Thursday, March 5, 2015

Outdoor Cafe

“What do you want to do?” I ask.
“I just want to chill,” you say,
“pass time.”


Time passes;
me, then you,
passing simultaneously.


I look at the weather.
You read your book.


A traffic accident turns
both our heads.


If only we could
be together forever.
be together forever.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

7 Things Your Family Didn't Have in the 1990's (But your rich friends' families did)

1. A Normal Dog

Your friends' dogs are playful black labs and sleepy golden retrievers with shiny coats of long hair. Your family had to kill your first dog for trying to kill your mom. 

You've had a succession of strange animals dwelling in your home, all of them from the pound. Equally aloof and territorial, they try to kill anybody who nears the house, but, if given the opportunity, they will bolt out the front door and never come back. Visitors are given nuanced instructions ("Don't try to hug anybody," "Give her a treat and sit down," "Do not stand up suddenly"), something like entering the cell of a genius serial killer, in order to avoid attack. Beautiful, perhaps, but with strange fears, mysterious scars, and neurotic eating habits, your dog has a checkered past and is a public hazard and legal liability.

2. Cable

Without cable, you were at the end of the list for sleepovers ("There's nothing to do at your house."), nobody wants to come over after school, and it still hurts.

Do you remember cringing when lunch-table conversation turned to Dragonball Z or sports? You hadn't seen the latest episode; you didn't know the characters' names. You didn't know shit about basketball, football, or baseball, because you didn't have Sportscenter. 

You'll be ahead of the curve when it comes to Seinfeld, but, as a child, its neurotic humor only serve to further isolate you from everyone.

3. Cordless Phones/ Caller ID







At your home, there is a rotary phone in your mom's bedroom. In the kitchen, the phone has a long, tangled, cord caked with oil and bits of food. It knocks things off the counters as you pace around the kitchen. It droops into the frying pan, lights on fire and sets off the over-sensitive smoke alarm which you have to shut off by frantically swinging the back door open and shut.

Your friends, on the other hand, have sexy cordless telephones that aren't attached to dirty, partially melted umbilical cords. They don't even have to pick them up; they have caller ID, which means no surprises.  And when there is a phone call, their heads rise, amused almost, by the soothing, modern ring that always brings good news.


4. Ceiling Fans



Nothing produces a feeling of inadequacy like the elegance and easy comfort your rich friends' ceiling fan. 


You are accustomed to the blistering, suffocating heat of summer and the rattling buzz of a non-oscillating fan meant to combat it.


5. Kitchen Islands




A key component of a modern, spacious kitchen, an island is a hallmark of middle-class America. Both attractive to the eye and gut-wrenchingly functional, the island increases counter space and provides a sort of hearth in the most social room of the house. You don't have one because your family is lazy.

6. Cool Refrigerator



You are used to unfilled ice-cube trays, unfiltered water from the tap, and orange juice made from concentrate. 

Your friends' sleek, metallic refrigerator fills you with cool, clean water and ice-cubes on-demand, but it also fills you with envy and rage.



7. A Basement






Fully self-sufficient with a white marble bathroom, a refrigerator full of Gatorade and soda, and an array of entertainment options, it is a dim, carpeted, air-conditioned world with zero parent supervision. It's a place in which you will eventually drink alcohol, try drugs, and have sex. It is your rich friend's basement. There is nothing like it in your house, and there is no reason to go home.





Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Opposite Person

For the past two years I’ve lived in rural Honduras. I have an internet connection. I read the U.S news—too much of it, perhaps. I watch my teams, the Bulls and the Saints. I’m not off the grid, not like my uncle was when he did Peace Corps in Ethiopia in the 60’s. I’ve come back for the holidays, seen family, and besides the odd sensation that I’m driving by rows and rows of hotels, I’ve been saved from culture shock. But there have been these feelings.
The other day a Babe Ruth picture nearly brought me to tears. A far cry from the Yankee Bambino that drank beer between innings and waddled out of the dugout only to hit 410-foot home runs, this picture shows a different Babe. He sits in the stands, a quiet, concerned spectator wearing a three-piece suit. One leg rests over the other and his hands are folded in quiet respect on one knee. The seats directly around Babe are empty. Several rows behind him, a man reads a newspaper. In the next seat is a woman wearing a big, floppy, black hat. She’s laughing at something the man next to her has said. Nearby, a man with a scorecard and a beatific smile puffs on a cigar. It is easy to feel the weather in pictures like this—indeed, to feel the actual day. But it is gone and Babe is squinting over his shoulder. He is perhaps three years past his prime, not invisible, but clearly not bigger than the game. The game—perhaps he is realizing— will go on without him.
Another unexpected feeling grabbed me during an NBA postgame show. There was a white host and a black host. The white guy was a lifetime suburbanite, a college graduate with a degree in communications. The black guy was a retired professional ball player, one who grew up in a rough neighborhood in Chicago; one who made it, who perhaps saw friends and family killed, beaten by police. The topic during the postgame show, however, was basketball. The white guy asked the questions, the black guy answered them. One deferred to the other. They even joked around some. It was soothing. It seemed a nod to history, harmony. Black and white: America’s two hosts.
Then it happened again. I was watching Michael Jordan’s first NBA game online, a winning effort against the Washington Bullets. The video quality was poor, and the commercials had not been edited out. Surprisingly, the commercials were the most interesting part. Alka Seltzer. No matter what shape your stomach is in, when it gets out of shape, take Alka Seltzer. Better than any other antacid. Better than anything you can get without a prescription. Anything. Alka Seltzer. It’s the best. There was something refreshing about the language. It was bold, direct. There was another commercial, this one appearing to have been financed by the Arizona Department of Tourism. When hay fever pollen invades your sinuses, brings runny nose and watery eyes, take Dristan. Dristan is like sending your sinuses to Arizona. Yes. Dristan is like sending your sinuses to Arizona. When pollen causes hay fever misery, don’t wish you could be in sunny, dry Arizona. Just remember: Dristan is like sending your sinuses to Arizona.
It was unequivocal, unashamed solicitation, not yet the post-commercial world where people try and make themselves appear to be everything—anything—but what they are. It was so...American.
Then a familiar face: Ronald McDonald. He wore a cheap, red wig and ran around hugging kids. It was simple, low-budget. Just a man in a suit, selling burgers. You could see the wrinkles under the face paint. He seemed genuinely happy, which was a relief. What scares people about clowns is their humanness, not the makeup— the emotions being concealed, the falsity. These days Ronald is largely absent. If anything he's a cartoon, or sometimes a life-sized, cardboard cutout waving goodbye by the door. Because McDonald's isn't trying to sell me hamburgers anymore; they're trying to sell me a lifestyle in which I would eat hamburgers. The commercials are measured, calculatedly slick and relatable, but always a little off, something like Arnold Friend in “Where are You Going, Where Have You Been?”
Babe, Alka-Seltzer, Ronald. What it boiled down to was an unexpected sort of patriotism. Unexpected because I've always disliked authority, always sided with the underdogs, and patriotism has always seemed a far too obvious choice. Plus, in the United States, it seems irrevocably tied to an anti-intellectual, conservative worldview, which is not in line with my upbringing. In the 8th grade I refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance because I didn’t, and don’t, believe in God. Mr. Thompson, a bald and humorless math instructor who— for other reasons, I think—hated me, insisted that I read it. I confidently refused and I was happy, actually excited, when he sent me to the office. Surely they would side with me—with the Constitution—and force Mr. Thompson to abide my little rebellion. They did, and only now that I’m a teacher do I understand how truly vexing I must have been for poor Mr. Thompson. Only now that I’ve lived outside the country, where getting a quality education is a privilege and not a right, do I realize that it’s the America that would have told me to “shut up and read the damn Pledge” that I’m beginning to miss.
With all I've said in my life about being a liberal, what have I actually done? Sure I've complained, but I’ve never even voted. I was out of the country for the last presidential election, and out of my home state for the one before that, but surely if I cared I could have cast a ballot absentee. I don't appear to be any more prejudiced than your average person, but I sometimes I wonder: what if I’m much, much more? Perhaps I'm an Opposite Person.
Opposite People have fears that are so overwhelming that they're forced to display the opposite. There are countless models: the ladies man that's afraid of intimacy, the libertarian that's actually uncomfortable with people being free, the hippie: a person who cares so crushingly about what people think of their appearance that they forgo it altogether, and replace it with a sort of form. The greatest of all Opposite People, I think, are patriots: a group of individuals that are almost uniformly dissatisfied with their own countries. They say things like, “I’m damn proud to be an American,” yet don't acknowledge the authority of the federal government. They benefit inordinately from government relief, but often, on ideological grounds, refuse to pay taxes. A small, but outspoken minority of patriots (American and otherwise) consider the current, democratically-elected president a communist. More treasonous statements are uttered by self-defined patriots, I would guess, than any other one group. Why does this happen? Is it the love of something that’s no longer there, something that was never really more than an idea, that turns people screwy? Do we attack outward expressions of what we fear we really are? Perhaps it’s something about balance, the equalizing of some pressure that ensures we never do exactly what it is we want to do.

Maybe it’s wise to embrace the things you’ve spent your life opposing. Temperance prevents us from becoming monsters, but maybe it also prevents us from realizing the small truths that exist on our dark sides. Some people take drugs to experience their opposite sides. I did my fair share of that, but I had to stop. For me, drugs turned out to be just like the commercials. So now, I entertain the possibility that they’re right, all my opposites, and since then, the world has seemed much more sane. Because what if trickle-down economics is actually the best way? Why don’t I pull myself up by my bootstraps? What if we are liberaling ourselves into the ground? Here I am traveling, but why? What else could I be, in the end, but an American?

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Did you hear?


Did you hear?

Today they canceled science and history
and math
and filled the slots with silly time.

It was declared
that serious persons must commit
one gaff
or fall
or laugh
or write the word booger
one-hundred times.

It’s just that sort of day,
ovely,
dovel
lovely is what it is.

Did you see the news?

They found a WWII submarine
off the coast of Carolina.
A relic of a serious time--
but wouldn’t you believe it,
the crew was fine!

They were drunk actually
and the spectacled scientists felt silly
from their tentacled craft
as the submariner and his men
sauntered all over
the ocean floor.

I'm sure you've felt it before.

People always saying
there's something coming;
they feel the slow strings
quickening, 
tightening.
But assholes always get it wrong, don't they?

Didn’t you hear?

Today they canceled science and history
and math
and filled the slots with silly time.

Write the word booger one-hundred times
laugh
or make a gaff 
or if deep down 
you're serious like me
try to fall
in love.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Third World Explanation

I can only explain the Third World like this: it’s like sleepaway summer camp. You sleep next to a fan. If you get sick, an adult who is not your parent takes you to the doctor. The roads are bumpy and unpaved. The cars are all old pickups that need paint jobs. Conditions alternate between dust and mud. The furniture is old and worn, even in places like insurance agencies or restaurants, and the padding will be popping out of the leather or there will be scratches or little drips of paint on it if it's wood. It's still comfortable, and functional, but it would never fly in the States. Someone would have said, “It’s time we got rid of that thing,” and that would be the end of that. New fuckin’ table. At summer camp everything and everyone looks a little grimy. But you get used to it, so much that when you leave the first thing you notice are the colors. There's such contrast between the white shirts and the red sweaters. Your eyes are adjusting. Then your mom says you need to take a shower before you go out to eat. You realize you're dirty as hell. Most people in the Third World are spared this rude realization because their camp session lasts forever.

We never had packs of wild dogs at summer camp though. One night around 2 a.m. I watched a street battle, a swirl of ribcages and muscle, in the cobblestone intersection below my balcony. I had a great view but I can’t say I enjoyed it much. When it was over, the one pack was charging up the hill, looking like a cavalry regiment after a successful raid, and the other gave a half-spirited pursuit before trickling back down the hill. One of their number, a thin and beautiful creature that looked like a wolf, was sitting like a sphinx in the middle of the road. His back leg stuck out oddly behind it and it from where I stood it looked like a ripped pillow. He made no noise but beat his tail and looked at the other dogs plaintively. They gathered around him and licked his face and whined after they’d smelled the oddly-bent leg. I returned an hour later to smoke a cigarette and the dog was alone and looking alert, listening to the sounds of the empty street. It was a starry clear night and he looked like a castaway. I don’t know what happened to him and I can’t think of a better outcome than not knowing. Maybe it’s the way dogs grin even when they’re hurt or dying that makes their plights such a concern to people. Of course many people don’t care, and anyhow it's not an actual grin. 

It's No Joke Being Broke


Being broke in the Third World is no joke. Sometimes I don’t even have the equivalent of a nickel. A nickel. That’s five cents. A few months ago I came to spend a few days in Tela, a city on the north coast of Honduras, before flying out of nearby San Pedro Sula. I’d paid half of all the money I had for one night in a hotel and I was getting screwed. I sat in my room covered in sweat with a remote control to a dead TV. The fan wouldn’t spin, wouldn’t oscillate. I said fuck; the fan made a clicking noise. My lips were bleeding; I’d been eating unripe mangoes. The skin of an unripe mango is full of urushiol; the same thing that makes poison ivy a poison. I went to take a shower. Often its the only way to stay cool. The towel on the rack by the sink had the words Hotel La Hacienda written in black permanent marker. There was no curtain or shower-head, just a tube sticking out of the wall. I turned the nozzle, half expecting no water to come out, and it didn't. I smelled smoke, a sort of burning plastic smell. The fan was on fire. I’d left it on and the internal gears were grinding themselves away.

My stomach was rumbling in the morning. I went to get the free breakfast. It was early and the room was dark. The restaurant was on the second floor and out the window on the far side of the room I could see the main square and beyond it the grayish-blue line of the ocean. I felt better. The woman came out and I told her I wanted coffee. She pointed to the food on the counter. There was cereal, oatmeal, and grits. There was milk in a jug in the refrigerator. I have always been wary of milk products. I hadn’t eaten grits since being in Tennessee so I emptied the bag into a plastic bowl and added some hot water. They were good but not at all the way I remembered them. Halfway through the bowl I saw I was eating maggots. The little larvae were squirming. For a moment it looked like the grits had come alive. Why is it that little things always seem to squirm? I finished the coffee and headed to the beach.

There was a bridge over a small river that emptied into a lagoon. Water from the lagoon flowed across the flat sand and met the onrushing water from the ocean and the currents made fantastic patterns. Palm trees lined the beach in neat rows and every so often there was a large blue garbage can next to one of them. A large ship loomed close to shore. It revved its engine and black smoke came out of it. I thought it was searching for something or practicing staying in one place because it did not leave an area within four bright orange buoys. It was a workday and there was nobody on the beach. I put my towel down and buried my wallet in the sand. There was nothing in my stomach but coffee and a few maggots. In the water I bobbed like a pop can. The ocean was as warm as forgotten tea.


Thursday, September 4, 2014

Fish Girl

There was a fish on the sidewalk. 
“Hey!  Hey!  I like your sunglasses,” she said.
 She was flopping alongside of me.   
“You snuck up on me there.”
The sun slid a rainbow up to her pouting lips. 
“What’s your name?”
A heave:  “Mary.”
Mary was covered in flies.
“Where are you going Mary?”
“This way.” 
“Well come on then.”
“Where are you from?” I asked.
 “Tennessee.  Thirty miles south of Chattanooga.”           
“So that’s eastern Tennessee.” 
She stopped and looked very impressed.
Baby,” she said.
I thought I saw a smile, the rainbows around her gills switching poles.
 “Well, I live right up here by Morocco Street. Do you know where that is?”
“I do. I’m staying there with some friends.”
“What a coincidence. What are you doing in town?”
“I just got a job at Babes’ Cabaret.”
“So you’re going to be a stripper?”
“I start tomorrow night. You should be my # 1.”
“OK,” I said. “Take me home with you?”
“Sure thing,” she said. “Just pick me up.”
I put my hand around her
and she felt like old sandwich meat.
"Hm, maybe if I..."
Then I caught my finger on a spine.
"Ouch!"
"Sorry." 
I tried my hand like a spatula
and one of her scales peeled off into my hand.
She was stuck to the pavement.
I didn’t want to go home with her anymore.
“Just wondering," she asked,
"do you have water or anything at your house?”
I looked down the street for the bus.
“Uhm. What they don’t have a fish bowl where you live? Or at least a cup of water?”
“No, they just say they love me.”
“Well that’s something. Hey, you want some beer?”  
I had a half a can of beer
and I tilted it toward the button eye
 and the sinewy mouth, which snapped open.
“That was good,” she said. “Hey, wait! Where are you going?”
“Five blocks this way, and two that way.”
“Oh, bye,” she said and waved her fin
sadly like a fan.
I put my hands on my hips
and turned toward the street.
The light was baking the shade,
just beating it up.
I saw legs moving from the bottoms of trellised porches.
The cats were starting to move.
“Good luck Mary,” I said. 

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Cabbies

Two white gulls appear from the perfect blue and startle the water. It is 8:00 a.m., the start of a new day. The cab drivers’ voices rise and fall in time. They come to this parking lot every morning. There is a Dunkin Donuts, which opens early, and Value Pricing, an Arab store that sells dates, olives, and tea. On a good day there are twenty of them, with ten drinking tea and smoking cigarettes, watching the sun rise over the canal from foldout chairs around an ornate rug that’s stored in Horiya’s trunk. Four other men sit cross-legged on stools. The older men wear well-ironed gray trousers and pastel shirts that puff nicely near the waist. One has a tweed jacket neatly folded over one knee. They have striking mustaches and black hair that’s combed over dignified patches bare scalp. The others recline in their cars and close their eyes and do not talk except out their windows. They come to see men that look like their grandfathers talk to men that look like their fathers, letting the language drift in the open window...
“He received the...ah... Peace Prize in 1964 to make the world a better place. Then there was 1967, and ah...”
“—Whole new ball game?”
“Right,” the first one says. “Exactly.”
There’s a rumble in the distance that scares away the gulls. (What does Horiya, whose father’s business was destroyed three times by airstrikes, hear in the summer when the sky is dark and booming with rain?)
“I could drive cab for 30 years with no raise,” a young driver says. “Already I speak better English than Jerome, and he is the boss.”
“He speaks black,” another says. “‘Yo Yo.’ Right?”
 “It’s an outrage.”
An older man with the folded tweed jacket raises his hand. “Outrage?” he says. “You not realize how bad it could be.” “Look where we are. The air is good. You are not questioned by the guards. You may go anywhere you like. It is a blessing.” His palm is flat, held from a bent elbow, like a frozen snake ready to strike.

 “Yes, but we still must work,” – the other old man adds– “very hard.” The last two words carry the full weight of his breath, as if it were too early for them to be spoken, and they remind the men to be a little afraid. Two men roll up Horiya’s rug and carry it to his trunk. They finish their coffee, crush half-smoked cigarettes on the pavement, start their engines and drive away. Then the parking lot is empty. They hear it on their radios. The first plane hits at 8:14. The second at 8:22. If you hadn’t been there an hour before, you’d never know they were there. 

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Never Write Poems About Dreams

In college someone told me,
Never write poems about dreams.
It's an excess,
a willful muddling of meaning,
a lack of conviction disguised as attitude.

I can see the logic in this,
but god damn.

I'm not particularly worried
about how I write a fucking poem,
I told the guy,
who was my college professor.

He had a fedora, a witty t-shirt,
thick-rimmed glasses, a mustache,
and he was wearing a scarf in New Orleans.

That's a lack of conviction.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Candidate


I was at a gas station in Honduras
drinking coffee and reading
when I met the candidate.


There were three employees dressed in bright red vests.
One put the coffee in a Styrofoam cup.
Another fetched sugar packets
and a little red straw.
The last took a pile of napkins from the dispenser
and placed them neatly under the sugar packets.


I knew by his stature,
his perfect mustache, and cowboy hat
that he was someone important;
a wealthy rancher
or a member of the cartel.


He sat next to me and asked where I was from
and I told him, and he said he had family in Waukegan
and I told him what I knew of the place.
He said he'd lived in New Orleans
and then California,
where he’d picked artichokes with Cesar Chavez.
Knew him personally.


I nodded and noticed his face by my right elbow
on a stack of laminated flyers.


Mario Padilla, candidate for congress
running for the newly-formed leftist party, Libre.


Next to Mario is Libre's presidential candidate:
an attractive, dark woman
with thick black eyebrows named Xiomara Castro,
wife to former president Manuel Zelaya
who was ousted in a coup in 2009.


I told him I was a leftist too and then had nothing else to say,
so I motioned to the chaos of the street where the construction
of a four-lane road was underway.


“I heard it’s all for politics,” I said, baiting him. “They want it done by election time.”
“You see that?” he asked,
pointing to a boy sweeping dust from the street. “The poverty. It breaks my heart.”


Maybe a week later I heard an interesting story:
I was told Mario Padilla stole the gas station we'd been sitting in.
More precisely President Zelaya
had seized all the gas station in town
and given them to party supporters, like Mario.


Perhaps it's for good reason that people say
Libre is more of the same.
They had a shot at winning, but that was seven months ago.


In the mean time,
the new road was completed,
the Che Guevara memorial was demolished early on election day,
and Libre lost the election,
though their red flags hang from the tree stumps
and gutters in the poorer neighborhoods
where everyone with nothing to lose
somehow lost again.


The new president is conservative.
He promised: A Soldier on Every Corner
and now with the machine guns
there’s no fear of being robbed of your wallet,
there's just fear,
which is robbery of hope.


What it comes down to in Honduras is security
and that’s the way it is now: secure.
People with money like conservative politicians
because they buttress inequality,
giving you the choice between warm shit
or cold shit,
corruption or martial law,
poverty or crime.


Sooner or later we’ll say enough is enough.
There is hope, I know it,
because inequality is not a natural state;
it takes energy.


Imagine a hand shaking a snow globe
or sand agitated in water.
Gravity takes over
sooner or later.