Category Archives: Shenandoah Valley

North Richmond Street, Being Blind

Photograph by Jose Padua
My eight-year old son Julien is singing
an East River Pipe song, going “I don’t care
about your blue wings, I don’t care about your
blue wings, baby” and my fifteen year old
daughter Maggie reads The Girl With Curious
Hair
while my wife and I drink beer at the pub
on Main Street (Julien and Maggie, iced tea
and a coke) before we all go back to our old,
dirty, small-town house. This place used to be
called Helltown and some people still call it
that, except at that precise hour when the sky
over the mountains is a perfect flinty lapis lazuli
blue, and the river is a woman named Edna with
the most joyous laugh, or a man named John,
his kidney stone like a 12 gauge shotgun shell.
He hopes to pass it before his Monday night
factory shift, the roughest in all the valley.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

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The Distance Between Ground and Sky as Measured in Units of Work

Photograph by Jose Padua
When we were dropping our son Julien off at school earlier that week, he looked at the boy who was getting out from the car ahead of us. I opened the side door to let Julien out and he yelled, “Shavon!” Julien ran toward the school door and yelled, “Hey, Shavon, Baby!” Shavon, the boy who was in the car ahead of us, turned around and waited for Julien. They walked in together.

I never say “Baby” that way. Nor do I use the variant “Babe.” And as far as I can remember, the only person to regularly call me “Baby” was my landlord in New York. “Jose Baby,” he’d say. It was, I imagine, his way of acknowledging that I was all right. I wasn’t one of the junkies or crackheads in his building (my next door neighbor Anna would often complain about “those junkie people”). And I paid my rent more or less on time—or at least until toward the end of my stay in New York. It made me all right in my landlord’s eyes. It made me “Jose Baby.”

At home with my family, in the small town we live in now, I’m the sort of person who often uses the term “Honey.” I rarely ever call my wife Heather by her name—I always say “Honey.” If I do somehow say “Heather” it’s reason for us to look at each other and pause, as if we’d suddenly been transported to some odd parallel universe where I say “Heather” instead of “Honey.” I also call the kids “Honey” at times, the way my mother would use the work “Anak” with me and my brothers—“Anak” being a Tagalog word for “son”/”daughter” or, simply “child.” It was the sort of term I’d hear if I was coming down with a cold and my mother had just felt my forehead to discover I had a fever. “Anak,” she’d say, out of concern. As such, it was a word that comforted me. It meant that she knew what was wrong, and was taking care of things.

A couple of days earlier, we were a little late dropping our daughter Maggie off at school in the morning. That meant that by the time I got to the drop-off line for Julien’s school, I was a little further back than usual. I was tired and wished I could just close my eyes until the doors for Julien’s school opened, but then I looked out into the distance. Because of where we were in line—right where there’s a break in the woods that surround Julien’s school—I could see clear through to the sky above the tree line where the land slopes down to Leach Run, the stream that lies about a mile east of town. The way the colors were blending made it hard to distinguish between earth and sky, horizon and cloud, near and far. Or maybe it was just my aging eyes. Either way, I liked what I saw, so I took a photograph. Then I had a coughing fit.

I’d been under the weather since the past weekend when Maggie and I saw Yuja Wang perform at the Kennedy Center in DC. I was a running a bit of a fever and was hoping that seeing Yuja Wang might do the same thing Sun Ra did about a quarter century ago when I saw him at a performance at the Bottom Line in New York. That night I was in the middle of a horrible sore throat/flu and I wasn’t sure it was wise for me to attempt to make it out to the Bottom Line. But, because it was Sun Ra, I made the effort. I dragged myself out of my apartment.

That night, I left the Bottom Line after some two or so hours of Sun Ra’s performing (usually he’d play even longer, but this was after he’d had a stroke). And I felt fine. My lungs were clear. I could smoke a cigarette without feeling like I was breathing in fumes from the back of a bus (yes, I was a hard-core smoker back then). And, I could have another Jack Daniel’s on the rocks with my friends and have it slide down my throat as smooth as the overnight DJ on WBAI. I was, in other words, all right. I was, once again, Jose Baby.

Seeing Yuja Wang perform that weekend didn’t quite do it. Unlike after seeing Sun Ra, I still had my flu and my fever. I still needed that ibuprofen a few times a day to feel at least marginally human. But then, Yuja Wang is only thirty years old. I think that in a few years the power to heal will come along on top of the ability to play a sick-as-fuck encore off the top of her head.

After I’d dropped off Julien, I stopped at the grocery store to pick up some soup, orange juice, and ibuprofen. That’s what I figured I’d need to make it through the rest of the day until it was time to pick up Maggie and Julien from school. As I passed by the magazine rack, I saw something horrible. Wrapped in plastic, it was labeled the “Trump Anniversary Collection,” and beneath those words, peering out into a distance populated solely by wealthy, racist assholes, were the eyes of Donald Trump. At the bottom of the package, underneath Trump’s orange chin, was further explanation that this was a “Patriot’s Kit” and included bumper stickers, a “’Promises Kept’ magazine,” and a “Ready-to-Frame Portrait.” The scream I made in my head was so loud I swore everyone in the store could hear it.

I laid a few copies of Field & Stream on top of the stack of Patriot’s Kits, then walked to the back of the store. There I grabbed a quart of Tropicana 50% Less Sugar/Some Pulp orange juice. I took that, a double pack of the store brand ibuprofen, and two cans of chicken soup and went up to the register. As I drove home, I thought about how the sky by the elementary school, in the clearing between the trees, looked something like a Mark Rothko painting. And I thought about my wife and my children, my mother and father, and all the days of winter we had ahead of us and all the work we had to do.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Home, Sorrow, and the Million Ways We Make It Through the World

Photograph by Jose Padua
That weekend was one of those that reminded us of what we love about living in the northern Shenandoah Valley—namely, events like the performance in Castleton, Virginia, some twenty-five miles south of Front Royal, by the 1,000 Faces Mask Theater. An event that brought together some of the eccentric and creative persons who live out here, and placed them prominently on the landscape of open green spaces that lay in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The following Monday, though, brought us back to the other side of life here when, on returning to her car in the Front Royal park-and-ride lot after spending the day at her office in Arlington, my wife Heather found a flyer underneath her windshield wipers bearing the heading “Join the Ku Klux Klan.”

The “klan,” the flyer noted, was an organization that was, among other things, “standing up for whites,” “upholding the 2nd amendment of the constitution,” “was Christian based and upholds the bible.” It ended with the line “Please join before it’s too late.” At the bottom of the flyer was a phone number and addresses for two different websites, as well as an illustration of a hooded klan figure surrounded by the words “The KKK wants you!”

Seeing this flyer here wasn’t exactly surprising. Time and again people had told us how Front Royal is one of the more backwards towns in the Shenandoah Valley. Not that we don’t have any of the sort of people who participated in the 1,000 Faces Mask Theater living here, as well as others who may not be eccentric but who are simply “woke” to one degree or another. Still, any real sort of power, here, is held by folks who are definitely on the other side of “woke.”

One case in point is the lawsuit a man in our neighborhood was involved in a number of years ago. Sam, one of two African-Americans employed by the Front Royal Department of Public Works, was continually passed over for promotions to positions he was well qualified for. What’s more, Sam was also subjected to verbal abuse from his bosses, who had no reservations about using the “N” word in reference to him and other African-Americans. Sam, in his lawsuit, contended that his immediate boss claimed to be a member of the KKK and that the director of the Front Royal office of Public Works was, in fact, the local head of the KKK.

In 2001, the Town of Front Royal reached a settlement with Sam and the other plaintiff, with the town having to pay their legal fees, provide compensation, and issue a formal apology. As for the director of the town Department of Public Works, he retired from that position, after which he was elected mayor of Front Royal. He’d already been on the town council for several terms and the lawsuit, apparently, did little to damage him politically.

A few years ago, Sam was able to retire from his position with the town. He’s one of the nicest, friendliest people in my neighborhood. I can’t imagine how hard it must have been for him to work with the people he had to work with. Of course he had no choice—you make a living however you can. I also can’t imagine how he manages to keep up that smile after all the shit he had to deal with, but he does it, and Sam, to me, is one of the heroes in this town.

The day after Heather found the KKK flyer on her car, Johnny came over to the house. Johnny runs a lawn service in town, and he did our lawn that day. He’d just started working on our yard when our neighbor came over to yell at him. She was furious. Johnny, she said, had sent some grass clippings flying from our yard over into hers. I was out picking up Maggie and Julien from school, but Heather was home and phoned me to tell me what was going on. Our neighbor, Heather said, then started calling Johnny the “N” word over and over. Then our neighbor said, “I’m gonna call the KKK on you” and used the “N” word several more times. Heather tried to calm our neighbor down, but our neighbor kept on yelling. After a while, though, Johnny started working on our lawn again, and our neighbor went back into her house, slamming the door behind her.

Heather had to go out on an errand, and when I got home with Maggie and Julien, Johnny had just finished doing the lawn. I told him sorry. What could I tell him that he didn’t already know? I certainly wasn’t going to tell him how I, as an Asian-American or whatever the racist goons here think I am, experience some of this shit, too. Not to the degree he does, of course, and not in the same way, but I do. I could try to tell him what helps me deal with it, but what may diminish the sadness and rage for me won’t necessarily diminish it for him. It’s one of those things—you experience being the object of hate in your own way and the sadness and rage that goes with it is all yours. Like Sam and Johnny, you learn to live with it, and you learn to survive. And no matter where you are or who’s with you, you basically have to learn it on your own.

So that’s what I said to Johnny—“sorry”—and I looked him in the eyes as well and as real as I could and shook his hand. “Sorry.” It’s better than so much of the other shit that gets said at times like this. It’s like sorry, there’s love in the world, but there’s this too. The hate, it seems, isn’t going anywhere, and sometimes neither are we. So I went inside our house with Maggie and Julien, my legs slightly unsteady, and waited for Heather to come home.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Reflections on a Song by Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson and Other Intervals Between Two Points in Time

Photograph by Jose Padua
Looking out
the kitchen
window in the
dim early evening
light I’m waiting
for the stray cat
in the back
yard to move
just scratch its
nose with its
paw or else
dash out between
gaps in the
run-down picket
fence when I
realize it’s not
a stray cat
I’m looking at
but a black flower
pot knocked over
on its side and
in that instant
I remember all
those years I lost
being obsessed
searching for meaning
in places where
there was none.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

The Sight of my Neighbor Limping

Photograph by Jose Padua
The sight of my neighbor limping to his front door
in the dim, late-evening light, walking from his truck,
down the driveway to the sidewalk, then toward the
front steps of his house, his bad arm nearly dragging
from his shoulder behind his back like some name
he can’t remember—an old friend from back in the day
when he lived closer to the city with plenty to do and
places to go—reminds me of how little I know of his story.
Just that his wife has a hard time staying sober long enough
so the cops don’t have to drag her away to jail. Just an idea
that when the liquor has left the blood that flows beneath
one’s skin, the cold, gray walls of a jail cell must look
like the hardest substance on Earth. Which is to say
that it’s so much easier for me to imagine being her
than being him, so much easier to think about things
done wrong than things lost. And he takes his good arm
and stretches it straight in front of him as he turns to pull
his front door shut in time to sit in front of the television
to watch the Sunday night game. His wife is coming
home again at the end of the month when it’ll be more
than halfway through the third quarter season’s rush
toward winter. Time to crank up the wood stove, send
rough blue smoke from the chimney toward the sky.
Time to feel the tips of all one’s fingers, celebrate the motions
that make it easy to believe it’s easy being alive. Comfort
is the warmth and stillness of sitting near the heart of
a hundred year old, small town house. Comfort is the moment
after work when there’s nothing that needs to be moved.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua. This poem was first published at Vox Populi.

In Contemplation of the Failure of Empires

Photograph by Jose Padua
In contemplation of the coming
of the starry night we listen
for the sound of late summer
cicadas, feel on our skin the
electric static of the waning day’s
last light, wait for a sign while
standing like flowers amidst damp
grass, a word to transform us
from beggars into suns and
planets, red maple and slippery
elm. Our half closed eyes, our
half numb flesh, are filled again
like cups on a table in expectation
of the feast. Ready once again
for brilliance; ready for everything
in the world that’s dim, dark,
shady and beautiful; ready for
the city that moves us like a river,
the landscape that anchors us like
these low mountains; ready for
colored leaves falling on the blue ridge.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Self-Portrait with Flashbacks in the Purple Bathroom of the Lavender Farm in Milton, Delaware

Photograph by Jose Padua
I remember the days of
cigarettes and whippets
a pack of Marlboro Reds
in a box you’d buy
after you pulled the
whipped cream can from
the store shelf when no
one was looking suck
the nitrous out of it put
it back down slide the
glass door shut then
go to the counter with
your cigarettes trying
not to laugh while you
paid then letting it loose
like dropping a handful
of spare change once you
got out the door and laughing
at the night sky walking back
to your neighborhood fast
or slow like a glass door
with smudges or the arrival
of the Queen of Sheba it
was hard to tell sometimes.
Some people did the hard
stuff but you were always
sensible about this and
measured it almost with
precision and a clear eye
on the future except one
time a friend said his heart
stopped from too much nitrous
but he/they/someone got it
going again and he’s living
in Canada now or Wisconsin
being some kind of life coach
or whatever they call that
professional self-help situation
when there’s someone with
a certificate doing the
unwieldy lifting for you.
And me I’m living the calm
life now in small town
conservative America thinking
beautiful socialist thoughts like
wild mist coming off dry ice
in the late Pleistocene or in
the evening quiet of the living
room loving both my family
and the way the rug ends
and the wood floor begins
when I walk toward the hall
on my way to the stairs when
its time to go to bed thinking
how every molecule within me
that has survived and is alive
moves in exquisite time like
an orchestra of oboes, bassoons,
horns, trumpets, timpani, strings,
and takes up space like brass in
pocket on a day coming out
of a store all shiny when there
really was nothing I needed to buy.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

A Routine Evaluation of My Accomplishments at a Late Stage in the Middle Part of My Career

Photograph by Jose Padua
Because of a mix tape I played for what
must have been a couple of decades, I can’t
hear Prince’s “I Wanna Be Your Lover”
without expecting to hear T.S. Monk’s
“Bon Bon Vie (Gimme the Good Life)”
right after it. There were train rides when
I was so weary I’d fall asleep in minutes,
days when I was so sad flowers lacked
both scent and color. Meanwhile, weeks
were lost like socks with holes in them
and days recalled like harmful products
except there was no store where I could
take them back, no class action lawsuit
for squandered opportunities and essential
connections missed. These years of love
have sustained me far beyond anything
I ever could have imagined; a dusting to
an inch of snow overnight on cold asphalt
resulting in a two hour delay is all part
of the good life. A red light long enough
for me to take a picture of blue sky over
grey pavement is like a shot glass from
a roadside gift shop, another memory that
never diminishes. I admit I didn’t always
know this, just as I understand that there
are gaps in my resume that will never be
explained, and disturbances in my sleep
which, like having to go to the bathroom
at 4am, only briefly interrupt the dream.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

America Is Killing My High

Photograph by Jose Padua
Like a sickness that gives you fever
and shakes, makes you cough, makes
your lungs hurt blowing smoke rings
into the sweet country air. Like a car
whose engine dies on the way to the
multi-plex the next town over where
there’s no bad seat for watching the
bad guys get shot full of holes. Like
the river when it floods and Main Street
fills up like a sewer and the water
destroys all my shit, all my memories.
Like a gun that doesn’t fire and just
goes “what” as in “what-the-fuck” and
won’t plug a hole in a home invader o
illegal alien or welfare terrorist or that guy
who looks like Jesus who I know, ‘cause
he ain’t no Jesus. Like a sky the color
of nightmares coming down at you,
bringing the earth to a halt, roaring at you
like a lion, your bones feeling colder
the closer it gets. Like when my shoes
won’t get me where I’m going when
I’m walking. Like there’s a black hole
in place of my feet and a blue mountain
standing tall in front of me, saying nothing,
doing nothing, because it’s a mountain.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

To the Ruling Class and All the Fearful Acolytes of Its Pale Supremacy

Photograph by Jose Padua
There was the waitress who at the end
of my dinner with my wife, my young
daughter, my son, asked if I needed a
separate check. The gift shop owner
who asked my wife if she needed help
and then asked me, not thinking we were
there together even though we walked in
at the same time. The heavy numbers of
citizen heroes, patriots, professionals,
pillars of the community and such
who considered me a stranger, harasser,
servant of dictators, interloper, purveyor
of lies and dangerous ideologies
rather than husband, father, brother,
friend, celebrator, griever, loser,
earner, fellow walker of beautiful
streets in small, discreet towns; listener
to the daily buzz and warm hum of
big cities; viewer of sunsets, rivers,
and mountains; and lover of—and
sometimes to—the deep blue hush
of evening before all motion comes
to rest. To them I present just
this—my presence here, an aching
middle aged step, an appetite not
so much for knowledge but for
any manners of delight knowledge
may lead to. And whatever attempts
at grace I may make, I make not
for profit or glory, not that I am
averse to the possibilities of such,
nor to god or country or any entity
whose existence I am unsure of,
but for the simple purpose of beholding
the wideness of its reach, of feeling
the sweetly subtle strength of a great
and rarely spoken language.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua