When the customs officer at Newark
pulled me aside to ask what I do, I told him
I’m a poet. You write jingles? he replied.
Luckily, I live with a sensible woman who
has a real job at a Silicon Valley company
producing high-tech heat-shrinkable plastics.
She brings me to my first corporate Christmas
party, not-quite bald men clutching drinks
and blond-dyed secretaries sniffing champagne.
Already the big shots are working out whom
to bed when the party runs dry, before they
retreat to their wives raising virtual children.
Unsure of my welcome, I keep to the edges, mind
my business, which is to say take mental notes
for a poem I will write someday on male privilege
until one of the suits notices me standing alone,
approaches with a handshake. Quickly I explain
my ticket of admission and he scans the room
to find the woman I live with. She’s from Brooklyn,
he tells me, as if I didn’t know, which is his own
home town and goes on to relate his rags-to-riches
spiel. He is affable. I take a chance and ask what
he does. He smiles, he winks, enjoying the question,
concedes he’s CEO of this Fortune 500 business.
What about you, he gets around to asking, amused
as if he knows the answer. A poet I admit. His eyes
narrow, measuring carefully. That’s what’s great
about America, he says, invoking his wisdom, you
can be anything you want—an opera singer, an artist,
a poet—as long as you don’t expect to be paid for it.
How I Missed the White House Tour
First trip to DC with street-corner pals,
I know nothing of my destination
except it’s Memorial Day weekend
and someone’s cousin will be Sweet 16.
At the depot we huddle waiting for a guy
with a goatee who has collected three dollars
each, promises to return with pints of rye
purchased with fake ID—I’m 15.
Once aboard, the guy hands me a small book
titled Howl, points his finger to the word fuck
in actual print. I am really impressed. I take
my sips, feel very hip. Off the bus, we party.
America go fuck yourself…. I make friends showing
that line about atom bombs, or maybe by passing
around my booze. I like the buzz, until the girl’s brother
snitches, their Dad grabs my bottle, kicks me out.
I’m stuck in his pink driveway with Allen Ginsberg,
his poems, feeling dizzy. My Dad used to say Treat him
like a man and he’ll act like a man. I try to guess what
a man would do now. I decide to light a cigarette.
Two kids in a convertible show up, the radio jazzed,
I wave. Come, they say. They’re off to National
airport, a joyride to pull slot machines. It takes
a while, I manage to lose only half the $5 I had.
It’s 2 AM, we drive to an unlit mansion in the burbs,
kidney-shaped pool gurgling out back. In we splash,
dunked naked, when out of the night two policemen
leap over the fence, screaming Where’s the knife?
Finding none, they go away. Like magic. Miraculous.
Holy. Karma. I see there’s more to Howl than poetry.
Wandering past the sex shops in North Beach,
I slip into Caffe Trieste where a few bucks
gets you a bitter espresso, a side of salami,
then head over to the Beat Museum, reliquary
of testosterone poets and Dharma Bums.
Nearby sleeps the Condor Club, Sixties mausoleum
where a skinny giggling kid named Carol Doda
unbuttoned a white blouse, 34B bra, sang sad songs
to a herd of four-Martini ad writers glued to their seats.
A broken blossom, sighs the weary Chronicle reporter.
She went on to bigger things, mostly a pair of silicone
implants, blonde wigs and voice lessons that didn’t help
off-key tunes, as if that matters when a topless 48FFF
descends from the ceiling astride a white piano
singing Hello Dolly, wiggles for 20 minutes, and ascends
like the mythic poets, leaving with her musical behind.
Once an overexcited couple, screwing on her piano,
flipped the up button until it hit the roof, the man on top
asphyxiated, the woman obliged to wait beneath him
until the morning shift pried her loose. It was tragic,
says Carol, tearing up. How does she feel about men
hitting on her? She blushes, then admits, I like it.
The scarlet light-bulb nipples no longer sparkle like rubies
on the outdoor marque, the bar stays dark in daytime,
and here I stand again on the threshold of adult mystery
and promise, wondering where the fun has gone and what
I would say if a kind woman stepped out and invited me in.
(Author photo by Jeannette Ferrary)