Category Archives: Washington DC

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.

It Was the Summer After the Summer of Love

Cosme and Margarita Padua
I must have been ten or eleven,
I’m not sure which,
and it must have been
the summer after the summer of love,
when I looked through a dresser drawer
in the basement stuffed
with some of my Mom’s clothes.
I knew they were old
because they didn’t have that crisp,
pressed feel of something
that had just been brought home from the store,
but rather had that smooth and cool feeling
like early-in-the-morning,
not-quite-awake skin;
and at the bottom,
reaching with my hand,
fingers spread apart,
I touched something with my thumb
and when I pull it out
I see it’s a dusty paperback sex manual
illustrated with wooden peg figures,
and it’s the first time in my life
that I’ve ever had an image
or maybe it just an idea
(which was still bad enough)
of my parents doing it,
having sex, grabbing each other
the way that grown-ups do,
and I thought, “Oh my God,”
even though by that time I was already beginning
to lose at least some measure
of my religious beliefs,
and I flipped through the pages thinking,
“Did they do this position or that one?”
before I had to slap the open pages
back together,
shove the book back under the old clothes
and push the drawer shut
with two strong hands.
I was a kid and I was suddenly thinking
about what only the weirdest kids liked to think about
when it came to mothers and fathers,
and I went upstairs,
checked out what was on TV,
looked through the records piled on top
of our Magnavox console stereo,
then went up to my room and considered
trying to read the most difficult book I had
on my bookshelf,
all in an attempt to change the subject
going through my young head.
Now when I think of wooden peg figures
I remember one television show—The CBS Evening News,
one record—”Sitting on the Dock of the Bay,”
and one book—Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment,
and how alive and warm we were
in those days I spent imagining
the lush, elegant rooms
where I might one day
bring the woman I love
and the intense but beautiful
labor it would take
in the grand and noble
cultivating and creating
of future generations.

-Jose Padua

Photograph of Cosme and Margarita Padua (circa 1950)

This Curved Road Toward Space

Photograph by Jose Padua
The last time I was charmed
simply by someone’s good looks
it was something like 1963.
I was in my mother’s sewing room,
playing on the floor next to
one woman or another
who was dressed in just
a slip or a bra and panties
as my mother took her measurements
or else helped her try on
a dress or gown she’d just made.
The beauty of my mother’s
home-made dresses
was lost on me,
as was the threading of sequins,
the hours of meticulous work
synchronizing the intricacies
of fine white lace,
and the raising and
lowering of hemlines
depending on style or occasion.
Too young to appreciate
the greatness of my mother’s
almost late baroque artistry,
it was never the dress for me,
but the look of the woman,
the slight curve that suddenly
turned over her shoulder
then down her back,
or the bare glimpse
of sometimes plump
sometimes flat belly
that filled me with a wonder
I didn’t quite understand.
This isn’t to say that
when I got older there
weren’t days, weeks,
maybe even years when
all I wanted to do was
look and keep looking
like a fawn wandering
through wide green fields
but if the woman in a bra
and panties didn’t have
a good story to tell
or something funny to say,
I’d eventually find my way
out of the whatever room
we were in and back
downstairs to a symphony
on the stereo or a slow
epic film on TV or at
the old theater downtown.
And in all these years
between lace and landscapes,
there was nothing more beautiful
than a woman telling me the long,
complicated story of her life
and art between the lifting
of glasses, her bare lips
dragging on a cigarette
or taking short sips of coffee
at that point in the day
when the fog begins to lift
and the dull autumn sky
begins to clear; and it’s
these stories that brought me
to where I am today,
breathing in this cool blue morning
that takes me like a curve
around the shoulder,
making its way up the mountains,
then slowly back,
to this long stretch of valley
with its river all swollen and ripe
with the telling of these tales,
and the sweet and futile
measuring of the earth
and everything in the universe
that’s profound.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Orange

