Rhymes. A Love Story
The old lamppost
I wondered how old that lamppost might be -
it looked like it would have been used to light the streets of Victorian London.
It was the only light there was,
giving the alley a certain air of spookiness.
The clock had just struck midnight -
I was wrapped up in a blanket observing
some stray cats who strolled over the cobblestones as if they owned the neighborhood.
Maybe they did.
I could hear the high heels first.
Finally a shadow approached the pool of old lamppost light.
She was tall and quite beautiful,
wearing some fur-like black jacket over a red dress, and a curiously shaped hat.
She carried two black plastic bags.
What would she have in them?
My eyes followed her to the next corner.
Then she was gone.
How old was that goddamn lamppost?
Daniel rolls up his sleeping bag. It’s six-thirty in the morning. It’s late September, and the nights are starting to get cold. Another month or so, and people will die again from sleeping outside. Like every winter. As if being homeless wasn’t hard enough anyway, up north the freezing temperatures make it a question of everyday survival during at least five months of the year.
Daniel stuffs his sleeping bag in the sack he usually hides behind the park’s caretaker’s shed during the day. The caretaker was a good man. He’d even keep an eye on the things some of the homeless left. He was in his sixties and rather quiet, but his eyes were of compassion and sympathy.
He was already there when Daniel shoved the sack underneath the planks. They nodded at each other, and Daniel went his way. They never talked. They had an understanding.
Daniel went to the Catholic Saving Hand House for tea and bread. He would talk to some of the homeless there, maybe to one of the brothers, and maybe he would watch some TV. At eight-thirty he would start his thirty minute walk to Carlston Street. The public library there opened at nine.
The radio is playing “Surfin’ Safari” by the Beach Boys. The sun sends its first rays of light into a small, but neat kitchen of a second-floor Brooklyn apartment. There is a lot of old wood; the walls and the refrigerator are adorned by photographs, newspaper clips, memos, and magnets of cute little cats.
Sharon is cutting a banana in her cereal bowl, still wearing her thick cotton blue and green pajamas. She started wearing them again a week ago.
Last month Sharon didn’t work. She organized all her stuff in the apartment, made a few trips upstate, saw family in New Jersey, and spent time with her two cats. She also saw a few movies.
Five weeks ago she was still one of dozens of employees at the closest Border’s branch. She had started to work for Border’s three years ago after literature studies at Harvard. She loved books. But the anonymity and commercial interests of Border’s had compromised her joy of working with them right from the start.
Finally, this summer, she started looking for other options. In July, the Brooklyn library offered her a post at the Carlston Street branch. She took it. Today would be her first day at work.
The same year Sharon had enrolled at Harvard, Daniel had enrolled at NYU. He wanted to study psychology. He was very motivated when he first went there. He left after two years in order to travel the States.
Relations with his family had been bad before. When he left school to hitchhike around the country they basically ceased to exist. His conservative, well-to-do, upper middle class parents couldn’t understand their first-born son’s apparent rejection of reveling in the options they had created for him. Daniel was ashamed of his wealthy background, and creating himself as a vagrant demanded a complete rejection of the social surroundings he had grown up in.
He started heading west, living off his modest savings by trying to hardly touch them. He quickly learned the game of his newly adopted trade, slept in parks or abandoned buildings, dived dumpsters and queued up at soup kitchens, got clothes at Free Stores, and learned how to ride freight trains in good old hobo-fashion.
His company became very diverse. He’d spend time with pretty much anyone who offered him a free place to stay, and he didn’t care whether that meant punks in urban squats, new agers in rural communes, Christian brothers in homeless shelters, or the ordinary family with a good heart. He helped with work where he could, and was happy with food in exchange.
He made his way through over thirty states in three years. Then he ended up on the East Coast again and didn’t want to leave anymore. The traveling had made him tired. Both, mentally and physically. Also, all the savings were gone.
This was a new situation. Up to that point, Daniel had never considered himself a homeless person. He was a tramp, walking in Woody Guthrie’s footsteps, freely and happily choosing the path of the dispossessed righteous man defying the evils of Babylon’s spiritually empty consumerism. As long as he had had money, he knew there were other options. He just didn’t take them. He had made his moral decisions.
But now he was in Brooklyn with no energy, no illusions, and no money. The times of the unbound rover were over. He had three options: remorsefully crawling back to his family, begging for funds; selling out to Babylon by searching for a job; or becoming a bum. He became a bum.
When Sharon was nine years old her parents took her and her two sisters on a trip to Florida. Disney World. She loved it.
Both of Sharon’s parents were teachers in Upstate New York. Her dad taught science, her mom English. They liked the arts and always voted Democrats. Her older sister, Judith, was a good swimmer, and Sarah, the youngest, the entire family’s sweetheart. Sharon always liked to think she grew up in a perfect, caring environment.
When Sharon was sixteen she had her first serious boyfriend. One evening her mother gave her a box of condoms and made sure she’d know how to use them right. Sharon still didn’t have much fun losing her virginity, but it was that kind of a family.
While Judith graduated from college with straight A’s, got married to a lawyer and thought of going to Medical School, and while Sarah struggled with eating disorders, everyone supported Sharon’s decision to pursue studies in literature. Her parents were avid readers. They particularly liked the New England Transcendentalists, Lewis Carroll, and Doris Lessing.
Everyone equally applauded her decision to go work at Border’s four years later. Meanwhile, Judith had been divorced, and Sarah had left school to live with the singer of an aspiring Heavy Metal band in North Hollywood.
From the Doorsteps of a Launderette
They are playing “American Pie“.
Why is it that some songs provide so much comfort?
Every time you hear them.
I’m not in the bar. I’ve got no money to buy drinks.
I don’t want to ask no one to buy me any either.
I don’t really like to drink anyway.
I sit across the road in a shop entrance
and listen to the music from the old jukebox.
Mostly nostalgic songs chosen by men in their forties getting drunk,
because they had a fight with their wife,
or because their wife doesn’t even bother fighting anymore.
I hardly ever see women walk in and out.
If they do, they usually walk in by themselves
and come out with one of the drunks.
They stagger away in search of a dark corner,
or - if they are lucky - a bed,
in a vain attempt to beat their lives’ misery,
with me watching from the doorsteps of a launderette.
It’s the saddest scene.
But I’ve long ago stopped feeling anything about it.
What that says about me, I don’t know.
Maybe it’s better that way.
It wasn’t all that easy for Daniel to turn into a city-tramp, as he liked to refer to himself now trying to give his existence some sort of rebellious credibility. Such euphemisms didn’t make that very existence much easier, though. Street life could be tough, and instead of leaving problems behind by hopping a train or sticking out his thumb, he actually had to deal with them – fight for his territory, earn respect, move up in the hierarchy. Leave alone learning the basic local surviving techniques.
But, he managed and his life reached a surprising level of routine and stability. He had a secure sleeping spot, regular places to get food and clothes, and reliable shelters to find some warmth in winter. For fruit he would load and unload trucks at the market, and for change he began carrying shopping bags and cleaning windshields on the parking lots of huge malls. He kept on having a hard time just begging for money.
Then, one day at one of the shelters he saw a guy doing s small drawing of a New York street scene with a black fine-liner. The guy told him he would photocopy his drawings and sell them to people for fifty cents, mostly getting a dollar anyway.
That same evening Daniel wrote his first poem in a long time and went to the copy shop the guy had told him about where the owner was sympathetic to the homeless’ struggle for cash and let them make free copies. Daniel made fifty that night.
Two days later they were all gone. Daniel had found a thing to do. He had always liked to write, and in the beginning he burst over with inspiration and creativity. He wrote a new poem almost every day.
He could make up to $30 on a really good day. On some cold nights he got himself a hotel room and he started to insist on paying at least a symbolic amount for his photocopies.
He also started to select certain poems to send to papers with a poetry page, and even to literary magazines. Some of them got printed. Not enough to make any real money, but enough to make his pen (and street) name known: Day.
In Streetcorner, the local homeless paper, he soon got his own column, a new poem every issue.
The little money eased his life but wasn’t enough to take him off the streets. However, this wasn’t necessarily what he wanted anyway. People around town started to talk about the talented homeless poet. And even though he didn’t admit it to himself, he liked it. Not only did he feel flattered, but it also allowed him to think of himself as a modern-day urban Villon or something. As tough as his life remained, now there was something cool and romantic about it. He was a street poet. What cold be cooler and more romantic?
Plus, he wasn’t naive. He knew that there was nothing that special about his poetry, and that if he left the streets he’d just be another of hundreds of young poets and soon no one would give a rat’s ass about his words. Plus, when it got really cold, he could afford those rooms. In short, Daniel, a.k.a. the poet Day, was content with his life. For a while.
Day – Poems from the Street
He sleeps on park benches, eats leftovers from bakeries, warms up in public libraries and malls, and wears clothes thrown away by you and me. But unlike the thousands of homeless people we pass and ignore every day, he hasn’t remained face- or nameless. Day (so his pen name – he wouldn’t reveal his Christian name to us) has become known as a poet in our community, and even beyond.
Recently, the Barker Magazine printed “Rain“, one of his poems on life on the streets of Brooklyn. Before that, some of Day’s poems could be found in literary magazines like Letters, or The New England Literary Review. He has his regular column in Streetcorner, one of the biggest homeless papers in the country, and various respected publishers have shown interest in editing a collection.
But Day feels there is no rush: “Yes, people have asked me to get a collection together for a book. They have even promised good money. But, first of all, I write when I like, and I won’t let myself be pressured into writing faster than I naturally do. Secondly, a lot of my poems have to do with life on the street, and it’s the authenticity of my poetry that attracts many people. How credible will I be if I get a fat advance check on a book deal?“
So far, Day hasn’t made much money off his poetry. Poetry just doesn’t sell well. In this field, fame is easier to come by than fortune. Day doesn’t seem to care too much about either: “Fame or fortune come and go. If it falls into your hands, fine, use it. But if it gets into your head and you try to hold on to it, it will destroy you. The little money I get for my poems is always gone in two days. I get a hotel room to be warm at night, or spend it on food for myself and others. I like to get rid of it as quickly as possible. Like I said, if you try to hold on to it, it will destroy you. And as far as fame is concerned – f... that. Being admired or hated by people you don’t even know and who don’t even know you? What kind of bullsh.. is that?“
Day doesn’t want to talk much about how he became homeless. “Those things just happen,“ he says. Equally vague are his responses to how long he has been homeless for (“a while“), and his age (“what does it matter?“).
Other homeless people who sleep and panhandle in the Albert Square area say he has been around for at least a few months, and is “a rather young kid“, “maybe 22, 23“.
Before we leave, we ask Day for his latest poem. He pulls a torn sheet of paper from his back pocket and reads a poem about the desire to kill and how scary such a desire is. He asks our opinion. When we tell him that we like it a lot, he seems pleased. He then leaves to write it down properly and make photocopies. He thinks the poem is good enough to sell. He needs some money.
If you are around Albert Square these days, look out for the man in green army pants, a black jacket and curly brown hair, handing out sheets of paper. He might still have a copy of “Yesterday when I got up (I wanted to shoot my teacher)“.
(The Brooklyn Telegraph, Sunday, 01/18/94)
In her sophomore year Sharon joined Students Against Animal Testing and Exploitation. She had been a vegetarian since she was sixteen. Now she wore funny rabbit costumes at rallies against sport hunting or held up oversized photos of monkeys with wires through their eyes and ears, shouting: “You hurt the voiceless, you hurt me!”
Her awareness and activism weren’t reduced to animal rights, though. Other occasions saw her disguised as a tree helping to hold a huge banner proclaiming “No Survival without Respect for the Ecosystem!”; wearing a “Racism Sucks” shirt demanding a new trial for Mumia Abu-Jamal; playing street theater in front of shopping malls to raise the customers’ awareness of world poverty; driving hundreds of miles to party conventions while listening to Joan Baez and Tracy Chapman to then wear the “B” in a T-shirt line of “No Power but People Power”.
When she was 20 she joined her first Non-Violent Direct Action Workshop and learned about the history of civil disobedience, the philosophy of non-violence, the American people’s rights to protest, and, on the practical side, how to form human chains, execute sit-ins, install banners in hard-to-reach places, climb trees, react to tear-gas and hold militant protesters at bay. She then joined another radical student group, Students for Justice and Equality.
Sharon didn’t believe in violence as a means to bring about social change. In her eyes it made a protest movement lose its moral credibility. The circle of violence had to stop. “An eye for an eye leaves everybody blind.”
After college, Sharon didn’t join protests that regularly anymore, but she still had her subscriptions to the Earth First! Journal (for the activist info) and Mother Jones (for the discourse), and she still tried to make the active contributions her work schedule allowed for: she signed the petitions and attended and raised a voice at meetings of grassroots community groups. Her focus had shifted a little from animal rights and environmentalism to the issues of homelessness and sustainable communities. She got involved in the local Food Not Bombs chapter, worked six hours a week at a local co-op, and joined a reading group on non-profit economy.
It was in the context of all this that the blatant corporate interests of Border’s had always been a thorn in her side. She was committed to her work and liked it in a lot of ways, but there remained constant contradictions. An eventual change had been inevitable. She was looking forward to her first day at the library.
Group of Student Protesters Occupies University Building
On March 17th, the Harvard science students who had got up early to attend morning classes found themselves locked out of their classrooms. A group of radical environmentalists had forced their way into the T.H. Holden Science Hall overnight and barricaded all entrances from the inside.
Sharon Kirst, a spokesperson for the group informed the university administration about the building’s occupation at 7 am, declaring that it was only symbolic and that the doors would reopen at 10 am. She also declared that the building was occupied by a group called “Students for Justice and Equality“ to raise people’s awareness of the relations of the university’s scientific research to the genetic manipulation of food crops by the agro-industrial complex, government programs labeled by the group as “the medical control of the free-spirited individual“, and the corporate interests of the nation’s timber industry.
“The links between what’s happening right here in this building and the devastating effects of genetically manipulated food crops, medication abuse, and corporate logging are obvious and undeniable,“ Kirst stated. “As students at Harvard we can’t just go to school here and do nothing about this. We have a responsibility for both local and global communities, and the least we can do is try to raise people’s awareness of what is actually going on here.“
Asked if illegal occupations of buildings hindering hundreds of students to go to class were appropriate means for political activism, she said, “if that’s what it takes to make people aware of our university’s involvement in the destruction of our planet and our communities, I think they are.“
Some of the students waiting outside the T.H. Holden building disagreed. “I pay tuition here, I get up at 7 am to ride my bike to school, and now I’m locked out of my classroom because some immature wanna-be revolutionaries don’t find democratic means to bring their messages across – I just don’t think that’s fair,“ John Smith, a junior from Raleigh, North Carolina, said.
Professor Randall Coaster, a biologist at Harvard, who, due to the occupation, could not hold his morning class on biochemistry, expressed understanding for the protesters‘ concerns, but also disapproved of their means: “The practical impact of our research here is of course of concern for everyone involved. Discussions about our relations to government and corporate interests are important, and the ethical dimensions of our work have to be considered, no doubt. But, there are open forums to do that, and I don’t see how such actions can possibly help. If anything, these activists are turning people against them, and their agenda will lose out. Maybe they should rather focus on bringing their issues forward in the classroom.“
Harvard University administrators were not available for comment.
When the seven student activists left the building five minutes past ten under cheers from supporters and boos from locked-out and angered students, they were arrested by the police and taken in for further questioning.
If pursued by the university, they might face a variety of charges, ranging from trespassing and disorderly conduct to break-and-enter.
Whether the locked-out students will have their classes rescheduled remains to be decided by the administration.
(The Boston Herald, 03/20/91)
I don’t think I can necessarily change the world. But there can’t be anything wrong with trying, can there? And, honestly speaking, I do hope that I can make a difference, even just with little things. Say, recycling, riding your bicycle, no discrimination against whoever in your personal environment. Things like that. Little things maybe. But that’s how bigger things get started, right? You reach out, you connect with people, there is a movement, and things change. It doesn’t necessarily mean there will be a revolution – even though I’d like that, of course -, but even if there won’t be, the movement might still achieve something. The protests in the sixties didn’t stop all this capitalist progress and destruction, but they helped to stop that senseless war in Indochina and brought more liberalism to our society. I really believe that. With all the selling out and all the backlashes we have seen. And me now – or we – we are just trying to play our historical part, if you will. Work for what we think would be a better, happier, fairer world. That’s what it all comes down to in the end. Work for what you think is right. If you win, fantastic. If you lose – well, you’ve still done the right thing, I guess.
(Interview for ABC, at the NO NUKES concert in New York City, 07/16/90)
Daniel wrote poetry for exactly seven months and three days. Then he stopped. Completely. Day was history.
When people asked him where his new poems were, he would just tell them that he had stopped writing poetry. When they asked why, he would just shrug his shoulders and said he didn’t feel like it anymore.
He slept in the park again every night and went back to loading and unloading boxes of fruit and carrying shopping bags and windshield-cleaning.
Acquaintances, the people from Streetcorner, and a few local reporters showed some curiosity in his disappearance for about three months. Then no one gave a damn anymore.
See, the problem is that I’ve become a total cliché. “Oh, check out the homeless poet, check out the homeless poet!“ How fucking pathetic is that? Ain’t nothing romantic about being homeless, even if you write like Shelley or Rimbaud, know what I’m sayin‘? I mean, it’s not all that horrible either. There are people who could get off the streets if they wanted to. But something keeps them out here. In a way they chose this kind of life. But not ‘cause it’s romantic. Come on! What can be romantic about freezing your ass off in winter, checking dumpsters for food, or having people call you a “useless bum“ every day? No, it’s all sorts of different personal reasons that keep some out here. Dreams, and illusions, and fears, and sentimentality. And, for some, the lack of more attractive alternatives. Like, their lives as bums suck, but their lives as 9-to-5 slaves would suck even more. Whatever. Bums are no less diverse than any other people. In fact, I think bums might be much more different from each other than, I don’t know, bankers maybe. They all strike me as the fucking same. At least bums have individuality. Or something like that. But, see, the problem is, if I tell you this now, you’ll say tomorrow that I said bums are bums ‘cause they wanna be bums. Now, first of all, that’s not true, ‘cause most of the ones I know sure don’t wanna be bums. And even the ones I was talking about before, the ones who stay on the streets ‘cause they have made them their choice – even they don’t wanna be just bums, know what I’m sayin‘? It’s more complex than that. More complex than a cliché, you understand? But you can’t just turn it all around either and start saying that they are all victims of society, or of circumstance. That’s just another cliché. What’s up with this victimization? Why does it matter why they are where they are? Most don’t wanna be bums, and they would like to see their lives change, and that’s all that matters. Period. But maybe that’s exactly the problem: that it’s not possible to think outside of clichés anymore. Anything has become stereotype and image. The scariest aspect of a totalitarian consumer society: instead of processes of perception and thought a set of clichés to choose from. And I’m caught up in it. “Homeless poet.“ What a joke! Poetry up my ass.
(Interview for Williamsburg Community Radio, 04/02/95)
Despite the cold, Sharon rode her bike to the library. She got there fifteen minutes to nine, greeted her new colleagues, turned the computers on, and took her spot at the Reception and Information desk. She had spent a few mornings and afternoons in the library over the previous two weeks to get a feel for the daily routine. She was dedicated to do the jobs she had chosen for herself well. She had always been like that.
She felt good about her new work. She was excited. It was nine o’clock.
Daniel entered five minutes past nine. He glanced at the new woman at reception and went straight to the dailies. He read the New York Times for about an hour and a half, then looked through older Sports Illustrated issues. At around half past twelve he left for a soup kitchen close by and was back forty-five minutes later, reading short stories by Scott F. Fitzgerald and poems by Paul Verlaine. He left at four-thirty, half an hour before the library closed. He smiled at Sharon when walking out.
Sharon had had a good day. She felt good about most of her colleagues, had enjoyed finding books for customers and advising them to read her favorites, and was complimented by the branch-director at the end of the day.
Cycling home, she was happy. She stopped at her favorite coffee shop for a latte and a honey-bran muffin. Later she watched Friends and Seinfeld while stroking her purring cats.
Daniel went to the park at around eight-thirty. He shared some wine with some people he knew from the Saving Hand House and crawled into his sleeping bag two hours later.
The rest of the week didn’t bring many changes. Sharon enjoyed her work and took only half an hour for lunch, even though she was entitled to a full hour break.
Daniel was there early and left late. He smiled at Sharon every time he passed.
Love is a bitch sometimes
As much as they had connected on the surface,
they remained apart in the depths of their souls.
Which didn’t mean they did not love each other.
They did madly.
But what does love have to do with anything?
She knew about the distance, and wanted to build bridges.
He knew about it, and thought that was just the way the world was.
She thought life was full of difficulties and challenges.
He thought life sucked.
Whenever it touched serious existential questions,
their communication collapsed.
It was sad to see.
The agony of love always is.
And yet, what could be done?
Destiny taking its heartbreaking course.
Their love seemed doomed.
Love is a bitch sometimes.
On Saturday, Sharon did laundry, went shopping, and cleaned the apartment.
On Sunday, she spent the day with three of her girlfriends. They asked her about work. She said everything was fine. They asked her about boyfriends. She said there was not much to tell.
It had been four months earlier that Sharon broke up with Richard, a boyfriend of one and a half years. Somehow, their relationship had become a bit stagnant, to the point it seemed more like a burden in Sharon’s life than anything. They talked it over in a very mature manner and decided to remain friends. For some reason that hadn’t worked out, though. Last time she had heard of Richard was two months ago when he asked her to go see “A Rocky Horror Picture Show” at an outdoor cinema. She had politely declined the invitation due to fatigue and a headache.
Richard had been the last in a handful of handsome, well educated, socially aware boyfriends since Sharon’s junior year in high school. They all lasted between eight and eighteen months. As a matter of fact, Richard had set a new record.
The four young women finished the day off by watching “You’ve got Mail” and having a cherry-vanilla milkshake.
On Monday, Sharon asked Laura, one of her colleagues, as casually as possible, about the guy with the curly hair, the green army pants and the black jacket who came every morning to read the New York Times and wouldn’t leave till shortly before closing. Would he come every day?
“Pretty much,” Laura said. A little later she added, “Do you know Streetcorner, that homeless paper?”
“Of course,” Sharon replied, struggling to conceal the offense she took in such questions. She had bought the paper regularly since it had first come out three years ago.
“Do you remember this poet guy, Day, who had his own column for a while?”
Sharon did indeed. She had always had a special respect for poetic efforts, and had kinda liked the guy’s contributions.
“Well, that’s him,” Laura explained. “His real name is ... oh, I forgot. David or something. He seems nice but doesn't talk much.”
“So, he’s homeless? I mean, still?”
“I don’t know,” Laura answered, shrugged her shoulders and left, throwing a last “Go, ask him!” at Sharon.
Sharon didn’t ask. But she smiled a bit longer when Daniel left that day.
On Wednesday, Sharon discussed the value of Stephen King books with a regular library customer in his fifties. He was a big fan and couldn’t understand how someone could praise the likes of Thomas Pynchon. Who would really enjoy reading such stuff? Sharon admitted that she had liked the stories in King’s “Four Seasons”, particularly the one about the kid and the old Nazi.
It was about one o’clock. The gentleman left just as Daniel entered. He was back from the soup kitchen. Sharon smiled. Daniel walked straight up to the desk. “I was looking for these books this morning. According to the catalog they should be in, but I couldn’t find them on the shelves. So, I don’t know, but maybe you could try to locate them if you have the time. I mean, I’m in no hurry or nothing.” He pushed a piece of paper over the desk. Sharon glanced at it. Thomas Bernhard, “Woodcutting”, John Keats, “Collected Poems”, Norman Cohn, “The Pursuit of the Millennium”. “I’ll try my best. I might have them by tomorrow morning.”
“Thanks, that’s very nice,” Daniel said, before heading off to the Geography and Travel section.
Sharon stayed an extra half hour that evening to find the books. The Cohn had been returned two days earlier but not re-shelved yet, and the Bernhard was in the Hobby and Home Improvement section. The Keats she couldn’t find. At least a thief with taste, she thought. She imagined some kid stealing it for his girlfriend, and wished any of her boyfriends would have ever done anything just vaguely as romantic.
On Thursday, Sharon was looking out for Daniel in the morning. He didn’t arrive within the first fifteen minutes after opening. The first time since she worked at the place. For a moment she felt something akin to disappointment, but decided that such a thing was impossible and focused on other things.
Shortly before noon Daniel came walking in. “Hi, were you able to have a look for those books yet?“
“Yes,“ Sharon said, “I found two. The Keats seems gone.“ She dared adding: “I hope some rare romantic soul nicked it for his girlfriend.“
Daniel laughed. “He sure broke her heart if he did.“
They both laughed.
“Thanks for the books.“ Daniel took them and went over to his regular spot next to the window overlooking the garden.
When he left at four-forty-five and passed the reception desk, he said: “Okay, see you tomorrow.“ He even waved good-bye.
On her way home that evening, Sharon stopped at her favorite coffee-shop. She ordered a latte and a honey-bran muffin.
Poetry in Motion
He’s out there every night.
Turning, dribbling, shooting hoops.
Every night. Often till the morning hours.
Turning, dribbling, shooting. All by himself.
In the evening, he’d play pick-up games. On the same court.
His hands would be dirty and his knees bloody.
His team would mostly win. He can’t stand losing.
But he hardly ever gets upset. Only angry at himself.
Whoever says basketball is a team sport might understand the game,
but not the player.
He is quiet during the games.
He demands the ball, takes it down the court, passes.
If he doesn’t have the teammates to convert, he shoots long jumpers.
Some evenings he wins game after game.
I’ve seen him play three hours straight, or more.
When others talk trash, he talks to his teammates.
When others argue a call, he walks to the sideline.
When his opponents celebrate a hoop, he grabs the ball.
When his teammates do, he gets ready to play defense.
At the end of the game he shakes hands, win or loss.
His expression never changes. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him smile.
I talked to him once. He was polite. In a very formal way.
Others around the court say he lives down in the projects with his mom.
They say his dad is gone and his brother is a crack-head.
They don’t think he goes to school.
I have no idea how old the kid is. Fifteen?
He is not tall for a basketball player. Six feet maybe?
He’s been out there tonight since five. It’s eleven now.
Everyone is gone. He’s all alone.
Turning, dribbling, shooting hoops.
The next day, Daniel came in again at nine-fifteen. He didn’t say anything but lowered his eyes while smiling at Sharon.
He read the New York Times, left for lunch, came back, and read in Cohn’s book. At four-thirty he walked up to Sharon’s desk.
“Hey,“ he said.
“Hey,“ she replied. “Need any more books?“
“No. I wanted to ask you what your plans for the weekend were.“
“Oh.“ Sharon hadn’t really expected that. Hoped for, maybe. At some point. But expected? And now? Anyway, she had to say something. “Nothing really,“ seemed like the best choice.
“Wanna meet - Sunday maybe?“
“Sure,“ Sharon said, this time without thinking at all.
“Do you know Memorial Park?“
“Wanna meet me at the monument for the fire-fighters at noon? We’ll figure things out from there.“
“Okay. I’ll see you then. Have a good Saturday.“
“Thanks, you too.“
Sharon watched the green army pants and the black jacket leave through the revolving door and disappear into the winter dusk. Had she just arranged a date with a homeless guy?
She cycled home that night, carried her bike into the apartment, greeted her cats, put her jacket on the coat-hanger, and called her friend Jennifer to inform her that she couldn’t make the movie Sunday afternoon.
Daniel was at the fire-fighters monument early on Sunday. He used to hang out in the park on weekends anyway, and it wasn’t like he had much else to do or many other places to go.
Compared to the summer months, the park seemed almost empty. But there were still kids on low-rider bicycles, mommies and daddies pushing prams, a couple of friends going for a walk.
Sharon got there five minutes past noon. She excused herself for being late. Daniel said that five minutes didn’t really matter much.
Sharon was wearing a long dark brown coat, some Indian looking boots, and a nice hat. Since she didn’t know what they were about to do, she had left her bicycle at home and taken the bus.
Daniel said he wasn’t exactly in a position to take her out or anything. Sharon said, “Oh, I know,“ and instantly felt embarrassed, but Daniel just laughed.
They ended up walking around town for hours, bought snacks from street vendors, watched buskers play music and do pantomime, browsed in second-hand book- and clothes-stores, were entertained by the trash talk at a basketball pick-up game, and guessed professions of people who walked past whenever they rested on a park bench or down by the river till the cold made them move again.
They talked about literature, the city, how they thought it’d compare to the country, about leaving the States and traveling, about music, baseball and soccer, about beauty magazines and modeling, about Woody Allen, Middle Eastern food, uranium mining, and the state of Native America. Daniel told Sharon about where he grew up, why he had left school, and what he had done since. Sharon told Daniel how everyone in her family was supposed to get along, but no one actually did, how messed up her older sister’s life was, how messed up her younger sister’s life was, and how she wanted to make a difference in her own.
When it got dark at six o’clock, Sharon asked Daniel where he’d sleep tonight. “In the park, I guess,“ he said. Sharon suggested he should come to her place. He did.
Do bodhisattvas ever fall in love?
There she is.
Full red lips, a beautiful smile.
I know that me fucking other women
wouldn’t change a thing between me and her.
Yet, the thought of her fucking other men is unbearable.
I also know that another woman could take her place.
If she was as beautiful, as affectionate, as charming.
Yet, there is no way I could stand the thought
of me being replaceable.
I must be an asshole, I think.
I know about falling in love.
I know about not eating and sleeping anymore,
about funny feelings in my stomach,
about insecure steps back and forth,
about embarrassingly stupid questions,
about talking much without saying nothing,
about endless ridiculous thoughts, and plans, and dreams,
about being obsessed with the one and only.
No one tells me about falling in love.
I just never know who I fall in love with.
In the end,
falling in love makes me dislike who I fear I am.
(Do bodhisattvas ever fall in love?)
The next day Daniel went to get his bag from the park. He told the caretaker that he might not have to ask him to watch his stuff for a while. The old man just nodded expressionlessly. Maybe he was a wise man, Daniel thought.
The first four weeks were wonderful. Except for Sharon going to work, her and Daniel spent practically all their time together. They went grocery shopping, made long walks around town, went skating, cooked elaborate meals, watched movies and Seinfeld episodes, discussed books, read each other stories, made love, played with the cats, washed and brushed each other’s hair. They shared their deepest feelings, dreams, and worries, confessed their weaknesses, put trust in each other, and talked of love and fate and life’s mysterious turns. On some afternoons Daniel would even come into the library just to watch Sharon at work while pretending to keep up his daily reading of the New York Times.
The mornings Daniel spent at Sharon’s place now. He enjoyed the warm and cozy apartment more than he was willing to admit. He spent hours surfing the internet, listening to Sharon’s CD’s, and flipping channels on the TV. He stuffed himself with organic peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on whole wheat bread, and used the blender to make his own milk shakes (mainly organic banana). He also ate tons of soy ice-cream. Almond and pecan were his favorites.
Sharon pretty much paid for everything, and she didn’t care. But Daniel did. His pride wouldn’t allow someone else to take care of him like that. He started looking for a job.
He found work in a toy store in the mornings, and guarding a parking lot in the afternoons. He brought home money for his food and paid his share for the rent, the utilities, even the cable for the TV.
Everything seemed right that way, but for some reason it wasn’t. The more Daniel tried to live up to his principles, the less happy he seemed with the situation. Sharon tried to talk to him about it. She wanted to explain how she truly didn’t care about the money and how she’d rather see him write poetry, study the German Romantics, or just listen to Neil Young. As long as he’d be happy.
He said he appreciated that, but he had to do what he had to do. Plus, he was happy anyway, even if he maybe had difficulties showing it sometimes. After all there were major changes happening in his life and he needed to readjust to certain things. In short, everything was fine, and soon he wouldn’t be moody anymore.
Sharon said she understood, but she sure could have appeared more convinced.
We were young once, weren’t we?
We were young once, weren’t we?
Remember the times falling in love still made you happy?
Are you wise if you are a cynic?
Or does it just mean everything went wrong in your life?
Or, worse, you made everything go wrong?
And what now?
We were young once, weren’t we?
Remember the times you could condemn the evils of the world
and still believe you could make a difference?
Does resignation mean you’ve figured things out?
Or does it just mean you are tired and have given up?
Or, worse, are you just blaming the world for not making your dreams come true?
And what now?
We were young once, weren’t we?
Remember the times you finished a painting
and thought you had given something to the world?
Is disillusion an indication for maturity?
Or does it just mean your life has known too much disappointment?
Or, worse, are you just angry at yourself for wanting to be Picasso?
Anyway, what now?
It was three in the morning. They had been up till half past midnight. They had gone to bed and made love twice. Now Daniel was lying on his back, Sharon resting her head on his shoulder, his arm wrapped around her firm naked body.
“Why don’t you ever talk about your family?“ she asked.
“I don’t have anything to say about them,“ he replied.
Sharon never asked again.
The second month went by with Sharon going to work, Daniel going to work, and common evenings and weekends. They still cooked together, went for walks, talked, watched movies, had sex. They never argued and still seemed to get along great. Only that routine slowly seemed to take passion’s place. Or maybe it just appeared that way.
Nine weeks after Daniel had moved into Sharon’s place she wanted him to come spend a day with some of her friends.
She hadn’t seen them much since Daniel was living with her, and she wanted him to meet them anyway. She also thought it'd be good for Daniel to get together with other people even though she didn’t tell him that. Every time she asked him about his friends, he just shrugged his shoulders and said he didn’t have any.
They met Christine and Cady, Christine’s boyfriend John, and a guy called Josh. All were friends from college, all ecologically and socially active. They were extremely nice with Daniel, showed great interest in his life, expressed their respect for what he did, and paid him a flattering amount of attention.
Daniel loathed them. Well, maybe not so much them, but the way they acted and talked, and he particularly loathed the way Sharon acted and talked around them.
When not talking to and about Daniel, they discussed school, foreign US policies, the effects of global warming, and the Pope’s uncompromising stand against contraception. Daniel had no part in their life, and he didn’t want to have any either.
Back at the apartment, Daniel told Sharon that she had really nice friends and that he had had a good day. He had just kept a bit quiet ‘cause sometimes one just didn’t feel like talking much. Sharon nodded silently. For the first time since Daniel had moved in, they went to sleep without cuddling.
It was a cold December evening. Sharon and Daniel were flipping channels. As usual, there was nothing worth watching. The amount of crap on TV was astonishing.
Sharon asked Daniel if he was happy even though she had asked that very question a lot over the last two weeks. She didn’t really want to do, but she couldn’t help it. Daniel didn’t seem annoyed, but Sharon knew he was.
“Yes,“ Daniel answered, as usual. And after a short pause: “I might not dwell in happiness every second ‘cause there are too many unhappy things in life. But, yes, generally, I’m happy.“
He stroked her arm. It was meant to be a reconfirming gesture, but even he himself noticed it wasn’t.
They stared into the TV in silence, watching a Budweiser commercial.
“Am I making your life miserable?“ Daniel asked without turning his eyes away from the screen.
“Come on,“ Sharon said, “of course you don’t. Cut it off.“ She gave him an affectionate slap over the head and got up to get some juice from the kitchen.
She opened the fridge and hesitated. She wasn’t sure if she really meant what she had just said.
If you do everything wrong, you do everything wrong,
but if you try to do everything right, you will fail.
Or so they say.
There are no saints.
And I am the last to be one.
Trying to change is honorable, but how far will change get you?
And how much can you change anyway?
Some say you always remain a slave to who you are.
But I don’t even know who I am.
I’d honestly like to be a good person.
But people laugh at my attempts,
and I have to laugh at them myself.
Even though sometimes, I feel more like crying.
Jesus died on the cross for our salvation.
Maybe he shouldn’t have bothered.
Solidarity is what I always wanted.
But how can there be solidarity in solitude?
I see many people do good things,
and still the ugliness that haunts the world does not go away.
Am I to blame?
No happy world where people hate themselves.
Problem is, self-hatred comes in colors too.
A few days later they Sharon and Daniel were preparing dinner. Sharon cut some carrots, Daniel washed the lettuce.
“Have you ever thought about going back to school?“ Sharon asked.
“No,“ Daniel said. “Why are you asking?“
“Just curious. I mean, you are talented, you know. You are smart. Don’t you ever feel like you wanted to take advantage of that, use your skills?“
“To do what exactly?“
“I don’t know. Share what you know, share what you think with others. You could touch and influence other people’s lives in a really positive way, you know?“
“So, now I don’t touch and influence other people’s lives in a positive way?“
“Come on, that’s not what I meant, you know that. I just meant affecting a wider range of people, be part of a community. Why are you so closed to others? You’ve opened yourself up to me and I’ve found a wonderful person who has a lot to give. But why don’t you give more of yourself to others? I mean, you don’t even write poetry anymore. Why not? What keeps you from doing that? I mean, I heard your interview and all, but now you wouldn’t just be a cliché anymore, people wouldn’t just be interested in you because you write as a homeless person. Now it’d just be a question of expressing yourself and connecting and communicating with others. Why do you resist that so much? I don’t understand.“ Leaning against the cupboard, Sharon was waiting for an answer.
“I don’t know,“ Daniel finally said, rinsing the lettuce. He put the bowl down, and looked at Sharon: “I don’t know. I’m sorry. I’d like to give you an answer, but I can’t. I just don’t want to do that. None of what you said. Not writing poetry, not going to school, not relating to others in any way different from the way I do now. That’s all ll I can say really. I guess I just need you to accept that.“
Sharon looked at him for a while. “Okay,“ she finally said and smiled. Then she grabbed two onions. “Can you cut these?“
Four days before Christmas Sharon and Daniel were walking home together from the library, Sharon pushing her bike through the snow on the sidewalk. It had snowed all day. Christmas lights were up and everywhere people were busy buying gifts, food, accessories for the celebration. It was a pleasant scene in its own way.
Sharon and Daniel walked arm in arm. They didn’t speak till they got to the apartment an hour later. They had both enjoyed the walk.
Daniel came to spend Christmas Eve’s with Sharon’s family. Sharon had asked him in early December, and he had said yes. She had asked him several times since if he really wanted to come. He had never expressed second thoughts, which had surprised Sharon, but made her happy.
Daniel had met Sharon’s parents twice before over tea and muffins, and they had got along very well. Her parents had been open and welcoming, Daniel polite and charming.
Judith was also there, and Daniel got along with her too. Sarah was somewhere in California, no one knew where exactly. No one talked about it either.
The evening went well. The dinner was great, and later the women talked while Daniel was checking out motorcycles in the garage with Sharon’s dad. At one time Mr Kirst put his hand down on Daniel’s shoulder and told him how glad he was that Sharon was with a boy like him. He could tell Daniel had his heart at the right place and that was all that mattered. Daniel said, “Thank you, Sir!“ He felt flattered.
Sharon and Daniel went home at around midnight, carrying the gifts they had promised not to open before next morning in big white plastic bags.
The library remained closed till the second of January. Sharon and Daniel spent the whole week together. It was cold and there was lots of snow. They went for walks for hours, built snow men and threw snow balls on the way. They went skating and sledding. They saw a movie almost every day and went to a pro hockey game. They ate Thai and Indian and Ethiopian food. They spent hours in second-hand bookstores. They slept together every night. They were in love.
On January the second, Sharon goes back to work. They have spent a great New Year’s Eve and a pleasant and quiet first of January. Sharon kisses Daniel, who is still in bed, good-bye at eight-thirty.
The day at the library goes well. Sharon picks up two honey-bran muffins on the way back.
She gets to the apartment at five-thirty. She unlocks the door, rolls her bike in, flicks on the light, greets her cats, and throws her jacket over a chair. She calls out for Daniel, but there is no response. All the lights in the rooms are off. Sharon sets the muffins on the kitchen table, puts on some water for tea, sits down, and opens the paper. Daniel should be back any minute.
A few moments later Sharon gets up, walks to the bedroom and opens the drawer in which Daniel keeps his bag. The bag is gone, and with it all of Daniel’s things. There is an envelope. “For Sharon.“
Drowning in the footsteps of Baudelaire
I reach out for the apostle to save me.
He doesn’t see me, though.
Or doesn’t want to.
I thought I was a good swimmer once,
but now I only float and sink
deep and deeper
until the blue gives way to the colors of the rainbow
and the silence to the sweetest music I’ve ever heard -
until there seems to be nothing but beauty and peace.
If the apostle didn’t save me,
maybe the mermaid will.
“Isn’t it ironic that weakness is easily strong enough to destroy life’s most wonderful gifts? - With Love, Daniel.”
Sharon folds the paper, puts it back into the envelope, lays it on the bed, and closes the drawer.
She goes back to the kitchen to check for the water. It’s boiling. She makes herself a cup of cinnamon orange tea and sits down. One of her cats is purring on her lap.
Sharon worked in the library for two years, then moved to San Francisco where she’s been working in various bookstores since. She is still active in community services, mainly in projects supporting the Bay Area’s homeless population. She is married to Bob, who teaches Politics at the University of California, Berkeley. They have two daughters, Melissa, five, and Rebecca, three.
Daniel left the East Coast on that second of January and hitchhiked west. He became homeless again and drowned off the Oregon coast about ten months later. The exact circumstances of his death remain unclear. The local police department filed it as an accident.