"It's all right, but no poem."

                                                                    Andrei Codrescu


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,

        somebody cornered

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,

n-reactor construction.


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

        a gallon.

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.


False positives. 

    Midnight specials.

        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

    jealous gods,

        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,

    HIV exams

        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) 



Easy Wins


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."

   in flowers

        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?"

   I knew,

"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,

            collapsed houses

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

        by Oswald

            then Jack Ruby on TV.



Winning's still too easy,

    I claim.                                         from Searchings For Modesto (1993)



Communicable Diseases



                    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

                            not long

                    before the pier burned down.




                    The Roseville Bee documented those neighborhood

                        years: out-of-state travelers,

                            cold-catchings, local

                                beauty contests.

                    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?



                    Childish, naive

                        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--

                            organic missiles--

                        we scooped from paper bags.

                    And I impeach myself

                        still smarting

                            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

                                under interrogation--remedy

                            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--

                golden-robed Gabriel

                    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,

        going home.



        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,

                            then vanish

                        like flame in fresh water.

                    My mother showed me something

                like a kitchen

                    and called it "galley,"

                        something like a toilet

                    and said

                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

                        with warnings:

                "Don't let go of the railing;

                    you might slip into the drink."



                Beyond the jetty, the last buoy,

                    the going getting rougher,

                        horns mourned

                            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

                        only once--

                    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

                beyond borders.



                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