Photograph by Jose Padua
Lately I’ve been thinking about Orange. What would it
have been like living in a place called Orange? Could I
have ever said, “Hi, my name is Randolph Scott, and I’m
an actor from Orange, Virginia?” Who would believe
me? I went to Orange in the late 60s when my
godfather Ninong Delphin’s wife died after she had
a stroke. It was where Auntie Nellie grew up. She was

a big woman with tired eyes who drank and she was
Auntie Nellie not Ninang Nellie and it was hard
for me to imagine that she was ever young.
Their daughter Daisy got married to a Puerto Rican
man everyone called Pepe though his given name was
Jose, like me, and back then no one called me Jose
it was always Joe. Daisy and Pepe were my friends’

parents and whenever my friends said “We’re going
to the country” they were going down to Orange.
They’d say it blankly as if Orange were neither
a good place or a bad place to go but it was what
they called “the country.” At Auntie Nellie’s funeral
Ninong Delphin said, “Life, you can never know, but death,
you can always count on death.” It was true, I knew it,

but I also thought it was a useless thing to say.
Auntie Nellie was the first dead person I ever
saw and she was lying in her coffin in the church
in Orange, Virginia after spending her last years
in something like a dark mist that made her wander and
some nights she was a drunk lady nobody knew the
name of getting rolled on the street and now she lay still,

looking more tired than at rest, and behind her on the walls
I noticed, like the name of a small town, filling out
the space behind the altar, that bright light color. We’d
moved uptown by then, from an apartment to a house
and from renting to owning/owing it all to
a bank and I didn’t see my friends much anymore.
And the one time and the last time I saw Pepe

he was waiting at a bus stop and I said Hi and
he was standing there, sweating in the summer sun on
his way to the Mayflower hotel where he worked as
a waiter, and one day decades after he’d died
I went there for brunch on the day my father became
a citizen and when we sat down at our table
the plates were smooth and the silverware shiny and

the tablecloth that brushed against my knees the whole time
was the hard to miss combination of lemon yellow
and apple red. Orange. It doesn’t really mean anything
special to me, but there are occasions when I have
to use the word, like when I’m eating while talking
to someone over the phone and that person hears me
chewing and making slurping noises while he or she

talks about the weather or the news and asks me what
am I eating and I swallow and say, “Oh sorry,”
then pause and say, “I’m eating an orange.” One time
I met a woman named Orange, but I thought I was
hearing it wrong because I was drunk and that maybe
she was actually saying the word “banana”
over and over again to make me talk to

someone else. And when I was living on the lower
east side of New York I once went to East Orange,
New Jersey to read poems on a radio show for
my friend bart and I didn’t do a very good job,
but afterwards we took the bus back to one of those
dismal gates at the Port Authority in Manhattan
and walked and walked under the late afternoon sunlight

until we were downtown again, standing outside
the door of the now long gone Cedar Tavern where we
were regulars, and I drank bourbon on the rocks
until it was dark outside and there’s no city in
the world that looks as beautiful as New York City
in the dark, though there are so many cities I
haven’t been to and so many ways to pass the time

until things get dark. All of which is to say that life
and death I sort of understand but no matter how
long I live and no matter how much I remember
or forget, I am not and can never be a color
even though color is what I am, and I am
a shade of coconut husk mixed with sweet juice that stings
the mute tongue, a blend of Narra tree and high plains

tropical cowboy. I see the color orange all around me now
in the valley where I live, its tones in clouds lit up
by sunsets, its streaks in clear light that climbs up mountains
lifting up the morning’s mist; I hear it in a candidate’s
latest speech, feel it in the look from a stranger when I turn
off Commerce onto South and think about the dignity
of my given name, saying it out loud but to myself.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

A Poem for Jimi Hendrix and All the Superheroes of My Youth Who Lacked the Power to Live Forever

Photograph by Jose Padua
When I was a child
considering the hierarchy
of superheroes
I wondered why
when they got to Superman
all the other creators
of superheroes
didn’t just quit.
After all,
except for the kryptonite,
Superman was invincible,
so what was the point of
the Fantastic Four,
for example,
each possessing a single superpower,
and as for Batman
who didn’t have
even one superpower
what the hell was the deal
with that?
Of course when I got older
I realized
that what was really interesting
wasn’t what they could do
but what they couldn’t do,
and what moved me
the most wasn’t
what some fictional superhero could do
but what a real person could do
that I wished I could do too—
like play electric guitar with my teeth
then make it sound
like an airplane,
then a machine gun,
then a breeze
when all that’s left
after the sun goes
down is the sound
of the wind carving
its invisible path
through late summer trees.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua