It took only six decades to arrive at this moment. All my fears, lethargy, apathy, self- loathing, insecurity, failure, and “fuck it” attitude have delivered me here now. Looking back at myself I can see the “braying oafish imp” the late Pam Purdy, of Baltimore’s City Paper, wrote of my behavior at a William Burroughs reading in D.C. in the early 1980s. It was Pam’s polite way of saying I was a drunken asshole. Burroughs was 45 minutes late, so I passed the time chugging vodka and tequila. By the time Burroughs arrived on stage I was in a blackout. I’ll never understand why the police didn’t drag me out of the auditorium. The other poets I was with probably saved me, but I can’t recall. Two of those poets are long gone, my mentors, Joe Cardarelli, and David Franks. The other mentor a Romanian poet, Andrei Codrescu, is still kicking at this writing. As for Pam, also long gone, we became the best of friends in the years that followed.
By the time I turned 18 my fate was almost sealed. The Vietnam War conveniently ended and the draft lottery was over. They did it on TV just like the State Lottery today: if your ping-pong balls came up with your birthdate you won a one-way ticket to Vietnam. All my fears about going off to war were gone and I was free to pursue freedom. My senior year of high school at Mergenthaler Vocational Technical was one long party, partially due to the Baltimore city teachers’ strike and the close proximity to Montebello Lake and Herring Run Park. There were many idyllic days by the lake and in the woods partying with my classmates and existing in the moment. They don’t call it High School for nothing. One friend was an LSD dealer, and always had the best acid. One day he got busted at school with 200 hits of orange sunshine, and they gave him the choice of prison or Vietnam. I forget his choice but that’s how surreal everything was then, or so it seemed. And either way, he was fucked.
A few years later anarchy, revolution and rejection of all authority, was the rage. Punk had reared its pretty but ugly head and “No Future” was the theme. I founded the first punk rock band in Baltimore in 1976, Da Moronics. But I believe these feelings were brewing long before Vietnam and LSD. I realized at a young age that the American Dream was a nightmare. I understood that the history we learned in school was all lies and the religion we were spoon-fed was a big fat lie too. We knew war was evil and stupid. Our history was built on greed, slavery, exploitation, and genocide. That civil rights movement was 200 years too late and we still have questionable rights now. Our alleged leaders may as well be used car salesmen. Yet the world still wobbles and we all go on pretending everything is normal. But I still love America because we have freedom. Just don’t get caught exercising your freedoms. That’s as patriotic as it gets. I’m no flag-waver. In the words of the late Leonard Cohen, “It looks like freedom but it feels like death, It’s something in between I guess.”
I have vague memories of the 1950s. They appear in my memory like old black and white Kodak Brownie snapshots. I was born at Baltimore City Hospital in the summer of 1956. One more baby boomer. We jump from the Korean War right into Vietnam. I have a few visual snippets of super 8 films, sitting in a rolling bassinet surrounded by chain link fence on a concrete square in a backyard row house alley behind Federal St. The soundtrack of my life had begun. My father playing his records, Big Band, Jazz, Swing, Louis Prima, Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, The Ink Spots, Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Dean Martin, the soundtrack of his life melting into mine. The AM radio playing Wayne Newton, singing “Danke schoen.” Aunt Helen playing Perry Como, Jimmy Rodgers, and Dean Martin.
My earliest memory of the power of music was playing yellow vinyl 45s on a tiny record player in a box; the speaker on the end of the needle arm sounded like the scratch sound inside a tin can. They were called Peter Pan records. The Three Stooges singing “All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth.” Then I heard Elvis and The Beatles invaded. We all witnessed those nights on The Ed Sullivan Show. At a family party, my little sister was dancing The Twist to Chubby Checker and it was scandalous. All the relatives were either in shock or cheering her on to dance. She was maybe six years old. At The White Rice Inn Chinese restaurant on Park Ave. with my Mom, brother, and sister, at a wooden booth, bright red Formica table, I had my first chow mein and egg roll. There was a Herman’s Hermits bobble head set on the shelf for some odd reason. Mom wore saddle shoes. A throwback to her Catholic school days. We are third generation Sicilian. Our parents wanted us to be American, so they only spoke Italian to each other, never to the kids. It was like they were embarrassed by our ethnic heritage, or because Mussolini sided with the Nazis. And there was also the mafia stigma. The Sicilians have a name for someone like me. A “menefeigista,” someone who doesn’t give a fuck. By the late-60s you were either a Beatles fan or Rolling Stones fan. The Beatles were good boys, while the Stones were juvies. Guess which side I was on?
We moved to my Ma’s parent’s home around 1960. It was a big noisy family affair. I never knew my father’s parents. They both died before I was born. He was a shoemaker. His wife was a Mediterranean mama to nine children. One of who was my Dad. He was a Merchant Marine. Enlisted during WW2 and stayed through the Korean conflict and Vietnam War. Needless to say he wasn’t home much. About three or four months a year until the late-70s. After that he worked for many years at Sea Land in the Dundalk Marine Terminal as a night watchman. So the threat, ”Wait till your father gets home” had little meaning except when he was around. On my mom’s side of the family there were five kids. Sundays at Noni and Papal's was a feast that started after morning church. Noni was always cooking, but Sundays was when all the family gathered, sometimes as many as 20 or more people during the holidays. Noni’s kitchen was in the basement at 2924 E. Cold Spring Lane. Huge stainless steel pots filled with sauce, meatballs, sausage, and pounds of boiling pasta in the other. She baked her bread and made biscotti cookies. Once a week or so we would ride the streetcar down Harford Rd. to the Belair Market, now long gone. There she bought fresh groceries and on occasion live chickens that she’d decapitate in the backyard. She gave us yellow, green, blue, orange, and pink marshmallow peanuts to distract us while the butchering occurred. I recall a headless chicken running around the vegetable garden. Another memory was Noni soaking her feet in an old washtub sitting on the back stoop, scraping the dead skin from her feet with a razor blade and a giant pumice stone.
Papal's broke down Model T sat in the rusty sheet metal garage behind the back of the house off List Ave. Next to that garage was his big garden filled with tomatoes, corn, eggplants, peppers, carrots, onions, all kinds of herbs, a grape arbor, and a peach tree. Papal made wine in the basement. He also tended to a large group of rose bushes that he groomed and fussed over. He’d take an old coffee can filled with turpentine and hold it under the rose blooms. Japanese beetles hidden in the roses would drop into the can, knocked out from the turpentine fumes. When he ate lunch it was always a ritual chunk of cheese, a hunk of heavy bread, a slice of salami or pepperoni, a glass of his wine, and a raw egg which he pierced with a knife and sucked the liquid and yolk with a loud slurp. Papal was a stonemason. He could chisel, cut rock and lay stone. He helped build many of the churches along Harford Rd. At some point in the late-50s, he covered the house on Cold Spring Lane in formstone. One summer day at age 5, I was watching Papal tend his garden as I played with a large plastic black horse nearby. He came to me and took my horse, " Follow me, I want to show you something." I obliged and entered the garage where he was already grabbing wood and hammer. He nailed the horse to a piece of wood base, then grabbed a can of silver paint and a brush and painted the horse with a flourish. It was transformed.
Infamy is forever. For better or worse I’ve had my fair share of infamy in a dim limelight. Everyone has a thing and mine was the unholy trinity of music, art, and poetry. Some folks are good at sports, others at making money, my occupation was free thinker, rabble rouser, ne’er do well, rapscallion, artist, poet, musician, possibly subversive, even deviant. You could argue a career in obscure/plain view. Some may say I’m an art snob. No more than your average sports or religious fanatics. I have a vast knowledge of useless trivia about music, art and literature.
I live a charmed life and have for most my life. I still wonder when my luck will run out. I have a beautiful life now and a beautiful wife too. She’s not perfect but then who am I to judge? She inspires me to write this story. Her name is Bronwyn and I love her dearly. We met working at Martick’s Restaurant in 1977. She was 17; I was 21. Had a brief fling then lost track of each other until 2009 when we met again at a memorial service. Three years later we married on my birthday. Bronwyn has shown me a better way to live, without self-destruction, and negative energy because I dwelled on the dark side and wild side most of my life. Because of her, I quit smoking cigarettes after 40 years of a pack or more a day. More if I was drinking, which was all the time. Now I feel like a war survivor.
I was smoking cigarettes at 12, started drinking too. In those days everybody smoked. It was considered healthy. Smoking by minors was frowned upon but you could buy cigarettes anywhere at any age. And booze was easy to get. Back then cops would let you go home if you were driving drunk. By the time I was in high school we were allowed to smoke during lunch on the football field. Of course by then everybody was smoking not just cigarettes but pot, hash, Thai stick, Nepalese temple balls, hash oil, opium, you name it. Everything is a war in America. The war on poverty, the war on homelessness, the war on obesity, but the war on drugs is the biggest lie ever perpetrated by the government since the genocide of the Indians and slavery. The average high school kid in Anytown, USA has easy access to every legal and illegal drug known. In my college years cocaine, heroin, PCP, mescaline, peyote, mushrooms, crystal meth, amphetamines and barbiturates were readily available on the street, in schools, at the doctor’s office and online. The war on drugs began with President Nixon. He was the end of politics for me and any patriotic feelings I may have harbored. Even as a kid I knew there was something wicked wrong beneath the surface. There was insincerity and reality feeling not quite right. But my world was very black and white then.
Nixon resigned in disgrace but should’ve gone to prison or hung for treason, along with the rest of his gang. There was a brief transition with Gerald Ford, who pardoned Nixon as the first official act of his mock presidency. Ford was a klutz who was always tripping over his own feet and falling down stairs a lot. His wife Betty Ford founded the world famous drug rehab, The Betty Ford Clinic. She was also a patient on many occasions. She was known for mixing pills and booze. There was a brief respite of calm when Jimmy Carter won the presidency in 1976. It was also the American Bicentennial. Everywhere you looked everything was red, white, and blue. Toilet paper, clothing, cars, furniture. It was a field day for patriots. Much like today without the red, white, and blue. There’s a story about President Carter sharing a joint with Willie Nelson on the White House roof. His brother Billy Carter sold Billy beer. Then came The Reagan Era. It was the beginning of a downward spiral that still lingers now. Ronald Reagan and Nancy, who began a crusade against drugs, with her “Just Say No “ campaign. She enlisted people like Mr. T and Gary Coleman to help her spread the gospel. It was a laugh. The Reagan years produced yuppies, gentrification, the Me Generation of greed and Silicon Valley. Oh, and crack.
Today, It’s business as usual as it always was. The rich get rich and the poor stay poor. The American Dream is a wide-awake nightmare. I don’t condone the use of drugs, nor do I support the war on drugs. Drugs are a choice not a referendum. You can’t enforce laws against what people choose to use and abuse. In a free society we should be able to choose what we put in our bodies. Not to be considered criminals or subversive deviants for our choices. This country in its short existence has contributed more to the Seven Deadly Sins than any country in history. More than the Roman Empire and the Third Reich combined. The one percent who control the world today are all high right now on the finest controlled substances money can buy.
People are beginning to realize that presidents don’t care about them. Like us, politicians have personal agendas and we’re not included. People are finally starting to understand that our system is broken and corrupt, and impossible to fix. The fix is in. The earth is flat. The moon is hollow. NASA is fake. The moon landings were filmed on a soundstage by Stanley Kubrick. The CIA, Mob, Nixon, FBI, and Bush murdered Kennedy. Elvis is still alive. Is anybody listening? Where is the proof? Right in front of us. Does anybody really care?
You can argue I’ve no right to complain because I’ve never voted in any elections. Although In 2000 I was coerced into registering to vote. Ralph Nader was running, my old friend Richard kept bugging me to register and telling me how important it was. So one day while having coffee with him at an outdoor café in Charles Village, I registered because he wouldn’t stop blabbing about how I had to vote. To shut him up I signed a clipboard some Hopkins University student had, who was recruiting Green Party voters on the street. Long story short, I never voted and got stuck with jury duty summons every year for the next 15 years in Baltimore. I never got picked because I always made sure I looked like a defendant instead of a juror. I shouldn’t blame Richard or any other righteous folks who still believe our votes count. Around the same time, my friend Dan confronted me in the middle of my poetry reading in a prestigious Charles St. art gallery, telling me to remind people to vote. I was so incensed, and also very drunk, I went ballistic on him. I told him to get fucked and also said fuck anybody who votes and fuck the candidates too. These days I proudly tell people I don’t vote. Never did, never will.
Now Trump’s about to become president and it doesn’t matter. People are freaking out like he is the devil incarnate. Is he any worse than Nixon, Reagan, the Bush’s or any other president? Come on, baby please…