Midnight at the drug store

Bells Jingle in July
At the Walgreens down the Street
Twelve men walk in
No eleven
One of them is a woman
She is holding onto the left arm
Of the man in the fishing jacket
And her eyes sag like
Flat tires,
They walk down the aisle
Together to the tune
Of Christmas chimes
Clinging to the promise
Of salvation from something sinister
But just out of
Reach.
Four-fifty, I said,
And hand the aspirin back
To the hunched man
Watch him walk back to his car
Through the branded window.
They are looking at candy now,
Whispering something sweet
In each other’s ears
Covering wet faces with wet kisses
And gripping too tight
Onto each other’s hands,
White knuckles,
Loose sleeves,
A tissue hanging from a back pocket.
There are other men
Who are pretending not to see.
They brush by
And they sweat
And they pretend that
They are just as happy
As jolly old Santa Claus
Clutching to his fur coat
And flying alone
In the dead of winter.

Who you Love // Who you Die for

10.27.2018 – Pittsburgh, PA

 

Twenty-four hours later
When the sunlight hits your head
As it did the day before,
Will you still Love this place?
Will you tell those you Love
That you Love them
And would you Die to see them
Live and to not see them
Suffer and cover
The holes in their backs
With kisses and fill them with
Clay so they stand like
Mud golems and fall into line
With all of the nobodies
Trying to Love
And Dying because?
Would you cry and
Sleep talk with God,
Plugging the leaks in your faith
With borrowed time and
Someone else’s blood
And would you Die
To see the oppressors
Fall from their pedestals
Landing in circles of shame
In Hell? Or maybe
You let sugar drip from your lips
With blank solemn eyes
And the Love that you preach
Is just Love for yourself
And who Dies does not matter
Unless it hurts something more
Than a headline and a
Disappointed sigh?
Will you Love the remains
Of a body like you Love
The money in its pockets,
Or will you look away
And pretend that it doesn’t
Reek of your ignorance,
And will you Love the world
That lets them Die,
Saying that That is the way
It goes, That is the way
We treat the ones we Love
We forget them
We desert them
We make them exceptions
In war and in peace
We let them go and shrug it off
Like holding an umbrella
In a flood and waiting for the
Water to go away.
Who you Love // Who you Die for
One and the same, you know,
And when tomorrow comes
And you still Love that place
Where those you Loved
Went to Die,
You lose the right
To call yourself a Lover at all.

 

 

Another World

Inhaled your smoke on the subway,
Your knees the summits formed
By the mountains of your sloping legs,
Which are slender but cold.
The ash on your fingernails
Dampens pink flesh.
I want to reach over and dust off
Your hands,
Fill them with warmth
That reaches into the core of your marrow
And leaves no vein untouched,
But your eyes are glazed over
The way I remember that clear gel dripping
Over clay before sticking it in a furnace.
Here we stall for time
Between one station and the next,
But in another world
We might be joking about
The advertisements along the top of the car,
How one of them is so striking
And another is so discursive,
Laughing at the faces each other makes
When one points out how
That potted plant looks flaccid
And the other realizes it’s a metaphor.
In another world
We might be living together
As students,
Where the holes in that gray sweater
Hanging loosely around your legs
Are at worst an accident
And at best a memory.
We might have sung together
The joys of being alive
In a tiny apartment far uptown.
I would have played the piano,
And you perhaps a violin
That you love so much to hear,
Curving your lips into a smile
I cannot discern from your face.
I glance at the curls of your dark brown hair,
Imagining how it sways in the wind
As you step off the subway
And disappear around the corner.
All that lingers in the air is the smell of smoke
From the burnt residue
Of another world.

Popping the Bubble

There’s something so visceral about how we turn away from people who are not as well off as we are. We make all kinds of excuses for why we have a superiority complex, citing a lack of work ethic in the other party or worse, inherent intellectual advantage. But if I believed that I wouldn’t be getting intense waves of guilt each time I choose not to look at someone who is asking for change. What’s wrong with people? How come, even when I know that I want to do everything I can to help the world be a better place, I’m still subject to this kind of complicit behavior? Does it make me a hypocrite? I tell myself that I’ll pay it back someday when I’m well off as a sort of reassurance. But what if I’m never well off? Would I keep pushing it off forever?

It’s easy to blame things on a system that keeps the poor in poverty or on personal circumstance, thus pushing someone else’s condition off of my own plate. But ultimately the root causes of this negligence stem mostly from our own psyche. First, altruism is programmed because we expect reciprocity. As social beings, we are kind and generous to each other as an investment in ourselves– surely someone we’ve helped will be able to give back to us in the future. However, if you’re unlikely to ever encounter the person again or have no reason to believe they will have the means to give back to you, instinct tells you to leave them in the dust and let them fend for themselves. I’ve always firmly believed in the benevolence of people and their inherent goodness, so this is a very daunting reality for me to come to terms with.

Second, consider the trolley problem. Would you pull a lever to kill one person while saving five? Or would you let the five die because it’s none of your business? The core question here is one of responsibility: I had nothing to do with it in the first place, and so I will have nothing to do with it now. This is the argument that many people who choose not to interfere give to justify their counterintuitive response. Technically, it’s better to just let the five die due to factors out of your control instead of being responsible for the death of the one, as awful as that sounds. We don’t like to be arbiters of life and death– that’s why we have God to take the blame off our shoulders. Somehow, by helping out this person who is asking me for money or for food, I am now entangling myself in their ultimate success or demise. The thinking goes, “in case of the worst, best not to get involved in the first place.”

People have constructed entire bubbles of privilege to distract themselves from the reality of an economically diverse world. Hospitals, for example, are a place of safety and refuge for those who have the money to afford patient care. They stand as institutions of privilege and, most importantly, privacy. We want to maintain a front that only the best care is being given, and so we pick and choose who we can give care to in order to maintain the best image. Take one of the opening scenes from Marvel’s Doctor Strange. Stephen Strange, world famous neurosurgeon, is driving along and perusing possible cases to take. Instead of focusing primarily on saving lives, he is fixated on what will improve his name, avoiding patients with injuries that are too “risky”. While public hospitals and clinics do not have this kind of privilege due to their nature of being public, often they lack funding or the facilities that private hospitals do. This is even more true when it comes to education. Public schools, private schools, inner city vs. suburban, all provide different levels of schooling. For a hefty price, parents can invest in their children’s futures and immerse them in a world where everyone is as privileged as they are. This isn’t just paying for a private school education– even choosing where to live and settle down has major implications. Why don’t we let kids look at people asking for change? To preserve the bubble. Why do we ignore those around us who don’t behave the way we think “civilized” people do? To preserve the bubble. Everything is about preserving the version of reality that we’ve constructed, where we are the victors and anyone who is not as well off as we are have simply lost the game.

What do we do, then? Particularly with a shrinking world and a growing wealth gap, with hard evidence showing that there is an indisputable link between low socioeconomic status and slower development, how do we commit to breaking a vicious cycle before it’s too late? More pertinently, should we be more open with our money and be giving? That’s a matter of personal belief and values, but regardless of what you choose to do, we can’t continue to believe in a world where we are the “winners” and others are the losers. Investments in societal health are also investments in ourselves and our communities. We need to give each other the chance to become productive, to succeed and contribute in their own ways, and that starts with being able to acknowledge their existence. We can also try to build institutions that break down as opposed to building walls. Just as the Tripod program in the Deaf community seeks to educate both deaf and hearing children together in a bicultural (English and sign) environment, educational and medical facilities that are just as open and diverse should be made available. This isn’t easy­– when people have the means, they will tend to opt for private schools or hospitals because they expect better service. Institutions also have a tendency to become more privileged as they become more selective. A public school that provides a great education with great resources will probably only get more wealthy as space runs out, since at that point name value will incentivize them to pluck the students who are best posed to succeed as opposed to those who stand to gain the most.

I’ve given a lot of thought to how to solve this problem. One solution is to embed the purpose of the school or the service-program in the constitution. That way there is a clear mission statement that compels the administration to adhere to a set of values in patient, subject, or student care and selection. Another possibility is to specifically target areas of low privilege and provide the means necessary to help those people access these facilities. For example, a school for inner city children that provides free transportation or reduced-cost lunches, or psychiatric facilities in rural areas // through online mediums that would allow for anonymity particularly in small towns.  Regardless of the means, the through line is effort and community building. ­If you are acknowledging your privilege and stepping beyond the bubble, you are doing a good thing.

Of course, any of these ideas heavily depend on a financial backer with a large if not unlimited pool of resources at hand and ready to dish out to the cause. The government is unlikely to make such investments, since politicians too live in an even smaller bubble of privilege. But that isn’t to discourage any and all efforts to make the world a better place for more people! We each have a means of communication, and if nothing else, we can spread a message or lend an ear. You can’t give up before the game has even started!

So to recap, I’m going to do my best to be more considerate and immerse myself in the reality of socioeconomic diversity. I might not always have change to give, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing I can do. Giving back comes in many forms, not the least of which is the pledge to start or maintain institutions that offer services to the underprivileged and give back to a community. I might not expect reciprocity, but on net, it’s a tiny cost in exchange for huge potential gain.

Barbershop Quartet

I refuse to grow old
Yearning for the days of my youth.
Instead, let me sing away the years
In a barbershop quartet
With my closest friends.
We might be worlds away
From one another,
But we will whistle from our hearts
A tune so pristine
It will lull the moon into a
Cornfield slumber.
The songs we choose
Are of our own composition,
Arranged only for us and no one else,
Lamenting the past with doo wops,
Humming the present with hallelujahs,
Welcoming the future with olés.
Our hair will fall out
The way our love never will,
Chins and bellies in rolls of laughter
Through centuries of pacific bliss,
Celebrating our milestones
With the music of our being.
Sing me a song, brother
And let me be your accompaniment.
As long as we have the harmony
Of each other,
I have no need
For the trivialities of youth.

All the Ships

I walked into an AA meeting holding a cup of coffee.

It hit me as I was opening the door to the cozy room that this might have been interpreted as a sort of flippant irony– the fact that I was entering a space reserved for those trying to get over a substance addiction while taking a brain-altering substance myself. All sorts of scenarios played out in my head, including being called out, kicked out, or judged silently, which was almost the worst of them all. Normally this kind of anxiety would have been enough to turn me around and give me ample impetus to get the hell out of there. But, since this was the first time I had ever been to an AA meeting, I recognized it was probably my fear of the unknown, and not the actual act of drinking coffee, that was inducing my paranoia.

I’ve had drinks before but not frequently, and I have never felt like my drinking was out of my control. This much I knew about myself; I was at the meeting solely as a listener. However, I also knew that this didn’t by any means give me the moral high ground. Everyone is dependent on something to get them through dark times, be it religion, sex, video games, etc. It just so happens that some comforts can inflict greater harm than others. Alcohol is one of these comforts.

It was a small meeting, with five people at peak attendance. That set me slightly on edge; I had banked on there being more attendees so as to make my presence inconspicuous.

One member, Eric (name changed for anonymity), took charge as facilitator and gave us a rundown of how things would go. He would give an opening statement, and then we would be given a chance to speak to our own experience with substance abuse. He asked if we had any announcements to make. We didn’t.

Eric’s opening statement was lucid and encouraging. Having been to countless AA meetings since he first stopped drinking over a decade ago, he was a well of resources, adages, and reassurance. Like many who find themselves at the mercy of alcohol, Eric’s drinking began with family. He felt trapped in his home, and it didn’t help that other members of his family had already set an example by being alcoholics themselves. When he finally sought help and rehab, he made AA a cornerstone of his recovery by resolving to go to a meeting a day. By being a part of this community, learning that he wasn’t alone, and picking up technique after technique from peers, Eric built himself back up from the ground. This is not a success story, he stressed. Alcoholism is something you have to fight every day because the moment you give in to it, you lose everything you built up from the ground. “It’s like ships”, he said. “The first day you go to AA, you have a life raft. After a month, you have a canoe. After a year, you have a speedboat. After ten years, you have a yacht. But no matter what you have, remember that one big wave can take everything away.”

Ten years. People quit their jobs if they don’t think they’ll be promoted within a year. People give up on dreams of becoming famous or of starting their own business if they don’t see a glimmer of hope within the first six-months. To work on who you are every second of every day for over a decade takes more effort and resilience than almost anyone can imagine. That’s more than half of my lifetime.

When I walk into a grocery store, I do not need to consciously keep myself from wandering into the alcohol section. When my friends invite me out, I do not need to turn them down because I’m scared that I might cave in to a drink. My lifestyle is a privilege, and it is so easy to forget how lucky I am to not be going through something like what Eric has described.

After the opening statement, we went around the room and offered our own insights and anecdotes. I passed on my turn to speak, since I did not have anything to say. Once everyone had shared in some way or another, we filled out the rest of the hour session with a short, silent meditation, which contrasted with the vocal aspect of the meeting. I used that time to reflect on all the ships I had built myself – my confidence, my empathy, my friendships – all of which require patience, deliberate effort, and persistence to keep intact. I felt a life energy coursing in the air as we sat, drawing us closer with some kind of unconscious magnetism. We were all on a journey, I realized. A rocky odyssey across an ocean filled with high stakes and great rewards, and we were all anxious. But I also felt something else that wasn’t anxiety. I struggled to name that feeling, even as we finished the session with the serenity prayer.

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

As I walked out of the room and back into the smoky indifference of New York City, I finally put a name to what it was I was feeling. It was gratitude. Gratitude that I was granted this experience and wisdom despite walking in holding a cup of coffee, but also for something bigger. In a world characterized by stigma and prejudice, it is inspiring that we are able to find communities that encourage us to be better and work for who we are. It can be hard, especially if what it is you want to change was out of your control in the first place. But it doesn’t have to be lonely. I’m grateful to know that, no matter where I am, I can stick my head up above deck on my little sailboat and see that there is an entire fleet sailing beside me.

In Writing

I knew I wanted to be a writer
When my best friend slammed a door in my face
And the first thing I did
Was write a letter to apologize.
The night before I told a girl I liked her
I sent her five long texts explaining
That in life you have to take risks
And that I had something to say to her,
But not now, tomorrow,
Which I spent the entire night figuring out–
Words that never made it into the open.
I handed fifteen dollars over to a man
Who told me he needed to buy a train ticket
For his sister,
Whose name he conveniently left out,
And then stalked me for an hour
Until I gave him the money.
I sat in the back corner of a coffee shop
And beat myself up
Because if I wasn’t such a pushover
I would have done something
Instead of waiting until the tragedy passed
To compose a journal entry as an afterthought.

I don’t think writers are weak,
And I don’t think I am weak,
But am I really alive
When I need to put my life to a script to live it?