A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
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 positivething—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’sgood,” 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 something 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.