Category Archives: memoir

Empire State Building, a poem

Manhattan Office Vacancy Rate Drops In Second Quarter

Empire State Building

Twenty years ago we finally went to see the sights,
riding the train through flashing dim green suburb,
glassy sharp-edged slum, the skin stretched
pale and tight over your fine cheekbones —

you didn’t really know how to be afraid of death,
simply of heights and under-grounds:
you wanted always to be on the surface of the earth.
Your demise was still an abstraction,

discussed in the evening while sucking cool mints —
the natural order of things. I dragged you
all the way to the city under the water from Hoboken,
then marched you up to the roof of what was the tallest

building in the whole world when you were young.
I haven’t been here since it was built, you said,
and though the blood sank to your innards in panic,
you kept walking; I kept pushing and pulling you

forward, propelling your solid weight like a cart
loaded with spring lambs. Your hand, soft
wrinkled palm, roughened fingers speckled white
around the knuckles, gripped mine, but I showed

no mercy; I was forcing you to confront the bitter
end ahead of schedule. I was being cruel
to make you go look at the thin sparkling air
of the heavens and you knew it. But later,

my love, as you lay sweating, heavy and motionless
in your bed as though carved of wood, deprived
for weeks of even the common decency of words,
weren’t you glad you went with me once more to the top?

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Dear Donald, a letter from Madame X

donald_ivanka_child_small

Dear Donald,

You may not remember me, but I was at Le Cirque one night, that December, when you were having sex with Marla & trying to get rid of poor Ivana. Remember your ski trip? I was there for that too! Isn’t life funny? Anyway, Ivana was still running the Plaza. You hadn’t destroyed it yet. Of course you would be instrumental in that, letting that fabulous, fabulous hotel where Scott & Zelda frolicked in the fountain — and where I & my daughters enjoyed many a Sunday brunch — get turned into condos (using nonunion labor, of course). Even then we knew what you were made of, and it was ticky-tacky.

You were a prematurely balding joke, you were getting soft & going broke, and your lovely, long-legged girl spoke to me — at length — while we were in the ladies’ together. She asked to borrow my lipstick. I’m a nice Southern girl, too, so like sorority sisters we joshed about the men we were with that night. We joshed about stuff like sex, and how it was really funny how men were so simple, so easily fooled. Turns out my mother knew her mother from way back!

I actually asked poor Marla what she thought of Trump Tower. One of my friends had tried to get me to go inside but I refused. It was too ugly, and you’d torn down that beautiful Art Deco facade & not even given it to the Metropolitan like you promised! I wish I’d known that night what you’d be up to in 2016, because I would have spit on your plate on my way out the door. I have good aim. I was a tomboy.

Anyway, back in the Le Cirque ladies’, Marla giggled and said she didn’t really like it much herself, but that she’d never tell you because she knew how much building that brass & glass dick substitute (her words, not mine) meant to you. Apparently insecurity knows no bounds. Plus, she thought you were rich. She played that gig pretty well, I must say.

I myself was there with my then-husband, a man who is on one of the Nobel Prize nominating committees. I was there while my then-husband & his boss discussed you at table. You were too busy grabbing Marla’s sweet little pussy under the table over in the corner to notice much else. So, while you pussy-grabbed, my then-husband & his boss regaled me & my then-husband’s boss’ wife (a tall, blonde doctor whose Polish-born mother had survived Auschwitz) with the rumors (all true) of your imminent financial demise.

You were also a complete laughingstock down in Palm Beach. All of old Palm Beach hated you! I’d heard how you were ruining Mar-a-Lago — which I’d visited as a child, playing happily out in the garden whilst the grownups did boring things inside which didn’t involve roses, or butterflies, or dogs. You destroyed it, just like you destroyed that beautiful Art Deco facade. And, by the way, I know all about Jared’s brother. And your youngest kid.

So you thought being President of the United States would be easy? Cry me a fucking river, Herr Blotus. I know exactly who you are. You’re that pudgy asshole crybaby who got sent to military school for beating up the little kids. You’re that fat old man who cut off his nephew’s health insurance because he didn’t like the way his nephew refused to bow & scrape to him after he stole his nephew’s inheritance. Honestly, sir, you are nothing more than a piece of shit.

Sincerely,
Madame X

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Columbus Park

Older Chinese men playing Chinese chess, Columbus Park, Mulberry Street, Chinatown, New York City, New York USA.

Columbus Park

Layers, on this island the pearly nacre of creation — darkness,
light swirl for my attention. Walled around the park are giant
buildings, shades of gray and brown, windows glinting,
dark mirrors. I traveled a thousand miles to get here,

to find something, the heart of something, heaven,
earth, sore feet, my own heart. I am a dry sponge,
tramping from one street to the next, darting eyes
quick to latch on, transcend movement, freeze-frame

all in memory. The benches call out to me; I can’t refuse,
down low in Manhattan, where Chinese congregate,
playing some fast game. Like mah-johngg, like dominoes,
like poker, like checkers.  And a wino passes out on the bench

next to me — his mouth gapes, his teeth darkened with decay,
his tongue moving as he breathes. I am here on my bench
otherwise alone, trying to remember my divine nature.
The fact I don’t feel full of knowledge is sure evidence

I am. Nobody ever talks about how in his twenty-ninth
year, the Buddha left his wife and child in the middle of the night
without even saying goodbye. Nobody speaks of the tears
they shed next day. Buddha’s sobbing wife

is the mother of all things, and I have never known
her name. And I know without knowing I have two
souls — the one that will die with my body, the other that will
wander the world. Everything here becomes holy;

I take the wino in my arms, feeling his foul breath
grow sweet, becoming perfume of heaven. The world blooms;
I am its soul, dancing upon the knife-blade, bleeding, but not
falling. No, not falling. As I understand, so shall I be delivered.

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Leslie Gaines, aka Leslie Moreland Gaines, aka Leslie M. Gaines

leslie the asshole

Leslie Gaines is a criminal, a con man and an artistic failure. He has stolen — from me personally — business assets worth at least $66,000. In addition, he has physically assaulted me, stolen from me, and invaded my home. Warning: do not ever, under any circumstances, trust this man.

He is a liar. He never speaks truth. He sheds crocodile tears. He is a bad actor. He is a hypocrite, a racist, and a descendant of General Gaines, one of the foremost murderers of native Americans in this country’s history. He is cursed by the Seminole and the Miccosuccee tribes, and I believe he is also is suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s, or some other form of dementia. Or, just as likely, he has just rotted his brain with too much drinking & drugging.

He abuses women, uses & emotionally abuses everyone he meets, and continues to steal from my by using my deceased brother’s name on his work! I pray that he doesn’t harm anyone else. Look at his face and run from it, should you see him. Forewarned is forearmed. I owe the world this warning, both as a human being and a fourth generation attorney.

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Surveyor in New England, a prose poem

Surveyor in New England, a prose poem

And so, since there were no detailed official maps, he named small lakes after himself, solitary hills, even shy, dusty lanes marked only by the great thumping hooves of his horse — a patient, taciturn beast, dun-colored, remarkable mainly for the seven white spots on its flank, arranged like the constellation Ursa Major.

Back then, a hundred years ago, electrical-survey men like him sweated gracefully during summer, their cheeks burnt into dark Scotch grain, their hairlines preserved white as milk under the dimpled felt of U.S.-issue hats. Though he was the youngest of the crew, his moustache grew enviably broad and full, waxed close at the tips, bowed under his classical nose like the extended wings of a pigeon.

Reining to a stop, as he slid down, he pulled from the saddle-bags yet another wooden stake flagged with a length of wrinkled red muslin, kneeling to pound it into the rocky Vermont ground, leaving it there for eternity.

As he rode on farther north — past the tall flowering weeds around Lovell Pond, the drunken bees bouncing off his boots — continuing along the route he’d laid out for the electric poles to follow, he thought of his mother: the way her fierce blue eyes glittered on foggy mornings, the way his father caressed her wrist at the dinner table, and, above all, how skillfully she ironed, gripping the rag-wrapped handle, fluttering the heavy, blunt-nosed tool over the damp white cotton of his shirts in rhythms as comforting and certain and lovely as the slow tick of a butterfly’s wings as it feeds from the bright center of a blossom.

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notes from september 18, 2001: richard

illustration rastafarian man

Notes from September 18, 2001: Richard

That morning, I heard my three-year-old daughter wake up and say with delight, “It’s not dark out anymore.” I went in and saw her already sitting up in bed — the brilliant sunlight streaming in through the pink, translucent curtain of her bedroom — and saw how her head was haloed, as usual, by what resembled the pale, disorderly golden floss some people put on their Christmas trees. Angel hair — she was a tousled, blinking pink-and-gold person, recently emerged from babyhood.

“That’s right,” I said. “It’s not dark out anymore. Good morning.” She flopped back down and remained lying in her bed, even after I folded her white net safety-rail down. “What a beautiful girl,” I said, smiling down at her.

“I can’t get up,” she said.

“Why not?” I asked.

“I can’t get up because I’m dead.”

My heart darted out of my chest, chirping and flapping and shedding feathers like a startled wren but somehow I managed to feign businesslike nonchalance and smile reassuringly. “You’re not dead.” The effects of the terrorist attacks one week ago had filtered all the way down to toddlers far away in Florida.

Well, later that morning, after dropping her at her baby-sitter’s, I stopped at a mini-market at S.E. 9th Street and University Avenue to get a bottle of water. As I pulled up, there was a guy tottering oddly across the sidewalk in front of the market, very tall and skinny, and his long, skinny pink tongue hung out like a dog’s, quivering with each stride. I hoped — no, prayed — that he would not speak to me. He stood in front of me at the counter to purchase a bottle of cheap wine with some very tattered, dirty money. His coins were coated with sand and dirt, and the clerk swept them into a pile then covered them with a napkin as he left the store. I paid for my water. Several middle-aged men stood talking energetically while their lottery tickets printed out.

After paying for the water, I walked to my car and there stood a tall, picturesque man, vibrant and attractive even though missing most of his teeth. He wore a black cap with stars embroidered along the front: three black stars, on a vivid yellow ribbon band. A paler yellow jumpsuit, a long beaded necklace — and long, luxuriant dreadlocks. He wore a couple of rings on his hands, a small silver nose-ring, and a gold earring in his left ear. He was quite handsome, though at the same time I could tell he’d recently been through some very hard times, and probably had been in those bad times for a quite a while.

For a second, I worried, because of the other man, and that man’s obvious level of dissociation with the world (I really had prayed to avoid him), but in a second of observing this man, I knew I was on much more solid ground. I wouldn’t be talking to a total lunatic. He held out to me a book — a Bible — and said he had just seen someone throw it in the trash, and God had told him to get it out and now pass it on to me. I took the book from him, bedraggled and slightly crusted on the cover with God-knows-what. I felt instantly ashamed for worrying what germs might be on the cover of the old, battered Bible, but I forced myself to disregard that, and act untroubled.

During our brief chat, he told me he was a Vietnam veteran. He pulled out a battered leather wallet and showed me his VA Hospital ID, which I knew to be genuine, as I have seen others: his picture was on it, and his name and date of birth. He was born Christmas Day, 1947.  I cannot remember his last name, only his first name, Richard, the same as my father’s.  I looked at the ID and then back at his face, and what I saw was an honorable man, intelligence shining out through his eyes, but also in his eyes a sadness that probably ran deeper than I could ever imagine. His radiance and his sorrow ran through me like a knife, because of my very-realistic fear we’ll now be in another war – one which will kill many young men and destroy the spirits of many more. I was suddenly and inexplicably paralyzed by grief for him, as a veteran, as a street person, as someone now obviously fairly troubled in life. I saw him as he must have been, all those years ago, young and strong and relatively unscarred, and the breath caught in my chest, seeing him both then and now in the very same instant.

After a few moments, he asked very gently and politely if I had any money I could give him to buy some coffee. I was so happy he asked for something, so I could give him something. Ordinarily, I would give someone in this situation a few dollars, but I gave him $20 — I just wanted to give him something. Nobody can give him back what he lost, and money is a poor substitute for what he lost, but it’s a substitute nonetheless. Money and kindness are all we can really give. He went inside, and I buckled my seatbelt, turned on the car, grabbed the steering wheel, but then sank down over it, clutching it, sobbing for the first time in a long time, not caring in the slightest who saw me or heard me. It felt like a release; I only wish it had gone on longer. He came out with his coffee, saw me hunched over sobbing, and got alarmed — he knocked on my window.

“Are you okay?” he asked. Genuine concern; sincere compassion. I can detect those things in other people from the slightest of nonverbal cues, unguarded genuineness and sincerity are so rare in this world. His sincerity made it better, but also worse at the same time.

“I’m okay,” I choked out between sobs. “It’s just this whole thing.” He didn’t have to ask what I meant, because of course he already knew. The power of these events to affect us has crossed every kind of barrier — sex, race, socioeconomic status, education level, sanity level — we’re all family right now. I rolled down the window and he embraced me. I was grateful for the human compassion, pure and simple. His smell was strong and complicated, some of the notes pleasant, some sour, but oh, so real and human and I drank it in, all of it, the bitter and the sweet, a primal metaphor for this crazy life itself. He asked, tentatively and graciously, could he sit with me a while.
“Yes,” I answered. “Please.”

He started to talk, and I listened, giving him my fullest attention. I bonded with him in a way I’ve never bonded with any stranger in such a short time. I guess we spent about an hour together. Richard, from West Virginia. He is a Vietnam veteran, former Marine, former POW. He talked generally about what he was trained to do in the Marines, but said he didn’t want to tell me anything too specific about his experiences during the war — he said women shouldn’t ever hear such things. We talked about everything there is for human beings to talk about and he read to me from the Psalms and Matthew. So devout, so earnest, he held my hand in his while he read Scripture, ministering to me like a Sister.

In fact, he had been in the past a minister, he said, and from his familiarity with the chapters of the Bible I knew he wasn’t exaggerating. He has two living daughters, now grown, and another daughter who died at age two, just two years ago, from a heart ailment. He has his deceased baby’s name tattooed on his shoulder, plus three scars from cigarette burns — two for each of her birthdays, and a third for the day she died. He cried twice with me, once while talking about her — Zaidyn — and a second time while talking about how his stepfather used to beat his mother, years ago. He told me he still calls his mother “Mommy” when he calls her on the phone.

“Do you think that’s stupid?” he asked. “For a grown man to say, Mommy?”

“Absolutely not,” I answered. “I think it’s wonderful. I think more grown men should.”

He has been barred from our local homeless shelter, St. Francis house, for two years for giving food he obtained there to someone else. It’s a rule there, you’re not supposed to do that, share your rations. What a dehumanizing policy. It’s our basic need, to share. Damn them for that. He lived in Jamaica at some point for five years, his grandfather was born there. One of his grandmothers was a full-blooded Cherokee. He had played conga drums with Bob Marley.

I felt, I think, something like the presence of what human beings call the Divine. Divine love. I comforted him, he comforted me. I gave him another $20, all I had left in my wallet. He blessed me, I blessed him back with all my heart.

He still played conga drums around town. He knew of Ajamu Mutima, another drummer. “Another tall, skinny dude with dreads,” he said, laughing. As Richard and I spoke, I thought often of my father, and my stepmother Dorothy (his African-American wife), and of the rich heritage from Africa we all need to embrace.

He spoke of his lost two-year-old saying to him “I love you, Dada.” As a fellow parent, I knew how precious those words were. His pain at her loss, I felt it palpably, physically.

He knew when to end the interaction, and for that too, I was grateful, as I was overwhelmed and needed to go off and write it all down so I would never forget. Though I didn’t want to break our contact, I somehow understood it had to be broken, because it had been so miraculous, we had gotten so much from each other, we didn’t want anything to detract from the miracle. We didn’t want to descend into ordinariness with each other. He didn’t want it to end, either, but he was gracious enough to know to end it. Restraint can be admirable; sometimes, less is indeed more. But we were both reluctant to leave each other, and when I started the car and put it in reverse, he approached the window one more time. And that, too, was perfect.

Because he asked me, at the end, the question that made it all even more clear, more passionate and more profound. The question that made it, well, I don’t use this word much, but there is no other word to use in English — perfect.

“Did you feel it, too?” he asked me. He looked at me, searching my face with his deep brown eyes, eyes that held the world in that moment. Eyes I wanted to fall into.

I knew precisely what he meant, and I had indeed felt it. He had asked a question I couldn’t even have begun to formulate, so overcome was I with my feelings. “Yes,” I answered. “Yes,” I repeated, nodding to him with absolute recognition, and with that he leaned in and embraced me with joyous intensity for one final moment. I returned his affection as I would return my own child’s, or my mother’s. I am profoundly grateful, and I will never forget him. It’s true, Mystery can manifest in the most unlikely ways. We fell together like long-lost twins, then slowly let each other go.  Without saying much of anything but “Did you feel it, too,” and “yes,” we both knew without doubt that he was a noble person with an eternal soul, and so was I, and we had finally found each other for all eternity in a single hour. The force resonating through our bodies was Divine.

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