Tag Archives: labor

Days of Cinnamon and Other Kinds of Sound and Ache

Photo by Jose Padua
That morning, at the grocery store we always went to in Front Royal, I saw one of the cashiers I hadn’t seen in a while. A tall woman about my age or maybe slightly older, she was standing in her aisle, supporting herself with a cane. I nodded and said hello as I walked by on the way to the produce section where I got garlic, an onion, four tomatoes, and two potatoes then turned left. I picked up a cheap jar of olives, then headed back down to the meat and poultry aisle to get ground turkey and some chorizo sausage. Circling around to the other side of the store, I picked up more milk and some creamer before turning up the aisle back toward the checkout lanes.

When I got back to the front of the store, the woman was still there, standing on the aisle down from her cash register. “Are you ready?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“All right, I got you.”

As I put my groceries on conveyor belt, I noticed that it hurt for her just to move down the aisle to her register. “How are you feeling?” I asked.

“Well,” she said. “It’s just my second day back. You haven’t seen me around because I’ve been out since January when I had surgery on both my knees.”

“Oh my,” I said. “And now you have to stand all day again.”

“Yeah, it’s back to doing this.”

“Do you get a decent break where you can rest your knees?”

“Well, not really,” she said, and she went on to explain how after they did the surgery on her knees at Warren County Memorial Hospital in town she developed a blood clot that went up to her lungs. For that she had to go to INOVA Fairfax hospital, where she had to stay for a while, away from home and away from her husband who can’t drive.

“Oh no, that’s rough,” I said, knowing how depressed I would get if I had to spend so much time away from my wife Heather and my kids Maggie and Julien.

“Then, when I was back home after the clot, I was doing errands. Coming here for groceries as a matter of fact, when I fell coming out of the cab I took to get me here. I hit my head and had a concussion and hurt one of my knees again, which put me back in the hospital again.”

“Oh wow,” I said. “One thing after another. I hope things get a little easier from here on out.”

“Well, it is good that I’m back working, because now my husband can’t.” And she explained how her husband was working at a juice factory, but because he has COPD and because of whatever gets into the air at the juice factory he can’t work there anymore.

We talked for a while after she’d finished ringing up my groceries. I wished her luck, an easier time, disability benefits, a winning lottery ticket, and about a dozen other things before I went back to my car.

It was a beautiful spring morning. I had the windows rolled down and Miles Davis’s “Spanish Key” playing on the car stereo. It’s the sort of music that’s probably better suited for night time, driving through some busy part of a big city or else driving fast down some highway at three in the morning, but I turned it up anyway.

Back at our house in Front Royal, I brought the groceries in, then put the deep skillet on the front burner of the stove, added some cinnamon, cumin, nutmeg, and a couple of cloves, and turned it up to medium. On another skillet I added some olive oil, and put the chorizos on low. I sat down at the kitchen table, where I pulled apart a bulb of garlic, peeled it, and chopped it all up, then did the same thing to with an onion. When the aroma of the spices in the deep skillet began to waft through the kitchen air, I added olive oil, and threw in the garlic and onion and stirred it for a couple minutes. Then I took the ground turkey and stirred it in before taking the chorizos out of the other skillet and bringing them to the table and cutting them up. After adding those to the mix, I peeled the two potatoes, diced them, threw them into the skillet, then diced the tomatoes and threw them in, too. Last were the olives, two bay leaves, and a little more cinnamon. Then I covered the skillet, turned the heat down to low, and sat down at the computer to do some of the work I get paid for.

I knew that because Julien had his swimming lessons that evening, I wouldn’t get a chance to make this dish, picadillo, later in the day, which was why I cooked it in the morning. When Heather got home from her office in Rosslyn that afternoon, she and I could take Julien to his swimming lesson uptown. Maggie could stay at home and relax for a while and then just have dinner heated up for us when we returned.

When Heather, Julien, and I got back, the dining room table was set and the picadillo was heated up along with some rice I’d cooked right before we left for swimming. We ate dinner, then Heather helped Julien with his homework while Maggie went off to talk to one of her friends on the phone. I walked down the hall and into the parlor, which was where my old stereo with the turntable was set up, and saw that Maggie had two albums out that she was listening to while we were at Julien’s swimming lesson.

The first was Neil Young’s 1972 album Harvest. It’s not my favorite Neil Young record, but somehow it was the only one I had on vinyl there. The other record Maggie had out was the pianist Stanley Cowell’s 1974 solo record Musa: Ancestral Streams. This is one of those records that has followed me wherever I go. Many times “Abscretions,” Equipoise,” “Travellin’ Man” or some other tune from the album will start playing in my head. After hearing it there, I usually like to hear it for real, in the air, filling up a room with its intricate motions and delicate gestures. It’s why, if it’s at all possible, I don’t like to be very far from this record. There is, within its tones and melodies, a kind of magic—magic being something I’ve actually always depended upon. Because despite the often desperate climate of these times here in America—as well as so many instances in the past when I could have easily ceased to have faith in these things—I continue to believe that magic is the adjunct effect of action, and that the power or even the simple possibility of each of these must never be underestimated. In other words, despite the awfulness of any situation, I still believe that good things can be made to happen, and that pure pessimism is for assholes. At any rate, that’s what I always try to tell myself.

The next day, the cashier at the grocery store would again be on her feet all day. I’d be doing my easy work, taking breaks when I want and sitting down, eating well, hearing music in my head, driving, and sometimes panicking, worrying, despairing over all the things that will never get done. It’s not fair, it’s not equal, and I am never doing enough to remedy these situations and predicaments and I am always at a loss as to what I should do next. So I write another poem, another essay, another fragmented bit of remembrance. I keep on going even though my audience is small, I keep thinking even though my thoughts often go in circles, I keep breathing even though the spring air makes me sneeze and always reminds me that, for most people, living is something that is never fully comfortable. I’m good with that and with all the things that are beyond me. And sometimes, even though I am often reluctant to do so, I am happy just to speak to people.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

The Heavy Load We Carry with Every Act of Subversion

Photograph by Jose Padua
The title of the episode of Thomas the Train
is James Works It Out and because my mind
is half fried half the time and my ideas half
baked because it’s only noon I’m wondering
if this is an episode my four-year old son
really should be watching. What, indeed,
is James working out? Is it a male problem
my son is years away from needing to know
about and what exactly does James do to work
it all out? I’ve never been one to believe that
every single problem has a solution, nor have I
lived my life expecting more than individual
moments of contentment, yet even I never
expected that sudden disturbances in my
progression of thought would be the direct
consequence of my pondering the dilemmas
and predicaments of anthropomorphic cartoon
trains. As for the work, the labor it takes for
James to take that “it” and work it, change it,
turn it this way then out and into this story is
what worries me the way a room I’m about to
walk into begins to worry me when the power
suddenly goes out and all the light is gone and
the only thing that’s left is the sound of my feet,
my voice, my breathing—sounds I should have
learned to trust by now but don’t, in that I don’t
trust that they’re not going to leave me without
any kind of warning, which isn’t to say that
sort of thing doesn’t happen because it does.
But aside from the immediate subject matter
of the episode at hand, there are other things
regarding the Thomas the Train show that give
me pause. First is that the island where it takes
place, Sodor, is one letter away from being
Sodom, and second, that the guy who runs the
place and all the trains, Sir Topham Hatt, is
a lot like Snoop Dogg in that his mind is on his
money and his money is on his mind, but that’s
actually what’s sort of cool about him, because
what isn’t so cool is that Sir Topham Hatt is
probably the whitest character in all of children’s
programming, and represents, to me, capitalism’s
obsessive, inflexible drive toward obscene levels
of profit—any variation from that path and you’re
at the receiving end of the wrath of Sir Topham
Hatt, his rants, his tirades, and ultimately his
withholding of a train’s rightly earned wages.
Or at any rate that’s what I see. And with the
episode being called James Works It Out,
you know that whatever happens, it’s being
worked out not in James’s favor but for the
benefit of that fat, white capitalist, Sir Topham
Hatt. Though my son stands by the side of the
television watching and listening to the dialog
among the trains, he is still too young to grasp
the message of cooperation and the suppression
of the individual for the purpose of exalting
the corporate entity. Sir Topham Hatt is stern
or at best scary to him and he has no idea of
what he represents. But when he’s older, he’ll know,
that just as morning approaches afternoon and the
vestiges of slumber are cast off that the continuing
light of day warms both concrete and soil, and that
as the temperature in the air rises and we breathe in
the fumes, we begin to ask for something more
than bread and water in exchange for our allegiance.
When the television goes off, the room is quiet
with our thoughts, and the clear cool air seems
as still as an early morning’s mist; we straighten
our legs, lift our arms from our chairs, and clear
our throats as if to speak because it will soon be
time to move ahead and pick up our heavy books.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua