If Time were a foreign language
how long would it take me to master it?
To use it to ask simple questions from
other speakers of Time? Could I ever
discuss history and politics by driving
a truck down the interstate and flashing
the headlights on and off while watching
for the way other trucks change lanes,
which would indicate whether or not
they believed that history was cyclical
in nature and that a politics without
corruption was possible in our lifetime?
Could I ever write a poem with a shovel,
an elegy for lost loved ones that people
would be so moved by that they’d memorize
the way I dug up the dirt, laid down
the seedling, then filled in the ground again,
stomping it with my foot, before shaking
the leftover earth from the shovel? If I
could express my love of life by leaving
the house more often, I would, walking
in these hard new shoes to Main Street,
greeting friends with the scraping of my
heels on the sidewalk, and looking up
to the sky or sideways at a brick wall
as a way of telling them I can stay longer
or that it’s time for me to go home. Some
days I feel like telling the world everything,
walking up the stairs making as little noise
as possible, stepping lightly on rasping wood,
and using just the slightest touch on the railing
to tell my story as I balance myself on my words.
The photograph was taken at the 2015 Apple Blossom festival in Winchester, Virginia by Jose Padua.
I’ve never smacked my son’s hand to keep him
from reaching for the pot of boiling water. I
grab his hand and hold him calmly instead. I’ve
never sent my daughter to bed without supper
for random acts of disrespect. I don’t speak the
language of violence and deprivation to them.
If they happen to begin a conversation using
that language I don’t use it to answer them back
because that’s not how I wish to continue the
discussion and because whenever possible I try
to speak the language of peace. But when it comes
to the slumlords, the corporate con men, and those
pale supremacists of the hierarchy in power, violence
is the only language they understand. A brick through
the window is simply an effective way to communicate
with the disappearers of men and women and all the
other hoarders of privilege and intolerance, because
broken windows are like the speaking of so much
broken English—an attempt at telling those for whom
the subtleties of poetry and language are lost
exactly what the fuck is going on. And because
sometimes simple obedience is like a carton of milk
that expired a month ago and is still for sale at
the corner store. Don’t buy it, don’t drink it. Just
translate it into language they can understand.
Photograph of the Baltimore skyline by Jose Padua
Posted in 3. Literature, Art, Memoir, Poetry
Tagged Baltimore, inequality, Jose Padua, language, poem, Poetry, violence, wealth
The other night my wife and I were talking about the murder of Walter Scott when our eleven year old daughter asked, “Why?” And she looked at my wife and me. She looked for what felt like a long time. Exactly why would a policeman shoot an unarmed man—Walter Scott—in the back eight times? She knows about what happened to Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and so many others. She knows that these things happen over and over and that they have happened countless times when there was no one around to tell anyone.
As for what exactly happened, we tell her the truth. I shudder to think of the parents out there who, when their children ask them, will say that the policeman thought he was in danger. That it was an accident. Or that the person who was shot had used drugs, or had stolen something. Anything to justify the murder of the innocent. And anything to help perpetuate the continued privilege of whiteness. Which isn’t to say that when Michael Slager shot Walter Scott he didn’t feel danger of some sort. It’s just that it wasn’t physical danger. Because when he shot Walter Scott in the back, when he shot a man who posed no physical threat, what was in danger and what he was trying to protect was the order that was in his head. An order in which his own life mattered, but that of the man running away from him didn’t.
At this young age, our daughter is learning about injustice and inequality. There are some children who have to learn about these things at an even younger age, and about how the cloak of privilege provides protection for others, but not for them. Then there are those who will never learn, whose privilege will allow them to lead lives spent in pursuit of simple entertainments, and who will never learn to ask a question more complex than, “What’s in it for me?” This, our daughter has learned, is not the first question to ask.
And when she asks “Why?” it’s not simply the asking of a question. What she’s saying is, “I can’t believe this is happening” as well as “We can’t let this continue to happen.” And as for the look in her eyes, it seems that she’s asking, “What do we do now?” It’s a question she’s asked for years now, as in this photograph taken five years ago shortly before her brother was born. All of which is saying that it’s a question to ask in times of joy as well as in times of sorrow. All of which is saying that every day, one way or another, we must try to rise.
Photograph by Jose Padua
I was just on the computer, when my young son Julien came by. He said he wanted to see the video of me when I was younger, so I showed him this. I’d shown it to him once about a year ago. He didn’t seem to realize, back then, that it was me in the video. Today, though, he looked back and forth—from the screen then to me. Then he smiled. Which means that he’s reached that stage where he realizes there was a time before him. And that, like all the other people out there in the world, I have a past.
Video directed by Joel Blumsack
Posted in 3. Literature, Art, Film, New York, Poetry, Uncategorized
Tagged Jose Padua, Katz's Deli, marathon, New York, New York City Marathon, Poetry
You can tell me all you know about love and glue, how body parts fit and rub, wrap around each other like leafy vines, or of hurricane winds blowing out words so loud, so wet you can’t understand what’s being meant. There are seaside towns where the scent of candy fills the air, with fast carnival rides run by gray-faced men who’ve never had to wear a suit at any single point in their lives. But there’s nothing greater and nothing sadder and sometimes nothing else in the world but these accidental, passed-out lovers on a park bench who never meant to touch—though who really knows? One lying on his back, his hair falling down to dirt; the other on top, almost praying, almost singing something other than the blues.
Photograph by Jose Padua
Love is everything that isn’t despair.
I am almost tempted to say this even
though I don’t believe it’s true because
there are so many things in-between.
A competition lost is sad but not quite
despair and doesn’t come anywhere
close to being love. But there’s something
about love that’s as beautiful as losing,
as essential as that failure, that falling
from which you stand up because there’s
a blackbird on a branch that that you need
a better look at. And I love these evenings
when it seems I’ve accomplished so little.
When we feel as if we’re lying back on
damp grass when we’re really indoors, sitting
on these creaky wooden chairs, inspired by
the sounds that escape every time we move.
Photograph by Jose Padua
The mix tape I made for myself in 1982
and can no longer find begins with
Luther Vandross singing “Never Too Much.”
I lost it in 1992 in New York.
Maybe I lent it to my painter friend, who’d
been painting in his studio in Dumbo listening
to Captain Beefheart and Earth, Wind & Fire
and wanted to try something different.
After all, inspiration is a variable thing,
and what one sees while listening to
That’s the Way of the World is different
from what one sees when Trout Mask Replica
is playing on the boombox in his studio.
We did a lot of drinking, then, of course.
I lived above the laundrymat on Avenue B
between 3rd and 4th streets. Sometimes junkies
would shoot up in the tiny foyer of my
building. Sometimes people would just
die on the street, some guy would collapse,
some beautiful woman would just stop
singing. Sometimes after smoking and
drinking I’d get to my fourth floor apartment
out of breath, thinking I could be dead too,
just another young fuck dying young,
then I’d sit down, turn on the stereo,
and listen, hearing something like “Jesus right
beside me, he never buys and he smokes.”
Maybe I heard it wrong, but those were
the words that stuck to me like the gum
on my shoe, that made me get up again
when I’d caught my breath and smiled
to myself, by myself, so high and lonesome.
Walking up a deserted Fifth Avenue
on a Sunday morning after staying up all
night, the music in my head was Sun Ra’s
“The Magic City” because I felt like
a black and white science fiction film
full of cold granite and gray skies.
Other cities had moments of silence,
but every moment of my life in New York City
had a soundtrack. Lou Reed was the mumbling
heat-seeking voice behind the junkies;
Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 18 was for
waking up unemployed on a Wednesday morning
just before the clock struck noon. Luther Vandross
played so many afternoons before I hit the bars
or met my friends. How many of them knew?
When I moved to New York I brought my paintings
with me but I never painted. I smoked cigarettes
and I wrote—about color, shape, and movement—
as I listened to my soundtrack, as I ate cheap
chicken and rice, washed my hands, splashed
water on my face, maybe ran a comb through
my hair, just once, that was enough. And I was always
by myself when I listened to Luther Vandross.
Sitting on the sofa in my apartment in the early evening,
waking up from whatever was missing during the day.
Stretching my arms, turning away from the window,
looking back toward the sink, as the sunlight seemed
to slide down the walls like liquid, when everything
would turn dark. I’d stand, light my cigarette,
open and close my door to walk down the dirty stairs,
and suddenly I wasn’t alone anymore.
Photograph (taken on Houston Street, August 2014) by Jose Padua
Posted in 3. Literature, 5. Music, Memoir, New York, Poetry
Tagged Captain Beefheart, Jose Padua, Lou Reed, lower east side, Luther Vandross, poem, Poetry, Sun Ra
If I were better at facilitating
meetings I might have something
resembling a career by now. If
I could pursue a lifestyle instead
of just being alive, my coworkers
might be more comfortable sitting
near me at lunchtime when I
open my brown bag and fill the air
with the aroma of cinnamon and
garlic. If I thrived in a fast-paced
work environment and excelled at
putting out metaphorical business
fires, I’d have an office with a
window looking out over the alley
behind the building, which is where
the rats play at night. If I could
troubleshoot like a feasibility study
conducted by creepily upbeat sub-
contractors, I’d have a parking space
and season tickets for every professional
sports team in town. If I could apply
the word ‘synergy’ in a sentence while
speaking with the boss and not laugh
hysterically and make it look like I’m
trying to help, I could be making millions
by now, but of course I’m not. You are.
And I am coming to take your verbs away.
Photograph by Jose Padua
At first it was just the summer of rock.
Every burger I ate was fast, every morning
had a beat, every hour out of school was
a guitar chord no one had ever heard before.
I was ten years old or eleven though I wished
I could be twenty-five. My blood felt like
it flowed through a wah-wah pedal, and
even all the strings and voices in Beethoven’s
ninth seemed to rock out until I went dizzy,
until I was spinning around and around,
digging my way to the center of the original
Earth. Jimi Hendrix was the real thing, and
The Doors were on the car radio too as we
rode across town with the voice of Jim Morrison,
wild and cool, but even then I thought he was
also just kind of a dick. I would have rather
hung out with the fat guy Billy Stewart
who sang a version of “Summertime and
the living is easy” and made this weird
beautiful bird sound with his lips that was
more than enough to show me what it meant
to get high when I was a child before he drove
off the road and died. And I learned I could run,
imagining I was an Olympic runner with his
hands held high at the finishing line even
when I was just running out of breath
because it was the summer when I discovered
how hard it was to breathe sometimes. Everyone
could take me when it came to running for
distance, but if it was a quick dash to the bus
stop, or across the street from the old burlesque
clubs on 14th Street in DC, I could beat anyone.
Like Professor Irwin Corey I was the world’s
foremost authority—of running fast for half
a minute. And back in school I could dance
in class for half a minute like James Brown,
holding up my arms, swiveling my grade school
hips like the cool guys and getting smiles from
all the girls. And there was a girl named Barbara
and a girl named Vanessa and a girl named Nancy
and a girl named Dolly, and these names all
sounded like abracadabra magic to me because
I was young then and the summer of rock
happened before I was old enough to really think
about this. Before I realized for the first time,
that no matter how fast I ran, or how long I danced
that chance could soon force me to leave it all
behind. Because at first it was the summer of rock,
and everyone I had ever loved was still alive
or else hadn’t been born yet. But it was also
another summer of war, the way just about
every summer is a summer of war. And with
so many dying young—looking into the battle
to feel its slimy heat, bite and gnaw on its grit
with their teeth and never coming back and
never telling anyone what it did to them—
I wondered what I’d do when I turned eighteen,
if I’d do anything, like stop trying to breathe,
just to be able to go the distance.
Photograph by Jose Padua
Posted in 3. Literature, 5. Music, Memoir, Poetry, Washington DC
Tagged Billy Stewart, Irwin Corey, James Brown, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Jose Padua, poem, Poetry, summer of rock, The Doors
Every evening is a train. The floor
is covered with toys, and every minute
of the day a moment to imagine how
colors begin, how sound arises from
solid objects, and how the dirt on our
hands is a dazzling thing, giving us
magical powers we need to wash away
before we sleep, before their odd shapes
twist and run off to corners and closets
to become nightmares that belong to
everyone. We are born into this world
an ocean floor, dry, but slowly filling
with water and tiny swimming creatures
that grow into blue whales and flying
fish, our feelings for everything nearly
all affection, borne upon the lightness
of our wings. We practice being green,
yellow, black, purple, red. We paint
things the color orange without worrying
if we’re getting it wrong because we
don’t understand the meaning of mistakes.
Tonight I will practice being all the things
I am not—the sound of a saxophone gliding
over the clanging of the cymbals, a picture
taken of the mist in the distant mountains
in the slow and solemn days before I arrived.
Photograph by Jose Padua