This September 27th marks the fifth anniversary of the death of my dear friend, the great Baltimore poet, Chris Toll. Five years. Not so long in the scope of a lifetime. There’s not a day that passes where I don’t remember Chris. Not so much for his poetry but for the way he conducted his life. He was one of the most gentle souls I’ve had the pleasure to share time with. I loved his word play. He’d find meaning in words within words. For example, “Who put ‘mean’ in meaning and why are they so mean.” That was his sense of humor. He was a fierce ally who had my back through the good, bad, fat, and lean years of living as a poet and writing poetry in Baltimore.
Chris often told me, “One can never be too bitter.” I’d laugh it off as a joke but understood his sentiment. There were many times I felt bitterness and resentment toward real and imagined injustices and slights. I took it personally. My friend Jennifer Blowdryer, a NYC writer, told me years ago, I sweat the small stuff. I did. I had a victim complex. That happens when you grow up being told by those you love that you’ll never amount to anything and you’re a loser. No disrespect to them. They showed love in their way. They couldn’t grasp my secret desire. They didn’t share my vision. Being an outsider in poetry and society was a hard way to go. Trying to survive in a profession that has no income, no rules, and no promises of reward for a better life is futile. That’s the nature and license of poets and art in general. It’s always been a blessing and a curse. I’m anti-social and gregarious simultaneously.
These days I say, “One can never be too bittersweet.” Poets are way too sensitive, absorbing the suffering of the modern world at large and never feeling at ease. It’s a thankless occupation. We’re not given the choice of being a poet as opposed to anything else, and I choose poet, but I don’t recommend it to anyone. It’s a solitary endeavor. It doesn’t occur automatically. You can’t pull poetry out of your ass. Poets are outside, observing from within. Poets have no code of ethics, laws, or rulebooks. There’s no standard protocol or procedure. Poetry lives. It’s eternal. Poets wish to dwell among the immortals and laugh with the gods. It can’t be taught, but can be learned by experience.
There are too many ghosts we must live with. My memories are filled with dead friends, family, musicians, artists, and poets. I’ve no clue why I’m still here. I’m amazed that I’ve survived a life of excess with total disregard for my well-being and safety. I was raised in a lower-middle class world only to reject it for decades of even more poverty, times of homelessness, and reckless abandon. Somehow I always landed on my rosy feet. It’s a great mystery. I don’t deserve to be this happy and joyous. Then again, of course I deserve it, and everything else too. The world, the oyster, the bowl of cherries and the slice of pie. The gods smile and luck abides. What time I have left will be spent slowly. To savor my existence and all it has to offer. I no longer feel a need to rush around, hurry, or be pressured to compete with others in an imaginary arena with half-dead gladiators. No rattling of swords or gnashing of teeth. If you live long enough you earn the right to take it easy. I can guarantee that Baltimore had nothing to do with my survival, but it’s the city I survived in.
Baltimore has its moments. A city cannot make or break you. Now this city is like all the other cities across the country. A cookie-cutter mirror image filled with corporate logos and brand marketing. Isn’t it a pity what a town without a city can do? Our Tinytown is disappearing. The world’s largest Christmas garden is closed and shuttered. Baltimore was just voted American’s most unattractive city by some travel and leisure magazine. Strange, since it looks like every other major metropolitan center. So the entire ugly megalopolis called America is a real beauty of an eyesore. There is hardly enough left for the quaint factor or the cute quotient. Our city is one big methadone clinic, homeless shelter, and soup kitchen. Tourism is up. Bus tours are rolling. Sightseeing and guided walking tours are happening more and more. It’s a real-life tale of two cities. The one that was manufactured for gawking tourists and conventioneers, filled with overpriced restaurants and trendy shops and then there’s the one the rest of us live in. The one with the junkies and panhandlers. The one with racial tension so thick you can feel it in the air. The one with block after block of boarded-up row houses and abandoned storefronts. This is where fantasy meets reality in the city of bankrupt dreams. Life is loss. Even cities die. Or the way we imagine them to be. I leave you with some final thoughts. A quote from Charles Bukowski, another great American poet: “We’re all going to die. All of us. What a circus! That alone should make us love each other but it doesn’t. We are terrorized and flattened by trivialities. We are eaten up by nothing.”