Monthly Archives: August 2016

A Slightly Hard-Boiled History of my Life as it Moves Slowly away from Cities

Jose Padua and Heather Davis in Chicago
It was the summer of 1996. I’d just gotten the money from my discrimination settlement, so Heather and I celebrated by meeting in the great city of Chicago when her two week residency at Ragdale artist’s colony, about thirty miles north, was finishing up. We stayed at the old Ambassador East hotel in Chicago’s Gold Coast district. It was a much fancier place than the motel where we’d stayed a couple of months earlier.

That motel was near Harrisburg, PA, where we’d gone to attend a wedding. Heather had booked it from DC by phone, and when we got to Harrisburg, it wasn’t all that hard to find because it had an easily recognizable landmark right in front of it—a graveyard. When the motel owner took us to our room, he sprayed Lysol in the air before letting us enter. Looking out for our health and safety, he was killing germs and freshening up the place. We thanked him, then looked over to the bed, which sagged so deeply in the middle that if it could hold water it would make a decent sized kiddie pool.

While we were in Chicago we did a lot of the usual tourist things. First was the elevator ride to the top of the Hancock building and to the Signature Lounge on the 96th floor where we took big gulps of our mixed drinks, looked out of the floor to ceiling windows, then had to catch our breath because you can’t look out of a window that high without imagining that you’re about to fall. Well, anyone with any kind of imagination. We also went uptown to the Green Mill, which where the poetry slam first got big.

It was at a poetry slam in DC at the old 15 Minutes Club where Heather and I first crossed paths in January of 1994. I was onstage, drunk, reading poetry, having just gotten back to DC after leaving New York. Having failed at my practical ways of making money, I was now reduced to impractical ways, which was why I ventured to do a slam, the winner of which received thirty or forty tax-free dollars. It was here at the 15 Minutes Club where I got to know a good number of poets—Silvana Straw, Jeffrey McDaniel, Joel Dias-Porter, Kenny Carroll, Brian Gilmore, Andy Fenwick. Twenty years later, some of us had a reunion reading at the Dance Place. Of course, a lot of things happened during that time in between.

A few years after Heather and I got together, I pretty much stopped writing. I’d quit drinking to an insane degree, quit smoking, worked a couple of straight, full-time jobs, and even, at various times, had an active membership at a gym. I was, in other words, being content, and trying to remain healthy—two things which, at the time, poetry did not help me achieve.

By the time Maggie was born in 2003, Heather wasn’t writing all that much either, but it was then that we decided we should get serious about writing again. We wanted to leave something for them other than fucking money, which was all gone by then anyway. Something with real substance but which can’t be so easily taken away or spent. Yeah, we wanted to leave a legacy of words from which they might draw whenever the need came around. Or whenever they needed inspiration.

Heather published her first book of poems, The Lost Tribe of Us–which won the Main Street Rag poetry prize–in 2007. That was when, after eight or nine years when I hardly did a thing, and after moving here to the Shenandoah Valley, I started writing every day again. I’ve probably written around four or five hundred poems and short essays since then. Somehow, after the crazy years of drinking and chain smoking, poetry became something that helped me survive. Maybe it was all along—it just that before Heather and then Maggie and Julien came along, survival kind of bored me. Because for a lot of us, when we were young, survival wasn’t the most compelling of subjects. Indeed, if it were a class in school, it’s the class I would have skipped the most, and then gone off to pursue other interests.

This photograph of Heather and me was taken by the man who waited on us at the Pump Room, the restaurant that was on the ground floor of the Ambassador East in Chicago. It was one of those fancy restaurants with pictures of celebrities lining the walls and entrees that cost something like thirty/forty dollars, which was way more than either of us had ever paid for a meal. Even though I’d just gotten that nice chunk of money from my legal settlement, we weren’t about to pay that much, so we made our visit to the Pump Room during breakfast for a much more moderately priced meal. From there, it was off to O’Hare for a flight back to DC. Then, in a couple of years, we got married, then had kids, then moved farther and farther away from the city.

The city was what I knew best. Whether it was DC, where I grew up, New York, where I lived for a number of years, or even a place like Chicago, which I only visited—a city was what I knew and what I understood. Now, after living outside of them for these years, I’m not so sure. And I’m not so sure that it’s a bad thing. But that’s a function of time. And sometimes, I think that the greatest function–and greatest benefit of time, along with aging–is to take one away from what one knows best.

As for illustration of time’s inescapable function of aging, I can look at this picture. One immediate but trivial thought that comes to mind is that we’re not quite as pretty as we were so many years ago. But then, as I’ve said before, Fuck Pretty. Because we’re fucking beautiful. Pretty is for kids—at least until they learn that pretty is mostly a load of bullshit. That pretty is OK if it happens, but it’s nothing worth pursuing. Of course, some kids never learn that, do they?

-Jose Padua

First published in Vox Populi. The photograph of Jose Padua and Heather Davis was taken in Chicago in 1996.

A Poem for Jimi Hendrix and All the Superheroes of My Youth Who Lacked the Power to Live Forever

Photograph by Jose Padua
When I was a child
considering the hierarchy
of superheroes
I wondered why
when they got to Superman
all the other creators
of superheroes
didn’t just quit.
After all,
except for the kryptonite,
Superman was invincible,
so what was the point of
the Fantastic Four,
for example,
each possessing a single superpower,
and as for Batman
who didn’t have
even one superpower
what the hell was the deal
with that?
Of course when I got older
I realized
that what was really interesting
wasn’t what they could do
but what they couldn’t do,
and what moved me
the most wasn’t
what some fictional superhero could do
but what a real person could do
that I wished I could do too—
like play electric guitar with my teeth
then make it sound
like an airplane,
then a machine gun,
then a breeze
when all that’s left
after the sun goes
down is the sound
of the wind carving
its invisible path
through late summer trees.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

A Brief Reflection on the Passage of Time As Seen Through an Old Burn Mark on My Skin

Photograph by Jose Padua
More than twenty years later I still have
the slight trace of a brown burn mark
on my left forearm from when I was
at the stove in my lower east side apartment
holding with a fork in my right hand
the pork chop I got on sale at Key Foods
on the corner of Avenue A and Fourth
and which slipped off the tines into the hot oil
that splattered all over my lowered arm.
I cursed and screamed and kicked
the television that was on the floor
next to the oven and I began to feel better
then kicked the television again
because it was a good way to focus
on something other than the pain I was feeling
and besides the television was already broken,
I just hadn’t bothered to take it down to the curb
or wherever it was you were supposed leave
your useless old machines in New York City.
After the burn and the pain came several seasons
when all I had was the radio and nothing
to watch The Tonight Show with or the news
or sports which I was starting to lose interest in anyway,
and whenever I needed to see what the weather
was like I looked out the window,
opened it a crack to feel the air that came in,
which always made me want to open it all the way
and stick my head out and maybe sometimes
go ahead and take the fast way down to the street,
and I listened to the radio during the first war
in the Persian Gulf and during the uprising in LA
after a gang of cops tried to bash Rodney King’s head in,
listening to the stories and hearing the sounds
of wars and riots and listening for but never hearing
the easy silence that surrounded whoever
was in charge saying who should be shot,
who should be hung or electrocuted
or else made to work until his or her fingers started to bleed;
and I had to imagine what everything looked like,
picturing in my mind who was hurt and who was killed,
pondering what would be left when it was all over
and feeling something less like confidence
and more like despair that anything could ever change
here in America or anyplace America touched.
And whenever I look at the brown burn on my arm
I think about both evil dictator and elder statesman;
I think about the guys who carry the guns
and for whom the law is like an insurance policy
they carry in their wallets ready to flash
whenever somebody needs to be reminded that
the laws were written to protect not us but them.
I think of all the immortal conflicts they bring
upon us, each of them feeding their great hunger
in nearly the same way I feed my own
but on an epic scale while rarely ever getting burned
during the long, slow process of living.
And I am reminded that too often in life
it’s the person who’s the biggest asshole who wins,
pushing aside what’s left of our bones to clear his way
from the unbearable heat of a dangerous summer
and all the other seasons of discord and urgency
to the comfort of everything that’s not beautiful but cool,
falling asleep in front of the giant TV screen,
snoring loudly then breathing deeply,
unable to be moved.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

One Night at the Nuyorican

Photograph by Jose Padua
One night at the Nuyorican I opened the bathroom
door to see a poet whose work I didn’t like
standing bare-assed, ass side facing me, while her left hand
was moving downward mid-wipe. Now I know there are
people who hide out in port-a-potties to see this sort
of thing, and I know that singer GG Allin, who
overdosed across the street from my apartment in

New York one night, had a strange appreciation for
fecal matter, and although I’m certainly weird I’m
not that weird, and the reality is that no one
looks good bent over the toilet and wiping, and I
have no idea why her ass was facing away
from the toilet while she wiped, and I can’t
say that I’m at all curious about this, and if

somehow you knew why and were to try to tell me
I probably wouldn’t believe you anyway and
my opinion of you would diminish so swiftly
you’d swear I’d just smacked you in the face. I’d seen some
horrible things in my New York days, and her “jazz”
poetry and her “in-the-moment” performances
were two of them, but the only thing I can say I

wished I’d never experienced was the sight of her
wiping her ass. Maybe if I’d liked her work my
reaction would have been different. Maybe I would
have remembered a line from one of her poems. Maybe
I would have gone right home, picked up one of her books and
just read madly and uncontrollably for the rest
of the night. Maybe I would have jumped up, raised my arms

in celebration and declared I’ve seen Judy Woolworth
wiping her ass
, or I have been blessed or Is there no
one here to challenge me?
Judy Woolworth, of course, was
not this poet’s real name. I do not and have never
had any of her books. I don’t remember if she
used my name when she turned toward the open bathroom
door and said “Sorry, Jose, I’ll be out in a minute”

or just “Sorry, I’ll be out in a minute” without any
name, which would mean, perhaps, that she didn’t know
it was me. And maybe, for that matter, she didn’t like
my work. I never told her that her readings made me cringe—
we never spoke about these things—I never asked her, “Did
you know it was me who saw you wiping your ass at
the Nuyorican the other night?” These were the days when

New York was taller and the rest of the world seemed farther
away, and a few days after I saw Judy Woolworth’s ass
was when I spent a quiet night at home while GG Allin,
whose shows I never saw and never wanted to see, deep
fried his fucked up ass so close to where I was that I
probably heard the same sounds he did—the car alarms,
the drunks arguing on the corner—before everything went blank.

-Jose Padua

First published in The New Guard, Volume III, 2013.

Elegy for the American Dream on a Warm Summer’s Day

Photograph by Jose Padua
Walking out for lunch
with my family
in my old city neighborhood
the woman coming our way
using a black umbrella
as a parasol on this warm sunny day
is the mother of Henry,
the kid who grew up on my street—
a dwarf just under four feet
who had good years
and bad years and
who when he was on the run
for going up Georgia Avenue one evening
and shooting a man to death ,
a man who may or may not
have said something about
his size and heritage,
was described in news alerts as
a “possible Hispanic adult midget,”
as if that was all that was
you needed to know about my neighbor’s life
here in the city.
And the woman with the black parasol,
her son in prison
for thirty-five years,
greets us warmly as she smiles
like a subtle rise from the wind,
and remembers me from the old days,
the kid whose house she’d walk by
on the way to the bus stop
or church or the corner store,
wherever it was you went in those days
when we lived near each other
in this beautiful city
and didn’t have far to go.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Notes on the New Cold War

Photograph by Jose Padua
Unlike a lot of other men who are now parents, I don’t consider the first time I changed a diaper to be the point at which I stopped being cool. And no, it wasn’t when there were no longer any bars where I was a friend of the bartender. It wasn’t even when we moved here to Front Royal and ate, for the first time, at a Cracker Barrel restaurant.

No, I stopped being cool well before I ever set foot in Front Royal. It happened after Heather and I left DC for that townhouse in Alexandria when I, for the first time in my life, mowed a lawn. Having been a city kid, and having lived in either apartments or a narrow row house that had no grass anywhere near it (not even in the back, because that was where you parked your car), mowing the lawn was something I’d never done. Indeed, it was the act which, for me, embodied the abject horrors that were the everyday chores, and—dare I say—duties, of living in the suburbs.

After all, cool is really all in your head. And though there are people who mow lawns and live in the suburbs who are cool, for me, mowing a lawn for the first time was what made me lose it. Gone was that feeling that I was on top on things, that I had a certain kind of presence and charisma, that I could do things with style. And when I first pushed that lawnmower through the overgrown grass behind our townhouse in Alexandria—when the words “wow, the grass is starting to look nice now” went through my head—was when I officially became a suburbanite. No big deal if you’ve lived in suburbs all your life, but dammit, I was a city person.

Growing up in DC, and going to a Catholic grade school in downtown DC, I wasn’t acquainted with anyone from the suburbs. The suburbs, to me, were a big, incomprehensible, and perhaps even cruel place. We’d pass through the suburbs from time to time, and rather than being impressed by the sight of less congested streets with buildings that were spread apart instead of crammed all together like people on a crowded bus, I was appalled and frightened.

But because I grew up during the cold war sixties, one thing the suburbs had going for them was that they were outside the center of the city—which isn’t to say this was something I liked about them. Still, these were the days when seeing when seeing a fallout shelter sign on a building was supposed to make you feel safer—or, at any rate, prepared. If the Russians (who, as we were told, were these scary, godless people on the other side of the world) ever dropped the bomb, Washington would be the primary target and us Washingtonians would be first to go. This sort of made us dare devils or thrill seekers even. And, although we lived in the center of town—our Dupont Circle apartment building was only a mile from the White House—we were, in a way, living on the edge. In other words, this (at least to me) made us kind of cool.


Yet, among the things I prayed for—yes, I did pray in those days before I blossomed into a fallen Catholic—was that the Russians wouldn’t drop the atomic bomb on us. That, and that I’d never get the “waterhead” disease my brother once showed me a picture of in a medical book. And, last but not least, that we’d never move to the suburbs.

My family nearly moved there when we’d outgrown our apartment. I shudder to think what would have become of me had we moved to Beltsville—or whatever suburb it was that had the house, with the lawn surrounded by a white picket fence, which we almost decided to buy. Surely, if we hadn’t just moved a little bit further out from Dupont Circle to DC’s Mt. Pleasant neighborhood, I’d never have made it past my depressing, disconnected teen years. Those years when I could easily walk to a bookstore (those days before you could find things “online”) and buy Naked Lunch or On The Road or Invisible Man; a record store where I could easily find Albert Ayler’s Spirits Rejoice and Sun Ra’s Magic City; and the old Circle Theater, where for just a dollar I could see L’Avventura, The Seven Samurai, Black Orpheus, or Murmur of the Heart.

Back then, there was nowhere else where I could easily find these things. Certainly there was nowhere else where I could have come in contact with so many different cultures. From the Filipino barber we went to in Chinatown to the Salvadoran grocer on Mt. Pleasant Street to Ben’s Chili Bowl down on U Street, I saw people who didn’t look like most of the people I saw on TV. And, I saw a lot of them—people who I felt had some concept of my experience with America.

And during these cold war years, nothing happened. Sure, we had the riots in 1968 when Martin Luther King was assassinated—riots which left 14th Street, just two blocks away from our house, looking like a war zone. But, unlike some people, we stayed—and I doubt that the possibility of leaving even entered our minds. We stayed even though we now had an eight-month old child in our house (my brother, Pat). We stayed because this was home. And, we stayed because being afraid of the riots or the bomb or anything else wasn’t going to do us any good.

So my family survived the cold war without a Russian bomb being dropped on Washington or anywhere else in the U.S. for that matter. And we survived the riots, though it took a while before 14th Street was built up again. Nowadays, with a Target department store, new restaurants, and even upscale businesses, 14th Street is a place we hardly recognize. And, if my parents were moving into DC now, there’s not a chance in hell that they’d be able to afford that house off of Mt. Pleasant Street.

As for Heather and me, we weren’t in DC anymore. The apartment we had on Connecticut Avenue across from the National Zoo (when we first moved in together this was our neighborhood) seemed far in the past. Now, we weren’t even in the suburbs—we were in Front Royal, Virginia, in the wilds of the Shenandoah Valley, where it felt as if we there were a new cold war going on.

I’m not sure when it finally dawned on us what we were in the middle of. Maybe it was in 2008, when during election season the Obama signs in our front yard kept getting stolen or destroyed. Maybe it was when it we noticed that the cars around us whenever we drove through town had bumper stickers saying things like “Where Guns Are Outlawed, Terrorists Need Only Boxcutters,” “Rebel Pride,” or “Welcome to America, Now Speak English.” Or maybe it was that time, after Obama had already become president, when I was waiting in the car while Heather ran into the post office. That time when, flipping through the dial on the a.m. radio, I discovered that in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley, the place we now called home, there were eight different stations that carried the Rush Limbaugh show. That, I thought, was pretty fucking scary.

All this, of course, was when Donald Trump’s most visible achievement had been to become the asshole businessman in residence on a reality TV show. Back when the number one racist goon in American media—or at any rate the one who was running neck and neck with Rush Limbaugh for that title—was Glenn Beck. It was something of a war, with the battles going like this: Limbaugh, in response to President Obama’s idea that 9-11 should perhaps be a day dedicated to community service, proclaiming “Community service is one of the baby steps toward fascism”; followed by Beck topping that by declaring his certainty that Obama had “a deep-seated hatred for white people.”

The message during this new cold war, as with the first, was “Be Afraid.” But this time we weren’t focusing on Russia but on other countries and other people. It was be afraid of these Mexicans, be afraid of these Muslims, hell, it was pretty much be afraid of anyone a little darker than white. Plus, be afraid of this president who, oh-my-God-look-at-him, he’s black! It was a fear that seemed more prevalent the farther you got from the city. It was a call on conservatives, right-wingers, and anyone who just didn’t know what to think to take things one step further and join the 21st Century-hating, illegal-alien-hating, oh-no-we’re-moving-toward-socialism, Tea Party Protest state of mind.

In an attempt to seize the racist moment, Glenn Beck, in his infinite lack of wisdom, came up with what he called his “9-12 Project,” the premise of which was to “take back the control of our country” by returning it to the state of mind it was in on September 12, 2001, the day after the attacks.


And while I agreed that September 11 was a dark day in American history—which, like December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, would live in infamy—shouldn’t August 6, 1945, when the U.S. dropped that quaintly named nuclear bomb, “Little Boy,” on Hiroshima, have similar status? Why wasn’t the day when America immediately snuffed out some 70,000 lives in less than a minute (with as many as another 70,000 deaths to come by the end of the year through radiation related illnesses) commemorated more often on bumper stickers? And why didn’t anyone think like Glenn Beck and call for us to return to the state of mind we were in on August 7, 1945, the day after we dropped the bomb on Hiroshima? Oh wait, that’s because we followed Hiroshima with another nuclear weapon, detonated over Nagasaki, on August 9. (Hey, Glenn! Hey, Tea Partiers! What about The August 10 Project? It would, you know, make things fair and balanced?)

It was bad enough that adults were falling for this idiocy, but surely there will be, as they say, a special place in hell, for Beck and Limbaugh and others like them for whatever children may have fallen under their spell. For those kids who, because of what they saw from their Tea Party parents or from Fox News, came to believe that it was all right to fear those who were different. That there wasn’t anything wrong with hating them.

And it was back then, somewhere toward the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century. When I was walking down Main Street here in Front Royal and getting one of those sideways glances from some kid, or sitting on my front porch to see some twenty-year old in a pick-up truck sneer at me as he drives by, or paying for something at a store and being the only one who gets asked for ID when he uses a credit card. It was then that I realized there was a party going on and a war. I wasn’t invited to the party, and war, for some Americans, is something that isn’t always fought overseas.

And, as the twenty-first century lurched ahead and Glenn Beck’s 9-12 Project fizzled out like a bad sparkler and Rush Limbaugh lost more and more of his sponsors and found fewer and fewer stations willing to air his radio show, there was an opportunity waiting to be taken. That’s where Donald Trump slipped through—or pried open the door, or found the back entrance. Whatever the case, he’s here now, speaking loudly, his eyes bulging out from their sockets as he makes gestures of terrible significance with his small hands.

-Jose Padua

Top photograph by Jose Padua