Taxiii . . .
When I returned from Vietnam I held many different jobs for short periods of time. For more years than I can remember I drove a New York City taxicab at nights and had a multitude of memorable experiences doing so.
I once picked up three young people, a woman and two men in the wee hours of the night and drove them down to Soho. They were smoking marijuana and offered me some. I’d like to say I declined and we laughed and joked all the way to their destination. They got out and one of the men poked his head back in through the open window and said, “You have just had Patty Hearst in your cab”. Afterwards I thought the FBI might be tailing me. I’m happy to say that thought didn’t stick around for very long.
One late afternoon five guys jumped in and I drove them to a boarded up building in the middle of the South Bronx. In every direction, as far as I could see, all the buildings appeared to be burned out and unoccupied. I remember thinking it looked like a war zone. The men got out and one of them said, “I’m leaving my jacket here, so you know we’ll be back to pay you in a few minutes.”
I reached back, heaved the jacket through the window and headed back downtown.
There was a period of unconsciousness when I threw safety out the door and caution to the wind. I once screeched to a halt in front of a couple that had stepped out of a midtown hotel. They got in and I pulled away from the curb before their passenger door was fully closed. The man fell back on top of his female companion and from there blurted out an address in the West Village. We were weaving in and out of traffic, just fast enough to catch the lights turning yellow. I shot through a couple of red ones too. I glanced at them through the rear view mirror. Her eyes were staring ahead, tea saucer wide. He was sitting forward, frozen, gripping the back of the front seat. It was all cool. I knew what I was doing. They just didn’t knew I knew. He didn’t tip me.
I had conversations with a number of notable people. Let’s see. There was Aretha Franklin, Walter Cronkite and the Rifleman, Chuck Conners. There were others but as the passing years fade, so do the memories.
Hey woman, run next door and tell Charlie we’d like some hotdogs.
What did you say?
What, I gotta repeat myself? This is the fourth of July. We supposed to have hot dogs.
You must have lost your mind. The shock of them repossessing our clothes, furniture and everything else and throwin’ us out here in the goddamn street this mornin’ must a made you an instant retard. Since you got out, you ain’t had a job in 10 years and they jus took away my unemployment. How we gonna eat hot dogs? We sittin’ out here in street, in the god damn rain. You lucky Charlie felt sorry for your pitiful ass and got you that beer.
Honey, I jus . . .
Don’t honey me. I gotta think bout what we goin’ do now.
Honey I think we . . .
Now you goin’ think? Just drink your beer and shut the fuck up. You want a hot dog, pull it out of your god damn underwear.
bang bang banging
on the door.
“Open up! It’s the police!”
I look down
at the busted jug
and at the dent
in the wall, where the statue
whizzed past my head.
Sure, I could have left
run away years ago
but each time
we took another gamble.
The gambling is over.
I step over him and open the door.
Rachel climbed the stairs.
‘One leg up down and pull up the rest of me. Left . . . right . . . left . . .’
More than a few times she stopped to suck in some thinning air. Rachel looked up through the spiraling steps. She still had a long way to go. She was like that little train that said, ‘I know I can. I know I can.’ Nothing would deter her from the ultimate destination.
At the highest landing Rachel slumped down with her back against the wrought iron baluster. She pulled her knees up, wrapped her arms around her legs, closed her eyes and rested her head forward. She radiated from the inside out, having overcome the ultimate test. She lifted her head, laid it back against the cool grillwork and sighed contentedly.
Rachel opened her eyes and for the first time saw the large sheet of newsprint paper taped to the wall opposite the stairway. The heavy black Magic Marker script was barely legible. She pulled herself up to read it.
You’ve reached the very top. Regrettably, we’ll be closed for the foreseeable future. The bad economy has affected us all and we don’t get enough folks up here these days to make it worth our while.
We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused you.
Have a good day.
I trust spirit will move me in the highest way. I pray to be open and receptive whenever the call comes. I imagine joy pouring through my heart will drench all beings in torrential love. I imagine whosoever crosses my path will depart with every hair, cell and thought soaked in bliss full tranquility. I imagine the scent of love blossoms lingering on every breath. I imagine dreams and reality are one and the same. I imagine each dawn will bring a new blessing. I trust, I pray, I imagine.
open your eyes
you pour forth children
man takes the credit for life
rests in his hands
pain is natural
you were made from ribs
stay in your place
you bear the blossoms
that return to earth
open your mouth shout
ENOUGH IS ENOUGH
Funny they are.
Sounds made by fluttering bits of flesh, received by tiny sculptured bone and interpreted by what I had stepped on in Malaysia. I had just got off the bus and was heading to the ‘warang’ eating stall to grab a quick bite. There was a fellow working on his motorcycle. As I got closer, I saw he was no longer working, but deader than a rock. His head had been blown off.
The bits of sponge under my sandals, I now recognized as what remained of his brain. As I approached the stall, the other victim came into view. A woman. She lay face down on the checkered tablecloth in a pool of maroon. The other patrons were three policemen and several travelers who were either eating or standing around. Turns out that the couple were drug smugglers. I ordered a few things to eat on the bus and left.
Back on the bus heading down to Singapore, I enjoyed the fried egg sandwich and spilled some of the hot coffee.
The driver was playing with our nerves. We careened around turns at chilling speeds and honked incessantly at any vehicle in our path. Asia displayed life and death everywhere. In the open. Here and now. Thoughts and responses regarding your most recent letter swarmed like bees behind these visions of potential calamity.
You say burn the schools and start from the ground up. I say, “Burn Auschwitz and they will build one even more ominous.” You say danger exists in the Study Hall. I say, “Seed the earth with wheat to feed the people but seed their hearts with love to open their eyes.”
I say that at one time the LIGHT beamed from the Mount and from under that tree, before the Mount. Jean D’arc shone bright through the flames. The multitudes flocked to the bright light of saints, sages, miracle workers and the likes. But now, the LIGHT is everywhere to be had and shared. We go forth to wage war on evil, on the rich, for the poor, against pornography, in the courts. I say, “Remove the words. Teach our kids that there are deeper channels of communication.”
I say,…In the Beginning there was silence. And the silence was broken. And sound poured through the crack and filled volumes of pages with notes and laws and gave meaning to the word called life. And this life became an entity onto itself and we human words became drunk with power and lust and God created all life the Book said, and we believed the book was Truth.
And the Book appeared in different parts of the planet. And the leaders claimed their book as the Truth. And the Truth became controversial. And we flocked to the Truth like sheep to the bell. And the leaders said we needed to defend the Truth and we killed our neighbor and rejoiced when they stank on the field of death. And more trees were felled so more Truths could be recorded.
And now Truth takes up much less space on computer drives. And we still kill and rape and maim and live in fear.
I say LOVE IS THE KEY. I say, let’s get past the words.
Words,…funny things, aren’t they?
I love you.
Words. Let’s get past the words.
July 22nd, 1999
Blind; without sight
+ Fold; body of believers
body of believers without sight.
three scrawny brown men
foreheads in the dust
elbows bound tight behind
the ROK officer gives a command
no sound from the three men
a soldier unholsters his 45 and fires into each head
one head takes two bullets
Voices: Those mo’ fuckers are tough man.
No bro, they ain’t so tough. They jus believes in what they doin’.
We get stoned out on the gun. When Brady joins us with his big head, we crack jokes and run for cover.
Run for your lives.
The Space Creep has landed.
Hey brother, take off that head.
We hide behind sandbags to blast the Creep with bullets, grenades and the M72 LAW. He stands in the middle of the gun pit, with his hands pressed to his ears, screaming.
Come on you guys. Cut it out. You’re driving me crazy.
Brady ran around today, babbling at the top of his lungs.
They observed him in Nha Trang for a few weeks, then sent him home, to Philadelphia I think.
drop their bombs
Suzie & the kids
get a letter.
“Sorry you guys.”
In my room
on the bed
green soldiers fight
over cotton hills
through woolen grass
to wrinkled rivers
They bend him in half, bind ankles to wrists and drop him in the 55 gallon drum so only his butt sticks out.
Voice 1: How they keep them little skinny mother fuckers from totally disappearing?
Voice 2: Man, they fill them barrels halfway with rocks.
The ROKS (Republic of Korean Soldiers) beat an early morning tune on that butt sinking fast.
First there’s the bloody butt, then the butt bones, then just the bloody barrel.
We go back inside to get high before our shift back on the gun.
Suspected VC in a row all trussed up like birds for roasting.
The ROKS* (Republic of Korean Soldiers) go about their daily regimen occasionally returning to kick or stomp a bird or two.
After awhile we lose interest and go back inside to get high.
A few days later I notice the birds are no longer there.
Chuck bought another round of beers. He had returned from Afghanistan a few months earlier. We talked about his experiences for a while and then the war talk settled on Vietnam.
He said, “The difference between Vietnam vets and other vets is the Vietnam vet didn’t have a support system or transition period”.
The words landed, settled, and night turned to day.
My mind relived the heroes welcome and then flashed back to respond. I spoke slowly.
“I never thought about that before, but it is so true.”
I remember receiving the letter that August. Report to the Induction Center at White Hall Street in October, 1966.
A shoulder injury might have kept me out of the draft but I want to get away from him, her, New York. I want to return with wounds, hearts, medals and manhood. I want him to know I can kill too.
I stand in line behind the nodding junkie. The doctor stamps his papers and says, “The army will do you good young man”. He stamps my papers and a few weeks later I am on my way.
I remember shoveling coal to heat the barracks at Fort Jackson in South Carolina. Fort Carson, Colorado is where my arm falls asleep under the weight of the M14 rifle. The surgery for a fractured clavicle hasn’t totally healed. I keep it secret.
In Vietnam at An Khe, the 1st Air Calvary climb Hong Kong Mountain and return, sometimes. At Bien Khe, after my first sexual experience, the woman pats my back and tells the other men I’m “number one”, even though I couldn’t get it up. She had said to me, “GI no worry. You beaucoup dinky dow.”
I remember firing the 50 caliber while riding shotgun on ammo convoys from Cam Rahn Bay. I ride shotgun on trips to the dump where kids and women wade and poke through piles of burned poop to find food.
While on guard duty at Bien Khe, I imagine the VC slithering into my bunker. I am hyper-vigilant when cans rattle on the wire in the pitch-black night. I fire the anti tank LAW at two gleaming green eyes halfway up the hill. We never see those eyes again.
I remember screams and explosions and tanks bearing 4th Infantry remains. First Sergeant Connors doesn’t like Blacks, Puerto Ricans, or New Yorkers. Someone throws a grenade in his hooch and blows him up. The CID flies in and asks lots of questions. No one knows anything. His replacement is First Sergeant Rodriguez, a Puerto Rican from the Bronx. He’s always sticking his Bowie knife in someone’s face. So far, we like him.
The ARVN’s (Army of the Republic of Vietnam soldiers) take showers with their underwear on and leave shit on the outhouse seats. We don’t trust them.
We line up outside while they name the men being transferred to the jinxed 6th/84th field artillery unit. One of them, my friend Stan, is involved in some freak accident weeks later and has his legs amputated.
Days before my departure Sergeant Johnson and I sit on a sandbag wall and discuss men we both knew. Jets streak across the afternoon sky. A curtain of napalm blackens the horizon.
I remember walking through the airport hours before leaving. There is a contingent of newly arrived faces, Marines, sitting around waiting for their rides to land. Some of them are buried in comic books. One young man has pressed fatigues and spit shined boots. He is reading a G.I. Joe comic. I feel sad.
I remember dreaming about that last steak dinner the army would give us for a job well done. I remember thinking, ‘How will we act? Will we know how to eat with spoons? Will they forget to give us knives and forks?’
As my dinner date draws near I envision medium rare steak with baked potatoes smothered in sour cream. There is roasted asparagus with garlic and the biscuits fresh from the oven beg to be buttered, honeyed and inhaled before eaten.
The waiters in white jackets balance silver trays laden with food, while refilling our plates and glasses. We joke, clink crystal and make merry as the other patrons stand and praise God for bringing us home in one piece.
I save my salad for last. It’s a colorful treat of crispy green leaves, crunchy diced carrots, pitted Kalamata olives, and sliced ripe tomatoes with bits of aged cheddar mixed in. A passing waiter grinds a light blanket of fresh peppercorns over the top.
In fact, I remember getting on the plane, Pan Am, and stepping off into dark cold drizzle. Fort Lewis. I remember being asked, “Do you want an overcoat?” It’s late October. I say yes. I remember putting on the uniform, signing papers and rushing through the mess hall with my metal plate bearing the weight of steak, mashed potatoes, corn, apple pie and gravy on top. I remember gulping down the milk.
I remember stepping out of the taxi with my duffel bag. There is an early morning quiet in New York City. The housing project appears much smaller than when I left. I straddle the puddle of pee in the elevator, and press 13.
I remember ringing the doorbell and waiting. The peephole opens and closes. The door unlocks and chains are unfastened. The door opens. Ma steps back behind it. I enter and lay down the bag. We look at each other. Uncomfortable. She secures the door and heads back to their room. Come on back and tell me about it. The place seems much smaller. Confining. She gets back in bed, pulls the cover up to her chin and waits.
It’s nothin’ to tell, really. Where’s dad?
He’s down in North Carolina with Enid. They’ll be back on Sunday. Do you want something to eat?
No. I think I’ll change my clothes and take a walk.
OK. But try to be quiet. Your sisters are still sleeping.
I change my clothes in the living room. I hang the uniform in dad’s closet and never wear it again.
I remember riding the F train to Queens and then back to the city.
Women wear tight skirts and high heels. Young people sport jungle fatigues and wear purple hearts and military medals as decorative jewelry.
I remember the deafening noise the train made.
I remember my thoughts being even louder.
I remember. I remember. I remember.
“Hey man. Hey man, where are you?”
“Sorry Chuck. I spaced out. Wow!”
“No worries. I got to go. Good talking with you.”
“Same here. You take care.”
We shake hands and he leaves. I take a swig of beer and sink back into my memories.
on her head
with the frying pan.
I told you
to meet me
at nine o’clock
not nine fifteen.
I had to pay that fuckin’ cabbie
“I’m sorry . . .”
don’t wanna’ listen.
Now get in there
and fix my dinner.
“OHhhhhhh . . .”
He’s 83 today but looks younger in his black suit. I whisper
to him and play with the fingers that respond unnaturally.
His closed lids make me wonder if his eyes are still in there.
For three days he lays in view of 60 empty chairs.
My brother comes by with his wife. I come by with a friend.
Ma sits the whole time expecting a full house. Grandma comes
by for awhile. One sister is sick and stays away, so Ma writes her name in the guest book and adds a ‘Dr.’ for good measure.
The funeral home minister gives a quick eulogy and the book to Ma. They usher us out and wheel him out behind us. The two limousine drivers are anxious to get the show on the road.
I help slide him into the hearse when it sinks in for the first time.
Dad Is Dead
we hold hands, mama and me, climb the steps to Lester Weintraub,
OPTOMETRIST. he tests me with the chart, changes lenses in
the two-eyed machine. blinds me with his pen light gizmo.
says SEE YOU TOMORROW.
we go back the next night, and he adjusts my new glasses. i look
out the window for the first time and see the river, Brooklyn.
my reflection in a glass pane.
HOW DO YOU SEE mama says.
great i say.
GOOD she says.
outside street lights appear above my head for the first time. i see
the girl across the street smiling. i see my room 13 floors up, the light
still on. i see the moon. i see the stars.
WHY ARE YOU CRYING mama says.
you are so beautiful I say.
Come in here boy
Let’s talk like men
When there’s something on your mind
let me know
We’ll discuss it
What we discuss is between you and me
You’re not a man if you can’t keep
You got that? Good
Let’s shake on it.
Come in here
Stand right there
Now tell me what you said last week
about your sister
You stay here
I want you to hear this
Go ahead boy
What did you say?
What’s the matter?
Cat got your tongue?
You don’t remember?
Let me refresh your memory
You told me you hated her!
You remember now?
Don’t stand there like a dummy.
SO THEN I’M THE LIAR
Go down and get me a switch
It better be the right size
Don’t give me those crocodile tears
If you want sympathy get it out of the dictionary
No. It’s too late for sorry.
this used to be a thread spool but i converted it
to a force field activator. i clench it in my fist
and activate it with my eyes closed tight.
a slippery surface surrounds me so pain slides off
and nothing gets in. sounds bounce off my teeth
before they leave my mouth.
he pushes my head into the mattress and whips me
with the switch i dragged up from downstairs.
i play dead. he sees i’m faking and whips harder.
his arm gives out so he unties me from the cots
four corners. i pull my clothes on over the welts.
he stands there.
Look at me when I talk to you
i look up.
he has red eyes and quivering nostrils.
i don’t see his hand knock my jaw sideways.
the activator rolls under the bed. i slide down
against the wall. he bends over me and whispers.
Do you know why you got this beating?
No. Not because you lied
You got it so you’ll know who wears the pants
in this family
Don’t you ever forget how you got here
I got the gun that gave you life and I got
the one that can take it away.