Tag Archives: Poets

Poets Are Weird, It’s True

JP_Self_20150108_105810
Poets are weird, it’s true, and they
smell funny. Have you ever eaten
a meal with a poet? It’s hard to keep
your food down. Poets don’t wait
until something’s dead to eat it.
Poets don’t wait until a person’s dead
to write nasty things about him,
her husband, his wife, their
beady-eyed children.
Poets have horrible halitosis,
do not try to kiss one,
you’ll vomit meaningless but well-arranged
paragraphs. Poets aren’t wise, though
they’ll make you think they know things
they don’t, they’ll make you think you know
nothing but they do, know things that is,
like the name of the person who discovered
that desire is a language that was first spoken
in France. Don’t trust poets, they’ll
tell you you’re on fire when you’re not,
they’ll tell you you’re not on fire when you are,
they’ll tell you to dial 999 for an emergency
even though you’re nowhere near England.
Poets wash their hands with ice, the chilling effect
cleanses them, clears their minds so they can focus
on ways to hurt you, so they can devise
strategies to make you feel ashamed
of your misshapen heads and disgusting bodies.
Poets are cruel, sarcastic, masters of
inhumane irony. They love to lift you up only to
let you fall, hopelessly, to solid ground like
stones from the top of a mountain.
They love to end their poems in ways
that will ultimately disappoint you.

-Jose Padua

If Poets Were Like Porn Stars

Photo by Jose Padua
If poets were like
porn stars what
would it take
to fluff us up,
to get us ready
to perform, place
word after word,
then plunge down
to the next line,
or sometimes just
keep going, over
and over, pushing
forth into the blank
white space of the page,
moaning and moaning,
screaming the beautiful
words of this discerning
art we compose with
heart, mind, and tongue?
With tragedy, loss,
injustice, the many colors
of the morning sky, or
the plain image, that
solitary figure against
the black background
of an evening silhouette
or shadow to move us,
can the industry of poetry
ever really be in peril?
Can a poet ever do
anything but walk
off into the sunset,
glowing over the
landscape, losing it all,
losing it everywhere,
our lives so exquisitely
lovely, so exquisitely
lost?

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

A Life of Uncontrollable Urges (or Tourette’s and the Writing Life)

On a recent Sunday afternoon, as I pushed a cart in the aisle between the checkout counters and the racks of men’s shirts at Walmart, the song that went though my head was Brian Eno’s “Here Come the Warm Jets.” Even though I was in Walmart—a store that Heather and I usually try to avoid at all costs (i.e., despite whatever savings may be available there)—that moment of rolling the shopping cart through the gauntlet of cashiers and racks of men’s casual wear was nothing short of beautiful. That I would feel so calm at the Front Royal Walmart—which to me normally felt like some strange planet where at any moment I might find myself surrounded by hideous lizard-like creatures who want to eat me (or, worse, mate with me)—was, somehow, moving. And as I calmly pushed the cart through the store while trying to find where Heather and Maggie had gone—a task which would usually make me quite tense and agitated—I felt what can only be described as a sense of triumph. The song, of course, had a lot to do with it.

Something I’ve discovered is that some of the most annoying, unpleasant, and sometimes even horrible moments of one’s life—or at any rate, my life—can be transformed by the soundtrack I have playing in my head. Just a day earlier I was driving on Commerce Avenue, on the way home after dropping Maggie and Heather off at a birthday party at the city pool. In the distance I noticed a crowd of people had gathered outside the town’s government center, a dreary box of a building around which I never seemed to see much of anything going on. As I drove closer I saw that it was a demonstration by the Front Royal Tea Party. Reading their signs—with messages like No Amnesty for Illegal Immigrants and, simply, Stop Illegals, I found myself, all of a sudden, surprised. And what surprised me was that, when I was close enough to read their signs and for them to see me, I did not give them the finger.

I am not the most polite person in the world—I gladly give in to the urge to say things that are overly blunt, inappropriate or which simply cross the line from tongue-biting politeness into overt hostility. What’s more, I enjoy it. This time, upon seeing the Tea Party in person after having only seen them on television or on clips from YouTube, I was very much in the midst of a situation where my gut reaction would have been to give them the finger. But at that moment I was playing Parliament’s “Bop Gun (Endangered Species)”—a song which always makes me feel empowered, alert, and less vulnerable:

Turn me loose
We shall overcome
Where did you get that funk from, huh?

With P-Funk playing in my car I also felt, despite the presence of the Tea Party goons, as if I were somewhere other than Front Royal. And, whenever I’m somewhere other than Front Royal, I usually feel pretty good.

But music, for me, isn’t just something that heightens my mood. Music is also something that, when it engages me to a sufficient degree, keeps away those urges that are part of my Tourette’s syndrome—the urge to grimace as if I’m about to scream, to make grunting or squealing noises with my throat, or to hit my leg with my hand or with my elbow. It’s a way of existing that might be described as dreamlike—in particular, those dreams where you’re trying to get away from some bad guy, or trying to lock the door, but you can’t, because your movement has been slowed down and your legs and arms, even though they’re moving, aren’t moving you ahead or pushing the door shut. With Tourette’s, what slows you down is that there are so many movements that you feel compelled or forced to make before you’re able to make the movement you want to make. And with me, it’s always the more mundane activities that get interrupted by a series of Tourette’s tics—brushing my teeth, washing the dishes after dinner, and cleaning the cat’s litter box are invariably interrupted by the urge to bang my elbow against my side or to grunt several times in a row or to look up at the ceiling and make the face of someone screaming at the absurdity of the cosmos. Sometimes even walking up the stairs gets interrupted by Tourette’s, with me having to repeat those first few steps—until it feels right, until I’ve got the right thoughts in my head—before I can proceed all the way to the top of the stairs.

Compared to some people with Tourette’s, though, my tics are nothing spectacular. Certainly I’m not in the league of a surgeon Oliver Sacks wrote about in the New Yorker a number of years ago whose Tourette’s drove him to, among other things, regularly lunge at the ground or touch people with the heel of his foot. When the surgeon was overcome by moments of rage (another common symptom of Tourette’s) he’d throw pots and pans in his kitchen or throw punches—the many dents in his refrigerator and holes in the walls of his house were reminders of those episodes. Luckily, for me, those moments of rage don’t carry with them the urge to fling objects or hit walls, and are expressed in a relatively polite fashion by simply screaming FUCK so loudly it feels like my throat is being ripped apart.

As for other common vocal manifestations of Tourette’s, I don’t exhibit echolalia (the automatic repeating of another person’s words) or coprolalia (the frequent and involuntary use of swear words or other obscene language) which are perhaps the most well known symptoms of Tourette’s syndrome. Or, at any rate, they happen with me very rarely. In the last five years the only thing I remember doing is when a man at the subway station in Alexandria was carrying several bags of groceries as he rushed to catch his connecting bus. When he said, “Excuse me,” as he tried to get around me to make a path to his bus I said in response, without anger or irritation—and, certainly, without any reason—“Fuck you.”

He was, as one might expect, furious, and began screaming at me. If he hadn’t been in a hurry with his groceries, he may very well have tried to punch me. (It always amuses me to consider that if something like this had happened in my wilder days, when I had been, say, incredibly drunk or tripping on acid, I probably would have thought, “Oh, wow, he’s got Tourette’s too.”) This sort of thing happens rarely with me—I’m just about always able to keep the inappropriate words that pop into my head in my head, without them being spoken. Still, I am disturbed that one day, here in the valley, that control may slip, however briefly, and I may find myself crossing paths with a man getting out of his pickup truck on which he proudly displays the Confederate flag and a half dozen pro-gun bumper stickers. Invariably, on seeing one of these gun-loving supporters of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, one obscenity or another will be going through my head (though in cases like this it isn’t necessarily Tourette’s that’s bringing these words to mind). And though the chances are small, there still is a chance, that one day my control will slip at exactly the wrong moment and, as I’m passing by this man I’ll declare, “The Confederacy lost, bitch” or “I fucked your mother yesterday” or “Nice tits!”

And it could happen, because since moving here to the Valley, away from the city in a place where the pace of life is slower, my Tourette’s symptoms have gotten markedly worse.

As with most Touretters, my symptoms first started when I was around nine or ten. What was probably my first real Tourette’s incident of note—of course I didn’t realize this until decades later—occurred when I was sitting with my mother outside church one pleasant autumn evening as we waited for my older brother, Tony, who was at choir practice. My mother had been speaking to one of the other parents—an older woman, Mrs. Blaine—whose son was also at choir practice. She was a nice woman, but also perhaps one of the parents I saw as being vulnerable or weak. Mrs. Blaine and my mother were casually making small talk when I suddenly, for no apparent reason, spat on Mrs. Blaine.

Needless to say, I was in trouble, and in those days when spanking was still the norm, spitting on another parent in your mother’s presence was definitely the sort of transgression that would get you spanked. My mother and father had no idea what was going on with me—and, of course, neither did I. Mrs. Blaine was an unassuming, unthreatening person who, as far as I knew, had never done anything that would make her worthy of being on the receiving end of my apparent expression of contempt. I wondered if, maybe, I was just a little bit nuts—“nuts” being the sort of word I used back then, whereas, if I were going through this for the first time today, the words that would be going through my head would be, “Man, I must be fucked up.”

That what was going on with me was either a disease or a disorder was beyond me—and pretty much everyone else as well. Back then, in the sixties and seventies, there weren’t even many doctors who knew anything about it. At home, my parents and my brothers just thought of it as my generic nerve disorder—and, luckily, spitting on people didn’t become a regular tic (or at any rate, it was a tic I was able to control).

When my Tourette’s first developed, the tics I exhibited most often were a widening of my eyes (the sort of expression one makes when one is incredulous or thinking what the fuck?), frequent blinking, and the incessant shrugging of my shoulders. Up until seventh grade, my tics didn’t really create any problems for me in school. One friend of mine simply wondered, “Why are you doing that with your eyes? It makes you look like a retard.” But when the school I’d been attending closed and I had to switch to another one for eighth grade, it was a different story. Because at my old school my symptoms appeared gradually, getting slightly more pronounced over the course of a few years, they weren’t shocked or surprised by them. At my new school, with me being the weird new kid who’d just transferred there, I soon found myself being mocked by about half of class. Whenever Sister Conrad had her back to the class while she wrote on the blackboard, one or another of my classmates would look at me and start blinking and rapidly shrugging their shoulders. Not surprisingly, I was a lot different then from the way I am now, and instead of smacking them or telling them to fuck off as I would today in response to some sort of affront, I just remained quiet or looked away, feeling pretty much helpless.

What helped me get through this was that it didn’t take me long to demonstrate that I was smarter than any of the goons who were making fun of me. And back then—or, at any rate, in that particular classroom—you could still gain the respect of the goons when you showed them that you knew your shit (I’m not so sure that this is still the case in many places in America today). Which meant that knowing all the answers to the questions my teacher would ask in class and subsequently winning an academic scholarship to high school helped. But still, in those days, I wouldn’t have minded being just a normal fucking kid. In fact, I probably wouldn’t have minded if I were just a regular fucking goon, because when you’re a kid perhaps the most realistic dream you can have is for things to become just a little bit easier. And, as is usually the case with these things, it wasn’t until I was much older that I learned to appreciate being a misfit weirdo.

So I moved ahead, with my Tourette’s, shrugging my shoulders and blinking my way through the first few years of high school. Then, after my junior year, I won a National Science Foundation grant for a summer program studying chemistry at the University of Georgia. It was there in Athens, Georgia, where one night the girl I’d started hanging out with introduced me—after we’d gone to a showing of Citizen Kane on campus (she was obsessed with Orson Welles)—to cigarettes.

For me, at least for a little while, smoking was good. Because for people with Tourette’s, one thing that often seems to help (and doesn’t turn you into a zombie like the drugs doctors prescribe) are cigarettes. Smoking cigarettes, I felt pretty fucking good—and not because I suddenly felt I was cool. I didn’t know it at the time, but smoking helped me feel a little more stable, like someone who could get shit done.

Even though I don’t smoke anymore and can’t stand to be around them now, I can’t imagine what my life would have been like without cigarettes. Obviously, I’d be healthier now than if I’d never smoked, but there was something about cigarettes—about nicotine, about breathing smoke in and out and watching it disappear like a ghost into the far corners of a room—that helped me focus and give shape to what was going on in my head.

Indeed, when I had my first cigarette was when, for all purposes, I became a writer. Up until then everything I was studying was leading me toward some sort of career in the sciences. Well, okay, there was also time spent reading, on my own, everything from James Joyce’s Ulysses to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. But until my first cigarette, working in the sciences was the only thing that seemed practical—which isn’t to say that I thought becoming a writer was practical. Still, during my senior year in high school I applied to go to college at Cal Tech, which accepted me and offered me a full scholarship. But, since I had resolved to pursue the less practical course, I turned Cal Tech—and the full scholarship—down.

As if it weren’t enough to turn down Cal Tech—and the power a degree from there might have to make my resume rise like smoke to the top of a pile—the kind of writer I wanted to be was the kind that had the least potential for making money. Yeah, I wanted to write poetry. “Christ,” I thought after writing Cal Tech to turn down their offer, “I must be crazy. Or an asshole.”

Since I didn’t want to teach, being a poet meant that I’d have to find another way to make a living. I didn’t have too hard a time finding a job, and eventually ended up at the Library of Congress, where one supervisor admitted that when he interviewed me, he noticed my tics, and thought I was fucked up. Somehow, I still ended up with the job.

And so I wrote my poems. And eventually started to get my work published. And eventually started doing readings. And eventually came to be known—because of the way I presented my poems at a reading—as a performer. And all it took for me to be labeled a “performance poet” was to be totally drunk when I read. So, while some poets memorized their poems, rehearsed, and experimented with different ways of reading their lines, I wasn’t about to do any of that shit. Instead, before any reading, I saw to it that I had more than a decent number of drinks in me. And, for me, it worked.

And all that time, through the rest of the 80s and all through the 90s, I continued to smoke. And drink, which, very conveniently, also seemed to help with my Tourette’s. I smoked and drank at a pretty high level for a little over a quarter of a century. But when it was time for Heather and me to start getting ready to have kids, smoking seemed like something that I had to, at last, be done with, and in October of 2000 I went cold turkey and quit. As for the heavy drinking and hanging out at bars and all that, I just slowly lost interest in it.

Heather and I had moved to Old Town Alexandria by then and, after several years without steady work, I now had a full time job. By then, I’d also pretty much stopped writing poetry, as I was now mostly working on a novel I’d started when I was living in New York (and which I still haven’t finished). I was living, more or less, a pretty typical existence.

It didn’t happen right away—I must have had spare nicotine stored away somewhere in my body—but my Tourette’s tics gradually became harder for me to control again. For twenty-five years I didn’t really have to think about it much. But now it was starting to bother me again. I was finding it harder and harder to be in public and control my tics. Just sitting down at a goddamn Starbucks, I’d look like someone who’d had way too much coffee even before I’d had my first sip; and going to the movies while trying but failing to completely suppress my tics just wasn’t the most relaxing way to spend a Friday evening anymore.

So, for the second time in my life, I went to see a neurologist about my Tourette’s. The first time had been some twenty years ago. My symptoms weren’t that bad at that point, but I was curious about what was going on with me. This first doctor was young—he was also, I thought, kind of a pompous dick. He performed a number of expensive tests on me, after which he said, sitting smugly on the other side of his massive desk, “I don’t see anything wrong with you.” When I asked for him to consider that I may have Tourette’s, he simply said that there were “other symptoms.” As it turned out, I knew more about Tourette’s than he did, that the battery of tics and twitches varies from person to person, that not all Tourette’s suffers present coprolalia or echolalia.

The second time I saw a doctor about my Tourette’s went much better. This doctor was an expert on Tourette’s—plus, he suffered from it himself. He was kind of blunt and when he spoke he mumbled; now and then he’d simply grunt in response to something I was saying. But he really knew his shit—and right away, he was able to confirm that, yes, I did indeed have Tourette’s. And, since my symptoms had become much more pronounced again, I was ready to try whatever he could prescribe that might help suppress my tics. But the first thing he prescribed didn’t seem to have any affect at all and the second medicine he tried almost made me feel like I was tripping, and, after trying to drive one time while on this medication, I decided that this wasn’t going to work either. When I asked him what else might work, he said that unfortunately that was it. There was one group of medications that was usually more effective, but I would probably feel even more whacked out on them. Then the other group of meds he could try would be dangerous to use because of my heart condition. Which meant that, like a lot of other Tourette’s patients, I would just have to live with it.

So I did, and as it got worse since moving here to the valley, I stopped fighting it to a certain extent. Because although I prefer making a spectacle of myself by reading my work to an audience rather than by sitting at a coffee shop and making weird jerking movements and odd noises, there was one good thing about Tourette’s—and that’s what it does to my mind. I’m not talking about those moments of rage, of course—those aren’t pleasant for me or for anyone else. That Heather and Maggie are able to live with it—early on Maggie discovered, as she put it, that “Daddy is noisy”—is something for which I’m infinitely thankful.

No, what I’m positive Tourette’s has done for my mind is to free it. Because since it’s gotten worse, I’ve found it easier for me to write, and one of the reasons that it’s become easier to write is that there really isn’t much stopping my thoughts from going in any number of directions. And a lot of times the thoughts that come to mind are completely inappropriate for the situation or else are totally unrelated to whatever I’m doing at the time. For me, as a writer and as a poet, that’s a good thing.

An example of this occurred when Heather, Maggie, and I made our first trip up the valley to Berkeley Springs, West Virginia. I was middle of my first big bout of depression here, and making trips out of Front Royal, I discovered, helped immeasurably in lifting myself out of my depression. After walking around Berkeley Springs for a bit we found the Ice House arts center there, and, while looking at an exhibit of some beautifully handcrafted papers, these words popped into my head:

“When I moved to New York I got a job with Nice Titties/Show Us Your Cock magazine.”

I had, of course, lived in New York, and I did actually have a few paying jobs there. But, there never was—as far as I know—a magazine called Nice Titties/Show Your Cock, and I certainly never worked for such a magazine.

But that’s the way my mind works at times, and I’ve always taken this to be some kind of internalized coprolalia—which is to say that while the inappropriate, obscene words do unexpectedly go through my mind, they aren’t often accompanied by the uncontrollable urge to say them out loud. I may, at the very least, have what one might describe as a coprolaic mind. And, if this is indeed part of my Tourette’s, it’s the part I wouldn’t want to do without.

So, as we walked through the exhibit, and looked at the post cards and trinkets at the Ice House gift shop, I continued to go with my odd thoughts to compose a poem in my head. Except for an actual quote that I dug up later from the New York Times, I composed the entire poem in my head in about ten minutes:

Flesh and Memory

When I moved to New York I got a job with Nice Titties/Show
Us Your Cock
magazine. We were the competition and I wrote
the captions. Whenever the Village Voice used the phrase “post-
modern urban griot deconstruction” I added the words “Nice titties!”

beneath the photo of a b-movie actress wearing a low-cut blouse.
Whenever the New York Times said “Mr. Pynchon improvises
like a jazz musician” I typed in “Show us your cock!” beneath the
shot of a man wearing tight boxer briefs. Life was good. But when

the 21st Century arrived things changed. “Dick” was the new “cock”
and “titties” could never be referred to by the same word twice in an
issue. It was too much to take, so I left the magazine, which folded
three years later, and finally I left town. Whenever someone asks

me what it was like I tell them that it’s something I’ll never forget.
And whenever they show me photographs of their kids I just nod.

But it’s not always dirty words that pop into my head. Another time Heather and I were putting Maggie to bed when the words “When I was a kiss and the world was an elephant I didn’t want to touch because if it didn’t like me it might crush me, I’d bend over forwards or backwards and twist as if I were dancing but I wasn’t dancing.”

After Maggie fell asleep I walked down the hall to our office and finished the poem in another ten minutes:

When I Was a Kiss

When I was a kiss and the world was an
elephant I didn’t want to touch because
if it didn’t like me it might crush me,
I’d bend over forwards or backwards and

twist as if I were dancing but I wasn’t
dancing: I was stepping away from the
flames and jumping over sinkholes that
opened in the street or just listening to

Side B of a 45 before Side A because
one way to do battle when I was young
was to know what other people didn’t know
was right under their noses. Sometimes that

meant knowing something they’d never know,
which was sort of like tying the elephant’s trunk
in a knot and laughing, then walking away
until the elephant starts to miss you.

When I lived in the city, usurped by the
dulled sheen of a road that’s been stepped
upon too many times, I still knew which way
to go, and I went there to follow, only, you.

Since coming to the valley I’ve written enough to fill three books of poetry. I’ve been sending out two of the manuscripts I’ve compiled and have been a finalist or runner-up for several decent poetry awards. I suppose there are things I could do to my work to up my chances, to make my work a little less idiosyncratic so that it will appeal to a wider range of judges, but I’m not about to do that. I’m not interested in widening my audience. I don’t want to be liked by everyone. Growing up with Tourette’s, you get over the desire to please everyone pretty fucking early in life.

And so in the course of three years here in the valley I’ve followed these odd paths my thoughts have taken. And between the episodes of rage and those moments when my mind is overcome with irrational terror—those times when I’m sure some horrible thing can or will happen to me or my family—between those times I find some odd sort of coherence or wisdom, even. It’s not easy, because it feels, sometimes, like I’m repeatedly having to tear down then rebuild my concept of the world and how it works and where I fit into all of it.

But then, since I was very young, I’ve felt that life and existence were Sisyphean in nature, that you could never actually be something. And so, as far as being normal or stable or even just calm goes, I’ve resigned myself to the fact that those are things I can only approach, because once I think I’ve gotten there I have to start all over again.

As for those moments of rage, it’s hard to know how much is simply disposition or attitude, or where actual anger ends and physical disorder begins. There are times, as far as I’m concerned, where it is appropriate to insult someone. There are a lot of people who need to have the words Fuck You directed toward them on a regular basis. In fact, there seem to be more and more of them every day. And I see them, in the distance, as I approach them, unable to do anything but approach them as my mind fills with words I can’t control. Because, in the end, I really have no say in the matter—and I have no choice. It’s what I have to do.

-Jose Padua

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Why Drunken Poets Need to Procreate

If it were somehow obligatory that I sum up my existence with a single sentence—or perhaps with just a phrase and a simple image—I’d be at a loss. I would, in fact, feel quite helpless, as if I were trapped in some horrible, unending game. Either that or incredibly annoyed and angry. I remember one time when, through a job I had, I was given the opportunity to take the Myers-Briggs psychometric questionnaire to determine exactly which of sixteen personality types I had. I, without a second thought, opted out of that opportunity. In other words, my attitude toward the whole undertaking was, Myers-Briggs? Fuck that shit.

I suppose that one can do worse than the Myers-Briggs test, but how people can voluntarily reduce themselves to simple slogans is beyond me, which is why I refuse to wear a tee-shirt that has any kind of message on it, even if it’s something I basically agree with. But one thing even worse than that—something I’d never seen much of before we’d moved to Front Royal—was the use of the rear windshield of one’s car or truck as a means of conveying some cheap tee shirt sized message. Unlike the bumper of a car, the rear windshield, like one’s chest, is a much more prominent place for a message. Until Front Royal, the only thing I’d seen on a back window with any frequency were decals indicating a driver’s alumni status or allegiance with a particular university or high school. But in Front Royal I started seeing decals of a lot of other things, one of which is a drawing of a boy peeing. At the receiving end of the pronounced arc of the boy’s urine is whatever the car’s owner wants you to know he hates. If the decal is on the back of a Ford pickup truck, you’ll find the word “Chevy” or “Toyota” at the end of the rainbow of piss. Some drivers, of course, want to express something more than brand loyalty, in which case you’ll see words like “Liberals” or “Bin Laden.”

It was a while before I discovered that the boy in the decals is an appropriated image of “Calvin” from the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip (aside from the work of people like Robert Crumb, Daniel Clowes, and the late Harvey Pekar, I don’t know much about comics). So far, I’ve yet to see the peeing Calvin used to express any progressive ideas, which certainly doesn’t mean that I’m the only progressive “type” who thinks in these piss-on-you terms. It’s just that if you’re being tailgated by some asshole driving a massive pickup truck with a confederate flag painted on the roof of the cab and a gun rack behind him, you don’t want to have a decal of the peeing Calvin on your rear windshield and the letters “NRA” at the receiving end of his piss stream.

But what I see even more often than the peeing Calvin is something a little different—the rear windshield memorial. The message always begins “In Loving Memory of…” followed by the loved one’s name: “Bob S____,” “Judy R____,” “Jimmy F___.” Accompanying the text is usually an image indicating something that was a passion of the deceased: a baseball, a fishing rod, a deer, a motorcycle—though I imagine that a motorcycle could also indicate that a particular person died in a motorcycle accident. Other times, the text is just accompanied by a simple heart shape.

Time and again these displays will catch my eye when I’m waiting at a light here. And, upon reading these mobile epitaphs, I start to wonder what the whole story was. But then they go, the drivers of these vehicles, stepping on the gas, taking the memory of their deceased loved ones further down the road—to the supermarket, up the mountain, to work, toward their favorite vacation spots.

Granted, the rear windshield decal is aiming at the sort of thing I do when I write a poem, a story, an essay, but because what I do is displayed on a page or computer monitor, I have room to present some very important details—and present an actual argument and some background. And, of course, I can write for the purpose of keeping someone’s memory alive, or to create my own legacy. Although the means to create some lasting record of my life and my loved ones lives was not what made me become a writer, that is one of the benefits. Another benefit is that—regardless of your belief or lack thereof in some sort of afterlife or anything of that nature—it’s a means of achieving some sort of immortality in that part of you remains in the world so that your presence here continues. That’s also one reason why some people are driven to have children—that through one’s offspring one’s presence in the world continues.

Somehow, even during my drinking days, people knew that my long-term plans included having children. I don’t know how they knew—I doubt that anyone could have come to that conclusion by considering the way I was living at the time, drinking most days from happy hour until two in the morning or later, then writing until an hour or two past dawn—and I don’t remember ever specifically saying that I wanted to have kids. Though of course it may have slipped during some drunken conversation at five in the morning, on the way back to my apartment after hanging out as some bar well after last call—at the end of one of those nights when I never did get around to writing—with me saying something like, “Christ, I can hardly walk.” And my friend advising, “Maybe you better just get a cab.” And me answering with, “Yeah, maybe I better. Because, you know, I’d like to have kids one day.”

It could have happened that way. Even now that I hardly drink, I am a firm believer that with heavy drinking, anything is possible. Of course what’s possible aren’t always good things, but when I was a drinker I was never one of those the-glass-is-half-empty kinds of drinkers—for me, my thirst was a positive thing—and it was usually during a good drinking session that I’d dream my version of the American Dream, a big part of which was procreating and foisting my brilliant, wise-ass children on an unsuspecting public.

Anyone whom I was really close to understood this—whether or not they agreed with the idea of me (or sometimes anyone) having children—and knew that these crazy days in New York were, for me, just a way to make the time until then pass more quickly. Even when I was sitting in one or another smoke-filled barroom, drinking beer after beer and bourbon after bourbon, or doing one drunken poetry reading after another, with every sip I took between drags from a cigarette I was trying to walk away from that scene. And find someone who wanted to walk away from it with me. Because I have always been, like many a hardened cynic—for better or for worse—a fucking romantic.

Being a romantic, those loud voices out on the street below me at seven or eight in the morning when I’d finally be getting to sleep, were never some horrible noise. They were atmosphere, a manifestation of the authenticity of the whole experience. Sometimes there were surprises, like once when I thought I’d heard an angry mob approaching, it was just two guys talking loudly—probably while coked up—about some boxing match. The rest of the time it was just the people leaving Save the Robots, the after hours club that was just down the block, or someone shouting from the street (my apartment building had no buzzer) to the couple who lived in the apartment below me: “Shamir? Shamir! SHAMIR! LINDA? SHAAAMIIIIIIIIR!”

In the apartment next to mine was Anna, a woman in her fifties who lived in a tiny apartment the size of mine with, at various times, two or three or four of her children and grandchildren. She complained regularly about all the “junkie people” in the building and wished more of her neighbors were like me, because the worst I would do would be to have the stereo on too loud once in a while—no selling drugs, no shooting up in the hallway, no peeing in the foyer (well, anyway I don’t remember having ever peed in the foyer).

I didn’t have many visitors. Usually I would go my friends’ apartments, because mine was pretty small. Plus, most of the time, when you wanted to hang out, you didn’t do it at someone’s home—you went somewhere. Home was usually just a place for sleep and other private activities. For anything else there was the city, New York, where whatever you were and whatever you wanted, there was a place for you—depending on what you could afford, with some pastimes, of course, being more expensive than others.

My landlord, Bob, probably thought I was some kind of hermit. Being out in the world and being with people was, somehow, something he was concerned with—or at any rate he knew that in finding prospective tenants, it was good to be able to tell them all the great things that were practically around the corner. So, when I first met him to look at the apartment, he went on about all the nightclubs, bars, or performance spaces that were nearby.

“You got The World, you got your Save the Robots, you got The Gas Station…” His list, which he presented between drags of his cigarette, went on and on. “And then just up the road you got your King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, your Downtown Beirut, your Dan’s…” Bob, of course, wasn’t the sort of person you’d see in any of these hip (and sometimes annoyingly hip) places. He even had a recommendation on where to go for that coming back home at eight in the morning from partying breakfast. “You need your breakfast, you got Lily’s! You can get your eggs, your sausage, your hash browns, your toast…”

One time, he was standing outside the flower shop he ran on the ground floor of his building, when he saw my friend Raquel, who had come by to drop off a book for me. After finding out she was there to see me in apartment 4A, he let her in the building. Later, when I saw him he said, “Hey, I see you had a visitor.” He paused for a moment, as if he were waiting for me to start with some details “That’s good,” he proclaimed. “You know, companionship.” He seemed surprised and even happy that I had a visitor—or maybe he was just pleased that it wasn’t someone entering his building for some sort of drug deal. Nevertheless, I don’t imagine that he was one of the people in New York who had figured out that having children was in my future.

New York isn’t everyone’s idea of the ideal place to raise your kids, but for me it was exactly that. Not too many of my friends in New York had kids, but for those who did, living in New York seemed to suit them just fine. One of my friends even regularly brought his infant daughter with him to readings and even to some of the gatherings we had at various dive bars.

Although I didn’t picture myself bringing my infant child to dive bars, New York was definitely where I imagined I’d be raising my kids when the time came for me to start a family. Trying to put an infant to bed while outside someone starts yelling, “Shamir? Shamir? SHAMIR? LINDA? SHAMIIIIIRRRR?” did not, to me, seem like a problem. But, after a few years, with me having gone broke and my mother being ill back in DC, staying in New York didn’t seem possible anymore. The day before I moved my things out of my apartment in New York, with help with my friend Eddie Dean who’d come up from DC, I told Bob that I was leaving. I owed him a couple of months rent, but said he could keep my security deposit—and that was all fine with him. He even said that if I ever came back to New York to come back to see if he had any apartments available again.

I never did make it back. And on my last night as a New York City resident, I got drunk with Eddie at a going-away party at my friend Michael Randall’s apartment. The next day, hung-over, I rode shot-gun in a rented U-Haul truck as Eddie, squinting one eye shut because he’d lost a contact lens, drove us back to DC. After being in New York for several years and never driving there I felt a little rusty, and even though he was using just one eye to guide us out of Manhattan, I thought it would be safer if Eddie drove. Surprisingly enough, we made it home without any problems.

About a year later, in DC, Eddie’s daughter was born. I, however, wasn’t even close to reaching that point in my own life. I was still in DC—and I still thought that New York was where I’d be starting my own family with either someone I already knew there or with someone I’d meet when I returned. I wouldn’t be quite the same person I was when I left, of course—after all, my head wasn’t totally in the clouds when it came to having children—which meant that at some point, I would, once again, need a way to make some real money. In other words, I would need a gig that gave me a regular income—what was often referred to disparagingly in the circles I now frequented as a straight job.

Again, I never did make it back to New York. And I repeat that because it was even hard for me to believe. Because although I liked DC, it nevertheless seemed—especially after my New York years—like a small town to me. I had every intention of moving back to New York once I could afford it—and the strange thing was that pretty soon after going back to DC, I actually came upon the means to go back to New York.

It wasn’t because I got that decent job and saved a lot of money by living at home—Christ, this ain’t no Horatio Alger kind of crap going on here—it was because I didn’t get a job. In saying that I didn’t get a job, I’m not trying to make the case that sitting on one’s ass will get you a butt load of cash. It won’t—well, not all the time. Because I actually did try to get a job in DC. After being in New York and working for a direct mail marketing firm and temping for that financial goon, Goldman Sachs, I had some recent experience in being something other than a drunken poet. Add to that my ten years at the Congressional Reference and Economics divisions of the Congressional Research Service at the Library of Congress, and one might actually say that I had a decent resume to present to the sober world that existed outside of poetry and writing. Which was why a number of places called me in for interviews soon after I’d sent them my resume.

The first interview I had was one of those instances when you take one look at someone and know immediately that that person does not want to deal with you for some reason. And right off the bat, the plump middle-aged man interviewing me tried to discourage me about the job. “You know, you’ll only get paid monthly,” he said practically before I’d even taken a seat on the chair in front of his desk. “And a lot of times there will cases when you’ll be the only one here and you’ll just have to stay as long as it takes to get it done.”

I also tried getting a job again at the Library of Congress. One man I had an interview with there seemed to be deliberately trying to confuse me during the interview by asking questions as rapidly as an auctioneer. “We have a complicatedcuttingedgesystem here that requires alotoffocus do you thinkthatyoucanperformwell underthatkindofpressure?”

“I’m very good with detailsandcomplextasks,” I said. “I enjoy a fastpacedworkenvironment and I thrivelikeamotherfuckerunderpressure, why pressureactuallykeepsmybloodpressure in check. I think that after this interview I’m goingtogotolunchandorderabigfuckingsteak.”

Yeah, there didn’t seem to be much point in giving real answers to his questions—I could tell by his attitude that there was no way he was going to hire me—and I imagined that he called me in just so he could say he had interviewed all the qualified candidates. And that, after he’d interviewed me, I didn’t seem like quite the right fit for the job.

Not getting these jobs, though, was, in an indirect way, what gave me the means to go back to New York. And the specific thing that gave me the means was when a woman at a job I interviewed for refused to consider me for the position because I wasn’t white. She, Ms. Red, would have gotten away with it if one of her coworkers, Ms. Blue, who was in on the hiring process, hadn’t blown the whistle on her. Ms. Red, Ms. Blue explained later, had been summarily tossing aside resumes with foreign sounding names, names that sounded Jewish, names that she couldn’t pronounce. That I got called in for an interview at all was only because Ms. Blue was able to retrieve my resume and declare that, since my resume demonstrated that I was highly qualified for the job, I should be brought in to the office to discuss the position.

I suppose I could sum up my feelings about Ms. Red’s view of me—and of the world—with a decal that would fit on the back of a windshield. But a simple decal doesn’t tell much of a story. Besides, there are too many details, too many subtle, nuanced shades of meaning that need to be presented—precisely the sorts of things people like her refuse to acknowledge. I imagine that, fifty or so years ago, if she or someone else like her were hiring for a job, and my father or mother were applying for it, that they wouldn’t have gotten it either.

After Ms. Blue blew the whistle, I sued Ms. Red’s organization and settled out of court. The amount of money I got would have easily me set up again with an apartment in New York’s East Village, close to King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, the Horseshoe Bar, the International Bar; across the street from Leshko’s diner where for breakfast I could order my pierogis, my toast, my coffee; around the corner from St. Mark’s Bookstore where I could buy my Ted Berrigan, my Isabelle Eberhardt, my Donald Goines (the authors I was obsessed with at the time). I could have done that, but by then I’d met Heather, who, when I met her, helped me put New York behind me. And though I still think and write about it, New York was firmly established as part of my past.

That the future, for Heather, Maggie and me, became Front Royal is something I could never have imagined, no matter how many bourbons I downed. And, in keeping with the sober sort of planning I never would have done during my New York years, parenthood waited until Heather and I felt sure that we had the means to provide for a child. Until I finally got that straight job—the straight job where I opted out of the Myers-Briggs test. The straight job where I was actually working for a program that was doing some good in the world.

Pretty soon after I started working there, Heather got pregnant. It had been nearly ten years since my mother had died, so when we started to think about names for the baby (which we knew would be a girl), it didn’t take long before we found our way to my mother’s name, Margarita, and the nickname our daughter goes by, Maggie. My mother, of course, would have been proud. And though she didn’t live long enough to see her first grandchild, she lives on—through those sounds we make, that combination of breath and tongue and teeth and lips and motion that we call a name. So that every time we call our daughter by name, it’s also an act of remembrance. Because, for me, this is how someone and some thing can be made to live forever—through words. And though words can keep the good things alive, they can also be used to keep the bad things alive. But I’m trying as much as I can, everyday—with every word I write—to reveal the bad things that live on this way as gibberish.

We keep meaning to take Maggie on a trip to New York City. To show her that part of my past. She understands that I was a little bit crazier in those days (and that there are many ways in which I am still crazy). But despite all the apparent sloppiness of action and digression of thought I demonstrated back then, I never—during my days as an indefatigable drinker—fell completely into incoherence. There was always a direction, no matter how hidden it may have seemed, and no matter how round about my way of getting there, there was always a point.

But one thing that worries me about finally going back to visit is that I wonder how shocked I’ll be to see how much New York has changed to keep the rich assholes happy. I’m not talking about 9/11 and how the World Trade Center is now gone, because those are the changes everyone—even the goons who hate New York—already know about. I’m talking about things like my old neighborhood. I recently saw a listing for an apartment, in my old building on Avenue B, that was renting for nearly $3,000 a month. I mean, are you fucking kidding me? It’s not, obviously, the same neighborhood I once lived in.

Of course, the downtown New York I once lived in doesn’t really exist anymore, because I lived there in those days right before everything became so self-conscious, before so many kids were chained to their X-Boxes and led to believe that Guitar Hero had anything to do with making music; before corporations perfected the quantification of every aspect of culture, transforming everything that was once fully human to product, and reducing life itself to that horrible simulation that goes by the deceptively pleasant term, “lifestyle.”

Lifestyle is bullshit. To be reduced to the equivalent of a slogan in an ad campaign, a clichéd image—whether it’s someone cheering from the crowd at a ball game or some guy drinking a certain kind of beer and feeling cool/happy/whatever—is nothing short of a nightmare to me.

One nightmare that I seem to be seeing a lot of lately, when I briefly turn on the TV at night before writing for a few hours, is “The Most Interesting Man in the World”—the guy in the Dos Equis beer commercials. They often begin with a clip of him doing something outlandish—emerging from the ocean carrying a treasure chest, rescuing the fox at a fox hunt—and close with a scene where he’s surrounded by beautiful women while holding court at a fancy restaurant. The first part of the commercial usually tries to be funny, but when it’s time to point out the product they’re selling, it turns serious in the most obnoxious way possible, with the actor looking at the camera and solemnly declaring, “I don’t always drink beer, but when I do, I prefer Dos Equis.” After a shot of a bottle of Dos Equis, the man appears again to offer this closing thought, “Stay thirsty, my friends.”

Stay thirsty? My answer to “Stay thirsty” is the same as my answer to “Drill, Baby, Drill”: Fuck you. It’s a cheap, bullshit vision of sophistication. And though for Dos Equis it’s been an incredibly successful ad campaign, with U.S. sales increasing every year since it began, The Most Interesting Man in the World isn’t my friend. And he sure as hell isn’t what I want to be. And even though I actually like it, I’m no longer going to drink Dos Equis—which means, I guess, that I’m just not that thirsty anymore.

A little less than two months from now, Heather will be giving birth to our second child, a son. Having a child, for us, is life not lifestyle. Within that life, there are battles, one of which separates what is real from what isn’t. With this in mind, we let Maggie watch television, but we make sure she knows that much of what goes on there has little to do with real life. As for video games—well, Maggie knows that those are completely out. Also out is the idea that life is a battle against non-believers, the unsaved, enemy combatants, illegal aliens, etc., etc. Rather, the battle is against everything that is bullshit and attempts to take over what’s left of real human thought and emotion.

And, we teach her that it’s not all about being the kid who has the most toys. For a lot of people the American Dream has come to mean identifying with the rich and powerful—with the Dos Equis guy, as unbelievable as he may be—and acting like the poor are a class of beings that is beneath you. Or are going to try to rip you off. Or take over your safe, clean neighborhood.

So we teach Maggie to look for complexity, irony—or that the lack thereof—in what she sees on TV and what she reads. She’s not going to grasp everything all at once, of course, but we’re laying the foundation for her to become a critical thinker. We teach her about poetry—language that, unlike what you might find on a bumper sticker or on the rear window of a car, has depth and makes you think rather than just pats you on the back. Because, actually, you don’t have to be a drunken poet to get where poetry can lead you—you just need to learn to make all those strange and beautiful connections that, at first, don’t seem to make sense. And then they do.

-Jose Padua

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