It frequently amazes me that many of the people I have written about actually existed or, in some cases, still live. In telling their stories, sometimes as monologs in my version of their words (as I heard, read, or imagined them), I changed their names and filled in details, while presenting their reality as truthfully as I could.
Many of the stories already in this blog were based on real people (in addition to ones that are mainly about myself). Here are some others.
It’s a long ride by train to Albany, where I’d been dispatched to lobby legislators.
As I was nodding off, a dozen children entered the car, a kindergarten excursion
riding one stop to the next, chattering about the sights outside the windows,
though mostly they talked about Crissie.
“Where’s Crissie?” one said. “With Mrs. Woods” was the answer.
Another said, “I saved a seat for Crissie!” “See the old house!” “Crissie would like that!”
“Here she is!” “Crissie!” “Crissie! Sit with me!”
Do you think I looked around to see her? I did.
She held Mrs. Woods’s hand. Crissie had blond curls, of course, wore
a navy-blue Easter coat with a pink-and-white dress, acknowledged her subjects
with an adorable smile. “Crissie!” “Crissie, sit here!” “Look, Crissie, a junkyard!”
Clambering to a seat she exclaimed, “Oh, look at all the junk!”
Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a Crissie–princesses in their aura
of sunshine, assemblymen in their gray stone castles, withholding or granting
the love or the laws we need? Are you still jealous? Remember, a Crissie can’t be
glum or weary, bored or unavailable. Eternal sunniness is the price of our worship.
John was one of the students who seemed to begin to think
the year he spent in my class. He called me in New York
when John Lennon was killed; I had presented Beatles lyrics
for analysis as poems, and he thought I’d have something wise to say.
I didn’t, but a few weeks later he came to our house for the weekend.
He told me of the old crowd: one never left his room
in his parents’ house, others took drugs and had dropped out
of college. John himself was getting his head together and worked
in a factory–selling drugs had gotten too dangerous; now
he could stop carrying a gun.
He wanted to thank me for opening up the world
to him and his friends. Sure, I said to myself,
who knows where they’d be without me?
John didn’t seem to sleep; he stayed up with books
and Southern Comfort. On Sunday he took the New York bus
and encountered one of the city’s mythic figures:
you probably remember him, the blind musician
in Viking hat and cloak who sat by the CBS building.
John knew the encounter was important.
He paid 25 cents for the man’s poems
and asked what he should do with his life.
The man gave him a card for a bar on 45th Street
and advised him to pay one of the girls
10 dollars for a blow job.
One way or another, the world gets opened up for us.
AT THE MAYTAG
Mrs. Monroe, don’t be upset
by what you found in Shelby’s laundry.
She did bring it home for you to wash;
she’s still your daughter.
True, she’s a careless girl
and, true, one pair of men’s underwear
would be easier to accept
than three of different sizes.
But think: you raised a girl with a big heart,
whose kindness extends to many.
And not just to love them, Mrs. Monroe,
but to keep them clean and nice.
COLLEEN BRADSHAW Sticking It to Ralph
Ralph left me for that little tramp Louise.
If we’d a been married, I’d’ve screwed him back
with a divorce. Instead, I got myself
someone young and cute myself. Tiger,
they called him. He was 15, a sweetie,
with a little nose and square shoulders and ready
four times a night at least. Listen:
I borrowed my brother-in-law’s camera
and we shot our own hot video, which I tossed
onto Ralph’s front porch. It scared him,
the idiot—he thought it was a bomb!—
so he called the cops. They arrested me
for corrupting Tiger. Maybe there is or there ain’t
justice in this universe—but I showed
that scumbag Ralph, I showed him
once and for all good.
KURIOUS KATHY BLAKE
Jim was drying out pretty good and he kept saying
“Kathy, let’s get together again” but I heard that
before—all the times we made a fresh start over
and then we’d lose everything again
so I said, “No Jim, you get yourself organized,
by yourself—I’m keeping the kids in a stable home,
I’m selling some lines besides the real estate—
keep yourself sober and in business for yourself—
how do they say it? one day at a time—you at Mrs.
Gardner’s, saying your prayers and reading your Bible,
and me in the house with the kids—we’ll do just fine,”
since by then I was in real estate with Lester,
who was a kindly, stable guy and the boom just
getting started—hell, the town let anyone
put up anything—houses, warehouses—
acres of forest disappearing month by month
so Lester and me could work around the clock
if we wanted, and sometimes we fell asleep
over contracts, and one thing led to another—
it wasn’t booze with us, it was contracts—
and before too long he left his wife and we used
Jim’s old den for an office, and we owned
some great acreage together and were so damn busy,
neither of us bothered to get a divorce.
I could kill Lester, that great big sweetheart of a man,
for dropping dead when he did—when the lawyers
were finished, I had nothing—his wife got it all.
Sure, I could kill the lawyers—but hell, they were right:
to make it public while my kids were in school—
there’s five of them, not to mention the Morgan kids
I took in when their ma went to the funny farm—
well, it wasn’t worth the money,
so I started over again—I still have my lines
to sell—chocolate candies for charities, and books
for elementary schools, through all of Middlesex
and Essex Counties, and my gossip column—
I’m “Kurious Kathy” because of course I know everybody,
and being in the paper helps me sell houses
and when Jim says “Hey Kathy, how about it?
I’m sober and I won’t hold no grudges” I say to him,
“Thanks Jim, thank you kindly, but dammit, I think
I’ll take care of myself a few more years!”
SAM THE PICTURE MAN
We humored him as he made his rounds,
selling candy from a cardboard box
and his shirt-cardboard paintings
of grinning, paisley-shaped animals.
We would mock him, fool or simpleton,
and buy his pictures for a quarter.
Years later I watch with my son
the amazing maneuvers on the campus lawn
of a jugglers’ convention. Sam is there,
as before, but feeble and less coherent.
His paintings are larger, more accomplished,
the creatures peaceful and multi-legged.
Prices are high, he tells me;
“I pay for the cardboard now
and I use more paint. They wrote me up
in the magazine last year.”He puts his hand on my son’s head
and I pay five dollars for a picture.
That’s cheap for anyone’s masterpiece,
a smiling eight-legged monster
that bears another monster inside,
and cheap for my son, at seven, to be blessed
among jugglers in the springtime
by one of God’s own fools.
WOMAN IN THE BOOKSTORE
The summer air is thick
on the sidewalk and in the shop.
It’s bad for the books.
Another spring is over;
I’m where I was a year ago,
sitting behind the cash drawer,
the ledger in my lap.
The mouths are full of dust
that said the words stacked on the shelves.
And the words are full of dust.
All the days I should have walked
where flowers grow, I sat
behind the drawer of bills and coins,
the ledger in my lap,
dust settling in my hair.
UPS & DOWNS
I knew someone who was manic-depressive,
which now is called bipolar depression
and controlled, more or less, with lithium,
and she would often vanish for months,
you wouldn’t hear from her or hear
about her, and then you’d get a letter,
she just finished writing a play
and revising her novel and sending
22 new poems to magazines
and painting her house and applying for jobs
and proposing articles to the local paper
. . . so you knew she’d been very far up
for at least some of the missing weeks.
I can’t say I ever envied her life,
as far down as often as up,
and I didn’t envy her husband, who they said
was mean to her in between
but now and again I’d ask myself:
would it be worth the subsequent pain
to set off by rocket for clouds of glory?
Lithium, in case you didn’t know,
was an essential component of
the original formula for Seven-Up.
I used to work in public relations. It does something interesting to your soul,
having a career that to most people is a synonym for “lying,” as in:
“That’s just public relations” in response to a corporate statement.
The worst part of public relations is sucking up to reporters so they’ll give
space to your client or cause. Can you imagine needing Walter Winchell’s
benevolence? Is the Sweet Smell of Success worth its price?
I met a nice old-timer once who was a long-time press agent.
I read in his obituary later that the Tony Curtis character
in The Sweet Smell of Success was based on him.
You wouldn’t have guessed it.