Category Archives: 3. Literature

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.

falloutshelter

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.

hiroshima2

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

These So Long Days We Spend in the Middle of Things

Margarita S. Padua
I always loved the way my mother
said the word ‘macapuno,’ which
is a kind of coconut that’s sweeter
and fleshier than the regular kind.
One time after she’d had her stroke
she came into the kitchen looking
for a jar of it, and when she said
‘macapuno’ it sounded like a long
slow journey, each struggled syllable
creating the opening lines of a great
epic. And I thought about all the years
it took for her to get here, living through
war and occupation, work and child-
birth and the raising of us, her children.
Macapuno–the word sounded like world
history, like what I would have said
had I been the first person to walk
on the moon. Macapuno–the sound of
swimmers swimming above the surface,
and the effort of these long cold days
we spend in the making of things.

-Jose Padua

First published at Vox Populi. The photograph of Margarita S. Padua was taken in the Shenandoah Valley in 1950.

Aquarius, and My Name Is Ralph

Photograph by Jose Padua
I’m sitting at a table in a nightclub during
the disco 70s with my friend Paul and his
older friend who’s also named Paul who’s about
five feet tall and is out with a woman in a tight
pink sweater who’s about a foot taller than he is.
Paul No. 2 is probably the smoothest person
I’d ever been in the presence of, or at least he’s

in possession of that cheap kind of smoothness that can
impress an twenty-year-old like me who has no idea
how to be smooth or cool or even just competent
in a place where drinks are served. I’d just finished reading
Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and only then
had I figured out that in most situations saying,
“I just finished reading Crime and Punishment. What do

you think of Raskolnikov?” is not a good pick up
line. Of course, one might say that I’m just not hanging out
with the right sort of crowd for me, and though my mind is
still overwhelmed thinking about the novel and how
Raskolnikov advances from his terrible crime
to develop an awareness of the world outside
of his perhaps self-indulgent sense of alienation,

I’m still incredibly impressed by how Short Paul gets
to have this tall, beautiful woman hanging onto
every smooth and suave utterance of his—things like
“another gin and tonic, please,” and “this song reminds
me of last summer at Myrtle Beach.” I mean, it’s far
short of brilliant and it’s far short of charming and
interesting yet he’s the one controlling the table

like he’s dealing blackjack in Vegas, and he’s the one
with the incredible date, and if he didn’t have
a date when he came in, he was the kind of guy who,
without the tiniest iota of existential doubt,
knew he would have one by the time he left, and I wondered
if I could ever say something like, “Aquarius, and
my name is Ralph,” which for me came out as “Sagittarius,

and my name is Jose,” which when I said it in my head
did nothing but reaffirm my certainty that I
would be spending my life alone, in a prison
of my own making even though I’d never done anything
as horrible as what Raskolnikov did, and who
by the end of the novel somehow ended up
with the virtuous Sonya, but that was where you woke up

while reading the book. That was when you were reminded
that it was fiction. And the song that was playing that night
at the club was by the Floaters, and “Float On” was their
one big hit. And though so many people laugh at the label,
at the idea of a one-hit wonder, as if that’s some
horrible badge of shame, or, if not that, an indication
that someone falls squarely on the pathetic side

of things, I’d always maintained that one hit was more than
most people ever had. What on Earth was wrong with having
just one hit? Not everyone can be like Dostoyevsky
who not only wrote Crime and Punishment but The Idiot
and The Brothers Karamazov among about a dozen other books,
and The Floaters came out of the projects in Detroit to get this
big hit, “Float On,” and I thought that, yeah, it’s hard to get

cooler than that, to keep going takes a lot of work, and
sometimes you had to go so hard you could feel the pain
in every curved surface of your bones, and sometimes you
needed a little bit of luck, and sometimes, when I got older I’d go
through periods when I thought that luck was the only thing,
that like the saying goes it’s better to be lucky than to be good,
and when I was young I never had a moment like that when

I thought that luck might be everything, that it could trump
talent, brains, or even love. But when I was young I was young
for so long, until the world made me learn, made me believe
that one day I had to know it, that I had to feel it, that like
a man who’s let the world beat him down for so long, I had to be
like everyone else, I had to search everywhere, from green earth
to blue sky, to find the things in this world worth killing for.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua. First published in Vox Populi.

Movie Night at the Pony Island Motel in Ocracoke and Other Moments of Far-Flung Revelation

Photograph by Jose Padua
On our last night on Ocracoke Island we were all pretty tired, but my daughter wanted to watch a movie. My wife recalled that there was some Juliette Binoche film that was good and might be appropriate for a twelve year to watch, but she couldn’t quite remember the name of it. My daughter then picked up my wife’s iPhone and asked Siri, the personal assistant program, “What movies have Juliette Binoche been in.” Siri answered that she couldn’t find any movies by “Julia No Shit Bitch.” Which meant that that night we didn’t watch any movies by Juliette Binoche or Julia No Shit Bitch.

This is a photograph of a sea bird I took earlier that day on the beach. If I could fly like this, then every day—take my word for it—I would be telling you all some real serious shit.

-Jose Padua

Around the Corner from the Neighborhood Convenience Store and Four Thousand Miles from the Streets of Barcelona

Photograph by Jose Padua
I could be mistaken but
something tells me
that the good ole boy,
sitting up high in
his pickup truck
and smiling smugly
as he watches
a cop hold a young
black man’s face
to the asphalt,
loves his country
almost as much as he
loves his gun collection
and believes strongly
in the building
of walls.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Lean on Me

Photograph by Jose Padua
Back then sausage, eggs, hash browns, and toast cost
under three dollars for breakfast any time of day
at Lesko’s on Avenue A. Cigarettes cost me about two
dollars a pack. A six pack of bad beer I could get
for about the same and I could drink cheaply at any
of the bars where I knew the bartender and I knew
a lot of bartenders. I could walk out of my apartment
on a Sunday morning still half-drunk after not sleeping
all night and see Sade taking a stroll on First Avenue.
Maybe she was on tour, maybe she had a place in town—
I didn’t know, but she was already a huge star.
When I smiled at her she smiled back at me with a smile
that could destroy every nightmare I’d ever had in my life.
She smiled back even though she had no idea
what I might do with that smile. Sinead O’Connor smiled
back at me, too, one hot sweaty New York afternoon in June—
not quite as readily as Sade, but she smiled at me anyway—
a quick and easy smile that she had no reason to keep.
One night as I walked back toward Avenue B
a woman driving by stopped her car, called out
and said, “Excuse me,” lifted her shirt, smiled, and drove off.
The view of her breasts was a gift, on an evening, during a week
when I had nothing going on and could think of nothing that could
move things up or down, backwards or forwards, for me.
Me, I used to always give the guy panhandling outside
the old EAB bank a quarter or two or three. I had
no idea if he could work, I had no idea if he wasn’t
really disabled, I had no idea if he wasn’t fucked up
or crazy. I gave him the money because whether he was
using it for food or to get high he needed it more than me.
I didn’t need it at all, at least not on that day and
on a lot of other days that all looked the same. I’ve got plenty
of weight about me when I stand, even more when I walk
and I walk when I have the time and we all need to get high.
One day or one way, we all need something that holds
us up or lifts us up because without that we fall.
Without that we’re dead, and all the talk and sweat
we live on tells us just look straight ahead,
or that there’s a better day down the road
or through that door, or in another town, but
whatever you do, just resist the urge to look down.
The man at the bank and all the others I gave money
to could do what they wanted to do. As far as
I was concerned they were geniuses and this was my gift.
The EAB bank is gone now, eaten up by Citigroup,
another in a series of open mouths that gnaw on us
and feed on us and never quite kill us until the time is right.
If you can’t deal with being swindled once in a while
by some guy with a two bit scam that gets him drunk
every night, what kind of asshole are you? Have you
forgotten what’s it’s like? Did you ever fucking know?
So much of the time it’s the scum that rises to the top—
the creeps, the goons, the louts, the boors, and other murderers
of souls. If I ever get there close enough to touch you will I
punch you in the gut, take an elbow to your nose, and
grab the money in your pockets? Or will I have learned
how to smile at you until my nightmares are destroyed,
until you shit in your pants like a baby—just so you’ll know,
just so you’ll remember what it’s like not to get high? Will
I, in the cold light of your day, remember how to be kind?

