Brooklyn-tinged epistles between
David A. Kirschenbaum and Sean Cole
70 years ago,
in the summer of 1952,
my dad, Irwin, was 22.
He headed to Coney Island one day
with his friend Joe Pantano.
Dad was hungry, Joe too.
Joe spotted his friend Estelle, 17,
and knew her mother always gave her something to eat
so she wouldn’t go hungry.
Joe headed over to Estelle,
and a few minutes later he returned with two salami sandwiches.
Once they finished eating,
dad flagged down the Good Humor man, said
“You see that girl over there?”
motioning to the woman who would become my mother in 14 years,
“Give her whatever she wants.”
A few minutes later,
the Good Humor man headed back to dad, said
“She wouldn’t take anything, because she said she doesn’t know you.”
Joe and my dad went over to mom.
“This is my friend Irwin,” Joe said
and then mom took her ice cream.
This is what they call in Hallmark movies a meet cute.
I don’t get scratchy for snazz, everything I has is adequate. All I want is a chair there in the corner by the metal
shelf now housing all the true stuff. How they’ll get that mercy
seat through the svelte portal though I’ll never know. They might
take me out of this new apartment “toes first” the idiom goes. (But who measures the directionality of each corpse, really, and aggregates.)
We fed ourselves New Year’s soup in the dining room while Ed lied
pointless on his provisional recline-o-clast – all round edges and moss.
The dead people people came in, closed the door, did whatever
necromancy, and emerged a rolling palanquin, sheet pulled over.
I, still not ready, followed them out the door with goodbye shoulders.
One of the morticians, putting the casual in casualty, called out
“I don’t know what you’re cookin’ in there but it smells fantastic!”
After Ed vanished, sat in his chair for the first concerted time and just
read. Never felt so comprehending before nor since.
Friends of my folks, Arte and Roz Cohen,
had an apartment in a building off the Grand Concourse in the Bronx,
though everybody in the Bronx said where they lived was off the Grand Concourse,
it was just the number of blocks that changed.
A few weeks before my parents’ February 1954 wedding,
the Cohens told them of an available apartment in their building,
and when my folks returned from their Miami honeymoon in early March,
this was where they planned to first live together.
Mom was talking about their Bronx apartment while at her jewelry manufacturing job,
and the owner, Mr. Perlman, heard her say that it was a fifth-floor walkup.
“No, that’s no good,” he said,
“How are you going to walk up five stories,
with groceries and kids?
I have a friend who owns some apartment houses in Brooklyn,
let me check with him.”
After they returned from their honeymoon,
my folks lived in my dad’s old bedroom in his parents’ apartment,
East Seventh Street just above Avenue C,
until the place Mr. Perlman had helped them get was ready,
a fifth-floor apartment in a building one block from Prospect Park,
a fifth-floor apartment in an elevated building one block from Prospect Park.
Dear David, “How will I walk up these three long flights
every day?” I say to myself as I walk up and down them
every day. “With my legs,” I reply, one and then its
brother, and my heart tapping badly on a stern
window. My lungs complain – then comply.
“Two chambahs,” said Mother T. on the church steps
back in Crown Heights about my lungs. My smoker’s fist
still smiting my jokey chin. “Two chambahs.” Always
hear her say it when I’m on that corner. Every mother
wishes I would quit, from every corner of the alphabet.
I’ll miss Mother T. out there weeding potted plants
as though they were eden (I almost said “wedding.”) I’ll
miss mushing up one flight only. Three’s a lot
and long ones. But I’ve missed North Brooklyn
like a lyric painted on the pavement and then rained
on. I’ll lift one leg, then the next, then the first – take
the bus to yoga class at Classon and St. John. Wait
in track pants under plaid umbrella. Chambahs
inflating. Waiting. Then a hum from somewhere.
In early 1954, my mother took the subway each day from the Church Avenue stop
to her jewelry manufacturing job in the diamond district.
My mom showed a friend of hers the ring my father had just gifted her.
“I got it for my three-month anniversary.”
My mom heard a women nearby,
having misheard what mom said, say
“I’ll be damned if she’s married three years.”
Mom corrected that woman,
it was a story the two of them would retell often over the next seven decades.
Dear David, three trains to work three days a week. Not
the 3 train anymore, but three of them. G at Greenpoint, choose
the Court Square stairs not the Church Ave ones ’cause I’m a city
pigeon those three days making three, well, two changes. Up Court stairs
to 7 corridor, first the escalator where folks are pretty
good about riding right to let us left side masochists pass them. Then
another flight of still ones. Hunters Point, Vernon Jackson, lately some
sportsy person calling stations, “Grand Central! Not to be
confused with a Grand Slam which I happened to hit seven of
in my career!” Like I care. Like I’m here for some forced form
of enter-train-ment. Times Square one train left, the 1 train. Get
off at 28th, seem to think the people want to pop me in the brave
umbrella. Remember how you said only New Jerkers hold
the jumbo ones above their heads which – sure. But I haven’t doffed my
Boston hobbies even in this mosh pit where – a hit. Then a hand
to handsome you up. Then coffee. Then the music re-begins.
Eventually Bobbie and her husband Sandy moved next door to my folks
on Caton Avenue,
a block from Prospect Park,
their daughters born a month apart.
When the kids fell asleep,
Bobbie and Sandy and mom and dad would get together in each other’s apartments,
over coffee, some conversation, maybe watch a little tv,
but they wanted to avoid having to move one of their months old daughters each time.
At first, they would leave both their apartment doors open to hear any cries.
My parents and the Spiegels bedrooms abutted each other,
so eventually my dad decided to drill a hole between them,
wired an intercom connecting the two,
so they could hear their girls in their cribs
and not disturb their sleep.
Ben and Catrin lived on Ocean and Caton. Then another
Ocean situation, still not by the Ocean. I never got
that. In Mass. the roads are named for neighborhoods they
go to. Here it’s aspirational. East of Nostrand, all these empire
aves – Kingston, Albany, Troy, Schenectady, Utica,
Rochester, Buffalo, Ralph. Wherever Ralph is. As though
you could boil the whole state into a ball and roll it through
Crown Heights and Brownsville. (My fridge is mewling at me
now.) Or as though the whole borough were a crossword: state
names going down. Saint names bisecting them like holy
excommunication pole arrays. I’d say it helps like all
the numberdom up north where the phallus of “the city”
sticks its tongue under the tap. But the map, it’s just
art here. Like the Trinity Bellwoods Park poster rolled up
somewhere in this totem jungle. In this long-john
shh-cathedral. Waiting to be unfurled.
My sister, a few months old,
starts crying in the middle of the night,
my dad gets up to give her a bottle,
boils the bottles and the nipples in preparation,
but heats them too long,
and all the nipples they had melted,
all of them.
So he called the local police station,
“Do you have any idea where I can get nipples this time of night?
My daughter needs them for her bottles.”
“Neergard,” they told him,
which, at that time was the only 24-hour pharmacy around,
so dad drove from the Parade Grounds
to 9th Street and 5th Avenue
and returned to Caton Avenue with some nipples.
Andrei wants to call his podcast
“Nipples in the Crowd.” He should!
Look around. Shrouded nipples. The whole
fairground. Your mind, my buddy,
is a cloud. You don’t see it but
I’m making a point. And then
I like the tips of tied
balloons. They’re scandalous! Yet
no one tells you so out loud. The grass
is dewed. Alarms and thunder
pugilize. Robyn Hitchcock sings of
“floating currents of human eyes.”
We know who the nipple owners are.
We’re surrounded and surrounder
at Bedford and at Lorimer.
Babies sip until their whistles fail.
Grown-ups slouch. Let’s grab lunch.
There’s good pepita watching to
avoid atop this paved triangle.
the Loew’s Kings on Flatbush near Albemarle,
and on their walks back down to Caton Avenue
they would window shop on Flatbush.
All the stores had no gates back then.
Sandy would say to my dad when they walked Flatbush back alone,
“When I’m able to look in a window,
and see what I like,
and walk in and buy it, Baum,
that’s when I’ll know I’m rich,
Dear David, it wasn’t a date. We met
at Williamsburg Concession. I call it that
’cause it was all about the popcorn for her.
I don’t remember what we saw. I do remember
what we wore. No I don’t. But wouldn’t
that be adorable? She loved popcorn so much
she’d sometimes watch a movie just so she
could order some beforehand. Sometimes
she’d go to the concession stand, buy a tub
and not see any picture. This popcorn fan
I loved her how you love a crush, who is
a friend, who shares your bed whenever
there’s a thirteenth month, who’s like
a moth – light, off-white, bumpy at the outer
edge, buttery, huddled with unique
duplicates near the one, flickering moon-
replica, in an otherwise darkened room.
My sister went to the movies one Yom Kippur in the early ’70s,
bought popcorn even though she was supposed to be fasting,
and on her way to her seat,
stumbled and spilled out the entire bucket.
Dear David, finally got Covid. Stuck here in my
crow’s nest on Manhattan Ave. – a street named
for the borough I leer at from my perch on the third
floor, actually the fourth. Long story. (See what I did
there?) I’ll be here the next four days but you shouldn’t
worry about me. I have butter and bread (frozen) one
and a half avocados, a bit of homemade pasta sauce
in an old salsa jar, and yogurt of some stripe or other
plus horseradish cheese. I have cigarettes I’m dying
to smoke. Half this breathlessness I guess is panic
from nicotine withdrawal. The lozenges don’t work.
Mulrooney notwithstanding. I have to read his book.
Have time now in this illness attic. Still unpacking.
Lack energy for it. One day I’ll be clean and this home
I’m desperate to hone will welcome new lovers and
also possibly auditors. But I’ll win those interrogations
and everyone will leave quietly through the slim door.
I’m on the LIRR to Atlantic Terminal,
headed to a poetry reading in a park on Flatbush Avenue,
because soon it will be too cold to go to poetry readings outside again until the winter becomes spring.
So this morning I called my friend Philip Spiegel,
Bobby and Sandy’s youngest,
who still lives in the same Sheepshead Bay apartment his family moved to when they left Caton Avenue in the mid-’70s,
to meet for a late lunch.
“How about the same place as last time?” he says,
but neither one of us knows the name of the pizza place we ate at before the Liberty game a few months back.
So I Google Flatbush Avenue pizza Barclay Center
and it turns up Gino’s at 218 Flatbush.
“That’s the place,” Philip says, “That’s the place.”
Can’t think straight because
no nicotine. Trying not to smoke
while Coviding. The date I had
arranged on Wednesday begged off, said
the cold front sent her sinuses
upstate. I said, “No sweat.
Maybe Monday?” Then no word.
Then a monster grew my throat.
Drug my tassels up and down
Pandemic Ave. Then, today,
she texted back. “Monday’s great!
Grab a drink and kick it in McCarren Park?”
“I have news,” I said.
The Spiegels moved to the apartment next door to my folks,
shortly before my father drove them in his 1950 Hudson
to Brooklyn Jewish Hospital
for the birth of their first child in early 1957.
“Babe, I’m starving,”
Bobbie said immediately upon seeing Sandy and my dad after giving birth to Audrey.
“Can you get me a pastrami sandwich?”
No sleep ’til Brooklyn finally
calmed the fuck down. This nutso
“oonce oonce” buzzing from some
dance club on Meserole by the bank.
It’s not sound. It’s like how deaf
people might encounter house
music. (Might. I don’t know.)
‘Cept now it’s in MY house. The club’s
called “Good Room” but it’s not. It’s
down the block – too far away to
crush my dreams you’d think but the
only club near here so must be that.
Underwear with youngsters in it flock
about. Last weekend, girl in halter top
takes one step out of glass bank lobby
and vomits. My date stops and squats
beside her. “I’m gonna be right here,”
she says, “’til you want me to leave.”
my father and Sandy would sometimes walk,
25 minutes or so,
from Caton to Bedford Avenue,
to Ebbets Field
to see you and your Dodger teammates play in their last season
before they went west.
Dear Gil Hodges,
When I grew up in Flatbush
we would drive through Brooklyn
and pass by Gil Hodges Lanes in Canarsie.
Then I’d think of you, Gil Hodges,
if I wasn’t already doing so,
because as a Mets fan,
and I am a Mets fan,
we would always think of the only man who, to that point,
had managed us to a world championship.
Dear Gil Hodges,
On November 27, 1967
the Mets may have made
their most important trade,
Bill Denehy and $100,000 to the Washington Senators
for the Senators almost five years manager,
you, Gil Hodges.
And you took a Mets team that had
never won 66 games before you came aboard,
were 29 games below .500,
to one that two years later would finish with 100 wins,
38 games above .500.
Perhaps it was that you were so good a player
for those great Dodger teams
that earned you your team’s respect,
perhaps it was your quiet way,
or maybe they remembered that July day
when after left fielder Cleon Jones
had taken his time fielding a hit,
you didn’t take yours,
and walked right past starter Gary Gentry
to pull Jones from the game.
Dear Gil Hodges,
Soon after you guided the Mets to the world championship in 1969
Sandy drove his 10-year-old son Philip to your house
just to look at it.
Dear Gil Hodges,
We are a newspaper collecting family.
It started with our parents
and Pres. Kennedy assassination N.Y. Times and N.Y. Daily News copies.
It skipped over my sister
and ended up with my seven-and-a-half years older brother Steven,
who was almost 13
when he delivered copies of the Daily News to his 80-customer route that spring of 1972,
the day after you had a heart attack just shy of your 48th birthday,
Steven saving one for the family collection.
When I’d thumb through all of these different papers while growing up,
this was always the one that froze me.
Three days after that paper appeared,
my dad and Steven
stood across the street from your funeral service
in a 10 or 15 deep crowd,
outside of Our Lady Help of Christians in Midwood.
Dear Joel Oppenheimer,
The only thing I know about the New York Mets is that you loved them.
(You and Colin Quinn’s character in “Trainwreck” who called them
“The Metropolitans,” I thought that was funny.) I love listening
to my memory of Lyman Gilmore describe your living room sorcery.
Switching off the TV set, turning on the radio instead, sex
with the Mrs. to ensure a grand slam in some crucial inning or other –
I do that kind of hoodoo too but more offhanded for less formal teams.
You wrote “The Wrong Season” about their worst year, a book
I’ve yet to crack past its forward. I’m sure my lock is in those pages
somewhere, waiting, but I’m Mr. Saturday when it comes to even low
hurdles. I think you can relate. So far I’ve only read the part of “Don’t
Touch the Poet” where you die, lying in an at-home, one-man M*A*S*H
unit in New Hampshire. Your sons around. I flash to one of them cuddling
your sudden crypt but that was me. Holding Ed’s dead body on the Cape.
His neck not even releasing to the failed pillow. Ed was born
the same year you were, spent a little time in New York, I wonder
if you ever passed baskets near Columbia. He didn’t get to Brooklyn
I don’t think. Never came to see me here. Wasn’t that he didn’t care
he just stopped leaving. Every day a home advantage. I have no club
but him, and you by parallel, and so I guess The Mets by proxy.
Only saw them once in Boston and rooted for the Sox. You’d’ve
liked that team that year. All the fur. And odd success. Who’d’ve thought
I’d end up here. In our empire’s under-doghouse. Up late. Rooting.
I like to spend money at venues that host events,
poetry or music,
poetry and music,
thanking them for their support,
hoping to have it continue.
I went to a reading in Crown Heights a couple of weeks back,
and I asked to see the menu.
I’m kosher, which you know,
so the scan is always the same,
looking for pescatarian options,
“The Impossible Burger,” I ask,
“Is it cooked on the same grill as everything else?”
“Yes,” the bartender says.
I check the menu again,
find the only other thing that I may be able to eat there.
“How are the vegan chicken nuggets prepared?”
When Rachel comes,
who I surprised to hear her read,
she wants a drink,
so we head to the bar,
“Lemme get it,” I say, “you’re the one reading tonight,”
and she does that thing i think women are trained at an early age to do,
“No, no, you don’t have to,”
and when I say I want to,
she lets me get her a vodka soda,
and I get a vodka gimlet on the rocks for me.
Dear David, I didn’t make it
to the spectral jazz room ’til
a month before I left Crown Heights.
Spectral cause it doesn’t exist
except Thursday nights. And then,
a parade in place. Pan-African
horns performing for folks
in folding chairs wearing
tapestric headscarves, bruised
cocktail loosening their jaws.
I’m stupid to have passed by
every week, or weeks I wasn’t
working late, and begged off.
Baba, neighborhood mascot mayor
told me over and over, “This
Thursday!” He made 79 this year
always carving canery outside
the curios shop with discount
incense. Only old person in my
life at that point. Prismic jump-
suit and box hat, prolly
worse off than his attitude
though he would press for
“assistance” fairly often.
Beloved. That’s what he called
me, “Hey beloved!” to my
rushed hello most mornings.
I needed that. Could use him now
that some new loneliness has
grabbed me these weeks, not
sure why. No blood-fresh absences
per se. In June when K. and I
were still an item I went to grab
brunch rations, saw Baba on his
usual stool. Spectacles down
his nose. “Happy Father’s Day!” he
called out. “They’re all gone,” I
said, thumbs-downing. “Huh?”
he said. “They’re dead,” I said,
“both my dads. They’re under-
ground.” He paused. Thought it.
Then said: “Only the body.”
I moved back to Brooklyn on Mother’s Day in 1996,
renting the back room on the ground floor in a brownstone in Park Slope for $390
from Dan, a gay guy in his late thirties, early forties, who could be classified as a bear.
“Are you okay living with someone who’s gay,” a friend of mine asked.
“He’s not trying to fuck me” I told him.
Dear David, my late dad lied on my floor
mattress in Greenpoint back when he was
alive. My first Brooklyn place, no half-decent
furnishings yet. Him 82 with ill feet, visiting
for my 41st. I can still see him prone, bereted,
fingers knitted on his front, but that’s ’cause
there’s a photograph. Both my parents christened
that apartment, different times. Mom’s back
seized so badly she couldn’t get off the pull-
out futon. Can hear her poor voice
a cat trapped between death and age. Their
presence didn’t portend anything I guess
but Morgan between Driggs and Nassau
was a witch. Everyone called it
“The Boonies.” I called it
“The Bermuda Triangle of Coincidences.”
Elna ten doors down from me. Molly
moved across the street. Joanna one street
over on Sutton – one night, out at wine,
deduced we have the same shrink. Here’s
how it would always go: “Where you
stayin’?” “Greenpoint.” “I live in
Greenpoint. Where in Greenpoint?”
“Morgan Ave.” “That’s where I live!
Where…” and so on. Half-expected
them to say “Dude, I’m staying with you,
okay?” Got beat up right where a pal
edited his film years earlier. Time
lapses but you fuse both totems
in a double exposure. Packing for my
Crown Heights move, found a letter
Aaron sent back when I was a Never
New Yorker. His address in the upper
left. Morgan Ave. That same block.
Quarter of our lives ago. I ran down-
stairs just in case I could still grab
him on his way to the mailbox.
After living in Flatbush for 21 years,
and thinking about getting a house in the suburbs for a good bunch of them,
it wasn’t until they caught the guy who bombed LaGuardia Airport
across the street from our apartment
that my folks decided to move.
Taking out the garbage at my St. Marks place one night a swarm
of officers in the courtyard. Not just uniformed but the ones in
suits. Their cars. Police tape ringling all the chess and back-
gammon tables. Two cops sentry at my front door. Dangling my bags
like bloated purses I go, “May I ask what happened?”
“Shoot out,” one says, then goes “pshoo pshoo” with his fingers like
a child who just watched “True Grit.”
“Shoot out?” I say. They nod. That building there.
“Inside or outside?” I ask. The latter.
It was fine
compared to time two years later Pejk and I watched this kid
whip out a pistol and fire four shots at someone running past
a grammar school. It was Sunday but still. We sped inside. Had wine
and smokes. Waited for the cul de sac to fill up with more tape
and law enforcement. Every time it happened my main squeeze
said “Baby can you please get outta there? I don’t like that at all.”
It made me feel loved. It is not why I moved.
I just missed the river.
I’m rewatching On the Town with my folks,
one of the many musicals that lives on their dvr,
we’ve always loved it,
but even more so now
because musicals, thankfully, still go over well for mom with her Alzheimer’s.
“Sure, I know a place right across the Brooklyn Bridge where no one will find us,” said Hildy, played by Betty Garrett,
who I first came to know as Laverne and Shirley’s landlady,
who later married Laverne’s father.
“Yeah? What is it?” Gene Kelly’s Gabey asks her.
Dear David, luckiest day of the year.
To wit: saw a dude on the G train –
enroute from Nassau to Myrtle
Willoughby – reading from
The Journal of Arachnology.
And I didn’t get bit.
Anchors Aweigh this afternoon,
us often watching it after On the Town.
Sinatra’s Clarence tells Gene Kelly’s Joe that he needs his help to meet a woman while they’re on leave.
“But I don’t know how to begin,” said Clarence.
“Now wait a minute,
don’t give me that bud,” Joe says.
“After all, you’re no yokel.
You’re from Brooklyn.”
“Even in Brooklyn,” Clarence replies, “things can go wrong.”
Things can go wrong in Brooklyn.
You do your best to keep the smoke from blowing
back in through the window. But it’s like building
a sieve out of packed sand at the river. Your pals
can go nuts, their railroad room walls barely
legible. You bring them lunch but the crumbs
have their own problems. Everyone is
screwy so it’s hard to parse the merely
fritzed from the dangerous idols. I don’t
want to be the keeper of my nude cousin
in crisis. Our visits feel like hurling
designer pants at a mailbox. There’s
thumping in all our crawlspaces
of course. It’s what I mean – who’s
to say this crayon diploma isn’t worth
the crepe paper you just ignited? If I
could wish sanity for every last King’s
County denizen I’d only be thinking
of you. All other geezers finding
clarity is just beautiful collateral.
Sometime when I was in fourth grade,
at P.S. 249,
1975 or 1976,
I got into a fight with Marty Sklar,
the only fight I’d ever been in to that point,
him falling from Marlboro Road into Caton Avenue,
avoiding oncoming traffic.
The following fall of 1976
we moved out to Long Island.
A year later I entered junior high.
My new classmate?
I think it was Peter Pan Donuts here on Manhattan or maybe
Russ’s Pizza. A dude bursts out of the door fuming, tearing off
his jacket like it’s four snakes. Another dude, in chef’s whites,
emerges, stands cross-armed, feet rooted, staring down the first
guy, who’s starting with that hoppy, boxer dance. I’ve never
stopped to parse the usage “spoiling for a fight.” I think it
comes from race cars, that brace over the back of them that makes
wind more manageable. I think of their engines going “spoil
spoil” as they gun around the oval. That was the sound under
the first guy’s hood. I don’t know what was wrong. Somehow
I think it was a girl. I had to tell myself not to stop and stare.
I hate hitting and yet its tree branches stretch for some
electric fruit. I wonder where both of them are eating tonight.
My folks had my brother watch me one New Year’s Eve in the mid-’70s.
We lived in Flatbush,
which meant the oldest I could’ve been was 9 years old, my brother 16,
but I think we were even younger.
My brother had friends over the apartment,
and they were about to toast the New Year
and I wanted to be included.
So he poured me a glass of milk to join them,
and we all toasted.
I took a sip,
and then spit all of the milk in my mouth right out,
along with the tequila my brother had mixed in.
Dear David each and every day
I misread the “Brooklyn Ports
Realty” sign across the street
as saying “Brooklyn Poets Realty.”
Soon after it’s 1973 debut,
while we were in our Caton Avenue apartment,
my brother would demonstrate the power of Krazy Glue
by adhering a penny to one of my arms.
Dear David my limbs are valuable and my skin
is valuable. My bones are copper-forged my irises
are this year’s dime strike, obsidian in the middle,
each a dollar worth. When I pass the Polish Slavic
Federal Credit Union on McGuiness there’s a slow
solemnity, a glow of understanding, two
fingers go to the temple in hello. That’s valuable.
It’s penworthy. Who dins this Greenpointillism
palette with their shoe lucre? We do. Wealthy
offers stuffed into our tin forgetful boxes. I could
tell you a lot about the brave withholdings bound
in bold security agreements but I’d rather span
my breath in the bath in the morning and loosen
all the options I’ve held sidelong, and viable,
with interest, in a slim eyelet through which
a camel’s follicle produces thatch. We’re all
Brinks drivers. Releasing clutch. At houses
made of anthracite tonight we’ll all arrive
and delve, at once, into a glinting sleep.
Sometime in the early to mid-’70s,
before we left Flatbush for Long Island,
laying on our opened convertible couch,
in the dining room we used as a den,
in our fifth floor Caton Avenue apartment,
late at night, lights out,
I was watching Joe Namath,
yes, future Pro Football Hall of Famer,
N.Y. Jets quarterback Joe Namath,
as a motorcycle rebel and the woman he rescues
in that biker movie I still call C.C. Rider,
after the 1920s blues song I know of from Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels and Elvis,
“I said see, what you have done now.”
Dear David, I guess when you’re 50 your musical idol writes a ballad for you called “Oh Sean” and performs it at your birthday party at Magick City in Greenpoint. He puts it on his new CD which makes you wonder whether someone might play it on the radio as a tribute to you after you die. Death is on your mind a lot right now like strolling down Norman Avenue past a dude with a C-shaped spine thinking “Me in 20 years. Well it’s been a nice life.” It’s fun to laugh when you’re alone. You’re glad your musical idol is Chandler Travis and not Mick Jagger or Yo Yo Ma or anyone you can’t hang out with at Nicky’s Unisex in Willamsburg pre-show though you did spend time with Yo Yo Ma once just for work. He called you “Oleg” as a joke. He too will die one day, that’s sad. All the people on the street and in the houses will be dead eventually, so many are already. Some have songs about them too, others not as lucky. Or youthful. Do you have to be youthful to have a ballad written in your honor or simply useful? At Nicky’s Chandler and John saw away at “Get Your Enjoys” by Eunice Davis, a song you’d never heard of elsewhere. Chandler’s very youthful, his shoelessness offset by toenail varnish. Slavic hat atop of him. You’re besties with his nephew Jer, everyone can be an uncle if they’re ambitious enough. Afterwards you all grab tacos at a place you’re too carbonated to remember the name of but steak and cheddar go together like shoo-bop sha wadda wadda yippity boom de boom. The winners are the ones who hoard minutes and forge a spinny whipping top out of them. The only point being do as much of what you want to do as you dance I mean as you can. Dance is fine.
In December of 1956,
my dad wanted to surprise my expectant mom,
so he brought his 1950 Hudson to Earl Scheib,
to give it a fresh coat of dark blue paint
so mom would go to the hospital in a nicer looking car.
While the car was out being painted,
my mom’s pregnancy came to a head,
so dad went to hail a cab to take her to Beth Israel,
where, later that day, she would give birth to their first child,
my sister Debbie.
All the cabbies by Caton and East 17th were afraid because of how pregnant mom was,
so none of them stopped.
Dad then walked her back to the building’s courtyard,
headed over to the taxi stand on Church and East 18th and got a cab,
“We have to go back to my apartment to pick my wife up,” he said.
Once dad was back at their apartment building,
he brought mom out from the courtyard and they headed to the hospital.
Dear David, tonight DW Box sang “you win some you lose some
that’s the game” at Pete’s Candy Store in Williamsburg. Had a fun
nightcap with her and Matt afterwards. Staggered home, fell
asleep writing this poem. Woke up to find I’d hit the return key
24,413 times. That’s many, many, many returns. None of them
exactly happy. No one says, “Many neutral returns.” Sometimes
you neither win nor lose some.
who used to have his mail addressed to Cobble Hill, N.Y.,
instead of Brooklyn.
Dear David a man named Alex came from Prospect Lefferts Gardens tonight
to take my couch. Is it Gardens or Garden? His sister’s name is Erica that’s
for sure. They drug the futon downstairs first. Erica gripping hopelessly her
end but out of help when the mattress hit the steps. I thought of
everybody’s feet, what they pick up on the street and bring inside.
Futon kissing sidewalk funk. Futon bundled in the trunk. Next the frame.
I bought this loveseat 113 months ago. We should age furniture in months like with babies. Got it for my first Greenpoint pad. Now I’m back and
giving it away – the circle of couch. So much room for bums now
in this place. Wonder whose new bums will bounce on what new couch
I finally acquire. I’m picky like I’ve never been. For furniture I mean
not bottoms. Also have a skinny door. Want more seating than can
possibly squeeze through. (I just said “can.”) Brooklyn is a series of impos-
sibilities piled on top of one another, and it’s nice people and their sisters
who come and haul away a thing you thought you’d endlessly desire.
I was the only person I ever knew who moved from Brooklyn,
and was paying less for their room each month.
Walking past Books Are Magic on Smith
Street in Carroll Gardens, I had
to recite to myself, out loud, over and over
“I have enough books already.
I have enough books already.
I have enough books already.”
The foyer from the front door to apartment 5A started out long and narrow,
and then widened to what once might’ve been a dining room,
there was a 9” bxw TV on a gold roll-away cart,
as well as a love seat,
that was my folks’ bed at the other end of the hallway in 5C,
when my dad, mom, and my sister and brother shared a one-bedroom apartment,
the love seat that dad says had the most comfortable mattress they’d ever slept on until then,
the love seat my dad’s mom,
my Grandma Minnie,
would sleep on when it was too late to get back to East 7th Street,
just above the corner of Avenue C,
in what dad and his friends knew then as the Lower East Side,
but by that time, 1966,
was better known as the East Village,
that my Grandma Minnie was sleeping in late one night in 1973,
waking my folks up
and insisting that my dad drive her home immediately,
because she wanted to die under her own roof instead of ours.
It was that widened portion of the foyer where my mom would return to
after dropping my 9-year-old sister and 7-year-old brother off at P.S. 249,
two blocks down Caton Avenue from the apartment,
and work on her paintings,
while waiting for me to be born on fall’s last full day.
Dear David riding to Andrei and Lynnea’s
saw Alicia striding down 5th Avenue full
as day – her face
relaxed in a slackened
listening. It was a face
I’d never seen.
Unaltered by my gaze. Yet I saw! How
was I both there and not bother?
Would have called her name. Thought of it.
But my Uber’s backseat window
wouldn’t roll down.
“There aren’t many poets
I’d sit through the rain
to watch read,”
Jim Behrle told Eddie Berrigan
after hearing Eddie and his older brother Anselm
read in the uncovered backyard of Prospect Heights, Brooklyn’s Unnameable Books,
it now in their third location and under its second name,
to watch the sons continue to honor their late father Ted
and further herald the book of their dad’s collected prose
that they shepherded for years,
from the time their mother came in from Paris,
bearing photocopies of all of their fathers’ prose work
in identical folders,
one for each son,
the two of them first entering every poem into their computers,
just to do so,
with no thoughts of publication,
on through to editing the work for Get the Money!,
the book that would come to be from City Lights.
Dear David, Kelly says we should go to the Basquiat show.
This was years ago, at the Brooklyn Museum. I get there before
her, buy our tix. Exhibit’s called “One Basquiat” – intriguing.
Something to do with Basquiat’s uniqueness? Being one
with Basquiat? Kelly’s late. We hold hands walking
into the gallery room where, on the wall, there hangs exactly
one Basquiat painting. One Basquiat.
my yesterday poem could have gone in a million directions
and been insanely long,
if I wanted it to be,
but Eddie and Anselm reading in the rain was the big theme of the night,
that and family,
the honoring of their dad
and Ted and Alice’s granddaughter Sylvie,
in 10th grade now,
“Where’s your dad?”
someone asked her before the reading.
“He’s going to be here soon,” she said,
“He’s coming from teaching.”
Sylvie’s grown a helluvalot since the last time I saw her and Anselm,
with her younger sister June, too,
over on Greenwich Avenue,
pushing a carriage,
over on Jane and West 12th streets
by Benny’s Burritos.
“We used to take them to the Benny’s on Avenue A,” Anselm said,
as, with Jim Behrle riding shotgun,
I drove Sylvie and Anselm home to the East Village,
him carrying dinner from Maya Taqueria of Prospect Heights,
the Mexican restaurant down the block from the third and newest location for Unnameable,
615 Vanderbilt Avenue,
the Mexican restaurant I used to go to after almost every Welcome to Boog City Arts Festival event I did at Unnameable’s previous location,
diagonally across from Maya Taqueria,
me gathering punches on my card,
determined to redeem it for a bean and cheese burrito,
which I eventually did,
after eight consecutive festival events,
over two or three years.
“That food there at Benny’s on A had no taste to it,” Anselm said,
“No spice, unfortunately.
But the girls loved to go there,
and it was near our apartment.”
“You know what we used to love about that place,”
“They used to give June and me mints from up front.
as many as we wanted.
“When we were away,
with mom and dad once,” said Sylvie,
“the place we stayed,
used to give out Andes Mints,
but Mom didn’t like us to have more than one each.”
“So while mom and dad would take the elevator from our room down to the lobby,
June and I would go running down the stairs,
and grab as many mints as we could,
hiding them in every pocket we each had, including parts of my coat that weren’t even pockets.”
I see Anselm only in Manhattan and Eddie only in Brooklyn.
That’s not as true as I purport – it’s truer. Bearded
Lady margaritas with an old flame after a long run, I spy
the younger Berrigan ambling Washington Ave., his
Ray-Bans. I leap out of the bar in gym shorts and a wild
bandana. “Are you the famous poet Eddie Berrigan!” I shout,
“Can I have your autograph?!” We can see each other’s faces
‘cause it’s 2019. He joins us at the bar. Secret wish that he
and my ex swap digits and I officiate their nuptials some-
day, somewhere in the park. He can have that impact on
la femme, Eddie. A friend – “swoon” is too strong but she said
nothing’s more beautiful than watching a shy person perform.
That was in Noho so already I belie my sooth. I only
see Alice in the world’s audiences and I’ve only seen Ted
when I read “Train Ride” on a train ride from San Diego
to LA. Andrei gave it to me for my 50th. Told Anselm
that at the Bowery, his face cracked a wide, beardy
cheese. We’ve read at Unnameable, Anselm and I.
See how I belie? It was dark and gravid with music
stands and booze and not enough lumen. But the moon
which jewels above both boroughs and both brothers was
certainly aloft that night and useful as idea at least
if not ideal. In dreams I tie a rope to it, the moon, and hand
it to two Berrigans, one and then his dual, and say it’s
a bouquet and that I’m Natalie Wood who starred
with their parents and Robert Culp in that wife-swap
movie. Frank said movies are at least as good as poems
but that one wasn’t I can tell you. (I was in it!) Anne said
“music beats us” meaning poets. I don’t think any of that
is true. I have the moon on a string. I am believable.
My folks had my brother watch me sometimes after school when
we lived in Flatbush,
which meant the oldest I could’ve been was 9 years old, my brother 16,
but I know this began when we were even younger.
Every time my brother would walk me back into the building,
together, by ourselves,
we’d head to the elevator,
and he would drop his apartment keys down the elevator shaft.
He would then maneuver the elevator cab so it would be raised halfway up from the space where its doors would normally open up on the ground floor.
He’d have his right thumb holding the elevator door button,
and replace it with mine,
before he would jump into the elevator pit,
and look up and tell me,
“Hold the button, David,
hold the button or the elevator will crush me and I will die.”
And then he would begin to rapidly scream the same words at me
while he looked for his keys.
“Hold the button, David,
Hold the button or the elevator will crush me and I will die,”
over and over again,
until he rejoined me in front of the elevator door,
apartment keys in his hand,
and lowered the cab back down to where it should be,
Dear David, today at Greenpoint Ave. G station –
janitor with mop and bucket awaits elevator
to take him down to platform.
His phone rings. His ringtone
is the theme to “Mission Impossible.”
I don’t like to spend money at venues that host ballgames,
not thanking them with my support,
hoping to have that continue.
I went to a Brooklyn Cyclones game in Coney Island a couple of months back,
and I looked up at the vegan menu,
I’m kosher, which you know,
so the scan is always the same,
not looking for pescaterian options,
“The Impossible Burger,” I ask,
“Is it cooked on the same grill as everything else?”
“No,” the counter person says.
I check the menu again,
find there is only one other thing that I may be able to eat there.
“How are the potato knishes prepared?”
“On the same grill as the Impossible Burger.”
When Philip comes,
who I didn’t pay any attention to hear him order,
he wants a drink,
so we stay at the counter.
“Lemme get it,” he doesn’t say, “you’re the one driving tonight,”
and he does that thing I think men are trained at an early age to do,
he doesn’t say anything,
and when I don’t say I want to,
he lets himself get a bottle of water,
and I get a Diet Coke on the rocks for me.
Dear David oh shit I have to write a poem
I thought to myself at 11:35pm.
Still at work. In Chelsea.
Doing pretty well if that’s my struggle.
Office pays our cabfare home past 10.
Like overtime on wheels. I’m in a taxi now
turning West 14th into a horse.
In half a mile we’ll sprout wings down
2nd Ave. Become a myth.
Then bridge. It’s metal tresses
jingling — keys to couples’ hearts
I only lose my keys when I need them and it has
nothing to do with love. Like when I’m outside smoking
and the elevator locks. The elevator at my job of course
I’ve no such luxury in Brooklyn. Oh look
the spooky revelers in robes, flapping at
the club. I wish I was with them but I’ve got
poems and cab rides to finish and Brooklyns
to arrive in. Flights of stairs ahead of me
and Miles Davis to go in my ear holes over
two wines before the night goes bump. One
World Tower watching over me from across
the river. The river whose metal bed
tucks in for the evening also – glistening.
Esther Haberman and my mom were classmates at Seward Park High School
over on Grand and Essex in the Lower East Side.
Esther’s boyfriend, Artie,
lived in Flatbush,
and so Esther, Mom, and Artie
had a double date,
meeting in Prospect Park.
A trip to the park was a pretty big deal if you came over from the city,
and the four of them just walked around,
before heading to Garfield’s Cafeteria on the corner of Church and Flatbush,
the kind of space they didn’t have back in lower Manhattan.
When they moved near the park’s Parade Grounds a couple of years later,
they would more often go to the Savoy Tea Room,
on Church near East 18th Street
with Bobbie and Sandy,
and go in at night to order ice cream sundaes.
“What are you going to have,” the waiter asked,
Wet nuts or dry nuts?”
Dear David I love my new neighborhood Greenpoint which is also
my old neighborhood. Have chanced into so many buddies on Manhattan Avenue you’d think I was in Manhattan. Daniel’s blonde buzz cut racing
to work this morning paused for hugs. Tim Poovey late for a movie says
hi for a sec, “You live here now!” both of them said. Just today
I figured out no you wanna be on the last G car to land at the far
steps at Court Square not the first one. Glad I didn’t know that ‘til
now – magically saw both Elna and Evans on two days consecutive. Even learned what Evans does for work! It’s an occult limb I’m out on
out here dangling over water like dinner for Tantalus. ‘Cept the apples actually drop and I crunch them and mop my pretty beard with a sure palm.
When I was seven or eight I had trouble hearing,
which led to a lisp.
Once a week my mom would take me to Brooklyn College for speech therapy.
How did she get me to go each week?
By reminding me,
each time we would head to the campus,
that she was going to once again take me to the McDonald’s just off campus,
where they had a TV
this was the mid-’70s,
when most only bars had televisions
to show their patrons sports,
so as to keep them drinking–
they had a TV playing Three Stooges shorts on permanent repeat.
Nothing’s funny at the funny farm in Woodhull Hospital and less
is pastoral. Penned-in area mimics the outdoors poorly like a squished
jailyard. Netting overhead. Visited my pal today on its bad
benches. Hunched nurse at the glass door with a stopwatch. Only minutes
escape here. My buddy’s doing better I can tell ’cause he didn’t ask me
to record him or complain about how pretty he is or try to sue anyone.
The stare is there but understandable in a place where everybody’s trying
to punch a ghost. The moment you finally attain sanehood in a psych
ward must be the worst one. Your brain screaming to get out but you
can’t let your mouth do that ’cause they’ll think you’re nuts. My friend’s
not fully baseline yet, but asked for a book when I grabbed my bag
on the way out. I gave him mine. Walked out into the Bed-Stuy sun,
guilty ’cause he couldn’t. Three blocks later I get a call from him in which
he read, aloud, a poem of mine to me, just to say how much he liked it.
Isn’t that crazy?
Boog gets me fired from jobs sometimes.
Well I get me fired from jobs sometimes.
In the winter of 1994-95
I wanted to transform our general interest zine, MA! or ManAlive!,
into a free community newspaper.
I sketched out my ideas in my composition notebook,
the questions I’d need to answer,
the staff I wanted to assemble.
I was going to buy a building in the East Village to house the whole operation,
the paper would have its offices there,
the editors would have apartments to live,
and get Macbooks from ad trades with Apple.
I was working on my Ph.D. in American history at CUNY-Grad,
quitting the program because the two profs I wanted to advise me on my dissertation didn’t pan out,
one, having just become department chair,
had no time to take on new dissertation candidates,
the other viewing my topic as not having enough heft for a dissertation,
telling me the story of how a professor had shot down his proposed dissertation topic for also being too slight,
and, with a guilty smile, how he was going to do the same thing to me.
And I was dating a poet,
us writing poems to/for/with each other all the time,
staying over at what was soon to be our apartment
who introduced me to her classmates Anselm Berrigan and Greg Fuchs,
who come February I’ll both know longer than I haven’t,
which is a nice thing,
a poet who shared the same birthday with me,
albeit six years apart,
and December 19, the eve of our shared birthday,
her turning 22, me 28,
I drove in from Long Island to go to the movies with her.
We saw Cobb,
that movie starring Tommy Lee Jones as the legendary baseball player,
and world-class bigoted asshole, Ty Cobb.
When it turned midnight during the movie,
when it became our shared birthday,
I got down on my left knee,
offered her a ring I made from a concession stand straw,
and asked her to marry me.
She didn’t take the ring.
I drove her home from the movie theater on West 84th and Broadway,
to her place on 5th Street just below Avenue C,
6.7 miles for us to not really talk to each other.
The only things I remember were discovering that a part of East 26th Street was dedicated to Herman Melville
(and feeling guilty that I’d never read Moby-Dick)
and that when I dropped her off she said she needed some time to think,
not about the proposal,
I was undiagnosed bipolar,
not willing to go on meds.
I moved in with the poet
immediately after I quit my Ph.D. program,
the way I sometimes quit things when the mania turned to depression,
I just stopped showing up and stayed in our bedroom all day.
I was there when she left for work and when she came home.
Eventually, she forced me back into therapy,
saying she’d break up with me if I didn’t.
Then a cousin who ran a boy’s club on 6th and D
offered me part time clerical work to get me out of the house.
A few months later my sister,
who was selling ads at Manhattan File
got me a tryout with their parent company
to do formatting work, pagemaker layout,
for one of their subcontracted jobs, The Amsterdam News,
and I got out even more.
While there I made friends with our production crew,
and many of them would pitch in on various Boog publications and events,
including, a year later,
finally implementing that free publication idea,
taking MA! and its 100 copies
to a 1,500 copy, letter-size newsprint magazine, Booglit,
available free throughout the East Village.
But we got no ads.
With no real money,
I brought Booglit down to MA!’s old specs,
a 100-print run, half-letter sized zine,
done entirely on ivory resume paper.
Early in 1997
I was itching to do a slicker zine,
so i doubled Booglit back to letter size,
decided on a bxw glossy cover with a spot color,
and put out a baseball-themed issue.
I did the covers at a printer in Williamsburg,
the guts at a high-end copy shop elsewhere in the borough,
which coil afford to offer zinemakers low rates
because of a hefty contract with the board of ed,
and, as is my unintended style,
bound them right there in Cafe Fuerte in Park Slope
before and during a baseball poetry reading
that included Anselm, Elinor Nauen,
and former Miracle Met, Ed Charles, the glider,
who before the reading said he could only read one poem
and then had to get out of there.
So he headed to the mic,
read his one poem from memory,
and sat back down.
A few minutes later,
during Anselm’s set,
Ed waved me over.
“Hey, can I do one more?”
Yes, yes he could.
The following issue was due out a month later,
a women’s writers themed one.
I still wanted to do the glossy covers,
and so spent some major bank on them.
I had to cut corners,
so when I would come in during the weekends to the newspaper office,
not to work,
but so my staff could have its own defacto office,
I decided to print the guts of Booglit straight from the laser printer on my side of the production floor.
I printed one side of a page,
then reloaded the printer with those copies
to print upon the other side.
I went through so much toner the pages started to streak,
so I switched ink cartridges,
using one from the laser printer on the other side of the production floor.
That Monday, Juliette, our production manager,
called me into her office and fired me.
I went back to my room in Park Slope and stayed there,
depositing my unemployment checks becoming my only day out each week,
doing some food shopping at the same time.
I didn’t do much more than watch the 19” RCA tv my parents had gifted me when I turned 30 five months earlier.
(Hell, it sits unused in my apartment because it takes me right to that time when it was my lifeline.)
The only person I ever saw was the guy I rented the room from,
who had to go through my room whenever he wanted to garden,
which was often.
I was on the ground floor of a brownstone,
and just off the corner of 10th Street and 5th Avenue,
there was a pizza place like 500 feet from my door,
where I’d sometimes go get an eggplant parmigiana hero,
extra sauce on the side.
It took another Boog-induced bipolar trip five years later,
facilitated by Booglit’s successor Boog City,
followed by never leaving my apartment in Chelsea
that I’d moved to from Park Slope,
a depression so bad
that i’d wait four weeks before depositing those four unemployment checks at once
and get a few things from Gristede’s and the fruit stand,
emerging 11 months later,
after I was going to skip my first niece’s 13th birthday party,
and wasn’t liking what I had devolved into.
Before taking lithium.
Dear David, was good to see you today – what I could
see of you above the mask har har. Our Torn Page is taped
together by a hundred elfen helpers, scurrying our shoes, bringing
wine cups back and forth through rooms of paper screens and rune
curtainia. We’re objectively sacred as any statue in this house
or statute in the state. And I feel beautiful today in Chelsea but I’ve
broken Brooklyn off as its own nation – a contained Singapore. I do that
so I can adore New York even on my ugliest mornings. I love
this borough with all my shoulder, with the fat laugh of a Chicagoan
or the soldier’s field road rage of a doofus from Southie.
Looking at a map I’m upset not to be in every corner of it, searching
every street for both its names. I’ll name you after Brooklyn
if you want – grab a blade of prospect grass to braid
into your hair. Whitman printed first editions here, near
where the ferry docks. If memory serves he sweated every
picayune detail like a manic tailor. The building’s gone.
The mania remains. The ferry still goes to and fro like it can’t
decide which side of the river is more restful. Tell it to call me.
Pat Reed’s was the first workshop I ever took at Naropa,
a little over 30 years ago.
One of her exercises was to write about home,
none of these constraints I always place upon us in these exercises,
which you almost always agree to.
And though I hadn’t lived there in almost 16 years,
I thought of playing skeet in the Flatbush streets with my friend Darryl,
us laying down,
each alternately squeezing our right thumbs and index fingers
to propel a melted crayon-filled milk cap.
Of going beneath the slide in the Parade Grounds at Prospect Park,
facing the steps,
grabbing the bars you’d hold onto before you slide
and start climbing up the slide’s underside until I flipped over.
I came to the realization soon after that home is where my folks are,
wherever that is,
and I’m forever grateful to Coney Island
for bringing them together 70-plus years ago
over salami sandwiches and reciprocal Good Humor ice cream.
Home is where I work on Mondays which is action-packed.
This morning’s errands, pass a couple outside Meserole post
office clutching each other, her gray hair buried under his beard.
“It’s okay,” he says, “We’ll go back and we’ll fix it.”
“No,” she sobs to him, “It’s too late.” I act like
no one’s terrified, toss a spent butt down the subway
grate, it heaves in admonition. A witch window competition is
my neighborhood today, though Christmas lights have begun
to drape themselves above the corner where the frou-frou coffee
places duke it out for business. Later when I go downstairs
to smoke again a whiskey in man’s clothing comes too close.
“Neh… neh… never say sorry to nobody! If you say sorry
to somebody you gonna be fucked up forever!” I nod,
escape south. Hadn’t planned a constitutional yet here
I am, weaving in and out of souped up children in wolf
onesies and face paint and wire halos. Trick or treating
in these parts is walking into pharmacies and extorting
Reeses cups from the cashiers instead of purchasing.
I know ’cause the first three blisters in my pack of laxatives
were empty when I opened it so I had to go back.
“Will they believe me?” I thought, “I’m wearing a mask.
I could be dangerous.” Can’t remember the last time
I had to persuade someone I wasn’t a con man.
No wait I do! It was with Tracey at Night of Joy on
Meeker, we found a bed bug traversing the wall. Wasn’t
sure at first when I nabbed it. “Do you need a Ziploc
bag?” she asked. “Why do you have an empty Ziploc,”
I said. The bartender squeezed my hand, asked if I
needed a drink, like, on the house. I declined. Which
should have shredded any skepticism about me
right then ’cause I’m a lush, David, let’s face it.
Home is where the drinks are. She phoned the manager.
No one believed us. The bug was not living. Why
though would I spend my time escorting vermin
through the booze establishments of King’s
County, demanding no free beverages but instead
murmuring into the bent ears of their employees,
“Look – I don’t want to alarm anyone.”