Category Archives: Film

Signs of Life

Photograph by Jose Padua
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.

-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.

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

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

A Slightly Uncomfortable Seat at the Edge of the World

RoyalCinemas

I can’t remember the last time I went to the movies alone. This, I suppose, is a sign of how normal my life is now. Indeed, if you were to see a man my age at the movies by himself, you might wonder What is the deal with that guy? Because going to the movies, especially in a small town like Front Royal, is usually considered something of a social event; and to go to the movies alone begs the question, What, exactly, is wrong with you? Or Are you violating your parole by being here?

Since I was around fourteen years old, going to the movies by myself was a regular and quite normal thing—for me, unlike a lot of other teenagers, going to the movies was not a social event. Or at least I didn’t see any need for it to be one. It wasn’t that I never went to movies with my friends. But, more often than not, I went alone, because if there was a film I really wanted to see back then, I knew that among my friends there wouldn’t be a single one who’d want to see it too. After all, when you’re a freshman in high school, how do you get someone to go the theater with you to watch all 363 minutes of Louis Malle’s documentary, L’ Inde fantome (Phantom India). Or attend a showing of Joseph Strick’s film of James Joyce’s Ulysses to see how it compares with the book? Well, I guess there are other misfits out there who, at that age, had friends they could connect with that way, but I wasn’t so fortunate.

Still, I never felt that I was missing out on anything. It was with friends that I’d see things like The Exorcist or American Graffiti, films that were entertaining but didn’t exactly move me. But it was when I was by myself that I saw what I really wanted to see. And, sitting alone in the old Circle Theater in Washington DC—a theater notorious for its stiff, uncomfortable seats—seeing for the first time the works of Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, or Robert Downey Sr. (a prince), I was having a great time. Alone with my thoughts and a cinematic masterpiece or two at a bargain price (admittance during the day was only a dollar), there really wasn’t anywhere else I’d rather be. Or, anyone I wanted to be with.

The first time I set foot in the Royal Cinemas on Main Street in Front Royal brought back that feeling of going to the movies alone—even though I was with Heather and Maggie. Because even though I wasn’t alone, we were alone. It happens from time to time that when we go there to see a movie at the Royal Cinemas—a new movie—we find that we’re the only ones in the theater.

KingsOfTheRoad

Call me anti-social, but I like it when we’re the only ones there. Plus, I like going to the movies at the Royal Cinemas anyway, because when you’re there you’re not at one of those slick, new multiplexes with stadium seating and a concession stand that sells cappuccino, flavored water, and appetizers like bruschetta with cherry tomato and avocado. No, the Royal Cinemas is one of those older, slightly decaying movie houses. Yes, the smell of fresh popcorn is in the air, but so is the smell of popcorn from several years ago. And, at the end of a movie, you’re more than happy to be getting up from your rock hard seat.

Every time we go there to see some popular film (and that’s all they show there—this is certainly not an “art house” theater), I’m reminded of what is probably my favorite film of all time, Kings of the Road. A film Wim Wenders made in 1974—its German title, Im Lauf der Zeit, translates as “In the Course of Time”—Kings of the Road is one of those films that a lot of people find unbearably boring, and when I first saw it at an afternoon showing at the east wing of the National Gallery in Washington, DC, less than half the audience that was there at the beginning of the film remained at the completion of its three hour running time. But for me, it was the most compelling film I’d seen since Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura (yeah, another film that leaves a lot of people utterly bored or baffled) and it accomplished this without any special effects. And without much action or even plot.

Maybe that’s precisely why I find it so engrossing. Me, I don’t give a rat’s ass about what effects CGI or Industrial Light and Magic or Pixar can produce—the cinematic spectacles so many people rave about (e.g., The Lord of the Rings trilogy) put me to sleep. And so what I remember about the Lord of the Rings trilogy is that I slept through about a third of Fellowship of the Ring, over half of The Two Towers, and by the time The Return of the King came out Heather figured that maybe I should just take my nap at home while she went with her brother to see it.

Because, and I guess here I am going against the grain again, I don’t go to the movies to escape the real world or even to see the real world disguised to look like some happy acid trip. I actually hate that shit. As for Kings of the Road, this is the kind of trip I like. On the surface it may look like there’s little going on: Bruno, whose job maintaining and repairing film projectors takes him to run-down movie theaters in West Germany, close to the East-German border, travels for a while with Robert, a man who has just split up with his wife—and then they go their separate ways again. But the revelation comes from seeing how they interact with each other, with the people they meet during their travels, and with the sometimes beautiful, sometimes desolate landscape through which they move. It’s a landscape and a speed of life (or, rather, a lack of speed) that reminds me a lot of Front Royal. And the Royal Cinemas feels exactly like the sort of theater where Bruno would work on a projector.

