The Poetry Fixer

 

A self-published poet who focused on homelessness in her work has resigned after only a week on the job as North Carolina’s poet laureate following criticism of the governor’s appointment process.

                                                              Associated Press 

poetry

As I sat staring out the window, wondering how to jump-start my career as a poet, I automatically, involuntarily lapsed into verse:

I think that I’d feel more secure
If I could get me a cozy political sinecure.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m doing . . . okay.  Since my first poem–Thoughts on Waking After Spending the Night in a Kosher Vegetarian Commune–was published by plangent voices, I’ve been anthologized twice.  It’s not as painful as it sounds, really, you just get jammed between the covers of a book with a bunch of other poets, sort of like the Green Line at rush hour.

But there seems–and I don’t want to come off as paranoid–like there’s a conspiracy against me, led by my high-profile poetess and ex-girlfriend elena gotchko.  She and I parted amicably enough–she dumped my stuff out on the sidewalk, I graciously carried it away–but I’ve been troubled by a pattern of commenters with suspiciously similar-sounding names lighting into me with vituperation on-line and in print.  NeLa K. Chetogo, Klanee Gootch, Cheona Kloget–the natural wit that continually creates the world anew was always missing from elena’s poetic makeup.  That’s why she’s become more of a poetry professional than a professional poet.  Editing little journals, pontificating about the importance of poetry, charging high three-figure sums to schmoes who think, if they take a course from somebody who spells her name without initial caps, they’ll magically be transformed into poets.

state house

No, if I was going to get anywhere, I needed juice.  There’s an old saying–it’s not what you know, it’s who you know–and that applies in spades in Boston, a town where, as a slightly newer saying goes, the three major industries are politics, sports and revenge.  So I dropped in on my state rep and asked him if he could get me on as Massachusetts poet laureate.

“I got a long list of people who wanna be poet laureate,” he said, looking at his watch after we’d been together for ten seconds.  “Tell me why it should be you.”

“Well, I’ve self-published a book of poetry, and I’ve written a book about poetry.”

“That meta-stuff don’t cut it.  You can’t write that kinda junk until you’re at the top of the poetry heap.”

I jabbered on about the one poem I’d actually sold, to The Christian Science Monitor–just like Sylvia Plath!  I told him how I’d won a poetry prize, only to see the publication that awarded it go under before they ran my poem.  I started to tell him how I’d won honorable mention in the Somerville Press poetry contest.  “Somerville!” I exclaimed.  “You can’t throw a brick without hitting a poet over there!”

He looked at me as if I was a pack of cold cuts that had passed its freshness date.  “You’re goin’ about this all wrong,” he said with a glint of cynicism in his eyes.

poetryslam
Actual un-PhotoShopped picture of poetry slammer.

 

“But you’re my elected representative,” I said.  “Aren’t you supposed to . . . you know . . . pull strings for people in your district.  In the name of ‘constituent services.’”

He shook his head slowly from side to side, apparently amused at my naivete.  “You’re in the big city now,” he said, then he reached in his desk drawer, pulled out a business card and handed it to me.  “You need to call this guy.”

I looked at the card.  Francis X. Shaughnessy.  “Who’s he?” I asked.

“A registered lobbyist.”

“What does a lobbyist do?”

“He comes to talk to me about good things I could do for people like you.”

“But . . . I’m here trying to talk to you about good things you could do for people like me.”

“It ain’t the same.”

“Why not?”

“If you give me money, it’s a bribe.  If you give him money, it’s compensation.  If he throws a ‘time’ for me, that’s everybody’s free speech petitioning government.  You give to his PAC, he gives it to me.  It’s in the First Amendment–you could look it up.”

Irish
“Is everybody here Irish?”

 

“So–I have to pay money to get somebody else to say things to you I can say myself for nothing.”

“On the nosey.”

“Why’s that?”

“He’s ‘well-connected.’  It’s in the papers.  Every time they write his name they say ‘The well-connected Francis X. Shaughnessy.’”

“And me?”

“You’re just an ordinary voting schlub.”

Dawn broke on Marblehead, as we say here in Massachusetts.  “Nice talkin’ to ya,” I said, with a trace of bitterness.

“Nice talkin’ to you!” my rep said.

“Where can I find this Shaughnessy guy?”

Piersall
Jimmy Piersall:  Certifiable.

 

“Down the hall, out the State House door, cross the street.  His office is right above Guertin’s Bar and Grille.”

“How . . . convenient.”

“Ain’t it though?”

We shook hands and I took my leave, which I’d left by the door.  I was across the street and walking up a flight of stairs to Politico Strategies LLC in less time than it would take you to recite the Miranda Warning.

“Is Mr. Shaughnessy in?” I asked the receptionist, who was holding her hands out at arm’s length to let her nail polish dry.

“Whom shall I say”–she began.  Apparently she went to Katie Gibbs Secretarial School on Marlborough Street.

“Mr. Chapman,” I said, interrupting her.

katherine gibbs
Graduation Day at Katie Gibbs!

 

“Who’s he?” she asked.

“Me.”

“Not you,” she said, clucking her tongue.  “Whom shall I say sent you?”

I was losing my innocence with every tick of the clock.  “That would be Representative O’Kiley,” I said.

She smiled for the first time and said “Have a seat.”

The reading materials available in the reception area consisted of a big picture book of Boston, so that those in the Athens of America who don’t like to read would have something to look at; the two daily newspapers; and a selection of recent magazines.  Newsweek seems to think Howard Dean has the Democratic nomination sewed up, but Time likes John Kerry.

Shaughnessy emerged from his office, his hand apparently attached to the back of someone whose deserving cry for help was next in line in front of me.

“So I think if we came up with a “Nuts of the Red Sox” series, with one each devoted to Bernie Carbo, Jim Piersall, Bill Lee, Gene Conley and Pumpsie Green, it could be a real winner.”

“I’ll talk to my colleagues on the Joint Committee on Vanity and Commemorative License Plates and we’ll see what we can do.”

Pumpsie
Pumpsie Green rookie card:  I used to have one!

 

“Thanks, thanks an awful lot,” the guy said.  He looked hopeful, so I figured he wrote a big check.

“What do I have next,” the guy asked the receptionist.

“This man here–O’Kiley sent him.”

“Well in that case, come on in Mr. . . .”

Again, I felt humbled by my lack of importance.  After introductions, I was shown into the inner sanctum, where I was offered a chair and initial cup of coffee, gratis.

“So,” Shaughnessy began.  “What can I do for youse?”

“I’m looking for a job,” I said.

“As are so many of my constituents in this dreadful economy brought about by greedy Wall Street bankers and mean old Republicans.  What kind of work were you lookin’ for?” he asked, but before I could answer he finished the sentence for me.  “Indoor work and no heavy liftin’ I presume?”

“I guess you could say that.  I want to be the state’s poet laureate.”

“Jeez Louise–that’s a tough one.  The pay is lousy but the hours are good.”

“It’s an important position.  Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”

“That’s a great line,” he said as he gazed wistfully out the window.  “Who said it?”

“Yogi Berra.”

“I thought so.  So what’s your angle?”

“My . . . angle?”  I had passed through 19 years of schooling without ever being told I needed an “angle” to be a poet.

“Sure.  Are you . . .”–he picked up a laminated sheet that listed the currently favored racial/sexual/ethnic/gender categories of the Commonwealth and began to tick them off starting with “Aleutian Islander.”

“No, can’t say that I am.”

“But O’Kiley sent ya, huh?  Okay, well, let’s think about it.  Can you give a bunch o’ money to my friend Mr. O’Kiley?”

“Not since my wife found out political contributions aren’t tax deductible.”

“Okay–can you raise a bunch?”

“Don’t think so.  My friends tend to be apolitical.”

“Okay, well it’s gonna cost you then.”

“How much?”

“A $2,000 a month retainer, and a $10,000 success fee . . .”

“I thought that was illegal.”

“Excuse me.  I meant if you get the job, you hire me as a consultant to the State Office of Poetry for $10,000.”

I glared at him with eyes that I narrowed to grim, little slits.  “You don’t look like a poet.”

“You’d be surprised,” he said.  “Tell me a little bit about your verse,” he said as he leaned back in his chair and made a little church-and-steeple with his fingers.

“Well, I’ve self-published one book of light verse about women–The Girl With the Cullender on Her Head.

“Is that like ‘chick lit’,” he said without contempt, just an air of honest appraisal.

“Not really–it’s more like anti-chick lit.  It’s dedicated to my wife and it’s a bunch of poems about the women I dated before I met her, and how they compare unfavorably to her.”

“Smart husband, dumb poet.”

“Why do you say that?”

“You gotta have a sympathetic political theme, like that poet laureate who got hired in North Carolina the other day.”

“What was her–angle?”

“Homelessness.  Very sensitive.  That’s the beauty of political art.  You pick the right topic, anybody who criticizes you looks like jerk.  Some critic pans you, you get your friends to write angry letters to the editor sayin’ ‘Oh, so your hotsy-totsy poetry editor don’t like that chapbook, eh?  I guess the cruel son-of-a-bitch don’t like homeless people, neither.”  Pretty soon the guy’s busted down to writing about the spring performance of Lion King at Miss Cynthia’s School of Tap and Ballet.”

baby seal
“These poems have got to be good–they’re about baby seals!”

 

It was as if the clouds had parted and rays of light shot down to give me inspiration.  “Okay, I’m gonna write the most poignant, sensitive, morally unassailable collection of poetry the world’s ever seen.”

“Whatta ya gonna call it?”

“The Don’t Club Baby Seals to Death Poems.”

I Fall in Love Too Fast

That’s my problem, he thought to himself as he turned off the music to his headphones. He had been listening to Chet Baker and in a moment his state of mind had turned from mellow moodiness to irritation. The romantic background that the sounds had provided on his morning walk to work now struck him as . . . inappropriate. He needed to get his mind in a frame to be alert, even anxious, not placid and pacific. He dealt with money, and no one wanted a complacent, dreamy-eyed romantic making investment decisions.

baker

But it was true, he thought. He fell in love too easily. Until he learned to do otherwise, he would lack the focus he’d need to close the deal with someone really nice, someone he’d want to settle down with.

Take his first week at work. He’d been smitten with a brown-haired go-getter who walked the same diagonal he did over to Winter Street, then down Summer Street to the financial district. She came out of her apartment building a few minutes behind him; he’d see her down the block. She carried an insulated mug with ducks on it, and by the time they’d crossed over Beacon Street she would already be steaming ahead of him. He had tried to slow down at first to see if she’d break stride to his gait, but she wouldn’t. She was obviously into her career and didn’t have time for a dalliance, not even one that would be so convenient. They lived on the same block and worked in the same building.

boston1

Maybe there was some sort of taboo about dating someone you’d run into too much if you broke up, he’d thought by way of way of trying to understand the folkways of the bluestocking tribe. When he decided to give up on her he found it was quite easy because he happened to strike up—or almost strike up—a conversation with another woman.

Brown hair pulled back with a head band, pretty, a few inches shorter than the first one, but tall enough so that he wouldn’t have to worry about a son being too short. His sister had dated a real cool, good-looking guy in college who had an air of sadness about him when there was a lull in the action, all because he was so short. He didn’t think of himself was shallow—it wasn’t like he was buying a horse for breeding purposes—but it was something you had to consider before you got involved with somebody.

It had been a Wednesday, both the papers had a food section that day—restaurant reviews, recipes, that sort of thing. The gap-toothed news hawker who stood at the mouth of Winter Street would yell out “Foozection! Foozection!” as you passed by him that morning each week.

He’d been walking alongside the second woman and when the man shouted out his garbled cry she broke out laughing. He turned to look at her and she said “Did that man just say booze and sex?”

boston

He had laughed too—the woman had quite an imagination, or sense of humor if she’d deliberately contorted the words into something funny.

“No, he said ‘Food section.’ It’s Wednesday, the newspapers have food sections on Wednesday.”

“Ohh,” she’d said. “I get it.” He had turned his head back down Winter towards the water, where rays of sun were pouring up the street from the Atlantic. By the time he’d turned his head back to smile at her she was already two steps ahead of him. He didn’t know if she was unhappy that he hadn’t tried harder to carry on a conversation, but he hadn’t anything in mind to say to her. It was too late now, he thought; she’d think he was weird if he accelerated to catch up with her—wouldn’t she?

From that day on he tried to time his walk to arrive when she had come up out of the Park Street station, especially on Wednesday. Maybe they would recreate the first encounter and they’d look at each other in recognition and laugh. Then it would be easy to think of something say—“Say, I’ve heard that one before” or “Isn’t this where we came in?” if he was going to try and pull off something really witty. But she never showed up again and, rather than staking out the intersection from the coffee shop with the window that looked out on the brick pavement, he’d fallen in love—again—too fast.

boston3

This time it was a sales clerk at the women’s clothing store where he was buying his sister a birthday present. It was a sweater, it wasn’t really her style, but the store was just around the corner from his office so it was convenient, even if it wasn’t right. He was like a drunk who looks for his car keys under the street light, he was thinking to himself when another clerk came up from behind him singing a song she’d obviously made up for the occasion. “It’s a great big beautiful world,” she began, “full of great, big beautiful girls.”

“Why are you singing that?” the first woman asked, losing her commercial composure.

“I don’t know,” the singer said. “Just popped into my mind when a six 6 tried to squeeze into a size 2.”

They kept their voices low, like two school girls passing notes in the back of a classroom. He was in love with them both, but especially the one who’d come up with the sarcastic sales jingle. Now there was a woman you’d want to spend the rest of your life with, he thought. Someone so witty, there’d never be a dull moment.

boston4

“Would you like me to gift wrap this for you?” the first woman asked, and before he had a chance to answer her, the second woman had returned to the sales floor to re-shelve two pairs of now-stretched pants, humming her little song.

“Uh, yeah, it’s for my sister,” he said nervously, as if he needed an excuse.

“Well, you’re a good brother,” the woman said. She was heavier than her friend the spontaneous songstress, who had just stepped out of his life, probably forever.

I Feel Bad About Your Neck

One of my first literary crushes was the late Nora Ephron, who back in the 70s wrote for Esquire magazine.  She was funny, and from the looks of her little caricature icon drawn by David Levine, she was cute.  To me, at least.

And so it was with some dismay that I read her collection of essays: “I Feel Bad About My Neck and Other Thoughts on Being a Woman.”

If only, I thought, she had known me back when I was putting together my Thirty-Year Plan for Long-Term Neck Maintenance, she wouldn’t have felt bad about her neck.


Do this 3,000 times a day and you’ll be fired from your job and your wife will leave you.

 

That’s right.  I was thinking about how my neck would look in the 21st century back when you were watching Grizzly Adams and The Brady Bunch.  If you were even alive.


Grizzly Adams, right, Some Other Guy, left

 

My long-term perspective on neck upkeep was prompted by Jabba the Hutt, the Star Wars character who bore more than a passing resemblance to Richard J. Daley, the long-time Mayor of Chicago whose neck melded into his pot belly shortly after the 1968 Democratic Convention.


Jabba the Hutt, Richard J. Daley:  Separated at birth?

 

Jabba was my nightmare–what I would look like if I didn’t take care of my neck; a double or even triple-chinned blob of a man, cast aside while hard-charging up-and-comers half my age blew by me on the Dan Ryan Expressway of life.  I wasn’t going to end up a flabby mound of blubber, dammit!  Like William Faulkner, I would not only endure, I would prevail!


William Faulkner: Note nice neck.

 

And so it is that I end up, approaching the sixth decade of my life, without a double chin (or “chin scrotum,” as fitness freaks like to call them).  From some angles.  If the light is right.  With the wind at my back.  Unlike the guys I read about in The Wall Street Journal who are paying $6,231 for face lifts (proper name, rhytidectomies), money they could be spending on cheap red wine if only they’d taken care of themselves.

How can you achieve the same semi-tough neck–with the approximate firmness of a trout’s belly–at my advanced age?  Simple–follow this E-Z Home Neck of Steel program, and you’ll never feel bad about your neck.

Go Out for High School Football.  High school football is a great way to build neck muscles so that you end up at +60 years with very little flab on your neck.  Or sometimes no neck at all.  Consider Tommy Nobis, my role model when I was a budding young middle linebacker.  Tommy built up his neck to a robust 19.5″ circumference by daily neck exercises of the sort our coaches made us do; we would drop down on the ground in push-up position, but support the upper half of our bodies with our heads instead of our arms.


Tommy Nobis:  Doesn’t feel bad about his neck, he doesn’t have one.

With this type of conditioning, we could use our heads as human battering rams, which led to some neck injuries, but that was a small price to pay for a neck that looked like an Ionic column.  Hint:  start work early on this part of the program, preferably three decades before you wish to avoid anxiety about a flabby neck.

Whiplash:  Whiplash is a great conditioning tool for the neck.  The best way to acquire it is to drive a car in the left-hand lane of a state highway while three girls drive behind you, talking and laughing so that they don’t notice you have stopped for oncoming traffic.  When they finally see you, it will be too late and they will slam into your rear-end (I mean your car’s rear-end), causing your head to snap back, then bounce off the head rest.


“I am so sorry!”

When your car finally comes to a stop, the girls will surround you and apologize profusely, enveloping you in the scent of perfume while their long hair gently brushes your face and–I had a point back there, before the crash.

Oh yeah.  Whiplash results in pain that can be alleviated by yoga, especially the cobra position, which also tones your neck muscles.  Again, remember to start early–give yourself plenty of time, like, say three decades.

Buy Executive Health Briefs.  In the late 70s ads began to appear in leading business publications for an expensive newsletter called “Executive Health Briefs.”  For an exorbitant annual subscription price, you would receive a weekly collection of health tips that would keep you trim so that when you discarded your first wife in an expensive divorce you could acquire an aerobics instructor who shortened her name to a diminutive with the letter “i” in it just so she could dot it with a smiley face.


“When you die, can I have all your money–please?”

 

As a come-on, the publisher offered a free copy of “How to Avoid a Double-Chin and Pot Belly” to new subscribers.  In a risky arbitrage move, I signed up for Executive Health Briefs, then as soon as I’d received the Double-Chin/Pot Belly teaser, I canceled my subscription.  After all, I couldn’t afford to spend what little beer money I had on a magazine whose price point was set for six-figure CEOs!

But three decades later, I still refer to that handy collection of exercises, which cost me $3 (adjusted for inflation through the Carter administration, $1.2 billion).  I am now willing, nay happy, to share key double-chin fighting exercises with you–free, because that’s the Way of the Internet!

1.  Interlace fingers across forehead.  Bow your head forward until your chin touches your navel.  Dig down, remove belly button lint, resurface.  Repeat six times.

2.  Turn your head towards and then over your left shoulder.  Place chin on left shoulder blade, scratch patch of dry skin that you have been unable to reach using your right arm.  Return to original position, and repeat over right shoulder.  If neck becomes stuck behind shoulder, call Fire Department.

3.  Place palms against side of head.  Press until lymph nodes in head pop, sending colorless liquid streaming out ears.  Repeat until neck is drained of fluid.  Adjourn to singles bar to receive admiring compliments from people two decades younger than you who would like to inherit your estate.

To the Veterans of Boston Disco

          The Donna Summer Memorial Roller Disco Tribute Party drew a far more diverse crowd than just veterans of the disco era.

                                                                              The Boston Globe

disco

I doffed my disco hat as the national anthem of disco, “Love to Love You, Baby,” slowly swelled over the crowd gathered in Boston’s City Hall Plaza, voted America’s Ugliest Public Space for 46 years running!

boston
Boston City Hall: “Uh, I think you got it upside down.”

 

Yes, we have a lot to be proud of here in Beantown.  We occupy a crucial place in American history.  It was here that Donna Summer (nee LaDonna Adrian Gaines) was born in 1948In 1975, just one year before the Bicentennial of America, she started a royalist revolution in music with Love to Love You that would restore a monarchy to this nation, which had succumbed to the bland temptations of rock democracy, when she was crowned “Queen of Disco.”

I looked to my right and saw my old buddy Salvatore Di La Saltimboccacino de Nunzio.  We had been among the early disco rebels, meeting secretly in the men’s rooms of the 70′s clubs where doped-out rock fans would smoke some dope and then go out and sit like dopes down front of some white punks on dope playing dopey music.  Sal–he ultimately shortened his name because it was too wide to get in the doors of some of the basement clubs–helped me plot the revolution that would spread like wildfire in the wake of The Trammps “Disco Inferno.”  We wanted to get up–or down, as the case may be–and boogie!

disco1

I noticed Sal still had his disco hat on.  “Hey,” I said.  “What’s with the no-doffing-your-disco-hat?  They’re playing . . .”

“I know,” Sal said disconsolately.  “I guess I’m just . . . discouraged.”

I hadn’t seen Sal this down since the infamous “Death to Disco” night at Chicago’s Comiskey Park in 1979.  After that rout, it had been all downhill.  The Anti-Disco Forces had won.  They had us on the run, and we went into exile.

disco2

“Whatsa matta you?” I said, doing my best imitation of Sal’s pidgin Italo-American dialect, trying to bond with him a bit.

He took off his hat and gave me a look of resignation.  “You and me–we’re like disabled soldiers of some despised and forgotten war.”

“Like Vietnam?” I said.

“What’s that?”  Sal had been too busy dancing during the 70′s to keep up with relatively current events.

“You don’t need to know,” I said, throwing my arm around his shoulders.   “You gotta look on the bright side, pal.”

“What bright side?”

“Look all around youse,” I said.  “Yes we been lurking in the shadows for what–35 years?  But finally, at long last, this great country of ours is beginning to recognize disco’s contribution to truth, justice–and the American Way.”

disco3

“I thought that was Superman,” he snorted.  Then a mirthless little laugh came out of his mouth.  “Ha,” he said.

“Why you say ‘Ha’ like that?”

“Because.  Yeah, it’s great that they drew a far more diverse crowd than just veterans of the disco era to the first annual Donna Summer Memorial Roller Disco Tribute Party, but have you tried to get an appointment at the Chateau de Ville Disco Veteran’s Memorial Hospital lately?”

In fact I hadn’t, but then I had emerged from disco era battles relatively unscathed.  Yeah, my knee pops every now and then, and I get neck spasms whenever I hear The Bee Gees hit the high note in “You Should Be Dancin’,” but at least I can still keep up with the kids on the Dance Dance Revolution machine when I go to the mall.

disco4

“Is it . . . bad?” I asked haltingly.  You could see me halting back there, couldn’t you?

“It’s a national disgrace,” Sal said.  “There are waiting lists to get on the waiting lists.  The docs are underpaid–according to them.  The nurses have big tits but . . .”

I could tell Sal was turning maudlin, so I cut him off.  “Look, youse,” I said.  “We got the rest of our miserable lives ahead of us.  Let’s you and me . . .”

“You mean ‘you and I’–don’t you?”  Everybody’s a freakin’ grammarian these days.

“Check page 456 of the 1937 edition of The American Language by H.L. Mencken,” I said hurriedly.  “It’s fine.”

“Oh, okay–if you’re being descriptive instead of prescriptive.”

“You got that right.  Anyway, let’s dedicate ourselves to preserving the legacy of disco.”

“How we gonna do that?”

“Well, we could start in Kenmore Square.”

disco5
Emergency snow crews race against time to clear a path to Lucifer during the Blizzard of ’78.

 

His eyes grew misty, and when he spoke, there was a clutch in his voice.  “Yeah–Lucifer, Narcissus.  Them was the days all right.”

“Remember the Blizzard of ’78?” I asked.

“Boy, do I!  We tramped through snow and ice and sleet to get down and get funky back then.  People died in that storm!”

“Absolutely.  So we could create the Tomb of the Unknown Dancer there.”

“Yeah, like that guy from Revere who did the splits without stretchin’ out first.”

The Baddest Cat on the Team

          A star high school quarterback was persuaded to play football at Rice University by a handwritten letter its offensive coordinator wrote to his cat.

Sports Illustrated

 

Rocco
“With these feet, I’m gonna need high-tops, like Johnny Unitas.”

 

Ho-hum.  Another day, another Division I offensive coordinator prostrating himself before me.  “Dear Rocco,” Clyde van Pelt of Nebraska writes.  “Can’t you see yourself in beautiful Lincoln, Nebraska on Thanksgiving Day, with 87,000 screaming fans urging you–and of course your human–on to victory with a national title on the line?”

Uh, no, actually I can’t.  “Beautiful Lincoln, Nebraska”?  Are there two of them?  Is the beautiful one located out-of-state?

To cop a line from Fred Allen, Nebraska’s a great place to live–if you’re a stalk of winter wheat.  Into the round file from waaay downtown–for three!

Okay, who’s next?  Penn State.  Sorry, when I go into the kitty box, I want privacy.  Ix-nay on the ittany-nay ions-lay.

Okie
“How about me?  I’m a Nittany Cat.”

 

Whadda we got here.  Harvard?  Are they serious?  Well, an Ivy League education is worth something–in some benighted minds.  Let’s see what kinda package they’re offering.  Canvas tote bag, no-show job at the Widener Library, free use of a Volvo station wagon.  For what?  To pick up Environmental Studies majors in Harvard Square?  That ain’t the way the Big Cat rolls.

Let’s see–Miami.  Too hot.  Wisconsin–too cold.  Missouri–they don’t pay enough.

Stanford–now we’re getting some place.  Top-notch academics, competitive program, all those venture capital alums to give me a job in case I go undrafted.

And the pussy!  I mean really sharp looking cats, brainy too!

Gotta get this one in front of the bi-ped, see what he thinks.

Funny kitten
“I want everybody down in a 4-point stance!”

 

Hey–wake up, Cheetos-breath.  C’mon, don’t force me to make happy paws all over that stupid sweater of yours.

Yeah, you, numbnuts.  Have you signed your national letter of intent yet?  Well, don’t, okay?  I want you to look at Stanford, then maybe Northwestern, or Virginia, before you commit to four years in some God-forsaken hell-hole where the only entertainment is football and beer.  I don’t want to waste the best years of my life in some place that Gertrude Stein would rank lower than Oakland; not only no there there, no where where.

Look at this course catalog–lots of interesting classes.  History and Philosophy of History and Philosophy.  Can’t top that for circular academic thinking.  The Courtly Tradition in Fiction from Le Morte d’Arthur to Raymond Chandler.  Cats in Cartoons: From Felix to Top Cat.

cats4
“PLEASE–promise me you’re not considering Ohio State!”

What?  Oh you want to spend the next four years in a drunken stupor–is that it?  Well, include me out, Buster.  This cat’s got a brain, okay?  Even if we make it to the NFL–and that’s a big if–we’ll spend the first three years holding a clipboard. Making millions of dollars, granted, but do you know how many jobs there are out there for clipboard-holders?  Not too freakin’ many, pal, and they don’t pay diddly squat.  You know why?  Low barrier to entry.  Anybody can be a clipboard holder, it takes very little training, no professional certification or state-mandated test, no . . .

catfood

Hey, what’s this?  Somebody actually took the time to write us a nice handwritten note–in big cursive letters, too!  This is straight outta Martha Stewart!

Lemme see where it’s from, gimme gimme gimme.  Rice U?  Wha?  You mean like Eukanuba Adult Dry Cat Food Lamb and Rice Formula?

Yuk.

Isn’t there a University of Friskies Party Mix?

Bats at Twilight

The bats are out tonight,
I said. She looked up and there
they were, silhouetted against the dying light
to the west. Over our shoulders
to the east it was dark, but from where

bats2

we sat, we had an intimate view of the two,
engaged in some sort of courtship ritual
I surmised after a while; the urge to do
as lovers everywhere do. They dipped
and soared; I assumed it was very traditional.

“If we had more bats we’d have fewer bugs,”
I said. She shrank back into her sweater,
and gave me a look, then a shrug.
“I don’t care,” she said. “I don’t like bats.”
I knew, no matter how I tried, I’d never get her

bats1

to agree to let me put up bat houses.
It was a little thing, nothing I cared about much,
just at the corners of our lot. One’s spouse holds
the veto vote on such matters, over
all the earth and every creeping thing and such.

Abide by this rule, or find her colder
once under the covers you have slipped:
As to animals other than dogs and cats,
forswear them all, and love her.

The Men on the Moon

It was the summer of ’69, and men were preparing
to land on the moon, at the same time that
an event of far greater consequence was
about to occur; a declaration of troth
between two star-crossed lovers here on earth.

The girl was unknown, disreputable; the boy,
from a family that mattered, trying to catch
up with her. His parents had asked where
he would watch the historic event, and he had
replied, to their consternation, that he had a date.

It was a gesture on their part, an act with meaning;
they didn’t care about country or science; their love
was their art, their art was their love. They cared no
more about the men on the moon and all it meant
than—they laughed—the man in the moon.

They walked out in nature; it was summer-hot, and it
wasn’t clear where they were going, but they knew why.
The field was buggy, though, and so after a while
they went back to the car to consummate the
collision of their worlds in air-conditioned comfort.

He had chosen words he’d heard, he wasn’t sure where,
“When you cry, I will taste salt.” That’s how close he
promised to be to her as she straddled his lap in the front
seat. She laughed, thinking he was striking a pose. He wasn’t
hurt; these misunderstandings would happen, no big deal.

He took her home, after pizza and a Coke; he wasn’t
old enough to buy beer, and didn’t have any pot to smoke.
Her mom wasn’t even home; he could have spent the
night except that his parents would have raised holy hell;
he was going to college two months later, in the fall.

He never went back to that little town, but years later,
looking out the window of a women’s apartment onto
a parking lot below, he listened to Louis Armstrong sing
“I could cry salty tears,” and thought back to that solemn
promise that was misconstrued, and laughed at his innocence.

Post-Mortem/Petites Morts

I have things that I should do
but I will lie abed with you
in homage to our deaths last night

from which we woke long after light

had first shone underneath the shade
to ‘luminate the mess we made.

Like Lazarus, we are reborn,
this later hour, this holy morn.
I’ll walk today among the living,
say a prayer of mute thanksgiving
and make a little sound I’ll fear
to voice too loud lest others hear

and think that I’m occult, possessed,
when all it is, is just the tide
that crested when I last caressed
the woman who I made my bride.

Hot Lips

 

The history of jazz includes many might-have-beens, but none so puzzling as that of Oran Thaddeus “Hot Lips” Page.

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Hot Lips Page

 

He was recognized by the masters of the trumpet in his day as their peer.  Roy Eldridge ranked Lips as “most underrated” in an interview, and Dizzy Gillespie went further:  “When Lips gets on the blues,” he said, “don’t mess with him.  Not me, not Roy, not Louis–nobody.”

Some of Page’s career choices might have seemed sound, even obvious, when he made them, but he perennially ended upon the short end of the deal.  In 1936 he and Count Basie were fronting the successor to the band led by the late Bennie Moten in Kansas City, which John Hammond had already slated for a move to New York.  One night Louis Armstrong and his manager, Joe Glaser, dropped into the club where Lips was playing, and Glaser signed him on the spot.  Lips wanted to take the band to New York under his leadership, but so did Basie.  Basie prevailed and rode the well-oiled machine of his orchestra to a long and successful career.  The band Page put together in Harlem was new to him, and didn’t bring to listeners’ ears the fresh Kansas City style that would have backed him if he had persuaded the Count’s men to follow him.

basie
William “Count” Basie

 

Page played in a number of small groups for five years and then got what seemed like another break–an invitation to play in Artie Shaw’s big band as lead trumpeter; he was the only black in an otherwise all-white aggregation.  He was starting to gain a following based on his star turns in St. James Infirmary and a novelty vocal, Take Your Shoes Off, when Shaw decided to break up the band and join the Navy.

betty boop
St. James Infirmary, the Betty Boop version.

 

In 1949 Page teamed up with Pearl Bailey, with whom he had two hits, Baby It’s Cold Outside and The Hucklebuck.  Pearl’s career took off, but Lips’ manager didn’t capitalize on the opportunity, nor on what should have been a break-through performance by Page at the Salle Pleyel, the first major international jazz festival in Paris.

bailey
Pearl Bailey

When Page returned to Europe in 1951 he was misled by a promoter who said he had the trumpeter’s band booked solid.  It turned out there were no gigs, and Page had to support his 15-member entourage out of his own pocket.  “The way these people’s expenses are running up is a nightmare to me,” he wrote a friend.  “I’ll be so grateful when my luck turns for the better.”

It didn’t.  He suffered a heart attack but still went back out on the road, because he had to.  He died of complications from pneumonia in 1954 at the age of 46.

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Opening night at Birdland, 1949: Max Kaminsky, Lester Young, Page, Charlie Parker, Lennie Tristano.

 

Page didn’t get the financial or artistic credit he deserved during his lifetime; he co-wrote Basie’s theme, One O’Clock Jump, without attribution or royalties, for example.  This neglect continues after his death; the All-Music Guide to Jazz lists only three recordings still in print for Page; there is a fourth, Jump for Joy, a Columbia re-issue, that includes his duets with Bailey, Kansas City-style blues with Joe Turner and even a piece by Ravel, La Danse.

Page was one of those individuals who lit up every room he entered, torched every jam session he joined and was loved by all; when he died tenor man Budd Johnson said the heart that gave out at last was “as big as mansion.”  The chips never fell Lips’ way, so that was the only mansion he ever had.

You Forgot To Be Beautiful

An evening of jazz, how pleasant one thinks,
then you hear a noise like a kitchen sink
being tossed out a window into a dumpster
or bombs bursting in air over Fort Sumter.
There’s a hint of three tomcats all tossed in a bag,
then shaken, not stirred as a loathsome gag.
You smile and applaud, but as a critic quite dutiful,
you tell the quartet, “You forgot to be beautiful.”

aacm
AACM:  Gack!

 

The public unveiling of a grand civic sculpture:
when disrobed, it looks like an arthritic vulture.
There’s rusted metal enough for a two-car collision,
the sculptor would think my praise quite high derision.
His manifest intent is epater le bourgeois,
I can only conclude that the guy is a doucheois.
When I meet him, I admit, I got kinda cute-iful:
“Hey man, great stuff—but you forgot to be beautiful.”

picasso

The Greeks had it right, if you want my view,
the good, the beautiful, and also the true.
Anything else—why bother trying it?
You can call it art, but I ain’t buying it.

picasso1

The lady’s got two noses on one side of her face–
somehow, something looks . . . out of place.
If I could I would take my Artgum eraser
but the museum guard would pull out his Taser.
I’d be laid out twitching on the marble floor,
while the docents cried lustily “Give him some more!”
And so she retains a weird double snootiful.
My artistic advice—don’t forget to be beautiful.

 

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