Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature

Jose Padua: It Was 1982 or ’83 and Nelson Mandela Wasn’t Free

It was 1982 or 83
and three of the new workers
from the ambassador’s residence
who were here in the States
for the first time had been over
to the house, invited
by my Mom and Dad
for a home cooked Filipino meal.
At the end of the night I took them
in my ’74 Dodge Charger/badass American car
down Hobart, then back up Irving,
and at Mt. Pleasant Street we’re waiting
for the light to change when Emilio,
the youngest of them, asks,
“You have nightclub in this city?”
And he’s looking at me
as if I’m the one who knows
the secret password or abracadabra equivalent
that will set the beautiful madness of America
spinning right in front of his eyes.
I play it cool and say,
“Oh, yeah, there are places
to hear music, have drinks,
see big-time rock bands,”
but he ignores this and keeps his eyes on me,
waiting to hear the answer he wants,
and then he leans forward slightly
and asks, “Nude?”
and in the back seat the two other guys
are sitting all quiet, waiting for the answer,
and it’s apparent that while I’m the ride home
to the ambassador’s residence,
Emilio is the designated asker of questions
they want to know the answers
to but are too shy to ask.
So I say, “Oh yeah,
there are places for that,”
and I act as if I’ve never been
to a nude or topless joint
even though I’d been to these places
more times than I care to say,
and I consider for a moment
that maybe I should just take them to one right then—
to Good Guys and Camelot and then cross town
to the ones up on Georgia Avenue
where things really get wild—
all as a way of saying,
“Hey, welcome to America!”
Now, there are moments in your life
after which you can clearly see yourself
as having become a better person.
This is not one of them.
Which isn’t to say that I took them out
for a decadent night in the Western world
and corrupted them more than they needed to be corrupted,
because I didn’t.
I drove them right back
to the ambassador’s residence where they were staying,
but it wasn’t because I didn’t want
to see them joining the ranks
of the sort of ugly Americans
you often see at these places,
nor was it because I didn’t want to show Emilio
a wild time here before his wife and kids
followed him here to the U.S
because I didn’t know that night
that he had a family
back in the Philippines. No,
the reason I decided not to take them
out to the strip clubs
was because I thought that taking them with me
would cramp my style, that it would make me
less cool, as if being the cool guy in a strip joint
wasn’t already the sorriest thing
I could imagine.
So no, this wasn’t a turning point for me,
and I took them back to the ambassador’s residence
on Massachusetts Avenue along Embassy Row
where they were cooks, cleaners, servers—
workers like my Mom and Dad
who had crossed the Pacific by boat,
leaving the land where they were born
to come here, and who fresh
off that boat had more style and were cooler
than I ever was in my twenties.
And somehow I’m remembering all this tonight,
thirty years later, when after getting back home
with my wife and kids, on this
day in December when Nelson Mandela
has died, the song “Someday We’ll All Be Free”
comes on the car stereo
and I have to stop and
listen even though my wife and kids
are already walking toward our
house, because for me
the most beautiful moments
aren’t when I consider how far I’ve come,
but when I realize how far I have to go,
and I pause,
my hand on my wrist as if feeling my pulse,
before I straighten my back
and begin to move.



Photograph by Jose Padua, taken on December 5, 2013

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This entry was posted on January 10, 2015 by in Opinion Leaders, Poetry and tagged , , , , .

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