Tag Archives: Baltimore

Notes on Song and Landscape and the Inner Workings of the Heart

Photograph by Jose Padua
My son Julien’s new favorite song at the time was Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger.” It happened during a trip to Baltimore for my semi-annual visit with my cardiologist at Johns Hopkins. “Play the ‘Passenger’ song again,” Julien said, though he didn’t quite demand it the way he had with Ryuichi Sakamoto whose “Mill Theme (Robotaki Remix)” had been his previous favorite. Still, Julien (who was six at the time) made it clear it “The Passenger” was essential listening for the day.

“Who does that song?” he asked

“Iggy Pop,” I said. “Ig-gy POP.”

“Did he get sick?”

“No, he’s been healthy for a while now.”

“He even does tai chi,” Heather added.

“Me and Maggie saw him play last spring when we all went to Philadelphia,” I said.

“Did I see him too?” Julien asked.

“Er, no.”

“I want to see him next time.”

As usual, even though we always tried to leave early from Front Royal, we got to Baltimore just in time for my appointment. I checked in, and went straight to get my echocardiogram while Heather, Maggie, and Julien stayed in the waiting room. I lay down, and the technician attached the electrode patches to my chest, then turned down the lights. She put the transducer, a wand-like instrument, a little to the left of my sternum. That’s when I saw it on the monitor in black and white: my heart, beating, its valves opening and closing, its walls expanding and contracting. I am always amazed when I see my heart in motion; amazed to see it at work, pumping my blood; amazed and joyful that, despite everything from minor pain to episodes of grief and anguish, and despite the continuing absurdity, folly, and obscenity that inhabits the world, I am alive. Not everyone can feel that joy–the joy which, despite these more difficult times, is still my privilege.

When I was done with my echocardiogram, Heather, Maggie, and Julien joined me in the examining room where my doctor would meet us. When he came in he greeted us all warmly (he’s been my cardiologist for close to a decade and a half now). Heather, Maggie, and Julien all greeted him warmly in return, then Julien asked, “What’s your name?”

“My name? I’m Doctor Elmer Fudd,” he said. Julien sensed that he was kidding, and looked at him sideways. “OK, I’m actually Dr. K____.” But Julien didn’t believe him when he said his real name either.

Dr. K____ went on to tell me that my tests looked fine, that although there was the issue of the thickened heart wall, it wasn’t worsening—the possibility of which was why he continued to see me every six months. He took my blood pressure, checked several other vital signs for confirmation that my heart was still healthy, and we were done. Before we left, he mentioned that if we were going home right away we may want to check if there any protests going on, because that could make it difficult to get out of town. It was just a couple of days after Donald Trump had won the election—or rather, had won the electoral college—which meant that in a couple of months he was going to be president. “If there are, we’ll want to join them,” I said.

“Well,” Dr. K____ said, nodding .“If there is a protest, you’ll see me there, too.”

We’d take Maggie and Julien out of school for the day whenever we went to Baltimore from Front Royal. Being in a real city was always a nice break from our small town. Still, we didn’t want to get back so late that they weren’t ready for school the next day. A while back, Dr. K____ had recommended the Ivy Bookshop, but that was far uptown from Johns Hopkins, so as usual we drove to the Inner Harbor, which was right on our way out of town. In just about ten minutes we were going up the escalator to the second floor of the Barnes and Noble at the old power plant building, soaring high above the magazine racks and display tables piled high with best sellers. It’s the sort of height that usually makes me a little nervous, but we’d been to this store so many times that it didn’t bother me anymore. When we reached the top, I headed toward the part of the store that carries some of its less popular items—i.e., the poetry section—while Heather went to the café for a cup of coffee and Maggie led Julien to the children’s books.

Usually I find a few things right away, but that day I wasn’t finding anything I wanted. That’s when a guy who was sitting in the aisle there asked me, “Can you recommend any poetry?” There are always people sitting—and sometimes even lying down—in the poetry and fiction sections, reading books they’ve pulled from the shelves, or sometimes just sitting, listening to music through their earbuds. This guy looked to be somewhere in his twenties and had that look in his eyes that said he was lost or else was about to get lost. “I only know Langston Hughes,” he said.

I thought about what was going on and what was going to get even worse; and I thought about the tasks that lie ahead, wondering who might be a good poet to read for what I hoped would be a revolution of sorts. “Amiri Baraka,” I said. “He died a couple of years ago. His work is wild and straight from the heart.”

“I never heard of him,” the guy said. I was surprised. I thought that if he’d heard about Langston Hughes that he would have heard about Amiri Baraka—and just needed to be reminded of him. But then maybe that was just a ridiculous idea on my part. None of us are immune to ridiculous ideas from time to time. And every ridiculous idea is different from the next one. Yes, it’s also ridiculous to say so. I thought of what else I could say to this guy.

“Check him out,” I said finally, then added poets like Adrienne Rich, Frank O’Hara, Lucille Clifton. Somehow I neglected to mentioned any of the poets I knew, as well as any poets who were still alive, which I then hoped didn’t give him the impression that poetry was a dead art. I looked through the poetry shelves again to see if there was something I could show him, but none of the poets I’d mentioned were in stock that day. I moved on—to the fiction section, looking for Paul Beatty’s new novel, but I couldn’t find that there either. As I browsed, the guy looking for poetry suggestions walked by. He saw me and asked, “What was the name of that poet again? Amira…”

“Amiri Baraka,” I said. “Amiri Baraka.” His name itself was a poem.

“Thanks,” he said, “thanks.” I wasn’t sure, but I think he then said, “Bless you,” before walking off.

From the Barnes and Noble, we went to dinner at the Hard Rock Café. This photograph of Heather, Maggie, and Julien was taken there. The Hard Rock Café is a chain with average food, overpriced, but it’s right next door to the Barnes and Noble, and going there with our weirdness and oddity was all the energy we could spare that night before our long drive home back to Front Royal. And, somehow, they played “The Passenger” while we were there. “Julien, listen,” Maggie said. “Your song. ‘The Passenger.’”

We didn’t run into any protests blocking the road on the way home, so we didn’t run into Dr. K___ again that night. On Route I-70 West, we listened to “The Passenger” a few more times, and we also to Joni Mitchell’s “In France They Kiss on Main Street” as we took the exit for Route 15 West, John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” and Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s “I Say a Little Prayer” after taking the ramp on 340 South in Charlestown, West Virginia. Even though it was a quick trip, it was good to get away from the landscape of Trump signs where we lived. When we got close to town, after nine in the evening, it was too dark to see the signs, allowing the landscape of river winding through valley to take precedence. Of course, in the morning, the signs would be there again; and, even though with that election being over, those signs would soon come down, there would be new signs to replace them. Many of them expressing support of the same old shit.

We were about half an hour from home when Julien said he had to use the bathroom. We were right outside of Berryville, Virginia, so we stopped at the convenience store at the corner of Lord Fairfax Highway and Main Street, right in town. When I took Julien inside, we saw that there was an older woman using a walker ahead of us. A young man who was probably her son was helping her pull away from her walker, which wouldn’t fit in the door of the rest room, and make her way to the toilet.

“I have to go! I have to go!” Julien said frantically.

“You’re all right. You’re all right,” I said. “You can hold it.” The young man turned to us with a worried look as if to say sorry. And I remembered over two decades earlier when, during the last months before she died, my mother also needed help making her way to the bathroom. “It’s okay,” I said to him, nodding as I put my hand on Julien’s shoulder. Somehow, it didn’t seem to take that long.

When we got back in the car, I looked at my phone and saw a news report saying that Leonard Cohen had died. It had happened a few days earlier, before the election, but his family only announced it that day—the day of his funeral. That’s when I remembered a night right before I left New York to move back to DC (I was moving back to be near to my mother, who’d just had a heart attack and a stroke). It was one of my last nights out in New York, and a woman I’d just met who was a friend of a friend handed me a tape of Leonard Cohen’s music. I didn’t know his music that well at the time, and I guess she thought it might serve me well in the days that lie ahead. If I remember correctly, her name was Candy. And I said to Candy, “thank you.” I don’t think I ever got around to saying, “bless you,” much less, “let’s celebrate the privilege of being alive.” Though sometimes it feels as if I’ve missed out on something important when I don’t say these words, or at least think about them. Sometimes, even during days like this, I feel that the time to celebrate is now.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

The Monkey Time

Photograph by Jose Padua
It was a minor soul ballad, though not quite a ballad,
or not a ballad at all, that brought Billy the Kid back
to life in a dive bar downtown. Someone started doing
a strut on the tile floor that looked like the floor
of a church, but it wasn’t a church it was Baltimore,
on a spring evening, during an era no one but me calls
the Renaissance of past lives now coming back to life
when someone plays that great goddamn song on the jukebox.
It was time to stand up, so we stood until we were taller
than we were before like flowers in the afternoon after
a morning when it rained, until we felt dizzy from being
so high over the tiny names carved on the wooden bar.
All the workers from the neighborhood stood up, too,
to dance, because Billy was always good to them and
was like wild west death to their enemies. So many
more names were added to the rough wood that night,
so many more words were breathed like lovers breathing
on hot, dank nights, and so many cow-men and cow-women
never sat down again for the rest of their lives, and for
four hours not a sip of beer was spilled, nor a drop of
bourbon wasted by being wiped away on a man or
woman’s lips by anything other than a kiss. And when
it was time, the floor turned to dirt in our bloodshot eyes
as Billy the Kid tightened his footsteps faster than a
pinball machine going TILT, dancing his way out the door
into the after midnight mist. And when it was time we ran
off into the night like saxophone solos, each note a word,
each sentence a nod to the tune that brought us here, each
day following the last, each night keeping the beat.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

On the Abandonment of Previous Policies for Communicating with Those in Charge

Photograph by Jose Padua
I’ve never smacked my son’s hand to keep him
from reaching for the pot of boiling water. I
grab his hand and hold him calmly instead. I’ve
never sent my daughter to bed without supper
for random acts of disrespect. I don’t speak the
language of violence and deprivation to them.
If they happen to begin a conversation using
that language I don’t use it to answer them back
because that’s not how I wish to continue the
discussion and because whenever possible I try
to speak the language of peace. But when it comes
to the slumlords, the corporate con men, and
those pale supremacists of the hierarchy in power,
violence is the only language they understand.
A brick through the window is an effective way
to communicate with the disappearers of men and
women, all the hoarders of privilege and intolerance,
because broken windows are like the speaking of
so much broken English—an attempt at telling those
for whom the subtleties of poetry and language
are lost exactly what the fuck is going on. And
because sometimes simple obedience is like a carton
of milk that expired a month ago and is still for
sale at the corner store. Don’t buy it, don’t drink it.
Just translate it into language they can understand.

-Jose Padua

Photograph of the Baltimore skyline by Jose Padua

Baltimore

Photo by Jose Padua
I realize I quote her as often as Allen Ginsberg
quoted Jack Kerouac, but when she was three
my daughter said, “It’s not crazy—it’s Baltimore,”
then proceeded to improvise better than a lot of adults
a poem I should have written down but didn’t,
being too busy grooving to the way her mind was
moving to the theme of Baltimore, a place
we’d taken her only once. And we didn’t
get to go to anywhere crazy or cool then,
nothing like a punk show at the Marble Bar
if that’s still around, or an evening drinking
at the Rendezvous where I remember line dancing
one night with the neighborhood drunks. No,
we went to see my cardiologist at Johns Hopkins,
then had lunch at California Pizza Kitchen
at the Harbor, then went to the Aquarium—
a quick trip worthy of the most boring tourists
from the suburbs, or the soccer moms
and cubicle dads and vice versa,
yet my daughter sensed there was a thing there,
a beautiful shining city weirdness,
a Baltimore that rhymed with crazy.
And I am immeasurably moved to be able
to say that it wasn’t Jack Kerouac, or John Waters,
or Divine or Edith the Egg Lady or any of the usual
suspects, but my daughter who first said,
“It’s not crazy—it’s Baltimore,”
and that even though her poem is lost,
we are not,
as we drive west through
the beautiful, aching city to another place
which we, for lack of another word, call home.

-Jose Padua

Photograph of the Baltimore skyline by Jose Padua