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Alan Ziegler
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I received a gratifying email from a former Columbia MFA student—now a creative writing teacher—about a chapter in my book The Writing Workshop Note Book (Soft Skull / Counterpoint). I am reprinting the note, followed by an adapted excerpt from the chapter. At my former student’s request, I have removed details that might identify the school and am withholding her name. Hello Professor Ziegler, Our seminar-style classes have students of mixed grade levels—freshmen through senior. Recently, the returning students staged a bit of a mutiny. Three pulled me aside and complained about a lack of “professionalism” in the workshopping abilities of the several new students. Apparently, they felt that their own writing, comments, and insights were much more sophisticated than those of the younger students, and that they, the “experienced” workshoppers, took the process much more seriously, which had led to a desperate crisis. I heard them out and asked them what they thought we could do. They wanted to have an in-class discussion in which they could air their concerns (and, of course, also assert their perceived superiority, I knew). So, for our next class I handed out your first chapter in “Part Two: Notes on Workshopping.” We went around the room, each student taking a turn reading a paragraph or two aloud. Beforehand, I asked them while reading to make note of those sections that rang true to them or felt most meaningful or helped them discover something they didn’t know or felt they could use. (Worth noting: as soon as we finished reading, one of the discontented three closed her packet dramatically and exclaimed, “That was great!”) Afterward I asked each student to share what they learned they might be able to think about or do differently to get the most out of the workshop. We spent 1 1/2 hours of our 3-hour class reading and discussing your chapter, and each student (even those poor terrified freshmen) shared their feelings about their work and experience, ranging from fear of speaking because of feelings of intimidation (without mentioning any names or making eye content) and fear of “not being right” to acknowledgment of tendencies to dominate the conversation (one of those three upperclassman, remarkably). The effects were quite wonderful, and the group left class in bright spirits. So, thank you. I wanted to let you know what had happened so you could add this small moment to what I am sure is a long and continually growing list of success stories directly linked to your approach to teaching writing and to your invaluable notebook, which you so generously shared with all of us. Little did I know at the time how helpful both would be. With my thanks and best regards, (name withheld) Workshop Do’s and Don’ts (adapted from The Writing Workshop Note Book) DO be there. If you are absent you cannot “make up” the work any more than athletes in team sports can make up games they miss. Even if the teacher allows one or two... Continue reading
Posted Jan 24, 2018 at The Best American Poetry
234. As a young reporter in 1970, I was assigned to review a musical billed as a tryout for Broadway. I declared the production a “pleasant enough way to spend a summer evening, but in its current form, it’s not up to bigger and better things.” Always trying to spice my pieces, I concluded that the experience was like being served a full meal of melba toast—you come away “full but not satisfied.” A few days later, while I was reporting for a feature, a young woman recognized my name and said, “Usually these reviews are puff pieces.” She paused and added, “Yours was interesting.” And a few days later, I was interviewing a chamber group that would be performing at the same arts center where the musical was running. One of the musicians recognized my name and said, “The people from the show were talking about you. They hate you.” 235. “I’ve Got to Pass Your House to Get to My House” (written by Lew Brown, sung by Bing Crosby) 236. I spent ten minutes untangling the wires connected to a pair of headphones I put in a drawer alongside assorted wired devices. I do not recall spending any time tangling the wires before I closed the drawer. I have spent several hours of my life untangling wires, and I have never consciously tangled anything. It must be something I do. 237. In the mid-1970s I saved up to buy a reconditioned IBM Selectric II typewriter, the typesetting machine of choice for non-funded small magazines. The characters populated a tiny globe called an element. If you smooshed two keystrokes, the machine would remember which order you hit them and space the letters evenly on the page. (In effect, the Selectric had a RAM of one bite.) Writer friends came over to use my Selectric; someone commented, “Wow, I didn’t know civilians were allowed to have these.” I was told when I bought it that I would need to have a service contract with IBM because there’s a thin cable connected to a “gear shift” that tends to snap. And snap it did, every few months, but one quick call would result in an IBM repairman showing up, sometimes the same day; for the first time, I felt cared for by a giant corporation. When I took a writer-in-residence position at the Interlochen Arts Academy in northern Michigan, I didn’t think I could write without my Selectric. I had it shipped, and a couple of weeks into the term I returned to my cottage to find the box on my porch. I plugged it in, got the motor humming and started to type. Snapped cable. The nearest service center was downstate, hours away. The next day a serviceman drove up and fixed the cable. Before long, people were knocking on my door to use my typewriter. 238. Molly Bloom: “Excuse bad writing am in hurry. Byby.” 239. On the way toward a glorious rainbow, a snake in the grass came... Continue reading
Posted Dec 4, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
Wow--what a fascinating movie! I wish I'd known to ask her about it. Thanks!
Thanks so much, Grace. This means a lot to me!
224. After my mother died, my father liked to visit the geese at the local pond. One day, a goose was frantically scooting about, yipping plaintively like a dog. “Geese are monogamous,” I said. “I think he got separated from his mate.” My father grew as agitated as the goose, looking around to see if he could spot the mate. Finally, the geese found each other and entered the pond. My father wept. 225. If you want to capture the sea, hold your hands out, cupped, and imagine you are writing this. 226. My father on line at the Post Office takes a step backward onto a woman’s foot. “Ooooh pain,” she says sweetly. He loves telling the story. 227. I watched a master dance class taught by the choreographer Bella Lewitsky, during which she asked students to execute a series of steps from one end of the dance floor to the other. Whenever a student faltered and lapsed into a sheepish gait, Lewitsky would command, “Finish the line.” 228. My mother and I sip coffee as Richard Harris’s “MacArthur Park” comes on the radio. Some people find the song and performance sappy, but it always grabs my guts and I drift off into sweet pain and longing. My mother is quiet, too, and when the instrumental kicks in she says, “I can really relate to this song—losing the recipe for a cake.” From then on, I will be an even bigger sap for that song. 229. When you are on a collision course with a stranger on the street or store aisle, the two of you choreograph a little dance and move on. Lately, I have been having more than my share of dance partners, usually ending with bows and smiles. But not today: I reach a supermarket corner—a one-way aisle with two-way traffic—and encounter a suited man. One of us will have to do the back steps of a supermarket cha-cha. He barrels through, declaring “I don’t negotiate.” Later, I am about to enter a subway car just as a huge Bronze Age sculpture of a man is about to get out. Before we can dance, he declares: “You’d best get out of my way, sonny.” If they won’t dance, I can’t make them. 230. In the hospital elevator, with my father after the confirming diagnosis, down to the ground floor, door won’t open. “Al, do something,” he implores, his claustrophobia cutting off oxygen. I push buttons randomly and the door opens. I did something, we got out. There’s nothing I can do. 231. Julie London's "Cry Me a River." Coltrane's run of notes after the bass solo in “A Love Supreme.” The third movement of Tchaikovsky's Third String Quartet. Pete Seeger's spoken introduction to "Living in the Country" on his Bitter and the Sweet album. 232. Open your eyes to see. Close them to see again. 233. There was a tree in the middle of the road. I swerved to avoid it and went crashing into open... Continue reading
Posted Nov 22, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
214. In college, a friend told me he overheard someone say, “I don’t like Ziegler’s type but I like Ziegler.” 215. An essay on the electronic media: You can't tell the time by looking at the newspaper. 216. Here’s a story I used to tell a lot: “In the late 1960s, I was eating lunch in Washington Square Park when I saw a bum asleep under a tree. I quietly placed half of my corned beef sandwich next to him, then went back to my bench, hoping he would wake up before I had to leave. He stirred, unwrapped the sandwich, peeked under the bread, scowled, and pulled out a jar of mustard from his coat pocket.” Everyone enjoyed the story, though no one believed it is true. It is—as far as I know. 217. Why we need gun control: When I was eight, I got into a fight I was bound to lose. Impulsively I took the wad of bubblegum out of my mouth and rubbed it in the kid’s hair. He ran home crying. Later, his mother came to our house, furious, and told my parents her son now has a bald spot where she had to cut away. 218. The guy across from me on the Long Island Railroad can barely keep his eyes open. The cuffs of his pants are fringing, his shoes have been mended with black tape, and he seems long past drunk. The conductor approaches, “All tickets, please!” The man fumbles through his pockets, then shrugs. “You don’t have a ticket, do you?” the conductor says, and the man shakes his head. The conductor pulls a schedule out of his pocket, punches a few holes in it, and places it in the slot on the man’s seat. He continues on his rounds. 219. Miles Davis: “I never think about not being able to do anything. I just pick up my horn and play the hell out of it.” 220. The summer of 69 I came across vending machine that sold water for 25 cents a gallon. I took a picture of it to prove that such a thing existed. 221. William G. Hutherton on Chamfort: “A few months’ nomad existence in Normandy with two other scapegraces followed, and then the prodigal returned, was forgiven and became an abbé.” 222. My gun is made of glass; I will only be able to use it once. My knife is rubber; it will work until I try to use it. My bomb has a short fuse I can’t outrun. My hypodermic needle is loaded with placebo, which I can only use as a truth serum on those who trust me. I am a one-man army, armed to the teeth. But I am one nervous wreck, so don’t mess with me. 223. I stand in front of my own door and push the bell repeatedly with one hand while banging with the other. Laughing as I push faster and bang harder. “Open up!” I yell. “Open up,... Continue reading
Posted Nov 14, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
204. February 1967, Union College frigid quad, “Light My Fire” full blast from dorm open window. After the organ intro, “Light My Fire” from another room—a Doors round. Fraternity guys stop to listen. My folk music friends and I stop to listen. More dorm windows open. Someone yells, “Blow My Mind.” 205. All the world’s a stage but how many players are off book? 206. My mother can no longer speak, but her eyes listen. This may be my last chance. “I want you to know that I learned a lot from you about being a teacher. I watched you working the counter at Woolworths. You put on the extra piece of lettuce for the old lady who never left more than a quarter tip even though your boss said not to give extra food. You were always watching, you were always listening, and you always cared. I try to be that way and people tell me I’m a good teacher.” If the eyes are truly the window to the soul, I can see from their shimmer that my words have reached her soul. I will never be sure of what I see next: The shimmer seems to turn into a vapor above her and is gone. The next day, so is she. 207. On the bus a man talks to a young woman while his ten-year-old daughter tries to listen. When the woman gets off the bus, the man explains, “That was one of my students.” The girl asks, “Is she the one who stole your ideas?” 208. Perhaps the first electronic blogger was Will Rogers, who—from 1926 to 1935—submitted short newspaper pieces via telegram from wherever he happened to be: LONDON, Aug. 25.—France is very quiet. The rise in taxes was only proposed. Deer season opened in Scotland for all those who can’t hit grouse. Debts and dictators quiet today. Rogers often composed quickly and submitted his copy unedited. 209. Summer 1969 working for the Riverside Press-Enterprise, I cover a folksinger’s visit to Chino State Prison. She sings Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” (“And picking up angel who just arrived here from the Coast”). I interview a burly prisoner wearing the prison uniform of blue jeans and work shirt. He tells me he’s a Hells Angel, and I ask if he’ll go back to the Angels when he gets out. He replies, “It’s a lifetime thing.” He has a question about one of the songs: “That thing about picking up the angel—was she singing about a Hells Angel?” “Yeah, you could interpret it that way.” His face softens. “That’s what I thought. I felt a touch of apathy in my chest when I heard that." 210. Prose poems can be quick, which is not to say rushed. A person who is rushed is often careless and forgetful of details. The race goes to the swift who stay on their feet. But if you do fall—fall gloriously and capture that pose. 211. Our houseguest opens the refrigerator and... Continue reading
Posted Nov 7, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
194. Just to be on the safe side: A pigeon and I cross the street with a green light. A left-turning car looms, slows to a crawl ceding us the right of way. The pigeon and I hop-trot to the corner. 195. Your clothes lie undressed of you on the bed. 196. On the edge of my peripheral vision, the woman’s hand swoops down and the small child screams. I turn: a beach ball descends and the child squeals, “Mommy do it again!” 197. Butterfly flutters / in early autumn sun glare / to grass and stays….leaf 198. I keep forgetting to cancel my Wednesday doctor appointment. Monday 2 a.m. I remember and call the service. I am told: “Your appointment isn’t until Wednesday!? Why can’t you call the office tomorrow? I'm very busy here.” 199. Today I saw two who looked like but were not you. 200. Baudelaire: “Eternal superiority of the Dandy. What is a Dandy?” 201. Erin and I with our dachshund Latte in the tiny hill town of Monteriggioni (ringed by towers Dante called “horrific giants”). A woman approaches with a 5-year-old shyly behind. “My daughter fell in love with your dog in Florence!” 202. My father liked his coffee dark, very dark. He’d open the wrong side of the milk container and let a few drops dribble into the cup—a technique he learned from his mother, who didn’t realize it was the wrong side. 203. Why William Burroughs wouldn’t push the button on my tape recorder at the beginning of his talk, preferring that I come up and do it myself: “I don’t like to fool with other people’s machines.” Continue reading
Posted Oct 25, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
184. She broke his heart in two. Then she quartered it. But each portion regenerated. Now he could run for miles, make love, weep at a sad movie, and still have one cold heart for her. In a dream of drowning, his life flashed before his eyes. She wasn’t there. 185. How many individual French fries were consumed in the past hour by someone other than the person who ordered them? 186. My first writing café was The Balcony on the east side of Broadway and 107th Street, with a life size mannequin of Genet’s Madam Irma on the balcony above the bar. Another writer was usually there when I arrived and still there when I left. The French waiter would fill my coffee at the exact right intervals. After about six months, the other writer nodded hello. After about a year, he asked me what I was working on. 187. In college, a friend says “I’m horny and I thought about fucking you, but I knew you wouldn’t because of your girlfriend. You put a circle around yourself. You’ll do anything within that circle, but you won’t even consider going outside of it.” I tell her that I am always working on widening that circle. She replies: “You’ve missed the entire point.” 188. On the bus, a six-year-old taunts his younger brother, who has been allowed to sit on their mother’s lap while he has to stand: “I’m gonna grow up before you.” 189. What my dying mother misses: “If only I could walk from room to room.” 190. In the diner from behind me they bickered, then a jarring noise like a chair being overturned. “Aren't you going to pick it up?” No response. “Stupid old man.” And that was the last I heard from them. On my way out, I almost tripped over the cane. 191. Song lyric: You set me up just to knock me down / You could win a prize in the carnival 192. No word Monday. No word Tuesday. No word Wednesday. Thursday just words. 193. Now, while the time since your death is still counted in weeks, I'll be walking along and there, just beyond the ability of my eyes to distinguish faces, I'll see someone who looks like you, and for a few milliseconds my brain will form your face. At first it was a little unnerving, but I've come to look forward to and treasure those milliseconds, and I will mourn them when they are gone. Continue reading
Posted Oct 19, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
169. He believed her orgasms were authentic, but he suspected she was faking her compassion: “Oh. Oh. Oh. Yes. Yes. Yes. You poor thing, you!” 170. Within the past hour, how many people passed a stranger on the street whom they once passed on a street in another city? 171. The guy who used to sit on the bench is long gone. The bench is short gone. I miss him even more. 172. The softball team is coached by an English teacher and a social studies teacher. The English teacher misses an away game, the first I start at second base. The next day the two teachers huddle over a piece of paper. “How did the second baseman do?” “He did all right.” 173. At the flea market: “No, the Buddha by the bike, not the bike by the Buddha!” 174. The infinite wisdom of a circle. 175. The last phrase of Baudelaire’s “Dog and the Flask” (the title is also translated as “The Dog and the Vial” and “The Dog and the Scent Bottle”) is des ordures soigneusement choisies, which has been translated as “carefully raked-up mire,” “dung, chosen with care,” “carefully chosen sweepings,” “carefully selected scraps of nastiness,” “carefully selected garbage,” “meticulously selected garbage,” and “carefully selected crap.” And in Baudelaire’s “The Stranger” (also translated as “The Foreigner”), one of the speakers uses the familiar tu and the other the formal vous. It is impossible to capture this in English, though a Spanish translator would have no problem. 176. Part of me must be a damn genius or part of me a moron, because it’s oh so easy to outsmart myself. 177. Walking down the freezing street with a pizza box blanketing my hands, I've become one of those people I always envy. 178. My mother lies in the hospital bed with radium inserted into her abdomen, trying to kill the killer. She cannot move. Visitors cannot stay long because of the radiation. She tells us this story: “An older woman peeked in, wearing a volunteer’s outfit. ‘Oh, it’s you,’ the volunteer said. ‘Do you remember me? From when you were up on the sixth floor? I was just up there, looked for you, and something pulled me to come down here. I’m sure it was to tell you that everything will be all right.’ I asked her name. ‘Sadie.’ My mother’s name, and I never met another Sadie after she died. And she came down from ‘up there’ to tell me everything will be all right.” My mother laughs, for the first time in weeks, and for the last time. 179. In East New York we sit on the stoop waiting for the street fight. Not our battle—this one for the younger kids. From the next block comes the swarm, outnumbering our friends. We look at each other and attack screaming. “Look out, it’s the big kids,” someone shouts, and they run off. We are in third grade and I will never feel this big again. 180.... Continue reading
Posted Oct 9, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
I appreciate this enormously! There will be a book--hopefully there will also be a publisher.
Thanks, Stacey! I love that Briscoe / Van Buren scene!
Gorky wrote in My Universities: “I do not like the moon.” As for me, I adore the moon, in all its phases. I spent a year building a boat that could take you back to me. When I finished, I took it apart and sent you the pieces. I stare at the moon as Neil Armstrong walks on it. I can’t fathom how humans made this possible, but know that the process started with the earliest living organisms and followed a complex set of instructions relayed in pieces through the ages. The sun is always out. The moon is always full. The parrot sits on her shoulder in the third row of the off-off-off-Broadway play, silent for the first scene, then increasingly cranky. As they leave during intermission, she says gently to the parrot, “I’m so sorry I should have never brought you here” Walking home from third grade on a chilly Fall afternoon, I see a circle of kids surrounding a fight. Most of them are shouting, “Come on, Babes,” “Get him, Babes.” Babes is a fourth grade bully. I despise and fear him and stay out of his way. He has the fight well in control, but is making sure not to dominate so much that even he would have to stop. Babes pins the other kid’s shoulders with his knees as he checks out the crowd. He glares at me and I start yelling, “Come on, Babes.” Babes bangs the kid’s head a couple of times into the dirt and nods at me as he slowly gets to his feet. At anti-war rallies many years later I won’t be able to chant. I arrive ten minutes early for a 2 p.m. dental checkup. Several people are in the waiting room. In my discreet sweep of the room—no eye contact—I sense familiarity, which doesn’t surprise me as I have been coming here for many years. At 2 p.m., a man stands up and enters the office area without being called, followed by the others. The last woman to leave the waiting room turns to me and says, “Come on in, Mr. Ziegler,” and, as I do, I see that the man has put on a white smock and become my dentist. On the corner of 72nd Street and Broadway in July, a man in a long black coat comes running to me, desperation in his eyes. “Do you know what happened?” he implores. “Where?” I ask. The man looks at me incredulously and shrieks, “Anywhere!” He runs off before I can think of an answer. I am making a list, should we meet again. Jason Robards in All the President's Men: "Run that baby" (double tap, clap) Father and son on Mothers Day in the tiny hospital cafeteria. The father orders a ham and Swiss on rye, adding, “Could you put mayo on one side and mustard on the other?” The son has always chosen one or the other, never fully satisfied. The father has taught a life... Continue reading
Posted Oct 2, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
A child watches with delight as the worker bangs away at plaster: loud noise, destruction, making a mess—and it’s all right with everyone. In our first stay in Paris, each night I stop at La Tonnelle, the grocery store across the street, where I can never get the right money to the grizzled man in the apron. I have taken to holding out my hand with all my coins, a beggar in reverse. He riffles through and selects the correct change, and I shrug and say, “Merci, désolé.” Tonight all I have is a 50 franc note (with a picture of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry), and he says his first English words to me: “You don’t have seis francs?!” He gives me back 44 francs in various sizes, shapes, and textures: silver, gold, silver and gold. I study them before I go to sleep, and practice fishing by feel through my pocket for different combinations. The next night I place two large bottles of Badoit on the counter, reach into my pocket, and hand the grizzled man several coins adding to18 francs. He counts with his eyes, smiles, and bows. Zasu Pitts. In the 1970s, one of my roommates works for EMS but never talks about what he does. One night, we’re all watching the local news. The reporter describes a triple murder in the Bronx, and says, “One of the victims was dead at the scene, the other two died at the hospital.” “Two were dead at the scene,” my roommate says under his breath, “and the other one died in the ambulance.” Orson Welles in Touch of Evil: “Well, didn't you bring me any donuts [beat] or sweet rolls?” Ben Kingsley in Betrayal: “Ah. Yes. I thought it might be something like that, something along those lines.” Feeling miserable about myself and everything I stand for and miserable in the March bone-chill that permeates my marrow, I make my way to the front of the 104 bus dreading the walk up the hill against the wind. I feel a sting on my back of my head and turn to see a deranged man eyeing me with disdain. I process the sensation and realize I have just been whacked upside the head. I stare him down. “What took you so long?” I ask, and descend into the bitter night. Librarian to Briscoe and Curtis on Law and Order: “Verlaine popped Rimbaud. Paul loved Arthur. Paul also loved Matilda. It was a whole mess. The French—what do you expect?.... If you really want decadent, I’d stick with Baudelaire.” Baudelaire: “Orgy is not the sister of inspiration; inspiration is absolutely the sister of daily effort.” Continue reading
Posted Sep 21, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
In 1957 Bobby Darin introduced me to Paul Anka. In 1875 Stéphane Mallarmé, carrying a large portfolio, wanders the streets of London looking for Algernon Swinburne, intent on discussing their shared admiration for Edgar Allan Poe. In the portfolio is Mallarmé’s translation of “The Raven” and illustrations by Eduoard Manet. Two things my mother used to say: “It’s a great life if you don’t weaken,” and “Like this you kill a day.” “It’s a great life if you don’t weaken” is attributed to John Buchan in 1919, and later appropriated into a song made famous by Faron Young and Maurice Chevalier. “Like this you kill a day” seems to be hers. You are so close to the way I want someone to look that I see you different when not around. Then you show up and I think, “What have you done to yourself?” Francis Williams—who played trumpet with Duke Ellington—started out as a pianist in his hometown, Toledo. Williams thought he was pretty good until he met a neighbor who was so much better. Realizing he wasn’t even the best in the neighborhood, Williams changed instruments. His neighbor’s name was Art Tatum. While my dentist waits for his assistant to join us for a procedure, we start exchanging reminiscences, having lived through some common times. Eventually he realizes the assistant has been in the room for several minutes, silently impatient. “Stories,” he explains to her with a sweet, wan smile. “Stories.” If Yankee Stadium had no fences, would a ball that lands in Montreal be fair or foul? Charles Laughton was plagued by self-doubt, especially during the 1937 filming of I, Claudius, which was never completed. Laughton would put his head in co-star Merle Oberon’s lap and weep, “I can’t find my character. I can’t find the man.” Years later, one of the other actors lamented that Laughton “needed sun and got frost” from the director. Who among you agrees that Larry Keating is an underrated comic actor? Hemingway wrote in the Closerie de Lilas in Paris, equipped with bluebacked notebooks, pencils, and a pencil sharpener on a marble-topped table; he carried a horse chestnut and a real rabbit’s foot in his right pocket for luck. Peter Altenberg wrote at Café Central in Vienna, which he used as his mailing address; his presence continues to be felt—and seen—in the form of a dapper statue seated at a table. In the 1920s, Borges spent Saturday evenings at tertulias hosted by Macedonio Fernández at Café Perla in Buenos Aires. Mid-winter, late Sixties, late-night Adirondack Trailways to Schenectady. A teenager strums a guitar across from me. We talk music and he offers his guitar. I strum an E Major Seventh easing into an A Major Seventh, over and over. “Whoa, what was that!?” “Magic Major Sevenths,” and he strums them, over and over. Years later I see his name listed as a sideman on an album. No doubt he thinks of me fondly and often. Continue reading
Posted Sep 19, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
My paternal grandfather, Philip Ziegler, AKA: Crookedneck, Sam Ziegler, Ziggie, Philip Abrams, Philip Seigel, Philip Zeigler. On November 6, 1916 (four years before my father was born), my grandfather and a crony named Finkel were arrested by Officer O’Toole for Burglary 3rd. On January 19, 1917, they were sentenced by Judge Rosalsky to an Indeterminate term in the New York Penitentiary. Coincidentally, the judge was director of the Hawthorne School, where Finkel had gone: “Now you have thrown away the opportunity of your life, Finkel.” My Jewish grandfather put down his religion as Catholic. On April 23, 1918 (two years before my father was born), my grandfather was arrested in The Bronx by Officers Armstrong and Brunchner for Burglary. On May 5, he received a suspended sentence by Judge Gibbs in Bronx County Court. On November 1, 1919 (one year before my father was born), my grandfather was arrested in the 33rd Precinct, Manhattan, by Officer Gamble, for Assault and Robbery. On November 3, Magistrate Douras discharged him. On September 17, 1922 (my father was almost two-years-old), Officer Lamour arrested him for burglary in the 39th Precinct. The next day, Magistrate Oberwager discharged him. The following day, Officer Lamour arrested him again for burglary in the 39th Precinct. Three days later, Magistrate Oberwager again discharged him. On December 6, 1922 (my father was two-years-old), my grandfather was arrested for Grand Larceny. On December 9, the charges were dismissed. On December 9, 1923 (my father was three-years-old), my grandfather was arrested in The Bronx for Burglary. The charges were dismissed. On August 4, 1924 (two months before my father’s fourth birthday), using the name Philip Seigel, my grandfather was arrested by Officer Reilly from the Safe and Loft Squad in Manhattan for Attempted Robbery in the 1st degree. On November 21, 1924 (a month after my father’s fourth birthday), he was sentenced to four and a half years at Sing Sing by Judge Collins of the Court of General Sessions. Sometimes my grandmother took my father along to visit his father “in college.” On August 12, 1928 (two months before my father’s eighth birthday), spelling his last name Zeigler, my grandfather was arrested in Saratoga Springs as a Suspicious Person. Three days later, the charges were dismissed. On December 6, 1928 (two months after my father’s eighth birthday), again spelling his last name Zeigler, my grandfather was arrested in Manhattan by Officers Casey, McGuire, Braunworth, Hastings, and Levine from the Safe and Loft Squad for Burglary and possession of Burglars Tools. On February 26, 1929, he plea-bargained to Judge Mancuso of the Court of General Sessions and was sentenced to an Indeterminate term at a Penitentiary. My grandfather’s burglars tools included: “four jimmies, two braces, sixteen bits, one hammer, one saw, one screwdriver, one flashlight, one wrench, and two punches.” On May 24, 1932 (my father was eleven), using the name Philip Abrams, my grandfather was arrested for Robbery; the charge was dismissed. On April 18, 1933 (my father was 12),... Continue reading
Posted Sep 16, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
I love this--especially going all the way to Milwaukee (bypassing Kenosha, Russia)! I'm a big fan of Do Not Be a Gentleman When You Say Goodnight--what a range ("Then all hell breaks loose")!
I am four, watching two big kids play catch on Essex Street in East New York, Brooklyn. An arm thrusts forward and the ball takes flight, soaring toward the rooftops, loses steam, heading for a crash, only to land in the waiting glove. Over and over. I want one. I will always want one. My mother would lay down a towel and help me out of the tub. I’d shuffle the towel across the cold floor, both of us saying “choochie choo.” One night: “Did your father tell you what happened today?” she asks. “Yes, your mother died.” I shuffle towards her, as I say, alone, “Choochie choo.” When one of the older kids in the neighborhood is told he “has no balls,” he replies, “I’ve got two of them, how many do you have?” This is a question I have never asked myself. That night, in the bath, I nervously count. One. Two. And no more. In eighth grade, researching an idea for a science fair submission, I read that a copper wheel can be induced to spin fueled only by a light bulb. I meticulously followed the instructions but could not get it to spin. I turned it in anyway, with a short paper about how it works, knowing it doesn’t. The teacher was fascinated and beckoned me to the front of the classroom. I plugged in the light bulb, hoped for a miracle, and feigned shock when nothing happened. The teacher consoled me, said it’s what science is all about, and gave me an A. I waited and waited for them, but, to be fair to the Monkees, they only said “We may be comin’ to your town.” When I am five, my mother’s dentist gives me a little vial of mercury to play with: “See, it’s metal and it’s liquid!” I love how the silvery substance slinks as I tilt the glass. “Is that safe?” my mother asks. “Of course it is,” the dentist replies. “It’s what we put in your mouth.” A frigid night in a strange town, warmed by the sight of neon squiggles steaming from a cup. Many coffee shops claim they make the World’s Best Coffee. And they do. How many pencils, pens, and markers are stored right now in mugs and other holders? How many are usable? How many have been nonfunctioning for more than a year? “So, what brought you here?” the cab driver in Binghamton asks on the way to the airport. “I gave a talk at the college.” “You gotta be really smart to do that.” “Not really,” I say, modestly. He frowns. “I’m not smart enough to do that.” Peter Yarrow tousled my hair and said “Oh you!” Continue reading
Posted Sep 14, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
In the freshman dining hall, a maraschino cherry tops most desserts. We save the cherry for last and ritually eat it simultaneously. One night, we see four industrial sized cans of maraschino cherries stacked in the hallway. We take one back to the dorm. After the third night, none of us will ever eat a maraschino cherry again. Fall 1969. My girlfriend and I are riding with her photography teacher through the Vermont countryside. He pulls over to take pictures of the late-afternoon leaf collages and says, “Do me a favor and take off your clothes and walk up that path holding hands. I’ll only shoot from the back, no one will know it’s you.” She says yes, I say no, and we don’t. I wish I had said yes so now I could see our springtime asses descending into autumn. Summer 1965. We eat even more quietly than usual. Halfway through, I sneak a piece of chicken under the table for Duke. He doesn’t take it. He’s old and feeble, maybe the nose is going on him, so I look down. He’s not there. My father turns away, and my mother says, “The less said the better.” Spring 1965. During my road test, the examiner asks me to cross a six-lane highway. I get to the traffic island when I realize there’s an onslaught of cars coming from the right. I squeeze the brake pedal and hope everyone stays in their lanes. The examiner looks up from his clipboard and calmly asks: “Do you see where you are?” “Yes.” “Do you understand how you got here?” “Yes.” He makes a notation and clicks his pen shut. Someone tells me that in 1961 he was walking through Harvard Yard when he overheard a drunken argument. “Stop it, Bobby!” “Aw come on, Joanie, come back here!” I repeat the story many times, to the great pleasure of my listeners, who choose, as I do, based on no evidence, to believe the voices belonged to Dylan and Baez. Bobby Kennedy, campaigning for the Senate, is standing up in the back of his convertible as it drives slowly alongside the cheering crowd. He waves and smiles as people reach to shake his hand. He leans over, as if levitating, clutching briefly hand after hand. I run around to the other side, and see an aide on the car floor, holding Bobby by his calves. 1961. At the Woolworths lunch counter, my mother sits on my left and a classmate on my right. I am eating French fries, which I saved for last. My friend is done with his meal. He reaches over for one of the fries, then another and another. I am in distress. My mother says, “Let me see those fries,” and moves the plate closer to her. She takes the tiniest piece and says, “They’re good.” I resume eating, the plate out of my friend’s reach. 1950s. Each year, the Village of Lynbrook sets up a crèche on the grass... Continue reading
Posted Sep 8, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
96th to 110th on Broadway is commonly known as “No man’s land.” Small, empty storefronts blossom into dedicated rose shops, a dollar a bunch. First there’s one, then many, then few, then none. A stationery store has the saddest window display in the retail world. A few Bic pens strewn about, a couple of worn steno notebooks, a small box of paper clips. I actually need paper clips and open the door. The only sign of commerce: a few teller-like windows. Prostitutes work openly on Broadway. When it rains, they go to the Grandstand Bar on 91st and Broadway to retrieve their umbrellas. Faces become familiar; nods without solicitations. During the 1976 Democratic Convention, new faces appear, temporarily displaced by police from midtown. One asks me if I want to go out. I say what I sometimes say to the regulars, “I’m already out.” She replies, “Fuck you asshole.” On the corner of Broadway and 106th Street one man says over and over, “Spare-some-change-appreciate-it?” in one William-Carlos-Williamsian American beat. A few times I see him give money to someone even less fortunate. On 107th and Broadway, the guy with the brown corduroy jacket chants: “Spare some change for a cup of cawfeee?” On Broadway between 99th and 100th, a pizzeria run by some kind of collective serves the first whole wheat pizza in the area and maintains a huge vat of homemade soup, ladled free of charge to the homeless. Occasionally they chant as they work. A gaunt man in his thirties wears a gabardine trench coat no matter the temperature, skulks from block to block, getting kicked out from store to store. He disappears during the winter and somehow reappears as a harbinger of spring. A cop walks the beat. Continue reading
Posted Aug 28, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
Overheard: “I admit to being abstract and I don't deny it, and I don't think it’s a bad position. On the other hand, I find you very academic.” The first student I connected with, a teenager in Great Neck, discovered and excised a pre-cancerous melanoma on my back 47 years later. On a draft of " Tyger Tyger Burning Bright,” Blake changed form to frame. I really really saw, in the same day, a dog barking up the wrong tree and the blind leading the blind. Cartoon Caption: Dog says to person, “Quit damning me with faint praise and give me a fucking treat!” Among the celebrities my father saw in Hollywood and obtained autographs from during his 1940 cross-country trip: Freddy Bartholomew, Eddie Albert, Greer Garson, Robert Young, Rosalind Russel, Mary Astor. While the moon is being eclipsed, a mama rat and her children cross Riverside Drive in front of a taxi paused at a Stop sign. The mama stops in the middle, waiting for the kids to catch up. The taxi driver honks two gentle beeps. The kids speed up and the whole family reaches the other side. The taxi goes on its way. The moon returns. Overheard: “Subliminally when I got burned at the stake it was tough for me.” A small parrot perches behind the counter of a tiny antique shop in Paris. I stare at it and smile. The clerk says, “Babu,” and gestures it is all right for me to approach. The bird nibbles on my hand and watch band. I try to explain in French that I am waiting for my wife (“femme”), and the clerk thinks I am talking about Babu, whom she turns upside down and says, “Pas une femme.” I purchase a quill pen, and go looking for Erin so I can introduce her to Babu. When we enter, the clerk smiles and hands me my eyeglasses, which I didn’t even know I left there. Overheard: “You got a problem, you pull a man to the side and you talk to him.” Continue reading
Posted Aug 22, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
From my father’s log of 1940 cross-country trip: “Reno, Aug 17. Went out to take the town. P.S. the town took us!” Come one, come all, buy my vacuum cleaner. Be a friend of nature, for if there’s one thing nature abhors more than a vacuum, it’s a dirty vacuum. Statute of Limitations Calendar App for Criminals: Enter the crime, the state, and the date, and the app will alert you when you can stop sweating it. Overheard: “I hate to sound like an essentialist since I’m in fact a Yale-trained deconstructionist.” From my father’s log of 1940 cross-country trip: “Between Gilroy and Ballard, Aug 21. Stopped at a road-side stand and had a 14-inch Hot Dog.” Sometimes I wish you would turn traitor and lead them to me so I could see you one last time. I trip and scrape my knee. I smile as I remember crying as a little boy when I fell. I think of John Berryman’s line “I am not a little boy,” and a tear re-emerges. On the Trocadero Plaza I think of Hitler in the same place, nodding smugly at the Eiffel Tower: “This is mine.” You Nazi son of a bitch it’s mine now. What my grandmother said when she found out a relative’s husband was a bigamist: “But he held her, he kissed her, he looked her in the eyes.” From my father’s log of 1940 cross-country trip: Washington, DC, Sept 6. Arrived with $.54. Put gal. of gas — .16. Balance .38. Went to Police station to try & get a loan of a couple of dollars. (Got S- - t.). Still hadn’t eaten anything so went to Salvation Army to try & get a meal. (Again, got S - - t.) At about 11:00 p.m. – bought some food: .38. Cash now on hand $.00 Went to sleep. Continue reading
Posted Aug 11, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
We arrive at connected brick buildings in a clearing surrounded by Vermont; inside, khaki walls, urine, and sobs. We are told, “Students tend to be overly idealistic but this place isn’t bad for a mental institution. Try not to let it get to you and you’ll learn some things books can’t tell you.” I am only visiting with volunteers; they will all leave in a few weeks and I will leave even sooner. I focus on Michael, who talks of Beatles, Stones, and Mets. I am told, “Michael won’t let you touch him, very erratic. He’s fourteen, been here since he shot his big brother six years ago. Under sedation he’s not too bad.” I bring my guitar and he says, “Are you the Beatles can you wear your shoes like Mick Jagger is that Steppenwolf’s shirt?” I say no and he punches me in the nose, smiling at the drops of blood he has created. I am told, “Soon he’ll be transferred to the adult ward and that’s usually the kiss of death. His mother is dead and the father hardly visits, says he can’t cope with him.” In front of everyone, Michael says to me, “Hey lemme see your pecker, is it big?” then cackles at my silence. He reaches for my guitar and I hand it to him, not wanting to set him off but also sensing that this is something he can touch for real. He strums, a-chordal but rhythmic, then sings in shrieks. He is me but less shy. Michael shows me his secret treasures: Shea Stadium grass, John Lennon’s guitar pick, and the key to the laundry room (“Don’t tell!”). We hear someone approaching and Michael closes his hand tightly around his treasures. I am told, “You’re getting too involved with Michael. I understand it’s tempting to try to save one patient, but you’ll have to handle all kinds.” Michael takes me to the laundry room, opens the lock, locks the door, opens the lock. He asks me if I have ever seen the Mets play. I tell him I have, and he asks, “Do they sing, too?” On my last day, we walk though dark halls and tunnels until under sunshine for our walk. Michael stops, makes his arms into a funnel and reaches up to me. I bend and he runs, laughing in circles around me, howling, throwing punches at the air. I want to pump him full of locked rooms. Continue reading
Posted Aug 2, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
50. Part of me grew up the day Superman blew his brains out. 51. Bowling: Quantity not quality. 52. A wooden wagon propelled by the light of the moon. 53. Inside each of us is a skeleton waiting its turn. 54. Tracking you sometimes I see my own footprints. 55. The mind feeding off the carrion in the heart. 56. Hope springs internal. 57: Incident on the highway: There’s one less tarantula in the Nevada desert. 58: Double positive can equal a negative: “I will always love you forever.” 59: The sadness of the empty dish after the unsatisfying meal. 60: Told to me in a dream: "Because we matter too much in this world." Continue reading
Posted Aug 1, 2017 at The Best American Poetry