My son Julien’s new favorite song at the time was Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger.” It happened during a trip to Baltimore for my semi-annual visit with my cardiologist at Johns Hopkins. “Play the ‘Passenger’ song again,” Julien said, though he didn’t quite demand it the way he had with Ryuichi Sakamoto whose “Mill Theme (Robotaki Remix)” had been his previous favorite. Still, Julien (who was six at the time) made it clear it “The Passenger” was essential listening for the day.
“Who does that song?” he asked
“Iggy Pop,” I said. “Ig-gy POP.”
“Did he get sick?”
“No, he’s been healthy for a while now.”
“He even does tai chi,” Heather added.
“Me and Maggie saw him play last spring when we all went to Philadelphia,” I said.
“Did I see him too?” Julien asked.
“I want to see him next time.”
As usual, even though we always tried to leave early from Front Royal, we got to Baltimore just in time for my appointment. I checked in, and went straight to get my echocardiogram while Heather, Maggie, and Julien stayed in the waiting room. I lay down, and the technician attached the electrode patches to my chest, then turned down the lights. She put the transducer, a wand-like instrument, a little to the left of my sternum. That’s when I saw it on the monitor in black and white: my heart, beating, its valves opening and closing, its walls expanding and contracting. I am always amazed when I see my heart in motion; amazed to see it at work, pumping my blood; amazed and joyful that, despite everything from minor pain to episodes of grief and anguish, and despite the continuing absurdity, folly, and obscenity that inhabits the world, I am alive. Not everyone can feel that joy–the joy which, despite these more difficult times, is still my privilege.
When I was done with my echocardiogram, Heather, Maggie, and Julien joined me in the examining room where my doctor would meet us. When he came in he greeted us all warmly (he’s been my cardiologist for close to a decade and a half now). Heather, Maggie, and Julien all greeted him warmly in return, then Julien asked, “What’s your name?”
“My name? I’m Doctor Elmer Fudd,” he said. Julien sensed that he was kidding, and looked at him sideways. “OK, I’m actually Dr. K____.” But Julien didn’t believe him when he said his real name either.
Dr. K____ went on to tell me that my tests looked fine, that although there was the issue of the thickened heart wall, it wasn’t worsening—the possibility of which was why he continued to see me every six months. He took my blood pressure, checked several other vital signs for confirmation that my heart was still healthy, and we were done. Before we left, he mentioned that if we were going home right away we may want to check if there any protests going on, because that could make it difficult to get out of town. It was just a couple of days after Donald Trump had won the election—or rather, had won the electoral college—which meant that in a couple of months he was going to be president. “If there are, we’ll want to join them,” I said.
“Well,” Dr. K____ said, nodding .“If there is a protest, you’ll see me there, too.”
We’d take Maggie and Julien out of school for the day whenever we went to Baltimore from Front Royal. Being in a real city was always a nice break from our small town. Still, we didn’t want to get back so late that they weren’t ready for school the next day. A while back, Dr. K____ had recommended the Ivy Bookshop, but that was far uptown from Johns Hopkins, so as usual we drove to the Inner Harbor, which was right on our way out of town. In just about ten minutes we were going up the escalator to the second floor of the Barnes and Noble at the old power plant building, soaring high above the magazine racks and display tables piled high with best sellers. It’s the sort of height that usually makes me a little nervous, but we’d been to this store so many times that it didn’t bother me anymore. When we reached the top, I headed toward the part of the store that carries some of its less popular items—i.e., the poetry section—while Heather went to the café for a cup of coffee and Maggie led Julien to the children’s books.
Usually I find a few things right away, but that day I wasn’t finding anything I wanted. That’s when a guy who was sitting in the aisle there asked me, “Can you recommend any poetry?” There are always people sitting—and sometimes even lying down—in the poetry and fiction sections, reading books they’ve pulled from the shelves, or sometimes just sitting, listening to music through their earbuds. This guy looked to be somewhere in his twenties and had that look in his eyes that said he was lost or else was about to get lost. “I only know Langston Hughes,” he said.
I thought about what was going on and what was going to get even worse; and I thought about the tasks that lie ahead, wondering who might be a good poet to read for what I hoped would be a revolution of sorts. “Amiri Baraka,” I said. “He died a couple of years ago. His work is wild and straight from the heart.”
“I never heard of him,” the guy said. I was surprised. I thought that if he’d heard about Langston Hughes that he would have heard about Amiri Baraka—and just needed to be reminded of him. But then maybe that was just a ridiculous idea on my part. None of us are immune to ridiculous ideas from time to time. And every ridiculous idea is different from the next one. Yes, it’s also ridiculous to say so. I thought of what else I could say to this guy.
“Check him out,” I said finally, then added poets like Adrienne Rich, Frank O’Hara, Lucille Clifton. Somehow I neglected to mentioned any of the poets I knew, as well as any poets who were still alive, which I then hoped didn’t give him the impression that poetry was a dead art. I looked through the poetry shelves again to see if there was something I could show him, but none of the poets I’d mentioned were in stock that day. I moved on—to the fiction section, looking for Paul Beatty’s new novel, but I couldn’t find that there either. As I browsed, the guy looking for poetry suggestions walked by. He saw me and asked, “What was the name of that poet again? Amira…”
“Amiri Baraka,” I said. “Amiri Baraka.” His name itself was a poem.
“Thanks,” he said, “thanks.” I wasn’t sure, but I think he then said, “Bless you,” before walking off.
From the Barnes and Noble, we went to dinner at the Hard Rock Café. This photograph of Heather, Maggie, and Julien was taken there. The Hard Rock Café is a chain with average food, overpriced, but it’s right next door to the Barnes and Noble, and going there with our weirdness and oddity was all the energy we could spare that night before our long drive home back to Front Royal. And, somehow, they played “The Passenger” while we were there. “Julien, listen,” Maggie said. “Your song. ‘The Passenger.’”
We didn’t run into any protests blocking the road on the way home, so we didn’t run into Dr. K___ again that night. On Route I-70 West, we listened to “The Passenger” a few more times, and we also to Joni Mitchell’s “In France They Kiss on Main Street” as we took the exit for Route 15 West, John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” and Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s “I Say a Little Prayer” after taking the ramp on 340 South in Charlestown, West Virginia. Even though it was a quick trip, it was good to get away from the landscape of Trump signs where we lived. When we got close to town, after nine in the evening, it was too dark to see the signs, allowing the landscape of river winding through valley to take precedence. Of course, in the morning, the signs would be there again; and, even though with that election being over, those signs would soon come down, there would be new signs to replace them. Many of them expressing support of the same old shit.
We were about half an hour from home when Julien said he had to use the bathroom. We were right outside of Berryville, Virginia, so we stopped at the convenience store at the corner of Lord Fairfax Highway and Main Street, right in town. When I took Julien inside, we saw that there was an older woman using a walker ahead of us. A young man who was probably her son was helping her pull away from her walker, which wouldn’t fit in the door of the rest room, and make her way to the toilet.
“I have to go! I have to go!” Julien said frantically.
“You’re all right. You’re all right,” I said. “You can hold it.” The young man turned to us with a worried look as if to say sorry. And I remembered over two decades earlier when, during the last months before she died, my mother also needed help making her way to the bathroom. “It’s okay,” I said to him, nodding as I put my hand on Julien’s shoulder. Somehow, it didn’t seem to take that long.
When we got back in the car, I looked at my phone and saw a news report saying that Leonard Cohen had died. It had happened a few days earlier, before the election, but his family only announced it that day—the day of his funeral. That’s when I remembered a night right before I left New York to move back to DC (I was moving back to be near to my mother, who’d just had a heart attack and a stroke). It was one of my last nights out in New York, and a woman I’d just met who was a friend of a friend handed me a tape of Leonard Cohen’s music. I didn’t know his music that well at the time, and I guess she thought it might serve me well in the days that lie ahead. If I remember correctly, her name was Candy. And I said to Candy, “thank you.” I don’t think I ever got around to saying, “bless you,” much less, “let’s celebrate the privilege of being alive.” Though sometimes it feels as if I’ve missed out on something important when I don’t say these words, or at least think about them. Sometimes, even during days like this, I feel that the time to celebrate is now.
Photograph by Jose Padua