Category Archives: Washington DC

Those Years That Went Down

Photograph by Jose Padua
Sometimes when
I’m walking
in the old neighborhood with
my wife, my daughter, my son
and we pass by
all the sharp corners
and tight spaces
where daytime drunks
still gather,
no longer hidden by
the ornament
of night,
I remember
those years that
went down
like whiskey
and the beauty
of the B-side of
a hit single,
played over and over
on the juke box
in my favorite dive bar
until everyone
gets really annoyed,
lays down their mugs
their tumblers
their heavy shot glassess—
those sacred, precise
instruments of drinking–
as the smoky air
begins to feel liquid.
So glad
I made it out
into the open air,
so grateful
for solid blue
sky.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

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Days and Nights in the City Where I First Opened My Eyes

Photograph by Jose Padua
My mother worked nights at home, daytime too,
in the house, at the sewing machine, making dresses
for women who could afford to have dresses made
for them. We bought our clothes at the store, though
sometimes she would sew something special for us–
a vest, a Barong Tagalog made out of sheer white
fabric which I never wore because I thought it would
make me look even less American than I already did
with what the kids at school sometimes called my
Chinese Checkers eyes. I liked jeans and tee shirts,
sneakers, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and
I’d never think of playing The Reycard Duet with
Tony Maiquez and his Ukelele Gang singing
“Oh! Baby” which was wild and raw and—though
I didn’t know the word for it at the time—badass.
My father took care of the ambassador’s residence,
made sure water ran through every pipe, and lights
went on in every big, fancy bedroom and in the
grand dining room where every piece of furniture
was hand-carved with ivory inlays and where the
long narrow halls were big enough for us to live in.
At nights he served drinks and appetizers to the class
of people who could drink strong drinks and
eat gourmet meals, hoping each night for good tips
and maybe good leftovers which he could bring
home to us—strawberries in custard in a miniature
pie shell, flaky black and white pastries that came in
layers that fell apart like the times as we bit into them,
staying up a little later than we were supposed to,
waiting for our treats, but mostly for him, which
was when my mom would turn the sewing machine
off for the night and come into the fluorescent light
of the kitchen, where we’d sit, the sweet taste on
our tongues interrupting every stray question and
tidy answer, our eyes getting heavier, happy, content
with long tiring days ending in long bright nights.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Blood and Guts in High School, the Neighborhood, My Country, and the World

Jose Padua, early to mid 70s
Somehow I kept forgetting how my
high school friend sitting behind me
in the back while I rode shotgun in
my other friend’s car thought it would
be funny to take a length of rope that
was on the floor next to him then reach up
with it, throw it around my neck, and pull
like in that scene in the Godfather when
Luca Brasi meets his early end. Maybe
he was mad that I was up front and he
wasn’t, maybe he was mad I got into school
on a scholarship and he didn’t, and he was
the guy who out of the blue one afternoon
said there was nothing I could ever do that
would make me “look like a human being.”
So I reached around behind me, grabbed
his arm and yanked it, pushed the rope
away from my neck and said “what the
fuck is wrong with you?” because I was
young and wanted to think the best of
people and things and still trusted any-
one my school, my neighborhood, my
country, and the world said was my friend.

-Jose Padua

Days of Being Wild

Photograph by Jose Padua
Grade school was one
humiliation after another.
Shitting my pants in first grade
because asking permission
to go to the bathroom
was petrifying horror.
Kids calling me
“Chinese Checkers” in fourth grade
because they didn’t know
any slurs for Filipinos like me,
pushing me to the playground pavement,
then laughing at my Tourette’s tics,
telling me that at the end of eighth grade
I’ll be screaming for my diploma
like a freaking baby.
Now I’m this badass poet.
Say the wrong thing to me
and I’ll fuck up your syntax
with a stray adverb,
write a metaphor that makes
you shit your own pants
like you’re a freaking baby–
yes I used that phrase again
because badass poets
can do that shit.
Because even on the page
revenge is sweet, sweet victory,
and in the late middle
of my mortal days on earth
I am still wild in the heart
as my imperfections lead me ever boldly
up this beautiful, steep hill.

-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

Reflections on a Sign on a Country Road and Other Failures of the Imagination

Photograph by Jose Padua
We were in Washington County, just a few miles west of the river that keeps Ohio separate from Wild Wonderful West Virginia to the east. It’s a county that’s even less diverse than the one where we live in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. When we were on this rural Ohio road a year earlier, the sign at this house said, “Obama Mohammed Camel Dung.” What it said a year ago was “Imagine There’s No Islam.”

Driving past it around ten o’clock that morning on the way to meet family, I held up my middle finger. Passing by it again a couple of hours later, I stopped and rolled down the window. That’s when I took the picture. Right after I took it, I started to hear dogs barking. If it were just me in the car, I would have stayed. I guess it’s sort of like what happens in my poem that goes, “Poetry is giving the finger to the biggest guy in the room just to see what happens.” But since it wasn’t just me in the car, I drove off.

In a couple of minutes, a song by the Syrian musician Omar Souleyman came up in the random mix on the car stereo. If his music had come up just a little bit earlier, while I had the window rolled down, I imagine I wouldn’t have been able to resist turning the volume up to eleven—and waiting to see what happened. What I prefer not to imagine are what someone who would display signs like these would do if he saw me and my family hovering on the side of the road by his house. We weren’t on his property, but people like him tend to blur the line between public and property, with property being anyplace where they think people who are different from them shouldn’t be allowed to set foot.

Another thing that’s not hard to imagine is that today, when Donald Trump was sworn in as the forty-fifth President of the United States, was a day of celebration for him. I could easily see him and his family among the people who came to DC today wearing their Make America Great Again hats and asking how to get to the mall. And, later, cheering upon hearing Trump declare, “We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones and unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate from the face of the Earth.” That is, after all, among the things he imagines, with one problem being that for a lot of folks like him, there is no difference between Islam and “radical Islam.”

This morning I took my daughter to an Occupy rally in Malcolm X Park, just a few blocks down from the neighborhood where I grew up in DC. Although my old neighborhood has gone through a lot of gentrification, there’s still a wide variety of people there. It’s always a nice break, going to a place where I feel welcome simply as another member of the human race. Where I live now isn’t like that and having a person like Donald Trump setting the tone as president sure as hell ain’t going to make things better there. Indeed, this is a presidency for those who want to imagine me and a whole lot of other kinds of people gone.

But tonight, I’m here, in my old family home, where I grew up from about the age of six until I left for New York. It’s a period of time during which I went from knowing little to knowing a few things. And during which I went from wanting simply to fit in to wanting unequivocably to be whatever the hell it is I am.

I’m writing this while sitting at the wobbly dining room table where my family would eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner. My father and my mother are gone now, but one of my brothers still lives here in this house, and my other brother is only about twenty minutes away. I’m listening to an old Taj Mahal record, The Real Thing, that includes this old tune I love called, “Ain’t Gwine Whistle Dixie (Any Mo’)” which feature Taj on his guitar and whistling a tune that definitely isn’t “Dixie.” And as I listen to it I’m doing my best, in the face of coming hard times and whatever variety of obscene obstacles may be in store for us, to imagine better days.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua taken in Malcolm X Park on January 20. 2017

Half-Life

Photograph by Jose Padua
This is my autobiography
at mid-life, assuming that
at 51 years of age I will
live another 51 years and
die at 102. That’s not very
likely, but I wasn’t ready
to write this at 30, and
with the way I was living
then I wouldn’t have made it
to 60, meaning that at 30
it was too late to discuss
the middle of my life as
it was happening because
the middle was already
long gone. Somehow
I survived. Now I have
a heart condition that’s
under control, but which
in more severe cases can
kill a man or a woman
as quickly as the villain
in a gory, stupid, horror
film; I also have what’s called
chronic obstructive pulmo-
nary disease, which means
I can’t run a marathon
or hold my breath without
turning purple at least half
a minute before everyone
else. I have Tourette Syn-
drome, which makes it so
people don’t even need to
know me to know that
there’s something wrong
with me, taking away my
ability to make a smooth,
natural progression from
eccentric to weird. Still,
my existence seems to
surprise some people
who would rather not
see me even though
I have been here for
over half a century,
not tall, not very strong,
but with a significance
that refuses to be denied.
Indeed, where would I
be if I couldn’t shock
you into submission?
If I couldn’t gain
strength from your
frailty, your quest for
meaning, addiction,
obligation? So I stand
here now, apart from
most of the world, an
odd, almost alien being.
Who can say with con-
fidence that I, in my
distance, am not
speaking for you?

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua. The poem, from about eight years ago, is presented here for the first time. The photograph was taken yesterday.

Joy and Comfort

Photograph by Jose Padua
Whenever I see the word Joy
stitched into the bright red
cloth of the Christmas towel
hanging in the bathroom
what I hear in my head
isn’t “Joy to the World,”
a song I learned to play
on guitar by listening to
John Fahey’s version
when I was fourteen,
but “Joy,” a song sung by
Teddy Pendergrass in
1988 when I was 30
years old. For a few years
I could sort of play guitar
like John Fahey, sort of
re-create his sting and
drone when I plucked the steel
strings but my voice could
never come close to the smoky
sweetness of Teddy Pendergrass.
And in the several years after
I turned 31 I took the train
back from New York
to DC then back again
every year at Christmas,
coming home and going
back again like a sentimental
song in a major key that
sounds so much sadder
than you think it should.
I went back to the Lower
East Side where “crackhead”
wasn’t another word for an
asshole or a loser and was
only used when you were
talking about your friend
who was addicted to crack,
and art was created by
the people for the people
and product was what was
left on the floor and swept
into the trash or flushed
down the toilet once we
thought we’d made sense
of everything. Sometimes
we were wrong. Now I live
in a small town away from
the big city and I rarely
ever take the train or even
the bus and I’m rarely ever
away from home. Now joy
is like a bird on a sidewalk
somewhere off Main Street,
flapping its wings briefly
before deciding there’s no
hurry, no reason to rush or
leave the warm, calm comfort
of the middle of things.
John Fahey died in 2001,
Teddy Pendergrass in 2010,
and whenever I hear their
music in my head or in
the world I am reminded
of days gone by, and I turn
away from the bright red
of the cloth that hangs
against the deep green of
the bathroom wall and walk
out into the shadowing yellow
and slow, lowering blue of
this beautiful, young morning.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Head Over Heels

jp_june1982_edit
At the doctor’s office in Charlottesville, Virginia
to investigate the possible reasons
for my ten-month-old son’s large head,
the doctor measures my own
and informs me that my head size
is off the curve, off the charts,
and when I offer “freakish”
as a way of describing it
he doesn’t say yes but he doesn’t say no
and he looks at me calmly eye to eye,
mano a mano, and without a word
he answers my question,
which reaffirms my initial impression
that he is smart, informed,
and on top of his area of medical expertise—
a good doctor whose feet
are planted firmly on Virginia ground.
He explains that he has a special interest in big heads
because they run in his family—
his father, the elder neurosurgeon,
has a massive head, a trait which he himself,
unfortunately, did not inherit,
which he says is why as a doctor he must use
every bit of his smaller-sized brain,
and it’s why I feel better now,
after days and weeks and years of feeling tense,
knowing that my son’s head size is character,
maybe even personality, not disabling pathology,
and that in this one measurable way
I am ahead of nearly everyone else in the world.
And my wife, my daughter, my big-headed son
and I leave the hospital to eat lunch
at the downtown mall where my wife, my daughter
and I order sandwiches which we will insert
bite by bite into the biggest opening in our heads,
and then we’ll drive nearly two hours back north,
and walk into our big house
where I’ll step into the living room
and lie back on the sofa
so I can relieve myself, momentarily,
of the incredible burden of standing,
walking, running tall,
in an America that is shrinking
in so many ways,
and lay down my huge head.

-Jose Padua

The photograph of the author was taken in 1982 from a balcony near the top of the Library of Congress.