"It's all right, but no poem."
Five lanes for cars
all aimed in the same direction--
maybe as many as eight or nine
on the Santa Monica Freeway.
A piece of black rubber tubing
forced wheels to dip and glide,
counting monotonous numbers.
Asleep at the wheel again
during the nineteen-fifties,
and leveled this landscape
with easy ons and offs--
too easy to last a decade.
Like everything else, five
nuclear powers required proliferation,
low-level waste management,
To Disneyland drivers in Autopia:
"you must be as tall as this sign!"
The Moon Flight's
non-exploding rockets zoomed us
home to smoggy Southern California.
Sputnik discharged the first debris
in space: a dead dog, Laika.
Meanwhile, hyped, we took to speeding--
gasoline wars at nineteen cents
When it came to auto-motion,
coming of age made
all the difference in the world.
Today, still aging, all of us
merge with a vengeance
claiming our piece
of that floating world,
among red-flashing rear-lights.
And, this time, somebody,
shooting the other way,
loses his clutch, and we slam on the brakes
on Easy Street
and lap up the damage
over the concrete wall, knowing
traffic won't move on for hours.
Freedom of movement aplenty.
Skateboarding youths pollute our plaza.
Then, in the nineteen-eighties, radiation
from Chernobyl traveled beyond censors.
Nothing more violent than to worship
slurp up RAMBO at the movies.
The world is smaller, but all that inane
enthusiasm at the World's Fair,
whether in Seattle or Vancouver,
reminds me of the TB skin test
a nurse confused for proof positive
and ordered another x-ray.
Now we have drug tests for employment,
at military installations,
rush-hour freeway murders, depleted uranium,
and in outer space,
even a blasted
piece of paint
might trigger a Star-Wars disaster. from SEARCHINGS FOR MODESTO (1993)
No one else claimed winning was easy,
but something in the air
made me feel that way:
Ike's outstretched arms,
white suit, round smile
all the way to the Cow Palace
from the St. Francis--on TV,
Summer 1956. Black and white placards
from every state
cheered him on.
In September I viewed "Welcome G.O.P."
below the conservatory in Golden Gate Park.
Mrs. Roos, nearly blind,
in her house near the Top
of the Mark, wore a big tri-colored
"J'aime Ike" button, which she gave me.
I called it my "Jay-me-Ike"
after a second cousin, always adding
"That's I Like Ike in French."
I won the capitals bee in the fifth grade.
two of us left standing,
Miss Dryden quizzed:
"What is the capital of the state of Texas?"
and the girl next to me smiled,
"No, I'm sorry. That leaves Alibi Ike
and his buttons. What is the capital
of the state of Texas?"
"Austin," my tongue moved easy.
By the first Tuesday after the first Monday
in November, my bedroom cheered
with every bumper sticker
our local headquarters would offer.
A neighbor, Mr. Blocker,
painted Ike-And-Dick placards
for every kid on the block--
including the ones for Adlai. I stayed up
to watch returns
but turned in early:
Ike won "by a landslide,"
it was said.
Landslides. Other elections
followed. The Dodgers traveled west
from Brooklyn. Disneyland opened.
Sputnik flashed high
over our states. A councilman lost
claiming no landslides
would happen the year sea cliffs
slipped down in the rain,
buried people in their cars,
with winning views. Mr. Blocker's voting
twice for Nixon the next time
didn't stop Kennedy,
who in photographs
saw red missiles in Cuba.
A world was demolished in Texas
then Jack Ruby on TV.
Winning's still too easy,
I claim. from Searchings For Modesto (1993)
Fred Schwartz, the Australian, forewarned us
at the Aragon Ballroom:
"Lenin, Stalin, Krushchev--
with communists, it's one step
backwards, two steps forward." The paneled windows started,
a stiff breeze
wafted dampness off the ocean--a place
for Lawrence Welk's conducting
hotsy-totsy boys, Jim Morrison
and the Doors' drumming
late into the sixties
before the pier burned down.
The Roseville Bee documented those neighborhood
years: out-of-state travelers,
My fellow editor vetoed a cub reporter's column
not long after
I leaked the news: "Mrs. Blocker called your father
a little pink." Given the rife contagions
and our California climate,
was it any wonder
Steve Zweiback's mother started?
operators, we had our own elections for mayor.
After poor results from one ballot,
we debated stuffing the box
in my favor, but didn't.
I dispensed the mumps
the July Patty Parry
was crowned Roseville's first queen.
That fall we armed for war
with the Alma Real gang,
hurling eucalyptus pods--
we scooped from paper bags.
And I impeach myself
from Mike Abzug's tears
the day we gaveled him out of office.
Ignacio fled Cuba in 1960
and told me:
"the boys at my school cheered FIDEL
as he marched down from the mountains."
And of prisoners' tortured screams
for infectious ideas
at a local jail in Camaguey. Nothing remains
except a name: Fulgenio Batista y Zaldivar.
But Krushchev pounded his shoe;
Castro brought live chickens
to his New York hotel and boasted
a few more offensive manners--open wounds,
rifts on all sides, long after.
Not to mention Vietnam, mononucleosis,
a moon landing, wisdom-teeth extraction.
Ignacio gifted me the army boot
he wore in Alaska. Demilitarized, I laced them
whenever snow drifted. But all debates
become naive, childish, too long winded,
typing up generous funds
we might spend elsewhere.
At one writing, the Marines were conveyed
to Grenada, more missiles cruised to England.
Is it any wonder in our illness
I sometimes think we're one step closer
to annihilation? from Searchings For Modesto (1993)
Too Literal Minded
In navy blue trunks
Captain Nass taught swimming as he waded
near the pool side's foot-numbered tiles--
each lesson a little closer
to the deep end.
"Can you still touch bottom?" I asked,
my hands coupled
to his hairy forearms,
my eyes glancing at the blue bottom
already slipping away
from the flutter of his feet.
"Sure thing, kid. Just relax in the water."
Later a fight broke out
between two cocker spaniels
behind locked doors,
and Captain Nass shouted:
"Somebody'd better separate those mutts
before they eat each other up!"
At Tacaloma I won a blue ribbon
for the back fin and flutter--
blowing Apocalypse atop
the new Mormon Temple--
little Santa Monica
rising hilly near the tracks.
We brought sack lunches,
changed our clothes outdoors
in an alleyway behind the pool.
More than once a clever girl
before her dive
peeked over the fence
and gaped to see
our little line of peckers
bobbing in the sun.
In Junior High the girls wore make-up.
Dr. "Fingers Fagan" got paid
for genital inspection--
ahead of locker room assignments,
gym showers together,
damp snapping towels.
"Testiculos habit et bene pendentes," someone
might say in a monks' cloister,
or "non virgo intacta" not referring
to Zodiac signs.
"Coffee stunts your growth. So does smoking.
Idiots masturbated once too often."
Cotillion touched on dancing with the girls.
Sweaty palms coupled--
they called it the swing--to clacking castanets
while bigger boys
squatting in ambush
threw pebbles at us
as we stooped beyond an exit,
Fifteen in Mexico. Foreign experience:
Guadalupe Shrine. I shocked Ofelia
when I denounced her cult
of the Virgin Mary.
Pounding his mitt,
he fastballed into the one I borrowed--
my hands aching red insistence
on missing his pitch.
He wouldn't let me peek
at his mother waking from her nap;
he stood--tall, older by two years,
imposing--the door ajar,
talking to her about dinner.
A dressing room in Bel Air
off Sunset, a Dominican girl singing
"Un Mundo Raro" for the company
outdoors, and he said:
"This little man has a mind of his own."
A handshake, good-bye,
from the back seat--off-white leather.
No more to that encounter.
"Love thy fellow man,
but date women. Vigorous exercise
keeps your mind of sex.
Don't grow your hair long
like the Beatles; people get the wrong idea."
My crise de foi. College physical inspection:
"Bend over. Put your hands on your cheeks."
My palms drifted upward. . . .
"Ha, I caught another,"
the doctor homed them behind me.
His fingers, covered in plastic,
religiously swung in between:
"You're in deep water, kid;
better swim clear of the Navy." from Searchings For Modesto (Talent House Press, 1993)
Invited to Catalina, the Leeward Side
In Newport harbor
the yachts swung in their slips,
their white pendulous bumpers
against floating docks.
I had to put on new sneakers,
onto a jerking gangplank,
hold tight to a rope
on the way up the stairs.
On deck John Kates
threw dry ice in a bucket;
we watched it fizzle,
like flame in fresh water.
My mother showed me something
like a kitchen
and called it "galley,"
something like a toilet
to call it "head."
Loose at the helm, Art Kates
putting on his cap,
made the leap to Captain:
"No Nonsense" burning in his eyes.
My father swung an orange life jacket
over my shoulders,
strapped and muzzled me
"Don't let go of the railing;
you might slip into the drink."
Beyond the jetty, the last buoy,
the going getting rougher,
grey fog and its drizzle.
We pitched and dove, pitched
and dove. I sat astern,
watched the shoulders of our wake.
A gull found humor in our constant swing.
Following the forecast,
a brown hill appeared, a white mast
opened on flat, dazzling water.
While the anchor dropped
into Cherry Cove,
John lowered the dinghy,
rowed it past the isthmus
to a beach
with kelp and loose pebbles--
purple anemones closing tight
at our touch.
I never got to taste
the windward side of Catalina.
A promised hike was bumped
from the schedule,
though each year
we returned for a weekend
in spring or in summer,
those hills touching green
a year of freak storms.
My parents went to Baja
but didn't get ashore much
(Patsy liked trawling);
they flew home in a frazzle
with long stories
of beaches and blue-footed birds.
The first afternoon, a lone man
from a shack
spotted us, dove for abalone
in the clear, shallow water.
He cut them loose from their rocks
and turning them over
sold them to us for dinner.
We pounded the white meat
at sunset, watched it sizzle
in a frying pan,
felt the smooth surface
inside lucent shells.
Sunday morning Patsy woke us:
"Time to go swimming!"
When I puzzled, "How's the water?"
she called it, "warm as toast."
Leaping in, my stiff legs
were soon burnt from the chill.
Years later my parents
chose a flight to Seattle
let go of their weekend
to the island.
They never got invited
back again. from Searchings for Modesto (Talent House Press, 1993)
Another Palm Beach Story
Of all the guests my parents invited over--
for an evening
or a week's migration--
Younger and Sara Stayton
of Palm Beach, Florida
took the cake for raising hackles.
Sara really should be listed.
She had a talent for screaming.
As my father would say, her voice traveled
Sara's loud topic
of conversation with me
was their Jimmy.
She showed me his picture
(palms split the background).
"We heard about your trip to Mexico . . .
well, our Jimmy . . . ."
or "Look at Martha's braces; they're
just like our Jimmy's."
Lord how our fledgling hatred
flocked that poor kid.
Younger's mild manner
almost compensated. He cooed
in country-club greens, yachts moored
in harbors, tropical birds and flowers:
"What can I do for you, children?"
At night we made known
our desires. . . .
"Younger, you can't take those kids to Disneyland!"
Sara screeched on for hours.
Next morning we drove off
thanks to Younger's quiet persistence.
His day away from Sara
was hardly a picnic. He groaned
when we broke out a song, crowing
"One hundred bottles of beer
on the wall, one hundred bottles of . . . ."
You know the rest:
Heat. Smog. Adult Exhaustion. Our songs
didn't vary much the whole way home.
Though I never met him
Jimmy slept in my bed once.
Now here's a hot story:
summer vacation, our whole family away on a trip;
uninvited, the Staytons arrive,
Sara flies into a rage at our absence,
dislodges Yo from the nest,
she fidgets, fusses a whole week, then,
tired of staging,
heads home in a huff. We return,
get the picture: my room's a mess
of used towels and sheets.
Here I should end, but just can't refrain:
when Susan and I bonded,
a package was delivered with Sara's note
nestled in white foam:
"I hope you appreciate what I'm sending:
two silver decanter labels
(one for Port, one for Sherry). I'll have you know:
They're hand-carved !"--
only she would underline it.
On our coast
no one has sighted her since. from Searchings for Modesto