Today’s My Last Day Teaching

A brilliant Fall afternoon in Charlottesville, the booms of a cannon marking each touchdown scored at the football stadium nearby.  Yesterday, I dared my first aquatic therapy session with a stroke patient, in the therapy pool at the new UVA-Healthsouth Rehabilitation Center down the street, where I work as an occupational therapist.  It was fun.  Seemed to help.  Tomorrow my pregnant wife Chris and I will take our toddler son Nick up Carter Mountain for apples and cider donuts, the first visit of what will become an annual rite.  But today I’m attempting yet another new adventure, delivering my first ever speech at a professional conference, on this topic that I’m just beginning to understand myself, How Activities of Daily Living can Inform and Improve Rehabilitation for People with Brain Injury. 

It seems to go well, at least nobody gets up and leaves before I’m done.  Then as I collect my slides from the projector, one by one, and slot them back in their folder, a professorial looking guy in a tie and jacket comes up, asking a question that for me became fateful words, “Have you ever thought about teaching?”

In the twenty-something years since that first talk, I’ve gone back to school for a PhD, taught a generation of OT students, delivered countless lectures, workshops and seminars in 32 states and six foreign countries, conducted ground-breaking research on the use of mobile devices and smart homes for people with cognitive-behavioral challenges, founded and directed a novel community reentry program for brain injury, and served on the usual professional and foundation boards.  Al Copolillo, that guy who asked the fateful question, is a friend and colleague. For two decades we were the lone males on a staff of talented women in the OT department at VCU.  He lives nearby now, retired from a sterling career, and today I happily – one might say giddily — join him.

This past year’s covid-related challenges have played havoc (this is VCU, of course, where havoc is a basketball cheer) with clinical education.  How do you teach a student to splint a hand, transfer a patient, ultrasound a wound, or repair a wheelchair when you’re not allowed to touch anybody?  We figured it out, lecturing on Zoom, finagling the hands-on labs in masks and goggles, but today thanks to new guidance from the powers that be, I’m turning off my computer, and meeting the students in my stroke seminar at Byrd Park, maskless outdoors, to sum up the semester, wish them well, share some homemade cookies, and leave them to their own careers that I can only hope will spawn memories as full as mine. So much to reflect on, to be grateful for, here at the cusp of what friends call “the next chapter.”  Indeed.

January by the Numbers

Last April – seems so long ago now – I posted this rant: Revisiting the numbers game today, when the shock of that horrifying month has long been overcome by the count of those that followed.

On Day 1 New Year’s Day the total:
83.9 million Corona cases/350,000 dead.
Imagine Miami, everyone dead.
Or St. Louis, all dead.
That day, as most days, the US No. 1,
166,113 testing positive, 3,462 dead, and again on this day
as on 307 other days of his term
nearly 1 year of his 4
the President plays 18-holes.

Other numbers:
The golfing President begs 1 state
for 11,780 make-believe votes
2 Democrats win there
on the same day 1000s
sack the Capitol, hunting heads
Q’s and 3-percenters and so-called Proud Boys
5 die.

In 2021‘s 1st month
140,000 more Americans lose their jobs.
Food lines, testing lines, and now lines for
2 vaccines with 95% effectiveness.
But also 3, no 4, new Covid-19 strains.
You need 2 shots spaced 3 weeks apart
if you can find 1.

Then wait 2 weeks, or 3,
but maybe then you can still
be a spreader.
And will they kill the new strains?
Here’s a 1-shot vaccine, too.
What does 65% effective even mean?

73 last minute pardons of cronies and crooks.
The golfing President impeached a 2nd time.
10 months along, somehow still not enough N95’s.
ICUs at 110% capacity.

You’re better off with 2 masks
they tell us now.

On the 31st, a Sunday,
24.4 million Americans have been vaccinated
(just 305 million to go!)
as we continue our run at No. 1:
133,746 new cases, 2641 dead
in 1 day of the worst month yet.

The new old President, just 10 days in,
goes to church and prays,
no doubt, for 3 things:
Unity, mercy, and resolve.


Blue Ridge Parenthesis: a poem

For the first time since corona, Chris and I ventured out for a weekend getaway, staying at an Air BnB cottage on a hillside near Bedford, VA. She surprised me Sunday morning with Father’s Day gifts that included a watercolor set and Gary Snyder’s zen poetry collection Danger on Peaks. Which, over coffee, led to this:

On the ridge a neighbor
tests his semi-automatic:


Funny how it’s then
you notice quiet
a blank sheet seepingly
watercolored by
a distant rooster’s crowing
a mourning dove’s
wooden flute reply
and far down on the valley floor
the trailing hoot of a train.

Silent as a shadow
a skink with a brilliant blue tail
edges onto the deck:


Why this White Virginia Boy Feels So Proud Today

Today is my proudest as a native Virginian, thanks to the announcement by Governor Northam (another born and raised Virginia boy) ordering the removal of the 6-story tall monument to Robert E. Lee in downtown Richmond.

The decision could not have come easy for the governor, knowing that a vocal minority of his constituents will rage, but also because in doing this he has needed to evolve his own thinking, which for most of us would have been the heavier lift.  I know, because like the governor, I am a white guy of a certain age raised amidst tales of the noble, daring, underdog General Lee, a native Virginian cheered by ragged troops as he passes on his good grey steed Traveler.  Like the governor, I underwent three years of Virginia history classes in elementary school, reading text books that not only never mentioned the extermination of the original Virginians, but that substituted the word “servants” wherever the phrase “enslaved persons” should have gone.  I even remember an amateur minstrel show at the white high school’s auditorium on the 100th anniversary of Virginia’s secession from the Union, where white leaders in our community dressed in black face and ragged tuxedos.  I played a role in that play as the son of a Confederate soldier, and in my skit ran onstage to my hoop-skirted mother shouting, “Father!  Father!  Here comes father!” to announce his return from the war. 

It was not until 8th grade that our county fully integrated its schools, and my re-education began.  I am grateful for that.  Looking back, maybe I should say that was my proudest day.  Because that’s when I began to walk the path the governor too has followed.  My first black teacher was Irvin McQuaige, a tough love fireplug of a football coach who made it clear to us that nothing he was putting us through at practice compared to the cotton fields he worked as a child.  He spoke in Bernie Mack staccato, made sure our integrated football team set an example of racial equity and comradeship for the school, and that we were undefeated in district play.  (Coach McQuaige later became a beloved high school principal in our county.) 

Some of my white friends left for the local military school, segregated at the time, but most stayed on.  It was the early 1970s.  The black students led walkouts when administrators made particularly bone-headed (ie, racist) decisions, but our county got through the era intact.  That our sports teams won championships, setting shining examples of interracial teamwork, helped. Black and white students alike are friends to this day.

I think we all know what happened when Governor Northam went off to study medicine at Eastern Virginia Medical School. That photograph in black face will forever haunt him.  But his journey from that day to this mirrors my own and that of so many other white Virginians.

I’m a little younger than the governor.  Went north to college, where I spent a semester-long independent study reading all of Faulkner, whose entire Nobel Prize-winning oeuvre is a wrestle with slavery and its aftermath in the Deep South, and where I studied history under Professor David Herbert Donald.  Hearing this barrel-chested white scholar dissect and disprove with plain evidence lies I’d been raised on about the Lost Cause and the happy servants and what people I knew back home still called “The War of Northern Aggression,” all with a Mississippi drawl, frankly blew my mind.  Professor Donald taught me what history is all about (he almost made me a historian).  History is about facing the evidence, about wiping away cobwebs of myth and self-serving lore.  It’s about reading the ledgers of humans sold alongside cattle and the postcards showing lynchings all over the South.  It’s about letting the facts guide your opinions.  What a concept.

Which brings us to this past week, when everyone watched the slow and agonizing death of one man beneath the knee of another, and when the steadily growing protests across the country (and the world) made the white knees on the necks of black, brown and indigenous Americans over all these centuries plain for anyone to see and maybe finally reckon with.  Governor Northam saw it, and it changed him.  It pushed him along a path he’s been on his whole life.  The governor had already signed legislation that has made life easier for under-served Virginians, but until yesterday he hadn’t taken any step that might answer that yearbook photograph, that might punctuate the achingly slow revelation so many of us white Virginians have journeyed towards in our own lives.  Yes, there is so much work to do. Yes, our black friends are like, what took you so long? Yes, it’s only a symbol. But what a symbol! He’s done it now.  The Lee statue is coming down.  I’m so proud.

One last thing. If you were not able to listen to the entirety of Governor Northam’s remarkable announcement, I highly recommend it. One of the most moving speeches I’ve heard in a week of moving speeches:

March Fo(u)rth!

For years, I’ve considered this day on the calendar my own New Year’s Resolution reset – March 4th, the answer to the riddle, “What day of the year is a command to go forward?”  And thanks to Google, lo and behold, I just found the Batman comic, which I must have read when I was maybe ten years old, that tucked this riddle away in some corner of my brain where things that could matter to no one else seem to find their lifelong home.  Here it is:

Hooray for Batman and Robin, indeed!

I do recommend this holiday to everyone, but can only speak to its efficacy for me.  After all, the dead of winter is a poor time to launch the self-improvement projects one typically scribbles as New Year’s resolutions while licking Christmas cookie crumbs from one’s fingers.  It’s damp and dark, days are short, you’re attending the funerals of your friends’ parents instead of the weddings of your kids’ pals, and the pounds you gained over the holidays stare back at you in the mirror with plump derision.  So you shrug, say maybe next year, and toss that list of resolutions in the trash.

Or.  Or, you take one more look at them, noticing the daffodils in the yard and the sun setting late enough now to get in a good walk with the dog after work.  Land’s End sends you their bathing suit issue.  And along about then comes March 4th, with its imbedded punning command to step forward.  A-ha!  So, here we go.  On my list this year, I’ve got a slight head start, having just published the collection of poems I’ve been dawdling over for months.  Rather than working through my university’s spring break this year, I’m going to the beach with family, aiming for quality time with sons in their early twenties who teeter at the edge of the nest, but also packing the novel that seems to expand and contract like a bellows with each labored draft.  And this one, the biggie.  Today I hand in my letter of resignation, aiming to leave paid labor at the end of 2020, having never been without a job since fourth grade (often doing two, or holding a full-time gig while attending school).  Gulp.

So yes, I’m serious about this March 4th thing.  How about you?  Let’s make this a real holiday, one that gets ‘er done.  Also, I’m curious, what odd snippets – like that page in a Batman comic read in childhood – do you carry around in that dusty brain corner where such things reside?

A Handful of High Coos

The Richmond, VA based literary journal Bottom Shelf Whiskey has published one of my poems and one of my stories. Had a whiskey (natch!) recently with the journal’s estimable young publisher Hunter Reardon and he got me thinking about his new 5-7-5 syllable haiku contest ( So here are a few I came up with (illustrated) – message me your own, or better yet, send it in to BSW (you don’t need to illustrate them, of course)!

The Perennial Quest for Now – A review of Randy Fertel’s A Taste for Chaos: The Art of Literary Improvisation

(A longer version of this essay has been published in The Double Dealer:

In Boston, during the ice age winter of 1978, this callow youth had discovered punk rock, an entirely new thing which to this day I feel in some way saved my life. Eager to share my discovery, I brought Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, into the comfortable home of
 my college thesis advisor Randy Fertel. A native New Orleanian, he had been kind enough during the months of our collaboration to introduce me to Professor Longhair and the Meters, and on this late afternoon the aroma of red beans filled the house. Here was my payback. I will not say he pogoed. Fertel sat in a scholarly pose at his desk as the excellent stereo speakers of the era erupted in expletive. Two bleating tracks later he shouted above the din, “It’s been done. Have you heard of the Stooges?”

This abrupt judgment came as a punch in the gut,
 but of course the old man—in his mid-20s then — was right:  there is nothing new under the sun. Even the most spontaneous, transgressive musical nugget you may have uncovered has its precedent. But this sobering truth was only half of my advisor’s lesson. Unknowingly, I had touched a nerve of keen interest already far along 
in his consideration. This idea of spontaneity — driven by a yearning to tear down the old and yawp something else—was by his reckoning worth a closer look. Though not exactly new, the Pistols’ feral slap across the bloated face of the era’s corporate rock was something to love, and for better reasons. As I have since learned, over more than three decades of watching admiringly 
as a doctoral thesis grew tentacles that entangled not just literature, but music and the visual arts, myth, psychology, and even chaos science, my advisor had something more to say on the subject. And now we have it, a riveting, inspired, transgressive, yet authoritatively reasoned masterpiece, A Taste for Chaos: The Art of Literary Improvisation.

One of the marvels of the book is the far-ranging correspondences Fertel so neatly draws. He will have none of the professional siloes
 we so carefully build to protect our sense of expertise, inviting us to an intellectual salon where in just the first chapter we meet fifty-plus luminaries, including authors (ranging from St. Paul to St. Kerouac), musicians (John Cage to Thelonius Monk), artists (Pollock, Duchamp), philosophers, critics and even one politician (George W. Bush).   Before this distinguished troupe, Fertel raises a toast to the one thing they all share, for better or worse, a deep and abiding appreciation for the lure of improvisation. Holding his glass aloft, Fertel asks, “What is this often overlooked theme that we call spontaneity, what technical strategies are used to employ it, how do those strategies work, what do they say? Why do artists claim spontaneity at all?”

Here lies the lever of Fertel’s argument; he refuses to take the improvisers at their word, writing, “For my purposes, the claim of spontaneity is 
a cultivated affectation.” What he means is that you can’t evaluate how spontaneous any text may be, so why judge a text based on that value? Yes, Jack Kerouac famously claimed to have written On the Road on a single ream 
of paper in a speed-infused rush, but does learning that he then spent five years revising the manuscript cancel out his claim of spontaneity? Fertel wants to know why Kerouac touted the initial inspiration and not the years of tinkering that came later. This is one of his important distinctions: If you can’t evaluate spontaneous process, what can you measure? This is the question at the heart of the book.

Lacking rhetorical guidelines for identifying and critiquing improvisations, Fertel develops his own, summarized in a pair of lists. The first sets out seven claims that improvisers use to assert the artlessness 
of their work, which is composed: (a) carelessly or effortlessly, (b) as a direct transcription of experience, (c) by chance, (d) as a found object, (e) intimately in
 an unthreatening situation, (f ) in an inconvenient situation, and/or (g) inspired by inebriants or some other external power. The foundation of all of these claims is a performative element, a sense of happening now. The second list articulates the form’s dominant stylistic conventions, which include: (a) simplicity, (b) free-association, (c) digression, (d) encyclopedic enumeration or cataloguing, (e) fragmentation, imperfection or formlessness, (f) swerving from tradition, and (g) biographical realism. Artists deploy these conventions to disarm the reader, to awaken her/him to new possibilities that may access and express “as much of life as possible.” He adds, “An ‘improvised text’ is usually implicitly or explicitly shadowed by a craftsmanly, more staidly rational kind of text that it seeks to debunk and replace.” This insight suggests a productive strategy for examining historical change. By locating an era’s improvisations and contrasting them with contemporary, more conventional texts, one can illuminate the cultural and historical clashes of an age. The improviser is not just playing a game of literary one-upmanship, but seeking to shape new knowledge into art.

Much of this book is given over to surprising 
readings of pivotal texts in light of these themes. Fertel leads us to an understanding of the ways that works
 as diverse as Erasmus’ In Praise of Folly, Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, Montaigne’s Essays, Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Clemon’s Huckleberry Finn, Joyce’s Ulysses and Mann’s Doctor Faustus adopt the themes he has delineated to surprisingly similar ends across the centuries. Fertel devotes close readings to classic texts, connecting them neatly to the rhetorical guidelines he has devised, while contrasting them to contemporary texts written in a more traditional style, and—most interestingly—exploring 
the historical and cultural events surrounding their composition, shedding light on the ways each author sought to bend art to changing times. Fertel then demonstrates how improvisers — despite their conceit of spontaneity — learn from their predecessors and carry on a sort of conversation across the ages about the means and ends of improvisation, further bolstering his claim of an improvisatory tradition. And he reminds us of literary cat fights — Capote vs. Kerouac, for instance — between the upholders of writerly craft and those claiming spontaneity. I particularly enjoyed his resurrection of Poe’s essay on the mechanical, by-the-numbers strategy supposedly employed to compose his poem The Raven. Fertel shows that traditionalists, too, walk a razor’s edge of inspiration despite their claims to the contrary.

The real poignancy 
of this book, I think, derives from Fertel’s discovery that improvisation succeeds by failing. Improvisers may seek or tout spontaneity, but on further examination their efforts “reveal persistent doubts about what it would mean to have unmediated experience or if, after all, it is even achievable.” This paradox is brilliantly expressed in Stevens’ masterpiece, Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction. Fertel reminds us that the poem exalts spontaneity, but only as a mirage that recedes as we approach it. He follows this theme across the ages, delineating the ways that artists as diverse as Diderot and Joyce, for instance, imbed its sobering message in ostensibly liberating texts.

Up until this point, Fertel has been working comfortably in his wheelhouse as a literary scholar. But then he unleashes this sentence: “Understanding the aesthetics of improvisation can help us get our minds around
 two important recent phenomena: chaos or dynamic systems science, and post-modernism.” I came to these pages with only a layman’s grasp of chaos science, which is to say, not knowing much, and since I know that Fertel is no lab-coated scientist, I expected to find him here overextended and exposed. Nope. In a dazzling chapter that ranges from the Roman philosopher Lucretius to the fractal theorist Benoit Mandelbrot, Fertel demonstrates how scientists often utilize an improvisatory method to the same ends as those pursued by improvisers in the arts. He elucidates the challenges scientists since Bacon have faced in observing and interpreting phenomena, seeking — like the literary improviser — new ways to perceive and express what is. In both cases, he sees the same impulse, to be here now, alert to unmediated experience, and the same recognition that this is ultimately impossible. In their adoption of irrational concepts and openness to patterns without pattern (for instance, Mandelbrot’s effort to “investigate the morphology of the amorphous”), the chaos scientists take this theme about as far as we can now go. From here we are just a short hop to Deconstructionists such as Jacques Derrida, who sometimes seems to aim his notoriously knotty and reflexive prose at the whole corpus of received knowledge, while working within Fertel’s improvisational model, and to the same end, as in this compact manifesto: “And so I believe in improvisation, and I fight for improvisation. But always with the belief that it’s impossible.”

If you let it, this book may awaken you to a new perspective on creativity, building as it does a bridge across eras, driven by the primal human aspiration Fertel identifies and so thoroughly delineates: to be here now. As another of my 1970s pop idols, Elvis Costello, sang, “We’re only living this instant.” And as Fertel sings in page after page of his opus, that is both our comedy and our tragedy, perhaps the great theme of our lives. Those of us who are not rocket scientists or philosophers or poets live it too. Have you been born again at a backwoods revival? Fallen in love at first sight? Succumbed to road rage? Think of how an instant of spontaneity awakens and changes us. Think of how we measure ourselves and our friends on a scale from careful to carefree. How, for instance, we cherished the celerity of the late great Robin Williams’ improvisations. The creators Fertel interrogates here are like the rest 
of us, imagining a truer life lived closer to the quick. He shows us how this tantalizing aspiration is at the heart of so much that they created, and so much of what we do and care about. Yes, it has taken nearly 40 richly lived years to complete this story of the perennial quest for now. But Randy would be the first to appreciate that irony.

Roads Not Taken – essay

As a joke, I used to take snapshots of bedraggled storefronts emblazoned with the first names of my friends, and send them off as pasted together greeting cards bearing the scrawled inscription “Road Not Taken.” So my attorney friend Mike would get a card with a photo of Mike’s Pipe Fittings, schoolteacher Sharon would get one with Sharon’s Curls & Perms, professor Al, Al’s Subs & Pizza.

A joke, yes, but in these early AARP eligible years, the twists and turns of what can seem like fate leave me wondering how easily all our lives might have gone very differently, with just a tweak here, a nod there. For instance, as a freshman at Harvard in 1974, I learned about this new technology, a desktop computer. A redneck from rural Virginia, I’d never seen any kind of computer at all, though I’d read about punch card machines and seen movies with refrigerator-sized boxes spewing ticker tape. At school I learned that if you wanted to do any real calculations, there was an old cottage on a side street that housed one of the state-of-the-art Fortran punch card machines, but you had to have special permission to use it as an undergraduate, and aiming for a coveted slot on the History & Literature track, that could not have interested me less. I visited once on a tour with my physics for poets class and found it like a set for an old black and white sci fi movie, all whirring sounds, flashing lights, a little tray for punch cards, and the rank locker room smell of geeks with little interest in hygiene.  I wrote it into a script for a Dr. Strangelove sequel I was scribbling, but never imagined going there to solve a mathematical equation.

It’s hard at this late date to express how weirdly new desktop computing seemed at the time. In a back room of the sparkling new Science Center with its tall glass atrium sat ten of these machines on a row of tables. We were told they were the brain child of a Harvard-MIT consortium and that they could make computing accessible even for knuckleheaded freshman. Using a typewriter keyboard, you typed commands onto a blippy green tv screen. Conditionals such as if this, then that, etc. made the punch card world of computing easier to comprehend and act on, though our teachers made clear to us that much was lost in translating the beautiful logic of Fortran and Cobol to coded English. Everybody wanted to play with these gizmos, and lo and behold, the administration made this possible. You could sign up for a course in introductory computing and try your hand at getting the machines to simulate thought. Because everybody wanted to join in the fun, they ran a lottery. To my surprise, I won and found myself signing up for an hour each day in the computer room, typing statements like IF A=0 THEN GO TO 20; LOOP: B_? that caused the machine to carry out certain assembly line functions.  For my semester project, I decided to see if I could get the thing to write poetry.

Looking back all these years later, I realize that this was a difficult problem that has still not been satisfactorily solved. My primitive method was to type in a memory bank of cheesy words categorized by noun, verb, etc. and get the computer to select from the lists at random to build poetic lines. This hooked me more than I’d thought it would. Before long I was sub-categorizing my lists so the program would pull from rhyming words to end lines, building in a randomized choice of rhyme schemes and meters, and dog-earing my thesaurus to generate three separate word libraries for the type of poem you wanted: love, nature, or (just becoming an avid Poe fan) gloom.

Surprisingly, the program sort of worked. About every third or fourth block of words the computer generated made sense, in an autistic sort of way. I thought not that different from some of the word salad lyrics in David Bowie songs of the era. Here’s one of the better examples:





Fun, cute, what a neat toy, this computer thing. I wondered if you could make it play checkers. As the fall semester wore on and Boston’s weather surprised me in its relentless icy march, I trudged through slush in my Converse Chucks to the Science Center for my allotted hour at one of the computer terminals each day and found that other students had taken my little musings a step further. The windowless room grew funky, smelling more and more like that Fortran fortress down the street. I noticed sleeping bags rolled up in the corner. One morning, I walked in and found classmates sleeping under the tables, waiting for whatever little program they’d created to finish its calculations. We’d been warned not to do that, but these rebels had discovered a teenaged obsession that made more sense than the rest of the college experience so screw the rules.

We all benefited in the next decade from that obsession. One of those geeks under the table was Bill Gates. He dropped out of college shortly thereafter, so he could spend all day in front of the green screen with no fear of being bumped off by a no vision can’t see the forest for the trees dumb ass and his poetry program (and so he could bathe when he felt like it). In California, the two Steve’s, Jobs and Wozniak, played the same game. And then there were the rest of us, who took the class, got our inflated A’s (hard to get less than a B at an Ivy League school), and shrugged.

Could I have been a Bill Gates? If I’d offered the smelly guy under the table a candy bar from my stash, maybe dared to strike up a conversation, asked for a second eye to think about my rhyme schemes, might I have camped onto the runaway train percolating behind his rheumy eyes? Instead of steering clear, equating him with the homeless guys roaming the city streets outside, thinking weirdo, get a life loser, dude who’d never get a date smelling like that?

There were endless other opportunities to catch that train down through the past half century, of course. Eventually, I tagged onto the caboose, learning how to use smartphones and smart home devices as assistive technologies for people with cognitive-behavioral challenges and trying my hand at computer game development, prototyping a life skills program for kids with disabilities. And no, I don’t imagine my own Road Not Taken card reading “Microsoft”.

That’s the equation I could never compute. The one that goes something like: brilliance + vision + opportunity + grueling labor + dumb luck = genius. All of us lined up at those ten terminals in NS 110 in the fall of 1974 had the opportunity. The rest of the equation, not so much. We went on to other opportunities, other visions, tilted with whatever intelligence and fortitude we could muster at other windmills. Some of us got lucky. The other day, I stopped and took a picture with my iPhone of a roadside mall storefront: Tony’s Computer Repair. And another at the edge of the mall, Bill’s Barber Shop. Then drove on thinking about contingencies, paths diverging in a yellow wood, there but for the grace….

Challah French Toast at Veselka – poem

It was an August day – like this –

when the rush hit the woman

crossing right there!

So she sprawled as if to bed

across the yellow hood

of a taxi paused on red.

And there, across 2nd, where

a man actually caught a guy

jimmying his car door at 3 am

but met the wrath of a linebacker

turned drag queen who strolling

their way from the Village whipped

up a garbage can lid like a shield to

wallop him, drawling,

“Run, honey, run!”

to the startled perp, who did.

Felicity lived on the third floor

of that one. She barely

knew us, but found us a place,

sold us her Cuisinart that I still use,

with its NYPD etched ID. She

read my stories & found them worthless,

the first of many comeuppances

the city doles out like rain.

You know that church as the place

where a teenaged Patti Smith read her poems.

I get that but think first of memorials

to young men — Mark, Christiaan, Randy, Jim, Rudy –

held there in the plague times years ago.

That storefront – now a Starbucks – bore the scrawl

“Kill Gentry” the week we moved in upstairs.

In a building with an actual elevator!   To our fifth floor

aerie, like any of the city’s million old boxes,

a town in its own right, rife with sit-com strife,

tortured pasts, swaps & bargains and convoluted

relationships. People arrived from dead end towns

to whatever escape they could muster, all assaulted

equally by window-shaking sirens and squall.

The diminutive Sitnycki’s, pogrom refugees, who never

once complained of our boisterous parties, who served us

bublyky with tiny cups of coffee at Christmas.

Phil the artist upstairs and his thousand girl friends,

who caught a whiff of early CAD and hung up his brushes.

Rock critic Roberta, who crowded her daughters in a closet

to cosset neatly catalogued shelves of old LPs and her

husband Steve who started law school at 30 to serve

the poor and played third trumpet in Latin bands on weekends.

The solitary Chinese fellow below us, about whom I will always

wonder, was it my ceaseless loud rotation of Unknown Pleasures

that led him to the roof, where he jumped in broad daylight?

Right there’s where he hit and broke, from 7 floors it seems

you don’t really spatter. (In an hour like a dream’s erasure

people walked the spot as if nothing had happened at all.)

Baby’s born to Lisa and David, Roberta and Steve, boxy rooms

painted over in pink and blue. On that roof I sword-fought

with a chubby-cheeked toddler who plays bass now for his mom

as she sings at clubs from here to Montreaux, her marriage

like ours, long gone. George — still a friend to us both – who

took in Jim, gaunt and frantic, made a bed on which to lie

and rail against the dying of the light, when his family

wouldn’t have him.

How many odd hours I sat in this chair after midnight shifts

downtown, had challah French toast and bottomless Joe

and scratched out lines like these, like all the failed poets

online. Infected by glimpses of gods in the flesh –

grey-bearded Ginsberg in the lavatory at the Ukrainian

National Hall, gaunt Burroughs on Lafayette in that raincoat

and fedora, Richards slinking into a cab on Delancey.

We always waved to Joey Ramone stalking out of his place

in the new building on our block, tried not

to stare at Warhol, who stared right back.

It’s always the same, I’m sure. We wash up here by

the thousands, asift in a miner’s sluice.

We jostle, make friends, connive and share.

Most of us fall through, a few – the nuggets – shine.

At the time it seemed it was brilliance that mattered,

how far can the grasshopper leap? But the lesson

instead is to join that ant-like march to the train, day

after day, apply ass to chair, as they say. That’s

what the city rewards. Or sometimes, with that, audacity.

The sort of thing that led that sculptor

to pincushion himself with fish hooks hung from

a clothesline to be wretchedly tugged through

the air above 9th right there? How did this differ

from the neighborhood bum who wore a tower of hats,

a wardrobe of jackets, a pillow of socks, and jabbered

all day exactly like us cellphone minions now?

These are the things I’d consider at Veselka as

shadow sank down the walls. Try to decipher

some code, make no headway, ask for more Joe.

And where are we now, compadres? Of 2, 3 decades past?

You Midwestern poet run sites for minor league baseball.

You SF buff from William & Mary a new book on the way.

You junior editor (always a stack on your lap) hold the corner

office atop that building, one of the peaks midtown. Alison &

Buster, your ashes feed the flora of the Brooklyn

Botanical Garden; yours John Montauk tuna; yours

Christiaan the oaks of Esplanade Ave. AY

Mellencamp’s lead guitar; Nick Hanks’ pal in

flick after flick. Katy the laureate of the piedmont and

scourge of the Repugs. Donna in the Pacific Northwest

running your own small-town theatre. Here! Here!

Old pals, what time and effort can do! Scott in Atlanta

pulling young black actors along by the collar. George

walking the Brooklyn Bridge each day in a tie to

calculate our odds. Mattie a Hip Pipp, a Trash Maverick,

a Synnz, playing that Junior to death on Friday nights.

Your X Lynn – whom you met in our place upstairs –

actress turned Jersey masseuse (with roles

from time to time in the local theatre shows). Me?

I stood on that rooftop one summer evening of a day

like this (right where the Chinese man leaped), and

spread my arms and laughed in rue, “You have beaten

me.  I salute you. It’s been fun.” Then tunneled

out of the place. My school, my family,

my prison and hell. To make it, if not

anywhere, than some(no)where?

This was all long ago. Before 9/11.

Before Sandy and Momofuku and Bloomberg.

Was Jeter a rookie that year? Back when

bombing a subway car meant spray-

painting your tag on its side.

Everyone here has a personal New York,

that geezer at the chess set in Tompkins Square,

the girl in pig-tails herding pigeons.

Mine still hung sides of beef

outdoors where Google rules.

Ran racks of dresses up 21st.

Wired squats in East Side slums. I was

here the week all the IBM Selectric’s

hit the streets, filling dumpsters

all over midtown. I remember

the city-wide blare of car horns

when that baseball dribbled

between Bruckner’s

legs.  And a street ankle-deep

in firecrackers on the Fifth.

I too had an agent, for awhile.

Dreamed I ran naked up 5th.

Back now this morning at Veselka

where the coffee cups are the same.

A tourist, now, I guess. Washed up

on the bank, agog at the flow. But

toeing out timid with ruminant chews

of challah french toast like you said

young man — who danced in evening dress

in the Plaza Fountain — beat on beat on

against the current and this town’s endless

proffer of more.