For a while when I was introduced to someone, their eyes would glaze over as they tried to decide why my name sounded familiar. Here’s the reason:
Sometime in the 80s I noticed that The New York Times had a column, started in 1976, called “Metropolitan Diary,” which printed items sent by readers that related to the city. Someone I knew from work had an anecdote about a humorous incident on the subway in the column, and everyone made a big fuss about it. The Times even paid for items, at least for a few more years: either a bottle of champagne or $20. The column was like a blog-before-the-fact, printing the kind of items that bloggers now post.
Some of the items were mild poems or light verse. So I sent in a group of five poems that I thought suitable. They were quickly rejected.
Then an actress who was appearing in a play of mine threw a party. Among the guests was Ron Alexander, a playwright. His big hit had been Time Out for Ginger, which opened on Broadway in 1952 (in a theater that in the late 60s was used by producers who commissioned two plays of mine). Most of his later career was in TV, including a stint as an I Love Lucy writer. The hostess introduced me to him, since we both wrote plays.
A few months later, I saw that “Metropolitan Diary” had a new editor, Ron Alexander. I sent him a note of congratulations and the same batch of poems. A few days later I got a note: he was a different Ron Alexander, and he wanted to use two of the poems. Did I want the champagne or the money? (I took the money.)
This was the beginning of a long run. For him, since he edited the column from 1984 until his death in 1998. And for me, since over 60 pieces of mine ran in the column from then until 2002, when his successor used one piece.
The column was so popular, and my byline appeared so often, that for a while when I was introduced to someone, their eyes would glaze over as they tried to decide why my name sounded familiar. When my partner in a comedy act met the producer David Brown (he wasn’t just the husband of Helen Gurley Brown) and mentioned my name, he immediately responded, “Metropolitan Diary!”
Below is a selection from my 60+ pieces. (More will follow.) They generally had to have a connection to the city, or at least to life in nearby suburbs. Family stuff was good, or something seasonal, or connected to a holiday or an event (“Carnegie Hall, 1960” was printed the week of the hall’s centennial, although I’d written it long before.). Nothing obscure; nothing beyond the merest hint of sex; no overt politics. I did actual research for a few of them. I adapted others from work I had written before.
Shameful moment: Ron Alexander said he wasn’t allowed to print my work too often, so I suggested I could use another name on some of my pieces. I came up with “L. Adams”—since Adam was a gardener. So I published several with that pen name. Because of my addiction by that time to regularly appearing in print, I even submitted something that I knew wasn’t a good piece of writing. So there it was in the paper: something unworthy of me, and no one would even know it was mine.
(Another coincidence: the first editor who rejected my work was married to a woman I later worked with, who become a friend. So I met him a number of times, never mentioning our earlier interaction, which of course he wouldn’t have remembered.)
Plantains thrive in the sidewalk cracks.
The spiky things that grow in the middle are their flowers.
The crazy woman sings about summer,
Swings her red scarf as she walks in the sun.
All things flower any way they can.
Clear skies day after day
And coolness from Canada.
Sunlight streams 93 million miles
To make us feel good.
Through windows as we work
Or from darkened rooms
We glimpse the brilliance
Fading, growing, fading.
We squander these days as though
The supply were endless.
IN THE GRAY DECADE OF THE 80S
Hair never straight or long enough
To flip from my forehead
Like Rebel Without a Cause . . .
And I no longer suck my cheek in
Like Rhett Butler meditatively
Adjusting his dentures.
No love beads
Swing beneath my undershirt;
My row of body shirts bloom
Only in the storage closet’s dust.
But sometimes on a crisp day in winter
I throw my scarf ends over both shoulders
Like Holden Caulfield
On the old paperback cover.
The shoe store sends little cards that say:
”Your child saw us last three months ago.
Growing feet need regular attention.”
And the dentist says:
”Your last checkup was six months ago.
Will you call for an appointment?”
But doctors don’t do this. And why not?
”We haven’t heard from you since we discovered
That awful thing two years ago.
Are you bashful? Are you alive?
Please call us soon
And we’ll try to squeeze you in.”
CARNEGIE HALL, 1960
At 17 I came to New York. The dormitory
Was higher than most buildings I’d ever
Been in. I ate in a coffee shop
Where people never looked at you,
Went on a tour of Bellevue
Because it was a place, like Lindy’s
Or the Metropolitan Museum of Art,
So legendary that being there was magic.
Some New York kids I met said,
“Let’s go to Carnegie Hall.”
From Standing Room
We looked down at the Philharmonic
And their TV-star conductor, jumping
Up and down on his podium, all creating
Wonderful noise that filled the place
And vibrated to the roots of my hair.
The things you could take for granted in New York!
INSOMNIAC AT THE EQUINOX
At last each night is minutes shorter
Than the day: my nightly sentence
Is reduced — the electric clock
Humming through the hours;
The passing footsteps, sirens, trucks;
The need to catalog
The day ahead, the years behind.
Night by night there’s the brightness at the window
Minutes earlier; the birds sing
Earlier; the day begins.
Remember the Valentine Box—
Ribbons, red foil, paper doilies?
One of the sins committed
By well-intentioned teachers,
Bringing dread each February
To two groups of kids:
Those too poor to buy any cards
And the unpopular ones
Who received no valentines—
Except for the ones
Sent by the teacher and by someone
Who bought them for everyone.
This, then, is a Valentine
To all who were forgotten,
Now or any other year.
To those for whom the box was empty—
Sorry: I couldn’t afford to mail
A card to everyone.
NEW YEAR’S DAY
I go through the house pulling calendars
Off the walls, and leaf through
My newly obsolete appointment book.
It contains the history of my year:
Hopeful meetings, interviews that wasted
Precious hours, a concert when for a moment
Time stood still.
I flip through
The pages again, then store it in the file
Where the years are archived neatly
With the tax returns.
There are people I’ve seen for years
As they buy a buttered roll at the deli,
Walk a spaniel at the corner,
Board the 8:06 bus.
There’s the girl who reads hardcover books,
The man who stares intently,
The woman who does the Sunday crossword
With a purple felt-tipped pen.
As they move through the morning routine,
Are they remembering scenes of passion,
Worrying about symptoms or their children,
Or planning the morning’s phone calls?
And what do they think about me
When they see me in the morning?
So hot, even in the park,
that everything except cicadas
slows down. Sunlight
weighs us down.
Don’t fight it. Leave
your car, turn off
the air-conditioner, take off
the extra clothing.
The wind barely ruffles
the leaves, sighing:
slow down, calm down,
whatever you do may be
forgotten, can all
be done tomorrow.
CAUTION: CAKE RISING
Remember? You were told
”Don’t run — there’s a cake in the oven.”
This civilized you in a second:
The cake might fall!
As the wonderful smell
Filled the kitchen, a reverent hush
Came over the apartment;
The rising cake was honored
With your softest tread.
Whether anyone’s cake
Had ever actually fallen
Didn’t matter — no one
Would risk perpetual
”He’s the one
Who 20 years ago
Ruined his mother’s cake
By running in the kitchen!”
AT THE OFFICE
For a couple of weeks in January,
chests bloom with flowers,
bright colors, intense patterns,
motifs from famous paintings—
as men put on their gifts
of flamboyant neckties
from daughters and wives who wish
they were less conservative in dress.
They’ve a short season,
these weeds and daisies,
fluorescent paisleys, Deco polygons.
They’re soon in the back of the closet,
replaced by muted plaids, dark solids,