Preface

"We have a small house with two acres of trees and grass and, scattered around, other things as well. My oldest boy Nicky cuts the grass every other week using the neighbor's tractor. He’s a little young to be given this responsibility -only 9 years old- but he handles it well. Most of our land is behind our house, which is near the road. If I'm standing by the road, in the driveway where I park my car, I can see the back of our land, which is past the trees, past the above ground pool, past wife Gail’s garden boxes which she no longer tends now Summer’s gone. A few trash cans are off to the side, outside the basement door."

preface   A few years after we had our first kid, my wife and I left the City and bought a small house about 30 miles south, on the east side of the Delaware River, the Jersey side, in farm country. Our region has small vegetable farms, orchards, feed corn, dairy farms, and lately, boutique wineries. They’re starting to call our neighborhood "Two Bridges" because two bridges, and the roads which pass over them, create our northern and southern boundaries, and many of these little wineries are springing up in our personal microclimate, which seems to be friendly to the grape. To the north the boundary bridge is the Commodore Barry Bridge with Route 322 running over it, to the south the Delaware Memorial Bridge and Route 40. Both these roads are as old as the hills. To the west, the boundary is the Delaware River which separates Pennsylvania from Jersey, and to the east the boundary is Highway 55, which begins north of us at the Atlantic City Expressway and bisects the region south all the way down to Vineland, which is not far from the big waters, the Delaware Bay to one side, and the Atlantic Ocean on the other.

We’ve raised four kids in our small house here in the Two Bridges region, and lately it’s occurred to me that I almost feel at home now. When we moved here 25 years ago, the old farmer down the road told me it takes twenty or thirty years for the neighbors to accept you as one of their own. I’m starting to feel now like I belong here. My first two kids, Anna and Nick, were born in the City. Anna was three years old when we moved here, and Nick was six months old. Maddy and Pete were both born in this house. I figure my kids are all natives to this place. My wife grew up in Jersey east and north about forty miles, although she was born in Philly. But her grandfather on her father’s side had roots down by the shore, north of Atlantic City. I was always the real stranger here. South Philly was where I was born, and it was my home. When I got older I explored nearly every neighborhood of our City on foot, and made all of Philly my own. That’s not the case out here.

When the kids were young we used to hike up Lincoln Road past the tree farm until we got to the dairy farm where the cows were grazing by the fence, reaching their big peaceful heads through. In those days Berry was our dog, and the cows were fascinated by Berry the big brown dog. But Berry wasn’t at all interested in them, which bummed us out because we wanted the cows to hang around so we could pet them. For some time now I haven’t been doing that hike. I live pretty much on our two acres and in the shack I have out back where I keep my books and things, except when I pull out of the driveway in my car. Now I'm feeling the winds of change blowing. My last kid is in high school and getting ready to grow his own set of wings. I’m finally settling in to my Two Bridges neighborhood. And I'm finding out that South Philly lives more and more, solely, in the region of my own Imagination.

"The neighbor behind us once put up a high white vinyl fence. It’s a long solid fence which encloses only two sides of his yard. The fence can’t keep anyone in or out. It was meant to be more like a screen, a smoke screen perhaps, for the neighborhood kids down the road who were often out of control. His new wife was all for it. He was unsure. Was afraid I’d be unhappy, because nobody really has fences where we live. But I was happy to have it. I like the fence because, although it’s relatively new, it’s getting old fast. Time is quickly making it green, even though it’s white vinyl and is advertised as time-proof.  “Watch with affection the way things grow,” someone once said. It even applies to fences. They don’t grow but they certainly age. Sometimes in the distance, at dusk, before dinner, I hear the voices of his little children. His children can’t climb the fence, but their little voices certainly can, especially when it gets toward the end of the day."

zero turn When Nicky was still a little boy he was already cutting the grass. He used Mike’s riding mower. Mike is our next door neighbor who has seven acres of land, but most of it is woods running back to the creek. That's where the kids and the dogs played when the kids were growing up. The creek runs around behind us and then goes under the road and eventually winds up at the lake past the park. Years ago Mike stopped cutting the back piece of his land, and the woods grew up fast. But we have less than two acres. It was always two acres too much for me. In South Philly our backyard was a rectangle, and we used a hand mower. You pushed it, and that made the blades turn. But out here in the country I had to cut the grass riding Mike’s gas mower for nine years, every day of which I swore that when Nick was old enough he’d take over the job, plus cut Mike’s as well, which is what he did. I never liked riding the gas mower. It’s loud and it stinks and it kicks up a ton of allergies and when the job’s done, you’re running inside to shower off. Although afterwards, it’s wonderful how peaceful and green everything looks. I think grass genuinely loves to be cut. It gives a long sigh of relief once it’s cut. When it sighs it exhales, and the breath of cut grass is a sweet perfume. The whole yard feels happy. My wife also feels happy. I like grass when it's cut, but I don't mind it when it's not cut either.

I call it a yard but it’s just the land around our small house. No fences, except for one little fenced in area left to us by the previous owners, but that fencing has all crumbled and only a few posts and some wire still stand. They used to keep their dog penned in that place. When Berry died we put her there. We have a few cats buried there as well. The cats don't have gravestones, but Berry does. She has a small grave, with the soil still mounded up a little, and some cobblestones around the edges. I like the look of things as they decay, such as that old fencing. We had to pull a few of the posts out when we put a propane tank nearby, but otherwise the posts have been left alone, and their wood has rotted over time, and the posts that have fallen over have been carted off, but many of them, especially the ones up front which are shaded by some weed trees and weed vines, have remained intact. I don't often go into that little area, only sometimes if I see that the plaque on Berry’s grave needs to be adjusted, for example. My wife made that plaque, fired it in her kiln, and it says “a good dog, well loved by her family, she loved them well in return.” We had her fifteen years, from an eight week old pup to her dying day when she keeled over by the road in front of our house. 

A neighbor who had been driving by saw her there, and this good woman pulled her car over and knocked on my door. And then a passing township policeman stopped and helped me carry Berry to the side yard. Nick was in high school at the time, and my wife called the school and they let him come home and Nick and I buried her. Nick used to go on long walks with Berry, and the two of them were good friends. After Berry died I didn't want to get another dog, but Nick said that he wanted a dog, and finally I said Okay, we can get another dog, but first you have to clean out the basement. Which is what he did, and he did it all by himself too. The truth is, I was amazed he was able to do it, because that basement was piled high with junk. I had them drop a dumpster in our driveway, and he filled that thing up. We had to do it when my wife wasn't around or she would've inspected every piece going out. She doesn't believe in getting rid of things. For me and Nick, getting rid of things is practically a religion. And afterwards we got another dog, and her name was Georgia, and she and Nick used to go on long runs through our township. By this time Nick was on his high school football and wrestling teams, so Georgia joined him on his workouts at home. She was called Georgia because when they brought her into the pound where we adopted her the famous Ray Charles song was playing on the radio, and the lady who was in charge of the pound gave her that name, and we kept it.

Anyway, when Nick was nine years old it seemed like he was ready to handle the job of riding Mike’s John Deere mower, and Mike agreed, and sure enough Nick was ready. He’s been cutting the grass ever since, even though in the meantime Mike got a new mower, and this is one of those new zero turn models which makes it easy to zip around trees and other obstacles. My problem is that the zero turn, the way it operates, looks sinister to me. Nothing running on wheels should be able to turn on a dime like that. It's not natural. It's not as if you see the driver working hard and he's turning the steering wheel and then the machine responds. The zero turn doesn't have a steering wheel. So you see no action on the driver's part. He looks immobile, like a statue. He's a statue on a lawn mower that has no steering wheel. He's holding onto the vertical handle bars, which is how you steer the zero, and he does nothing more than lift his little finger. And the zero spins around a single point effortlessly. It's a ballet dancer with rivets which spits out gas fumes. It comes out of some creepy movie. But we have plenty of trees, so the zero turn is a real time saver. You zip right around the tree and head off to the next one. After the long Winter is over, and Spring makes it clear it’s finally going to stick around, it’s great to see the grass growing fast, even though it means the mower is coming around the bend. Everything's popping. All the little flowers jump out overnight, and suddenly the bugs are floating like dust particles through shafts of sunlight. But soon enough the wife says, "That grass has got to be cut. It’s getting too long." She says it to me, but I look right over at Nick. He doesn't say a word. He doesn't need to. He's on it. And when the grass is cut the first time, maybe you’ll go outside on the porch and look at all the new trimmed greenery and smell the great smell of cut grass, and you know for a fact that Spring is here, and thank goodness Winter is finally over.



"We have old pine trees which circle our land in two staggered rows. The first owner of our house, an old farmer who built the place with the help of his friends, planted the pines. Over the years, a few of these pines have tipped and then slowly fallen down. You watch one fall down during the course of the day, in slow motion. It falls slowly as though it couldn’t care less if its days are numbered. You might imagine an auctioneer with his gavel saying Going going gone!, as down it goes. Or a referee who stands above you counting as you struggle to clear your head and find your legs. This pine tree’s never getting up. When it’s finally down we chainsaw it and haul it off. But by and large the pines stand firm. They are perfect in life, and just as perfect in death. No one can find fault with them. Trees have a place in our world which is quite unique. Somehow, they are like kings."

how I won the us open      My two youngest children were in the back seat of my car when we got the phone call that my Mom had died. It was in the Fall of 2005. We were pulling out of the driveway and were getting ready to drive to Pennsylvania and visit her in the hospice. My wife was already at the hospice. She had Anna with her. My father was there, and so was Aunt Jan. I pulled the car over onto the grass and told Maddy and Little Pete the news. They started a conversation between themselves. “Remember how at Christmas she brought the big bags of presents. Grandpop had to carry them in from the car for her because the bags were so big and there were so many of them. He looked unhappy because he had to do all that work.” “What about on our birthdays all the presents she’d bring us. And she always brought the birthday cake too, the kind with the huge icing flowers. And she made Grandpop give us money too.” “And whenever we stayed overnight at her house she would let us have dessert after every meal, even breakfast. And in the closet in the hallway she had shelves with boxes of cupcakes. And she didn’t mind if you went into the closet without asking.” The two of them were silent for a moment. Little Pete said, “Now she’s gone.” And Maddy said, “Whatever will we do.” They were crying in the back seat and I said to them, “I could’ve won the US Open, but then when Grandmom got too sick she wasn’t able to help me any more.” They said to me, “Grandmom couldn’t help you play golf!”


         “Well, I was cheating. I have to confess that right up front. Both of you know what a terrible golfer I am. I had no chance unless I cheated.” “How could you cheat in the US Open, Dad?” “It wasn’t really the US Open. It was the qualifying round. All over the country they have qualifying rounds, and the guys with the best scores get to go to the real US Open. I played in the qualifying rounds at the Tinicum Island Blue Course. Tinicum Island is a little abandoned island in the middle of the Delaware River, right near the Airport.” “You’re making this up,” Maddy said. “All the junk in the river washes up on Tinicum Island,” I said, “The Army Engineers used to clean it up once a year, but then they stopped, and all the junk started blending together and making works of art. One day a bunch of kids started playing golf in between all the works of art, and the next thing you know they had a world class golf course.” “And Grandmom helped you?” “It was an invention my friend Donny invented. You probably didn’t know he’s a brilliant inventor, but he is. He put a little tiny nano drone in the golf ball, and another little tiny nano drone in my golf club. Fortunately for me, the golf association doesn’t test your golf ball and golf club for nano drones.” “I never heard of a golf ball nano drone.” “Of course not. It’s top secret. If Donny told anyone about it, he’d have to sell it for millions of dollars.”


         “So what did Grandmom do?” “Well, someone has to steer the nano drone. Usually they let Navy Seals do it. But those guys are all honest, so I had to find someone who loved me so much they’d help me cheat. The only person in the world was Grandmom.” “But she knew it was cheating. Why would she help you cheat?” “It’s true she didn’t want to do it at first. But she knew what a terrible golfer I was, and she knew that almost the only thing I wanted in the whole wide world -except for you guys- was to be a great golfer. One day she said to me, Joey, I know I’m gonna die soon, and when the time comes for me to meet God face to face, I think he’ll understand when I explain to him why I helped you cheat.” “Is that what she said?” “Yeah. And then she said, And besides, I think even God himself would be tempted to cheat if he thought he could hit straighter drives. Anyway, Donny followed me around the course with a video camera, and he streamed it right to my youtube account. Grandmom watched the golf match on her computer. Then she had a little box with some dials on it. Donny had given her the box with the dials. When I hit a shot, she watched where it went and then she turned the dials and made sure it was a good shot.” “She couldn’t do that!”  “She definitely could do that. As a matter of fact, she almost ruined everything for me.” “What did she do wrong?”


         “She made me too good. On the first three holes I had three holes-in-one. It was a Guinness World Record. All the officials started hanging around. I had to shank a bunch of shots just to get rid of them. But on Sunday when she went in the hospice she just got too sick. I came down to the last hole and all I needed was a double bogey and I would’ve gone to the US Open. But her strength gave out. I think I shot an eight on the hole. Or maybe a ten. Or it could’ve been a twelve. I didn’t make the cut. Well, that was only yesterday. I went to see Grandmom in the hospice after I lost the golf match. Her mind was starting to go on her.” “What do you mean?” “She said to me, Joey, I’m sorry, but I just couldn’t tell a hook from a slice any more. I said to her, That’s ok, Mom. I know it’s wrong to cheat, and I know you were helping me because you love me so much. And she said to me, I was talking to God last night. He said it was ok if I helped you a little bit on the golf course. But he said I went too far with those three holes-in-one.” “Is that what God said to her, Daddy?” “Yes. And Grandmom told me to tell you how much she loves all of you. And she said to tell you she always will love all of you, even after she’s gone. And she said that sometimes she used to cheat too.” “When did she cheat?” “When Mom and I would go to her house to pick you guys up after you’d spent the night there, and Mom asked her if she gave you too many treats. She always used to tell a little white lie and tell Mom that she only gave you a couple treats.” “That’s not true, Dad! She gave us treats all the time!” “Yes, Mom and I knew that. But sometimes God will forgive the little sins, if he knows our hearts are in the right place.” Well, the truth is I’m still as bad as I ever was at golf. If my friend Donny really did invent a nano golf ball and club, I know for a fact I’d try to use it. But I don’t think I’ll ever again be able to find someone who will work the little box with the dials for me.


"If I walk through the grass and under the trees and go to the back of our two acres and then walk around to the other side -the side I couldn't see when I was standing out there by the road in my driveway- then I have a place where I can sit and watch things happen. Maddy goes running by, with Little Pete toddling behind, and the dog casually following. The dog’s attitude is praiseworthy. She accepts her role well. She’s at the bottom of the pack yet at the same time is responsible for the entire pack. Our two smallest children, Maddy and Pete, know instinctively that they rank above Berry the dog. Yet Berry understands quite clearly that she’s truly in charge of the young ones."


the tallest tale ever told       The Bacchanal was a little bar on the corner of a little street in the middle of the block. The little street was called Clarion Street. It wasn’t much more than a dark alley. At the end of the alley heading south were the High Rise Projects. Broad Street, our city's main north south avenue, full of traffic day and night, was only a half block west. And South Street, which ran east past the Bacchanal’s doors down towards the Delaware River, was also full of traffic. But the cars didn't stop here, on this block of South Street between Broad Street and 13th Street. The neighborhood was in ruins. When Joe Tib and his partner the Mad Russian bought the bar it was just a beat up old wino bar. It opened its doors at seven in the morning, and it served only the cheapest booze. It was a three story brick building, part of a row that went right to 13th Street. Across tiny Clarion Street, looking west towards Broad Street, you saw only bulldozed lots. Some said better times were on the way. Joe Tib brought in his crew of artist friends and they did some rehab work. Everything was done on the cheap. Joe Tib and the Russky had picked up the little building next door as well, and they knocked out a couple archways and joined the rooms. They put up plywood on the front of the buildings, across the old plate glass and glass block windows, and then Joe Tib hung his murals. If you sat out in front of the bar on a sunny summer day, as I did, and watched the cars going by, you’d see a lot of heads turning. Maybe you’d see the passenger in the front seat turn and look, and then say something and point, and then maybe you’d see the people in the back seat look as well, and you’d see the same look of surprise on their faces. The murals were cut from plywood and built in layers and the plywood was painted and then bondo, a car body filler, was used to create contours and that was painted and then real artifacts, clothing and all kinds of objects, were attached and painted into the composition. The figures were dramatic and startling and they always caught your eye. 

Here’s the painted figure of a man and he's wearing the front of a real hat and the front of a raincoat and the tip of a shoe and he’s holding the sliced off half of a carafe of wine and walking towards you and practically coming right out of the mural to join you on the sidewalk. And here’s a life-size young boy on the front door with ivy around his head and a sweet innocent smile wearing a loincloth and beckoning you to come on in. Over there, in front of the second building, here’s a big man with a rock jaw dressed as a customs inspector holding out his hand in warning as immigrant mothers and fathers laden with luggage and with little children beside them pass through Ellis Island and help create the American experience. And the bar’s sign, which was on a pole attached to the second floor, and which swung out over the pavement, showed you the god himself, half naked and drunk and with a big belly and wine spilling from his cup. He has his beautiful young women all around him, and they're all nearly naked with only a little cloth draped over them, and they’re hanging onto him on both sides, and wild glee is in their faces. That was Lord Bacchus, who was called Dionysus when he came from the East. Dancing blue dolphins carried him across the golden waters of the Indian Ocean, whose copper-rich cliffs beyond Sri Lanka shine like armor when the Sun pursues Venus in the early days of Autumn. He was born of a human mother, a girl who had been bred in an ancient ivy covered temple. She was a priestess of Persephone, the goddess from whom all fertility issues. Persephone rules deep in our hearts, at the very center of our Earth, where all life begins, and nothing anywhere in our entire Universe lives unless it first lives in her. His father was Zeus high on his mountaintop, the almighty master of lightning whom all the gods fear, who casts his bolts and brings death wherever he pleases. His message was simple: In the chaos of my wilderness, beyond all laws and customs created by men, in the ecstasy born from love and beauty and dark night and above all from my wine, the brew of my wild maidens, that’s where you’ll find rebirth and transformation. It’s the biggest lie anyone ever told, and the best. You can transcend your fate. You are not locked into the past. Come join the party.


This is about how Joe Tib rescued me. It’s how I happened to be sitting in front of the bar on this bright summer late afternoon, Friday, the first crowds of people already coming out of work, that feeling of freedom in the air. I had on a cowboy hat. It wasn’t white, it was a sort of light tan as I recall. It wasn’t my hat. Someone had left it behind the bar, and I grabbed it to keep the late day Sun out of my eyes. It was only the second or third time I’d worked at the bar. I was the bouncer. When it first opened I'd been through the bar a few times as part of the poetry crowd, and my friend had recommended me for the job. I worked one shift and then decided it wasn’t for me, and didn’t go back. But Joe Tib kept calling. So I went back. It was a good thing I did. I was at the end of my rope. Had pushed the solitary artist crying out in the wilderness thing to its absolute limit. Had written a long eighteen page poem called “Songs of Avatar” which I carried around on a scroll in my pocket and read out loud on street corners with my friends around me playing whatever musical instruments they happened to have on them. That gig was over and I knew it. There was no place to go with it anymore. I’d taken a one way trip to the Moon, and was a full time guest in the land of the dead. But Joe Tib didn’t give up on me. He kept calling and brought me back to the bar, and that’s how I returned to the land of the living. So I dragged a bar stool out onto the pavement at the end of day on a hot summer Friday and watched the passing parade. It was still daytime so people came by on foot as well. With night everything changed. That’s why I was here, to watch the street at night, and guard whatever bar patrons might show up on foot once the Sun was down.

Our major reality was the High Rise Projects a little ways back down Clarion Street. They weren’t good places. Ninety nine percent of the residents were decent folk. But a small criminal element terrorized the place and made it unfit to live in. Drugs were a complete scourge. Guns were everywhere. The Projects seemed like a good idea when the Federal government built them in the ‘50’s, but the idea was flawed at its very root, the kind of thing that only looks good in the architect's drawings. The police didn’t respond to calls. Maintenance wasn’t done on the buildings. As Philadelphia lost its industrial base things only got worse. It was mostly in the night time, that's when I was dealing with the low level riff raff, the small time predators. Shine a light on them and they’d scatter. Men who were out of options. Who had nothing and were just stringing things out. But we had to find a way to get along. The bar was here to stay, but this was their neighborhood. I knew that. We weren’t all that different, not really, at least in terms of options. Almost like two sides of the same coin. I’d been raised well, grew up in a good place with good parents, knew a safe home and was always treated well. Yet I also was out of options. Now here I was sitting outside a bar on South Street in 1983 on a warm Friday afternoon, wearing a cowboy hat somebody forgot to take home, and Joe Tib came out of the bar with a couple friends and they got in a car parked across Clarion Street, and as they pulled out and drove past, Joe Tib, in the passenger seat, looked at me and smiled, and I knew what his smile meant. It said, Look at this crazy character in the cowboy hat sitting in the Sun. He fits right in here.

"We have hawks here where we live. They circle and drift as if they have all the time in the world. They're lazy but they understand the wind. They know what the wind’s doing even before the wind does it. The way they tip and turn makes you admire them even as you distrust them. I like to watch them circle and fly the way you might watch someone paint a picture. I don’t know if the sky is their canvas or their palette. Maybe it’s both. The Sky has many faces. Though it’s above the Earth, its relationship with Earth could easily be flipped. We could walk with our feet upon the Sky, with the Sky beneath us. Thus, the folk hero’s name, Skywalker."


two trees      I was born on Jackson Street in South Philadelphia, at 10th Street, in the apartment above my Grandpop’s grocery store. In those days Jackson Street ran from east to west, and it still does. The Delaware River was a mile east of us. The houses were row houses, which means they were all stuck together, although as South Philly row houses go they were fairly large. The houses on the little street behind us, on Dailey Street, for example, were small compared to ours. Our pavements were concrete with small stones embedded in them, and the streets were asphalt which heated in the Summer and gave off the smell of tar. If as a little kid you were running and you fell, that concrete pavement would scrape you up, which is why my Grandmom was always yelling, "Don't run! You’ll hurt yourself!" Halfway down the block towards 9th Street, an old lady who lived next door to my Aunt Mary had a tree growing in front of her house, and a few houses in the other direction from my Grandmom, towards 10th Street, another old lady who we all called Auntie had a tree in front of her house, but that was all the shade we had on the block. Our side of the street, the north side, got all the sunlight, and with no trees we baked. 

My Grandmom’s house had large front windows which let the light in. Grandmom always wanted a tree in front of her house. All the women in the neighborhood wanted trees in front of their houses. But due to some misalignment of neighborhood geomagnetics, perhaps, only those two old ladies had ever succeeded in getting trees to grow. That didnt stop the others from trying. They went at it with something like religious fanatacism. My Grandmom had a local mason bust out a square yard of concrete pavement in front of her house, and he built up a little course or two of bricks to mark off the tiny plot, and then put in some metal rods to which he fastened chicken wire, and the little sapling was ready for life on Jackson Street. My Grandmom was devoted to her baby tree. She planted seasonal flowers in the soil around the tree, those delicate flowers with little round purple and yellow petals as thin as paper. And then she stood guard, because she had local enemies, threats to her tree. Wandering enemies, faceless, nameless. On four legs, with tails. Males. Dogs. Who could stop, and pee, who could pause for one moment and send a quick jet of killing pee over the brick courses, through the chicken wire, and with sure aim apply their brand of baptism to my Grandmom’s beloved little tree.

Grandmom was not content to suffer these assaults. She was not the type to resign herself to unfortunate circumstances. She was well armed with her broom. All the women on Jackson Street, and in South Philly for that matter, at least in those days, spent a certain portion of every day sweeping their pavements. It was part of their daily regimen. It didn’t matter whether anything needed sweeping. They were out there every day, at whatever time, sometimes multiple times a day, brushing down the bare concrete. And they had hoses which they attached to faucets on the wall by their marble steps, and they would wash and scrub these steps with a bucket full of soap and a brush, till the marble shined with well being, and laughed right back at the passing Sun. Grandmom’s broom was an instrument of peace when she used it to bring cleanliness and order to her few square feet of concrete pavement. But when it was inverted and bristling over her head then that ploughshare was beaten once more into a sword, and her broom became the terror of the wandering neighborhood male dogs, who might have only been casually stopping by for a quick and friendly pee. Suddenly their otherwise floppy ears shot straight up to the sky. A square shaped screaming old woman had appeared out of nowhere and with terrible speed was descending the steps and in a foreign tongue damning them to the underworld.

The dog I’m thinking of had no idea what was going on. The front door of the house to his left and a little behind him had busted open, and out came Grandmom. He didn’t even have time to quit his pee. But his momma dog hadn’t raised no fool. He took off with his hindquarters low, and never looked back till he got to Frankie Branca’s house, and even then he kept on tearing down the street and finally turned the corner at 9th Street and was out of sight. No telling when he stopped runnning. Probably not till he got to Snyder Avenue. Grandmom wasnt in any shape to give chase on foot, but her speedy language followed him long after he disappeared. I didn’t understand Italian or Sicilian. I doubt my Grandmom used salty lingo like sailors do because that wasnt her style. Whatever it was she said, I’m sure it had weight and grit to it. The dog probably understood what she said better than I did. Once she was sure he was gone she lowered her broom, and then she turned to me and patted me on the head, telling me I was a good boy, like she always did. And that it would soon be lunch time, and for me to come in and eat in a little while. Grandmom never did manage to get a tree of any size to grow in front of her house.


"These hawks are not friendly. Sometimes you can feel it when they briefly hunt you. I remember the first time I felt them hunting me. It was like being in a crowd and turning and catching the eye of someone who for some reason is looking straight at you. You hold their eye for a moment and then look away, disturbed. You can feel the mind of the hawk as it puts its mind upon you. When my Anna was a child she used to complain about them. Not loudly, but softly. Bravely, though she was distressed. She was ten and already too big to be a target. She told me she didn’t like the hawks because they were creepy."

the blue stone of lady godiva         We were digging in the backyard. Big Ed was in his backhoe, sitting high behind the glass, pushing and pulling the levers. The metal bucket on the end of the monster backhoe arm was ripping up the earth. Big Ed’s dump truck was parked in my driveway. His flatbed trailer was hooked up to the dump truck. That’s how Ed had towed his backhoe onto my property. He’d backed in the trailer, then he’d loosened the metal chains and rolled the backhoe off the trailer. The backhoe had huge tires with deep treads. It was a little boy’s dream come true. My wife carried Little Pete out to where we were working behind the house. Ed and I had waved to him earlier when we saw him with his face pressed to the kitchen window. “Here, hand him up to me,” Big Ed said, and I passed Little Pete up to Ed in his cab and Ed sat Little Pete on his lap and he showed Pete how the monster’s levers worked. “Go ahead, you can make the bucket go down,” Ed told him, and Pete pushed the lever and sure enough the monster obeyed him. Little Pete was around four years old at the time. You never saw such a smile on a little boy’s face. Big Ed and I were fighting the water on my property. Well, you can’t say we were fighting it because you can’t fight water. The best you can do is reach some sort of agreement with it. Water doesn’t take orders from anybody. Today we were digging a big rectangular hole and filling it full of sand and then we were going to find out if the water from the washing machine would agree to stay in the sand pit and not overflow into the yard and make a mud pit. This was one of many waterworks projects which Big Ed and I worked on for maybe fifteen years. Little Pete wasn’t exactly new to the construction game, either. Even though he was only four years old, he was already a seasoned veteran. He’d learned his trade from Bob the Builder, who had a cartoon construction show on Saturday mornings. Bob the cartoon character also sold a full line of construction gear for little kids.


Pete had his own Bob the Builder hard hat and work belt complete with screwdrivers and hammers, and he had his own dump truck and backhoe and other vehicles as well. Pete was ready for just about any job you could throw at him. He wanted to know why we were digging in the yard. Ed had handed him back down to me and I’d given him to my wife for safe keeping while Ed went back to work. “We’re trying to find the blue stone of Lady Godiva,” I said to him. Little Pete said to me, “Blue stone? Where’s the blue stone?” “I don’t know,” I said, “But Big Ed has a map at home, and the map says it’s right around here somewhere.” “Is it big?,” Pete said, and he opened his arms wide. “It’s big,” I said, “But more importantly it shines real bright. There’s a fire inside it, and whichever way you turn it, you see the blue light shining out of it.” Little Pete looked at his mother. She was smiling. Then he looked at Big Ed. Big Ed shut off his machine. It was early on a sunny Summer day. I’d taken the day off from work to help Big Ed look for the blue stone. Big Ed came down out of his machine. “I know it’s around here somewhere,” he said, “because my map says so.” “Lady Godiva buried the blue stone in England where she lived a thousand years ago," I said to Pete, "And over the years the stone traveled underground, and then it went under the ocean, and now it’s coming up right here. We just have to find it.” “What do you do with it when you find it?,” Little Pete said, "Do you give it back to Lady Godiva? Is she still looking for her blue stone?" "No, she's not looking for it anymore," I said to him, "I think she wants us to have it." My wife said to Little Pete, “Come on inside. We’ll get the men some iced tea.” Big Ed and I were standing under the mild morning Sun. My dog Berry was hanging around not too far off, out of range of the backhoe. “I’ve heard of Lady Godiva,” Big Ed said to me, “But I never heard anything about a blue stone. Wasn’t she the lady with the long golden hair, who rode on her horse naked?”


“Actually her name was Lady Herefordshire. She was married with four young kids and her husband died. Then she remarried. She married the Earl of Clacker. Turned out he was a real jerk. Couldn’t even do what needed to be done in the marriage bed. Spent all his time having banquets with his buddies and bragging about how he was screwing all the peasant serving girls and giving them babies. Finally the Lady said to him, ‘I’ve had it with your bs.’ So she and all her maidens went for a ride through town. She was bare-assed on her favorite stallion. She’d put the word out earlier. Any virile man in town only had to paint a red cross on his door. On her ride through town, maybe she’d stop by for a visit.” Big Ed said to me, “I didn’t know people did things like that back in the day.” “When you’re rich you can do as you please,” I said, “But she already knew where she was going to stop. She had one of her maidens carry a brush and red paint just in case the lucky fellow forgot to paint the cross on his door. Nine months later she gave birth to a beautiful red haired boy. She called him Tom Godiva. Which means ‘twin gifts from God.’ She figured the first gift from God was the father, and the second was the son.” “But what was her blue stone?,” Ed said. “Well, not long after she gave birth to her boy, the North Men came across the channel from the lands in Gaul they’d conquered, and then they conquered all England. The Earl of Clacker was known as a shrewd businessman. He said to everybody, “I can do business with these guys.” They just hung him. But Lady Godiva strapped on some armor and rode out with her maidens and met the North Men at the gates. They were so impressed by her courage that they let her keep her lands, and they didn’t bother her maidens either. Years later, when she died of old age, the North Men rode back and gave her a big funeral. There’s nothing they loved more than someone who had courage in battle.”

Now my wife and Little Pete came out the back door. Little Pete was carrying plastic cups, and my wife had a pitcher of iced tea. I said to Little Pete, “I was telling Big Ed that when Lady Godiva finally died, when she was an old lady, how all the Viking warriors with horns on their helmets came to her funeral, and they piled up a huge mound of firewood and then dressed her up in her old armor and put her on top of the firewood and then lit it and it made a great blaze that burned all day. And as it got toward nighttime, and the Western sky was bright red at the bottom, one of her maidens said, 'Look! look! there she is!' And she was clear blue and she was rising up towards the Moon which had risen overhead, and somebody said they heard her say, ‘I’ll become a beautiful blue stone. And whenever you find me in the Earth, give me to the one you love, and they will always be safe from harm!’ And that happened over a thousand years ago.” Little Pete said to me, “What will you do with the blue stone when you find it, Dad?” I said to him, “Why, I guess I’ll give it to your Mom.” “Okay then,” said Big Ed, and he handed his empty plastic cup back to Little Pete, “I guess it’s time we got back to work so we can find that stone.” “But Dad,” Little Pete said, “What if we don’t find the stone?” “You got me there, Pete,” I said to him, “And maybe your Mom has been coaching you a bit. If we don’t find the stone, I can always drive down to Henry David’s jewelry store. I know for a fact he has some blue stones there.” This seemed to satisfy both Little Pete and his Mom. Big Ed and I didn't get the water to cooperate with us, at least not that time. But Henry David the jeweler had plenty of Lady Godiva's blue stones. I guess he had a better map than Big Ed. But he didn't have a backhoe.

"In the old days you had to protect your babies from those big birds. Now these birds all understand firearms and they keep their distance. Birds understand more than we give them credit for. Much more. They know things about us which we ourselves barely know. Not your name and date of birth, but other things. Perhaps you’re carrying an illness which no doctor has yet told you about. They see it in the way you walk, or stand. I’ve never seen a hawk take its prey. But I think of deep dark water when I think of those hawks attacking. I think of something coming up from below and snatching what was happy on the surface in the Sun. Something swift which comes from nowhere, like lightning from below. Bolts of lightning sprung from the Earth. And not, as you might think, from the Sky."

georgia and the minotaur        Georgia wasn’t afraid of the Minotaur. We saw the Minotaur on tv. It was an old movie, one of those Ray Harryhausen movies which have some of the greatest monsters you ever saw. Little Pete was afraid of the Minotaur, and Nick was afraid too but he was old enough so that he could hide it. He smiled and pretended he wasn’t afraid, but if you sneaked a look over at him when he didn’t know it, you’d see his eyes going wide. The Minotaur was a monster who was born of two fathers, one mortal and the other immortal, and a single mother. In the old days this sort of thing was still possible, but nowadays it can’t happen anymore. Ten or twenty thousand years ago the Pole Star shifted in relation to the Earth, and as a consequence the psychic channels in humans which control that sort of thing shifted as well, and the processes of procreation were re-routed. Anyway, Georgia was watching the movie with us, and when the Minotaur came on screen, and it was time for Theseus to fight the Minotaur, Georgia didn’t even blink an eye. As scared as I was of the  Minotaur, I still couldn’t help watching Georgia to get her reaction. She couldn’t have cared less about the so-called monster. I said to her, “Georgia, what do you think of the Minotaur?,” and without even moving her head she just shifted her eyes in my direction, gave me one unconcerned look and then returned to gazing in the general direction of the tv screen.

       
Both my boys were amazed by the monster. They couldn’t believe that Theseus had the courage to face that terrible thing. Theseus only had one short straight sword. He didn’t even have a shield. The Minotaur had fierce horns. He had the head of a bull on a human body, but his body looked like it had the strength of a bull. Theseus was nowhere near as strong-looking as the Minotaur. How could he possibly win this fight? What made him so brave, when it looked like he didn’t have a chance to win? My wife was passing by the tv and she stopped to look affectionately at the monster. Ray Harryhausen used a special effects technique he had himself created called “claymation.” He built the models of his monsters and then he moved every smallest part and photographed them and he had a way of making his monsters move in a fashion which was truly scary. Since my wife is a clay artist and makes vases and things, she appreciated what Harryhausen was doing. My daughters weren’t really interested in monsters or in the battle between the Minotaur and the hero Theseus. Maddy had watched the movie with us for a while and then without saying anything had gotten up and gone back to her room. Anna glanced at the tv on her way out the door and smiled and kept right on going. It was really just me and Georgia and the two boys who were fascinated by the battle. I forgot to tell you that Georgia was our dog. We’d gotten her from the pound after our first dog Berry died of old age. When they brought Georgia into the pound, the famous Ray Charles song was playing on the radio, so the lady in charge of the pound named the dog Georgia, and we kept the name. Georgia was a sweet female black dog, a lab and pit bull mix around fifty pounds, and she fit right in with the family like she’d been with us forever. My wife and Maddy found her at the pound, and the next day, a Saturday, I drove down there with Little Pete and gave Georgia the "Little Pete test.” I just tossed Pete into the fenced in yard where Georgia was roaming and watched the two of them play. She chased Pete around the tree and they ran back and forth for ten minutes. I said to the lady, “Okay, we’ll take her.” The lady said, “We need to keep her for a week till she gets all her shots etc.,” so Pete and I had to say goodbye to her while the lady put her on the leash and brought her back inside. The look Georgia gave us when she was led away from us was truly heartbreaking.

       
Georgia stopped for a moment and looked back at us and the lady who ran the pound, who was kindhearted, waited a moment while Pete waved to Georgia one more time. The next day I brought Nick down to see her, and he hugged her and ruffled her fur and looked at me with a big smile, and I could see the two of them were already friends. We brought her home the next week, and I came in through the front door and Nick and Pete and Maddy were all scratching her belly as she stretched out on the floor, and my friend Raphael said, “Do you think she’s getting enough love?” Later on they were all playing and rough-housing and at a certain point I thought it was getting a little too rough so I walked over and said “Hey!” and Georgia just stopped and sat down and looked at me with complete respect. She knew immediately and completely how our pack was organized. I never had to tell her anything more than once. There wasn’t a mean bone in her body, and yet she was fierce in their defense and completely loyal towards our children. So even though she herself wasn’t afraid of the Minotaur, still she realized that for some strange reason Pete and Nick were afraid of the Minotaur, and so she kept the Minotaur vaguely on her radar while she dozed in and out on the floor in front of the tv, with Nick sitting cross legged on one side of her, and Pete stretched out on the other side of her with his head on her back, his eyes turned towards the monster. Daedalus was the name of the mighty and intelligent man-demon who had built the spiraling Labyrinth which kept the Minotaur imprisoned. No ordinary prison could have contained the monster. But Daedalus had studied the spirals in nautilus sea shells and had discovered the Fibonacci sequence, and the Minotaur wandered round and round through the maze, thinking he was making his way towards the exit, but really he was always just staying in the same place. Daedalus had wings. He was smaller than a dwarf and very old but he looked very strong and no one had eyes that were brighter or more intelligent. He gave the Princess Ariadne the mathematical formula to the Labyrinth because he loved her, but she loved Theseus and so she gave the formula to Theseus and that’s how Theseus found the monster in the maze. What Ray Harryhausen didn’t understand was that, when the Minotaur monster fought Theseus, the Minotaur looked at Theseus and he saw many versions of Theseus all at the same time, and that’s how Theseus was able to defeat him. Because Theseus understood the nature of infinite spirals, thanks to the formula Princess Ariadne had given him. But all the Minotaur ever saw when he looked in a mirror was his own reflection. How could he ever understand spirals? He never knew how much he was missing, until it was too late.

       
But that part wasn’t in the movie because I just made it up. Afterwards the King punished Daedalus for giving the formula to the Princess Ariadne. He imprisoned Icarus, who was the only son of Daedalus. He locked Icarus in a high tower. Icarus wasn't born with wings. Daedalus himself had his own natural set of wings. So he decided to create artificial wings for his son Icarus, and then the two of them flew away across the sea. But the artificial wings didn’t last long. Icarus was having so much fun flying that he put too much stress on the wings with all his dips and dives, and the wings started to unravel. The last time Daedalus saw Icarus, Icarus was falling into the clouds below. Everybody thought that Icarus drowned in the ocean. But he didn’t. One great gust of wind, which was really the Wind God, caught Icarus and tossed him across the water and into a forest where he crashed down into the trees. He survived his fall, though he was badly wounded, and then the forest creatures took care of him and nursed him back to health. Afterwards, he always had a limp. Daedalus searched and searched for the body of his son in the water below, but he had no luck. Daedalus was a ruined man-demon. He never invented anything ever again. He even stopped flying. His wings shriveled on his back. Finally he returned to the Labyrinth. The Minotaur was now just a skeleton, dead and lost somewhere in all those infinite ever-recurring spirals. Daedalus went to live inside the Labyrinth. The place was like an old museum which nobody visits anymore, or like an old football stadium where no more games are played, but they haven’t torn the place down yet. My kids didn’t know about this part of the story when they watched the big fight on tv. They cheered when Theseus killed the Minotaur. But I watched Georgia as she patiently played her part as the protector of Nick and Pete, who were both glad she was there beside them. When she glanced at me that time without moving her head, and I spoke to her as Theseus approached the monster for the final battle and asked her what her feelings on the subject of the monster were, I felt that she understood the whole story of the Minotaur as well as I did. Maybe even better than I did. She had no use for brilliant little men with wings, and the monsters they imprison or create.



"When Autumn comes then the most wonderful thing of all is the smell of wood smoke from our neighbor's stove. The smoke arrives like the postman knocking. Like when he leaves a box and then turns and is heading back to his vehicle even as you’re looking out the window to see who knocked. And as he hurries away you hurry to see what’s arrived. The smell of wood smoke is always a surprise, it’s always just arriving. It’s like a car full of guests who come piling in. All you can do is stand back, out of the way, and wave them in. They greet you and keep right on going."


raven    We moved to 21st and Porter Streets when I was four and a half years old. We were only a mile east and a half mile south of my Grandmom’s house on Jackson Street, but we had big trees in our neighborhood. It was called Girard Estate because a wealthy man from the Revolutionary War days named Stephen Girard had his country estate there and had lived in the house which was now right in the middle of our park. Stephen Girard was a gun runner who helped arm the American Colonials when they defeated the British. Our houses were big brick twins with concrete front porches. Our street was twice as wide as Jackson Street, and our trees were fifty year old sycamores. We had trees up and down the block. We had small front yards with hedges, and backyards with black wrought iron fences, and every other backyard had its own tree. Our backyard had a great sycamore tree. When it dropped its seeds in the springtime we gathered them up and threw them at one another. We called these seed pods “itchy balls.” They didn't really hurt when they hit you. Just made you a little itchy.

My Dad was a lawyer and my Mom was a schoolteacher. Many of the first generation sons and daughters of South Philly’s Italian immigrants, those who had gone to college and become professionals, had moved to Girard Estate. They sent their children to private schools. Their children were also destined for college and professional careers. The Schuylkill River, which is Philadelphia’s western river, wasn’t too far from us, and beyond that to the west were the train tracks and the Expressway and then the oil refineries, and not far south of us the neighborhoods stopped, and even farther south that’s where the Schuylkill River at last ended its life and flowed into the mighty Delaware River. In those swampy lowlands they had built the Philadelphia Naval Base, and later they built the International Airport down there as well, and the great East Coast highway Interstate 95 was rebuilt by the Eisenhower Administration in the 50’s and it ran past the Airport and the Navy Yard as it traveled both north and south from Maine to Florida.  Our Girard Estate neighborhood was at the end of the old South Philly neighborhoods. If you wanted to move up from that on the social scale, you had to go to the suburbs. My Mom always wanted to move to the suburbs.

Saturday mornings were a great time for us when we were kids. True for all kids, I know, but on our Saturdays my brother and I would run out our door and down the steps of our porch and go right down the block banging on our friends’ screen doors, rousing them out for a day’s play. The day we saw the great black bird none of our friends were up and out doors. It was only my best friend Ricky from around the corner, and my little brother Peter, and me. I think I was about eight years old, and Peter was six. Ricky was my age. It was Spring so we were still in school during the week, but this was our Saturday play day. It was very early. I remember the early morning light, how it came through the trees with their new green leaves. Only Saturday mornings have that kind of light, at least when you’re a kid. I don’t know why we were up so early, and why Ricky had come around the corner so early, but that’s what he did, and he found us on our porch. We were standing on the porch when we saw the great black bird fly past. I found out later it was a raven. We had never seen such a bird. It flew past us and we saw it stop in our Park, high up in the trees. We ran to the corner and crossed first Porter Street and then we crossed 21st Street, and we found the tree where the bird was perched. The bird was high up, and it turned its head sharply and quickly, and then stared off into the distance before again turning its head and searching in another direction. It almost seemed mechanical, the way its head turned so sharply and then was so still, as though it might have made a clicking sound if you were close enough to hear it. Ravens don’t belong in South Philly. We didn’t know it then, but this must have been a very lost raven.

I had the idea of running home and getting a drawing pad and pencil and binoculars, and then sketching the bird. I told Ricky and Peter to stand guard by the tree and watch the bird, and I’d be right back. I ran into our house and grabbed the things I wanted, telling my mother in the kitchen what I was doing as I ran past her, and then ran back as fast as I could to the Park, but Ricky and Peter told me that the bird had flown away. “It flew down towards Oregon Avenue,” Ricky told me, “and it just kept on going.” “How could you let it fly away?,” I said to them, knowing that what I said made no sense. We left the Park and walked to Oregon Avenue. Our neighborhood had now ended. The houses stopped at Shunk Street, and then there was a block of garages and then there was Oregon Avenue, which had a drug store and a shoe store and a five and ten store and a supermarket, and cars and buses and trucks, and on the other side of Oregon Avenue, which we weren’t allowed to cross by ourselves, was a big industrial complex called the Quartermasters where many of the area’s working class Moms went to make clothes for the military. Our great black bird was long gone. We went back home. When our friends finally came outside, Donny and Bobby and Crazy Joe, we told them the story but none of them seemed to care about the bird. My Mom asked if I had drawn the bird and I told her the bird had flown away before I could draw it. I could see she felt sorry for me. Later she took me to the library and we got a bunch of good books with pictures of birds. That’s where I found the picture of my raven.  

"I think Autumn is more soft-spoken than Winter. It likes to whistle beneath its breath. You can tune out the sounds of Winter by piling things high against it -blankets, bowls of soup, hats pulled down- but the sounds of Autumn follow you everywhere, whispering. And whistling. Tiny tales, that’s what Autumn tells. Stories told the way dreams tell stories, with beginnings middles and ends which keep getting swapped around, until they are all equally neither beginnings middles nor ends. Something about the Autumn sky at dusk is full of the past, but not the past which you’ve gladly forgotten. This is the past which you are aching to remember. With a real ache, an almost terrible ache. Not as a bad as a toothache, perhaps. More like a headache, after too much alcohol. Or a heartache, after too much love."


the drum the cake the messiah     Sharswood Elementary School in South Philly, on 4th Street near the Delaware River, was where I went to kindergarten. My mother was a brand new 4th grade teacher at Sharswood. She went to work as a substitute teacher a year after my younger brother was born. Sharswood was her first full time position. She loved her job, and the school kids loved her. Not only did she teach the regular classes but she also played the piano at the recitals. Her mother’s maiden sister, Aunt Josephine, taught her to play the piano and a few years down the road Aunt Josephine would teach my brother and me as well, once we moved to our own house on 21st Street and got a baby grand piano for our living room. In my kindergarten days we still lived in the apartment over my Grandfather’s grocery store. My father had been raised in the apartment over the store on the corner of 10th and Jackson Streets. Then in the 1940’s my grandparents had bought the house across the street and a little ways down the block, at 943 Jackson Street. When we weren’t in the apartment we were at my Grandmother’s house. We spent as much time with her as we did with our own mother. She cooked great meals for everyone. Plus she had a tv set which sat in a cabinet on the floor, a little black and white screen safe inside a big wooden console, and in the late 50’s that’s where we watched cartoons. My mother loved doing art projects with her school kids and many times she’d bring the projects home for me and I’d do them. I remember making one of Columbus’ little ships out of clay. And once, when I was older, I made a volcano and then Mom would put some stuff in the top and light it and it gave off great sparkles. I loved doing artwork. Once our teacher in the kindergarten at Sharswood School taught us how to make little drums. I drew intricate designs on my drum. I don’t know where I got the idea for the designs. They were intertwining, two lines which crossed over one another in repeating patterns and went around the drum and joined up right where they started. And they weren’t just lines, they were shapes, and they looked like they could be some kind of long curving creatures that moved in waves. 

Maybe I had seen something like it on a cartoon. I was fascinated by it and long after the other kids had finished their drums, I was still working on mine. I think I only used a few simple colors, but I remember that the main colors were blue and white. My teacher said, “Joey, that’s very beautiful. I’ll hang it up on the wall outside our classroom so everyone in the school can see it,” but I said, “No, I’m bringing my drum home, I’m keeping it in my bedroom and it will always stay with me.” “Don’t you want everyone in the school to see your drum?,” she said. I was very firm in my decision. Nothing would part me from my drum. My teacher, who was an old kind woman who never tried to order me around, was very surprised and for some reason she wouldn’t stop asking me to hang up the drum on the wall in the school hall. The idea began to seem terrible to me. I thought about my drum being all alone on the wall, with no one to watch over it. All those kids would be going past it all day long. And what would happen at night time? They’d turn off all the lights, and my drum would be hanging there in the dark in that scary silent school. I began to get angry. “No!,” I said, and I might’ve even shouted at this nice old woman. She didn’t know what to do. Everybody in the room, all the children, had stopped what they were doing. My teacher was completely surprised. She had never expected this sort of thing. She really didnt know what to do. I imagine I looked at her rather fiercely. It was the end of the school day. “Well, we’ll see what your mother has to say about this,” she said. The bell rang, and now I was standing in the hallway where I always waited for my mother to come get me, but I was hanging on to my drum with great resolve and all my classmates were standing around me waiting to see what would happen and the teacher stood by my side waiting. When my mother arrived the teacher explained what was going on and my mother took her side. She tried to convince me to give up my drum. First she tried to reason with me, and then she threatened force. She whispered in my ear what she would do. But I wouldn’t budge. Finally she grabbed the drum and took it from me. I had to let go. I was afraid it would break if I didn’t. 

She gave the drum to my teacher. But my teacher did not look at me with a look of triumph. She wasn’t that sort of woman. I held her eye and she stared into my eyes with a look that said, “I really don’t understand you at all.” Maybe there was even a sort of fear in her eyes. I said to my mother, “I will never forgive you,” and I stomped out ahead of her. She made her apologies to my teacher even as she hurried to catch up with me. When we got back to Jackson Street we went straight to my Grandmother’s house. We often ate dinner there. Soon my Dad would be back from work. My two aunts still lived in the house. I burst through the front door and ran right to my Grandmother and buried my face in her dress and cried hot tears. When my Grandmom asked what was wrong my mother said, “Oh, it’s nothing,” and went upstairs. My Aunt Jan took my mother’s side. “Joey, why didn’t you just let your teacher have the drum? You’re so obstinate!” But my Grandmom took me in the little kitchen in the back and gave me some cake and a glass of milk. Afterwards, I wouldn’t even look at my mother. Sometimes I’d see her looking at me, but I’d just look away. When my Dad came back from work he said, “What’s wrong with you, Joey?,” but my Mom just waved her hand and he let it go. What I wanted most of all was to look at the design I’d drawn on my drum. I wanted to sit down on the couch in my Grandmom’s living room with my drum in my lap and turn the drum round and round and just look at the design. And my Mom always had plenty of crayons for us. Maybe I could get my crayons and keep drawing on the design. Maybe after a while I could even add more colors in. This was Friday, so it wasn’t till Monday that I was able to stand in the school hallway and look at my drum which had been put high up on the wall so kids couldn’t reach it. But from that far away I couldn’t see the design the way I wanted to. You had to be able to hold the drum in your hands, you had to be able to turn it over and over and then you could study the design. When they finally gave my drum back to me I told them I didn’t want it anymore. I threw it down and walked away. 

When I was twenty two years old I went to Jerusalem, and when I came home it was almost winter. I didn’t want to be back in Philadelphia, but here I was. That New Year’s Eve we all went out and I got drunk on whiskey I kept in a canteen I'd gotten in Israel. Somebody gave me a pill, some sort of drug, and I was staggering and saying "Who is the Messiah?" and nobody could calm me down. I was sliding downhill from wall to wall and breaking things up. They tried slugging me and finally I ran away and in the deep cold of that night I walked through the rough neighborhoods of South Philly where a white man would never go on foot and I remember, as I started to sober up, seeing my boots on the pavement and putting one boot in front of the other as I hiked and at last came to Center City. I saw a girl across the street, she was standing in front of a dark shop window and she was crying. She pointed to the window and she said to me, “That’s a plane tree, and there’s the mommy and the daddy and there’s the child. They're a family. They're all on the plane tree.” The store sold expensive women’s clothes. A few well dressed mannequins were on the other side of the glass. The girl’s name was Suzanne. She told me a painful story about her father and about their terrible fights. I told her I had come back from Jerusalem. She said, “I just love that dress.” In the window there was a dress with an intertwining design which I’d seen many times and in many places and which I remembered now was similar to what I’d once drawn on my kindergarten drum. I told her the story and Suzanne said, “You saw the messiah. As plainly as you see me right now. The messiah is what brings us together. All of us together on the plane tree." She said, "It's the family. You and me, we're on the plane tree together. We'll have the child and we'll be a family.” Then she said, "We'll buy a green car. I have the money." Later that night I abandoned her. I told her I'd bring her back to her father's house but she wouldn't go. So I walked away. As I began the long hike south in the pre-dawn hour I kept looking back over my shoulder. The growing light of day seemed to make her memory less and less real. Life would never be easy for her. She was peering into a different world. Yet it's the same world we're all looking at. Like the stars at night. They were always there for her. Only we don't see them in the daytime. And they form intricate intertwining patterns which repeat, which begin and go forth and go round our universe and return to where they begin in one great circle. With the Earth at its center, like a child's drum. Late the next day, New Year's Day, I hiked around Center City, empty and dismal after the parade, cold night once again returning, and what I remember is how the litter blew across the pavements.

"The Autumn sky at dusk rings out with a voice like a bell, like a long-ago church bell heard from someplace far off, that echoes and drifts and when it’s gone you keep listening, hoping you’ll hear it again. A bell whose voice must have once been so loud, before it began its travels toward you, crossing that great distance. Perhaps a day came when you decided to go off in search of the bell. But as you traveled towards it you found to your surprise that the closer you got the smaller and quieter it became. Till at last, when you arrived, it was nothing but a perfect dot. A perfect, soundless dot. On top of a low green hill, with an afternoon sky behind it. Then you discovered that you hadn’t arrived at all. Because you had never really set forth on your journey. You hadn’t even traveled. The whole time, you were just sitting under the Autumn sky, with the tops of pine trees waving, and lazy birds circling, and clouds painted on the sky by someone who seemed to be in a hurry, like the postman who left the package just outside the door."

holiday      Once when Anna was two years old she and I spent an afternoon together. Anna was our first child and at this time was still our only child. I sat at my desk and wrote a story, and she sat on the floor playing. We were both inhabiting our own worlds. My wife was gone for the afternoon. It was a holiday, maybe it was Memorial Day, and I didn’t have to go to work. We hadn’t yet moved to the country. We lived in West Philly, in Powelton Village, in a place everyone called the Tiberino Compound because the artists Joe and Ellen Tiberino owned these four or five houses whose backyards had been linked up and turned into a wonderful Art Garden, and many artists rented from them. The yards were full of paintings and sculptures and murals. The walls both inside the houses and outside were covered with art, and the yards had many small separate places which you seemed to stumble upon as you wandered through. Joe and Ellen also owned the Bacchanal Club on South Street, which was one of the best bars our town had ever seen. The bar had inherited its spirit from its owners. Fun for all and all for fun. Creativity and intelligence were the only requirements. And if those were lacking, then the good fellowship of booze was happy to make up the difference. My wife and I both spent ten years working there.


     I had a study on the first floor of our house, in the front, with a huge desk and book shelves and an upright piano by the big window with its large wooden shutters, and the rest of the room had been cleared away and on the old hardwood floor a bright red circle had been painted, and that was one of the places where I practiced martial arts. Anna just naturally gravitated to the big red circle. I sat at my desk and looked across the room at this little girl who had plunked herself down right in the middle of that circle, and with only one or two toys clutched in her soft hands carried on a lively conversation with all the creatures she was dreaming up. In my own way I was doing the same thing, though I had a pen and a notebook in front of me on my desk, and these were my toys. I was writing a story called “War Is a Holiday,” and I was in love with my story, and in love with my little girl, so it was a very good time to be alive. I went back and forth between contemplating my own imaginary world and trying to get a glimpse into hers. She carried on her conversations and her games continuously. Every now and then she would glance over at me just to check in, just to make sure I was doing what I was supposed to be doing. Which was watching her. And then she’d return to the world of her own creation. After a while she grew tired of her games, and she came to me and climbed into my lap and I took her in my arms, and she talked to me for a while, asking me what game I was playing. For her everything was "Why, Daddy? Why are you doing that? Why?"  

Finally she put her head on my shoulder and I held her even as I wrote, and she went to sleep. I finished writing my story in that way. We were alone in this old three story house, built not long after the Civil War in the neighborhoods west of the Schuylkill River. The peace was perfect. My child slept the blessed sleep of the innocent, and I did my best to recapture whatever innocence was possible to me, through the medium of our common language. My story was a straight re-telling, a series of snapshots, of a day just like this one which we had spent together, a young Mom and Dad and their child, all of them taking first steps into their new lives. With the birth of our child I had gotten my first straight job, driving a dump truck for the Electric Company. No more working at the bar as a bouncer and bartender. That was all ending now. Something new was being born. Something new just like this child, this brand new person. She had been newly born into this world and into our lives. My wife came home and Anna woke up and we all got into my pickup truck and drove down the street to the food co-op so the wife could pick up her healthy vegetarian groceries. Anna and I waited outside. Powelton Village had been built for the professors who taught at Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania. The neighborhood had charm, with its low flowery front porches and its well-kept wrought iron garden fences. In the 60’s and 70’s many artists moved in. We were there through the 80’s and into the 90’s.


As Anna and I sat outside on the wall in front of the co-op Kathy Chang appeared. She hadn’t yet met my Anna. Kathy wanted me to tell her about the story I was working on. When Anna interrupted with some random childish speech, which impressed me as irresistibly cute, I was surprised when I looked up at Kathy and saw that she wasn’t at all charmed by the child. Kathy had no children, she never would. I complained to her about the drudgery of going to a straight job. She told me that she had once worked a straight job. She'd been a whore in a massage parlor. At that point the grocery store door opened and my wife’s hand reached out. I stood up, walked to the door, went into my pocket and took out my money and handed it to her. The door closed and I went back to Anna and sat down beside her. Kathy gave all her allegiance to her ideas. She was a revolutionary woman. She was kind and generous and she was entirely dedicated, body and soul, to a world which would someday be politically transformed into a happy place for all the poor and disadvantaged. My Anna was unsure about Kathy Chang. Anna looked at the slim and lively young woman and saw that Kathy did not belong to the world which she knew. I watched Anna as, for one moment, she quite clearly looked Kathy up and down. Then Anna came close to me, and she held me while I continued my conversation with Kathy Chang.