Tag Archives: Memoir

The Days Run Away Like the Great B-Side of a Hit Single by Prince

Photograph by Jose Padua
I was sitting in the car with Julien while Heather went into the grocery store. It had been about a month since Prince had died, and while for the last month I had been playing the music of Prince almost non-stop—he’s one of a small number of people you can do that with and never get tired of it all—that day, I was taking a break. So it was a sunny, spring day with something other than Prince playing on the car stereo. Julien listened for a minute before asking, “Who’s that?”

“It’s Herbie Hancock,” I said. We were a few minutes into the “Chameleon” from the Head Hunters LP.

Julien paused then said, “I don’t like Herbie Hancock. Play Miles Davis.” Miles Davis was Julien’s favorite at the time. I don’t suppose there are too many five year olds whose favorite music is Miles Davis’s music, but there we were. The windows of the car were down, and a cool breeze came inside.

I tried to explain to Julien that Herbie Hancock played with Miles Davis, but he didn’t care and he refused to give Herbie Hancock’s music a chance. To make the wait easier, I went ahead and put on Miles Davis.

Back then, while my daughter Maggie was doing her homework, I’d hear her playing Public Image Limited (PiL) a lot. She had been listening to Talking Heads, the Ramones, and Kleenex/LiliPUT while she was studying, but then she added PiL to the mix. After that I’d always hear the voice of John Lydon going “This is not a love song/ This is not a love song” or “Anger is an energy/ Anger is an energy” as she did her algebra homework or worked on a brief essay she had to write.

That morning, right before we headed out to take them all to school, Maggie looked something up on her phone then she said, “I have the same birthday as the guitarist for PiL!”

“You mean Keith Levene?”

“Yes,” she said. “We have the same birthday!”

“Wow,” I said. And I remembered that she also shares a birthday with Hunter S. Thompson, but I didn’t mention it because I think it’s still a few years before she’s ready to read about things like the massive drug run that begins Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I also didn’t mention that I share a birthday with Jean Genet, because I didn’t think she was quite ready to read a book like Our Lady of the Flowers yet either. But, when she’s old enough, these great books will be among my recommended reading and can be added to the volumes of Baudelaire, Lucille Clifton, and Junot Diaz that she was already carrying around with her all the time.

For a couple of weeks, the question Julien had been asking most frequently was, “Who’s bad?”—with it being election season and with the death of Prince there were a lot of bad things in the air, making it a time for questions. (But then, when is it not a time for questions?) In the second of those two weeks, Julien began answering his own question. And when we all said, “I don’t know. Who’s bad?” Julien would then say, without the slightest pause of doubt, “Donald Trump’s bad.”

“Yes, he is bad,” we’d say.

A couple of days later, while we were having lunch at Blue Wing Frog over on Chester Street, Julien answered his own question about who was bad and added, “Donald Trump is a poopy head!” Then he stopped to think about it for a moment before asking, “Does he poop with his head?”

“Well, in a way he does,” we all said. Or words to that effect.

And later that day, it rained. Like on the B-side of an old Prince song—it rained and kept on raining. After having spent a few days not listening to Prince that week, he was back on the soundtrack, and  I was listening closely, hoping for more answers.

I took this photograph of Union Hall, which was part of a joint called Victoria’s Restaurant, when we left Blue Wing Frog that day. Union Hall and Victoria’s restaurant have been closed since February 2009, when it was discovered that its owner was a fugitive wanted on drug charges in Massachusetts. Union Hall had been one of the few places in Front Royal where you had music and dancing. The owner had been here, in our small Virginia town, for nearly two decades. He raised his kids here, had grandkids, and ran his restaurant and club for as long as he could. And then they took him away.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Notes on the Distance Between West Virginia and Ohio and Further Meditations on the Movements of Birds

Photograph by Jose PaduaIt was a warm and sunny winter’s day that Sunday, driving back from Heather’s grandmother’s funeral in Belpre, Ohio. The last time we’d driven back from Ohio, two years earlier, it started to snow pretty fiercely as soon as we hit Route 50 east of Parkersburg, West Virginia. When I glanced to the side of the road and saw a wild dog nibbling at a dead bird of prey on the side of the road, I started to feel as if we were caught in the middle of a wintry version of some Mad Max/Road Warrior film. Which is to say that although it was a little bit scary for us, it was also exciting that Heather, Maggie, Julien, and I were out on the road in the middle of a minor adventure. All I had to do was remind myself that as long as we took it calmly and slowly, we’d make it home fine, and we did.

Whenever we visited Heather’s grandmother and the Ohio branch of her family, we always stayed in Parkersburg, which is just across the Ohio River and only a half hour drive to where she and Heather’s aunt and uncle lived; and in Parkersburg, whenever we could manage it, we stayed at the Blennerhassett Hotel. A beautiful Queen Anne style building from the late 1800s, the Blennerhassett is a fancy hotel, and the only reason we could afford staying there on a number of our trips is that it’s in Parkersburg, an economically depressed town as well an area that’s been polluted by the local Dupont chemical plant. It was through the manufacturing of Teflon, that miracle non-stick surface—that the chemical compound C8 made its way into the environment. And now, through the criminal actions of Dupont as well as other companies, most people in the world have some level of C8 in their bodies. This is why, if you can afford to do so, you don’t drink the water in Parkersburg or Belpre—and, of course, in a lot of other places.

As with most small towns, I find that there’s something almost unbearably sad about Parkersburg. But that’s probably because Parkersburg seems like a place that has so many stories to tell. And by stories I don’t mean simple facts and statistics. Too many people think these are the same as stories or else use them as substitutes for stories and go about their lives as if everything in the world has an explanation and reason—as if there’s nothing we can’t grasp with our minds, nothing that doesn’t fall between the cracks. It was in Parkersburg and some of the surrounding area that Aaron Burr, who had been vice president of the United States under Thomas Jefferson, began having discussions with Harman Blennerhassett (who with this wife Margaret were the two people after whom the hotel was named). What he and Blennerhassett discussed were among the things that led to Burr being put on trial for treason. But these are simply the facts, and have nothing to with the story being told here.

The last time we were at the Blennerhassett, whenever we’d see another hotel guest in the hallways, Julien would ask “How long are you staying here?” Usually, the answer would be “Oh, one more night” or “just for the weekend.” Julien would then say, “We’re staying here for thirteen days.” If we could, he wouldn’t have minded staying there for thirteen days. (Yes, like me, he enjoys being away and spending time in hotels.) As for Maggie, between all the family gatherings—or sometimes during them—she spent her time reading Neil Gaiman’s novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Heather, of course, had a lot of family she wanted to catch up with, while I spent a lot of time thinking about birds and all the things that are harder to see in the dark.

Heather’s grandmother’s funeral was held in Belpre, Ohio at a funeral home around the corner from what had been the site of The Lee Middleton Doll store and museum. It was maybe fifteen years ago, during a trip to Ohio, that Heather and I visited the doll museum there. It was one of the creepiest places we’d ever been to. There were rows and rows of doll parts—it’s incredible how frightening a row of about twenty or thirty cute doll heads can be—and on top of that an entire nursery filled with dolls representing newborn infants. At the funeral, the minister seemed to spend a lot of time talking about Jesus and Christianity and not so much time talking about Heather’s grandmother, Emma Rae Runkle. That reminded me of my mother’s funeral more than two decades ago, when the priest, during his sermon, said that if my mother were somehow there she would have asked us to take some time to consider our lives as Christians. She wouldn’t have—because although she was a believer, she preferred to keep her thoughts about Jesus to herself—and what she would have said to everyone gathered in the church that day in her honor would have been “Hello” and “How are you today?”

I took this photograph of Route 50 on the Sunday after the funeral as we were leaving Parkersburg. I tend to enjoy leaving a place much more than arriving there, even when it’s somewhere I want to be. There’s something about leaving a place that calms me. And on that Sunday’s drive, I wondered if we’d ever find ourselves in Parkersburg again. With Emma Rae Runkle gone—and only a few of Heather’s family still living in Ohio—the east coast might now be the preferred location for any family gatherings. And although Heather and I do like to take trips with Maggie and Julien—and although there is something fascinating about Parkersburg, I doubt it would be part of our itinerary for any trip out west. Still, I wouldn’t mind, if sometime in the future, I could leave from there again. Take Route 50 out of town and head east. And since I prefer leaving a place as opposed to going there, I wondered as we drove farther and farther away if I might ever be able to leave Parkersburg without having to go there to begin with. And I wondered about all the other places I might leave, without having to go there.

After we got back home that evening, it wasn’t long before Maggie got out her guitar and started to play. Julien then took out a bag of his dinosaur toys and started to play as well. It’s a different kind of music when a child is playing with dinosaurs, but once you learn how to listen to it and hear the subtle delicate notes, it’s quite beautiful. In a little while, Heather began organizing what we’d brought in from the car, putting the medicines we’d brought with us back in a cabinet in the kitchen. I then picked up a couple of our bags, and began walking upstairs with them. That’s when Julien looked up from his dinosaurs, turned to me and said, “See you, Dad.” As if I were going away somewhere, maybe on another long trip. I suppose that sometimes there’s a distance in my eyes that seems to say I’m drifting off toward some unreachable world. Only those closest to me can see this. They also know I have no intention of going there. And that on those occasions when my mind takes me there anyway, that if at all possible, I’ll be coming back.

“See you, Julien,” I said. “I’ll be right back down in a minute.”

“OK,” he answered, then he added, “Don’t jump on the bed.”

“OK,” I said.

And though I love being on the road, sometimes it does feel good simply to be home, which means it was probably good that Julien reminded me not to jump on the bed. Because upstairs, with no one looking, that might be exactly what I’d want to do—jump on the bed. Jump for joy. Jump for all the years condensed into a moment of a million thoughts. Jump for all the distance diminished from hundreds of miles into a simple matter of upstairs and downstairs. I’m pretty sure that jumping would have been a way of saying, “we’re home,” and that being home was a good thing.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

And Sunbeams Fell Lightly Upon the Edge of the Grocery Store Parking Lot

Photograph by Jose Padua
Yesterday on the parking lot of the Martin’s grocery store here in Front Royal a woman nearly ran me over after I dropped off my shopping cart in the corral. I can’t say for sure, but I gathered that she was one of those people who like to pretend folks like me aren’t here. I yelled, she ignored it, then got out of her car and headed straight to the store entrance, her headed tilted upward as if she were praying for me to disappear.

This isn’t the first time I’ve had trouble in this parking lot. There was that one time a group of good ole boys in their jacked up pickup truck started revving their engine when I was about to go onto the crosswalk in front of them. After they’d revved the engine, I wasn’t about to take a chance crossing in front of them, so I waited for them to move on and they laughed and jeered at me as they drove off.

Then there was that other time when I was in my car, stopped at the cross walk to let a woman go by when another woman who was talking to a policeman then alerted the policeman that I had just nearly hit someone with my car. The policeman came up to me and told me to pull over. He advised me to slow down and even though I wasn’t speeding through the parking lot, I said “OK, sorry officer. I’ll be careful” because a lot of times it doesn’t help your case when you say what really happened.

Sometimes I feel so ill-equipped for life here. Sometimes I feel so ill-prepared. I remember one time at a reading close to DC, in Arlington, I’d read one or two poems that mentioned having Tourette’s Syndrome and probably OCD too, and afterwards these two people in the audience started asking if I’d tried this therapy or that and asking as if these were things I’d ever heard of. They were asking me questions based on the assumption that I wanted to change—that I wanted to fix myself. But the thing is, I’m not trying to change. And even though I may be poorly equipped to deal with certain things—with a lot of things, actually—I’m not trying to fix myself. For me that would be a giving up, and whatever remedies are out there would bore me to death, because what I’m trying to do is survive and remain exactly what I am. That’s what’s interesting for me. That’s the challenge.

Sometimes I think that anything else wouldn’t really be survival, but merely a slowing down of the blood inside of me. Me, I want my blood to move. I want it, at least some of the time, to feel like fire.

Earlier this evening, I had to go back to the grocery store. This time everything went pretty smoothly, until I was done and got back to my car. That’s when I saw one of those pickup trucks with two big Confederate flags hanging on flag poles in the back. It was parked right next to my car, and there was nobody in it. And nobody around. I wanted to spit on it, but again, there was nobody around. Who would I be sending a message to but myself? And there was always the possibility that someone was watching, and I just didn’t see them.

So I stayed calm, got in my car, and took a picture of it. That’s one obsession I’m always going to give in to. My obsession with documenting as much as I can. The obsession that requires me to complete whatever formulas are in my head. But I’m not going to post the picture I took. Not this time, anyway.

Instead, here’s a photograph of part of the valley taken from the stretch of Route 522 that lies between the General John Reese Kenly Memorial Bridge and the Cosme Tuazon Padua Memorial Bridge. Whenever I take the time to look up at the mountains or down to the river here, I feel as if the strength inside of me is constant. I feel the strength when I hear my twelve year old daughter playing guitar or piano. Lately, the song I’ve been hearing her play on guitar is the Vaselines’ revamping of an old hymn, “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam,” and on piano, it’s one of Chopin’s waltzes. I feel the strength whenever my five year old son asks me to play Miles Davis in the car after I pick him up from school. Or when he hears the name Donald Trump mentioned if the news is on and says, “Donald Trump. No.” I feel it when my wife wakes up early in the morning, on a weekend after another busy week to work on her own book and write. And it’s in these moments that I go on being myself. And, because it’s the only way I know how, I go on surviving.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

In Homage to All These Beautiful Years and Delicate Hours

Photograph by Jose Padua
About a year ago was the first time in forty or so years that I didn’t watch even a single minute of the Super Bowl. Since it had been around fifteen years since I stopped paying close attention to football, it wasn’t all that difficult. Still, every year come Super Sunday, I always turned on the television in time to see what was going on with the halftime show and then to watch the second half of the game. And, if it was a good game, I’d get into it.

Last year, with the halftime entertainment being Katy Perry (whose music and performances I consider an example of the sort of fine-tuned professionalism that’s totally vapid and completely uncompelling) I wasn’t driven to turn on the Super Bowl even midway through the game. In addition to that, we only have one working television in the house—which is fine with me because I find televisions to be one of the ugliest appliances imaginable—and on that television my young son Julien was watching a DVD of the show Arthur. You know, Arthur. The cartoon where the main character is from a family of aardvarks (of course you have to look that up because the first time you see the show you have no idea what sort of animal Arthur is supposed to be). Rounding out the remaining cast of characters are rabbits, monkeys, cats, and so on.

I like Arthur. It’s a sweet show, and the theme song—which goes, “And I say HEY! (HEY!)/ What a wonderful kind of day. / If you can learn to work and play/ And get along with each other”—is catchier than anything I’ve ever heard coming from the mouth of Katy Perry. Apparently, Julien likes it too, and while it’s playing, he always sings along with that exclamatory “HEY!” And, I must say that, right now, Arthur and his cast of anthropomorphic animals still makes me happier than football does.

Which isn’t to say that I don’t appreciate football at all, because back in the day, I watched it enthusiastically. I have fond memories of watching football games. Back in the 60s and 70s, a smooth spiraling pass from Sonny Jurgensen (or even a wobbly one from Billy Kilmer) to Charley Taylor were amazing things to behold. And then Charley Taylor, standing in the end zone, would raise his arms up in a way that seemed to say that he got the score and there was nothing you or anyone else could do to change that. I always thought that Charley Taylor’s victory pose may have even signified other things, too—things beyond the football field, and pointed toward other sorts of victories yet to be achieved. But whatever it was that went on in Charley Taylor’s mind, it was always a beautiful sight, and the image of him with his arms raised is an image that stays with me and inspires me even.

As the years went on, though, football became something along the lines of sleep, with sleep becoming more and more a thing I did without so I could spend a decent amount of my time writing (and writing being the work I did that so far didn’t pay much but which moved me in profound ways). But perhaps even more than that, football was like some girl I had a crush on when I was a teenager. Someone I thought was cool and interesting and fun and all that, before I moved on to other things. Things that got to me all the way down to a core I didn’t know I had. Things like the ordinary occurrences and activities of everyday life.

I can’t say exactly when it happened. Certainly it had begun before we moved out to Front Royal, but it probably wasn’t until then that I really began to focus on the moment. And though, because of my OCD, the moment might end up being terrifying whenever bad thoughts entered my head, it could also (again, because of my OCD) have this intense and beautiful depth to it.

And so, on the day after the Super Bowl I didn’t watch last year, my then four-year old son Julien was sitting at the dining room table when he said, “I want my leftover pizza. I love pizza.” Now, I like a lot of different kinds of food, but when Julien said “I love pizza,” pizza suddenly became the most important food of all for me. Then, on the day after that, Julien was again sitting at the table when he said, “I want my paints. I love to paint.” And for the moment, for me, there was no artistic endeavor in the world more important that painting, and no greater painter I could think of than Kandinsky or maybe it was Frida Kahlo or Romare Bearden whose works were suddenly filling my mind. Later that night, right before dinner, my daughter Maggie was in the hall playing this incredible tune on the piano.

“What is that?” I asked.

“Oh, it’s some old Russian folk song,” she answered nonchalantly.

“That was really good!”

“Okay,” Maggie said. Then after a second added, “Weirdo.” With ‘weirdo’ being her favorite all-purpose word at the time serving as an expression of thanks, a term of endearment, and a morning, afternoon, and evening greeting. And in that moment, I loved being a weirdo.

Then it was dinner time. Heather heated up leftovers from the previous night. We ate, I washed the dishes, and Heather reminded Maggie a few times that she’d better start on her homework. Soon, it was time for Heather to take Julien up to bed, but it took a while for him to fall asleep that night, and it took her a long time as well, and it was late before Maggie finally went upstairs. Then, when I finally went up to bed, I saw that Maggie was awake again, sitting up in bed. Like everything else, losing sleep is something we usually do together.

The following morning, with Heather already having been at the office in Arlington for a few hours, I was on the way back home from dropping Maggie and Julien off at school when the Replacements’ “Can’t Hardly Wait” came on the car stereo followed by Earth Wind & Fire’s “Can’t Let Go”–two songs that that put me in two different sorts of mood, each mood beautiful in its own way. As the songs played, I looked down John Marshall Highway to watch the mountains in the distance, towering green and white over town under a lush purple sky. At any rate, I thought it was a purple sky I was seeing–I’m never all that sure when it comes to the colors I’m seeing. Then, remembering again the Super Bowl that I missed in its entirety, it occurred to me that no matter what these actual colors were, the comfort I got from those images and from the music that accompanied them, was–at least at that point in my life–far greater than whatever comfort or diversion or whatever it was that I got out of watching any game.

And the thing is that I’d rather take my time examining and contemplating these moments– wondering what song is going to play next, or what color the mountains are going to take on–than anticipating whether the next play will be a run, or a short pass, or a bomb. It’s not that I couldn’t have enjoyed the game, because I could have, if I’d taken the time to watch it. But I’m at an age where time seems like such a delicate thing. The apparent abundance of it that was there forty years ago, when I was just a teenager, has dissipated like a rain puddle in the summer’s heat.

And more and more, games are something for me to play with my kids. They’re not so much for my own enjoyment, but for them, so that while they’re young they may know abundance. Not the abundance that comes from money or objects or from the winning of competitions of any sort. But that which comes from being here, now, in these sometimes tired but always beautiful hours of wakefulness.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

For These Rainy Days on the Road at Christmas and Other Hours Lost and Found

MomDadAuntie_NoveltyPhotos_GlennEcho
The first song that got me teary eyed during the drive to Pennsylvania that December was Bonnie Raitt’s take on Joel Zoss’s “Too Long at the Fair.” It was probably the line that goes, “You can give my soul to Abraham, give my soul to Saul, and give my bones to Canada…” that got me when the traffic, after the quieter country roads, picked up in Frederick. We were somewhere around Dilsberg, PA when Stevie Wonder’s “Please Don’t Go,” the final cut from Fulfillingness’ First Finale, came on, and I was like, Christ, this is pathetic. I’m like that sad drunk at closing time who started weeping when the song order on the Stones’ Sticky Fingers was reversed and “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” was followed by “Wild Horses.” Yeah, it must have been a shock to the system, but that hipster must have had a full evening’s worth of whiskeys. Me, I was stone cold sober, getting over the flu, and the only even slightly intoxicating beverage I’d had in weeks was nighttime cold medicine.

But it was all OK. It was those fuckers who never cry who pissed me off, those assholes who are only half living their lives. If Bonnie could set me off, so be it. Stevie, Mick Jagger. Sometimes it was Al Green, Alex Chilton, Aretha, Dusty. It was a long list. Sometimes it was my own words, while I was writing at night, high from a lack of sleep or an inability to sleep, or from a train of thought that wouldn’t stop until I let it go wherever it wanted to take me, those times when I was possessed by a consciousness whose source never ran out as long as it was dark outside. And, sometimes, that sleeplessness was what I needed.

As a friend had recently noted, it was the death of a parent that made her feel more strongly her sense of being dependent. I was feeling that strongly then, myself, especially now that both my Mom and Dad were gone now. I was, in that way, completely on my own–and yes, it only served to heighten that feeling of dependency.

Lately, I seemed to be finding so many of the things I needed in the car, in the chaotic mess of clothes, books, and papers that got left behind there. They weren’t practical things like house keys, bank cards, or things of that nature. They were things I needed for my recovery from this period of mourning. Which isn’t to say that that recovery itself wasn’t a practical thing. But the things that keep you alive aren’t just the things that keep you breathing.

Earlier that week I found the November 19, 2012 issue of the New Yorker in the car. It was something I’d brought along to read while waiting for Maggie to get out from school. This issue I’d never gotten around to opening—maybe Maggie had gotten out from school early on those days, or maybe I was running late and didn’t have the extra time I usually had when I picked her up. But that Monday, when I took the car to the mechanic, I noticed this issue lying in a pile on the floor of the car and brought it in with me to read while the car was being worked on.

What I saw in there was an article by Roger Angell titled “Over the Wall.” A reflection on death, it was prompted by the passing of Angell’s wife in April of that year, and he began it by detailing all the recent history his wife never got to know: Hurricane Sandy, Obama’s re-election, her grand-daughter’s attending nursery school.

I needed to read this, because this was something that had always obsessed me as well—the news, the stories, the information the dead will never get to know. Whether it was good or bad, the many things one will never get to know always seemed like the most horrible part about dying. For me, it wasn’t the trips to the beach, the good meals, or even being with friends and loved ones that mattered most. It was the knowledge, including the knowledge that my friends and loved ones, whether I was there or not, were breathing. And alive.

My mother never got to know about things like the collapse of the World Trade Center and all the other horror that happened on September 11, 2001. She never knew about the space shuttle Columbia’s falling apart on re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere in 2003. She also never got to know my wife Heather, or experience the coming into this world of her grandchildren, Maggie and Julien. And then, eighteen years after my Mom’s death, I was wondering what the things were that my Dad would never know.

And so, much of the time, what I seemed to obsess on were all the bad things they’d never get to know about, the tragedies, the things that were frightening. Because there was always something about my parents knowing things—no matter what they were—that made me feel safer.

I began to understand that you’re never really grown up until you recognize that there will always be a part of you that remains a child, remains dependent. That you’re never really an adult until you realize that dependency is a fact of life, and that to deny your dependency is to deny your humanity.

And also, I began to wonder if all this was just an act of vanity. If each word I wrote was simply part of preparing for death, for that time, whenever it is, when I’ll no longer be here. If all I was doing was keeping a chronicle, a history, a monument marking my time here on earth. Words which, whether poetry or prose, fiction or non-fiction, would prove that I was here, speaking to the people I knew as well as those I didn’t, the people who in the future would pass through the spaces I once passed through, when I was flesh and blood solid, breathing, and known for what I created rather that what I destroyed. A person who, in his better moments, perhaps even possessed an unmistakable glow.

I wondered, too, if when I’m gone, people will still be reading my poems. If one late night, in a bar—after they’ve shut down the juke box, and there’s no music, just the hum from the refrigerator—if some drunk will remember some line of mine, maybe even an entire poem, before going outside, catching a cab, and going home, alone.

Or maybe not alone.

These two pictures were taken around 1952 at a novelty photo booth in Glen Echo, Maryland, where there was an amusement park up until 1968. The prisoner on the far left is my Auntie Lucilla, who died in 2008. The prisoner to the right of her is my Mom, who died in 1994. The intoxicated man on the right, holding onto the lamp post, is my Dad, who died in 2012. There are so many things they’ll never know about. But then again, there are so many things they lived through that I didn’t, in that long slow time I took being born.

-Jose Padua

Notes on Growing Old

Photograph by Jose Padua
I admit to having been less than enlightened about a lot of things in my youth. And while there were some areas where I was ahead of the curve, there were many where I was behind. That’s what growing old and growing up is for—to fill in those gaps of knowledge, those dark spots of ignorance and to overcome the many irrational, ill-informed fears that come from not having been around all that long.

And one thing I learned in those years—or perhaps I should say ‘decades’ rather than just years—of filling in those gaps was this: If you ever by chance run into those people who for whatever reason screwed you over or treated you like dirt or used you as a stepping stone to get somewhere and abandoned you as soon as they got there, don’t just turn away, remembering and sometimes reliving the anger and betrayal you felt. Take a deep breath, and close your eyes if you have to, and think of how far you’ve gone since the last time you saw this person. Then let that anger slip away, disappear.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still tell these people to go fuck themselves. You should. It’s just that when you tell them to go fuck themselves you should say it with love in your heart before walking away, and out of their lives, forever. And, as you walk away, raise your arm and lift your middle finger. Just in case they’re watching.

I realize some of you will say that, in itself, the act of telling people to go fuck themselves means a person has a long way to go before he’s reached his potential as a complete, mature, and contented human being. Fuck you.

This is a photograph of some sheep sitting under a tree.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

The Way We Stand Tall in the Middle of Things

Photograph by Jose Padua
This afternoon, Maggie and I accompanied Julien to the doctor’s office for a follow-up appointment for the cold and ear infection he had last week. We were in one of the examination rooms, but the doctors were backed up on their appointments, so we had to wait for a while. Soon, Julien got restless. He kept walking to the door which was shut, and listening. “Is that the doctor?” he’d ask. When he heard the sound of a woman coughing outside in the hallway, he shouted out, “Are you all right?” Then he asked again, a little louder this time, “Are you all right?” When he got tired of listening at the door, he looked around the room. It was one of those small, bare examining rooms, so there wasn’t much there, just a sink, the examining table, a couple of chairs, a narrow counter where the doctor could set down a laptop, and some medical equipment. Then Julien looked up to the wall behind Maggie, where there was a magazine holder. He climbed up on a shelf that was on a level with Maggie’s chair, then reached up to pull out a magazine on which there was a picture of a deer. Julien likes animals, so he probably thought this would be something interesting to look at while were waiting for the doctor. He looked through it for less than a minute, then dropped it to the floor. I picked it up, but before I put it back on the rack I looked at it more closely. It was an issue of Field & Stream, and there was a big picture of a deer on the cover, which was what caught Julien’s eye. But the picture was the illustration for one of that issue’s featured stories, the title of which was “KILL A SUPER BUCK,” and I wondered what sort of person this story would attract. Who would see this issue in the supermarket, see the word “kill” in big blue letters, and be compelled to buy it? Who would bring this magazine home and on the way there daydream about the killing of things? Maggie pulled the magazine from my hands, read the title of the featured story, and said, “Yuck!” As she put it back up in the magazine rack, I felt good knowing that she and Julien would most likely grow up to be the sort of people who would rather ask a stranger over and over “Are you all right?” than take even the least amount of time to consider the killing of things. Which isn’t to say that if you were to push them down they wouldn’t push you back. And bring some friends with them, who also know what it’s like to be pushed down, over and over, and maybe never stop pushing until things start to change.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua.

Fifteen Bucks and the Passing Glory of Every Gone Year

Photograph by Jose Padua
I’ve somehow forgotten the name of the place, but back in 1990 I got a call from Matthew Courtney asking me to do a reading there. It was somewhere on the Lower East Side, which meant it would be easy for me to hop down from my place on Avenue B and 3rd to get there; plus, with Matthew hosting the event, I knew it would be a fun gig as well—he was, at the time, one of the most entertaining poets/actors/artists on the downtown scene. But what most sold me on doing the reading was what he said I’d get in return for my performance: “Fifteen bucks, and all the glory.”

Back then, fifteen bucks could pay for a least part of a decent evening, and the glory part was the icing on the metaphorical cake, even if the glory was only being bestowed upon me by an audience of fifteen people. I wasn’t all that picky back then–I didn’t even have a chapbook out at that point if I remember correctly—so there really was no reason why I should have turned it down, and I didn’t.

As it was, the audience at this reading turned out to be of a fairly decent size, and I ended up meeting a number of other writers with whom I’m still in touch to this day. But what I most remember about that night and that reading is that it was here when I first met Maggie Estep and heard her read her poem, “The Stupid Jerk I’m Obsessed With.” Right away the poem blew me away, and like a lot of other guys, I too wished I could be that stupid jerk. She was a cool, smart, gorgeous woman—the sort I thought would want nothing to do with me. So when she came up to the table where I was sitting after I’d read and told me that she was blown away by my work, I just went “Wow” and “Thanks” and “Cool” and I was pretty drunk (as I usually was at any reading back then) and I thought I must have sounded like an idiot.

About a week later, on my way into work one still sleepy morning, I was catching the bus to go cross town on 23th Street when I saw her waiting at the bus shelter. (As big as New York City was, I was always running into people I knew.) I was more coherent at this hour and we talked and talked and it was here that she gave me her phone number, saying, “Call me, call me” and that was how I started to get to know her—which isn’t to say that I called her. It’s just that there were soon so many readings and events going on that I didn’t have to in order to see people. I’d see Maggie at one event or another, and we’d talk, but I’d always just leave it at that, because I was a drinker and she—having lived beyond her own days of wine and roses and other substances—wasn’t. Back then, liquor was a big part of both my social life and my poetic process.

Still, she’d call me; and I remember one time getting the most amazing phone message from her in which she told this long, surrealistic story about how these microscopic dwarves had invaded her blood vessels and made her ill, all of which was a way of explaining why she wouldn’t be able to see me at some important reading I was doing. In addition to that, even though we only lived a few blocks apart, we’d write each other letters. Her letters were like her phone messages, filled with stories and imagination and far out ideas—all written in a state of total sobriety while I always liked to have a few sips of something before writing my replies.

She eventually started seeing this guy I knew who was one of the nicest guys on our scene, and I was happy to see that she’d hooked up with him. In the meantime, I went on in my own way, in search of poetry and drinkers, and never once imagining that I could separate the two.

Maggie, of course, went on to hit it pretty big, appearing on MTV, fronting her own band and recording CDs of her work, and then on to writing novels, and working and playing with some pretty well-known people. The last time I saw her in person was in 1995 when she played the old 9:30 club in downtown DC, my hometown, where I’d moved back when I left New York. It had been a couple of years since I’d last seen her, and when I went down to the dressing room after the show she was surprised and genuinely happy to see me, introducing me to people as this “tremendous poet.” But this time—even though she was as nice as she always was—I just felt like some kind of a fuckup talking to her. After that, I’d only be in touch with her every few years or so with email exchanges that began enthusiastically with the sharing of news and other life changing events before eventually turning quiet. SkepReading_1992_Blog
Over time, I found a way to separate poetry and drink—though in doing so I spent around eight years when I hardly wrote a damn thing. They were years when I just sat back to enjoy one drink a week—though most of the time it was even less frequent than that—and a life of domestic tranquility with my wife and kids. Then, after thinking there was no way for me to be content and still write, I found a way to write again. Or perhaps, to be more accurate, I should say that the words started coming again, because those years when I didn’t write were years when certain uses of language just seemed beyond me—in particular, the sort of writing where I had no idea if I’d ever get paid or not. Because, now that I think about it, I did do some writing during those years, but it was always for one job or another. Writing for which I knew there was both immediate purpose and payment—never poetry or fiction or anything where I was taking a risk of some sort.

A year ago this month, when a friend sent me a message telling me that Maggie Estep had suffered a massive heart attack, I was shocked. I’d always thought of her as the healthy artist, the one who’d found a way to keep her edge and angst and still be healthy and content. Even though I’d been living a much healthier—no, I can’t use this horrible word, but what the hell, I’ll go ahead and use it—lifestyle, I never imagined that someone like Maggie Estep would die before me. Me, with my high blood pressure, my heart condition, and my high-strung OCD attitudes and impractical worries and Tourette’s rages—older and outliving a writer like her. And taking more and more risks, even if they’re only in my mind. But then again, sometimes the risks you take in your mind can be just as dangerous as the ones you take with your feet or your hands or your fists—well, that is, if it’s a risk worth taking.

So here I am after all those years, writing poem after poem and story after story and feeling bored or sad in those moments in between, before I’m quite ready to start the next one. And then I start it. It isn’t, by any means, a logical sort of storyline. But, then, no one becomes an artist of any kind because it’s the logical thing to do—and anyone who does become an artist because he or she thinks it’s the logical thing to do is probably more of an asshole than an artist. Which isn’t to say that that person can’t still get some work done.

And of course what I’ve felt through all this is not just sadness but fear as well. Sadness, still, over an old friend’s death, and fear from thinking about all the damage that’s been done over the years. Yes, damage, because to live and survive means spending time being damaged, being hit and bruised and getting back up, losing blood, hair, teeth, muscle, and all those other things that make living an easier thing to accomplish, and it’s only when one dies that the damage stops.

And though it’s yet another thing that isn’t logical, I like to think that once the damage stops that there’s something that continues somehow. It may not be life as we know it, but it is, nevertheless, a form of existence. Call it soul or spirit or the collective unconscious or whatever you want, but I think it’s something that somehow gets released into the air. Something like that early spring breeze that hits you on the cheek like a surprise. That sweet feeling in your gut that’s part ache and part hunger when you look toward the mountains and think you can almost touch the colors you see. Or that joke from years ago that you’re only now beginning to understand.

-Jose Padua

In Homage to the Wandering Metaphysicians of These Darkening Streets

Photograph by Jose Padua
I started the first real job I ever had between my junior and senior years in high school, soon after I got back to DC from my summer program studying chemistry at the University of Georgia. Science was, at the time, still a passion. I was young and logical, but my relationship with logic was not an exclusive one and I was curious about what the mystical world had to offer. Having happily joined the throng of mortal sinners known as lapsed Catholics when I stopped attending mass in eighth grade, I knew the church was not for me. Still, I went back for a couple of years, and what brought me back was not renewed faith but my job as an evening and weekend receptionist at the very church I’d stopped attending. Mrs. Sanders and Miss Gonzalez, the two older church secretaries, whose guarding of the rectory door I was relieving on evenings and weekends, referred to me as “the boy.”

My job during my four to eight hour shifts was to answer the phone, answer the door, and alphabetize the weekly collection envelopes. Alphabetizing the envelopes was, of course, the dullest part of the job, followed by answering the phone to hear yet another voice asking what the mass schedule was. But once in a while it was someone interesting, like the first time I picked up the phone to hear the voice of Mildred C. Wallace. Mildred talked on and on, paying no attention to what I was saying and ignoring my attempts to end–because I was behind in my alphabetizing–what was actually an intriguing, one-ended conversation.

The reason the conversation was one-ended was because it was essentially a sales pitch. Mildred, hinting at what she had to offer our “gentleman parishioners,” and after naming some of the women she had working for her, finally ended her pitch with the clearly but quickly spoken clarification that what she and her ladies were about “is prostitution!”

When I finally met Mildred in person, I saw that she was a tiny woman, maybe sixty years old–though it was hard to tell, because the street can age a person beyond his or her physical years–who always carried bags of rotting groceries with her. In person, she carried on a conversation the same way she did over the phone: oblivious to your response or lack of it, she was all about making the sale. Even if she didn’t have anything or anyone to sell anymore. She was like an ad in the back of a dirty newspaper, an ad that somehow talked. And never stopped talking.

Mildred was just one of my favorite visitors at the church rectory. If my supervisors had known about her, they surely would have put her on the list of people who were not to be admitted to the rectory in the evening, which was when a social worker from the St. Vincent de Paul Society was on duty to help any homeless people who came to the rectory for assistance.

Whether they were trouble makers, thieves, or people who were considered beyond help, the list of people who were not to be admitted fascinated me. So one evening, when I picked up the phone that rang when someone was at the front door and the voice at the other end announced, “This is Rabbi Diamond!”–another person who was on the list of those who were supposed to be forever damned–I immediately said, “I’ll be right there to let you in.”

Rabbi Diamond was always angry, outraged, and incredulous in a waving his arms in the air sort of way. One day when I let him in he yelled, “I’m going to burn this city down!” Whether it was political, cultural, or moral decay, his rants on these topics were things of beauty. And no matter how angry he got when he spoke, he always hit this tone, this note, that seemed to say “we can do this” or “change is coming.” I didn’t know his full story–maybe he was a rabbi of the sixties who took one too many acid trips, the Syd Barrett of organized religion. All I knew was that he was a real rabbi who went mad at some point and ended up on the street. And that even if he didn’t quite elevate being pissed off into a higher state of consciousness or some ground-breaking form of nirvana, he at the very least he turned it into an art.

On those nights when the social worker didn’t show up, which seemed to happen once a week, I’d give Rabbi Diamond money myself. I only made a buck fifty an hour, which even though it was 1974 was below minimum wage, but I guess that was one of a number of things a church could get away with, and one of many things so many of us never questioned. They were The Church–we assumed they knew and did what was best for us. In giving Rabbi Diamond what money I could I did what I thought was best for me, because far from being hard-earned money thrown away, I saw it as an investment in the future, an investment in the continued well-being of Rabbi Jerome Diamond.

And I’d give money to Mildred Wallace. To Thomas Jefferson Isaac who always introduced himself on the phone at the rectory door by saying, “This is Thomas Jefferson Isaac, but I’m also known as Thomas Jefferson Morris.” Mr. Isaac aka Mr. Morris, who looked like the actor Lou Gossett, would tell me he was once a research scientist, a surgeon, a college professor. I’d run into him outside the rectory, too, in Dupont Circle where if I saw him I’d always stop to talk. He’d spend many a day there, sitting on one of the benches, sitting tall, proud, maybe even contented. And if madness was the path to contentedness for some people, I thought, so be it. Amen. Maybe I’d end up there too, one day.

And there was Mary Hayes, the frail thin, old Irish woman with the voice like a nervous child who always said, “Thank you. Thank you very much, indeed.” And Mary Orta, the loud short-haired radical who could never speak of anything but politics and diplomacy and conspiracy. And Rose Conte who sold on the street the flowers she’d picked and who spoke like a mouse and who always seemed like she’d close her eyes and never open them again.

These were the people–not any teachers, priests, diplomats, not even the eccentric fellow students and scientists I’d met earlier that year at the University of Georgia. They had no lucky star shining down upon them, did not live in comfort. They were knocked down to life on the streets, their loose connection to the real world challenged every day. The bright future for them was not that scholarship, that academic grant, not that windfall of profit or stock market killing or that fancy new car. No, the bright future for them was the next meal they could dig up out of what someone else left as trash or through the grace of spare change. The triumph was that they managed to stand, and sometimes even stand tall as if they were on the verge of discovering the cure for cancer or ending this war or that. These were the first people I met the first time I really went out into the world. The first people whom I thought were truly brilliant.

And there was that one time when I was in the rectory office with the Archbishop as the sounds from church were coming in from a speaker that was installed above the office door.

“Do you hear that?” the Archbishop asked me.

“Yes,” I said. Then the Archbishop looked at me, his eyes wide with delight—a kind of delight I was pretty sure I knew nothing about. He kept looking at me, expecting me to go into more detail about what we were hearing. To explain what it was and why it was so splendid. I listened a little longer, thinking it must have been something other than the usual Sunday service, but what exactly was different about it I couldn’t tell. Finally I looked at him and, unable to think of any other way to respond, said, “I don’t know what it is.”

“That is the liturgy!” he said, raising his voice. And I thought, The liturgy, as in just another mass? I’m supposed to be in awe of that? The archbishop, I gathered, was shocked—perhaps even outraged—that I wasn’t at all impressed. That the sound of the mass, coming into the rectory office through the speaker, stirred nothing within me.

It was the sort of thing which, in my more vulnerable years, might have disturbed me and made me think I had things in my life I had to set straight. But the thing was, I didn’t care what he thought. What would have disturbed me was if Mildred Wallace, Rabbi Diamond, Thomas Jefferson Isaac, or any those other brilliant people had thought I was a fool. That would have been a sign that I was wasting both time and space and learning little of real significance as I wandered about from one day to the next totally lost, when the truth was that I was only slightly lost.

This is a photograph of the decaying building on John Marshall Highway just before Apple Mountain Road where we take the ramp to I-66 on our way out of Front Royal toward DC. I took this picture a couple of days ago, and the building has been like this ever since we moved here nearly eight years ago. The night before, at around ten in the evening as we were heading back to Front Royal from up north, we saw a shooting star moving south, with us, on 522. Sometimes when I’m driving the memory of one or another of these metaphysicians of the street will suddenly come to mind. Mildred, Rabbi Jerome, Thomas Jefferson—people whom I know must be long gone and lost with all the other memories for which there are so few people or sometimes maybe no one to carry them in their minds or in conversations or the sort of photographs you carry in your wallet. So when they pop up in my mind this way, it’s as if they’ve come back, however briefly, like these sudden flashes of light in the sky. Telling some sort of story, and being brilliant once again.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

On the Power of Clouds and the Dissolution of Lifestyles

Phography by Jose Padua
In October 2000, after twenty-six years of smoking, I quit cold turkey when Heather and I moved in to the row house we rented on Harvard Street in Old Town Alexandria. It was on the first night we spent in the house when, at about nine in the evening, I walked down to the corner of Harvard and King, turned left, then walked about six blocks until I got to the first convenience store I saw. There, I bought the last pack of cigarettes I would ever buy, a pack of Camel Lights, from a shop keeper who had no idea how momentous an occasion this was for me. As for me, I had no idea either, because I didn’t mean for this pack of Camel Lights to be my last—I had intended to continue smoking.

I thanked the shop keeper and walked out the door thinking I had found the place where I would regularly be buying my cigarettes from then on. When I got back to our house, Heather was busy unpacking a few more things. I went out the French doors at the end of the dining room and walked onto the back deck to smoke—Heather and I had decided there would be no smoking indoors at this house—then looked above the fence at the edge of the back yard. All I could see was darkness.

There, during daylight hours, you could see the back of the office building that housed, among other things, the National Stone, Sand, and Gravel Association. Looking out the second floor on the other side of the house I could see, above the row houses directly across from us, another office building. This building was home to the Snack Food Association of America, the president and CEO of which had graduated with me from high school twenty-five years ago. Robbie was something of a fuckup in high school. It was rumored that, at our graduation ceremony, he was one of two students who’d received a diploma which, when you opened it, was blank inside. This, we thought, signified how kind-hearted our school’s administrators were: they didn’t want to embarrass a student by forbidding his attendance at graduation, but they still needed to make it clear to him that they knew he was a fuckup. Hence, the blank diploma.

That night, as I smoked a cigarette behind our newly rented house, wedged, as it were, between the National Stone, Sand, and Gravel Association and the Snack Food Association of America, I felt as if I had indeed travelled into the suburban equivalent of the heart of darkness. Not the mean and dirty, life-is-cheap sort of darkness, but the polite and clean, life-is-cheap sort of darkness. The sort of darkness where my classmate Robbie, once perpetually stoned and innocent but now armed with a law degree, helps run that big con game called the “straight and narrow” by some or—by the people in the world I hate most—”commerce.”

Even though it was only about ten miles away from the part of the city I’d called home for so many years, Alexandria was not a place I’d ever imagined myself living. Little did I know that years later I would end up much farther away from the city. But one thing I was aware of was that this moment, in this place, was as close to conventional as I’d ever been in my life. After all, Heather and I had just bought a car. Not a used car, not a junker that was just good enough to take us on some errands here and there, but a new car bought through an actual car loan. Which of course meant that we didn’t actually own it yet—the bank owned it—but the bank, through the straight and narrow kindness of its heart, was letting us call it our own.

I was also, at the time, working a straight nine to five job. A job where I actually—My God! What have I done?—had to wear a coat and tie. A job where I kept getting raises, kept getting praised for my hard work, my initiative, my creativity. A job I fucking hated more than any other job I’d had. Hell, I even liked it better when I was working for that costume jewelry company when I lived in New York, selling crappy necklaces and earrings that Arlene Dahl, the actress who was somewhat big in the 50s and 60s, had lent her name to. Hell, I even liked Arlene Dahl—her snotty attitude and acres of makeup—the one time I met her at the office and she asked to speak to Charlie, my boss, then literally turned her nose up at me.

Because oh my fucking god—that’s what I loved about New York: the assholes, dickwads, pricks, sons-of-bitches, floozies, and corporate turdlickers you came across there were the greatest in the world. And no matter how slimy and evil they could be, you knew they were the best at what they did. There was a part of me that couldn’t help but admire them, take a deep breath, and say to myself, “Man, even if I used every bit of Filipino-American-possibly-descended-from-headhunters muscle in my body and made a superhuman effort, I could never be as much of an asshole as that fucking piece of shit.” I’d shake my head in amazement, and make a mental note to myself to stay the fuck away from that person.

Of course, now that I have kids, people like that just scare me. And if I had to choose, I would go back to that job I had and hated when Heather and I moved down to Old Town. There what was killing me were the insane levels of self-congratulatory fervor that were an integral part of the way they conducted their business. Because back then, when I was living between the Snack Food and the National Stone, Sand, and Gravel associations, I was working for an association myself. As far as I could tell, the association I was working for was doing about as much to make it a better world as the associations I lived near.

And the purpose of the association I was employed by was pretty much to help the obscenely wealthy find the best way to donate the least amount of money and get the best tax break and best publicity possible. My job, and pretty much everyone’s job at the association, was to pat them vigorously on the back for this. In return I got the best salary I’d ever had in my life, the best benefits of any job I’d ever had, free lunches and dinners at fancy restaurants, the best hotels rooms when I travelled for the job, and scores of CEOs from various foundations patting me on the back in return for my cheerleading activities on their behalf.

I’m not saying that nothing good comes out of this—but the good that comes out of it is that little bit that trickles down to the needy while the rich keep getting richer and keep getting the bigger breaks. Breaks they don’t fucking need. And after all the hoopla and the raising of glasses in celebration it’s still basically crumbs, spare change, and a condescending smile that you get back down at street level. I had to get out of there before I got corrupted.

I think that if I hadn’t looked out into that darkness behind our rented house that night, took in a deep painful breath of tobacco smoke, and decided I had to stop, that I could have gone on dealing with the self-congratulatory fervor and accepted what little trickled down. I could have gone on being, as they say, one of those people who try to make changes within the system. But as I saw it, the system, and any belief I might put into it, would just end up killing me, sucking my soul out of me as easily as I was taking a drag from my cigarette.

Because when I was young they were just cigarettes, and smoking was something the edgier kids seemed to do. But as I got older I thought of them less as “cigarettes”—as some cool though somewhat risky diversion—and more for what they really are: just another weapon used by the goons of corporate America and part of the bullshit lifestyle they’re trying to sell me. They could have that—along with their wall-sized televisions, massive sport utility vehicles, the glorification of war and violence, and those superficial concepts of love, beauty, and pretty much everything else.

So I quit smoking. And, nine months later, I quit that job. Yeah, it took me a little bit of time because, as it turned out, I had been corrupted a little bit. I told them I was quitting to go back to freelance writing, when, although I had done freelance writing, it was never enough to pay the bills. Still, my time writing was, above everything else, time to consider, ponder, and think. Time, beyond all that, to be human. And time spent being human is never, no matter what the corporate pricks and assholes say, a luxury. And it’s part of what separates us from those pricks and assholes.

It was a little over a year later when I finally got another job. This one wasn’t so bad. It actually seemed to do some good in the world. At any rate, it was something I could live with.

Soon, Heather was pregnant with Maggie, and although I didn’t have to wear a coat and tie to work, I was still living a pretty conventional life. Driving into the office every morning, waiting in traffic, working, taking a break at lunch, working some more, then heading back into the traffic on the way back home. This time we actually bought a house, even farther from the city. We’d been at that house for two and a half years when I found out I was being laid off (anything that does some good in the world is never going to get the sort of funding the stuff that helps destroy the world is going to get). That’s how Heather, Maggie, and I ended up in Front Royal. That’s how this valley became our home. And, after we’d been there for three years, Julien was born. We’re now a few months into our eighth year of living in the valley, and I think I’m beginning to get used to it. Maybe I’m even beginning to love it. Well, actually I’m not sure if I’m ready for that kind of commitment. Not yet. But maybe soon.

This is a photo of Maggie, surfing in our back yard using a boogie board and a kiddie pool. Our children—who we are trying to raise as we have been raised, and to learn as we have learned, and to create and improvise with an awareness of the real world and all the injustice it sustains, and to take the necessary steps to change it—are another thing that separates us from the pricks and assholes.

-Jose Padua