The Village, NYC

I’m on planet 3-inch mattress crashing in an East Village studio apartment with my old high school friend Patrick.

Two months earlier it was Granada, Spain with Elena. She, on a continual cosmic wander, a quest to see what was beyond the flamenco caves a mile past the Alhambra where the gypsies lived. She took me there and I danced, clapped like a gringo, heard the guitar, for fleeting minutes felt Moorish. Restless with the colder weather, my years of autumn instinct gnawed and probed, told me it is over, that her steps were not mine. Some tears, a bus ride to Madrid, a day at the Prado, then I left.

Here now, walking by a phone booth on Avenue A, I want to call, but she doesn’t have a number and I’m broke anyway. The cross-continental breakup is final, no email, no texting, no Skype, no looking back.

New York City is a whirlwind, my life like jazz, a cacophony of busy denizens intently darting fro and to. Frenetic taxicabs, the smell of pizza on every corner, the never-ending screeching of the subway. For six months I do it all, intern at Human Rights Watch, book bands, date an actress, write for a community newspaper, and bartend near NYU. I dabble in poetry and poverty sleeping on the floor in the East Village, then a few months on a futon in an apartment on West 4th Street near 6th Avenue. I never pay rent, make enough money to eat on $12 a day. I work at two bookstores, the first, Barnes & Noble at Astor Place, the second, Rizzoli in Soho.

Five days until Christmas 1995 and I’m holding a tray of hard candies standing at the entrance of Barnes and Noble. I feel like Judge Reinhold’s character in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, but without the pirate hat. Recent college grad from an elite northeastern school, with a phony smile and wrinkled khakis. The urbane customers wear scarves, leather jackets, sweaters with reindeer, most ignore me. I prefer shelving books, hidden in the poetry section, where I can find Marianne Moore for an NYU coed. But they hired me for the holiday season, so I’m standing here, an exposed, breathing ornament, placed at the front of the store.

A couple days earlier they had me doing bag check. Better than candy, I got to sit. Men and women handed me their Jansport backpacks and Esprit tote bags, I passed them a plastic number. A middle-aged man gave me his backpack, he was maybe fifty, George Costanza bald, with a red Polo jacket and matching Polo glasses. “Give me that back,” he said to me with a sneer. I handed over his bag and he removed his wallet, looked at me directly, “you people are the thieves.”

Three days before Christmas and I’m the candyman again, grinning like a dope, when I see her, the actress, Claire Danes. Her hand reaches out for a piece of the crinkly wrapped candy, she knows I recognize her, knows I’m a writer, an artist, like her. She smiles, I smile. Then she walks away, leaving me alone with my peppermints, listening to the instrumental version of Last Christmas by Wham.

Uber San Francisco

The future is in my way, again. A double-parked quasi-taxi, stopped in front of a green light, passenger getting in, cradling a phone. Uber claims to bring safe, low cost transportation, delivering a complex, precise, advanced product, but all I see is another clueless driver almost causing an accident. Behind the wheel, they start and stop, eyes glued to Google map screens, barely noticing pedestrians and other cars. Mostly gone are the old timers in yellow cabs, guys who survived Vietnam, grizzled veterans who really knew the city. This future has younger navigators, better cars, people doing their side hustle for cash.

But no one knows where they are anymore. Sometimes when I’m in my Prius a random person will open the back door, expecting me to drive them somewhere, until they figure it out and vaguely apologize. Uber sums up San Francisco: connected, disconnected. Connected to technology, disconnected from people experiencing homelessness. Connected to tiny screens, disconnected from face to face community. And this is only the first iteration, a prelude to the Uber vision of self-driving car automation. Efficient future, people sitting in the laps of robots, free, captured.

Keep Writing

I love it when friends tell me they are going to do a little writing, maybe spend some time thinking poetically. It’s like they are going to drink a glass of chardonnay. I’m happy for them. I am. For me, writing is the equivalent of starting with an IPA, then quaffing a bourbon, then a whole bottle of cab; I get obsessed, addicted even. I’ve tried doing Natalie Goldberg-inspired timed writes, but I just turn off the timer when it rings and keep going. You might find this impressive, but my wife and kids think I’m annoying. Even when I do turn off the computer, I’m still thinking; about words, sentences, plotting when I can sneak back on and write a bit more. It really can be a problem, which is why I stopped writing for 6 months. During that time I meditated, read, spent more moments with my family. But recently I got published in a magazine, won a prize in a national poetry contest, and the writing bug is itching.

It is a little voice whispering, you have some talent, nurture it, hone it, own it. And I have to admit, I do like identifying as a writer/poet. It is mine, something I control, something I can do alone, like meditation, but very different. But how do I tame the beast? I’ve learned not to blog everyday, I did that for awhile, it drove me crazy and the quality of my work was precarious. One day I produced something halfway decent, the next day I’m writing a recollection about eating sugary cereal and watching Saturday morning cartoons as a kid. The discipline of writing that way was great, but the self-induced pressure to publish something all the time was ridiculous.

There is also the intense reading involved with writing. To all of my friends out there who want to write, I adhere to Bill Roorbach’s adage, reading is writing. Meaning, time spent reading definitely adds to one’s writing mojo. I don’t mean like People Magazine or even the San Francisco Chronicle. You say, I want to write poetry. So who are you reading? Or do you create poems from memories of Dr. Seuss or Shel Silverstein? Nothing wrong with that, but that’s not me. I have to take out volumes of Jane Kenyon, C.K. Williams, Li-Young Lee, Frost even, and actually read them, alot, before poems start to arrive. Yes, I can have poetic impulses, but full poems? That comes from me reading a ton.

So do I stop writing? The better question probably is, did I ever stop? If reading is writing, then one could argue that observing life is writing too. During those six months I didn’t stop reading, and I didn’t stop creating internal narratives to go along with people, observations, and experiences; they just weren’t going into a Google Doc.. What is the answer? The words don’t lie, fingers on the keys, ideas in the brain, I’m writing, can’t stop now.

Death in Ecuador

Ecuador is adobe bricks, hardened mud homes, no electricity, the smell of burning trash and chicken soup with feathers floating in the bowl.

My partner Scott and I sleep on cots, plant trees, dig latrine holes, smoke Lark cigarettes at night to pass the time.  Scott rows crew for Andover, is tall with dirty blonde hair, has an intensity for work that I lack. We stay with Don Emiliano and his wife Lucia and their children Rosa, Hilda, Aurora, Armando and Alberto. Don Emiliano, part Quechan, is about five-foot three, kind, hard-working and dark-skinned. He has a forearm that juts out unnaturally; it had been broken and never properly reset. Before we finished our family’s latrine, we took dumps in our designated locations in the cornfield a few dozen yards from the house. Scott went to shit row, I went to shit haven. We both kicked the chickens to get them to quit following us, but inevitably they still ended up eating our liquidy crap, then days later we would eat them.

We saw things die in Ecuador, two dogs from poison, and a woman. We didn’t actually see the woman die, but we ate greasy rice and eggs sitting next to her dead body. The Garcia family kept her lying on the wood table for a few days to let people pay their respects before burial. It should have freaked me out more, but it actually seemed normal, her rigid body, lightly draped by a see through veil. I could have reached out, touched her closed eyes. She was dead, but at the dinner table, a physical reminder of how it ends for all of us. I would stare at the outline of her face while shoveling forkfuls of the inedible rice into the grease-stained pockets of my red windbreaker. I appreciated the food, but couldn’t stomach it; I dumped it out later for the chickens.

When we aren’t working, we play soccer games with the kids, teach them baseball with a bamboo bat and a taped up rock ball. We are in Ecuador to combat poverty, disease, flies landing on poo, spreading typhoid, cholera, dysentery. We build makeshift bathrooms, plant fruit trees, the villagers rotate as hosts, take turns feeding us. Maria Lopez and her husband Juan live the farthest away, maybe a mile and a half from Don Emiliano’s place. Juan makes guarapo for a living, a moonshine-like concoction made from fermented sugar cane. He just calls it traiga. We trudge up the single file trail that hugs a mountain on our way to the Lopez house, our skinny bodies weak from diarrhea and eating too much yucca and rice. Far above the path, precarious steep grazing pastures, where Don Emiliano’s milk cows roam. Dirt trail, kicking the toes of my Merrell boots, long views of mountain ranges in the distance.

Suddenly above us we hear a sound like Chewbacca, a cacophonous squeal-like moan. I never thought I’d be killed by a 1500-pound cow, but looking up all I see are udders, hooves, and blue sky. I squat like a football player doing a drill, like a soccer goalie guessing on a penalty kick. Moving to my right a few feet puts me off the mountain, a two hundred-foot fall. I’m frozen in time, three seconds, the fear doesn’t hit before I see the black and white shoulder smash against the ground first, legs, ass, and tail tumbling after. Writhing, it tries to get up, but only the head moves upward, body pinned, broken. Screaming now, high-pitched pain, a fellow mammal suffering, dying. I find a large rock, more like a big brown cube, maybe 25 pounds, awkward to hold, it makes my wrists ache. Afraid to walk directly over and bludgeon the poor creature, I take aim like a two-armed shot putter, heave the mini-boulder at the head, and miss. Less than a minute later the death knell ceases, only the silence of blood trickling from the cow’s nostrils.

