of some of the more distressing aspects of Murakami’s book. Namely, the isolation and confusion that are a big part of the journey Okada experiences in the course of the novel. And although I recognized that what I was feeling as I drove was simply another manifestation of my obsessive-compulsive fears, I felt quite tense all the same. Adding to that feeling was that, after dropping Maggie off at her class, I was going to meet Heather and Julien at the new ice cream shop that had opened on Main Street.

Normally, going to an ice cream shop shouldn’t be a source of stress, but I still remember the one time I went with Maggie to the one that used to be on Chester just off of Main. They were, to say the least, less than welcoming, and when Heather and I noticed that a new shop was opening, I said to her, “I hope it’s not another Confederate Creamery.” And it wasn’t—which isn’t to say it wasn’t still a little strange.

I parked the car at the gazebo on Main Street, where I met Heather and Julien, then together we walked across the street and into the ice cream shop. The owner was friendly, greeting us and shaking our hands. He was a skinny guy, somewhere in his early 40s with a bad eye, and with his good eye he looked me in the eyes. “Let me see,” he said, “where are you fr…” and he didn’t quite say it, but he was about to: “where are you from?” Instead he said, “I know what flavor you want. Pineapple, right?”

“Er, no,” I said. “Actually I’d like to try the salt caramel.”

After we’d gotten our ice cream, we sat down, and the owner and a woman who worked there immediately went outside for a smoke. It felt a little awkward, but the thing was, the ice cream, which he makes himself right there, was really good. When he was done smoking, he came back in. As Heather, Julien, and I were finishing up, he said, “I had a vision this morning when I was on the way in.” He looked up toward the ceiling. “And what I saw was cucumber, ginger and lime…” It sounded pretty good to us.

Heather and Julien started walking back toward our house, and, since I still had the car after having taken Maggie to her class, I drove. We met back home, and after a while, it was time to pick Maggie up.

“Did you go to the new ice cream shop?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“Was it good?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“I want ice cream too.”

We didn’t think the new shop would still be open, so we went to the 7-11 on Royal. Maggie took a long time trying to decide what she wanted, and I was starting to feel that fear again.

“Come on, we need to hurry,” I told her. I didn’t tell her why. She still took a few more minutes to decide, but we finally got out of there. By this time the car stereo was playing something completely different, Scritti Politti’s “The Word Girl” and its chorus that goes:

The first time baby that I came to you
I’d do things that you want me to
The second time baby that I came to you
Oh you found my love for you
The third time baby that I came to you
Oh oh oh I knew
The last time baby that I came to you
Oh how your flesh and blood became the word…

And I considered how sometimes I feel like I’m just sitting still and going nowhere and that I’ll continue to go nowhere for the rest of my years, while other times I feel like I’m going places, mastering the process with which my mind can create ideas and make progress. Where I end up once all these journeys and non-journeys are gathered together remains to be seen.

This photograph of Julien was taken after his soccer workshop later that week. Sometimes, here in our town, I have a feeling of exhilaration on the grass, under the clouds and beneath the blue sky as it creates what looks like an infinite edge over the mountains.

Sometimes it’s just Maggie and Julien feeling the exhilaration. Other times it’s just Heather and I. But somehow, much of the time, when we feel it, we feel it together. Those, of course, are the days I love best.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

The River Merchant’s Response to His Wife After Traveling Centuries Through Time to the Present Day

Photograph by Jose Padua
I imagine the gardens overgrown with mosses
and the once brightly colored butterflies now
drab as the dirty air and drone of traffic idling
on massive highways and never moving
and never making decisions worth making.

I sail slowly now, my fingers feeling
brittle like dry bamboo,
and lower my eyes to the boat’s deck
because the river is overrun with a kind of dying.

But I remember your hair with its beautiful
shade of evening, its scent as if you’d washed it
in the juice of ripe plums and how you never laughed
until we were mingled like the sound of the monkeys
that climbed from tree to tree, then tired
and limped to the ground to feed and rest.

If I could make it through the old water narrows
to meet you at Cho-fo-Sa,
I would,
but I am being called away again
to the factory outside the city,
and you are long gone,
and every day feels like winter
even though I never seem to grow old and
never lose my appetite for Xinjiang wine.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua
Originally published at Vox Populi

A City Named Elizabeth and a Million Other Ways of Resisting the Dream

Photograph by Jose Padua
I was getting tired and was annoyed with all the traffic after hitting the outskirts of Richmond right around rush hour. I also had to keep reminding myself this was Wednesday not Saturday—and that even though we were heading out on the road it was not the weekend.

We’d left Front Royal at around two and took, as usual, the slow way. Route 522 going south seemed like the way to go, but that day, as it wound around Lake Anna in Louisa and Spotsylvania counties, I started to feel this sadness. My American sadness.

Lake Anna. It’s a man-made lake, formed in the early 70s to provide a source of water for the purpose of cooling the North Anna Nuclear Generating Station. Since then it’s become a popular vacation destination in Virginia, and every summer it fills with people swimming, boating, fishing. Maybe not everyone feels this way, but I find the idea of frolicking on a lake that was created to cool a nuclear power plant rather depressing. Of course, with my obsessive-compulsive mind, there are so many things that can send my thoughts veering off in some unpleasant or frightening direction.

When we got off of the slow, winding dreariness of Route 522 and onto the fast-paced madness of Interestate-64 at rush hour, I was pissed. Right away Heather picked up her phone in search of an alternate route, and she found one. All we had to do was go south of Richmond on 295 and we’d hit Route 460.

It was a slower road, going through these small run-down and run-over towns with vaguely British sounding names like Waverly, Wakefield, and Windsor as well as more intriguing names like New Bohemia and Disputanta. As is often the case when we’re on the road, there were numerous places where I wanted to stop the car, though not necessarily get out. This was, after all rural Virginia, and as fascinating and oddly beautiful as it can be, it’s not always the most welcoming of places. So we drove on, passing by gun shops and ammo shops and sometimes gun and ammo shops; seeing home-made signs along the road blaming Obama for everything imaginable, including one sign that urged people to fight Obamacare using the Edmund Burke quote, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Thinking that this quote would be more applicable commentary regarding Obama’s drone war, for instance, or for the record number of people his administration has deported, I had to give this sign the finger.

We drove on and on down 460, and then we got to Suffolk, Virginia. This was one town I was especially glad to go through, because according to what I’ve read, this is the town where one of my favorite musicians and songwriters, Fred Cornog (who records under the name “East River Pipe”) was born. I would have stopped, but we were already running late.

Suffolk was also where we saw, for the first time that day, a Confederate Flag flying from the back of some dickhead’s pickup truck. Well, there were most likely others, but that was the first one we noticed. But it was in Suffolk when Miles Davis’s “Right Off” from A Tribute to Jack Johnson came out of the random mix on the car stereo. It’s a piece of music that always lifts me up, always give me strength, and, looking back, I wonder if this was when the music of Miles Davis first clicked with Julien, who at the time was just four. Now, yearly a year later, Miles Davis is the music he always asks to hear, and it’s not unlikely that his appreciation of this music is a revelation that occurred on the road. I know that for me, the road is where a lot of revelations ascend as well as a determination to get where I want to be (and by getting where I want to be I’m not necessarily talking about an actual place so much as a place where I want my mind to dwell).

After we’d crossed the state line into North Carolina and were driving along the southern end of the Great Dismal Swamp, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 18 in B-flat major came on. Listening to it, with the swamp on the left, Heather to my right, and Maggie and Julien in the seats behind us, I got that pleasant sensation that happens every now and then when I feel as if I’m riding slightly off the ground. Flying, as it were, but at the sort of low and comfortable altitude I prefer. And moving forward in such a way that wherever we were, the ground beneath us felt like a home of sorts, a shelter—if only temporarily so—from all the vicious American dreams that clash with our own more peaceful ones.

Then we hit a clearing. That’s what you see in this photograph—the flat of the land of North Carolina as you get closer and closer to the shore. In a little while, we were in Elizabeth City, which was where we were stopping for the night. As we drove up to our hotel I saw, standing around the entrance, about a dozen or so good-ole-boy types. As I let Heather out the door so she could pick up the keys to our room, they all stared at me. It was that blank look of barely restrained disapproval—a look that sometimes disintegrates into something worse. A look that can say, as looks often do, a whole lot of different things—none of which were “Welcome to North Carolina.”

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Prelude to a Highly Personal Confabulation of Zen and the Art of War

Photograph by Jose Padua
When I walked with my friend Oscar
to get his best dress shirt dry-cleaned
for our friend’s wedding
it was only the third time I’d ever been
to New York City.
We walked into the shop
and he showed them the shirt
but the fabric was too delicate,
too fragile to take even one more cleaning
and they refused to take it.
I walked out with Oscar
and we walked down the street
in some lower Manhattan neighborhood
the name of which I didn’t yet know
and when he spotted a fire hydrant
he stopped.
He stood silently before the hydrant,
held his best dress shirt
high toward the sky,
blocking his vision of passing traffic
on the street
and all the buildings
and all the signs
pointing back to whatever
was left of the world;
then laid the shirt down on the hydrant
and bowed with a moment of silence
as deep as the Grand Canyon
before walking away from the shirt forever.
And it was in that instant
that I learned these essential things—
one, how I could one day live in New York City
with half my mind in a flame-like state
of absolute intensity;
and two, the subtle art and fine ceremony
with which I could leave
all my useless shit behind.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

A Combination Special from the 1990s and All the Other Things in the City That Moved Me

Photograph by Jose Padua
Back then my big splurge was to get the combination special
egg foo young, egg roll, and pork fried rice
not at the carryout a few doors down from me on Avenue B
for $2.35
but at the one on First Avenue
where the same special cost 15 cents more
and tasted at least a couple of dollars better
and sometimes rather than bring it back home
I’d eat it right there at the table by the window,
washing it down with a Coke
and looking out
upon the Avenue and Downtown/East Village/Lower East Side/
What-Could-Be-More-Alive-Than-This Manhattan
and sooner or later I’d see a familiar face
or better yet a friend and they’d see me
with my feast and I’d raise my drink
and wave and lift my chin and say cheers
or open my mouth in a silent shout
through the transparent thickness of
the storefront glass
and they’d wave back knowing I was having a good day
living the good life in the big and beautiful
dirty big city until everything goes

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Pulling White Hairs

When I was a child I’d pull the white hairs
from my mother’s head. It was a chore
like any other—like making my bed
in the morning, folding my clothes at night.
I was neat, as a child, and took pleasure
in maintaining the proper order of things.
The Tinker Toys back in the box when I
was done, the Lego blocks, too, the Spirograph
wheels still warm from spinning over white space
to trace blue and red lines, the lines that
multiplied the way the shelves of books and records
would when I got older. When I was young,
I’d look so closely at my mother’s hair
that I’d swear I could smell the white ones—
they were cold and slightly bitter, if bitter
could describe a smell, a scent. They had no
expression, could never twist and turn
to form strong words the way the black ones could.
I’d spot them, zero in with the tweezers,
thinking myself a doctor of sorts,
removing bad hair like germs, tumors,
bad blood, bad sugar, bad habits, bad luck.
I’d ease my grip on the tweezers, drop
the white hairs on a paper towel I’d
laid beside me on the big living room chair.
They were ready to throw away, in the trash,
where they could never make my mother old,
make her weak and frail, or make her stop
to catch her breath when she could still walk fast,
down the steps to the street, with me, to this
square city that was always home to me.
But sometimes home, for her, was somewhere else.
Home was where she wanted to be all those
fed-up-with-here, life-is-harder-here than
back home some nine thousand miles away days.
But when I was pulling white hairs there was
only this city, this home. I’d count the hairs
I’d pulled, each hair a mile, each number a
dividing of distance and the immeasurable
light speed of time. This was the record
of our work—that which she’d done and
that which lay ahead of me, and these long,
perilous journeys over land and sea.

-Jose Padua

The photograph of Margarita S. Padua was taken in the early 50s, possibly somewhere in the Shenandoah Valley.

In a Year of Thinking Like Blue Oyster Cult

Photograph by Jose Padua
Looking for shirts at the Good Will store
I paused and examined a photograph
of Al Pacino from the movie Scarface
that was printed on an XXL tall sized tee shirt,
and just as I’m holding it in my hand
Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper”
comes over the store’s sound system
and for a moment I consider buying the shirt
even though it’s way too big for me
and though I soon come to my senses
about buying the shirt,
I remain standing there,
listening to Blue Oyster Cult,
remembering that it had been recently
that Allen Lanier,
one of the original members of the band,
died from having smoked too much
just as I used to smoke too much
until thirteen years ago when I quit;
and I focus on the gun Al Pacino
is holding in the photograph
then look at the caption next to it
which reads “Say Hello to My Lil’ Friend,”
which somehow moves me
to finally hang the Scarface shirt
back on the rack
and take the shirts I am going to buy
over to the cash register,
thinking “More cowbell”
and “I got a fever”
and I pull out my wallet,
hand over a twenty dollar bill
that will cover the four shirts
I picked at three dollars apiece,
plus what I found
when I first walked into the store
and headed straight to the shelf
of used books in the back—
a copy of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking.
And when I leave the store
I realize that when I read the book
it will be far scarier
than the image of Al Pacino
playing Tony Montana in Scarface,
and make me fear the Reaper
even more than a Blue Oyster Cult song
that tells me not to,
because the words in a book
are the small, unpredictable friends
that sometimes turn against me,
threatening me with malevolent diction,
or else taking me places
I have no business being,
while the rest of the time
they stay on the shelf
or on the table
or wherever I lay them,
lining the pages of my books,
while carrying the information,
the story, the theory,
the reason and reminding me
that there are billions of far away
places in the universe,
none of which I can see,
none of which can ever be called home.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua