Tag Archives: New York

Black

Photograph by Jose Padua
I don’t like to wear hats, but sometimes,
when I lived in New York, and it was cold
enough, I’d wear a beret. It was black, of course,

because if it isn’t black it isn’t really a beret.
Most of the clothes I wore in New York were
black, though it was hard to tell because that

rich deep shade was usually faded from being
washed and worn too many times—I didn’t know
the art of wearing one’s clothes gently, I never

mastered that because usually I was the one being
mastered. Mastered by some woman who wore
black better than me, mastered by my inability

to find just the right amount of work, mastered
by the middle class and those things you need
to buy, mastered by my apartment when the

bathtub backed up and the water that rose
from the drain was black. One time I sat
in my apartment listening to the stereo and

imagining that when Nina Simone sang
“Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair”
that she was singing it for me. Or that when

Rahsaan Roland Kirk played “Never Can Say
Goodbye” from his album Blacknuss I wasn’t
in my apartment but in the audience, watching,

listening, traveling the lost years through time.
And when I stepped outside with that music
in my head, I put on my beret hoping it would keep

the music there longer. As if music were the key
to everything from the color of clouds to the
brightness of the early morning’s light. As if

on a dark winter night all the shelter I’d need
to keep my significant sound and light secure in
the cold winter air was the power of the color black.

-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 Brief Reflection on the Passage of Time As Seen Through an Old Burn Mark on My Skin

Photograph by Jose Padua
More than twenty years later I still have
the slight trace of a brown burn mark
on my left forearm from when I was
at the stove in my lower east side apartment
holding with a fork in my right hand
the pork chop I got on sale at Key Foods
on the corner of Avenue A and Fourth
and which slipped off the tines into the hot oil
that splattered all over my lowered arm.
I cursed and screamed and kicked
the television that was on the floor
next to the oven and I began to feel better
then kicked the television again
because it was a good way to focus
on something other than the pain I was feeling
and besides the television was already broken,
I just hadn’t bothered to take it down to the curb
or wherever it was you were supposed leave
your useless old machines in New York City.
After the burn and the pain came several seasons
when all I had was the radio and nothing
to watch The Tonight Show with or the news
or sports which I was starting to lose interest in anyway,
and whenever I needed to see what the weather
was like I looked out the window,
opened it a crack to feel the air that came in,
which always made me want to open it all the way
and stick my head out and maybe sometimes
go ahead and take the fast way down to the street,
and I listened to the radio during the first war
in the Persian Gulf and during the uprising in LA
after a gang of cops tried to bash Rodney King’s head in,
listening to the stories and hearing the sounds
of wars and riots and listening for but never hearing
the easy silence that surrounded whoever
was in charge saying who should be shot,
who should be hung or electrocuted
or else made to work until his or her fingers started to bleed;
and I had to imagine what everything looked like,
picturing in my mind who was hurt and who was killed,
pondering what would be left when it was all over
and feeling something less like confidence
and more like despair that anything could ever change
here in America or anyplace America touched.
And whenever I look at the brown burn on my arm
I think about both evil dictator and elder statesman;
I think about the guys who carry the guns
and for whom the law is like an insurance policy
they carry in their wallets ready to flash
whenever somebody needs to be reminded that
the laws were written to protect not us but them.
I think of all the immortal conflicts they bring
upon us, each of them feeding their great hunger
in nearly the same way I feed my own
but on an epic scale while rarely ever getting burned
during the long, slow process of living.
And I am reminded that too often in life
it’s the person who’s the biggest asshole who wins,
pushing aside what’s left of our bones to clear his way
from the unbearable heat of a dangerous summer
and all the other seasons of discord and urgency
to the comfort of everything that’s not beautiful but cool,
falling asleep in front of the giant TV screen,
snoring loudly then breathing deeply,
unable to be moved.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Lean on Me

