The steel mills of Gary Indiana, the narrow
crowded streets, the grit, grime, ash heaps,
crime, the money! – my uncle John was a
plant foreman. I moved in with him and my
aunt Ann when I graduated high school in
You couldn’t beat the pay at the steel mills.
They paid twice as much as any factory I would
have worked in Chi-town and the benefits were
just as good.
My cousin Jerry, also just out of school, got
hired the same day. With overtime, bonus
checks, double time for working holidays,
we were making as much as doctors (almost.)
We got a bachelor’s pad, new cars, snazzy
threads, Talk about the American Dream!
We were unskilled Jet Setters (or nearly).
Lurking within that dream, however, was an
American nightmare, the Vietnam war.
The draft was introduced and Jerry and I
were taken right away. Everyone was sent
to the war, unless they could dodge it in
college or join the peace corps.
The mills were getting stripped of their young
workers. Every plant was.
Fifty thousand plus died in the conflict.
Another hundred thousand and more were
wounded, many permanently.
Our dreams didn’t last long.
“The Magic City” fell apart too. When we
got out of the service there were no jobs for
us. We had hired on to a work force of thirty
thousand. Due to globalization, and outdated
machinery the mills shrank exponentially.
Less than six thousand people work there now.
Work disappeared in Indiana and dreams died,
same as in the rest of the country.
The steel mills of Gary Indiana, the narrow
FULL MOON, LOONEY TUNES
Only artists or hermits or monks choose
poverty, any other social theory is baloney.
Wine, women and song cost little; studio
space next to nothing if you live in a
ghetto. A loaf of bread, a jug of wine and
what’s her face works for a long time, at
least when you are in your prime.
An artist, poet or painter, wants to work
as little as possible at some job that takes
them away from their pen or easel.
“So there’s that 47%,” Mitt Romney whined,
“that we can forget. They will vote for Obama
and collect their gifts.”
“There are givers and the takers – those
who contribute and those who mooch,”
Paul Ryan stared steely eyed at the press.
“If you’re poor or out of work it’s your
own fault.” Rush, the bus, Limbo roared.
Moochers, takers, goldbricks, sure fits
artists. But I don’t think it applies to the
poor or anyone who’s out of work or ever
has been. I suppose there’s always been
junkies, and winos, and panhandlers on the
streets, lost souls with mental problems and
those who are, OK, just plain lazy. It can’t
be many. But these politicians and that radio
guy somehow forget we just got out of the
Great Recession and what’s available are
still slim pickings, and I can’t see how it
applies to homeless families or those doomed
to meager lives in the ghettos and hollows,
and slums across the nation through
That 47% has grown. Half of the country lives
in or near poverty now. The Affordable Care
Act has added 6 million to the ranks of the
insured. 45 million to go. But the
Republican governors refuse to let their
constituents get the expanded Medicaid,
so that won’t happen.
There was only one artist at the Boston
Center for the Arts who actually got on
disability. Helen the heavenly. Many tried.
They got their inspiration from a character
by Thomas Pynchon. To prove that he was
crazy, so he could collect government checks,
he would jump, every year, through the plate
glass window of a department store.
Whatever antics my friends pulled didn’t
work. The government techs said “Nix.”
Helen was a poet, much published. She wrote
like Sylvia Plath on acid. She was mad as a
Hatter, as beautiful as a movie star. Once
each summer, on a full moon night, she would
wear her platinum hair in tiers, don flashy
costume jewelry, wear a black satin gown and
walk barefoot through the ghetto. No one
could stop her. The police would find her in
the morning, raped and beaten. They would
file a report. Helen would give it to her social
worker. “I couldn’t help myself.” She would
say through tears.
We all knew she set the whole thing up
with her gangsta lover.
We wander the ghost lanes of
our lost souls, coat collars turned
up against the blistering cold.
There is nothing left to gamble.
All bets were off, for us, a long
time ago. Time is all that’s left,
It’s the kind one serves like a
We huddle beside the Mission,
smoke caged cigarettes, wait for
it to open: prayer, meal, lights out
at ten, spectral dreams with
Prayer? What is there to pray for?
Tomorrow we will rise slowly,
as from a graveyard like dead men,
and haunt the world again.
Key in the wrong door, maybe it will open
to something better?
I hear two doors close behind the locked one
The sound is final, my visit done.
I grew up near a race track, horses, dogs.
All the races were fixed.
There was a sign staked near the entrance
someone hammered into the ground.
“Jesus Finds The Lost.”
Lost bets I wondered?
No, the lost find Jesus, I concluded.
Not as good as scoring money but they
have to win something.
I’ll end this poem with a conversation
with a homeless person.
“Are you lost?” I ask him.
“I’m homeless. Can you spare some
“Maybe. I’m writing a poem. So far
it has no meaning. I was hoping you could
give it some.”
“You want meaning from a bum?”
“I’ll take it from anyone.”
“You need the right key to open the right
door. If you never find that key you’ll
be locked out forever.”
I gave him some change anyway.
On the weekend at my favorite coffee shop, I would see the same woman working, who greeted me with a smile and some friendly comment. She didn’t know my name. I didn’t know hers. She became a fixture in my Sunday morning, knowing my cup and what goes in it, she asked where I was heading, where I live, told me where she lived and that she sometimes walked to work.
During the week, I frequent different places; the same coffee shop chain as the Sunday shop, just different locations depending on where I’m heading each day. Each one features its own cast of employees and customers, each, like me, with their own story.
Over the months, the weekend visits that included the cheery woman became normal, just a part of my Sunday, which really was focused on my taking my young nephew for “our” time, me with my usual shots of espresso on ice, his frozen concoction. He and I knew that we would probably be served by the happy gal, and even though we never spoke directly to it, it seemed understood that she was as part of our routine as the drinks.
As life goes, someone alerted me that the woman had gone into a coma associated with advanced cancer that I never knew she was struggling with. She was expected to die within 48 hours, which she did. The wave of sorrow that hit me was as unexpected as hearing the news: after all, I didn’t even know her name, so why that would trigger anything but mild feelings of distant sorrow for her, or her family perhaps, was a surprise. I thought about the times I conversed with her husband outside the shop, introducing our respective family dogs. I found out her name, and that she and her husband had three children along with the dog, and that they lived in the house that years before had offered their yard to a float that didn’t make the grade for the local Independence Day parade. I saw the collective sorrow of her colleagues, who went through the pulling of espresso shots like robots with tears streaming down their faces. And I cried while trying to talk to my nephew about life and death and people and random relationships that form while we’re not paying attention.
So back to a different shop, where groups formed around some random guy who held spirited conversations with whomever was around. He brought his big furry dog every day and tied him to the shop’s fence while inside he was holding court and waxing philosophical, or political, or social, psychological, whimsical. I knew the dog’s name, but not the guy’s. Nearly each of the days that I started my morning at this particular place, I could count on seeing them there.
One morning, I was barely out of my car when the man rushed to me and shouted from ten feet away, “MY DOGGY DIED.” And he broke into tears. I felt compassion, and listened as he sobbed and spoke to his loss. I realized that my reaction was not just obligatory, but heart-felt. Curiouser and curiouser.
I offered a hug, instinctively as an animal lover but also because of this strange nothing of a relationship that still made me teary-eyed as I went into the store. The employees at this store, who also know my drink and my cup but not my name, asked how my morning was going, and looked deeper as they may have noted the tears..
I collected my drink, headed back to my car, and began my day post-coffee-shop. I would think about the guy and his dog, and the cheery woman at the other shop who died and left a hole in her friends’ and family members’ lives, and it got me to thinking how strange it is that we become intimate with people whose names we don’t know, whose houses we have never been to or would likely ever go to, whose families and friends we didn’t know, whose histories we have no part of yet with whom we are inextricably linked. Via espresso. Via location, interests, common steps we share.
If I am a microcosm in the vast planet of people, I would venture that we all carry our own unique set of intimate relationships that we don’t necessarily or immediately recognize. It is the random quality that makes it easy to relegate those moments, events or relationships to the mundane or unimportant. Yet the way we touch others or are touched come in surprise packages. In a collective sense, as part of the teeming intricate concept that defines humanity, we are ultimately and simply not alone.