We were heading up Route 11 just north of Winchester—me, my wife and my kids—when we found ourselves crossing into West Virginia. Now, there are places where when you see the sign saying Welcome to West Virginia: Wild and Wonderful, things look pretty nice. Usually that’s during the day, when the sun highlights all the green that seems to be approaching you from the distance. This time, though, it was nearly dusk, at that point when the only thing you can see clearly is the landscape that’s close to you. It’s also when, for better or worse, that landscape and whatever buildings and signs and moving objects it includes are bathed in a beautiful yet unflattering light.
That’s when we came across Piggy’s Club—a restaurant, bar, and nightclub with a big sign out front to let you know that you could stay or get your “COLD BEER TO GO.” In the bright sunlight it might have seemed like a fair enough place to get something to eat, and in my drinking days it might have even seemed a reasonable enough place to have a few beers. It was, after all, Saturday night—and on a Saturday night, say, thirty years ago, Piggy’s might have even looked like an oasis of sorts. But then again, maybe not.
In my less hopeful moments, my mind tends to be overrun by feelings of powerlessness and insignificance. Other times I feel fully prepared for whatever form of Apocalypse might lie ahead. On this night, I felt somewhere between these two extremes—which meant that although I was a little nervous about where I might be taking us, I continued to take us there. All I knew for sure was that on this night Piggy’s gravel parking lot was a decent enough place for us to pull over.
Driving slowly to avoid potholes and any other hidden booby traps in Piggy’s parking lot, I turned the car back toward the highway. When I saw that the road was clear, I headed back in the other direction, in search of a place where we might want to spend some time. As fog settled over the valley and a slow drizzle started coming down, that’s what we did. And as the skies turned completely dark, what was once unflattered became beautiful once again, and we drove through it until we found a place where we wanted to be.
Photograph by Jose Padua
Was it poetry that ate my desire to succeed
and through failure that I succeeded
in thinking only horrible things,
things so horrible poetry could never grasp,
much less control them,
and out of chaos still leave nothing but chaos,
measured accidentally in words?
These nights are like Antarctic nights in short sleeves,
the sound is nice but there is no aroma,
no touch before throwing down the dice
while tangled pieces of string dangle
from my fingers like theories
that cloud one’s mind on sleepless nights.
No poetry can lay its hands on this to heal it,
my lack of tone and the muscle that’s required
to lift dark stones from the bottom of a running river;
this is the task of mud,
this is the sealed entrance,
the leftover shell and mirror.
Before my life of horrible things,
desire, to me, was a hyena
that stays just out of reach
of the lion’s teeth;
it made me take big steps ahead.
I left jackals and wild dogs behind me,
any animal who could not understand me.
My bags were packed before I even knew I was moving;
the words I used led me to construe
that the animals and I are alive,
living in separate worlds when I am high,
feeling my veins as gusts of wind
and my mind like snow on top of a mountain.
Before the horrible things there was desire,
the ambition to move about the stage,
stepping softly with silver clipped wings
to keep me calm;
before desire there was rage every goddamn day,
the flowers falling from my hands,
the smoke rising like a season.
And as the days grew longer or shorter,
depending on whether or not the petals
came apart upon their falling,
and as the continents drifted apart
and the animals evolved into the separate
species of predator and prey,
was when I began to want,
and so learned for the first time
Photograph by Jose Padua. An earlier version of this was published at On Barcelona.
Back in the familiar wilderness
of tattoo parlors and auto parts
stores, the cheap motels where
there’s always a vacancy, the streets
so dry and sunny you can almost feel
the dirt and grime with your eyes
when you blink, and the teenagers
with their stained shirts and the random
fucks and shits and blow jobs that spill
from their mouths as a substitute for
speech. It’s the quiet boredom of the
normal, non-existential, nothingness
that kills them, that kills me. The boy
who’s the scared misfit with a lisp
and gawking eyes when he talks to us,
when he asks us questions, turns down
the corners of his mouth, squints his eyes
even in the shade and says nothing as he
looks to the ground in an effort to fit in
with the fucks and shits and blow jobs.
This is not bravery nor is it cowardice,
this is neither infamy nor avarice, but
might there be a word for it other than
survival? A sense of accomplishment,
more and other, than that of being alive?
So I look at them looking at me, wide-eyed
like first rides on a roller coaster, thirsty
like summer afternoons with no prospects,
their arms by their sides, their hands empty;
because what tears us down creates us,
and what we tear down creates the stones
we throw, each morning, into the dirty
winding river, ready to shine, ready
to walk the jagged, gravel road home.
Photograph by Jose Padua
I don’t like to wear hats, but sometimes,
when I lived in New York, and it was cold
enough, I’d wear a beret. It was black, of course,
because if it isn’t black it isn’t really a beret.
Most of the clothes I wore in New York were
black, though it was hard to tell because that
rich deep shade was usually faded from being
washed and worn too many times—I didn’t know
the art of wearing one’s clothes gently, I never
mastered that because usually I was the one being
mastered. Mastered by some woman who wore
black better than me, mastered by my inability
to find just the right amount of work, mastered
by the middle class and those things you need
to buy, mastered by my apartment when the
bathtub backed up and the water that rose
from the drain was black. One time I sat
in my apartment listening to the stereo and
imagining that when Nina Simone sang
“Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair”
that she was singing it for me. Or that when
Rahsaan Roland Kirk played “Never Can Say
Goodbye” from his album Blacknuss I wasn’t
in my apartment but in the audience, watching,
listening, traveling the lost years through time.
And when I stepped outside with that music
in my head, I put on my beret hoping it would keep
the music there longer. As if music were the key
to everything from the color of clouds to the
brightness of the early morning’s light. As if
on a dark winter night all the shelter I’d need
to keep my significant sound and light secure in
the cold winter air was the power of the color black.
Photograph by Jose Padua
Posted in 3. Literature, 5. Music, Memoir, New York, Photography, Poetry
Tagged beret, black, Blacknuss, Jose Padua, New York, Nina Simone, poem, Poetry, Rahsaan Roland Kirk
The Biograph Theater in DC, where I first saw
Casablanca on something other than a TV screen;
Joe Cocker and Leon Russell in Mad Dogs & Englishman,
a rock documentary I saw when I was still too young
to attend a live show what with all the pot smoking
and hippie kids dancing without their shirts; and
Jean-Luc Godard’s Hail Mary while the outraged devout
camped outside the lobby, protesting the film’s supposed
blasphemy, has been a CVS drugstore for over two decades
now, a place where you can buy shaving cream, Slim Jims,
toilet paper, ibuprofen, and all the other tools, necessary or
optional, for living in the 21st Century. But where are those
images, the words, sounds and songs that I also need?
The airplane in black and white and mist that’s about
to lift Ingrid Bergman up and off to a safer place;
Joe Cocker singing and Leon Russell playing “Delta Lady”
with English accent and Oklahoma twang; the irreverent
challenge of taking the divine back down to earth with
allegory. There is a way of living, here, in that moment
that takes you away from whatever commerce brought us
together. That allows you to forget the body while being
of the body, seated, your eyes open, glancing away from
the screen and across the dark auditorium to catch, partly
by accident and partly by intent, the unforgettable sight of
a face, in the crowd, illuminated as much by sound as by light.
Photograph by Jose Padua
Posted in 3. Literature, 5. Music, Film, Memoir, Photography, Poetry, Washington DC
Tagged Biograph Theater, Casablanca, Jean-Luc Godard, Joe Cocker, Jose Padua, Leon Russell, poem, Poetry