Photograph by Jose Padua
Back then sausage, eggs, hash browns, and toast cost
under three dollars for breakfast any time of day
at Lesko’s on Avenue A. Cigarettes cost me about two
dollars a pack. A six pack of bad beer I could get
for about the same and I could drink cheaply at any
of the bars where I knew the bartender and I knew
a lot of bartenders. I could walk out of my apartment
on a Sunday morning still half-drunk after not sleeping
all night and see Sade taking a stroll on First Avenue.
Maybe she was on tour, maybe she had a place in town—
I didn’t know, but she was already a huge star.
When I smiled at her she smiled back at me with a smile
that could destroy every nightmare I’d ever had in my life.
She smiled back even though she had no idea
what I might do with that smile. Sinead O’Connor smiled
back at me, too, one hot sweaty New York afternoon in June—
not quite as readily as Sade, but she smiled at me anyway—
a quick and easy smile that she had no reason to keep.
One night as I walked back toward Avenue B
a woman driving by stopped her car, called out
and said, “Excuse me,” lifted her shirt, smiled, and drove off.
The view of her breasts was a gift, on an evening, during a week
when I had nothing going on and could think of nothing that could
move things up or down, backwards or forwards, for me.
Me, I used to always give the guy panhandling outside
the old EAB bank a quarter or two or three. I had
no idea if he could work, I had no idea if he wasn’t
really disabled, I had no idea if he wasn’t fucked up
or crazy. I gave him the money because whether he was
using it for food or to get high he needed it more than me.
I didn’t need it at all, at least not on that day and
on a lot of other days that all looked the same. I’ve got plenty
of weight about me when I stand, even more when I walk
and I walk when I have the time and we all need to get high.
One day or one way, we all need something that holds
us up or lifts us up because without that we fall.
Without that we’re dead, and all the talk and sweat
we live on tells us just look straight ahead,
or that there’s a better day down the road
or through that door, or in another town, but
whatever you do, just resist the urge to look down.
The man at the bank and all the others I gave money
to could do what they wanted to do. As far as
I was concerned they were geniuses and this was my gift.
The EAB bank is gone now, eaten up by Citigroup,
another in a series of open mouths that gnaw on us
and feed on us and never quite kill us until the time is right.
If you can’t deal with being swindled once in a while
by some guy with a two bit scam that gets him drunk
every night, what kind of asshole are you? Have you
forgotten what’s it’s like? Did you ever fucking know?
So much of the time it’s the scum that rises to the top—
the creeps, the goons, the louts, the boors, and other murderers
of souls. If I ever get there close enough to touch you will I
punch you in the gut, take an elbow to your nose, and
grab the money in your pockets? Or will I have learned
how to smile at you until my nightmares are destroyed,
until you shit in your pants like a baby—just so you’ll know,
just so you’ll remember what it’s like not to get high? Will
I, in the cold light of your day, remember how to be kind?

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua. Originally published in Sensitive Skin.

A Combination Special from the 1990s and All the Other Things in the City That Moved Me

Photograph by Jose Padua
Back then my big splurge was to get the combination special
egg foo young, egg roll, and pork fried rice
not at the carryout a few doors down from me on Avenue B
for $2.35
but at the one on First Avenue
where the same special cost 15 cents more
and tasted at least a couple of dollars better
and sometimes rather than bring it back home
I’d eat it right there at the table by the window,
washing it down with a Coke
and looking out
upon the Avenue and Downtown/East Village/Lower East Side/
What-Could-Be-More-Alive-Than-This Manhattan
and sooner or later I’d see a familiar face
or better yet a friend and they’d see me
with my feast and I’d raise my drink
and wave and lift my chin and say cheers
or open my mouth in a silent shout
through the transparent thickness of
the storefront glass
and they’d wave back knowing I was having a good day
living the good life in the big and beautiful
dirty big city until everything goes
away.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Nirvana

Photograph by Jose Padua
Among the things I never
could have imagined
back in the day
at a Lower East Side
bar while hearing
some song called
“Heart-Shaped Box”
pulsing out of
the speakers
was that over
twenty years later
my almost twelve year
old daughter
would be learning
to play the insides
of it on guitar—
the fuzz, the blur,
the sweep—
and that I’d be
living in a small
town in Virginia,
enjoying the
path I’m taking
and the unobscured view
of blue mountains
as my hair
slowly turns
gray.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

In the Future All the Heavy Lifting Will Be Done by Those Who Live and Rejoice and Die in the Streets

Photograph by Jose Padua
Among the sad though not the saddest
thing or things I ever saw was when
the transgender junkie on Avenue A
had just lifted a pint of berries from
a corner bodega and opened it up
with a big ready-to-eat smile when
she suddenly got the shakes so bad
every single berry in the pint container
bounced up and out and down to the
busy sidewalk to get stomped on
by all the people passing by and
as I said it was it was sad but
to watch the berries bouncing up
like they were alive was almost
funny and even her junkie eyes
lit up with glee between shakes
as she watched her stolen meal
fall piece by piece to the dirty ground.
The last time I saw her doing her thing
I was six blocks west at the old
Cedar Tavern where she snatched
a twenty from the tip jar and I ratted
on her, telling my friend the bartender
who grabbed the twenty back then
kicked her out, and even though
I’m sure she needed the money more
than either my bartender friend and me
that was one of the bars where I drank
and where I felt I was home and
goddammit no one was going to rip off
my home no matter how strung out
or junk sick and desperate you were.
And I walked back toward my neighborhood,
just as slowly as she snatched the cash
and with my own pockets empty,
wondering almost aloud, and definitely alone,
talking to the stars as if they were priests in church
and I’d become a solemn believer again
which I knew I never would, never could,
asking about all the things I could have done differently,
walking with my tired but steady limbs through sad
puffs of my own cigarette smoke and the aging
bourbon on my breath back to my side of town.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Sometimes the Blizzard in My Head Makes It Hard to Find My Way Through the Snow

Photograph by Jose Padua
Twenty years ago during a fierce
mid-March blizzard in New York City
I walked two doors down
from my apartment building
to the China Wok carryout at the corner
of Avenue B and 3rd
and paid two and a half dollars
for a combination lunch/ dinner
of fried chicken and fried rice.
When I walked two doors
back up Avenue B
to my apartment building
I opened the door to the downstairs hallway
and saw my landlord who looked
through his horn-rimmed glasses
at the small brown bag
that carried the semi-sweet aroma
of pork fried rice and fried chicken
out into the dimly-lit air
at the bottom of the steps
and he looked up at me,
smiled and after
a slight pause said, “Chinks?”
And it had been a year
since I’d been laid off,
and the bad habit I’d developed
was for paying the rent late
and after being outside
for just half a minute
in the cold and the snow,
I felt cold like the snow
so I didn’t correct him,
didn’t say “The correct term is Chinese,”
and just nodded sort of timidly
mumbling, “Yes” or “Yeah” or “OK”
even though I was pretty
fucking far from “OK” with it.
And I don’t know
maybe it was that half minute
in the cold and the snow
because even though
I walked up the stairs
all fast and hungry,
inside I could have sworn
that I was moving like an infant,
on my hands and knees,
peeking up at the ceiling,
dirt smudged on my face
and at the corner of my slightly parted lips,
still learning to crawl.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Another Poem About Time and Metamorphosis

Photograph by Jose Padua
Although I was said to have been born
human, it wasn’t long before I became thing,
thing being a stream of water, or on better days
a river or bay. Some days I am grass, all of it,
everywhere in the world from the grounds
of an emperor’s estate to the patch where
the man without a home rests his head,
followed by entire years when I exist
as a single blade of grass, slender and green
like all the other blades on a boring lawn
in the suburbs. There are minutes when
I am a single sad hill followed by weeks
when I am the Himalayas, towering over
boundless lands from great and powerful heights.
When I am a mountain it is harder to walk,
but when I am a river I find it easier to
navigate through difficult social situations.
This is when humans call on me the most.
To celebrate their progress of riches with
a long, slow beautiful ride of self-applause
and self-referential speech. Or else to send
their enemies somewhere they’ll never
be found and never come back from
in the belief that it will make all of us
a little safer. And I fall like rain on the streets,
splatter like bugs on car windshields,
shake the asphalt like big, speeding trucks,
before sending you off like a one way
bus ticket to the cold, desolate end of the highway.
Then I cool the air, slowing everyone down,
bringing about the change in the seasons.
I take the subway back uptown.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Recollection During a Light Storm in the Valley

Photograph by Jose Padua
On 14th Street near Avenue B
I’m walking in New York City
during the short middle
of a long summer day
behind a lovely, young,
brown-skinned mother pushing
her child in a stroller
when a man in his late middle
age whose skin has seen
too much sun, too much wind
walks down the steps
with his eyes and says to her,
“Take that little rug rat home—
stick him in the oven”
with a satisfied sneer on
his wrinkled, leather face.
And the mother does what
she can, which is to keep
walking, keep ignoring
this ugly man and his
ugly joke and keep being
strong like only a mother
can be strong and so
I moved on down 14th Street,
around the corner,
and into my favorite bar on that block.
So many years before
I had children of my own,
so many miles away
from this beautiful, fall rain.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua