Category Archives: Memoir

Directions in Music and Other Ways of Approaching the Day

Photograph by Jose Padua
When I pick my five-year-old
son up from school
then stop at the grocery store
to get milk instead
of going straight home
he says “I’ll just stay here
in the car
and listen to Miles Davis”
because right then “Spanish Key”
from Bitches Brew
is playing on
the car stereo and
since it’s a warm spring
day here in the valley
and what he wants to do
sounds better than
what I want to do
we sit in the car
and listen
until the song is over
and we’re thirsty for something other
than sound.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

On Remembering the Times and Forgetting the Burden of Days

Photo by Jose Padua
No one ever remembers the times you put the toilet seat down
after using the bathroom, those days when the weatherman
predicted to the exact inch the amount of snow that was going
to fall in the next day’s winter storm. They’ll remember if you
told them an upcoming movie was going to suck but only
if you remind them that back in 1948 you said, “No Orchids
for Miss Blandish
is going to suck, big time” or that in 1990
you said, “Let’s go see GoodFellas instead of Look Who’s
Talking Too
,” but you went ahead and saw Look Who’s Talking
Too
, which pretty much put an end to your forty-two year
relationship. I remember warm spring mornings when I stepped
outside and the world felt blue and green and yellow and I felt
as if I could run a marathon but didn’t because I knew all the
beautiful blooming flowers would eventually make me sneeze
and make my eyes water so that at the end of the run I’d be sobbing
like a baby not because of the thrill of my accomplishments but
because of my stupid allergies. I remember being a boy and
seeing “FUK” spray painted on the wall of the bridge we were
driving over and laughing out loud when my Mom looked at me
and said “Oh, you’re laughing at that” and me not being able
to say it was the misspelling of the word Fuck and not the
word itself I was laughing at, even though the idea of someone,
especially my mother, thinking I was laughing at the word Fuck
was horrifying to me. And over the years I remember the people
who have lent me money or simply given generously to me with
alacrity their time and energy and support and the other varieties
of abstract assistance that keep one going during difficult times,
and although I have rarely ever been able to repay them with
anything in return, much less respond with humility and grace,
I have been able to tell them a funny story or two or lent pause
to days that needed pausing, and in those instances when my
story fails to make them laugh and the hiatuses I create are so
negligible in the space they make between then and now that
they neglect to forget what a bad friend and horrible deadbeat
I am, I offer to tickle them, which except on rare occasions is ample
distraction, and usually enough to get them to change the subject.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua.

Reflections on Shade and Tone as Day Turns to Night in the Valley

Photograph by Jose Padua
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.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Helltown

Photograph by Jose Padua
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.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Black

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.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

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

On the Slow Decline of the Ugly

Photograph by Jose Padua
We called them ugly stickers.
Like baseball cards or football cards,
they came in packs of bubblegum
except for me they were
a lot more interesting—
no batting averages for
the last four seasons, no total
touchdowns or yards per carry,
just an illustration
of an ugly monster of a creature
with a name like Bob, George, or Jill.
Joe, which was my nickname at home
was the closest the ugly stickers got
to my actual name, Jose,
and was a big green blob with
lopsided eyes, hideous lizard skin
and I think one leg
sticking out of its side—
I liked it a lot, and I liked it when
I was young and quiet
long before I learned
to like my real name,
because in America
you sometimes had to face
all the ugliness outside of you
before you could appreciate
the sort of off-center, off-color
full-of-blood beauty
that stands on its feet
or foot or whatever
it was born with
and demands its
moments of clarity.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

On This Day in the Summer of 2014 When The Ohio Players Reunite to Play Several Songs in My Car and in My Head

Photograph by Jose Padua
Back in the summer
of 1975
the thought never
occurred to me
that one day
I’d be dropping off
my kids at camp
for the day
while listening
to The Ohio Players’
“Sweet Sticky Thing.”
As I was just seventeen
that summer and
had just graduated
from high school
there were innumerable
essential ideas
and concepts that
had never crossed
my mind at that point,
but for some reason
on this summer morning
nearly four decades later
this seems the most
significant of them all.
And because it’s
my first real observation
for the day,
that means that
like a great bass line,
it’s laying the
foundation for
everything else that
may come to mind
in the hours, weeks,
days, and years
that lie ahead,
until that slow
quiet moment
when the radio station
in my head
signs off for a billion
or more nights.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua, Self-Portrait as Shadow on an Empty Space at the Grocery Store Parking Lot.

In That Spring When Stars Are Made

Photograph by Jose Padua
Though we don’t turn them on at night,
the strings of Christmas lights are still up,
hanging in a line from the porch roof.
The red and white candy cane lights, pulled up from the ground,
lie at the top of the front steps
next to the all-season Dutch gnome.
Plastic Santa we managed to take to the back porch;
we’ll eventually carry him to the garage
where he will stand in silence
like a bored security guard
until next year. So go
the small things
we never have time to do,
the arbitrary ordering of our lives and times
into four seasons and various rooms
and days that pass so swiftly,
so invisibly
when nothing that’s considered
productive is being done.
But oh, all the tiny victories
not worth mentioning,
I will mention them anyway:
sitting on a rocking chair
when it’s warm and
I am in a blue-green, almost noisy funk,
talking about what was once the recent past;
an evening when dark objects in the sky
collide and fall to earth
as brilliant points of light.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Breathless Like Those Days of Great Laughter

Photograph by Jose Padua
It was one of the last times the Runkle side of Heather’s family was able to have a winter reunion. With Mom-Mom Runkle’s health issues, travel, especially in the cold winter months, was particularly difficult. But it was at one of those last reunions, at Heather’s Uncle Brian and Aunt Rose’s house, that I found myself sitting with Mom-Mom Runkle and looking with her at one of that year’s novelty Christmas gifts, the giving of which has been a tradition in Heather’s family.

This one was an animatronic Country Bears toy—you pressed a button, and the Country Bears figures, which were arranged holding musical instruments, began to move as they played a holiday tune. I pressed the button and held it up for Mom-Mom Runkle to examine. When the Country Bears figures started to move and play their song she said, “Oh my! How do they do that?” I looked her in the eyes and said, “Practice.” Mom-Mom Runkle paused, then let out a joyful laugh that seemed to echo throughout the room.

Now, you can tell a lot about a person by his or her laugh. Some laughs have a tone of derisiveness about them (recall the way Nelson, the classroom bully on the Simpsons, laughs). Other laughs are only for the purpose of saying “I’m smart, I get it” (a laugh I would hear a lot in the audience whenever I saw a Jean-Luc Goddard film at the old Biograph theater in DC). Some laughs are creepy and even frightening (think Ted Cruz). Then there are those who don’t have a laugh. (Has anyone ever seen Donald Trump laugh? He smirks, he grins, he leers, but has he ever let loose with anything resembling a genuine laugh. I’m not the first person to note that laughing might be among the human behaviors he fails to exhibit).

Anyway, Mom-Mom Runkle had a laugh, and her laugh wasn’t anything like that of the aforementioned persons. It was a genuine laugh, without a trace of self-consciousness. Not everyone gets my sense of humor, but Mom-Mom Runkle did, and to hear her laugh in response to my remark was like taking a spur of the moment hit of nitrous from a can of whipped cream.

Mom-Mom Runkle had one of those laughs that you remember. It was a good laugh, a great laugh, the sort of laugh that brings with it a sense of revelation, even, and as such was a true expression of the essence of things, destroying all the bullshit in its way.

Like the rest of us, she wasn’t perfect. But I can only hope that one day, if only once, I might laugh in a way that rings just as true, and that it might echo through whatever room I find myself in. Or, if I’m outside, somewhere in this sometimes beautiful, sometimes frighteningly backwards stretch of valley, I’d like to think that my laugh could echo off the mountains on the horizon, then, like a clamorous flock of dark birds, swoon back up toward the sky. And, I’d like to think that soon again, I’ll be able to let loose with a laugh that feels like something more than temporary refuge from a time of fear and apprehension. I’d like to think that, once again, it will feel like a home in which I, my family, my friends, and a lot of other people from all sorts of places who consider themselves Americans might dwell.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua