Wednesday, April 29, 2009


The way you pronounced your home town—
boy see—still sticks with me
half a decade later
when my boss stops by my cubicle
to suggest a city—boy zee—for my story.

I don’t correct her; rather
I allow myself a brief reverie
of saying goodbye on the ice runway
on a sun-wracked January Monday,
when someone took a picture of us
"because we looked so sad."

Monday, April 27, 2009

All of the Beer and All of the Cupcakes

Last Friday was my niece Emma’s first birthday. I spent a good portion of it doing one of the favorite Little Rock activities: running errands. But after the party, which was at the park across the street from my parents’ house, where I lived throughout high school, I went to see my friend John Beachboard at his restaurant, Zaza, a salad and wood-oven pizza joint in the Heights, Little Rock’s progressive and old-money enclave.

I first met John at Dunbar Junior High, where we both went but didn’t run in the same crowds. I vaguely knew of him since then, but didn’t hang out with him until college, when I met him again through my best friend and roommate Joe, with whom John’d been in a band in high school. John was overweight then, and his party trick was to flex his glutes and let people to touch his bottom, which, as a result of carrying around his bulk, would be hard as wood when flexed. John could drink copious amounts of beer, and was mostly a gentle giant, but when messed with could fight like grizzly bear.

But it wasn’t until after college, after Fayetteville and Oxford, that I really got to know John, in New York. He and his longtime friend and bandmate David Slade came up to New York around when I did, right after we all graduated from school. I lived in the East Village my first year in the city, and John and David and another guy lived on the northwestern edge of SoHo. Right after they got the apartment, which was a beauty (though small), I was over at their house and we were up on their roof, and John was marveling to me about where he lived.

“All my life I’ve heard about SoHo,” John said, “and now I fucking live here.”

I knew how he felt. Though I hadn’t lusted after New York for much of my life at all—I hadn’t even really thought about it much until my senior year of college, when I was trying to figure out what to do—when I got there I got swept up quick in the romance of it all, a humming city that lived out on the street.

We spent a lot of nights on John’s roof. I came to think of it as John’s roof more than John’s and David’s, since John and I hung out much more. We’d sit out in chairs on the roof and drink beer and smoke cigarettes and look at the Empire State Building, which dominated the northern view. Sometimes we would cook up on the roof, on a little grill John had, and would sit on a piece of cardboard and eat barbecued chicken and get real messy and roll around drunk.

That was a good time. I was working a couple blocks away on Hudson Street and oftentimes I’d come right over after work, in that first late summer, and sit up on the roof with John. After a few beers I’d walk home to the East Village.

Then September 11th happened. While the planes were hitting the Twin Towers, I was in the shower. I walked out onto East 7th Street and turned west, to walk to Hudson Street, when I saw a fleet of emergency vehicles, fire engines, and cop cars scream down First Avenue. I turned south onto First and saw, way down south, smoke way up high. The Towers themselves were obscured by other buildings, but I knew that nothing downtown was that high up, and that it must be the Trade Center. When I got to where I could see the Towers themselves, I saw massive burning holes in both buildings.

I kept walking to work because I didn’t really know what else to do, and my cell phone wouldn’t work, so I wanted to be able to use the landlines at my office, which I figured would be better. So I made my way over southwest, toward SoHo. Near NYU I passed the upper deck running track, which is in full view of the towers, and was shocked to see someone working out, running around the track as if it were just another blue fall Tuesday. I stood at the corner of Thompson and LaGuardia Place and watched as the first tower fell. Everyone in the street was crying, myself included, and some were screaming. Everywhere cars were opened to the street with their radios on, with groups of people gathered around, listening.

After the first tower fell I went on in to work, to see about my co-workers and to use the phones. A few people were there, including my British boss, Martin Dunford, who looked gray-greenish and like he was about to be sick. Martin told us to go home.

So of course I went over to John’s. I didn’t know what else to do, couldn’t imagine being alone at that time, and didn’t know how to get in touch with anyone else. I buzzed the buzzer and John came down, and we went up onto the roof, to see what we could see. While I was in my office, the second tower had fallen, and the southerly view from John’s roof was blocked by other buildings, so there wasn’t much to do but speculate on what had happened and look at the dark plume of smoke that towered toward Brooklyn. We hung out on the roof for a while in the bright sunshine, looking down over the edge of the building onto the street below, when an eighteen-wheeler, like a sparrow blown off course in a tornado, appeared below us, on Charlton Street.

The truck seemed to be stuck, and this caused the nearby cops to freak out and order the driver from the cab at gunpoint, fearing the out-of-place truck to be part of a second wave of attacks, via truck bomb. The driver laid facedown on the pavement and cops swarmed John’s building, guns drawn, telling everyone to get out, which we did, hustling down the stairs and across the street with everyone else, fearful ourselves of a bomb—it seemed like anything could happen that day, as I suppose it did.

We decided we would go over to my apartment in the East Village, because I had a TV where we could see what was happening. We walked over there and got 40-oz. beers along the way. I needed a drink. When we got to my apartment we went inside the cave of a studio room, which I shared with a friend of mine, and turned on the TV. I only had a few channels, on account of no cable service, but we saw that all of the non-news channels had suspended their programming. I remember the Food Network being just being a static screen announcing that programming had been suspended. We clicked to the New York 1 news channel and cracked the beers. But after the first few sips of beer, which normally I never turned down, it began to feel wrong to be drinking, and John agreed. So we decided to leave and go up to Beth Israel to give blood.

But this isn’t about September 11th. It’s more about John, and his leaving New York for Arkansas, and his success now, and my missing him and those days.

More TK (that means "To Be Continued")

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Fight Over Aggregation, and TimesDigest

Today on Slate, Jack Shafer has an interesting story about the online “newspaper” The Huffington Post, and how “the media giants have put the Web's journalistic ‘parasites’—blogs, aggregators, Google—on notice that they will no longer allow them to pinch their copy without reimbursement.” Check out HuffPo here.

What Shafer is talking about is the practice of excerpting news stories and other content, with attribution and a link to the full story. Oftentimes, though—at least in the way The Huffington Post practices it—the excerpted stories can appear, to the untrained eye, like original content. And some are up in arms about this.

Shafer goes on to outline the long and colorful American tradition of stealing stories and rewriting them (I am aware of the irony in what I am doing right now), citing the turn-of-the-century newspaper wars between the New York Journal (led by William Randolph Hearst) and the New York World (ditto Joseph Pulitzer).

Shafer then discusses how print media titans like The New York Times could learn a thing or two from The Huffington Post, and even points to an example in which The New York Times already has an in-house answer for this: the TimesDigest.

Unfamiliar with what the TimesDigest is? Well, I was, too, until I went down to Antarctica for six months to work as a dining attendant (read as: dishwasher) at McMurdo Station. Every day in the galley (dining hall) at McMurdo, there would be copies of the TimesDigest, an eight- or nine-page digest of the top stories, opinion pieces, and more (including the crossword!) from that day’s New York Times. We all read it, and failed, as the week progressed, at doing the crossword.

It was a lovely connection, while marooned down on the Ice, to the outside world and the U.S. It contains the same stories as in The New York Times, just slashed and cut down. For Jack Shafer’s review of the TimesDigest, see here on Slate. Apparently the TimesDigest is mostly distributed to cruise ships, hotels, military bases, and the like, but you can download a sample copy of today’s issue (in PDF format) here.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

I have been thinking about interiority

This all arose or re-arose, bubbled back up, on the C train the other day, when, pulling out from the station, we passed the platform entrance and the station agent booth, which was strung on the inside of the glass with a strand of multicolored Christmas lights. The colors looked supersaturated, like old big good glass-bulb lights, and the interior of the booth looked warm and bright—at least it did as I glimpsed it through the windows.

How lovely to be sitting on a high, cushioned chair in that warm booth, with all the workers streaming past in their rain-flecked black, and to be nodding off, chin on chest and hands folded across stomach. A radio on, a stillness—But a peopled, a warm stillness, a cozy outpost in the middle of the chilly, wet city; Not like the stillness at home, home sick from work, when the daytime TV is bad and sad and it feels like everyone has left. Nor tapping a knife on one’s wrist, Law & Order a sick muddle. The couch.

But this dream of interiority began longer ago. The first time I remember was when in junior high I would ride with my dad in his red Mazda hatchback to school. We took the back way out of the neighborhood—which was a little rough around the edges and from which, within a couple of years, we moved—past the brick square that used to seem so high and that we used to climb on and which, from a valve on its front, sometimes gushed water; past the road that ran down to the low-rent pool and the poisoned pond beyond; then up the hill and a right down the hill, past the Easter Seals on the right.

The way I remember it, it was always cold. The car was small, its metal thin, the seats vinyl, and by that early point in the weekdaily trip the heat hadn’t yet kicked in.

From my place in the passenger seat, I could see across the Easter Seals parking lot and into the building through a portrait window. The room had overstuffed armchairs and sofas, and a TV. It looked very bright and warm, a little tableau vivant. I do not remember ever seeing people inside. (If I had, it might have depressed me, as Easter Seals was an organization that worked with the physically and mentally handicapped.) Before it was an Easter Seals, it was a roller-skating rink, called, I believe, 8 Wheels. But that was when I was way younger. I don’t remember skating at 8 Wheels.

So we would drive on, past Easter Seals and onto Cantrell and then I-430, which connected to I-630 which connected to downtown where my dad worked and I went to school. I imagine rainslick streets, a mist of gray rain, not a thunderstorm because a thunderstorm has its own excitement, when an electrical excitement is small and giddy in the middle of your chest, thrilled, like the leaping electricity at the center of one of those globes on which you put your fingers and the lightning leaps to your fingers.

No: This was a different rain I remember, and the junior high was a sad place on days like that, a damp, brown, hard place of marble, brick, and stone, and the hallways and classrooms felt like the end of something.

All I wanted was to be in that room at Easter Seals, or in my dad's Mazda after the heat'd kicked in, the oldies station on the radio, the smell of my dad's aftershave and the leather or vinyl of the car's seats. Inside, contained within, warm.

Another time I had a dream of interiority. Freshman year of college, and I'd driven in my 1974 sky-blue Volkswagen Bug up to Columbia, Missouri, to visit my girlfriend, who was going to school at Mizzou. It was a long drive up, in the fall I think, through the severe ridges and pines of northern Arkansas and southern Missouri, highways slashed across the land and feeling very on my own, in a thrilled way.

I visited my girlfriend and did not behave as I would have liked. I was jealous and said dumb things about the length of a bathrobe. I met her roommate and friends and was very judgmental and self-righteous.

But pulling into town was something else, on my own, one of the first few times I'd ever done such a thing, and it felt like arriving, coming over the bluff and seeing the city and feeling very separate from everything, seeing a place I'd never seen before on my own.

On the way home it was raining, hard. The highway in a VW Bug in a hard rain is not a place to be. The eighteen-wheelers scream by and buffet the car, and you have to keep a steady grip on the wheel, ready to correct, so you don't get blown off the road.

After a while my car started to stop working. I misremember what exactly happened, but I made it to a auto repair shop on the side of the highway, up on a hill (which seemed like a counterintuitive altitude at which to erect an auto shop). Raining hard and the auto shop was dark inside, though open. It was cold. They could fix my car but it would be a few hours.

I went into the waiting room of the shop, which was dark and empty, save for a few chairs and a TV. It was drowsy warm in the room, and there were no people. I turned on the TV and Mission Impossible, with Tom Cruise, was on. I watched it and I was maybe as happy—"not hating anything, not wanting anything"—as I have ever been, quiet, warm, and safe inside during a rainstorm in a waiting room in an auto shop on the highway home to Arkansas.

Friday, April 10, 2009

On Coffee

All across the city, everybody is making coffee.
In the shops, the bodegas, McDonald’s, diners,
apartment kitchens, depreciated condominiums:
Turning on kitchen lights with a clack or click
and reaching down the filters or French press,
then grinding the beans or uncapping canister,
slinging grounds, swishing sound, into the filter.

Then a scent which is like a presence or person
appears as everyone stands, sleeping, eyes shut
waiting for the coffee to perc. Going back into
half of a dream, dream epilogue, denouement,
the flutish sound of the Vltava River receding
in Smetana’s “Moldau,” night visions receding.
Wrapping things up and the day getting going.

So a person comes into the room, as in winter
when home for Christmas, coming downstairs,
the coffee’s already on and your house is full
and alive. Living alone, one can set the maker
the night before, but the effect is hollowed out.
Still it is some sort of sacrament, the moment
coffee is tasted: One rare undegraded example.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

An Oldie But an Oldie

Austin Poem

And what it all came down to was
faces sheened with sweat and beer cans,
cigarrettes held dangling and hesitant,
eardrums pulsing and heads throbbing
while the waves washed over and into
and through bodies in tight jeans worn
with years and snuff cans, wallets
and token key trinkets given by girlfriends
long gone and friends miles away,
for remembering.

The way light reflected from shoulderblades
and shadows marked cheekbones with hollows
and high points that could be read like Tarot,
the shape of hips and tanning, sandals,
and uncertainty – where go? what do?
Listen: it will explain itself, in time,
if only you shun earplugs and sunglasses,
if you let yourself believe you can be witness
to something big, that something big, even if it’s small,
is still possible, like the fixin’ to die rag,
or a gong and different camera angles:
don’t watch the TV, on the screen up there,
because it’s not real, even if it looks close:
your angle is the best, much better than all the rest,
don’t you know that? And how many times
have I told you I love you? And how many times
won’t you believe me? How many times
will you shake off and turn left, 90 degrees from me,
and fold arms, slipping them, one, after, the other,
under and above each other, until they come to rest,
like a sigh, like a dream, layered and comforting
each other, when I’m left here holding a tired joint
and glasses whose frames you used to like,
flicking a lighter, on, off, flame, no-flame,
with a snick each time, our relationship’s metronome.

Here are sideburns frayed like newsprint,
red hair close-cropped and boyish, but in the style,
flower prints on summer dresses and old shirts
with patterns and holes and bits of paint and white-out,
and eyes drifting like smoke, like empty river rafts,
hunting a place to put in for the night,
find some saltback and a biscuit,
a campfire and a scarred guitar, and later on,
embers and the smell of trees, the haunt of crickets
and nightbirds, coming from everywhere, surrounding
from all points and permeating until the tingle comes
and the first rays of the rising sun break.

Streetlight humming and heightening,
light from the Tower spilling down and shaking,
still nervous after these several decades,
but also, still there.
Talk and blonde hair and eyes furtively met,
the glint of green or hazel and thinking of cats
creeping at night through dark alleyways full
of stumbling and linked arms and silly songs
sung by friends, off-key and maybe not remembered
in the morning – let’s not consider years from now,

No, let’s be now.
Skipping and lions and tigers and oh my
when he kisses you for the first time, unexpectedly,
against redbrick and white cement crumbling,
but wanted oh so badly for so long,
for all your life it seems, ever since you were in the womb,
longing for a twin, doesn’t even have to be identical,
fraternal even, just somebody to be there and hold
your hair back when you’re drunk in the street
and steadying a concrete curb with a shaking wrist,
or when your dad dies and your mom drinks whiskey,
bottles of it, in his honor, as a tribute, she says,
with mascara running and hair graying and you
pulling away, twisting in your head side to side
with arms out, flailing, looking for a doorjamb
to steady yourself under and hide from the falling plaster
and asbestos: your fault’s quite overdue.

And for you, somebody to be there so you can feel,
and not be afraid, somebody to touch your hand
in that way and have it speak encyclopedias and dictionaries,
when two decades of preachers haven’t filled you
with anything but nervousness
and a contingency plan.

Breeze through bushes and light off freshly-washed cars,
seeing the moon big in the sky, like in a movie
set in the Pacific, starring a volcano and sex.
Bicycles and cardboard, skateboards,
held hands and married couples far too young
to be anything but clutching.
Smells of beer, cops, pizza, Chinese food,
take-out in those boxes that you’ve always wanted
to have in a fridge to share with that girl
who’s never yet appeared, but the poster that flutters
across the pavement and smacks flat across the street,
on a telephone pole, just so you can read it,
makes you hope that maybe, maybe.

Neon and argon and pitchers of beer collecting drops
while lungs collect tar and nicotine ebbs and flows,
stilling the seas of turbulent growing up
and giving the flotsam and jetsam a time
to be what they are, and be good for that.
Pool cues and blue chalk and the echoing crack
of the break and the thunk-thunk of a lucky shot,
two stripes solid in the hole, quarters stacked,
chinking, chinking, plans made, broken, made again,
feeling good about having a friend who drives a stick
and drives your car okay, so you don’t have to worry.