Since the first time I saw it, Kings of the Road has always been at least somewhere close to the back of my mind. So it’s not surprising that, soon after Heather and I first got together in the mid 90s, I felt compelled to show this film to her. I found it on a VHS double cassette (Kings of the Road still hadn’t come out on DVD in the U.S.) at Potomac Video on Connecticut Avenue in DC, a store that, like all the other video stores, has since gone out of business.

Showing her the film wasn’t quite a litmus test for seeing how compatible we were, but seeing that she appreciated the film was, for me, a very good thing. We watched it in our apartment across from the Zoo. And although it was as compelling as ever for me, watching it at home on a television, I now realize that the perfect place to see this film would be the Royal Cinemas on Main Street. That, of course, will never happen. But just as seeing David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive at the decaying Foxchase theater in Alexandria back in the early summer of 2001 added to our experience of that film—a triplex, the Foxchase showed mainstream and indie films in two theaters and porn in the third—seeing Im Lauf der Zeit at the Royal Cinemas would add immeasurably to our experience of this film.

Landscape

Because there’s something about the Royal Cinemas, and Front Royal as a whole, that makes me feel like I’m actually living in an early Wim Wenders film. The wide open landscape, the silence, the way everything one does here feels like it’s taking place at the edge of the known world: it’s like if you take one more step—or perhaps the wrong step—you’ll be leaving the civilized world completely and be entering into Lord of the Flies territory.

Oddly enough, this is something I actually like about Front Royal. I like that living here feels like we’re living in some sort of limbo, that—especially in the dead of winter when all the bright fall colors are gone and all the tourists are safely back in civilization—it feels like a bit of a ghost town. Or a place where they forgot to tell the residents that, “Oh, by the way, the world has ended.”

If anything, Front Royal is a place on the edge of something. To simply call it a small, conservative, and rather backward town is to miss the point—even though Front Royal is, without a doubt, all of those things—and what it’s on the edge of, I’m not quite sure. Sometimes I think it may be taking a turn for the better, even though most of the time I’m prepared for it to do the opposite.

All I know for sure is that feeling I get from being here. That feeling I got the first time we drove on one of those low-water bridges that cross the Shenandoah. Looking at it, this rough concrete strip that’s barely above the water, we weren’t sure that it was actually passable. We stopped to think about it for a while. We waited, hoping the answer would come to us like some strange revelation from the woods. Finally, we went ahead, slowly, over the muddy brown water of the Shenandoah River. Then, when we got to the other side, it didn’t seem like we were getting anywhere—the trees on both sides of the road bore signs saying POSTED. NO TRESPASSING.

It was hard to tell where we were—were we on someone’s private property now? Someone who believes in shooting first and asking questions later? And had we, in fact, gone past the city limits? Sometimes I get the feeling that Front Royal never ends, that it continues simply because it doesn’t know how to go forward to some sort of conclusion.

We turned around and went back over the low-water bridge. We kept going—quietly, as if we were being followed— until we reached a place where we recognized our surroundings. We kept going, away from the river which, as it winds through the valley, always looks like it’s chasing us. Away from the low-water bridge, which always looks like it could collapse at any moment.

Yes, we kept going, as one must do in these parts, until we were sure, once again, that we weren’t about to fall off the edge of the world.

-Jose Padua

The Beginning of My Marathon of Past Lives


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.

-Jose Padua

Video directed by Joel Blumsack

Late 1950s Science Fiction and the Making and Breaking of Empires

Photograph by Jose Padua
Looking at the pile of snow in the parking lot at the Martin’s supermarket one night, I was reminded of the 1958 film, The Blob. Starring Steve McQueen (in his big screen debut) and Aneta Corsaut (who would later become famous for playing Helen Crump on The Andy Griffith Show), The Blob features a fist-sized living lump that arrives from outer space then grows and grows and grows. Special effects not being what they are today, the living blob didn’t look all that different from this pile of snow.

It was around seven in the evening, and inside the supermarket was the emptiest I’d ever seen it since we’ve been here. Because of this, it was the most relaxing trip to the store I’ve ever had in this town. It would have been perfect for one of those occasions when I had a long list of groceries to buy, but last night all I needed was bread and milk.

When I went back out, I looked at the blob of snow again. I stood there in the parking lot, next to my car, and I looked at it for what felt like a long time. Soon, a feeling of peace came over me—or at least that’s what I thought it was at first. But then I recognized what it was, and what I realized was that it was exactly the sort of feeling I get when a movie is over.

But not a movie like The Blob, because I felt just the way I would had I just watched a movie I love, like Wim Wenders’s Kings of the Road or Wong Kar-wai’s Fallen Angels. And standing there by the pile of snow, I found myself lost in one of those moments where I get a sense of all the places I’ve been and the slow passage of time, and not just the time I’ve lived through.

I know that for some people history is a series of wars and battles that to them are the hallmark of man’s determination and glory. For some people, all they can think about is war, as if war itself is the purpose of everything and the reason for our existence. And where some see the clashing of armies and the devising of strategies and the beginnings and endings of empires, I see the movement of millions of points of consciousness, too many of which have strayed so far from that moment of birth that the only things they see beauty in are acts of destruction.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Beauty Like These Decades While Walking So Slowly in the Sunlight

Photograph by Jose Padua
Two decades ago I’m walking
down 18th Street when
two beautiful young women
walk my way and as we pass by
each other one of them looks at me
then looks to her friend and says
with an accent out of a Fellini movie
one sweet, luscious word—”bello.”
I’m pretty sure “bello”
means “beautiful” in Italian
but as always there’s that splinter sized
sliver of doubt that nonetheless
has the strength and power
of a mother bear protecting her cubs,
and I wonder if I’m wrong
and “bello” isn’t beautiful,
but is instead the same as
a musical term instructing the musician
to SLOW DOWN.
If this is the case
the woman isn’t describing me
as beautiful
but rather is telling
her friend not to walk so fast
because it’s a hot summer day
and her feet are aching,
words that have
nothing to do with me.
When I get home
I look up the word to find
that it does indeed mean beautiful
and I look in the mirror
thinking “maybe” and “possibly”
because my hair did look good.
Nowadays if someone passing by me
were to say “bello”
I would skip looking in the mirror
and instead wonder,
on a day when I’m uncharacteristically
calm and content,
how that person had
managed to look
into my soul.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Pulp Fiction

Photograph by Jose Padua
This afternoon a bum on the street mistook me for a drug addict.
“It’s that CRACK that’s making you sweat,” he advised me.
I nodded and said, “Yeah, I really ought to quit,”
as people walking near me picked up their pace to get away from me.

Later, I’m crossing the street when a carload of scraggly haired kids pulls up beside me.
“Hey, man, you got any rolling papers?” one of them asks.
“No,” I say, “I just drink, that’s it.”
“Come on,” he says, “just give them to me, all you Filipino motherfuckers smoke reefer.”
I keep quiet and walk ahead as they start to jeer and yell at me.

It’s been said that the meek shall inherit the earth.
But I’ve got bruises on my arms from running into people
on the street who expect me to scurry out of their way like a rat.
I’ve got dark patches on my soul from people who move out of my way
because they think I’m going to kill them.

People always either see me as the lamb who’s ready to sacrifice himself
to the gods of their ambition
or as the wolf who’s going to set his fangs upon them,
tearing them limb from limb, eyeball from eyeball,
when the truth is somewhere in between.

“Do you speak English?” people in bars often ask me.
“No,” I tell them, “I’m from France, I speak French.”
“You’re not from around here, are you?” other people say to me.
“No I’m not,” I answer. “I’m from Saturn and I’m here to mate with Earth women.
Is that your sister who’s sitting next to you? Nice tits.”

It’s been said that he who makes a beast of himself gets rid
of the pain of being a man.
So I drink straight from the bottle till the hair grows on my cheeks.
I steal the drinks from in front of other people
until the fur forms on the back of my neck.

“I was born here,” I used to say to people,
“I ate my first McDonald’s cheeseburger when I was 4,
recited the Pledge of Allegiance for teacher when I was 6,
and by the age of seven I could speak the language better than you do now.”

It’s been said that the truth is what sets you free,
but whenever I speak the truth no one believes it,
and whenever I hear the truth it makes me feel like a prisoner
on death row.

So I tell stories to keep the truth alive without telling it.
I create history to keep me from becoming history:

“I was raised by flying cockroaches until the age of seventeen. Could you lend me a buck?”
“I’m a crack-head pimp from the planet Liechtenstein. Would you like a job?”
“I’m a millionaire from Muffberg, Ohio. I came here two years ago with a dollar
in my pocket and a smile I could pry open doors with. Would you like a tip on
the stock market?”
“I’m vice president of a mid-sized consulting firm making
two hundred grand a year tax free. Can I pay for your groceries?”
“I’m Johnny Depp’s garbage man, wanna go out?”
“I’m Conan O’Brien, wanna fuck?”

This is the way I spend my days.
This is the way I earn my nights,
walking the earth telling lies, spreading rumors:

“And blessed is he who in the name of charity and good will
shepherds the weak and ignorant through the valley of darkness
for he is truly his brother’s keeper.
But I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance
and furious rebukes those who attempt to poison and destroy
my brothers
and you will know my name is The Lord
when I lay my vengeance upon thee.”

It’s been said that that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
I think that that which doesn’t kill you simply lets you live longer.
There’s a difference.

-Jose Padua

The film, Pulp Fiction, is twenty years old this year while this poem is about eighteen years old. I took the photograph of the Ontario Theater when it was in the process of being demolished last year. The Ontario was where I saw The Sound of Music when I was about six years old. When I was around twenty-five was when I saw The Gang of Four play there. And it was across the street from the Ontario, when I was about thirty-nine, where I was mistaken for a crack addict, which was what inspired the poem.

An Elegy to the Month of October as Seen Through an Evening I Wish Could Look More Like a Painting by Robert Motherwell

Photograph by Jose Padua
Into last night’s slight drizzle, we all went trick-or-treating. I wore my usual costume, which is to say the costume I wear every cool autumn day—jeans, t-shirt, and a beat-up black sport coat. Heather dressed up as a character from a steampunk novel, wearing a black top hat equipped with high powered goggles and a long overcoat; Maggie put on a curly black wig, a glittery jump suit, and painted various scars on her arm and face so as to become a disco zombie; and Julien had an apron that covered him on the front and back and that turned him into Thomas the Train.

Julien, though, wasn’t really getting into it, and got rather frightened by some of the costumes he saw. So, after walking up to the end of our block—to the house whose occupants look like they stepped out of one of Larry Clark’s old books documenting his drug addicted friends—Julien and I headed back home and let Maggie and Heather go on ahead. On their way back, they picked up something for dinner. By the time we were done, it was already late and time to get ready for bed.

Part of Maggie’s routine involves each of us sitting with her in her bedroom before she falls asleep. Heather always sits with her first before taking Julien to bed, then—usually around half an hour after Heather and Julien have gone to bed—Maggie calls me from the top of the stairs and asks me to come up. By that time I’m usually at the computer working, which means it’s time for a break. Last night when I went up Maggie wanted me to tell her a story. This time she gave me three things to include in the story I was to make up on the spot: a rainbow, the city, and Adam Sandler’s movie Bedtime Stories.

I made up a story about a rainbow that could only rise over the city when it was still raining. This was a rainbow whose appearance didn’t mean the rain had ended or was even about to end. No, whenever you saw this rainbow, it meant the rain was going to continue for hours, even days. Because of that, this rainbow was the most unpopular rainbow in city. Unlike the other rainbows that the people in the city welcomed and celebrated, this rainbow was hated. “If only I could figure out how to get the rain to stop,” the rainbow thought, “then I would be welcomed and celebrated as well.”

The rainbow thought and thought about it, then came up with an idea. “I bet the answer is in the Adam Sandler movie Bedtime Stories. If I watch this movie carefully, I’ll discover the secret to ending the rain that keeps falling whenever I appear in the sky.” The rainbow then watched Bedtime Stories in its DVD player. It watched the movie carefully, several times, but after having done so it still had no solution as to how to stop the rain. Then another idea occurred to the rainbow, “Maybe if I watch it backwards, that’s how I’ll find the answer in the movie.” The rainbow figured out a way to make the entire movie play backwards in its DVD player with the sound on and watched and listened. Somehow, when the rainbow heard Adam Sandler’s voice going backwards, what it heard wasn’t just garbled, nonsensical sound, but real words—words the actor Adam Sandler had no idea he was saying. It was in these words that the rainbow found the secret to stopping the rain, and the next day when it appeared in the sky over the city, the heavy rain turned into a drizzle, then into a mist, and then, finally, it was all gone. And the rainbow stretched its colors from one end of the city to the other as the people welcomed it and praised it, saying it was the best of all the rainbows. The End.

Maggie liked the story, but she wanted more. I told her I was too tired—that I didn’t have another story in me for the night. She then let me finish story time by reading Bob Hicok’s poem “My New Neighbor” in which Bob Hicok talks to one of the cows that grazes in a field next to a Presbyterian church in his neighborhood. By the end of the poem, Maggie had closed her eyes. She wasn’t quite asleep, but she was almost there. I sat there quietly for a few more minutes before I went back downstairs. I tried to finish the story I was writing, but I was too tired to continue. So, after a little while, I went to sleep, too.

This photograph of the soccer field was taken around 6:30 this evening, toward the end of Maggie’s soccer practice. As it got darker and darker tonight, the landscape of the soccer field against the mountains and the November sky looked more and more like a painting by Mark Rothko. I didn’t want to think about Mark Rothko. Mark Rothko, as good as he was, always made me think about the endings of things and I wasn’t in the mood to think about the ending of things.

Maggie and her teammates practiced until it was too dark to continue, cutting their practice hour short by about fifteen minutes. As we headed home, and the evening’s last colors faded into the darkness, the landscape of our small town seemed to slowly change. When Maggie and I walked in the door, dinner was ready. Heather, Maggie, Julien, and I ate under the pale yellow dining room light, and as I started to feel full, the sound of our forks against our plates began to sound more and more like music.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Real Words and Other Solid Objects I Can Recall without Having to Look Back

Photo by Jose Padua
During the drive back from Roanoke yesterday, it was while the overture to Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie was playing that Julien spotted the most cows along the highway. Watching for cows and other animals is perhaps Julien’s favorite part of being on the road, and hearing the overture playing, punctuated by Julien’s declarations of “Cows!” and “More cows” was invigorating, giving me energy at a point in the drive when I would usually be getting tired and ready for a break.

But what was also nice was to have this piece of music associated with something other than a violent scene from A Clockwork Orange, which is what often came to mind whenever I heard the overture once Stanley Kubrick used it in his 1971 film of the Anthony Burgess novel. Not that Malcolm McDowell didn’t deliver an incredible performance as lead thug of the droogs, but it’s not what I want to focus on all the time. And while some people are obsessed with violence in its various forms, I prefer to think endlessly and obsessively about other things.

Happily, A Clockwork Orange is no longer the only thing I associate with The Thieving Magpie. It’s also the music that Toru Okada listens to as he boils a pot of spaghetti at the beginning of Haruki Murakami’s novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. This is a more pleasing association, which isn’t to say that the Murakami book is a much happier affair than A Clockwork Orange. It isn’t (well, not exactly ) and it has some of the most horrifying scenes I’ve read anywhere, but it’s still a much warmer experience than Clockwork’s dystopian satire.

It’s also a book that’s always somewhere in the back of my mind since I finally read it a couple of years ago. And after leaving our hotel yesterday and driving down Route 11 towards downtown Roanoke, there were two things that occurred to me. The first was the revelation that, on this stretch of Route 11, at least every other building looks like something that would be quite at home in a William Eggleston photograph. The second was more fear than revelation–and what I was afraid of was the possibility that at any moment I could find myself caught in the sort chain of events that would be at home in a Murakami novel, and in particular, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

This, I think, says loudly and clearly how this book hit a certain note within me. This is also when I have to say something to Heather or Maggie or Julien and hear them say something back to me, to bring me back to the world at hand. And as we were driving down Route 11, that’s what I did. I don’t remember what they said–it doesn’t have to be anything long and involved–but I came back. From a momentary plunge into extreme sadness, from a brief mental tremor, or from the dizziness that comes from having to consider every possibility every moment that I’m awake. Sometimes all it takes is for someone to cut a fart in the car, and I’m back, in more manageable frame of mind.

And as we drove on down Route 11, we saw, in the distance, the Big Man statue at the old auto shop. I slowed down to take this picture of it. It’s not at all like William Eggleston’s photographs, which to me always seem to make the distant past seem so immediate, as if it’s never gone away, and never even come close to anything approaching change. This seems more like something out of a dream that was dreamt at least a couple of decades ago and can barely be remembered.

And after passing by the Big Man statue on the way to downtown Roanoke, I wouldn’t have been surprised, upon turning around for one last look, to see that all of a sudden it was gone. That in a matter of seconds the statue and everything surrounding it had been replaced by some 21st Century roadside creations–all made quickly and cheaply and without any kind of thought–and that we, on this Sunday afternoon, were the last people in the world to have seen it. Which meant that it was up to us to tell the story of its last moments in the hopes that this story, and everything it contained, would endure for a period of time which–in its slow, beautiful unfolding–approached eternity.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua