I WAS IN PAIN
AND THEN IT STOPPED
W RITING FROM B ROOKLYN P UBLIC L IBRARY CONTRIBUTORS ADA JESSICA BALTER DEBRA BISHOP DAVID DON DIEGO ROBERT GIBBONS JAROD GROOME ANGELA M. KINGLAND JENNY MCCLUSKEY TASHA PALEY BOYD PEREZ CONNIE PERRY MARIA PATRICIA SLEE J.K. WILLIAMS E DITED BY BEN DOLNICK
N Y W RITERS
I Was in Pain and Then It Stopped W RITING
B ROOKLYN P UBLIC L IBRARY
NY W RITERS C OALITION P RESS FALL 2014 3
Copyright ÂŠ 2014 NY Writers Coalition, Inc. ISBN: 978-0-9911174-6-8 Library of Congress Control Number: 9780991117468 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED Upon publication, copyright to individual works returns to the authors. Editors: Ben Dolnick Layout: Rose Gorman Title: Ada Cover Images: J.K. Williams I Was In Pain and Then It Stopped contains writing by members of NY Writers Coalition creative writing workshops conducted at Brooklyn Public Library, Central Branch. NY Writers Coalition Press, Inc. 80 Hanson Place, Suite 604 Brooklyn, NY 11217 (718) 398-2883 email@example.com www.nywriterscoalition.org ABOUT BROOKLYN PUBLIC LIBRARY Brooklyn Public Library's Central Branch contains over one million cataloged books, magazines, and multimedia materials and serves as the major reference center for BPL's 60-location system. For more information about BPL services, events, and programs: Brooklyn Public Library Central Library 10 Grand Army Plaza Brooklyn, NY 11238 (718) 230-2100 www.bklynlibrary.org
C ONTENTS INTRODUCTION BY BEN DOLNICK
ORIGINAL WRITING BY TASHA PALEY
MARIA PATRICIA SLEE
DAVID DON DIEGO
ANGELA M. KINGLAND
ABOUT NY WRITERS COALITION
OUR WORK & WHY WE DO IT There are, I sometimes think, two main modes of writing. There’s the kind that feels like performing dentistry on oneself: it isn’t fun, it may well result in injury, but you have no choice — the sentence/paragraph/chapter you need is stuck, and your feeling of literary responsibility (not to mention desperation) obliges you to keep tugging until the bloody, broken thing finally emerges. Then there’s the kind of writing that feels like transcribing what’s on the radio — or maybe more like being a radio. You switch yourself on, into the receptive state, and then you wait through a few fuzzy commercials, a bit of distant theme music… and then on comes a program devoted entirely to a long-forgotten afternoon that you spent eating funnel cake with your mother at Coney Island. Or maybe a program (one you’re quite sure that you, card-carrying sane person, would never have come up with) consisting entirely of a dialog between a subway rat and the third rail. This mode of writing is harder to talk about, but it’s more important. It has the weird density and aliveness of dreams. It tends to be responsible for the scenes and images that the dentist, for all his strength and industry, could never extract. This past year, thanks to the New York Writers Coalition and the Brooklyn Public Library, I’ve been lucky enough to witness a great deal of this second type of writing. Every week, on Monday afternoon, a group of strangers gather in a small library classroom — they come from homeless shelters and studio apartments and high schools and assisted living facilities — and undertake the strange, beautiful, trusting work of transforming themselves into radios. Here’s some of what they’ve picked up. Ben Dolnick Fall 2014 9
T ASHA PALEY SCENES FROM THE DARK SIDE A darkened movie theater, My mind, Macular degeneration has eaten my edges First the crusts, then the middle Of an eyeball sandwich White cane with red tip– My steadfast companion– Plays taps on the concrete Pepper spray and I Boldly confront Shadows in Manhattan alleys Predators BEWARE! 112 steps to my 4th floor walk-up 78th and First 45 years there Blind for two Orange cat Spike My bedfellow Awaits me His saucy meow. I’d know anywhere
Much the way I knew My father’s whistle in Yankee Stadium some 60 years ago Blessings on the Lighthouse Whose teachings include Braille, iPad, Color sorting for my closets, Hugging sidewalks to anticipate corners, Counting steps to the intersection, The Diner, the public toilet I’m no Audrey Hepburn, With my mouse gray hair And widening butt, But, like Audrey, I trump the seeing eye folks She, in “Wait until Dark,” Me, in Hurricane Sandy Heroine I was, Helping my neighbors to navigate blacked out streets The blind leading the blind. Their dependence on me A most welcome relief. How sweet, the music of Beethoven! The Robin’s song! The taste of catfish marinated in curry! On my fire escape I soak up afternoon sun
As Baby Duffy’s cry Trumpets from their tenement Several houses down Her drunken mama wails “Give Joanna her bottle, goddamn it! Shut her up!” On the subway I sense ages– The old, the young, the weary Origins – Barbados, Brooklyn, The Bronx, Prague Hip hoppers with their boom boxes I return home, In rush hour, From window shopping at Macy’s A small, proud young’un reads “Uncle Wiggly” To his little sister. We share a subway seat They notice my cane, My vacant eyes, My half smile Warm as toast In their presence Light drizzle, on an early March morning, Wraps me in comfort I tap tap the sidewalk. A faraway foghorn Sounds mournfully on the East River.
Newly baked Brugel’s bagels waft warm in the morning damp. I settle into Starbuck’s leather armchair, (green, I recall.) Taste the mocha latte through my nose. Still too hot to drink. Blind yes, But let it be said, Shouted from treetops, That I am as grateful as my granny’s arse, bathing boldly in the Brighton Beach Surf.
J AROD G OOME ZOELIA I could smell her from a mile away, maybe two. A simple whiff gave me goose bumps under my coat. I tried to control it, but my tail wagged violently every time she came near; I was soothed by her tenderly firm voice. It was odd, the way she affected me but I greeted her with steadfast enthusiasm every moment she approached our front door. She stroked my belly with such grace and poise. She always called me a “good boy,” she was so reassuring, like any good woman ought to be. Never did I think that today would be the day that I finally got to Zoelia. It was a typical morning; I woke up downstairs on the mid-grey couch. The love seat was getting boring, and I hadn’t slept upstairs with George in two nights. We were in the middle of a fight, probably until the end of the week. The bastard showed up late for my evening walk two evenings ago and had the nerve to try and compensate by throwing me one measly piece of Chipotle beef. Chipotle! Who eats that shit?! He was always a cheap bastard. To tell you the truth, I didn’t particularly like George. He was always a peculiar man. He was never very active, or devoted to helping me grow. He took long trips without me and was never too excited to come back home. He was just around and treated me as if I was the same. I would see the neighbors go out for runs, sometimes 15
without a leash while I gazed through the living room window. I may have been guilty of some envy, but I felt clean of it every time Zoelia came around. Zoelia was 10 times better of a spirit. She was tall, feminine, graceful and intuitive. I respected and loved her deeply and limitlessly. This creature would only come over during house gatherings or neighborhood council or, my favorite, backyard BBQ’s – regardless, her presence was inspirational. From the first moment I met her, she made me feel like a pup again. The first day she walked in, I rubbed on her leg without discipline, before dreaming of her aggressive heels clacking through the front door again, and again and again. Anyhow, this particular morning, soon after my awakening, I ran up the stairs to demand my breakfast from George. Hopefully it was Saturday, so that we could go for a ride in the Chevy after. Maybe Zoelia would spot me flaunting my chiseled snout in the Wisconsin wind. As I got to the top of the stairs I realized George was already up brushing his teeth. This meant that it wasn’t Saturday, and he was inclined to take the Chevy to work. Once again, I had to step up as pack leader of the home until his master had released him to return. Everyone has a master, but with Zoelia, I would be free. It seemed like the fifth sunrise in a row that this was happening. The manipulative two-legger had left before the sun was midway, and I still hadn’t eaten breakfast. I went to my bowl, hoping that I had made a mistake, but I was re-disappointed. What a shame, a good dog like me must be tortured with thirst and hunger for three-quarters of sunrise. I was strong and handsome, athletic and young, easy-going and not that dirty. I was loyal beyond belief, until now. This home didn’t deserve me anymore and I was about to break tradition and 16
force a pack-switch. My parents were conservative and never supported pack-switching; they said it undermined the basis of relationships: loyalty. Their dogmatic tendencies never surprised nor influenced me. I knew my worth, and knew I needed to make it across the pavement into the thighs of my soul mate. I couldnâ€™t wait to get my jaws on her and hold on for dear life. I left the empty bowls in the kitchen and made my way to the attic. George always left the corner-left window cracked and the door unlocked. I had been planning this for some time now.
SCRAPBOOKING IN PROSPECT PARK In Prospect Park someone had set up a kitchen table and we are all sitting around it having coffee with our longings. not talking too much. pretending to read the morning newspaper. heaven is a heathen for hating us so much like what did I do to god besides love Him. the people we lost are in our scrapbook. we sit drenched in their death trying to get the crease out of their shadow. we become the person who re-reads all their letters sighs whenever we are touched and cries while closing the refrigerator door or going up the escalator at the mall. but we came to this kitchen table to call ourselves back towards living and not let our hearts bleed too loud.
DEAR MOM I know you never taught me how to clean a toilet bowl or wax my eyebrows or from which side I should start brushing my teeth. I know you never lingered your hands longer in your hug to me than you had to. I know that when the sunrise came you dreamed about leaping off the fire escape with the moon's stench on you. Everything on you looks shaky no color no red no purple will bring out your eyes. I know you never taught me what skirt will hide my bumpy knees But while I still lingered in your loins you said to me pray, beautiful I will not be able to help you learn how to walk. and so this is how a daughter was taught to pray.
SAVING I save my father's smell woven into the bedspread I save a piece of a joke I told my father to remember I am funny. I save the time a guy told me I had a better ass than his wife so I will not feel bad when that other guy does not call me back. I save the time when I prayed to god in only my underwear and I knew he was listening. I save the day grandmother put her hand up to ask for her coffin though I wish she was just another woman putting her hand up to beg the bus to wait. I save the blood every-time after the bleeding stopped to remember I was in pain and then it stopped. I save the time I caught mother combing her hair since she didn't really comb her hair I save the day mother and I stood in the kitchen peeling avocados and the knife nourished us and did not request anything back.
THE JEWISH GIRL WHO WON'T eat bacon. I won't try it taste it smell it. I come to school dressed appropriately so that the angels won't say they regretted knowing me when I get to heaven. and I don't swear in the presence of my mother only everybody else. heaven is a dirty word in my house. don't say it unless you are sure you are going there. don't tempt don't tease don't smoke on the railings of the synagogue don't stick your butt out while you tie your shoes because that is unholy some woman in synagogue told me. you got to be careful around god. He don't like anything that look like sinning even if it ain't. you got to undress privately with all the lights off. you don't want heaven to hear you unzipping your pants but I made a mistake I left the light on so tell the ladies I'm going out tonight heaven will be alright without me.
B OY D P EREZ LIFE IN SHELTERS Hello I’m Tito Maysonet, a single, carefree, 35-year-old Nuyorican. I love the ladies, cats, writing and dancing salsa. One summer afternoon, in the year 2013, I got to my tenement tired from a maintenance job in the Bronx. I put the key into the lock and tried to turn it, but couldn’t. As soon as this realization hit me I noticed a white piece of paper taped underneath the diamond shaped window in the door. On it was a telephone number with instructions to call it. I had lived 15 years in a studio in Bushwick and had gone through numerous front door keys. This time there was no doubt in my mind that it was me who was getting evicted. I hadn’t paid rent for one year and hadn’t paid rent on time since 2004. But if anything I felt bad for my landlord Frank Piccicci. This man did not want to throw me out in the street. In fact one time he told me, “Tito, I work with you because you’re honest, if other tenants come late with the rent I get them out of here.” This is the best compliment I’ve ever received but I must confess to being relieved about not being a problem for Frank anymore. He has always treated me like a member of his own family. When able I’m going to pay Mr. Piccicci every cent I owe him. The moving of my stuff to a storage place in Bed-Stuy happened with me feeling completely numb. This is because I had to leave Papo behind. Papo is my diabetic cat and my little Papi Chulo. He has to be fed 130 calories of kitten food twice a day. Who was going to do that for him now was the only thing I could think about as the movers hauled my things to their truck. Mr. Pintor, the person who oversaw my eviction, told me he’d find someone to take care of Papo, to not worry 22
about him and to get myself right. After having his people finish their job Mr. Pintor gave me keys to the room where they put my stuff and advised that I go check out a shelter in the City. So I got on a Manhattanbound A train and took it to 42nd Street. Once again I had hit rock bottom. Being accustomed to doing so, it didn’t irk me as much as it should have. But on the way from Port Authority to that intake shelter it did feel like I was haplessly wading through irony itself. That the richest cities in the universe would have homeless shelters in them didn’t seem right. This whole experience was feeling, looking and smelling nightmarish in a Gothic sense as I stepped through Hell’s Kitchen. I thought I was going to see Bela Lugosi greeting people with a wide smile on his face upon entering the shelter. On opening its door what I saw was a line of ten tired angry dregs waiting for their turn to be searched by security. Man, the smell of body odor in that place was strong. It seemed like everyone there must have been allergic to soap. After being checked by security they sent me to a waiting room down the hall from the main entrance. A case worker interviewed me around 1:30 in the morning. She took down all my personal information, then to my surprise asked which shelter I’d like to be sent to. With appreciation I told her any shelter which isn’t in Manhattan. I made this request because all the group homes I grew up in were the City. There was no need for me at this point in my life to run into any of the guys I was acquainted with in those places. The caseworker cooperated and assigned me to a shelter in Queens. Being that my shift started at 6:30 am this lady said I could sleep at that shelter for the night then go to the shelter in Queens right after work. I took her advice. She gave me a room and bed number at which I could rest for the next 2 hours. So I walked upstairs thinking the funk that was contemptuously dancing up in my nose would disappear or at least become less funky. But upon opening the staircase door on the second floor the odor was so powerful that it felt like it was alive and wanted to kill me. Forget that, bro. I went to the restroom, brushed my 23
teeth, washed my armpits at a sink and then went to ride the 6 train until 5:30 in the morning. This way I could make sure I’d be at my job by 6:00. It was a long day of work, but I made it through and immediately went to a Motel on Bushwick Avenue. I had to go to the shelter in Queens groomed and rested. If you want to be respected you have to respect yourself. After spending Thursday night and the entire Friday morning getting cleaned I ate lunch at a diner on Myrtle Avenue, then took a nice walk to the Bushwick Library. When the library closed at 6pm I got on the L train to Manhattan, transferred at 6th Ave and took the F train to the shelter. I had to walk through a bunch of hoods in front of that place. They were smoking something that smelled foul. But this is a scene I’ve been familiar with my whole life. It was nothing but a thing. On entering the shelter, guards ordered me to put my travel bag in a scanning machine. Then they checked my coat and pants pockets for weapons. When they finished doing their thing they pointed to an empty chair in the hall and told me to wait there until a case worker called. When the case worker finally summoned me she gave me platitudes about being there and said that I would be helped if I helped myself. After she finished giving me the shelter’s rules she sent me to room 303 alone. I took the elevator up to the third floor because stairwells are places where people are usually up to no good. As the doors opened on the third floor my body automatically shifted itself to a more intense fight gear. It knew that the majority of the guys in these places had a propensity for violence that they could not control. Men were up and about everywhere but my mind was consumed with finding a place to live. I noticed nothing else. When I entered room 303, though, I was bum-rushed out of a focused state by the smell of dirty butts, feet, armpits and bad breath that were mingling together. Still, even at this point there was no clue in my mind that life in this homeless shelter was going to continue getting worse. After putting my stuff in my locker I laid down thinking I’d get some good sleep before 24
having to do a 12-8pm shift the next day. Then out of nowhere the smell of pure ganja started to gently seep over the locker to the left of my cot. And it smelled good. Though I don’t do drugs I do enjoy the smell of good weed. 5 minutes after the guy in the cot next to mine started puffing, some cat lying in a cot across the room from us fired up what looked like a blunt. Would you believe the blunt of the dude from across the room slowly snuffed out the smell of the sweet weed with its own powerful stench? It was downright repugnant, just like the stuff they were smoking in front of the building. Temptation immediately began urging me to get up, step to the dude puffing that horrible smell, take it from him, then try and get some rest. But being that it was my first night in this shelter, plus the fact that I was living there for free, my instinct said, “Tito, you got to do recon before doing something Crazy Eddie like that. Be cool and find out who’s what here before doing anything drastic.” So I was kept awake inhaling that odor for 3 hours not believing the dude who was exhaling it could afford to buy so much drugs and smoke so much smoke. And where was security at? Was the metal detector and strong security presence at the front of this shelter just for show? Waking up the following morning with a headache, I walked toward the cot of the guy who smoked that foulness the night before and got a closer look at him. I stood there stunned for a minute after realizing this guy looked like Keith Partridge. To add on to the surreal-ness in my brain, on my walk to the lavatory on the 4th floor, I smelled the same foul smoke the young boy was exhaling coming out of all the other rooms too. Man they were even smoking that funk in the restrooms showers and stalls. There was even one dude at a sink puffing that nastiness in front of a mirror like that was how he routinely prepared himself for the day. The question, “What is this about?” began echoing in my mind. Was this shelter being run by drug dealers? After finishing my toilet in disgust I went back downstairs and put my stuff away. The noise I made doing this woke up the white boy. Then for whatever reason he quickly sat up on 25
his cot, hurriedly opened his locker, pulled out half a blunt and lit it up. My plan to lie around until 10:00am went out the window over this, which impelled me to make a plan to fix this situation. Here’s what I did. If anyone started smoking around me I’d just get up and leave the room. Most of the time I’d take my manuscript and go edit it on the floor in the hallway until 1 or 2 in the morning. Doing this limited the amount of second-hand smoke I had to inhale. If this is what I had to do for 90 days to show my case worker I want to lead a clean life, then this is what I’d do without hesitation. Forget everybody else, especially that young boy. But this cat did make an attempt to challenge my response to everybody’s smoking. One evening he walked in the room and lit up a blunt. So I put on my slippers, got my manuscript and started walking out. Would you believe this guy started following me? Upon sensing his nearing body I stopped dead in my tracks, put my right hand into my pants and started scratching myself. This jerk stopped behind me, so I turned my head to see what he wanted. When we made eye contact he quickly turned around and went back to his cot. All that smoking he had done since I got there looked like it was hurting his health. Good, my plan was working. How anyone who takes drugs doesn’t understand that it damages them physically and psychologically is mystifying. Inevitably the criminals in this shelter tried to get information out of me. I had to deal with a white bald-headed dude who has blue eyes. Everyone calls him Delicious. Initially I thought, “Why would anyone call this ugly guy by that name?” Delicious is 6’2,” has a medium build and he knew the young boy who smoked the stuff that irked me the first night I spent there. In fact he was the one who was puffing the good weed. In the beginning of my stay at this shelter Delicious developed the habit of bringing the young boy to his cot to talk silliness. I laughed to myself the first time I heard him speak though. This is because his smooth voice and charming demeanor lead me to understand why people called him Delicious. He had charisma. 26
Anyway as soon as this kid would light up I’d bounce. Apparently those two dudes wanted me to listen in on their conversations. When they realized I’d stay in bed when no one was smoking, the young boy stopped doing so. Eventually one night I overheard Keith thanking Delicious for getting him a cot in our room because it was helping him get his lyrics right. Man I knew this cat didn’t need to be in a homeless shelter. He was just a wannabe rapper who thought sleeping in a shelter would make him ghetto down. Stupid Eminem wannabe, what an idiot he was. Delicious didn’t need to be in that shelter either. After the first two nights I spent there I noticed he’d sign for his bed but would leave with all his things right after bed check was made. Now isn’t that messed up? Not only were these guys taking beds from needy people but they talked openly about it. They had no concern whatsoever that someone would drop a dime on them. This is why I stayed away from these jerks and never took any of the opportunities they gave me to join their conversations. I never have nor ever want to have anything to do with scumbags. Since I wouldn’t talk to anyone in that place, Delicious slickly brought in a ringer to get me to open up to him. Knowing I was Nuyorican, he brought some dude named Norberto to the room. Norberto was an older, healthylooking black guy. He had a Spanish accent and the straightest natural hair I’ve ever seen on a person of African descent. He just popped up out of nowhere and it seemed like he was an established member of the shelter. So on a really cold night Norberto crazily started proclaiming in the middle of the room how evil the white man is. Everyone listened intently as he went into details about this topic. Norberto said, “You got to watch your back with the white man. If you start doing business with him be very careful or he’ll give it to you in the ass without Vaseline. I’m telling you the white man’s never heard of Vaseline and if you offer him some he won’t want it after he finds out it will help his bicho (penis) go in easy. This is because he like to do people raw. For example Babe Ruth was a black nigger. If you look at a picture of the Babe you’ll see his 27
nose was bigger and wider than mine. But the white man kept that information out of the papers because he don’t want anyone but his own kind to respect themself. Notice that Babe Ruth is the only sports superstar in the history of the world who didn’t have a mother, father, brother, sister or any family at all. The papers said he was raised in an orphanage to cover up the fact that he was a black man. And who owns the papers, the white man, right? I’m telling you Jackie Robinson wasn’t the first nigger to get in the Hall of Fame, Babe Ruth was but the white man will never admit it because he never wants anyone but his own kind to be proud.” Being amused and knowing he was Spanish because he said bicho, I interrupted Norberto and asked, “De donde tu eres?” (Where are you from?) He said, “De Panama.” At this moment Delicious quickly butted in, introduced himself and started giving me his history. He said that he did time upstate then went into detail about how all the law enforcement officials up there were related and had that part of New York locked down. This cat almost made me laugh when he said with amazement in his voice that groupies went to the prisons upstate regularly to have conjugal visits with the criminals there, especially the famous ones. Then with abruptness Delicious asked me, “What you think about the guys who mess with people in here?” I calmly told him, “I ain’t worried about nothing. The first dummy who looks, says or does something I don’t like in my direction I will kill him, then call the police and report what I did. Man I’ll pull a George Zimmerman and explain to the cops, ‘This guy got in my face and told me I better watch myself for snitching on him. Then he went into his back pocket like he was going to pull something out so I hit him with a right hand and he fell to the floor. While this guy was on the floor he looked up at me and said I’m going to kill you. When I saw him reach for his back pocket again I started kicking him in the head until he stopped moving.’ Yo, George Zimmerman shot an unarmed teenager with no criminal record and got away with murdering him. I don’t think a jury will convict a man with a clean record of 28
killing some mutt from this shelter, so I hope someone here does try something on me because I will absolutely enjoy beating the life out of him.” All the guys who heard me say this stood in silent disbelief for a quick moment, then went back to their cots. Delicious looked into my eyes and said, “OK.” I made this declaration in the manner I did to be left alone. No one messes with crazy people, even criminals. In any case I always treat everyone I come in contact with respectfully. The contrast between what I said to those cats that night and the way I comported myself had the intended effect. No one stepped to me with any nonsense until my 93rd day at this shelter. Here’s what happened. There was this goofy looking Chinese dude who slept in the cot right across the room from mine. He has a heroin and stuttering problem that he’s getting treatment for. This Chino was in the habit of falling asleep with his cell phone on his chest. Anyone who walked by his cot would be able to see it and grab it without the Chino knowing because he slept so heavily that a boombox could be blasting in our room and it wouldn’t wake him. So one morning a guy who looks like the Polish Hammer Ivan Putski walked into our room, went straight to the Chino’s cot, gently picked up the Chino’s cell phone and started walking out of the room with it. This cat didn’t even bother to check if anyone else was around before he did this. When Ivan turned to leave, his eyes met with mine as I lay fully clothed on my cot. After a second he left without saying anything. I could have snitched on this guy or made him put the phone back. But it was impossible for me to believe the stuttering Chino was so stupid that he’d leave his cell phone where someone could easily lift it. What kind of heroin addict would be so careless with his things? Two days after this theft Ivan walked to my cot and asked me how I was doing. I politely told him to leave me alone because I didn’t want to get in trouble with anyone. Then he said in a menacing manner, “Oh you don’t want to talk to nobody, so you a gangsta then.” After his snotty response, I 29
sprung out of my cot and yelled 2 inches from his face, “Time out, who are you, you pipsqueak, you want some of me? OK, I’ll give you all you want. Just swing on me so that I could have an excuse for the judge who’ll be deciding my fate for having killed you. Go ahead, swing on me. Oh, you not tough right now? You need your boys? You punk. Go tell your people I will send them out of here in a body bag if they step to me incorrect like you just did.” I was screaming with such ferocity that someone got security. When the guard came into the room Ivan immediately told him that I was looking for trouble with him for no reason. I yelled, “You lying little ho, I’m going to rape you!” The guard got shook and called for backup after my outburst. When backup arrived the guard who called them pointed at me and kept repeating, “He wants to rape this guy.” I went into histrionics to protect myself. There was no way I was going to let this little punk get in my head. When a sergeant asked me why I threatened Ivan with rape I told her that’s how sociopaths have to be spoken to. Brute force is the only language those people understand. They transferred me to another shelter within the hour. But I’m not crazy, man, for real. Let me tell you of an incident that will prove this fact. There was this old black man in my room who used to wear his jeans below his butt and he was always ranting nonsense about the CIA or Jay-Z. One night I got up to take a leak. As I was turning right at the foot of my cot I almost walked into this viejo. Right before we made contact he started throwing his right hand at my face. So I tucked my chin into my left shoulder, threw my right hand up next to my ear and stepped into the rambler’s space. Upon doing this it seemed like this guy’s right arm fell out of its shoulder socket, being that he didn’t follow through with his punch. So I quickly made way, waved my right arm out like a matador and said, “I’m sorry, here you go ahead.” The old man responded, “Pluck you cracker, I don’t trust no plucking crackers, you go first.” I followed his instruction and went to urinate. During this act of nature I’m wondering how any doctor could tell me I suffer from schizophrenia, bipolar 30
disorder and delusions. Aren’t people with such mental illnesses incapable of knowing who’s a threat to them? Anyway, what I’m experiencing in the shelter system is nothing new to me, thus the reason why I write dispassionately about it. In the street the truth is the only thing that matters and it is the only thing I act in accordance with. Whew bro, who would have thought a 35 year old man could improve the quality of his life while living in the New York City shelter system? Tito Maysonet did. And he has done so by writing, which requires one to use his coco, something Tito was not in the habit of doing. The people at NY Writers Coalition put him on the path which has led him to learn this fact. Gracias, mi gente. Those free classes you give on Monday’s at the Central Library is where this character learned how to start writing with discipline, a discipline he will use every day for the rest of his life. I must also thank the people from the Brooklyn Writing Group. With their guidance I wrote this piece.
M ARIA P AT R I C A S L E E
NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTION A necklace to be strung A skirt with useless elastic The yellow dress, in pattern pieces, folded on the lower shelf Things to be finished, things to be repaired Things to be started With fresh love and positivity Throw some shit away! That useless book, another thing to dust That ugly vase (Who gave it to me? I guess they didn’t like me like they said, ha ha!) That broken lamp Someone else can fix it Throw the damn thing away! Sweep the floor, mop, get down on knees and palms, And use butcher’s wax Rub it into the parched parquet ‘til there is melted newness gleaming out of the old And it’s smooth under the toes Throw some stuff away! Take some nice blue paint Freshen up the door
Make a trishul for Shiva Attach it on the front Welcome all the good that crosses the threshold Be careful who you let in Throw some things away Sprinkle some perfume, brew coffee, water the moss Light the candles and the incense Pour the rum and brandy Put some flowers there, on the white cloth Sit Listen Learn â€˜Enjoy the sunshine The beauty will guide youâ€™ Throw some shit away
ON JOSEF ALBERS’ “CANDY” Blue-green turquoise olive green leaf green Space, space, space, heart square Heart of green, heart of gold heart like a rose Green is new, green is hope Green matches my T-shirt Green and blue waters below the Cliffs of Mohar The waters’ colors in the clear eyes of Irish men and women Whose ancestors pushed boats out onto those waters below the Cliffs where sometimes, in a storm, a cow will wander over the edge and plunge to its end, Olokun taking his debt, which always gets paid. Green is the color of the heart, the color of a new leaf, the color of a dollar. How much can be collected from one heart? How much feeling can be charged, be owed, be forfeited? Before life starts to give some credit in return. Somehow, the green always finds a little spot, a little crack, where it can send out a new shoot. And blue protects the shoot, And dark green is the promise that it will survive, And turquoise will be its flower. 34
MA, MAMÁ, MOM I learned recently that a daughter’s spinal fluid has exactly the same chemical composition as her mother’s spinal fluid. They are identical. The river of my spine runs with the same current as yours, as your mother’s, as my great-grandmother’s, and back to the first woman who was a mother of ours. The fluid connects us all. Blood is a different matter. Once, in some moment that was completely silent, I became aware of the subaquatic tides of my own heart’s pumping, and it was an incomprehensible miracle. My heart is a sea of mystery. Do you know how I feel about you? Do I know how you feel about me? I know there is love, but that word is simple and opaque in equal parts. Children are taught to say ‘I love you! and they learn quickly to use the words like charming currency. Or a weapon. I’m not talking about the words. I’m talking about looking so far underneath those words, that it leads to places of darkness. You know those places exist, but you refuse to visit them. That is where we part ways. We meet again on the front porch, laughing at the frolic of a tiny white dog. This too is love.
J.K. W ILLIAMS THE GREATEST GENERATION The air was sweet now, filled with the romance of wildflowers and pine needles. Seventy years ago the breeze rammed acrid smoke into every lung, along with the stench of munition explosions and the sickening smell of decomposing bodies that lay on open ground for days. Their faces were usually unrecognizable, swollen by death or mangled by enemy fire, insects, vermin and, occasionally, packs of stray dogs. The only way to identify these dead was by their dog tags, if the dog tags themselves had not been blown to small shards and driven into the mud, thereby consigning these soldiers to the anonymity of a "Tomb of the Unknown Soldier." The lucky ones lived to crawl on to the next hell. "Our Boys" they were called, with affection as well as respect and admiration, and not a little fear for their safe return, a fear which made even the most bombastic extrovert go suddenly quiet whenever the subject came up. The first to be drafted were 18 or 19 years old, just out of high school and innocently virginal in many senses, especially in those days before a now-persistent laxness of morals became the norm. Probably three quarters of them, maybe more, had never known the silky warmth of a woman's bare thigh, or the moist breathlessness of a favorite girl whispering "I love you" into their flushed and eager ear in the back seat of a car. They had the predictable, banal inventory of childhood and teenage memories: Boy Scouts campfires, study hall, family vacations, favorite puppies and neighborhood ball games,
Mom's bubbling lasagna or steaming meatloaf that pulled them in for supper like nothing else. But aside from this, memories were something they mostly looked forward to making. They had plans. College, jobs, careers. Weddings, houses and families of their own. Ambitions of all kinds. "They had their whole lives ahead of them,â€? everyone said. When it was mess time during lulls in the fighting, they eagerly gobbled whatever food they had along with cherished letters from home. They often read their letters to each other, or they accompanied the smacking of lips and the sound of spoons scraping up the last bit of food with a few comaraderies. Affectionate jabs at each other distracted them for a moment, easing some of the fear, pain, and exhaustion of a day's hard going, and helping them brace themselves for what might come next. "Smithson has ears like a monkey! Hey, Monkey Ears, why didn't you arrange for us to have some nice bananas for a change? I'm tired of the same old slop!" "Shuddup and stop bitching about the shit-on-a-shingle! It's food, ain't it? I'm so damned hungry I could eat the ass off one of those bloated cows lying out there, crap an' all!" "Lick the teats while you're at it, Wesson! That's as close to a woman as an ugly bastard like you will ever get!" They never saw it so hot, so cold, so wet, so dry, so miserable, not even back in the Dakotas, Minnesota, Maine, Texas, Florida. "Damn, what I wouldn't give for dry socks and a steaming shower and a good shave and haircut down at Mr. Fidelio's corner barber shop on Coney Island Avenue. The only dirt I want in my underwear when I get home is some sand from under the boardwalk!" If there was any time to dawdle over a government-issue smoke or a hard, bitter piece of chocolate, the conversation turned to their home towns, places with names like Independence, Santa Claus, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Needmore, Caroline. Life had been good on the family farm in Illinois or Mississippi, playing stickball in the streets of Chicago or New York, whiling away lush summer evenings in the Kansas Mom-and37
Pop corner store, or listening to Saturday dramas scratch and sputter from the old radio on the mantel in the living room. That swimming hole where they stripped to the pink and dunked their pals under â€” remember that? â€” and where they once surprised the girls skinny dipping and stole their dresses and panties off the bushes, taunting them to come out and get their duds back: "Whatsamatter, girls, scared to come out? Afraid you'll get a chill? Ha Ha!" There was the herbed noodle stuffing in the Thanksgiving turkey; Dad's hand-cranked frozen custard; the regret that they would miss the playoffs this year or the chance to be best man at a friend's wedding, which couldn't wait until the end of the war because of an angry father with a shotgun. Most of all, they wistfully yearned for the girlfriend who promised to be true, who would wait for them no matter what kind of condition they came home in. Anyone with a girlfriend was in love with the best, the most beautiful girl in the world. Sometimes they turned briefly away to hide their tenderness, as well as the secret anxiety that a "Dear John" letter might arrive any day, in spite of all of a girl's avowals of undying loyalty. They were from different backgrounds, different religions, different lifestyles, but they all agreed on two things: Roosevelt was a great man, and a "Dear John" letter was the worst thing that could happen to any soldier. A letter could bring comfort and hope, or it could make taking a bullet to the head seem infinitely preferable to forcing your aching body and broken heart through another day of mud, fear, bone-deep exhaustion, and enemy fire. "After Harwood got a letter like that, two days later the poor bastard ran out onto a field he had been warned was mined by the Gerrys, screaming 'Joanie, Joanie, I'll love you forever!' Swear to God! I heard it, I saw him get blown to smithereens. I hope that bitch burns for eternity in the darkest, hottest part of hell. Hell is even too good for a person who would do a thing like that to a guy!" If someone else answered back with "Aw, he was a fool! One dame's as good as another!" a third said, "Shut the fuck 38
up, you stinking turd! You only say that because you got jilted by that two-bit slut the day you were drafted!" Then there was silence for what seemed a long time while they retreated to their private worlds or tried to think of something to say to lift the heavy darkness of mood that settled over what should have been a beautiful evening, a place of blossoms, cowbells and flaming pink-and-orange sunsets. "Our Boys.â€? It took only those two words to express all the love those back home had for them, the special belonging they had in the hearts of those who planted Victory Gardens, used their ration books, worked in munitions or aircraft factories, tightened their belts, knitted socks for soldiers, or sent letters to a dogface who didn't have family to go home to to help him keep his spirits up. Many a young girl had letters back from one of these orphan boys, telling her how much he looked forward to every letter she wrote. The first thing he would do when he got back to the States would be to look her up, even if she lived clear across the country and it took every dime he saved from his service pay to get a rail or bus ticket; even if he had to travel on his thumb and a prayer. He'd be there. He'd take her out for a night she would never forget, a night fit for a queen, for a movie star. "You must be,â€? he would write, "the most wonderful girl in the world. " And even if he didn't say so, there were visions in his head of the ring he'd buy, the speech he'd make when he went down on one knee, the hot tears in her eyes as she gasped, "YES, I will!!! Oh, I WILL!!!" These boys' faces were eager and rosy pink when they responded to the draft board letters that began, "Greetings." Unscarred by the rigors of life, as spanking clean as the choir boys some of them had been, they all inhabited a place of transition between boyhood and maturity. Childhood seemed far away once they were smeared with sweat and mud from battlefields and from the streets of ancient European villages in Belgium, France, or Czechoslovakia. Some of Our Boys knew the unspeakable, humiliating experience of shitting or pissing themselves when they climbed 39
soaking wet out of the English Channel to be greeted on the beaches of Normandy by enemy fire. Some were embarrassed by an inexplicable hard-on that snapped to attention at the most terrifying and inopportune moment. Our Boys came to war not just in spite of fear, but with determination, their hopes and ideals intact, still fresh and unjaded. They forged ahead with a sense of hope and obligation, certain in the thought that they were doing the right thing in the face of an evil ambition that sought to dominate the western world. It was their duty, maybe even a kind of privilege to save the world in a way it desperately needed saving like never before. They went with a sense of destiny, though they couldn't be sure if they would return home to a grateful nation and the open arms of family, friends and strangers, or if they would never see home again. "Innocents," everyone said when they got news from the papers or the radio of the latest batch of casualties. "Innocents. Just kids, Our Boys, just a bunch of little kids, taken before they had a chance to grow up even a little." Some died instantly when an Axis demon screamed down from the sky, or when a mine, shell, bullet or grenade struck. Every one of them who retained consciousness for even just a few precious seconds cried out, "Mama! Mama! Oh, God, Mama, help me!" They were, after all, "Our Boys" to the end. Our kids. Yet their guts, their sacrifice, their determination and dedication was far too big for them to be called merely "boys." They deserved so much more, all those who died or were injured, or who came home to live long lives and tell the heartbreaking, terrifying, and funny stories of what it was like to be in The War "kicking shit out of Adolph." Maybe we knew it was never really adequate to begin with to refer to such heroes as "boys." And finally, decades later, they are no longer called "Our Boys." Today, along with those back home who supported them as they struggled and suffered through Europe, North Africa or the Far East, they are called "The Greatest Generation." Perhaps no better words will ever 40
be found for such women and men, who within a few more years' turn of calendar pages will live only in the memories of those still alive who knew and loved them, and in the pages of history.
IN MEMORY OF JOHN ELLIOT WILLIAMS (June 27, 1917 - February 13, 2010), whose transport ship, the USS Susan B. Anthony, was sunk in the English Canal on June 7, 1944 by a German mine. (90th Division, 315th Engineers, Texas/Oklahoma Unit). 41
D EBRA B ISHOP OLD REBEL Always right, Always talking at the top of his voice, like a cannon he spits out stony words. Always the revolutionary, the rebel with plenty of causes, he denounces the systems of men and God. Always, he articulates his defiance to the tenth degree missing simple truth while redefining the complex nature of minutiae and bullshit.
J ENNY M CC LUSKEY OUR TEACHERS LIE Clara was pretending to look out the window whilst actually watching the reflection of the little girl two rows behind her on the train. Clara was blue that day – perhaps a little lonely. The little girl was making faces at her own image in the window, sticking out her tongue and crossing her eyes, and this invited Clara’s uneasy mind – today a labyrinth of cyphers – to drop back into her own childhood. Some days it felt so pleasant to do so, to return to lying in the bath with her head under the water imagining space packaged tightly in a box – infinity too overwhelming. Too overwhelming still. Today though was a sadder day, and her childhood seemed almost illusory, as real as her looking out the window now. Lightning, quicksand and strangers: These were the perils of which her teachers had told her to beware. In truth Clara has never met anyone who has been struck by lightning, not a soul whose hair has been shocked white or whose life owes its debt to the wearing of rubber boots. Nor has Clara been disappeared by the sand, though she did once pick up a pearlescent jellyfish as smooth as the stone she believed it to be – her hand throbs at the memory. Clara has heard anecdotally of hungry beaches doing their worst, but only from the mouths of tall tale tellers. It is uncommon, that’s all. Strangers can be unpredictable, but Clara has never disappointed a stranger, nor has she avoided turning down the pages of a book because a stranger wouldn’t approve and she wanted to send said stranger a message that she still remembers, and hopes to please, them. Clara has never reached for a stranger in the still night and grasped only their absence. 43
Clara’s teachers never warned her that memories could grab you by the ankle and cause you to fall. They never told her that one day she would cry on the station platform so moved – moved back there – by the sound of the Erhu, for that’s what it is called, that mournful Chinese instrument that holds all suffering in the tautness of its strings and the grain of its wood. That women become invisible with age, knowing only of their beauty in its passing. What a lesson that would make; one day they will stop looking. A woman – the teacher might say – is no more able to possess her own attractiveness than she is the horizon. Clara had studiously avoided playing with fire, but this had failed to prevent her from burning bridges and razing whole plains of her soul to the ground, leaving pockets of her scorched and infertile. Clara’s reflection smiled at the little girl’s reflection, absorbed entirely in and of itself. Ignore, she thought, the crosses, as there are no wrong answers. Soon everything you understand to be true will be proven otherwise. We are all the same shadow fingering the wall in search of the light-switch and some lessons only life can deliver.
UNTITLED #1 I want to feel him Before my skin is too rough To sense his touch……..aaah
UNTITLED #2 I like him best, now, when he is asleep A cup into which I can pour this or that memory of my choosing I used to like him best, awake But a year’s cutting and snipping And we are our own perforated simulacra Unable to hold love
R O B E RT G IBBONS A PEACE LILY I handed the florist twenty-five dollars to purchase a peace lily. She said, â€œAnyone can raise a peace lily. It needs minimal light and equally less water.â€? So I placed her next to the sink; her branches slothful as I shoved her limp frame in between sink and toilet. I never had a green thumb. I was always an admirer with an aesthetic distance of the florist. Felt that if she could hear the water my ability to raise her from dormancy would go farther. I replace her potting soil like a father removing the diaper of a toddler. I toiled over her, struggling to show my masculinity with such delicate handling. She needs papering with my stammer. I am not a connoisseur, have no future as a florist. I bore a hole in fresh earth to place her finally. Her wiry limbs reminded me of wire hangers. She appeared vitamin deficient. So I rinsed her in the gloom of the darkened bathroom. Maybe the metaphor is I am not in peace. The chaos of my mantle, the disorganization of my writing desk would be a true test for me. The peace lily preached from its lectern. This would truly become a milestone from beyond the piles of books, leaflet, magazines, and recent invites. I had to sort through so much to satisfy the gore. To be green behind the closed Venetian blinds, the gray shutters, and the window pane. She sat there and waited for my decision if I would toss her down the trash chute. I heard it all before. Only this time it would be a mother carrying a corpse of her fetus in her purse or a mother flushing her conception down the toilet. Who was I to judge when life began or when it ended? I could not assume so much, not even a peace lily that I paid twenty-five dollars from the corner but it became 46
larger than I knew. So I rather put her up for adoption or on my front stoop. Maybe she will disappear in the middle of the night. Maybe the women that stole plants for a living would place her underneath their trench coats. To abort her without second though, did I have a fascination with death? With ending this fractured relationship as she sat there without conversation and platonic dialogue of internal meandering. I would continue this inward turmoil for days after purchase. Like some prostitute on the whore stroll off Flatbush Avenue. I bought her and thought it would fix my insecurity. That it would hide the real if I could raise her, make it erect, but it could not. It could not change the inevitable. The withering took a few days, slumped over in a lie of disappointment. I was slowly asphyxiating her. The time I wanted to burn the house down. No one knew I had arson on my mind. No one knew I had a fetish. This peace lily conjured old lies I told myself. I could do this. I was still as scruffy as she. I never really had a true love. Never knew I could be loved unconditionally. I was just as jaundiced as she. Was just as lonely as her stillness but she rose in all her morning glory. She was the most peaceful among us.
AN EXHIBIT I went to an exhibit called the Black Five. They were basketball players. Their big bold bodies and fingers exploding the page like Apollo. There were old photographs, memorabilia, receipts, sneakers, and even old-fashioned basketballs. I really did not know the game. I was only there for the history. I only knew the modern names like Michael, Lebron, or Kobe. Their names had disappeared from the ink. Their statistics were: six feet five, 215 pounds and seven feet seven, 220 pounds. Their names caught my attention like Spark Plug or Streak Lightening. This exhibit had more to tell but I was not privy to it. 47
The purpose of an exhibit of black basketball player became interesting as I moved through the small cramped space of a second floor. There was only a trickle of visitor every now and then. I could hear my thinking out loud as the names and faces began to speak back to me. I wondered about the average basketball guy – beyond the image. The human side that no one is know just image of flesh moving across the court like a gladiator. I wondered how much of this information mattered. A guy struggles to join a team or beat himself every day at practice. How does he feel? Is this important for us to know as viewers? As massive as they were; there was innocence about them. Not the baller we see all over the modern agenda. They reminded me of the reason my family kept running water in the bath tub in case of a hurricane. Oh, how they wanted to play. It was not contractual, commercial, an advertisement, a rising stardom, a falling, a failing, a binger, or a drug-addled kind of story. They wanted to play. The real men behind the photographs probably were raised in the church. And the church would raise an offering to send them to tournament from the collection plates and tithe envelopes; from the folding chairs on the back of church vans after their local tournament. They wanted to play. Each player had a momma and a grandma that probably said, “Do not forget to say grace. Do not forget to say thank you.” Do not forget what your dead granddaddy said when he was sick and afflicted, wounded from the war with gout, on dialysis, and sugar diabetes. Oh, they wanted to play. How can you exhibit word of mouth and the whisper in the back room. This exhibit may have shuffled us into one room, but I heard my grandma say, “Don’t forget the song.” These men had no way of knowing that they would be trailblazers one day. Even the ticket stubs would be important to dictate their histories. Oh, they wanted to play when they lined up for the one shot photograph. The competition seemed like real competition to me, not a mélange of million dollar this and trillion dollar that. There might have been corruption there, but I did not see it. They kept their private lives at home with family. 48
C ONNIE P E R RY FROM HEADLINE NEWS “Why us?” Clancy mutters as she puts the police scanner headset back into the squad car’s holster. “Because we find the best scenarios, hands down.” Jones re-adjusts the headset correctly. “Ugh, not another big fat naked asshole.” She shakes her head. “We’ll see.” Jones steps on the gas pedal and the two cops careen towards the park. It seems that a runner discovered something bizarre in Prospect Park and called 911. “Are you sure?” asked dispatch. “Oh my God. YES. I was just hitting my stride and came upon it. It is fucking grizzly.” The caller’s voice was out of breath, a bit stressed.
“No need to swear. Are you alone, sir?” She waits at his pause. “Yeah, I am.” He’s bewildered. “I am alone now.” “Ok then. Stay put. Don’t hang up.” The runner stretches and moves away from his discovery. He had hit his pace about half an hour ago and was feeling good. Pleasurable even. So when he came upon this vision he tried to blink it away. Or so he thought. “Damn, that is no mirage.” He could almost touch its nastiness but it was dangling above him from the tree. Other runners had left him in the dust, not noticing anything unusual on the windy runners path. The wind had died down yet the headless body still swung to and fro. Headless body?
What the hell? Shit. He tripped over a head. A goddamn head, severed from its life, scream still attached to its last breath. Or was it his scream? Did he scream? Is he still screaming? No, sirens scream up to him; Clancy and Jones jump out of the cop car and cautiously draw guns. Slowly, slowly they come upon a sprawled naked runner hugging what looks to be a ragged and bloodied soccer ball. â€œJesus Christ, why us?â€? Clancy mutters again.
J ESSICA B A LT E R
BODY PARTS Hands, legs, feet. We care for the bodies. We feed them. We medicate them. We clean them. We turn and position them. Bodies fill every bed. As one body leaves, another body wheels in. People no longer have names. They are referred to by their room numbers. 412 has a headache. 418 has a temp of 102. His body parts are hot. We have to hurry. Give them their 9AM meds no later than 10 AM. Check their blood pressures, check their blood sugars, check their limbs for redness and sensation. Check their heart beats, their breath sounds. Look into their mouths. Take their blood, their urine, and scrub their backs. Body parts. That’s what it comes down to. Or does it come down to insurance? Is their care covered? Do they have Medicaid? Will the insurance pay for the life saving procedure or would a more cost effective treatment be wiser? How many bodies can one nurse care for in eight hours? In twelve hours? How many medications can one nurse dispense per shift. IV meds, IM meds. Medication by mouth. Breathing medication. Stomach medication. Medication to counteract the other medication. Don’t let them fall. Put up their side rails, but not all four. Only three. Always leave one rail down or it is considered a restraint. You need a doctor’s order for a restraint. Too much paper work, computer work. Restraint checklists. Chart the meds. Chart the body parts. Chart the body 52
systems. Click, click, click. Care for the computer. Make sure the computer is in order. The supervisors only monitor the computers, not the bodies. The bodies. Before they entered the hospital, each body was a person. But in here they are just body parts. Never look in their eyes. No time to talk anyway. Just do your treatment. Give your meds. Get in. Get out. No time to see. That white-haired lady. Is she scared? What do her eyes say? Is she afraid to be here alone? Is her body in pain? A sadness? A loneliness? Does her daughter visit? Is her husband still alive? Does anybody care for her again? What was her life? Was she a mother? A worker? A professional? There is a frail man shuffling into the room heading towards her bed. He is just in time. The aide throws a lunch tray on the white-haired lady’s bedside table. The table is cluttered with a water pitcher and an untouched cup far out of reach of her bony hands and dry lips. The man bends over and kisses her cheek. He leans toward her ear and speaks. “Mi amore.”
D AV I D DON D IEGO PICNIC AT SEPULCHER FALLS My wife and I were spending a weekend at Tarrytown, New York, the hometown of the legendary author Washington Irving. It was a gorgeous sunny day in late May. We decided to take a picnic lunch with us to Sepulcher Falls Park. Nora, my wife, being very fair skinned, did not want to get her self sunburned. We agreed to walk through the park till we arrived at our chosen destination, Peakâ€™s Waterfall. We sought a fine shady spot in which to break out our picnic. It didnâ€™t take us long to settle ourselves under a large Maple tree that had many low hanging leafy branches and provided lots of shade. I spread out our blue and white checkered cotton blanket on top of the greenest grass in the shade of the Maple tree. Nora prepared a lunch of tuna fish sandwiches with olives stuffed with pimentos and slices of red peppers on French baguettes. We drank Coca Cola out of cans and talked about the Legend Of Sleepy Hollow and how Ichabod Crane was thrown off his horse by a pumpkin, tossed at him by the legendary headless horseman. I made Nora laugh when I told her that the pumpkin must have been loaded with seeds. Nora was also loaded with seed and was five months pregnant. We were about to have our first child. It was a hot day so we both came prepared with our swimwear under our clothing. After lunch we both doffed our clothing and laid it rolled up on the blanket. I teased Nora about not wanting to go into the water but it was I who was a bit apprehensive about immersing myself. It was a small pool, about thirty feet in diameter, fed by a waterfall that gushed 54
forth from a rocky precipice, twenty-five feet high. Behind the waterfall there was a flat outcropping as smooth as slate, that people could swim onto and rest, while they enjoyed the rhythmic sounds of the splashing waters as they cascaded down into the pool. There was also a cave-like opening behind the waterfall on the flat rock. Rumor had it that bears hibernated in that cave in the winter. The opening looked to me rather small for bears to enter. I imagined it was more likely to be a bat’s breeding ground, and they were still sleeping, as it was daylight. Nora decided that she might take a dip in the pool later. She needed to rest. I told her I would test the water for her, as I got up to leave our blanket. There were only a handful of people sitting around the waterfall, enjoying the cool breeze emanating from the giant maple trees. As I stepped into the cool water at the edge of the pool I found it was packed with tiny pebbles and rocks. The sensation of the rocks pushing up into the bottom of my feet was irritating but the coolness of the water more than compensated for my discomfort. I waded cautiously into the water, which now came up to my thighs. I stood still, staring at the water and marveling at the way the sunlight created splotches of bright colors on the water’s endless undulating surface. I turned and waved to Nora and she waved back. A sudden urge came over me to swim out to the flat outcropping behind the waterfall. I observed two little children sitting cross-legged on the flat rock. “If they could do it,” I thought, “it can’t be too difficult.” I leaned into the water with my arms outstretched in front of me and dove in. Lights bounced on the outside of the water’s surface, flashing and flickering bits of diffused sunlight. As I paddled my way across the center of the pool I felt the water around my ankles getting colder and suddenly found myself unable to free my legs from the powerful suction beneath me. I began taking in water through my mouth and nose, struggling to breath. My heart began to pound in a state of panic, which only caused me to suck in more water. I felt as if there were invisible hands at my ankles pulling me down. I 55
tried desperately to turn over on my back but I was gripped by the fear of death. I could feel my feet being dragged downward by a whirlpool effect and before long I was looking up at the lights shimmering on the liquid sky above me. Bubbles of my breath rose up from my mouth as I sank deeper into the vortex of the whirlpool. I was awakened by a chorus of voices surrounding me. Standing in front of me were my Mother and my Father and also my Grandparents whom I have never seen except for some black and white tarnished photos taken before the Second World War. My Mother spoke first. “Did you have a safe journey?” she asked. Extending my hand to touch her I felt nothing to grab onto. I was amazed, bewildered, and confused. I was speechless and most likely quite dead. I don’t know how or why but I found myself swimming with all my might, traveling upward with supernatural speed and bursting across the surface of my watery tomb. As I caught my breath, I heard someone yelling, “Get that man out of the water!” I distinctly remember on that fateful afternoon that there was light on the water before I fell in and nearly drowned.
ANGELA M. K INGLAND GIRL ON FIRE Sandy came to America with full force. She was expected to visit by nightfall. We were told to be prepared, Some people ignored her intended visit Some started shopping for necessities, They bought food, water, flashlights, candles and more. Some were told to expect flood, they must get to higher ground. Some refused when told to leave, of course most had to be rescued. Well Sandy came with fire, water, wind, flood, death and more. Sandy, Sandy, you are a violent girl. You have no mercy or conscience you donâ€™t care. You took power and property, lives and more. Sandy you need to leave, get out. You hit us in every form, every area and every way. Look what you did to the young and old, rich and poor. You destroyed the environment and its inhabitants. Girl you gave us a bitter pill to swallow, Well whatever, the lesson was loud and clear. Sandy there wasnâ€™t a girl who visited like you, 57
Nature called and you delivered. What in the world were you thinking, girl? Coming to us with so much fury and hate. We cannot even get mad at you, you gave us food for thought. Unfortunately, Sandy, you did what you had to do girl. Sandy, we know we need to change. We need to love, share and understand: that we can have it today and lose it tomorrow. Thank you Sandy for lessons learnt from your visit. You brought us together in love, peace and empathy. Goodbye girl, donâ€™t return.
A C K N OW L E D G E M E N T S As a small, grassroots organization, NY Writers Coalition relies on the generous support of those dedicated to getting the voices of those who have been silenced heard. Many thanks go to our foundation, government, and corporate supporters, without whom this writing community and publication would not exist: Amazon.com, the Kalliopeia Foundation, Lillian Goldman Charitable Trust, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, and the offices of New York City Council Members Laurie Cumbo and Corey Johnson We rely heavily on the support of individual NYWC members and attendees of our annual Write-A-Thon. In addition, members of our Board of Directors have kept this vital, rewarding work going year after year: Louise Crawford, Marian Fontana, Sandy Huang, Lisa Smith, Jonathan Tasini, and NYWC Founder and Executive Director Aaron Zimmerman. We’d also like to thank Jesse Montero and Melissa Morrone of Brooklyn Public Library, Ben Dolnick, NYWC’s volunteer workshop leader who was instrumental in making this book happen, plus the dedicated contributors and workshop members at Brooklyn Public Library’s Central Branch.
A BOUT NY W RITERS C OALITION NY Writers Coalition (NYWC) is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that creates opportunities for formerly voiceless members of society to be heard through the art of writing. One of the largest community-based writing organizations in the country, we provide free, unique, and powerful creative writing workshops throughout New York City for people from groups that have been historically deprived of voice in our society, including at-risk, disconnected, and LGBT youth, homeless and formerly homeless people, those who are incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals, war veterans, people living with disabilities, cancer, and other major illnesses, immigrants, seniors, and many others. For more information about NYWC programs and NY Writers Coalition Press publications visit W W W . N Y W R I TE R SC OA L IT I O N . O R G
Every week, on Monday afternoon, a group of strangers gather in a small library classroom. They come from homeless shelters and studio apartments and high schools and assisted living facilities, and together they undertake the strange, beautiful, trusting work of transforming themselves into radios. Here’s some of what they’ve picked up.
BEN DOLNICK Novelist & NYWC Workshop Leader
NY Writers Coalition Press is proud to present I WAS IN PAIN AND THEN IT STOPPED, a collection of poetry and prose written in NY Writers Coalition workshops at Brooklyn Public Library’s Central Branch. Cover images by Brooklyn artist J.K. Williams. LEARN MORE ABOUT NYWC PROGRAMS & NYWC PRESS WWW . NYWRITERSCOALITION . ORG