"It is the poet's job to remember"
Gerald Stern

Saturday, August 28, 2010

A LIttle Bit About Fate

People find each other for a reason. I guess that’s fate. We all wander around bumping into and bouncing off each other. We get the answers as to why in bits and pieces, not in a Technicolor full screen version with a back story and a director's interview.

My friend Steve and I used to joke about it. We grew up two towns apart and still lived in the same place. Despite the fact that we went to lots of the same places as kids, teen-agers and adults and even knew some of the same people, we never met until we were over 50.

After he was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma he asked if I would be his health care advocate in the event he became incapable of making his own decisions. We did it legally with all the properly executed paperwork. We talked about the things he wanted and how he felt about death and dying and we got all of that straight. What we didn't anticipate was how sick he would become and that his hospitalization would stretch to almost a year. After a couple of months he began telling the doctors and nurses to "ask Linda" whenever something needed to be discussed. I couldn't blame him, it was enough just to hang on, to deal with the sometimes daily dialysis, the pain in his back, and the very understandable depression.

Four months in, he went into the Intensive Care Unit for the first time and my schedule became daily trips to the hospital and remained so for the duration. I had to agree and sign for every procedure, bags and bags of blood and platelets, surgeries, intubations. There were so many specialists I started a list just to keep their names straight.

The important thing was that my friend was waiting each day for me to come. The ICU nurses would tell me that he would ask them throughout the day what time it was and when I would be arriving. Sometimes if he was confused from the medication, he told them that he heard my voice and that I was standing right outside his door. When his vocal chords were damaged by the intubation tubes and he was unable to talk, he would take my hand and kiss it and mouth "thank you," over and over.

There were horrible bad times when he raged and hated everyone, including me. It was so hard not to view my dear friend as hateful and hurtful, and I confess to sometimes losing that battle with myself. "Why am I doing this?" I would wonder, “the rest of my life is on hold while I take care of this person who says such mean things.” Articulate Steve knew how to say beautiful words, and could sting so very thoroughly with them as well.

But in the end there was such a peacefulness. The last time I saw him he was drowsy and smiling. “I’m sleepy,” he said, “Go home. Thank you. I love you. “

I've never regretted any of it. I would do it all over again for my friend.

This brings me back to that fate thing and why we got to know each other in the first place. He used to say to me, "I know my mother sent you." Maybe she had a hand in it. There are many things that my sweet friend did for me that made his place in my life a gift from somewhere as well, but I question nothing. Why else would we have finally crossed paths, for such a short number of years, and at just the right time?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

All of Us Veggies

If one more person asks, upon learning that I'm a vegetarian, "but what do you eat?" I'm going to drop a tub of tofu on them...which I don't eat anyway because I don't care what you do to it, it still tastes like the sponge I wash my dishes with.

People seem to think that taking away meat and poultry leaves Ethiopia. They forget that there is a whole realm of food out there that did not start out mooing or clucking, and since I'm not heroin chic emaciated, I must have found it. There are plenty of choices that make me have to work hard at keeping my jeans fitting the way I want them to.

Not long ago I was at a wedding where you were asked to choose what entree you preferred. When the waiter came to me, I made the mistake of telling him that I was a vegetarian and just to bring me whatever vegetables they were serving without the meat. "Oh no," he said, "I'll have the chef make you something special." He eyed me like a handicapped relative and patted my shoulder sympathetically. When we were served he set my plate in front of me and said, "Now there you go, just for you," and stopped short of, "you poor thing." There was a yellow squash sliced in half length ways, surrounded by carrots and broccoli. The "chief" must have whisked the squash past a pot of steaming water or turned a hairdryer on it (with the diffuser in place and set on low), because it was barely room temperature and still "thunked" when tapped on the table. The broccoli and carrots were raw. Everyone else had tiny browned potatoes and string beans almondine, all fully cooked to perfection.

I sometimes wonder if its some sort of weird subconscious punishment for the non-conforming, non-carnivores. "Here, eat this anemic looking squash, that’s what you get for not eating this nice filet mignon, what the heck is wrong with you?" They are also the "enhanced flavor Nazis" too. "No Seasonings for YOU!! Move to the back of the line."

I've been offered things like carrots on a bed of lettuce at a dinner party "because I know you're a vegetarian," when everyone else is enjoying a plethora of nicely cooked veggies along with their meat, or some sort of pasta. I'm always tempted to reply, "Oh no, I don't want to be a bother. I'll just go out and graze in the back yard, I noticed some nice looking dandelion leaves on my way in."

I'm not a vegan, I never met an egg or a piece of cheese I didn't like. I put milk in my coffee. I eat some fish. That puts me in a technical "Pescetarian" sub category, I suppose. I still love the smell of steaks cooking on a charcoal grill, but I just don't want to eat them. Pizza and lots of Chinese food is still meatless, along with a zillion other things. I don't get freaked if meat touches my food. And when I was in Italy I tasted the salami and prosciutto in four different regions. I'm a vegetarian, not an idiot.

At that wedding of my cousin the beautiful bride and the uncooked squash, I shrewdly ate enough calamari and roasted peppers at the cocktail hour so that the "squash that thumped," was a laugh for our table. When the wedding cake was served the waiter looked at me and hesitated, holding the plate with my slice in his hand until I reached over and took it from him. Yeah right, are you kidding me?

Monday, August 23, 2010

Steve's Summer Solstice

(Since this daily writing is in part due to the promise I made to Steve, this one is a about an experience I would never have had if I hadn't known him.)

The "Mermaid Parade" takes place every year, on the weekend closest to the summer solstice on the Coney Island boardwalk. It is a celebration of the beginning of summer, usually led by some mid-level celebrity as Grand Marshal, and anyone can be in it.

It is an amazing sight. The spectators number in the thousands to watch hundreds of costumed mermaids march or glide on intricate floats along with their under-the-sea male counterparts, accompanied by bands and musical groups of every kind. There are cover girl mermaids, elderly mermaids, cross-dressing mermaids, mommy mermaids with baby mermaids, and some mostly naked mermaids spray painted gold or silver.. People drape themselves in netting and necklaces of shells, hats adorned with starfish, and there are sequins and sparkles enough to gratify any gypsy soul, including my own.

After the parade, the celebration continues long into the night. There is music on the boardwalk and you can work your way down dancing to rock, hip hop, salsa, listen to steel drums, and toss coins into the instrument cases of some pretty damn good street musicians. Don't bother waiting on the never-ending line at Nathan's, there are a ton of ethnic foods to choose from, and inhale.

We took the subway all the way out, it stops a few hundred yards from the boardwalk, and is elevated and sunny once you get a little further along. The first few stops were pretty routine, but then mermaids started hopping on. Every shape and size, decked from the simple bottom of the sea creature to the most elaborate showgirl type. Each stop drew a few more, and suddenly the car became a traveling pre-celebration party, with everyone laughing and comparing costumes, a virtual sea of summer solstice strangers engaging the moments. I've ridden the subway back from Shea with a car full of Mets fans after they won (really), but even they were not as much fun as that bunch of mermaids-for-a-day we rode with.

Maybe the solstice has some scientific magnetic force that beefs up our endorphins, or plays on those receptors in the brain that make us happy. I'm not interested in that would be explanation. I think it was the sparkles and the music and nobody giving a damn if they looked foolish (they didn't) or silly. We welcomed the summer dancing barefoot with mermaids. How much better can it get?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Trees And Other Souls

My office window gives me a minute to minute update of the weather. The view from my seat is the top half of the white building across the street and one slightly pathetic tree whose branches reach to this second floor horizon. I watch the seasons change through it, and on the worst work days I imagine that it waves in my direction reassuring me that there is life outside this workplace. Today I'm watching a torrential rain beating its leaves and the wind bending it side to side. I'm hoping that nothing cracks or breaks off causing someone to decide it is not aesthetic enough to be on the main street of this pretentious burb.

Appearance is what matters here, and I am so out of place... Alice through the looking glass in the form of a middle-aged day-dreamer in my favorite hippie thrift store skirt. It is in the air and in the cafe where they charge even more than Starbucks, and in the window of the elite "doggy store" where a sign in the window advertises "Just Arrived ! Italian Cashmere Sweaters." There are three banks and an investment broker on every block, a town furrier (cold storage on site for ALL your furs, ladies) and the Hummers still take up two parking spaces, gas prices notwithstanding.

Last summer there was a homeless woman who sat in the little park on nice days and took refuge in the train station when it rained. The townsfolk were outraged and sent letters to the editor and complaints to the cops. I walked past her many times, sitting on a bench with a bag at her feet and a winter hat on her short summer hair. If she wasn't taking a little cat nap she'd smile and ask me the time. My answer...1 o'clock, 5 o'clock, 10:30 AM,... always drew the same response, "Oh thank you dear, that's good." People called her “disgraceful' and 'dangerous.” They implied that she kept others from being comfortable in the park and made commuters uneasy in the station, no doubt quaking in their fine leather shoes and designer suits as they waited to hop a train to Wall Street. A few were more bold in their revulsion and said that she just made the town "look bad" and that somebody better do something about it before more of "them" appeared. Apparently they were convinced that the homeless have a hotline to advise each other of where the good benches are.

It was quite the buzz for a month or so, and then the powers that be had her ousted. “Sheriff, this town just ain't big enough for a couple of thousand millionaires and a little old homeless lady.” The little park with its carefully appointed landscape and fake fountain waterfall is perfect once again.

So, I worry about my tree. The sidewalk Gestapo here patrols for "neat" flower boxes, ornamental details and tiny shrubbery trimmed just so. What are its chances if it ends up with some branches stripped or missing a limb with a nasty open wound for all of downtown to see?

I worry about some of these people too. I worry about their souls.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Timmy And The Teasers

(Note: Previously published in "Little Book of Poems and other Writings" 2003)

I stopped to have coffee after work with my dear friend Mike, still dressed in my nine to five persona skirt and heels and looking forward to winding down and sharing a little gossip. His 20-ish nephew was visiting with two friends in tow, using his home as a stopover for the night. They sat with us in the fading evening light, comfortably, youthfully slouched on couches and cushions.

Young men never seem to miss a chance to plunder one of their own. A continuous right of passage I suppose, inflicted on each other as they constantly try to one up even the closest of friends. They pounced unmercifully on Tim, the quietest one who was seated next to me on a small settee. “Yep, Tim doesn’t have a girlfriend.” They started in. “Do you believe that?”

“ Old Timmy, 18 years old and no woman.” Rob jabbed an “18” into the air for emphasis. He continued. “We’re taking him to the city tonight…gonna get him a woman…old Tim’s never…”

As the only woman in the room and assuredly the person he was most embarrassed to be hearing this recital, I broke in. “The weather should be nice tonight for walking around in the city. Are you going into the village?” They were merciless. “Maybe Tim will have better luck in New York, he keeps striking out in Pennsylvania.” Rob shot back.

Because I was old enough to be his mother…but wasn’t…I could see that “old Tim” possessed the on-the-brink good looks that in a few short years would have his taunting friends vying for his young lady overflow.

He acknowledged their ribbing with downcast eyes and gave a swift apologetic glance in my direction with his long lashed, very deep blues. A tiny smile pulled at his sweetly sensuous mouth. Because I was old enough to be his mother… but wasn’t… I noticed that too.

The other guys pushed on with the attempted humiliation while Mike and I ignored them and talked around it all. A few minutes went by with Tim continuing to be un-responsive to their taunts. I glanced at my seat mate and suddenly noticed that while his head remained down, his eyes were aimed in my direction and fixed on my crossed legs, watching me unconsciously dangling one black high heeled shoe from my toes. He would glance away quickly checking to see if I had noticed, and then again allow his eyes to run down the black stockings, pause at the swaying heel, and slowly back up my leg.

To my knowledge, I hadn’t had my legs checked out by a man his age in quite some time. Because I was old enough to be his mother… but wasn’t…I un-crossed my legs slowly, inviting his full attention. Lazily I stretched each one straight out, a- la- Mrs. Robinson, before crossing back over. I continued to dangle the high heeled shoe, grateful that my stockings had survived the day without a run, and thankful that the gams are the last to go. His appreciation was palpable and made my own heart light with sweet recollections of men and lovers who were young long ago.

There, before his unsuspecting pals filled with their own bravado, Tim and I shared our little secret, neither of us letting on what we both knew. A few moments when the teasing of his peers was drowned out in his own unexpected stop along the way. I knew this sweet young man would soon realize with delicious surprise that he more then had what it took. I willed him the understanding that, used passionately and lovingly, it would make him a very happy man indeed and that most good things come at just the right time.

I smile when I remember that afternoon and my performance for an unacknowledged audience of one. My gift to a young man from a woman who was old enough to be his mother… but wasn’t.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


Not so long ago, my Granddaughter had a great affinity for Band-Aids. Immediately after a greeting hug and kiss, she would ask in her tiny girl voice, “See my Band-Aids?” and pull up the legs of her pants to reveal four or five cartoon-character-ed adhesive strips across each leg.

Of course this Grandma would seriously ask about the circumstances of each. She would shrug her little shoulders at every inquiry, but continue to point down the line until all received the proper sympathetic consideration.

If I was fortunate enough to be there at bedtime, I would hold her sweet weight in my lap while she listened to the story she had chosen. Reluctant to give in to sleep, she lasted until the book was finished. Then she would point to a spot on her arm or leg, say “boo boo” in her sleepy voice, and offer it up for attention. Again and again, her fingertip resting on unblemished skin, we’d repeat the ritual. After each healing kiss, she would sigh and burrow in closer until her eyes closed and the deep breathing of her innocent sleep began.

I often think about her wisdom. How simple to ask for what is needed with no further thought for justification in the request.

How wonderful it would be to offer up that place that needs comfort, attention, reassurance. Perhaps one of the rough spots we face every day. Or maybe one of the ones that never go away.

The child in me envies the ability of the very young to understand what we often forget. How simple it is to offer your heart to be kissed and made better.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Family That Picnics Together

(This is another "dusted off" piece, but in keeping with yesterday's entry, good food for thought. If anyone in my family is insulted, I apologize. I love you all.)

We were approaching the due date of our annual family reunion picnic. My father was one of seven children who married and pro-created Catholic-ally, and I have twenty seven first cousins who are mostly married with children and grandchildren. There are only three of the original seven left, two uncles and an aunt.

When everyone shows up, we are our own little village...or circus depending on the pull of the universe and any one or forty three personalities having some sort of delusional off day. Last year, half of them were in a snit, and in the spirit of some weird unity, an entire block declined to attend. I was trying to remember exactly why this morning and had to think for a few minutes, which is always the way of a past unpleasantness whose origin is never as important as the result.

We had talked about doing a picnic for years and finally got it together just three seasons ago. After the first one, e-mails flew back and forth between the cousins about how much fun we'd had and how it brought back so many memories of us all growing up together. We had shared many 4th of July celebrations, riotous loud affairs when our young parents joined in to toss water balloons and horseshoes, and bocce that went on all afternoon. Of course, they were Italian picnics with the best food anywhere and all my favorites, Aunt Millie's eggplant parmesan and my grandmother's anisette cookies to name just two.

My father's brothers and sisters remained close by all their lives, to the benefit of everyone. Sunday visits to one or the other were the rule in a time when nobody was too busy for a leisurely afternoon. It seemed everyone was thrilled to be together again.

Then somebody got insulted somewhere between the fall and the following summer. There are a few versions of who did what and what was said to who. A couple of nasty themed e-mails were hurled and copied into the entire family e-mail address list. Many tried to soothe over the situation and some didn't want to get involved for fear of making it worse. There is no lack of loud and pointed communication skills in this family. I suppose the ensuing hard feelings still exist because I just learned that the succeeding group would not be attending again due to each individual having "a prior commitment."

One aunt turned 90. One uncle is 85. We cousins are in our 40's and 50's, with a few past the 60 mark. There have been some serious medical issues.

I don't know if any of my relatives read this blog, but who gives a damn who said what to who. Did you forget how nice it was to say "Hey, do you remember.... ?" That we looked at each others grandchildren and said, "Did you ever think.....?" We share this one remarkable family, warts and disappointments included. Get over it. Get on with it. Let it go. I don't want to be standing in some cemetery listening to your regrets.

POSTSCRIPT: After this was written, two of "the cousins" passed away. My brother John, and my cousin Dennis. May they rest in peace. And yes, I stood in the cemetery and listened...

Monday, August 16, 2010

Just A Little Bit

(The 2010 Dodge Poetry Festival is coming up soon. This was written before the 2008 Festival, but carries the message at the end I want everyone to know today. The poem is newer, and I share that with you too)

I am hoping for beautiful weather for the weekend for the Dodge Poetry Festival. I want a sunny and warm invitation to let me lose myself there for two days. I need all the poetry I can get. I need to spend more money than I should on books. I need to see all the familiar faces and give them a hug. I need to hear the ones I don't know and escape in their words. I need to figure out how not to feel guilty and sick and sad about wanting to have all of the above.

I went to Dodge 2006 trying to remember every moment to bring back to Steve because he was too weak to go. I called him on the way home while it was all still fresh to report and brought him an armload of books and an extra program.
This time I go having learned that my brother's brain tumor is "end stage," and the doctors say three to six months. He has outlived his prognosis by two years, but that’s not enough for me. I'm selfish. He's my baby brother and my only sibling.

I want my buddy Steve alive and talking non-stop all over Waterloo Village. I want my brother's brain with no malignant cells and for him to tease me like the little brat he always was. I want him to play, “Do you remember when?” with me at my dining room table as we linger for hours after a holiday dinner.

Right this minute, I want certain market-watching idiots in my workplace to stop whining about it and just go on up to the counting house and shove their investments someplace really uncomfortable. I have all I can do to keep from screaming. I wish them just ten minutes of knowing someone you love is dying, and to hold their hand and know that they know it too. I'm sick of all the crap that never mattered.

And to my friends who read this blog…I love you...right now... for all the things that do matter, and for however long we have.


Did You?

I wondered if you knew me at the end
when I dropped morphine into your cheek,
watched the clock,
the undertaker’s card tacked to the wall.
I wanted you to reach over
and poke me in the ribs
until I smacked you back
so you could call Mom
and she would tell me to stop –
stop what I was doing.
“Just leave him alone,” she’d say
“Ignore him and he’ll be fine. “

Linda Radice July, 2010

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Tatoo....or Two ?

I do not have a tattoo. I am not tempted to get one, even in a place so hidden it would never see past my underwear. My children do not share my reluctance to dabble in such decoration. My daughter has a smiley face at the base of her spine. My son has a few more interesting designs.

When my son was little, I slathered his skin with sunscreen and made him wear a hat to avoid skin damage. He was ( and still is) allergic to fabric softener, and we used fragrance and dye free soap and detergents to keep his arms and legs free from rashes that itched and irritated. He is not, however, allergic to the tattoo artist's paint, nor does he seem to mind the pain the needles cause or the burning aftermath that shines with Bacitracin.

He started out small...the masks of tragedy and comedy, and the Impala symbol for his classic cars on his forearms. Then came his last name in gothic letters across his shoulder blades, and then some flames leaping from his ankle and partway up his calf. He has an almost completed "sleeve" that starts on his right shoulder and carries on down toward his elbow. I have to say that the artist does wonderful, intricate work on the detailed mural of buildings, a woman's face, and an old car that blend together beautifully. I suppose I just never thought that the tender baby skin I powdered and oiled and protected was being primed as a canvas.

His self-expression thing is probably my own fault. I let him get his ear pierced when he was in the third grade. The other mothers were horrified, a number of his friends started asking for earrings, and one kid's father told my son that "only fags wear earrings." That incident was one of my stellar mother moments. Suffice to say that after I spoke to the man, he kept a lot of space between us forever after.

I never had a problem with clothes or hair. My generation was the one that cleared all those paths, and my kids benefited from my, "as long as you're clean," attitude. My son had a multitude of hair styles. He grew it down to his rear end and had a Mohawk. Then there were colors. Red, blue, and green, in a style that required a variation spiky Mohawk with short dyed hair around the sides and back. He insisted on wearing the largest jeans he could find, size 48 waist, hacked off at the bottom and held up with a woven belt that went around him twice. He topped that off with a triple extra large t-shirt that hung well past his knees. For a couple of years, he appeared as a rather squat, well padded adolescent. On the evening of his junior prom, he came downstairs in his perfectly fitted tuxedo, a slim and trim, size 25 waist, 16 year old. We had forgotten what he really looked like.

My daughter was more conservative, but I do remember the "Punky Brewster" two different color shoes phase, and she did have "very big hair" at the same time she dated a guy with a Porsche that had a sun roof. When she got into the car and the roof was open, her hair stuck right up through it.

There are a lot worse things than having sections of your body look like a page from the Sunday comics. I admire other people's tatts and the talent of the artists who do such amazing work. I'm all for everyone doing their own thing. And since I’ve long passed financing my kids self-expression of choice, I say go for it.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Where Do You Come From?

The town I've lived in all my life has changed. It has gone from the bedroom community of my youth, (close to the NYC rail lines and buses for commuters) to a little village with many immigrants, mostly South American. The downtown strip of stores are now Spanish food stores and restaurants, places that teach ESL, and travel agents with store fronts full of little booths where people can pay by the minute to phone home.

Many have a problem with the new population. There is overcrowding in the schools, illegal housing problems, and that old common fear of people who are different. There has been "white flight" going on for years now, and I've been asked many times when I'm going to sell and get out. I would be dishonest if I didn't say that I'm not happy with the increase in my property taxes because of the need for more classrooms and services due to the changes. But for now, my family and friends are pretty much still within spittin' distance, this is my home, and I happen to like diversity.

Maybe it is the second or third generation that has conveniently forgotten how their grandparents or great-grandparents wound up here. Or maybe they don't have a story as I do, one that they just can't forget, about the settling in of their ancestors.

My mother's parents came from Sicily. They first lived in Brooklyn where my grandfather, a tailor, worked until they were able to save enough money to buy a house. They found one right here, a block from the spot where I'm writing this, and moved in sometime in the early 1930's. One of the neighbors was not happy about the family with the fig tree, grape arbor and chicken coop in the back yard. The man who lived directly across the street came to my grandfather and offered to buy his house if he would not buy another one close by. He made no apologies when he stated that he did not want Italians in his neighborhood. My grandfather was the gentlest soul I've ever known and I cannot imagine what his response could have been, but my understanding is that he just told the man that he did not want to sell his house.

As my mother told the story, this man also had a daughter who was my Mom’s age, and the little girls played together due to the kindness of his wife. My mother was allowed to play at her friend's house only when the father was not at home, but he would not allow his daughter to play with my Mom’s other friend, a little Jewish girl, at all.

My grandfather was successful and went on to own a tailoring factory nearby. He later bought a bigger house in town, but kept the one around the corner. It stayed in the family, from my grandfather to my uncle and to my cousin who finally sold it just a few years ago. My mother and uncles had wonderful memories of that house and the loving extended family that occupied it. It is where my father courted my mother.

My grandfather never told me about the incident, so I don’t know how he really felt about that discrimination. What I do know about him is that he was a kind and honest man, devoted to his family, and that I was the apple of his eye, "My sweet Leenduce," until he died in 1964.

My mother told the story many times, a first hand lesson for her children to remember, and I am grateful for the impression it made on me.

I often think about the unfortunate ending to the man across the street too. He died of a heart attack one Sunday morning. In church.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Bar Poets

I read my poetry for the first time in a bar. In one of those dive-y bars, which are just about the only ones that allowed our particular trick pony poetry circus to perform.

My debut had been scheduled, a reading with a few others for a small local journal that had published our poems, and the posters announcing this minor event a month hence were up in the local store windows.

The problem was that I'd had terrible stage fright my whole life. I was terrified of any sort of public speaking, and I was sure that I would chicken out. My dear friend Steve would hear none of my “I don’t think I can do its” and set out to help me overcome it. A musician who had performed for almost 40 years, he had a tough time convincing me that I could ever be on a stage unafraid and natural.

He started his crash course on, of all things, the New York City subway system. One afternoon on a very crowded train, he started singing “You Don’t Know Me,” in his beautiful voice, and motioned to me to join in knowing that I knew all the words. I shook my head, mortified, but he kept nodding and smiling until I tentatively began. “From your diaphragm !” he said during a breath, “louder!” The train shot through the tunnel with 40 strap hanging strangers listening as I let my voice get a little stronger, my shaking disguised by my swaying to keep my footing. I didn’t faint, some of our fellow travelers applauded, and he insisted we repeat the entertainment for every ride thereafter.

Then he rehearsed me for weeks reading my scheduled repertoire…”project, slow down, project”… until I was sick of my poems and myself. He was sure I’d be able to fly. I privately thought I’d keep my belly to the ground and plead illness.

The night of the reading arrived. It was in a bar on Somerset St. in North Plainfield, three blocks from my house, where they washed the glasses in the bathroom sink and had "none of that fancy new beer... this is what we got on tap and you'll drink it." Aside from our little group trying to transform a small corner into a coffee house with no coffee, it was full of tired men on a Friday night. Nobody came looking for poetry at the Sky Lounge. They wanted cold beer and the ball game.

While I waited to begin, I was shaking so hard I still thought I'd have to give up. I was convinced that if I managed to get through part of the first poem, the bar patrons would considerately boo me off the wobbly stool that was the stage and I could leave.

Sitting up there gave a different perspective. They were watching the game, shooting pool, and largely ignoring us. Steve was standing in the back of the room directly in my vision after telling me to just read to him and forget about everyone else, but I was too nervous to look anywhere except at the vibrating pages in my hands when I took a gulp and began.

One line into the first poem, I heard the loud "break" of a pool game beginning, the sports commentators droning, and the conversation around the bar. I relaxed a little, thinking that no one was going to listen anyway.

I suppose all the rehearsing and reassurance had taken root without me knowing it. I was muddling through slowly, projecting at my blessedly inattentive audience, when suddenly I realized that the room had gotten quiet. The pool game had stopped and they’d muted the TVs. When I looked up they were looking back. Steve was grinning. When I looked down, I could hear them listening.

They applauded when I finished. A man at the end of the bar called out and asked if I had any more. Afterwards when I walked over for a drink, they reached out to shake my hand with their rough working man's clasps and told me how much they had enjoyed it.

I have a poster from that reading, blue and fading, hanging on the wall next to my desk. It fills me up every time I look at it. My paralyzing old stage fright never came back. My sweet friend is gone, but I see him standing in the back of the room every time I take the stage.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Such a little thing...

(Note: I dusted this old one off, because my sentiments are still the same. Many things in it have changed, but it makes no difference as it still goes out as a giant hug to all my friends who read this)

A client sent me flowers today. He told me that he appreciated all the extra work I did for him, and since it wasn't appropriate to hug me, flowers it was. He reminds me of my uncles, Italian men with expressive faces and hands that illustrate every word they say. The rest of my office would have been uncomfortable had this kindly older man given me a hug. I would have thought it perfectly natural. There were a few times during his frustrating matter, through no fault of his own, that I felt like hugging him too.

I come from a touchy clan. It takes half an hour to greet and appropriately hug and kiss...beginning respectfully with the elderly and working your way down. Nobody claims "personal space" around them either. First of all, there's not enough room given the amount of people who usually show up. Secondly, you can't be that far away for the constant nudging and stroking necessary in conversation. We don't know how to emphasize without physical contact.

I'd like to hug some of my clients. I'd like to hug the people who serve up my coffee every morning. Sometimes I have to restrain myself from hugging my granddaughter as much as I'd like. She's old enough now to squirm away to more interesting things than being squeezed and smooched by me. I did impulsively hug my boss once when he gave me a nice bonus, and I think he was surprised but only mildly embarrassed.

My husband's family was not used to the likes of this. They are far more reserved in a "How do you do," sort of way. A quick peck on the cheek and a little shoulder clasp of a second or two is about it. They are respectful of each others space and talk one at a time. They wait for for someone to stop speaking instead of interrupting....and even notice when somebody interrupts them. Then along comes full-body- hugging-kiss-on-both-cheeks-and-a-little-rub-on-the-back-of-the-neck-yackety-yack - me. The Eye-talian girl who married in.

A number of years later they're all used to me, although I'm still the only dark-haired, dark-eyed chatterer in the bunch. About three years in, my father-in-law told me that he loved it when I came to visit because I always hugged and kissed him....coming and going.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Hello There...

I am one of those people that strangers talk to. People appear and begin conversations with me all the time.

Just now I was on my way to Dunkin Donuts for coffee, a two block walk from my office, and an older woman stopped me to ask if I thought it was going to rain and did I think she should stay in town and have lunch or go on back home.

Its the kind of conversation I get often. Rarely does anyone just want to know what time it is, they want a discussion. And, as in the case today, my calculated judgment. Now the sun is out and I told the lady that if she didn't have an umbrella then maybe she should go home, so I'm sitting here feeling guilty that I spoiled her downtown lunch on a nice afternoon. I'm wondering if she'll have her umbrella if I ever run into her again, and if she'll see fit to smack me with it..."Thanks a lot. Don't you realize I don't know how many nice lunches I could have left at my age!" ...whack, whack.

My friend tells me that I look 'approachable.' Yeah, well, so do hookers. Its a good thing she's a well meaning friend, because she laughs when I say that, but she also admits that she doesn't get accosted nearly as often. When I consider how I think I would look to the casual passerby, I imagine appearing unfocused and preoccupied. I'm not usually thinking about what I'm doing or where I'm going, and frankly congratulate myself when I don't walk right past my destination or forget what I went into the store to get.

I'm amazed anyone would think I'd be the one to strike up a conversation with, but they seem to think I know something. Maybe my far off expression leads them to believe that I'm gathering information from a benevolent spiritual guide instead of trying to get that one damn line in a half written poem or what it was I promised myself I wouldn't forget to do.

Although I seem to be popular with all ages of strangers, I'm the biggest hit with elderly men. Maybe whatever attracts them to me is a vibe that I have a soft spot for them. I love to listen to their stories, respect their wisdom, and always come away having learned something. They always seem disappointed when I have to say goodbye, which is just another thing I can add that to my ever expanding and invisible guilt quota jar. I often feel like offering my phone number so we can continue another time, but then consider their little old wives finding it scrawled in a shaky hand on the back of a prescription bag and demanding to know "who this hussy Linda is." And then I see them trying to explain that I was just a woman they met on the street who looked..friendly.