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua. Originally published in Sensitive Skin.

On Driving up Stonewall Jackson Highway with the Intention of Declaring Sovereignty Over the Surrounding Territories

Photograph by Jose Padua
On a slightly rainy
Tuesday evening
in the valley
I drive with the windows
rolled down
and the stereo
turned up loud
to Ella Fitzgerald
singing “Blue Skies”
as I look up
toward the mountains
through the thickness
of the rustic dark
to think briefly
about the splendor
of the landscape
and unhurried motion
of days
before turning around
and slowly driving
back home.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Guns and Cleavage

Photo by Jose Padua
These past two weeks
whenever I walk by the magazine rack
at the supermarket
down the street
I’ve noticed that
there’s always a magazine
that’s been flipped over
so the ad on the back
is displayed
and not the cover
on which when
I first turned it around
was a photograph
of model Kate Upton
revealing a generous amount of cleavage
on the cover of the October issue
of Vanity Fair
and I gathered that the person
or persons
who keep turning the magazine
over face down
are one of the many folks
in this small
conservative town
who are probably scandalized
by so much exposed flesh.
Me, I’m not bothered
by it at all,
because to me
flesh is something divine
and mystical and
whatever reminds me
of this is never offensive
and never indecent,
and even if you think it immodest
I find other things
much more disturbing
in the grand scheme
of living in cities or villages,
towns or country roads
or hidden clearings
in unmapped and unknown forests
on a planet
with over seven billion
other human beings,
so last night,
after turning the magazine over,
cleavage side up,
I walked down to the next
rack of magazines to
where the stack
of Guns & Ammo
“The World’s Most Widely Read Firearms Magazine”
was displayed,
and I turned the magazine over
only to find that on the back cover,
unlike Vanity Fair
where there was an ad for perfume,
was an ad featuring
more pictures of guns and rifles
and automatic weapons,
so I found a nearby copy
of Field and Stream,
which just had a picture
of a moose on the cover,
and I put that on top
of the pile of Guns & Ammo
only to see that next to it
was a stack of Guns magazine
(just guns, no ammo),
and next to that a stack
of Handguns magazine,
and figuring that the moose
on the cover of Field & Stream
probably got shot
right after the photo was taken,
I decided to just
give up on this sad protest,
and I got in line
to pay for my baby wipes
and brown rice
and yogurt
in a world where
too many people believe
in the divinity of guns
and the indignity of cleavage
and breasts and flesh
and goddamn true love
and all the other things
that keep us alive
without killing
something else first.

-Jose Padua

Photo by Jose Padua

An Existential Traffic Update for the I-81 Corridor, June 22, 2016

RoadSign_20160520_200403_EditTwo
The Burger King down the block
is open during renovations
and the man who
got shot several times
at his house a few streets away
on Saturday night
survived
and is in stable
condition at a hospital
in the next town north
of here,
all of which is
a sign that business
is as usual
and the only
delays you will
experience will be
unexpected ones
which will be dealt with
on a case by case
basis.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Restraint

Photograph by Jose Padua
It takes great effort
on my part,
walking the colorful,
tree-lined streets
on these fresh
and beautiful
new spring days,
not to turn to
the next person
coming my way,
or crossing my path
without saying,
“What if we’re
all screwed?”

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua