VERSE IN THE TIMES—My 15 Minutes as a Household Name—Part One

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.





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.”





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!





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.



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.



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!”





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,

unassuming stripes.




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