My first ever reading and visit to New York happens February 20th at the New School. I always wondered how or why I’d first visit NYC—apparently I have to be invited. I’m the Dracula of Poetry; you invite me in, I may never leave. Actually, I haven’t broached taking time off from work for that trip. I may not have a reason to come home.
2. The Endings.
The end of 2019 was the end of many things. My birth mother died in September, just before my birthday. After Thanksgiving, I took a bus trip down to Los Angeles for the funeral of my adoptive aunt, the aunt I grew up loving. By New Years Eve, I took a phone call from my best friend’s mother. My best friend is getting married. Perhaps best friend is not the word he’d use. His mother told me a lot in her 3 hour monologue, ice clinking in a glass reminding me of Elizabeth Taylor in Virginia Woolf, only sweeter, mellower, approachable. She spoke of her son but talked like a woman getting a divorce. At one point she stopped talking and was surprised when she realized I was genuinely listening to her. She wasn’t used to being heard. We both saw him days before, and mourned that it had been years since he’d truly seen either of us.
2A. She did not say the Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners I happily shared at her table over the years was now over. But that’s what I heard.
3. Get This Book
Roger Robinson, whom I shared stage with once, has a new book of poems, A Portable Paradise, which just won the 2020 TS Eliot Prize. A well deserved prize for a truly wonderful book.
4. Black Creativity Matters
Natasha Marin — artist, curator and creative mastermind behind my 2012 trip to India, has an incredible new book published by McSweeneys, Black Imagination. I’m halfway through it—this book is already essential, affirming, beautiful, and lifesaving for the black artist. A gorgeous achievement. Yes you need it, Yes you need to give it as a gift.
5. Featuring Notes
I have already featured twice this year. A new reading in a café in San Francisco on the Haight with a solid group of writers. But after all these years, the room was still primarily male. And older. And white. The other feature was one of two women participating that night. Yeah, weird and Same Old Same Old simultaneously. I’ve seen and participated in many male dominated poetry readings and showcases over the years. I can’t explain that. It’s changing, thankfully, but still curious. As I was reading, I looked up and saw a couple of women having finished dinner, standing at the door waiting for me to finish my poem. I sold a couple of books, but their pause was my payment for the night.
6. Don’t Be A Stranger or Rhyming Skulls
When my aunt died, I travelled by Greyhound to Los Angeles—recreating and retracing the way my aunt used to visit the bay area every summer. I wore a tie, white shirt and had no luggage, carrying only a set of earplugs in my pocket. All my life I’ve heard the phrase, Don’t Be A Stranger never understanding what it meant. Now, I am the stranger. I have no friends remaining in either my adoptive nor biological families. I was welcomed as warmly as the two men who attended because of their fresh 23 & Me test results. They looked in all our faces and compared their own, like checking receipts. One person kept shouting Forehead! Forehead!! And only then did I notice the rhyming skulls and heads. I had questions, yet held them, since being adopted felt like I was there on a day pass. My aunt was the last living relative I felt close to, dementia having erased me in her final years. Yet being there felt important on many levels. I hugged and missed and felt hugged and missed…and trivial. Is it appropriate to say I enjoyed the funeral? My aunt had 83 Great Grandchildren. A toddler I once knew is now in a motorcycle club and tatted from his neck down, and has nearly 7 kids alone. Hugging him I nearly missed he was dressed in full leather. I stood with him while he described my house—looking at me, reading his memory.
7. Featuring Notes, Two
But I never mentioned the second reading, which was for the 10 year anniversary of Lyrics and Dirge, a wonderful series run out of Pegasus bookstore in Berkeley. One of featured poets was a brilliant 15 year old with her first book just out. It took a lot for me to not over-complement and gush over her work. Turns out she’s going to the same high school I once did. It pleased me to hear there is still a school paper, since I expected it to go extinct or at least on line.
8. Travel Anxiety
I came to Los Angeles for the funeral only. I had a poetry reading back home the next night. My cousins dropped me off at the bus station. Ticket agent told me all buses were sold out. I would have to wait for my original 10:30 bus. It was 6:00. Anxiety. A small bus station and dark neighborhood. My Patience expired. Option B was Amtrak, which I’d totally forgotten about and which left sooner.
9. The Train to Paris
I was on time, but the train kept announcing delays. 10 mins. Another 10 mins. A woman wrapped in a blanket paced next to me. She looked like a homeless Mary, her blanket a shawl around her head. She approached.
Is this the train to Paris?
Sure, I said. Why not.
I never heard of Perris, California, near Riverside, and was of no further help. So she wandered off. I wondered what it would be like to take a train to Paris. My train pulled in a few minutes later. It wasn’t easy to find a seat. I followed two young Asian men through one car, then another, and then another.
The men stopped in front of me and turned around. I walked up another couple of rows, then recognized Mary. She sat in her blanket curled against a window. I sat next to her. She emerged from the blanket and looked at me.
How much are tickets?
I paid about 60.
Oh boy. What do they do if you don’t have one?
I guess we’re about to find out.
A beat. Another, then she got up. I took the window seat. It began to rain. I shut my eyes.
Greyhound had 5 stops between L.A. and home (with maybe a half hour pit stop). Amtrak, though faster, not only had more stops, but I forgot about transferring to get through the mountains. So used to commuting between the Bay Area and Sacramento, I forgot, just forgot. That bus transfer nearly killed me. The good news: with no luggage, I boarded first, put in my ear plugs and slept until my back ached. The buses had narrow, hard seats. Small enough that my seat mate, a young Chinese college student, slept resting his back on my arm.
I arrived back in the bay area before sunrise, all but ready to jump screaming from the window of the bus to get out. I called a Lyft and got a brother in a t-shirt on his final ride of the morning. We talked like family; he told me about growing up in Oakland, about his girlfriend and how much his dad likes her. He showed me her picture, though it took a moment for him to scroll and find her. I’ve rarely felt so comfortable with a stranger. He was friendly, open. He was warmer to me than my best friend had been. We were opposites but we looked to be from the same tribe and I liked him. Nothing lasts forever. I tipped him an extra couple of dollars and meant it when I wished him a good night. Then, a new sun rose.