It takes one fall
on the icy sidewalk
for your life to be ruined.
That’s right, just one tumble—
legs scissoring in the air,
back parallel to the ground,
eyes looking up at a gray sky
unable to intervene—
in a brief suspended
moment before wham—
skull meets ground and blackness ensues.
Traumatic brain injury follows,
and you slip into a coma.
Your family huddles bedside,
waiting for you to rouse,
to wake up and rejoin the living,
like a grizzly bear stepping out
of its den after hibernation.
If you do come out of it
with some brain activity intact,
you may be a shell—withering
in a long-term nursing home.
And while you exist inside,
the costs mount for your family,
and the world outside your window
drags on, unaware of your predicament.
All this because some ice tripped you up.
So don’t be surprised if you see me
walking gingerly on the
glassy surface of the sidewalk,
digging my heels into a
pile of rock salt near the curb,
spreading it around on my soles,
strapping on a pair of
Yaktrax over my boots,
or cutting across the snow-covered lawns.
I guess I don’t mind dying,
or being knocked unconscious,
but I would feel awfully foolish
if a patch of frozen moisture does me in.
My wife had a outpatient procedure today so I took the day off from work. Afterwards we went to the Empire Buffet for some hearty Asian fare (two trips to the serving area for me). But when I visit the Empire, my favorite part of the meal is not the food but the steaming metal pot filled with oolong tea, along the fortune cookie that the waitress deposits on the table after the plates have been cleared away.
Today my fortune cookie read, “Luck will stick with you as long as you shall live.”
But my pessimistic brain sprung to action and excised the word “with,” replacing it with the words “it” and “to,” so the line in my head read, “Luck will stick it to you as long as you shall live.” However, I intend to chase away the negativity by taking a chance and playing the lottery with the numbers I received in the fortune.
I wrote this poem recently and it seems fitting for a day dominated by a lake effect blast.
How to Survive Winter in Syracuse
The only way to survive
a Syracuse winter
is to think of the snow
as a friend and not a foe.
When you scrape the ice
crusted on your windshield
and the snow clogs the streets,
when your tires spin,
or your car veers off the road—
regarding the snow
as a friend and not a foe
will help you to endure the season.
Even when the snow lashes
your face as it blows sideways,
or frozen clumps melt inside your boots,
making your feet cold and damp,
you must remember to
view the snow as a friend instead of a foe.
And what a friend … a friend that keeps on
giving and giving and giving
six months out of the year.
To which I say:
thank you my dear friend,
but I don’t need your generosity.
While I dread it, the start of December means there’s no denying that winter is upon us. And with colder temperatures and lake effect snow forecast for Central New York within the next couple of weeks, I wanted to share a winter-themed poem, inspired by some scenery I encounter when I walk near the Genesee Grande Hotel in Syracuse.
Cedar hedges wrapped in burlap,
awaiting winter’s bite,
like a family of mummies
snug in their tombs,
but poised to shake off the fabric
and reach for the sun
when the warmth of spring resumes.
I’ve been reading another collection of poetry by Charles Bukowski that I borrowed from the library. I’m up to page 138 in What Matters Most is How Well You Walk Through the Fire, and I came across a poem Sunday evening that seems fitting for the resumption of work following a long holiday weekend.
This little verse by Buk offers inspiration to reset one’s focus and seems to urge readers to value each day above everything else.
Here it is:
it’s a farce, the great actors, the great poets, the great
statesmen, the great painters, the great composers, the
it’s a farce, a farce, a farce,
history and the recording of it,
forget it, forget it.
you must begin all over again.
throw all that out.
all of them out
you are alone with now.
look at you fingernails.
touch your nose.
the day flings itself upon
Bukowski, Charles. What Matters Most is How Well You Walk Through the Fire.
New York: Ecco; First Edition, 2002.
The results of the annual MRI of my brain (with and without contrast) came through last night in the form of a radiology report uploaded to Upstate University Hospital’s “MyChart” patient portal.
The news is good, as the findings show “no evidence of recurrent disease.” With a history of three brain surgeries and Gamma Knife radiation behind me, I am thankful that the pesky craniopharyngioma—a benign, slow-growth tumor near the pituitary gland—appears to be hibernating inside my skull.
And in scanning the report, my eyes delighted in the formation of new word patterns that emerged from the medical terminology displayed on the screen.
Here is the outcome of my verbal exercise, a short, aggregated poem:
History of clivus.
Grossly unremarkable brain.
I’ve been away for a long time, as I’ve been preoccupied with work-related video projects. But I wanted to mention that one of my essays, Sunday Dinner, has been published in the online magazine The Cook’s Cook. In the story I reflect on spending Sunday afternoons at my maternal grandmother’s house in Rome, New York.
My father passed away from lung cancer at the age of 64 ten years ago today. In that time I’ve become a husband and a father. And while I know he would have enjoyed celebrating those life changes with me, it’s in the mundane, everyday moments that I miss my father most.
I wish I could pick up the phone, call him and talk to him about the surface topics of conversation that most fathers and sons banter about—news, sports and the weather. I wish I could have coffee with him while watching him read the newspaper or pick his lottery numbers while sitting in the cramped kitchen of my grandmother’s small brick house in Rome, New York (now owned by someone else).
I don’t have any profound words to offer about my dad today. I just want to honor his memory and tell him how much I miss him.
Over the years, I’ve written a few poems about my father. Here are a few:
The Galliano Club
From street-level sunlight to cavernous darkness,
then down a few steps and you enter The Galliano Club.
Cigar smoke wafts in the air above a cramped poker table.
Scoopy, Fat Pat and Jules are stationed there,
along with Dominic, who monitors it all,
pacing pensively with fingers clasped behind his back.
A pool of red wine spilled on the glossy cherry wood bar,
matches the hue of blood splattered on the bathroom wall.
A cracked crucifix and an Italian flag loom above,
as luck is coaxed into the club with a roll of dice and a sign of the cross.
Pepperoni and provolone are piled high for Tony’s boys,
who man the five phone lines and scrawl point spreads
on thick yellow legal pads.
Bocce balls collide as profanity whirls about . . .
and in between tosses, players brag about cooking calamari.
Each Sunday, after St. John’s noon Mass,
my father strolls across East Dominick Street and places his bets,
catapulting his hopes on the shoulder pads of
Bears, Bills, Packers and Giants.
His teams never cover and he’s grown accustomed to losing . . .
as everything in Rome, New York exacts a toll,
paid in working class weariness and three feet of snow.
But once inside The Galliano, he feels right at home,
recalling his heritage, playing cards with his friends.
And here he’s no longer alone, as all have stories of chronic defeat.
Blown parlays, slashed pensions and wives sleeping around,
constitute the cries of small-town men
who have long given up on their out-of-reach dreams.
For now, they savor the moment—
a winning over/under ticket, a sip of Sambuca
and Sunday afternoons shared in a place all their own.
Outskirts of Intimacy (Flutter Press, 2010)
My father was born
with a hole in his heart,
and although repaired,
nothing in his life,
ever filled it up.
The defect remained,
despite the surgeon’s work—
a void, a place I could never touch.
Outskirts of Intimacy (Flutter Press, 2010)
Assume the death mask,
Put on your final face
Like those insolent characters
In that Twilight Zone episode—you know the one,
With their cruel faces contorted and fixed there for all time’s sake.
My father wore his death mask.
He kept it on even though I arrived after his passing
On that soft warm August evening.
I’ll never forget the way he looked,
With his mouth agape, eyes vacant, cheeks sunken,
Body withered and shriveled,
Curled up in the fetal position on his soiled deathbed
In my grandmother’s sweltering death house.
I allowed myself to look at him for just a moment.
I then turned around and left him alone in his small bedroom.
I did this for my benefit, since I wanted to remember him
As a father and a man and not as a corpse in a locked-up state.
This is because the death mask grips its lonely victim
And sucks out the life and extinguishes the person.
I shuffled into the living room,
Rejoining the Hospice nurse and the neighbors who came
Across the street to comfort my grandmother and express remorse.
And my grandmother—
Still acting as host despite the occasion and the heat—
Asked me to make a pot of coffee for her guests.
The neighbors sat on the old, out-of-style couches and chairs
In my grandmother’s ranch home off Turin Road in north Rome.
They conversed in hushed tones and sipped coffee
While we waited for the workers from the funeral parlor
To drive up to the house and wheel away my father.
Outskirts of Intimacy (Flutter Press, 2010)
St. Peter’s Cemetery
I extend a hand to touch an angel trapped in marble.
Its face is cool and damp, like the earth beneath the slab.
I pose a question to my deceased father,
Knowing the answer will elude me.
For his remains are not buried in this cemetery,
But instead rest on a shelf in my sister’s suburban Ohio house.
Outskirts of Intimacy (Flutter Press, 2010)
My parents are gone.
They walk the earth no more,
both succumbing to lung cancer,
both cremated and turned to ash.
With each passing year,
their images become more turbid in my mind,
as if their faces are shielded
by expanding gray-black clouds.
I try to retain what I remember—
my father’s deep-set, dark eyes and aquiline nose,
my mother’s small head bowed in thought or prayer
while smoking a cigarette in the kitchen.
I search for their eyes
in the constellations of the night sky.
I listen for their voices in the wind.
Is that Rite Aid plastic bag snapping in the breeze
the voice of my father whispering,
letting me know he’s still around . . .
somewhere . . . over there?
Does the squawking crow
perched in the leafless maple tree
carry the voice of my mother,
admonishing me for wearing a stained sweater?
Resorting to a dangerous habit,
I use people and objects as “stand-ins”
for my mother and father,
seeking in these replacements
some aspect of my parents’ identities.
A sloping, two-story duplex with cracked green paint
embodies the spirit of my father saddled with debt,
playing the lottery, hoping for one big payoff.
I want to climb up the porch steps and ring the doorbell,
if only to discover who resides there.
In a grocery store aisle on a Saturday night
I spot an older woman
standing in front of a row of Duncan Hines cake mixes.
With her short frame, dark hair, and glasses,
she casts a similar appearance to my mother.
She is scanning the labels,
perhaps looking for a new flavor,
maybe Apple Caramel, Red Velvet, or Lemon Supreme,
just something different to bake
as a surprise for her husband.
A feeling strikes me and
I wish to claim her as my “fill-in” mother.
I long to reach out to this stranger in the store,
fighting the compulsion
to place a hand on her shoulder
and tell her how much I miss her.
I fear that if my parents disappear
from my consciousness,
then I too will become invisible.
And the reality of a finite lifespan sets in,
as I calculate how many years I have left.
But I realize I am torturing myself
with this twisted personification game.
I must remember my parents are dead
and possess no spark of the living.
And I can no longer enslave them in my mind,
or try to resurrect them in other earthly forms.
I have to let them go.
I have to dismiss the need for physical ties,
while holding on to the memories they left behind.
And so on the night I see the woman
in the grocery store aisle,
I do not speak to her,
and she does not notice me lurking nearby.
But as I walk away from her,
I cannot resist the impulse to turn around
and look at her one last time—
just to make sure
my mother’s “double” is still standing there.
I want her to lift her head and smile at me,
but she never diverts her eyes
from the boxes of cake mixes lining the shelf.
It’s the height of the summer travel season, and I have been on the road often lately, traveling to New York City for video shoots.
And since my colleague Bob prefers to drive our Dodge Caravan, I am free to sit in the passenger seat and pass the time by playing the Out of State Game—one I am sure many other people play.
It goes like this: I scan the traffic in search of out of state license plates, and when I spot one I ask myself a series of questions: Could I live there? Would I be willing to pack up and move there? What would my life be like if I went there?
I guess it boils down to just four words that could determine your level of happiness: Here or There? Stay or Go?
This sense of longing to migrate somewhere else is the subject of a short poem in my new collection Sidewalk Stories.
Elsewhere—a state of mind:
Reno or Raleigh,
Topeka or Tacoma,
an imaginary vacation
from my current geographic position.
Elsewhere—another place to be,
an alternate zip code.
Elsewhere—when shall I go?
To where shall I roam?
to embark on the journey,
but the target city is unknown.
Elsewhere is calling—is beckoning,
and I’ve already left home.
In reality I don’t need road trips to ponder these thoughts. I play the Out of State Game every day while walking through the parking lot of my apartment complex, which is home to many college students who come from faraway places.
Some of the states represented include Washington, Oregon, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland and Indiana.
But there is one plate that always thrills me and sparks my imagination. A white metal background with reddish-orange cursive lettering. California. California. California.
When I see a California plate, I rekindle the dream of relocating to Los Angeles, trying to carve out a living in the film or entertainment business. I consider if I could survive the freeways, earthquakes, wildfires, mudslides, crime and high cost of living.
My fascination with California can be traced to my love of John Steinbeck novels and LA-based film noir movies from the 1940s, e.g. The Big Sleep and Double Indemnity.
But the allure of California also stirs memories tinctured with regret, as I think back more than 20 years, to the time after I completed my master’s degree in film and video from American University. In the summer of 1993 I returned to my hometown of Rome, New York, to finish my thesis.
Afterwards I went to work for the City of Rome in the recreation department, doing odd jobs like refereeing adult league volleyball games and teaching an after-school woodworking class. And in the spring and summer of 1994 I served as an administrative aide to the mayor. However, the funding for the temporary job ended in the fall of 1994, and I had decided that I would take about $2,500 in savings, pack up my used gray Chevette and head to Hollywood, hoping to launch my career as a production assistant or entry-level staff member.
My mother rejected that idea, and in the course of an afternoon she and my sister talked me into embarking on an alternate, “safer” plan of moving to Venice, Florida, on the Gulf Coast, where I could stay with a friend of my Aunt Theresa and pursue employment down there.
My Aunt T. is a Roman Catholic nun, and her best friend, the late Father Charlie, a Redemptorist priest, had an extra bedroom in the condo provided for him by the Diocese of Venice. My mom and sister thought that with my endocrine-related health problems, residing in a stable environment near Aunt T. would be preferable to living alone on the West Coast. I folded and scrapped the idea of going to California.
At the time the entertainment industry was burgeoning in the Orlando area, located more than two hours away from Venice, and I was hopeful I could get a job there. But full-time opportunities were scant and when my savings started to drip away, I took a low-paying feature reporter/editor position at the Venice Gondolier newspaper, swinging my career in a different direction, one toward journalism—a path that would bring me to stops in Ohio and Arizona but never to California.
So now when I see a California plate, all I can do is wonder how things could have turned out if I had mustered the courage and gambled on a life in California. Would I now be an accomplished producer, director or studio head? Or would I have ended up impoverished?
I bemoan that I didn’t take the risk when I was young, and while I am not too old to move somewhere else, it’s seems unlikely to happen. But I try to chase away the regret because it serves no purpose and has no place in the 2017 version of my life.
I must accept the decisions I made without wasting time punishing myself by reflecting on what might have been. That’s easy to say, but hard to do because I can’t stop my eyes from seeking out Golden State plates on the streets of Syracuse.
This coffee-stained, handwritten message was tacked up outside of the Dunkin’ Donuts on South Crouse Avenue. I had turned toward a wall filled with placards, looking at advertisements for apartment complexes and Syracuse-area concert notices. Then I saw the scrap of paper; the question posed by the writer of this note made me examine my conscious. Do I care about the homeless in CNY? Answer: yes, sort of. What am I doing about it? Not a whole lot.
And this makes me wonder whether a financial contribution to the Rescue Mission or the Salvation Army would make much difference. Would it really help someone?
I always feel like I am being scammed when panhandlers ask me for money when I’m walking in downtown Syracuse or in the Marshall Street area near Syracuse University. I get the sense my money will be used for drugs, alcohol or cigarettes. Sometimes I politely tell the person I have no change. Other times, if I am in a hurry, I’ll just put my head down, avoid eye contact and walk briskly past the person. But as a Christian I feel guilty for rejecting someone who is asking for help. I know Christ would not snub the person, and a passage from the Gospel of Matthew instructs us to be charitable to those in need:
Matthew 25:40 (New International Version):
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”
But I also understand spare change will not solve our city’s and our nation’s homeless crisis. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers to the problem. Maybe the first step is to recognize the homeless exist and maybe try to treat them with dignity. Maybe that’s what the writer had in mind when he or she posted the missive.
One of the poems in my new collection Sidewalk Stories explores the issues of mental illness and homelessness. I’m sharing it here because it seems relevant; yet in reading it again, I realize the poem is pointless because it raises questions without offering solutions—in short, a lot of words but no action.
Where do those with mental illness go?
What worlds do they navigate in their minds?
Are they able to restrain their thoughts?
Can they find a place of rest in society?
To exist without hurting themselves
Or someone else?
Go downtown in any decent-sized city,
And witness for yourself the ghost people—
The mumblers, the droolers, and loiterers.
They are fragile, cold, broke, and alone,
Dressed in tattered clothes caked with dirt.
The men wear shaggy beards
And flimsy baseball caps
Topping their matted hair.
You see them pacing at bus stops,
Begging for change outside Starbucks,
And sprawled out in city parks,
With their pushcarts and
Garbage bags filled with empty
Soda cans and plastic bottles.
I force myself to observe
The unbalanced people out in public.
I refuse to look away.
I am not gawking.
I am not a voyeur who finds humor
Or pleasure in studying the deranged.
But I do want to remember
The way they look,
To record their facial expressions
When they say things like: “Go away,”
“Stop touching me,” and
“I will devour your children.”
Whose problem is this?
It’s a dilemma with no easy solution.
And I wonder, just where do we start?
How did we begin the process
Of trying to restore the street people?
Are we obligated as human beings
To care a little bit?
To notice the other life forms
Walking toward us?
Instead of quickening the pace,
Looking at the ground, turning away.
Of course there is an element of fear in us,
A desire not to be attacked
By the crazy people.
This instinct is natural and correct.
But what do we owe our fellow citizens
Who have no intention of harming anyone?
And what do we demand of ourselves
When we see others
Who are suffering a few feet away?
Look, I know it’s not your problem,
And it’s not mine either.
But it does exist and these souls
Are not going anywhere.
We can’t avoid them,
Or force them out of our cities.
So is there anything we can do,
Anything at all to make things better?
And can we at least take a moment
To think about it,
Before dismissing the idea,
And being on our way?