Tag Archives: Tourette Syndrome

Days of Being Wild

Photograph by Jose Padua
Grade school was one
humiliation after another.
Shitting my pants in first grade
because asking permission
to go to the bathroom
was petrifying horror.
Kids calling me
“Chinese Checkers” in fourth grade
because they didn’t know
any slurs for Filipinos like me,
pushing me to the playground pavement,
then laughing at my Tourette’s tics,
telling me that at the end of eighth grade
I’ll be screaming for my diploma
like a freaking baby.
Now I’m this badass poet.
Say the wrong thing to me
and I’ll fuck up your syntax
with a stray adverb,
write a metaphor that makes
you shit your own pants
like you’re a freaking baby–
yes I used that phrase again
because badass poets
can do that shit.
Because even on the page
revenge is sweet, sweet victory,
and in the late middle
of my mortal days on earth
I am still wild in the heart
as my imperfections lead me ever boldly
up this beautiful, steep hill.

-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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My Shenandoah Breakdowns

Breaking down has become a regular occurrence here in the Valley. And it happens even when I’m just staying here in town—or maybe because I’m just staying here in town. Unlike Heather, I don’t get that regular dose of the city by commuting into DC, but that doesn’t prevent me from breaking down anyway. Strangely enough, I don’t need to get behind the wheel—or even ride on that old glue-factory ready horse of a bus Heather has to ride—to break down. Sometimes I don’t even need to leave the house.

But most often it’s a day when, walking down to Main Street, I can barely deal with that person looking at me like an unarmed paparazzi who sees Brad Pitt standing at the urinal next to him. That in itself wouldn’t be so bad. But the problem is that he also sees me as the flesh and foreign blood manifestation of one the many social ills he’s heard about on Glenn Beck’s nightly Hour for Ignorant Assholes Show. To him, or her, I’m either an illegal alien, a terrorist, a socialist, or any number of other frightening sub-human/ Untermensch (Beck is obsessed with Nazis) beings. And that’s just because of the way I look.

What makes things even harder, though, is that I also have to deal with what my Tourette Syndrome urges me to do. Whether it’s a quick grimace on one side of my face, or one of those odd movements where I’ll clench my fist and bang my elbow into my side, my odd movements are yet another thing that bring me the sort of attention I don’t often feel like dealing with. Some of my movements could even be interpreted as threatening (which is one—only one—of the reasons why I’m always uncomfortable around cops).

Over the years there have been so many variations that if I knew anything about choreography I could create an entire ballet around my tics and twitches, with the odd noises and nonsense syllables that sometimes come out of my mouth providing the avant garde music that drives and inspires this bizarre dance. Of course, I imagine it’s possible that some rabid fundamentalist Christian type might think I’m speaking in tongues—at least until I, in a sudden break from my involuntary movements, quite voluntarily give him the finger.

Sometimes I think that what fucks me up the most are the urges I don’t give in to—the middle finger I resist lifting as a means of expressing myself to the daily dickhead who stares at me; my silence when the cashier puts my change or debit card down on the counter rather than dropping it into my outstretched hand; not shouting out, “The Confederacy lost,” to the guy driving down Main Street with a Confederate flag flying from the back of his pickup truck. Although not doing these things saves my ass in this redneck town, I still can’t help but think of these as missed opportunities.

Since I quit smoking some ten years ago, my Tourette’s has steadily worsened—or maybe it just seems that way to me. Medications I’ve tried either didn’t do much or else made me feel like I was having a bad acid trip (bad because I felt unfit to drive or operate heavy machinery yet wasn’t experiencing any revelatory hallucinations). It seems that those days when I was drinking and smoking the most were when my Tourette’s bothered me the least. That time included my years in New York, where no one seemed to take much notice of any tics I had. But eccentricity, after all, is nothing unusual with artists of any kind—and in my circle of downtown literary types, I probably would have been looked at suspiciously if there were nothing odd about me. Hell, back then I looked suspiciously at anyone I thought was too clean-cut, too normal, too friendly—as far as I was concerned, they were the ones you had to watch out for. They were the ones who always seemed to end up trying to screw you over. And they were just one among the many bad things I had to focus on.

Because even then, when my tics weren’t that bad, I still had my basic obsessive-compulsive personality to keep me as tense as the suspension wires on the Brooklyn Bridge. (As if the uncontrollable tics aren’t enough of a pain in the ass, obsessive-compulsive disorder often comes along with Tourette’s.) Drinking helped, and cigarettes helped—I have no doubt about their role in getting me through these years—but what probably helped me most of all was the motion.

For most people who live in New York, whether they’ve got a steady job or are unemployed (as I was for about half the time I lived there), they’re constantly in motion. For a lot of the New Yorkers I knew then, that was a simple fact of life there—and the only way to go about living there. I remember that with one writer friend of mine, Stephen Ciacciarelli, just about the only times I got to see him we were moving—walking down Park Avenue eating slices of pizza or drinking from cans of Budweiser in paper bags as he headed south to catch his downtown train into Brooklyn and I slowly made my way back to Avenue B in the East Village.

My routine, when I had a steady day job there, took me in the morning from Avenue B to midtown across from Madison Square Park. In the evening I’d walk home, though that walk often involved a detour to the Upper West Side, Soho, or some other neighborhood to meet friends or just to take in the city. In New York, walking was often the most efficient way to get where I needed to be—but it was also a way to relax, a way to wind down. And the best thing was that there was none of that shit where you had to drive any time you needed to get something.

In the midst of all that walking I was always running into people I knew—but the odd thing about it was that the people I ran into there were nearly always people I wanted to see—poets and other writer friends of mine, musicians, painters; and people who weren’t artists of any kind but who weren’t (obviously, being New Yorkers) living in a cultural void.

And, sometimes, I saw people I didn’t know personally but knew because they were famous. In New York I drank with Matt Dillon, smiled at Sade, and one evening I came home to see Harvey Keitel hanging around outside my building (he was shooting a scene from a film I would later know as Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant). In my mind I was going, Holy Shit, it’s Harvey Fucking Keitel. But I was cool about it—there’s something about living in New York that teaches you how to be cool. You can be totally freaking out and ready to scream on the inside, but from the outside you can look like you’re ready to nod off from boredom. And me, I slowly looked over at Harvey Keitel, slowly looked away, and slowly walked up the steps to my apartment. And not once did my feet ever stop moving.

The motion I was constantly in when I lived in New York suited me well. Because for me, motion—the getting to or moving away from somewhere—has always been one of the great joys in life. And whenever I’ve taken a trip to some distant city—whether it was for vacation or for whatever sort of work I was doing—the getting there was always the best part of the trip. Or at least the part where I felt the most calm, and the most contented. Certainly, motion is what most often keeps me from freaking out.

Stepping out the door, down the steps, and into the crowd was always the best way to motivate me. When I left New York and came back to Washington DC, I spent two years mostly unemployed, aside from some freelance assignments now and then for the Washington City Paper. During that time I worked on my novel, wrote poems, drank, and walked. Everyday I walked from DC’s Mt. Pleasant area, past the pleasantly run down and grimy buildings, and headed south, always going at least as far as Georgetown, which was, of course a much cleaner and wealthier neighborhood. But even then, it was still an interesting place to be—not some antiseptic suburban business hub built by assholes in button down suits. And even though I saw Mt. Pleasant and Georgetown every day during my walk—and often kept going across Key Bridge into Virginia—there was always something going on, faces I’d never seen before, people speaking different languages. There was always something new for me.

Small towns aren’t like that, of course. And if you like the small town life, I’m willing to bet that you’re not much into seeing anything new or different—at least not everyday—and that you like seeing the same faces. And, I’m willing to bet, there are a fair number of people who like small towns because they’re also going to see the same kind of faces. Which is why when the dickhead of the day spots me on the street here, he’s surprised, shocked, concerned, or angry—because, hell, this ain’t New York or even DC, so what the fuck is a person like me doing here?

That’s the question I ask myself everyday. I ask it even though I know, by now, the long, involved, sorry-ass answer. As for the brief, to-the-point answer, what I’m doing here is being still. Still, like the statue commemorating the Confederacy that stands in front of the courthouse on Main Street. Still, like the gazebo on Main Street when that guy plays music there in the middle of the afternoon and no one comes to listen. Still, when I’m sitting at the Daily Grind and am able—for a little while—to suppress those goddamn Tourette’s tics. Being still is something I have to learn to do—and I suppose that breaking down on occasion as I learn to do this is something to be expected.

As for the breakdowns themselves, they have various lengths, tones, and tempos. Sometimes it’s like someone has put a quarter in a jukebox—a decent jukebox—to play something dark, loud and noisy, like the Stooges “Search and Destroy.” Other times what comes out is “Winter” from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons—those chilly strings that keep building up until they let loose into some kind of late Renaissance frenzy. And as the music plays on in my head, what I’m feeling is that stillness. And until the music stops playing, I’m not about to move.

Though sometimes the music during my breakdowns isn’t just in my head. Once what I was hearing was “Seasons of Love” from Rent, when the kids at one of Maggie’s summer camps put on a show:

Five hundred twenty-five thousand
Six hundred minutes,
Five hundred twenty-five thousand
Moments so dear.
Five hundred twenty-five thousand
Six hundred minutes
How do you measure, measure a year?

Mind you, Maggie wasn’t singing in this number. Nevertheless, I found myself getting teary eyed. I mean, Christ, I’m supposed to be way too streetwise and cynical—in a real, not Broadway manner—to be moved by that shit. And besides, it’s from Rent—which I (and just about all of the writers and other artists I knew from the Lower East Side of New York that this musical portrays) consider an absurdly romanticized and whitewashed view of what was happening then. Rent pretty much does to the struggling artists of that scene what The Waltons did to growing up in rural Virginia during the Depression.

Which isn’t to say that, like The Waltons, Rent can’t be enjoyable on a certain level. But Christ, actual tears were coming down my face because of this shit. I was actually feeling the song—and feeling like I was just another sucker falling for three-card Monte in Times Square, some schmuck who laughs hysterically at the oldest joke in the world and cries when he hears about a kid losing his puppy.

This happens to me a lot nowadays—or at any rate a lot more than it used to. And just last week—when I had taken Maggie to a matinee while Heather was at work in DC— what does it is Toy Story 3. Really. When it was that song from Rent I was like, Oh, it’s cool—because I do look back fondly on my days in New York. I’m not above allowing myself to indulge in a sentimental moment now and then. But Toy Story 3? Are you fucking kidding me? I’m actually falling for that shit, now? Twenty years ago when I was living in New York, I would have watched something like that and yelled, Kiss my fucking ass at the screen by the end of the movie. Yeah, Kiss my fucking ass. And, Go fuck yourself, Disney. And, Do you think I give a fuck about this tripe you put out? And now here I am with fucking tears in my eyes at the end of this goddamn movie. Has it come to this? This sure as hell isn’t where I was some twenty years ago in New York and it sure as hell isn’t what I’m used to.

Yeah, “Seasons of Love,” and Toy Story 3. That and being still—or trying to be still and trying not to break down. Being in a place that, compared to what I’m used to feels like nowhere. Sitting still in some theater, or at my desk at home while I’m writing, or when I’m on our front porch watching some jacked-up pickup truck drive by—and getting teary eyed or else breaking down in some other way. These are the hard days for me—when being still is something I do not as an exercise and not as a mechanism for learning how to live here in the valley, but because there’s nothing else I can do.

I walk out of the theater with Maggie after Toy Story 3. She wants something to eat so we walk down to the Daily Grind and order Maggie’s favorite ham, egg, and cheese sandwich and a smoothie. As usual, when I wait, I’m trying not to shake too much, trying not to do that thing where I jab my elbow into my side and grimace. Maggie is used to this weirdness as, of course, is Heather—and they’re the only ones who get to see uncensored and unrestrained performances of my tics—because it’s only when I’m home with them that I truly relax, when I can give in to those urges that I usually have to beat down. Any other time and anywhere else, even if I’m just sitting in a movie theater, I’m just a little bit uncomfortable and a little bit tense.

And so it is that everyday here in the Valley brings about one or another kind of breakdown or freakout (or whatever the hell you want to call it) in my head. Sometimes we’re just at the town pool—one of the other places here that I hate. Sometimes it’s just me, pushing a cart in the supermarket and looking for something like a decent package of strawberries or a carton of milk with an expiration date that’s at least two weeks away. I can be feeling good at first when I’m doing these things—but then it’s that sucker punch again, and everything that seemed so well constructed in my mind falls apart. Some stray thought that annoys me or sometimes even frightens me. It’s an epiphany that brings along with it a definite measure of pain. It’s like going from the idea that the Earth is flat to the reality that it’s a big ball spinning its way through space. To the reality that we evolved from lesser life forms into the magnificent and fucked up creatures we are today.

This is what goes on everyday. These are the tiny but persistent breakdowns I live through everyday. And at this point, I’m pretty goddamn tired of them. On some nights I can hardly sleep. But now I’m starting to focus on other things. And everywhere here I see them—those lovers of war, those borrowers of hate, and, hiding amongst them, all those people who were just never given a clue. I’m in the middle of this, feeling like a guy from another planet, standing still but still standing.

And something I realize is that, yeah, in a weird way—and against all my expectations—this shit gives me strength.

-Jose Padua

Exile on Main Street

soulmountain2We never would have moved here if it weren’t for Soul Mountain. Mind you, I’m not talking about the writers retreat in East Haddam, Connecticut or the Nobel prize-winning novel by Gao Xingjian. Writers retreats are of no use to me—I’d gaze at the scenery, overeat, overdrink, then fall asleep without writing a single word—and I have not yet read Gao Xingjian’s novel.

Soul Mountain, for us, is a restaurant on Main Street in Front Royal that features Cajun and Caribbean cuisine. It’s also, for us, one of those establishments where we can be called regulars. And though we may no longer be the sort of regulars whom you would see every day of the week at, say, the old Scorpio Bar on Avenue A in New York (before it made the transformation into Psycho Mongo’s House of Sublimation and then into the “cozy, dimly lit Library Bar”) we are, despite the lower level of frequency, regulars nonetheless.

As it is, Soul Mountain is the sort of place where we would have become regulars wherever it was. A few years ago, though, the space Soul Mountain occupies was a German restaurant, one remnant of which, I suspect, is the oversized wooden table that you see to your left as soon as you enter and which back then probably bore plates of bratwurst and beer steins filled with some pale lager. Nice stuff, yes, but I very much doubt that we would have become regulars at this spot if it were still a German restaurant. But that’s a moot point, because, again, we never would have moved here to Front Royal if this particular restaurant hadn’t drawn us in and made us think that yes, two die-hard urbanites like us could actually feel comfortable in this small town in the Shenandoah Valley.

On the first day we ever set foot in town we parked a few buildings down from Soul Mountain. We didn’t go in, but we saw the tables outside the restaurant, peaked through the big glass windows to see a statue of the Buddha and a poster of Bob Marley inside, and immediately came to the conclusion that this could be our spot in town—our second home, as it were, even though we hadn’t yet found a first home.

We didn’t have time for a full meal in Front Royal that day, so we just walked across the street toward what looked like a coffee shop. The people we saw walking on Main Street that afternoon had an aura of alertness and purpose about them, that ever-so slight furrowing of the brows which, more often than not, indicates awareness of the world at large. In other words, the people we saw looked somewhat sophisticated, even mature. Oftentimes you can tell you’re in a town where nothing is happening by the number of bored teenagers you see hanging out, chatting idly without even looking at each other.

Going into the coffee shop, the Daily Grind, we found another pleasant establishment, decorated in warm earth tones, where decent music was playing. It sounded like maybe John Mayer, whose records I would never shell out money for in a million years, but whose music is OK to hear when you’re out in public trying to relax or need just a little noise to drown out the inane conversation going on at the table next to yours. Anyway, you don’t usually go to a coffee house like this to listen to the two hundred electric guitars of Rhys Chatham’s “A Crimson Grail.” You go there because it’s the sort of place where you can relax for a few minutes—or a few hours.

Thus began the process of being seduced by this small town. Seduced by Soul Mountain which was dressed, metaphysically, in a low cut blouse, hot pants, and fishnet stockings while making pointed commentary on current events and culture; seduced by the Daily Grind with its warm, soft voice skillfully making double entendres while reaching under the table to tap us on the knee; seduced by the worldly ways of some of the people strolling down Main Street on a Saturday afternoon in June.

theoldhotelIn other words, we were seeing things that weren’t there, building the town up in our minds because the bottom line was this: we needed somewhere to go. We couldn’t afford to stay close to the city anymore. Indeed, what we would have preferred to do at this point in our lives—and with a young daughter who could benefit from its culture and diversity—would be to move closer to the city (or, better yet, to a bigger city, like New York or Boston). Because we don’t buy that shit about the city not being a healthy place to live. And, we don’t buy that shit about the city not being a good place to raise a child.

But, despite what we believed, we had to go and go soon before the economy, with its glorious bubbles bursting spectacularly in the air over the housing market, set us down in a hole we could never dig out of. And Soul Mountain and the Main Street Daily Grind made us think that, for us, the road out of that hole led to Front Royal.

This isn’t to say that Soul Mountain and the Daily Grind weren’t what we thought they were. They were exactly what we thought they were, and we’d be frequenting these two places if we’d found them in New York, Paris, or at the beach. The error we made was that we ascribed to them more power than any restaurant or coffee shop could possibly have. A tremendous restaurant and a great coffee shop can only lift an entire town so high.

Finally, we had to face it: we were now residents of a very conservative small town.

We’d been in Front Royal for almost a year when, sitting inside Soul Mountain and glancing out the window, I realized that I still found it hard to believe we were here. It was a Friday night, in the early Fall. It was still warm, and now and then some shirtless kid with a shaved head would walk past the window, from left to right. Then, a few minutes later you’d see him going from right to left, and then a few minutes later, from left to right. Much of the time, that’s the action on the street. Sometimes, that’s all you’ll see.

Yesterday, driving Maggie up to her gymnastics class in Winchester, I saw a pickup truck with a huge Confederate flag flying out the back. Today, it was a bumper sticker that said “Licensed Terrorist Hunter.” And I always seem to see “When Guns Are Outlawed, I’ll Become an Outlaw” and that guy who looks like a rural G. Gordon Liddy who has the bumper sticker that says, “Ban Illegal Aliens, Not Guns.”

It’s at times like these that I realize that I’m lucky.

After all, my Tourette Syndrome could be worse. I could all of a sudden start screaming “VAGINA! VAGINA! I CAN SEE YOUR VAGINA” on Main Street when I see a woman wearing a frontier dress. Or maybe, “WHERE’S YOUR GOD NOW, MY PRETTY?” as I walk by the Catholic Store. Or “WHAT’S IT LIKE HAVING A TINY DICK?” when I see a guy in a pickup truck with an anti-gun control bumper sticker.

Yes, I’m lucky. But I have dreams for this place, too. And I see possibilities—even though sometimes all that comes to mind are dirty, angry words.

-Jose Padua

Straw Hat for a Madman

RoyalandMainThis clumsy living that moves lumbering
as if in ropes through what is not done,
reminds us of the awkward way the swan walks
– Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Robert Bly

When we first moved here I’d see him walking all over the place—downtown on Main Street; by the abandoned houses at South and Osage that look like the wind should knock them over any day now; on Royal Avenue where it climbs the sort of hill you see in San Francisco (only you know this sure as hell ain’t San Francisco) then curves toward the Texaco station on 14th Street.

He was probably somewhere in his 60s and he walked with a cane and always seemed to be wearing an old, beat-up straw hat. He looked like he’d stepped out of some Norman Rockwell painting and then been given way too much to drink before being left out in the sun for about forty years. But what was most notable about him was that he regularly had these outbursts where he’d scream—scream at cars, scream at people, scream at storefront windows as he waved his cane in the air. I saw him nearly every day for the first few months we were here, and all that time I never saw him actually speak to anyone—it was always just these outbursts, and the silent walking in between.

Then once, I saw him approaching on our street as I stepped out of the car after coming home from dropping Maggie off at school. I looked toward him and nodded, saying “Hi.” And, like anyone else, he nodded back and said hello. Then he walked a few paces and had one of his outbursts again as he let out a scream and shook his fist like a man who, once again, had lost control.

I could sympathize with him. Having Tourette Syndrome, I may, at times, look a little bit out of control. Sometimes, of course, I am. But when I lose control it’s just my thoughts running wild and free—or sometimes getting stuck like a car with its rear wheels in the mud—and has nothing to do with any strange movements Tourette Syndrome compels me to make.

Running into someone with an affliction similar to mine, whatever that affliction is—and I have no idea exactly what the man in the straw hat suffers from; it may be Tourette’s or it may be some other pain in the ass disease—can be refreshing. The last time I regularly saw someone with a similar condition was when I lived in New York’s East Village in the 90s.

Davy worked in my landlord’s flower shop on the first floor of the building I lived in on Avenue B. He was a nice guy who had this West Side Story sort of look with greased wavy hair and a plain white tee shirt. A lot of times when I brought down my rent check, he’d be the one there.

“Well,” he’d say, and then nod. “Thank you.” His voice was deep and he spoke slowly. “I’ll give this. To Bob. So he can put it. On the books.”

Davy always looked a little bit out of it, and it was obvious that the reason he had this job was because he was my landlord’s nephew. Still, if he was the only one around and I went down there because my bathtub wasn’t draining or, as happened one time, water was gushing out of an exposed pipe in my bathroom, he tried to be helpful.

One night, walking home from my job in midtown Manhattan, just as the sun was going down, I saw Davy walking on the other side of the street from me on 4th heading toward Avenue A. As he walked he’d stop, twist his body, grunt, then look up at the sky and scream. Then he’d walk on normally for a few more steps before contorting his body again and waving his arms in a fit of what was sometimes called “St. Vitus’s Dance.” When Davy was close, on the opposite side of the street, he saw me and gave me a look. It was one of those yeah, whatever sort of looks and we kept going our separate ways as if nothing new or unusual had been revealed.

Again, I don’t know exactly what condition Davy had, but I knew then that he was one of my people. And one of the things that people like us seem to have in common is that we don’t like to explain it. I could, for example, explain to someone who’s looking at me, concerned, perhaps, or even frightened, that “it’s not a dance, it’s a disease.” But I’m not one to spoil a decent mystery like that. Besides, it’s not like I owe anyone an explanation for what I am.

Of course, I don’t have it that bad—certainly not to the degree where I’m shouting obscenities all the time (when I curse someone out, it’s not a disease speaking, it’s me, expressing my feelings). Most of the time I can control the odd tics and random grunts and the only place I really let loose with it is when I’m home, inside the house. Maggie learned long ago that “Daddy’s noisy.”

Another place where it’s sometimes hard for me to control it is at the movies. And at the Royal Cinema here on Main Street one time, some people moved away from me, Maggie and Heather during a late afternoon showing of Mamma Mia! But it wasn’t because of any noise I was making—it was because Maggie was singing along softly with the songs as she watched them being performed on the screen. There was no way either of us was going to tell her to keep it down, because how—and why—would you try to control that kind of exuberance? If you find it disturbing, then move away. Likewise, if you find the odd movements and random noises I make strange or unpleasant, you can take a walk, too.

I don’t see the man with the straw hat much anymore. Maybe he’s on meds now, the kind that knock you out and make the real world a total stranger to you. Maybe something happened to him. Or, maybe he moved—to New York where he can add to the noise Davy makes and where no one will think twice about it.

Me, I’m still here and I’ll be here for a while, roaming the streets sometimes. And, in these days when unfounded fear and paranoia seem to be on the rise, I’ll be trying to walk like a normal person.

-Jose Padua