Scott runs off to tell our family, several minutes later Don Emiliano returns to skin the cow. I want to help but don’t know how, the incision opens the cow up, lets the heat of stench out, a sauna of smells, guts, milk, blood, excrement. Poor cow, Don Emiliano says in Spanish. It was worth much more alive. I don’t know how many more cows he owns, but the whole family looks gloomy, almost ready to cry. Before walking back to the house, I look at the ground, red and white rivulets, blood and milk, mixed on the ground, like death and life commingled. Later, Don Emiliano butchers the cow, hangs a huge hunk in front of our light bulb-less room. They sell some of the meat, start eating the rest.

That night I get up in the pitch black to pee, my face smacks into the bloody thigh, I feel it dripping down my forehead. No fridge, no plastic wrap, no USDA Choice, no ground beef, just the taste of flesh on my lips.

Evening Prayer

I don’t pray every night, but I probably should. After baths, books, conversation with wife, I usually drift into writing, creating, rearranging words on a screen. Mind a whir, could journey depths until dawn, but the clock of calculation, of sanity, of sacred sleep, tells me to stop. I go into my daughter’s room, turn down her light, I love you, I say to her curled up slumber. I meditate in my son’s room, the sound of his breathing, my pew, my stained glass, my sanctuary. Seated, darkness, air in, carbon dioxide out, first minutes filled with brain bouncing from thought to thought, the earlier, the tomorrow, the could happen. Then sometimes the indescribable now, when I’m nowhere, everywhere, witness to all time, and no time at all. Emerge a short life span later, pray for my colleague, that her malignant tumor retreats, allows life, hers to continue. It feels like I could stay forever, talking to God, to no one, to everyone.

Sahara

I’m in the backseat, we must be going 75 mph, reverberating Berber music like Salat, ritualistic Islamic prayer with drums, voices, sintir strings plucked, boom from the car’s speakers, permanent Sahara hair dryer heat fills my nostrils. We left Merzouga earlier in the morning, before that, the Atlas Mountains, Azrou, Fez, Tangier. The road is gone, only sand, like after the first inches of snow have fallen. We stop at the edge, no billboards, no little tourist kiosk, nothing, only a thousand miles of granular fragments, beaten down quartz, dolomite, calcite, silica pixels. I touch its wildness, primitive, uncontainable, not a Tonka truck home, not the domesticated box from my childhood backyard, it looms, immense with dry waves of undulating silence. We walk into it one by one, like swimming past the ocean breakers, together, apart. Speechless, it has absorbed our words, sun pulsating, the desert almost asking us to quietly join it, forever. Human shadows elongate, planet rotates, heat ebbs, darkness, then stars. They appear, first one by one, little white births, souls of the night sky. Then a torrent, a blanket of speckled light, countless orbs above, total blackness below. I think of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust, children who died. Never thought much about heaven before, alone, surrounded.

Near Drowning

We’re in the Volvo on highway 101 heading to Calistoga, Napa Valley, wine country. The radio and Supertramp have just saved me from his questions. Where do horses come from? Where do cows come from? Where do people come from? My 6-year old son asks. I try to explain evolution. I was a monkey? He wants to know. En route to some easy hiking, then dinner, Indian Springs and their 95-degree thermal pool. We pass acre after acre of grapevines, wineries, and restaurants. Napa, my old adult playground, the place where I was wed. Schramsberg champagne, Storybook zins, the Sterling vineyard aerial tram, the Epcot Center of imbibing.

We hit the trail, balance from rock to rock, avoid the mud. I’m a rock-jumping expert. He says. After the hike, dinner is his favorite, pizza. I drink sparkling water, he has an apple juice. Back at Indian Springs, it is cold with drizzle, I put on a white robe, he throws on his LL Bean fleece, we head to the pool for a night swim. What is that smoke? He asks, staring at the steam. The water is the kind of hot that makes synapses disconnect, that turns a wine buzz into an outer body experience. My son doesn’t know how to swim; we play fight with pool noodles in the shallow end.

I see her tiny feet pitter-pattering by the side of the pool; she looks like a doll with moving legs, her mother is busy with another little girl several yards away. My son and I are the only people in the pool. Out of the corner of my eye I look at the toddler again, maybe thirty feet from us, her body is doing a back dive, head entering the water first. Minutes later I will remember Tim O’Brien’s words from The Things They Carried, just flat fuck fell, describing a guy after he got shot in Vietnam. The little girl was like that, graceful gravity, then submerged. NO, NO, NO, I yell, high hurdling through the foggy water. I get to her seconds after the splash, turn her upright, she’s coughing, spitting up water. The mom hears my shouting, runs from the other side of the pool. She’s been walking by the pool all day, she never came close to the edge, she says. Is that wine on her breath? I wonder. That was an emergency, says my son, barely able to comprehend what just happened. Back in our room I find myself guessing how many minutes the little girl would have been hidden, silent under the water, before her mother figured it out.

The 2-Hour Attorney

I never interviewed for the legal assistant job, some poor suckers probably did, not me, my Uncle Aaron just hooked me up. In retrospect they should have paid people just to apply. I had two ties, one sport jacket, and a fear of being captured by the man, the capitalist system. My dad was an attorney, my uncle was an attorney, I was afraid that the law might get me too. Sunday night before my first day at the firm I announced that I would slumber outside of my aunt and uncle’s house. I lay my sleeping bag out on the Mill Valley deck, smelling the eucalyptus trees, feeling the presence of Mount Tam seeping into my being. I was looking for strength, for answers, for last breaths of freedom before joining The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit.

The next morning starts out ok. My uncle and I take the ferry across the bay to the Embarcaderos, sunshine, gulls, lapping water. I try to ignore the suits, the newspapers, the paisley tie that I’m wearing. I don’t feel like I’m on the conveyer belt until we’re in the elevator surrounded by steel and little blinking lights, everyone staring down at their shoes. We get out at the 22nd floor. My uncle briefly introduces me to Harold, then is gone. Harold is a middle-aged, middle management man, sweater vest, navy blue tie, haggard, balding. Once upon a time he probably had lawyer dreams, but now he is king of the paralegals. These boxes all contain documents that need to be labeled. At any point you will be asked to discontinue one box and start another. We go to trial in late November, you will be working overtime, you will be working weekends, any questions? His coffee breath fills the small room that is packed with cardboard boxes and file cabinets. My mind starts alternating between Full Metal Jacket, You will not laugh, you will not cry, and A-B-C, always be closing, from Glengarry Glen Ross. After Harold leaves, I meekly ask some of the other slugs what I’m supposed to do. This guy with Buddy Holly glasses takes his headphones off and tries to explain the process of labeling documents, as I watch his pale face almost quiver. Why are you doing this? I finally ask. I’m applying to law school. If I do this for a year it will help me get in. It turns out everyone in the room is in the pipeline. I just sit there for an hour ruffling papers, contemplating the four windowless walls. I know I might go out one day, but I wasn’t going out like this, whimpering to myself, nursing my daily paper cuts.

No, I have one of the great moments of clarity that we sometimes only appreciate after the fact, but I celebrate it right then and there. I get up and leave. I enter my uncle’s corner office on the 23rd floor. I’ve got some good news and some bad news. My uncle looks at me with the quizzical countenance of someone who is trying to act more serious than he actually feels; I think he knows what’s coming. The good news is that I’m getting dim sum for lunch. The bad news is that I’m not coming back. My uncle proceeds to say all the right things about me letting him down, and how I blew this opportunity, but days later I heard that he was bragging about me. All the law firm partners knew that I had escaped being a shield boy; Aaron’s nephew wasn’t going to take it up the butt.

Capri

Manicured ladies in stilettos navigate ancient smooth
stoned pathways, corridors assembled during Roman times.
Their legs, butt cracks, and cleavage pattern the night,
wafts of perfume mingle with the smell of grilled
octopus and cigarettes.

Some cling to tan wrinkled arms
of sugar daddies, men with white chest hairs
attached to fortunes drenched in cologne.
I never visit the island for Gucci or Fendi,
air-conditioned square shops of consumer luxury.

The purring cicadas surrounded by sea
are my siren song, blue water darkening as it journeys
to Tunisia. Pulsating, my calves quiver up and down steps
to Villa Jovis where Tiberius reigned supreme, decadently
tossing the unwanted off cliffs into the watery
chasm of time.

The ruins sit unaffected by sun’s sweat dripping
from my elbows. I rest in pine tree shadows, imagine when
Neruda was here, arranging verse in his head. Away from the glitz,
everything is as it was, as it is, ants, jasmine, laughter
of the old women who were born in Capri,
born by the sea.

Facebook

I’m on it again, the Facebook, as Zuckerberg first called it,the guy who doesn’t believe in privacy. I’m here with the photos of lunch, landscapes, selfies, the everything, the nothing, on a flat screen, on a computer, on a phone, it notifies me, assures me that I’m not alone, together with all my friends, who I like.

We brag with our images about going to Hamilton, riding on cruise ships, meeting celebrities. We want everyone to know, that we exist, have money, status, are real Americans. Compulsive clicks show we care about the environment, the presidential policies, the status of women, and we do care. We raise funds, promote books, films, cuddly cat videos.

Curated, we pick the best parts, the worst parts, the wars, the almost wars. The screen is our battlefield, our competition, our attention already waning as the electronic ink disappears into the next post, the one that will mean more. We’re here, together in this internet-tethered world of distracted connected humanity, crossing continents, fragmenting minds.