Kingston to Queens

He cooed on the beach towel. V laughed and set the baby down gently, square on the giant graphic of a Hummingbird’s nest. He lifted him in the water, smiling wide like a proud father. “See saw, knock on the door,” he sang, “Who’s there? Grandpa.” The Mother, apparently, continued shouting from the sand in a thick German accent, not ein foot further, danke. Too deep! V bounced the tiny beautiful stranger in the shallows, as X glided nearer on a small wave. He tucked his head, streamlining his body athletically into a swell. The water hurt like a slap and then he sank, deep into the Caribbean warmth.

The red rocked cliffs jutted out like a lion’s head (Lion Head Point, in fact) across a delicious expanse of calm turquoise. Beckoning. As he climbed the last step, he could make out something like panic assuming form in the distance: a round figure flapping wildly from the shore. He lost sight of his compatriot from out there. V wanted to hang back and socialize with the young couple under their palm shade. The young man sold them a fistful of mild weed wrapped in a single gigantic Zig Zag paper. He had a recent date tattooed on one arm and held a baby against his bare chest in the other. X and V approached him like old friends after Montague whistled for his attention from the car. Montague knew everyone on the island, at least every person they had seen in the last 10 hours, and pointed at “that one, Prince, with the likkle one under the palms.”

They flew back in a few hours, so with what was left of their adventure, they wanted to swim. Their day began or continued in the hot afternoon sun, both basking in the funk of empty beer bottles, day-old clothes marinating in stale sweat and a rank potpourri of strange women’s perfume mixed with local smoke. Montague’s cousin ran the place. It was called Lady’s and it was cheap. They paid in cash.

Windies skipper was saying
It wasn’t quite the result
they were looking for —
poor shots

New Kingston: three businessmen in identical suits occupied their tables for one, already taking their breakfasts while a staticky radio announced Cricket scores in a flat, monotone voice. They peeked up from their plates with six judging eyes: Go home, vultures. V gagged on the strong smell of eggs as soon as he stumbled through the door. X laughed when he tripped up the first step – wind up ya body, he sang. Wind up for me. V was in bad shape, something like loathing had set in. He spent the ride half out the window for fresh air to keep the barf down (or at least out). Montague, their audience of one, laughed variously at X’s poor execution of the local patois or V’s ghastly retching that syncopated the music’s rhythms. X sang the entirety of Exodus on the way home through the hills across shantytown and glassy hotel high-rises, past Tuff Gong and Citibanks, Ital shacks and Jerk grills. A faint blue light appeared on the edge of the world.

there’s a natural mystic
blowing through the air

Montague yawned again and removed the faux dreads from his bald head. He wasn’t smiling anymore. X and V stood there with him wasted on uncertain ground, their legs buckling under drink and hours of line dancing. They followed the lead – barely – of four orange-beanied youths, making fools of themselves to the delight of Japanese tourists and the night’s hosting DJs. Sound Love spun it back each time V fell, but after three rounds of failure, they bowed out, shamed and delighted by raucous pity applause. They were champions and heroes tonight with a cash wad large enough to keep the crowd lubricated and firmly on their side. Another round at the bar, and then another. They found a second wind after the four hour flight and directed the driver, Montague, straight to Wedi Wedi Wednesday. 

They doubled over laughing at the absurdity of the price, but it was still only a fraction of their winnings. “The next flight to Kingston,” he said, “roundtrip for two!” They jetted over straight from the cashier, down the escalators, past security and into a car to JFK. He didn’t call to say he’d be late. A promise is a promise. He looked at V, his face a dark shade of madness and reckless abandon: “Should we?” The numbers came up just right, roll after roll, to make good on a decade’s long guarantee. X didn’t expect it to come at that point in his life – did he ever believe – and what was he doing here anyway, still hooked after all of these years? Mornings of shame, regret, long fights and half-assed explanations. Loss after loss. A child, a wife. The car pulled up and the driver, another among dozens but never the same, wished him good luck in a familiar, sorry tone.

X said it every time as part of his ritual blessing of the place. “If the wheel goes right tonight, we fly.”

Strangers in Raval

We’re here for the second time this week, MACBA, and while we had expected all the waxed ledges and international burnouts on wheels – evidently the skateboarding hub of Europe, it’s real – we didn’t expect Modern Art to take a holiday for Assumption. Closed on Tuesdays, fine, but shuttered on a random Wednesday for a miracle? How sanctimonious.

Disappointed and exhausted (we had already walked 8 hours in the Catalonian sun, braving the Rambla in the mid-afternoon) we decided a drink was in order. We spotted a quiet bar with outdoor tables near the skateshop and took seats next to the only other two patrons, a couple of kids on a fling. She lit a cigarette and continued speaking with a thick italian accent about one competition or another in Berlin. He responded by telling her to chill and put the cigarette out on account of a baby (ours) present. It’s fine, we said, and that I had been chain smoking around him all week anyway.

We’ll take a beer, a glass of white wine (lots of ice) and one banana milkshake. Could you put it in this baby bottle? 

After a while as the italian girl smoked out of range, the other kid – who I now noticed was more than a kid, maybe approaching 40 but hadn’t modified his uniform in 20 years – asked me if I was from Philly. I touched my cap and said, South Jersey actually.

Jersey, he repeated. You know Freddy G?

Oh yeah, Fred Gallo?  (I was immediately embarrassed and probably even looked confused that I latinized my answer.)

Well, Gall, yeah – Jersey Scum, man! You still skate?

I’m not sure how I silently established in the 10 minutes sitting there that I had ever skated, but I decided the kid obviously had the more observant mind. He called Barcelona home for 15 years now, watching a certain kind of tourist pass by these stomping grounds of his. And I guess we share the same uniform.

Not anymore, no, but I keep in touch with a couple buddies back home. They got really good and I kinda fell off. But I still love it.

That’s alright, man, you’re still a rad human. (The compliment struck me as a little strange, like he was about to ask for a big favor or something.)

I wonder if you know one of the guys I grew up with, Steve D. from Habitat?

Oh, man – Stevie?!..

It went on like that for a few minutes until the italian girl came back and we introduced ourselves. I noticed that she had a fresh tattoo of three letters below her wrist: BCN. I liked that a lot and thought about it each time we passed a tattoo parlor the rest of the trip. We talked about Barcelona, whether he – a videographer that calls himself Winkle – had gotten sick of it after 15 years (I was sick of MACBA and the Raval after two days). He didn’t say one way or another, but cautioned against drugs, sadly warning that there’s only one alternate way of life: that of old ladies in the early morning. The word ex-patriot flashed through my mind, a word reserved for Hemingway novels or history books, but here, a real live flesh and blood example above polyurethane wheels. I respected it.

My son spilled his banana shake all over the table and Winkle rushed to send some napkins our way. Small, genuine gestures. I began to understand why so many skaters took breaks at his table, shooting the shit, finding the next party, planning some footage for tomorrow… if the weather holds.

By the time we said our goodbyes, his company increased copiously. One italian girl became a party of 20 bronzed and bruised youths, vacant tables and chairs squeaking across the plaza to repeat another day in the everlasting Court of Winkle.

IMG_2912

 

 

 

 

In memory of my aunt (daily practice)

for KD

Three hundred and fifty years out of a millennium the polluted haze obscured all view of the palace across the river bank: smog or the smoky remnants of incendiary celebrations. Some families expired through two generations without a sight. The orchard survived through two hundred years of industrial progress in a nurturing glow of diffuse orange and brown light, filled with dancing shadows from the apple trees and passing motorbikes on the highway.

Birds sing through the ambient buzz of traffic, but they’re not seen.

L13633A-R01-015A

Face to face with splendor but lost in its anonymous fog, the orchard gave a blind horse’s odds to catch a clear day’s reflection off the embedded gems. He and his Aunt took those odds everyday. She, blinded, led by her nephew’s hands on their daily afternoon break through the apple littered paths. For decades now, from the beginning of his memory and the end of her sight: neither had yet to see the palace. And neither had missed a day. So did the palace really exist beyond the banks? A distant relative from a nearby village claims to have seen it one morning returning from the fields. Scarcely anyone remembers him visiting the fields, least of all sober. More credible artistic villagers passed along rough sketches of the vision, always the same, always inspired: a marble platform, two mosques, four stilted minarets and a dome resting weightlessly below an expanse of rare blue.

One morning this generational fog broke just before daybreak. The air was cool and quiet. He would have slept through it, so newly pleasant, had the orchard keeper not rung a bell he had never heard before. But he knew immediately what it meant. Darting from his bed, he ran shoeless to his Aunt’s house and knocked on the door. Once, twice and again, no answer.

He yelled,

Auntie Auntie, the palace. It’s here. The sun is rising above it! Come now!

Still no answer. But the strange bell rang and the villagers walked in mass disbelief through the orchard, those perpetual oranges and browns, dancing shadows, industrial hums disappearing for now, just for a moment, like forgetting the name of a familiar thing.

Auntie, he called. Wake up! Come see – the palace is here at last.  

Urgency turned to desperation and he found her there in her bed, a final resting place. Peaceful in the crisp air. He pushed the blinds away to welcome the rising sun, and there he saw it at last, as she always imagined it: true majesty.

Ponte nothing (daily practice)

I shirked my duties at the neighborhood banquet preparations and stood shirtless on the bridge in the cold rain. Preparations of my own making were in effect. A stress test ahead of the annual bridge melee. The Nicoletti and Castellani would face off here once again tomorrow at Ponte Nothing, the victors laying claim to another year of collectively hallucinated social superiority, evening privileges, dibs at first fucks behind the church grilles. At the midnight bell’s toll to close New Year’s mass, once again donning masks, selfless, our social worth would be reassumed not by family visage but raw strength and virility.

I am a Nicoletti and this, my first bridge fight, would be ours to conquer, even if it meant death. The likelihood of which appeared stronger this season as reflected back to me in the slick mud of the canal, the usual fart smell of the city’s sewer highways having receded deep into the lagoon. If it came to throwing the last Castellano headfirst to his grave, I wished for anything but a quick snapping of the spine. I prayed for pain. Redemption through suffering. Victory through sacrifice. Torn flesh, gouged eyes, cracked limbs, bruised bones. La pena senza fine. This doomed reckoning of violence spiraled faster and faster in the pouring rain, but I let myself fall ever towards it, darker, colder.

Through the din of glass and silver clinking through the banquet halls, I could hear the sweet voices of the Mendicanti flowing like sweet incense into the streets:

Miser
MISER

                        Miserere Mei. 

[after “Carnival, quintessence of the Venetian spirit” in Vivaldi’s Venice by Patrick Barbier]

L2163C1-R01-006

 

Christ stopped at the Villas (daily practice)

..ed era luce pura

This has always been a good town to leave. I’m not sure why anyone came in the first place, but the books in the local library suggest it had something to do, in some order, with caviar, the American Revolution and Atlantic City. Only one of those things matters to a soul here anymore, and at that, only on the off chance of a free summer evening trying one’s luck on the spinning wheel. Almost everyone who stayed either works tirelessly – oftentimes 2 or more precarious jobs – on fishing boats, the short but lucrative service selling fish to tourists, or the runoff economy of tourists purchasing local wares in the strip of historic shore resorts.

Then there are those, not entirely distinct from the first group, that gig from one hit to the next until the final knockout punch. There has been at least one protest against heroin here in the last year – and to be clear, not against local and state policy to end or bandaid an epidemic. That is: In the absence of anything close to rational policy, a desperate protest against the drug itself. It was front page news several days running in the local press, now shuttered.

If you ever lived here over the stretch of gray months, coinciding perfectly with the Exodus of Shoobies to the golden triangle of Montreal, Philadelphia and New York City, then you know that the only unadulterated, pure and genuinely peaceful hideaway (in the biggest spiritual sense possible) is the Delaware Bay south of the Cape May Lewis Ferry terminal. Between the alienesque horseshoe crabs and exposed sewer tunnels that jut out from the sand like hyperloops to another dimension, it’s not of this planet. Though I left nearly two decades ago, it’s the place I most enjoy returning to as a reminder of its mystery and revelation. Of what might have drawn people here as early as anybody has been drawn anywhere from their origins in this country.

This town is a good place to leave, but you must always go home.

Acattolico Stroll (daily practice)

after John Kidd

I met him in the early morning hours outside the Protestant Cemetery in Testaccio. He was smoking a cigarette and finishing an operation on his wristwatch calculator. I greeted him with a nervous hello, and he in return gave an indifferent nod, cleared his throat and said, “I’d say I have about three solid years left before I need to forge another passport. Let’s get moving.” A strange figure we must have cut. Separated by two generations: This man, who everyone, even his closest friends, believed to be dead, and I, his nervous young acolyte, wan and speechless, like meeting a ghost.

He unlocked the cemetery gates and led me directly to the shed where he kept his arsenal of groundskeeper tools. A few rakes and various shovels, several bottles of fertilizer or weed killer, dissected parts of a sprinkler system, salts and a small desk  hidden under a mess of work orders and a well worn copy of The Case of Comrade Tulayev. I asked if he lived nearby and he shot back a glance that said, cop question. Then he handed me a pair of shears and we headed toward Keats’ wry headstone. His calloused hands glowing blue in the thin skin of old age started in on a patch of weeds, unrooting them with the efficiency of a machine.

Unsolicited he offered that he started every morning here as a reminder. Of what he didn’t say, but I read the engraving slowly back to myself a second, then a third time before grasping:

...in the Bitterness of his heart, at the Malicious Power of his enemies

We spoke little between tombstone visits – various technical tips on garden maintenance, a couple of insects to look out for, especially around Shelley’s resting place – but by the time we made it to Gramsci’s tomb, he opened up about the fear of those first years. The shock. Not so much of the violence, the blood, but of having lived past the first half decade of roundups, torture and psychological terror nearly unmoved. He meant that literally, the groundskeeper job being his domain for fifty years. The Party had assumed him dead after the Palatine Massacre of 2021 and he, having read the news, took a page from The Outsider and lived on, only now under a masked self of his own design.

The writing continued, thankfully, under a pseudonym long assumed to be the real identify of an American political prisoner. In the long trough of political reaction, his research continued only because of his proximity to Gramsci’s body, a mecca of sorts for myriad radicals who were happy to share the latest work on the respected revolutionary made saint. At odds with the day’s earlier reports on his financial prospects, he predicted that he would himself be buried here soon. And that he needed my help ensuring as much.

Before returning to his workshed, he handed me a spade and asked that I dig beneath a collection of vases at the base of Gramsi’s ashes until I reached the locked metal box. He returned a few minutes later and handed me the key. The box contained his birth certificate and a small journal filled with memories of his fugitive life in Italy. One titled “Swimmers” told a happy story of bathing in the Bay of Naples. I skimmed for a while longer as we sat in silence, flashes of goats in Capri, drunk students running the Circus Maximus in late fall, the beautiful disorganization of the Museo Archeologico. The box’s only other contents was a true relic: a small zipdrive containing what he called his masterpiece. These, the proof of his life and his life’s work in refuge, produced here, beside Gramsci, would go back with me to New York. “My granddaughter will know what to do.”

Before I could ask my questions, the morning’s first guests, a German couple on holiday, arrived at the cemetery gates. The living apparition rushed away to greet them and signaled with one last indifferent nod my way to the exit.