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Alan Ziegler
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419: I walk the late afternoon streets. A cop enters a coffee shop to get something to-go, leaving his partner outside. The partner paces, lonely, wondering what’s taking so long. The faint moon is lonely in the blue sky, arms-length and 238,000 miles from a passing plane. A woman in a pink dress walks a dog. The dog is lonely for other dogs and tugs whenever he sees one. This dog’s loneliness cannot be solved by the company of the woman in pink. The woman in pink is lonely. The companionship of the dog helps, but is not enough. A grocer stands behind his cash register, lonely for a customer who used to come in every day and now comes no more. A beggar posted at a subway exit gets lonely between trains. “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” wails from the window of a cheap hotel. The song makes the old man sitting on the steps feel even more lonely for his dead friends. A barber sits in one of his swivel chairs, lonely for the back of a head and a face in the mirror. The sun sets, and in rooms where lights do not go on, lonely people sit in the dark. The moon is covered by a single, lonely cloud; they will soon drift apart. A couple walk, hand-in-hand; they smile, but underneath they are lonely for parents. I weave among them all, keeping my composure, not letting them know that I know. Not a damn thing I can do for any of us. 420: My watch died of complications. 421: Harry Greenberg and I loved Joe Franklin’s after-midnight talk show on Channel 9 in the 70s and 80s. You might get Tony Curtis, the New Kids on the Block (when they were kids), and a guy hypnotizing a chicken (we suspected it had something to do with his fingers around the chicken’s neck). We especially enjoyed how Joe lavished praise equally on the super-famous and the obscure; everybody was the best and they were all Joe's dear friends. The ultimate Joe-moment came after he mentioned never having met his next guest. When the best-ever-whoever emerged from the curtain, Joe extended his hand and said, “It’s been a long time.” After a beat, Joe recovered and added, “It’s been never.” Several decades later, Joe was fronting Joe Franklin's Comedy Club (nee Memory Lane) restaurant on 45th Street and Eighth Avenue. Erin and I decided it was the perfect place to take Harry Greenberg for his birthday. While we waited for Harry and his wife, Rose, to arrive, I spotted Joe Franklin making the rounds, while his kinescope image interviewed Fred Astaire on the flat screens above. I knew what I had to do—or regret it forever—and I made a bee-line to Joe. In the middle of dinner, Harry was disappointed at the lack of a Joe-sighting. During dessert, Harry looked up to see Joe approaching him with outstretched hand. Joe said, “It’s been a... Continue reading
Posted May 11, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
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416: I was drowning in memories when my life flashed behind my eyes. Voila: this book. 417: This is about how our miniature dachshund Latte might have saved my eyesight: November 2014, I am awakened at 3 a.m. on my knees, stunned, pain ascending, blood. I’ve fallen out of bed. I’ve crashed my head into the corner of the side table. Erin tends to the cut near my eye and declares, “You need stitches.” We make sure Latte’s water dish is full and leave her with the usual “Watch the house.” The emergency room at St. Luke’s is relatively calm. The intern confirms I don’t have a concussion and stitches me up (after first getting permission from a resident). He is about to release me when he glances at my paperwork. “At your age, protocol calls for a CAT-scan in case something got shaken loose. It’s up to you. I’m pretty sure we won’t find anything.” The CAT-scan confirms my brain is intact, but a suggestion of a shadow hints at a pituitary tumor. “Only way you can tell for sure is with an MRI,” the intern says. “Don’t lose any sleep over it—they’re almost always benign—but do call your doctor soon.” The prospect of an MRI terrifies me. Take Xanax, a friend advises, but that is another of my fears. Turns out the two work nicely in tandem, especially with the Beatles piped in and Erin holding my foot. The MRI confirms what the CAT scan suspected, and my internist refers me to Dr. S. at Langone, a specialist in skull-base tumor surgery who, research reveals, is “world-renowned,” “a pioneer,” and a New York Magazine “Best Doctor” (I always wanted one of those). Dr. S. and I admire each other’s fountain pens, then he shows Erin and me the image of my brain laid bare, pointing to a white mass. “Is that my pituitary?” I ask. “No,” he says, “that’s the tumor enveloping your pituitary.” He points to where it wraps around my carotid artery, and to the short—but safe, for now—distance between the tumor and my optic chiasm. The benign tumor will keep growing slowly, so no need to do the surgery—which has risks—until it almost abuts the optic chiasm. “What about the carotid artery?” I ask, imagining a tiny snake suffocating me at the source. “The carotid adjusts,” Dr. S. explains. Erin and I feel total confidence in Dr. S, and we like him, a gentle spirit harboring great power. After several MRI follow-ups over two years (Xanax, Beatles, foot-holding), Dr. S. points to the tumor encroaching on the optic chiasm. “Now we know what it’s trying to do,” he says, and we schedule surgery for September 18, 2017. Two weeks before the surgery, on a blustery Friday evening, we walk with Latte along the West Harlem Pier, where we come across what may be saddest Bingo game ever: a Parks volunteer calling numbers to two players. It is our humanitarian duty to play, and, before long,... Continue reading
Posted May 4, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
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412: In the early 60s, Jerry White has a folk music show on WJRZ, New Jersey. One stormy night in 1964, Jerry plays Another Side of Bob Dylan in its entirety before its release. I can barely make out the lyrics through static, but one line sings through: “For every hung-up person in the whole-wide universe.” On Sundays in the summer, Jerry White broadcasts live from the band shell in Palisades Amusement Park (home of the largest salt water swimming pool in the world). A bunch of us go as often as we can, cheering in the car whenever WJRZ runs the commercial for “Dennison’s, a men’s clothier, located near The Flagship, where money talks nobody walks, open 8 a.m. until 5 the next morning.” We keep swearing we’ll go some night at 3 a.m. but we never do. Many of the Palisades performers will go on to mainstream fame, such as Judy Collins, John Sebastian, Jose Feliciano (accompanied on stage at Palisades with his seeing-eye dog), and Jesse Colin Young (years later before a Youngbloods concert I will ask him about Jerry White and he will take a step backward with his mouth open and say “Wow”). Others will never transcend the folk scene, like Patrick Sky (whom Jerry White saw getting off the Crazy Mouse with Buffy St. Marie); Mel Lyman (who wailed a hypnotic “Amazing Grace” on his harmonica and went on to head the Lyman Family cult in Boston); and Peter LaFarge (whose “Ballad of Ira Hayes” would be covered by the likes of Johnny Cash and Kinky Friedman). On the radio, Jerry White sometimes plays Peter LaFarge’s protest song “Coyote,” sung chant-style with each line ascending into falsetto, which provokes us to end sentences in falsetto, resulting in contagious, spasmodic giggles. Driving to Palisades on a night Peter LaFarge is scheduled to appear, we consider not taking our usual front-and-center table, afraid we’ll start laughing if he sings “Coyote.” But we do take our regular seats, hoping either that LaFarge won’t sing “Coyote” or that we will be able to behave ourselves. He sings “Ira Hayes” and “As Long As the Grass Shall Grow” (which refers to the length of time the white man’s land treaty was supposed to be in effect), finishing to thunderous applause, much of it coming from our relieved table. Jerry White invites an encore and Peter asks for a request. Now, if one of us requested “Sing Coyote!” it could be explained as a deviant outburst, leading to peer repudiation. But we all yell “Coyote, Coyote.” 413: Unreasonable Facsimiles 414: The barber leans against the shoulder of his fifth customer on a Tuesday afternoon. He pretends the contact is a byproduct of maneuvering into the optimal snipping angle, but artistry is not the issue, he is snipping as much air as hair. He is bone weary. The barber promises never to cut another hair if he can somehow get through this day without crumbling to the floor or being berated... Continue reading
Posted Apr 27, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
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409: Most Sundays of my father’s final year, I take the 4:05 train to Lynbrook. For a couple of weeks in the spring and fall, the landscape glows, a suburban Hopper, and darkness settles as I go down the station stairway to my father’s car. Often, he is dozing off the effects of his chemotherapy, but today he is outside, leaning against the car door. Teenagers skateboard in and out of the parking area under the tracks, jumping curbs, dodging people. The youngest kid buzzes by my father, who yells, “Be careful!” The kid gives my father the finger. “Let’s get him,” my father commands, and runs after the kid with pre-cancer speed. I hustle behind him, furious at this punk kid. I cut around a railroad pillar and the kid screeches to a halt a few feet from me. My father catches up, winded but pleased. The kid smirks, “What are you going to do?” I grab the kid’s arm and hold on. First he’s scared, then defiant. “You can’t hit me. I’m a kid.” “You watch what I can do if you ever come near my father again.” I let go with a modest shove, and my father and I walk toward the car. I resist looking back, but tune my ears to listen for the sounds of pursuit. I ask my father if he is all right. He starts laughing, “Al, I didn’t really mean to go get him. I just wanted to scare him.” “Well, you might want to be more specific next time,” I respond, savoring the energy and camaraderie in my father’s face. When we get back to the car, the oldest one is waiting for us, cradling his board. He has scraggly blond hair and I read in his face that he is the punk kid’s older brother. Suddenly I am nervous that he will file a complaint with the police and I can kiss my teaching career goodbye. “Sir,” he says to my father, “I want to apologize for my brother. He was out of line. We mean no disrespect.” As he walks off, he gives me a respectful nod with his skateboard. 410: Inevitable meet-for-coffee with my ex, at the place we used to linger. The waitress greets “Oh, hi” and I order black. My ex asks for sparkling water and shrugs apologetically at my disappointment. When my cup is almost empty, the waitress extends the pot, raises her eyebrows, and I nod. As she pours, coffee aroma mingles with skin scent. “Are you ready for a coffee now?” she asks my ex. “No, I’ll pass.” After the waitress steps away, I blurt out, “When you meet an ex-lover for coffee, you really should have coffee!” “I can’t. I’m nursing.” Soon my ex will leave. The waitress will finish her shift. And I will wait until closing for one of them to return and refill my life. 411: The photograph came in the mail. It shows me walking away from my... Continue reading
Posted Apr 21, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
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Before the shutdown of all sports, I was able to enlist major league baseball players to demonstrate good and bad examples of social distancing. 1) This is a good, basic application of six-feet rule. 2) Even Better 3) A little too close. 4) Much better! 5) As often as possible, clean all surfaces. 6. When visiting someone who is safe at home, wear protective gear. 7. Capacity Crowd. 8. If you must touch, use gloves. 9. if someone should succumb, wait for professional help. 10. No comment needed. Stay safe!! Continue reading
Posted Apr 11, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
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404: 1993, hundreds of Woolworth's are closing and thousands of generic parakeets will be released on noon of the final day. Scrawny blue and green twelve-dollar birds will scatter in downtown Las Vegas, uptown New York City, and suburban Lynbrook. They will be freed from their group homes, where they sleep leaning on each other like passengers on a midnight train in India. These are not the cream of the exotic bird crop; they are bred for volume, their markup too low to help keep Woolworth's in flight. If you see one in your neighborhood, coax it home with seeds and love. Let it fly freely around the house, offer it food off your plate, teach it the words you’ve longed someone to say to you, and love it like you love the America that once was. 405: I overhear other people’s imaginary voices. Sometimes I do their biddings, which can be confusing when my imaginary voice gets garbled. What’s that you say? No way Jose! If that’s even my real name. 406: Long ago in America the Yankees got rained out and my little brother and I saw three Ape movies. 407: March 1967 Schenectady. After being up all night my roommate and I drive to Albany to watch the sun rise from a hilltop, but when we get there it has already become early. We have huge sleepy diner breakfasts, imagining what everyone will do all day. Back to Schenectady via winding back roads, my friend driving as I drift off. I awake to a bloody coat, shattered windshield, no pain. My friend moans, holding his stomach, no blood. He reaches out his hand, and I take it. Looking back at me from the rearview mirror is my shredded forehead, a small patch of my skull. A policeman wrestles the door open. Points a flashlight at me and says, “This one looks bad.” A few seconds (my time) later, I am being stitched up, floating serenely. A nurse hands me a phone and says, “Tell your mother you’re all right.” “Hi, mom, how are you?” I say, then remember my line and say “I’m all right.” The next day, with half of my face bandaged like Claude Rains in The Invisible Man, I remember I have a date—such a crush—to see Eric Andersen in Albany. I call her, explain my situation low-key not to alarm her, and she says, “Does that mean you’re cancelling on me?” My mother comes up to accompany me on the train home to New York. My father and five-year-old brother Philip meet us at the top of an escalator in Grand Central Station. Philip looks scared and my father reassures him, “It’s Alan.” Philip smiles kindly and says, “My brother’s name is Alan, too.” 408: Visiting the Liptons on Shelter Island, I turn off the bathroom light at 3 a.m. and realize my mistake after a few paces engulfed in darkness on this moonless night. Somewhere are two bedrooms and a steep set... Continue reading
Posted Mar 28, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
Wow--what a group to be touring together. We have seen and will see. Thank you!
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397: When I was a kid, sometimes I’d look down as I walked and imagine I was flying. Everything on the ground became magnified in its smallness—rivulets of rain water in the gutter became mighty rivers abutting cliffs, grass a golf course, dirt a desert. I thought about this today as I came across the fork in the road, and then saw a half smoked cigarette as a limousine, followed by a lumber yard, and fall foliage in the snow. Wee wee wee I flew all the way home. 398: I have nothing prepared for the 6th grade Science Fair. In desperation, I copy a diagram of the human brain onto a piece of oak-tag, and add some facts from the encyclopedia, including the similarity between the human brain and the sheep brain. I tell my mother I am going to make a brain out of paper maché, but my brain can’t get my hands to do it. The next day my mother brings home a sheep’s brain she got from the butcher. I display it next to the oak tag, and my table gets lots of attention. 399: From my 7th grade school notebook: “In Science we went over chemical equations and actions for how electricity is produced in a dry cell. I don’t get it at all. I doubt if I’ll ever get it.” Two years later, researching an idea for a science class project, I read that a copper wheel and magnets can turn on a light bulb. I start to get excited about electricity. I buy the material and meticulously follow the instructions, but the bulb stays dark. I have no choice but to turn it in anyway, with a short composition about how it works, knowing it doesn’t. The teacher is fascinated and beckons me to the front of the classroom. I hope for a miracle, and feign shock when nothing happens. The teacher consoles me, says this is what science is all about, and gives me an A, which makes me feel even more ashamed. After teaching creative writing for many years, I come to realize I earned that A. 400: Youth in Repose. December 1965, a blind date at a fraternity party rushing me, you were doing a favor by doubling with your friend, who soon disappeared upstairs with my friend. Lights went low, music simmered, liquor flowed, no place for strangers. You stewed. No choice but to go out into the chill night. We talked and laughed and stood close together creating warmth. You worried about your friend. We found them back downstairs, entwined on the couch, youth in repose. The room was free upstairs, but you said no, no, I can’t do that. You wrote me a couple of weeks later, a “thank you for a fun night,” told me about your Christmas visit home, the trimming of the tree, how nice to be with your family. I never answered, not looking for “fun nights.” Twenty years later your unusual last... Continue reading
Posted Mar 25, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
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396: The supply room is empty, and no one knows when the next delivery is due. No one can remember the last shipment or who ordered it, only that we were well-stocked for a long time. We call every number in our Contacts and say, “Please bring more.” Some are sympathetic, some blasé, others downright rude. No one says when we can expect supplies. “At least we have each other,” I say to the room, but the others are gone. Just me amidst empty closets, empty chairs next to empty desks.I can barely see in the twilight and turn on a lamp. The bulb gives a final flicker and dies. There is simply no point in looking for another one. The sun, too, runs out. I am left with a night’s supply of darkness. I shall make it last. Continue reading
Posted Mar 15, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
395. The voice on the radio is hysterical. We turn it louder until we can’t make out the words, drowning out the phones and sirens. We shut the windows and harmonize in a hymn. Your hands throw scary shadow figures onto the wall. My fist shadows pummel them. Continue reading
Posted Mar 13, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
Tara, Thank you! Your comment led me to your website and now I am a huge fan of your work and will keep checking in--Alan
Thank you so much Kent! My agent will be shopping it around before too long (I'm going to send her your comment). Hopefully someone will pick it up. --With gratitude, Alan
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388: In my small writer-in-residence cabin at Interlochen, I live as if I have several rooms, working wherever I wind up: curling up in corners, prone by the fireplace, perching by the window, or sometimes even at my desk. There are times when I am desperate for a paper clip—a modicum of organization is all I need, but I need it badly and instantaneously, and relocating to locate one is an onerous and potentially work-killing task. But the thing about paper clips is that you stop needing one about as quickly and often as you start to need one, so I tend to toss newly-detached paper clips willy-nilly. I make a cool discovery: Once the cabin is primed, whenever I need a paper clip all I have to do is feel along the floor or table without even taking my eyes off my work. Most first-time visitors will graciously stoop to pick one off the floor only to be rebuffed: “Please put that back where you found it.” 389: On my lap is a large manila envelope containing my mother’s x-rays. I picked them up from one doctor, and am taking them for a second opinion. This is the kind of opinion only some people are entitled to. The envelope is open at one end, with an indent in the middle from which protrudes the tip of the x-rays, for smooth removal. Held to light, this film tells a story, in a language foreign to me. We have been told that the story is a sad one. The new translator concurs. 390: Are we on the wrong road? Or the right one, but only up to a point that we have passed? Or haven’t we gone far enough? This car speeding past us into our future might know. Or the oncoming lights on cars going back in our time. 391: In college, my Sex, Censorship, and Literature class is visited by Dwight Macdonald. He leafs through one of the skin magazines the professor keeps on hand for class consideration and says, “You know who these girls are? They’re hookers, that’s who they are. That’s where they get them.” After class, I show him one of my pieces and he points out that the character I am profiling doesn’t change (a concept I will continue to wrestle with as a writer and teacher). I tell him I’m doing a series on protest movements for the student newspaper, and he says, “I’d like to see them. Send them to me at The New Yorker.” I never do (oh why oh why?). That night, after a few drinks, he asks me to take him to the Vale Cemetery, to search for the grave of Captain Mordecai Myers, who, I learn, was a mayor of Schenectady, and, more importantly, Robert Lowell’s great-great-grandfather (“Poor sheepdog in wolf’s clothing!”). We scamper in and out of cemetery lanes for what increasingly becomes clear is a mission with little chance of success. Still, I thoroughly enjoy playing Peter... Continue reading
Posted Mar 5, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
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381: Everyone has stories to tell Some big, some small— Know someone long enough and well You’ll hear them all, Though details may morph as years swell And tales grow tall. 382: Hey cowboys, a traveling tip: It’s better to ride off into the sunrise. 383: As I sulked, a swan came out of the river. I told her all about you, pointing to where you lay in the sun, eyes closed, pink sweater beside you. I mentioned your eyes and how they matched the grass. The swan started toward you. I told her you wanted to be left alone. She turned and eased back down into the river. Why, she hardly knew you — and understood so quickly it put me to shame. 384: “I’ve forgotten more than you’ll ever know!” I’ll take your word for it: the minuend (the amount you have forgotten) is greater than the subtrahend (what I’ll ever know). But is the minuend of what you still know greater than the subtrahend of what I know now? 386: Elegy for Phil Ochs (original draft written April 9, 1976). I hear the news, awakening from a nap to the radio. “Death of a folksinger,” the announcer says, and I tense waiting to hear which one. It’s you, Phil. I think of the first time I saw you perform, in 1963 at the Newport Folk Festival, how you strummed between songs and I got the feeling new songs were forming even as you performed the old ones. And the time you were sitting near me at a bar on MacDougal Street, talking politics with some people whose names I probably knew: “What we need is an armed army of Trotskyites,” you said, and I quoted you over and over as if you’d said it to me. Then there was your billed farewell performance a few months ago at Folk City. You did a perfunctory set, ending with a few lines of an unfinished song about Sonny Liston, who lost his heavyweight title rematch to Muhammad Ali after what some called a phantom punch: “Sonny, Sonny Sonny, why’d you have to take a dive...” After the song, you asked the bartender for “another vodka and orange juice” (I thought it strange but elegant that you didn’t ask for a screwdriver) and introduced Sammy Walker with, “This is my last night. This is his first night. I hope you don’t bother HIM.” And I was angry; we were your devoted fans, how did we bother you? Today you hung yourself in your sister’s closet; what did she do, other than harbor you through the dark days, which you'd convinced her were ending. Phil, Phil, Phil, why’d you have to take a dive? 385: Elegy for Laura Nyro (original draft written April 9, 1997). Laura, Laura, I say your name over and over as if singing a song for you. I have been listening to your first songs since I heard the news yesterday, the songs you wrote before you... Continue reading
Posted Feb 24, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
Excessive toughness for #380 duly noted! I have added an alternative. AZ
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373: Would you prefer to: a) be a mule b) be a pig c) be a fish d) swing on a star and be better off than you are e) none of the above 374: Mr. Plant, my senior year high school history teacher, “confided” in us that the government and our textbooks don’t tell the whole truth, but there’s a book that does, except you can’t find it in a bookstore. He asked us each to bring in $3.00 and he would buy the books for us, but don’t tell anyone because it would take too long to get official permission. A few weeks later, Mr. Plant was absent several days in a row. The principal asked me to come to his office, and keep the meeting confidential (he trusted me because I was editor of the school newspaper). “We have not been able to reach Mr. Plant. There’s a rumor that he collected money from his students for a book.” I confirmed the rumor. “Did you receive the book?” He was relieved to hear that we had not, and told me the book was None Dare Call it Treason, a right-wing polemic adopted by the John Birch Society. The school reimbursed our money and we never saw Mr. Plant again, though one of my classmates swore he spotted him walking on the Long Beach Boardwalk wearing a dress. 375: Paused at an intersection on a desolate Northern Michigan road. A blue vintage Corvette whizzes by, the model used in Route 66. I used to dream about being the Todd of a Todd-Buzz Corvette-rambling duo. (Todd went to Yale and will have a lucrative future when his drifting days are done.) Another vintage Corvette, followed by another and another. I count to 16, when the intersection becomes still, ominously bereft of Corvettes. 376: I wake in the middle of the night and can’t find my left arm. Not draped over my wife or squished under my chest. I panic for a few groggy seconds. There it is: by my side, but somehow detached. I remember hearing that prisoners in German concentration camps were sometimes forced to sleep in such confined spaces that their whole bodies fell asleep while their minds remained conscious. I muffle a scream into the pillow as I shake my arm awake, breathing rapidly until I can once again embrace my wife. 377: On the 1-train, the ragged man blesses me for my dollar. At my stop, the train lurches and I stumble toward the door somehow eluding passengers. With a final harrowing jeté I land upright on the platform. The ragged man yells out, “Good balance, sir! Not bad for an old dude.” 378: I am five, in the hospital with a mysterious infection, led into a small auditorium—the audience a sea of white. I stand on stage and realize my pajama bottoms are sagging. I keep them up with one hand, while the audience listens and takes notes. I hear something about my parents... Continue reading
Posted Feb 11, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
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365: Late 1950s, Lassie barks for help through the darkness. The T.V. picture has gone kaput. My father says “I’ll teach you to fix it” and removes the back to reveal a landscape of small tubes. He plucks out several and drops them into a paper bag. We drive to the drug store where, hidden in a back corner, is a scientific-looking object the size of a vending machine. He instructs me how to plug the tubes in—one at a time, matching the slots with the numbers on the tube—and watch as the gauge points red or green. It reminds me of a game on the boardwalk. He sets aside the only tube that turned the gauge red, and finds its match in the cabinet. Home, he re-plugs all the tubes except for the new one, which he lets me do. Lassie comes home! 366: The ancient writer, told he has hours to live, asks his doctor to bring him his books, and he starts paging through them. “Why didn’t you ask for your wife?” “I’ll have eternity with her in heaven. These are going straight to hell.” 367: 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. 368: The houseguest opens the refrigerator, smiles, and says, “Someone brought home baked goods from Entenmann’s.” 369: “Garçon, un bock! I write to please myself, just as I order my dinner…” [George Moore, Confessions of a Young Man]. I don’t need the menu, just bring me whatever looks good today. 370: My mother’s critique: “Received your article to-day and for a routine write-up, you sure made it into interesting reading.” 371: The evil that men do lives long after them, along with automatic renewals. 372: The only priest in the remote village announces he will be moving to a faraway parish in a week. A run on Confessions, future absolutions granted; pray now, sin later. Hail Marys peal from every corner, alley, barroom, bedroom. After the priest departs, it is holy sanctioned hell on earth. Except for a pious few, who eventually set off to find the Garden of Eden and scrounge for seeds. Continue reading
Posted Jan 17, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
355: Unemployment Office, 92nd and Broadway, mid-1970s: Laid-off (not fired) workers wait weekly on long lines to affirm they are actively looking for work. No check-in, no check. So many dancers, musicians, and actors on those lines that if you yelled “And five six seven eight….” the opening of A Chorus Line would break out. 356: “Over and back,” was my favorite basketball violation. I’d have done it all game if they let me. 357: Beauty and Pizza, meet Parlor. 358: The following contains one falsity: On Saturday Night Live in 1992, Sinead O’Connor adapted Bob Marley’s “War” to include “child abuse” (repeated), nine years before the Pope formally acknowledged the problem. She tore a picture of the Pope (you won’t see it on the reruns). Two weeks later she was booed off the Madison Square Garden stage at a tribute to Bob Dylan, who came out and scolded the audience. 359: Second verse same as the first. Second verse same as the first. 360: Sultry spring Saturday in Schenectady, 1970. Local hamburger joint advertises special appearance by Bippo the Clown—all day, bring the kiddies. “Damn everything but the circus!” I shout, and we head on over. An elderly couple is smoking in a booth, a bored teenager stands behind the counter wearing a white paper hat. “We’d like to see the clown.” “The clown went home.” “The clown went home?!” “Yeah, no one came to see him.” And thus the phrase the clown went home enters the lexicon, with a multitude of uses. 361: Sometimes my second move only becomes apparent after I make the first move, yet would not have been viable without the first move. 362: I still get angry at characters on screen who do something stupid even though I know the words were put on the page by someone like me. 363: I improvise on a Santana song in my head, barely aware I am fretting the notes on my forearm. “What song are you playing?” someone asks. “Samba Pa Ti.” "Nice intonation!" 364: Assignment: Research and write a 50-word biographical sketch for every extra in The Life of Emile Zola. Continue reading
Posted Jan 10, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
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December 1968 My grandmother and her sister live in a rent-controlled walk-up on East Fourth Street between First and Second. The Hells Angels are headquartered around the block. Through the school playground across the street, you can see the police station used for Kojak exteriors. Almost directly across the street is the campaign headquarters/studio of Louis Abolafia, an artist who recently lost the Presidency to Richard Nixon by more than 31 million votes (no matter, Abolafia at 27 was far too young to serve). When I stop by Abolafia’s tiny storefront, I mention that my grandmother appreciates how he always smiles and waves. “Yes, the old people like me,” Abolafia says, but he is distracted. “I must have been out of my head to not show him that one.” He shakes his flowing hair in disgust and explains that he just showed a potential buyer several of his paintings but forgot one of his favorites. Louis Abolafia: self-proclaimed Renaissance Man, the Patron Saint of Fourth Street, The Caped Crusader for Peace, and the Love Candidate for President. His nearly-nude campaign poster proclaims “What have I got to hide” but reveals a typical politician’s proclivity to conceal at least part of the truth. The New York Times covered his campaign kick-off in May 1967, a marathon Cosmic Love-In at the Village Theater (later the Fillmore East) with the likes of Allen Ginsberg, The Blues Project, and Timothy Leary. Abolafia is not new to the media piñata of the 60s. In December 1964 he was arrested for putting up one of his paintings on the balcony of the Metropolitan Museum. Abolafia’s friendliness with the elders on the block is not the only way he bridges generation gaps. His headquarters also serves as the Runaway Clearing House, where Abolafia acts as an intermediary between runaway kids and their parents. Today, Abolafia is hiding much more than on his poster, wearing a plain white turtleneck and brown slacks. He excuses himself to “make some bread,” and resumes sorting out the paintings he showed the buyer, still upset about the one he forgot. The phone rings and he asks me to take a message. I search for the phone amidst the unsold canvases, periodicals (from Life to the East Village Other), and half empty Coke cans. I know I am getting close when I come across a waste paper basket covered with telephone numbers. I add a new name and number and we start our interview. I ask about his platform and he makes an Oh-that-again face. As he starts his rote answer (love means “being open hearted”), I mouth I’m sorry and he smiles. The rest of the interview is conversational. His campaign didn’t “make a move financially but did well spiritually,” and he garnered plenty of free publicity because “freakiness is almost as good as money on today’s market.” He did all the big TV shows (Merv Griffin, Johnny Carson) and was written up in magazines all over the world. At a party,... Continue reading
Posted Dec 29, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
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It’s been 12 years since publication of the expanded edition of O Holy Cow!: The Selected Verse of Phil Rizzuto (edited by Tom Peyer and Hart Seely) and the ensuing scandal when the book garnered no major awards due to bias against Spoken Word. Consider this classic of architectural angst, which spawned the “Tighten it!” self-help craze (whose acolytes claim that those three syllables uttered repeatedly by world leaders can lead to peace in this shrinking world): Alienation I think my head shrinks a little In this indoor stadium I am... The mike is getting bigger. And I have to tighten it. Now The Library of the Other America will be publishing The Dialogues of Rizzuto. This excerpt has already become a linchpin of Columbia’s updated Core. PERSONS OF THE DIALOGUE: Phil Rizzuto, Frank Messer SCENE: A Broadcast Booth. The pitcher has thrown four consecutive balls, but the umpire called the fourth one a strike. The fifth pitch was called ball four. Rizzuto: If you’re a fatalist, you would say he was meant to walk. Messer: Is that what a fatalist is? Rizzuto: I don’t know, I never could figure out what a fatalist was. Messer: Is that a fatalist or a realist? A realist would say he was meant to walk. Rizzuto: I don’t know, we could have a good discussion on that if we get some rain. Continue reading
Posted Dec 25, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
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343: Darkness falls but stops just short of my shoes, so I dance home, light on my feet. 344: One night Greenwich Village early-1960s Fat Black Pussycat, Tiny Tim opens for Richie Havens. A buck cover and another dollar gets you a burger. Tiny Tim (who has yet to record “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” or get married on the Tonight Show) plays ukulele and sings both voices of Paul and Paula’s “Hey Paula.” Richie Havens (who has yet to open Woodstock or play Clinton’s inauguration) muses at length about the wonders of watching a helicopter take off and dazzles us with his thumb-fretted open chording. 345: After a rough weekend, and a few drinks, she looked me in the eye, kissed me, and said, “You’re good.” Her stare glared and she added, “Too good.” 346: Mid-1980s I am helping someone I don’t know very well move into a downtown walk-up. While taking a breather leaning against the van, an acquaintance passes by and points to the boxes. “Moving in or out?” “Actually, helping Gerard Malanga move in.” “Let me get this straight,” she says. “You are helping a cult poet and Andy Warhol collaborator move.” She nods and goes on her way. 347: In the late-1950s my father went to bed at 8 to get up at 2 for his milk route. He would often emerge, baggy boxers sleep-squinty eyes and, without a word, lower the T.V. volume and return to bed. He never lowered the volume before going to bed. 348: I have a blind date for homecoming weekend freshman year—football game, dinner, party. She’s not a student, lives in town with her family. I am smitten at first sight and throughout the game I try to impress her with my college wit. I walk her home so she can change for dinner. When I return and knock on her door, a man answers and says his daughter isn’t home. I fumfer that we’re in the middle of a date and he repeats with father sternness: “Young man, I told you she is not home.” But then there she is, nudging her father out of the way. “I am so sorry,” she says as she hands me a piece of paper as she closes the door. “This is my friend. Call her. She’s likes philosophers.” 349: In the 1970s I come across a small crowd in Central Park surrounding a man with a wagon and several cats. I love animal acts. I watch as he slowly convinces each cat to jump into the wagon. When they’re all lined up, he takes a bow, and then nothing. I ask someone applauding if I missed the act. She replies, “That is the act.” 350: One night Greenwich Village early-1960s Gaslight Café. The bill is John Hammond, Tom Paxton, and Phil Ochs. In the middle of Hammond’s set, he looks out at the audience and says there was a guy here last night, came up and played the harp with him. “Are... Continue reading
Posted Dec 21, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
Lucky Dog! There are people with dogs, and there are dog people. I think you and David are the latter.
Reading this was like watching a movie with a very literary VoiceOver. I particularly love the scene where Dennis goes off screen to pee and comes back with ice cream for everybody.
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335: She said Yankee Stadium (the original) “is very sensual.” I cautioned her to use sensuous—appealing to the senses—rather than sensual, or people would think she is sexually aroused by Yankee Stadium. She replied, “I know the difference.” 336: In the Lake Tahoe Airport (or maybe it was Reno), 1979 (or perhaps 1980), the only other person in the waiting area looks like Freddy Cannon, whom I last saw singing Chuck Barris’s “Palisades Park” at one of Alan Freed’s Brooklyn Paramount shows. A vaguely familiar man enters, stops short, then spews out (the gist, based on fuzzy recollection): I work with Andy Kaufman, who is right behind me, and this could be awkward because Andy asked to meet you backstage but was turned away and Andy was crushed because he assumed you were mad at him because you thought Andy has been making fun of you in his act but he really and truly loves your music. Freddy replies (more fuzzy gist): Oh no, I didn’t know it was him, I would never turn away another performer, professional courtesy and all. And in walks Andy Kaufman, who (and this is not fuzzy) stops and stares in surprised awe like he can't believe his own twinkling eyes. I left them getting along famously. In 1981 Andy hosted The Midnight Special and called Freddy “one of the most creative forces in 1950’s Rock & Roll,” before accompanying him on “Tallahassee Lassie.” 337: When I tell students about Ezra Pound reciting Browning’s “Sordello” to Yeats at Stone Cottage, I can feel them thinking, “Wow he’s smart.” When I tell them about the time Allen Ginsberg read “Wales Visitation” to me in Schenectady, I can feel them thinking, “Wow he’s old!” 338: I once had a phone number that could be dialed by spelling out either Doc Kiss or Doc Lips. 339: In a dream I get on the bus marked “Dream Bus.” After a while I ask the driver, “Where does this bus stop?” and he replies, “It doesn’t.” “So, how do we get anywhere?” “We don’t.” 340: My confession to my father after he came home and smelled the embers of a trash fire: “I lit a match.” Case closed. 341: Ah to go back—for ten minutes—to Winter 1970, changing buses at White River Junction, browsing vending machines and, with my only quarter, foregoing the candy bars of my childhood and, for the only time in my life, selecting a black plastic comb, climbing into the Plainfield bus delighted with my purchase. 342: I am done but I am far from finished. Continue reading
Posted Nov 6, 2019 at The Best American Poetry