Category Archives: Story

A Cinematic Protest Returns to the Screen!

Thursday, November 6, 2014 @ 7:00pm!

” The Best Black Film of The Year!”  – Kam Williams, 2002, The NJ Herald

After more than a decade, the 2002 cult classic AS AN ACT OF PROTEST will finally get its Chicago ‘premiere’ at the Studio Movie Grill Chatham Theater, 201 West 87th Street, courtesy of Floyd Webb and Black World Cinema.

A cinematic “line in the sand against racism,” it is provocative, disturbing, and emotionally arresting at times – this is a movie unlike any other made in the early part of the 21st century as it signified a new type of “protest art” within the dramatic arts, linking the political consciousness of 1960’s-1970’s radical theater with the cinematic urgency and simplicity of the “Dogme 95″ Digital Video revolution in world cinema.

Hopefully we can get some folks in the windy city to brave the weather and get a chance to see Dennis Leroy Kangalee’s seldom seen “missile from his youth”!

'As an Act of Protest' design by Benn Starr (2014)

‘As an Act of Protest’ design by Benn Starr (2014)

Thursday, November 6, 2014 at 7pm, Adm. $6.00

Black World Cinema @

Studio Movie Grill Chatham Theater
210 W 87th Street

Additional information:

Click here for video excerpts or more information on the film itself.

Contact: Black World Cinema, 9 W Washington St, Chicago, IL 60602

Curated by: Floyd Webb, floydwebb@gmail.com

Visit http://aaaopfilm.wordpress.com/screenings/ for more information. 

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Weaving Rugs and Building Floors: Some Pier Paolo Pasolini and Samuel Fuller, But Completely Alessandro

Afghan Hound
Written & Directed by Brian Alessandro

"Afghan Hound" (2010)

“Afghan Hound” (2010)

A New Director has made a powerful motion picture, which is now available to audiences on Netflix and Amazon Instant Video.

Brian Alessandro’s 2010 Afghan Hound opens with a shot of garbage. An indication of the mess that slowly forms when a white American war veteran and an Afghani carpet weaver’s lives intersect. Although understandably perceived as a film about a PTSD and a Vet’s struggle to come to grips with the horror he inflicted in Afghanistan at the start of America’s invasion shortly after September 11, 2001 — the film is less a portrait of PTSD and more an illustration of the warped relationship America and historic white racism have with the Oppressed and colonized. It is set in the here and now, within the fray of the 21st century circus and the themes of white guilt, war crimes (an oxymoron if there ever was one), revenge, and punishment could be applied to just about any time period in modern man’s consciousness. Chris Leeds (Adam M. Griffith in an impressive performance) is a veteran trying to resolve and accept the horror he inflicted and experienced as a soldier in Afghanistan. He is reflective, introverted, and fragile when we meet him and yet at least he seems to be able to support himself – he’s a carpenter. And while he may not be Jewish, he is a Catholic and the suffering he must endure is rite of passage ritual into a state of grace. He is 33, like Christ was when he was crucified. Although it is not a primary aspect of the film, it is wholly un-subtle. Is Alessandro implying that Americans (i.e. “white people”) must suffer to the depths in order somehow be reborn, be cleansed, be…treated for their institutional philosophy of militancy and imperialism? Whether at home or abroad, white America has its nose in everything and dictates to everyone under the sun. Except to itself.

Enter: Zemar – spookily interpreted by Lavrenti Lopes. Zemar is the Afghanistan-American (he grew up in Flushing) who initially befriends Chris (they swap trades, Zemar teaches Chris about rug weaving, who in turn gets lessons in carpentry). Their exchange of energies and ideas is affirmative and creative as they both build things…and yet, as Zemar reminds us: “Everything begins with philosophy.” Which, of course, means that there is an inherent idea behind any organized act or decision. And how we render those actions is based on ones philosophy. It is quite clear that the director wanted it to be known that America’s treatment of “the other” and its own soldiers – is quite a conscious act.

I wrote earlier that Afghan Hound is not really about PTSD in my opinion – as that skirts the issue. It is about the recognition of guilt and admission of sin. And how a white man willingly accepts his punishment – even if only it allows him to feel something stable and “real.” This is no coincidence or something to be taken lightly. The white man – cut off from his own center, his own “soul” as it were must always go to the “natives” to feel something. He must always be led, taught, entertained, or forgiven by a person of color in order to be free of his burden, his shame. He has been going to the black man for his music for centuries now – because it enables him to feel. But what he can’t seem to do is actually forgive himself. People of color throughout the world do nothing but forgive. It’s not that the colonized don’t know who they are — it is perhaps that the colonizer doesn’t know or can’t admit who he is. And the Chris Leeds of the world wouldn’t know where or how to begin to forgive…themselves. Their world is too unstable.

In one of the film’s most genuinely moving scenes, Chris announces to his friends and family — after imploring them for their American nationalism in which he excoriates everything from the A Bomb to Britney Spears – “at least the sunset is trustworthy.” He knows it’s the only thing man can rely on, the one constant that may never change and it is an emotional sunset or sunrise that he needs, he needs something to lean against that he can rely on. Zemar becomes his sunset.

It is when Zemar begins pursuing revenge on Chris that the film takes a surrealistically absurd turn. Alessandro powerfully crafts elements of Sam Fuller and Pasolini into what emerges as a kind of delicate ‘Theater of Torture’ – all executed and inflicted by Zemar who shows himself to be quite the guerilla sadist. And this is the power of Alessandro’s directing – he expresses the terrifying fact that even the oppressed’s ability to enact a reasonable or rational act of revenge – has been corrupted!

Maya Angelou once wrote that she did not believe that blacks would treat whites the same if they were in positions of power and if their roles in western society had been reversed. She wrote this in reference to Jean Genet’s play “The Blacks” (which she appeared in originally) and while she may or may not be right, in the case of Afghan Hound – revenge is something Chris wants Zemar to have and, once again like a good sacrificial lamb – he offers himself and exposes himself to Zemar’s bizarre, yet benign, S&M fantasies (the scene where Zemar rubs his hands over Chris’ combat uniform as if to indicate the homo-eroticism of Fascist military fatigues is excellent). Zemar wants this white imperialist to suffer, to be punished, to be abused…and yet for all the debasing he does – it is Zemar who comes off appearing more warped than Chris, thereby endowing Chris with more sensitivity, almost in a strange way letting him (the white audience) off the hook, since the empathy is given more to him than to Zemar. If there is a criticism I have of Afghan Hound it is that.

Lopes bothered me half way into the film, he was too cocky and his cat like prancing was off-putting at first. I also was uncomfortable for all the wrong reasons. As an African-American, I was delighted to see another man of color play a role that was complex and off-kilter. However, the “bitchiness” of the character bothered me, and at times bordered on a strange shifty eyed Arab stereotype via Peter Lorre – and yet in the last 10 minutes of the film Lopes finds a way of redeeming Zemar – not as a person – but as a character in the film. Because no matter no matter how “true to life” some movies’ people seem – one must not forget we are watching characters. And behind every character…is a philosophy.

Griffith did well as Chris – it’s a role Viggo Mortensen would’ve craved had he been 25 years younger. Griffith is a better actor, but there were times I did not believe his brooding. It would have been even more powerful if Griffith was more like his delusional white friends and had still been PRO-America and then gradually lost himself in Zemar’s Velvet Underground revenge games – discovering his own status as a racist imperialist and as a ‘pawn in the game’ but these are minor points and only ones I speak of in order to be fair and honorable to the film. To not be tough on a tough movie would be to dishonor it. And all works of art are flawed. It’s just that there are times when the artist must speak to his fellow artist and tell him exactly how his work stirred him and what questions it prompted. That’s how we all grow. It took great courage and talent to make Afghan Hound. For all his absurd “spiritual suffering” ethos, Scorsese couldn’t do it (he lacks the courage – plus he’s too busy making sure DiCaprio is brushing his teeth or God knows what) and neither could Aronofsky or any other establishment director who supposed to be known for taking risks and being honest.

American cinema does mirror the American society in that it is a socio-pathic, self-aggrandizing world that does little to change, challenge, or reflect on our history, mores, and accepted values. For this alone, Alessandro must be commended.

Final Note: Brian Alessandro’s use of wide-angle masters and subtle shifts in acting styles (look at the white American family the movie with that of the Afghani family, even the styles – within the perceived Naturalism – is different!) is effective and bristle with tension and a strange un-reconciled understanding. I am not sure how he achieved some of the things he did (which I am grateful for) but I know his work beckons repeated viewings and I hope he is a director who will continue to make honest and penetrating films.

*

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For a Second I Thought I Was Mahler

DLK as Mahler

Stepping back in the room, I caught myself 
Frozen
Like a cat burglar who had lost his cool
And for a second I thought I was Mahler —
Perhaps it was my high forehead
And my reversed sloped hair
As if my roots were growing out of the crown of my head and up backwards
Towards the sun (or the Aliens who had neglected me)
I was disappointed to not have looked like Prince
But maybe that’s the price you pay
For living past the age you wanted to die at
I thought I knew that profile anywhere, having seen it stretched across the banner of an old friend’s door 
He was a classical musician
and loved all things sad
 
He would play Elgar on a piano
and insist that it sounded better without an orchestra,
We traded stories of madness and caught each other once again
years later when we both did our stint at Paine Whitney
Our vitals were low, we were anemic, we were angry, we were young
 
And once when I stepped into the sun, my wife cried
And when I asked her why
She said I reminded her of something she had forgotten about in her heart
And while I was hoping it might have been Prince or some rock ‘n roll revolt 
That jarred her memory —
It was the moving shadow around my head, landing into the new apartment we
had just rented —
 
And I cursed myself as I heard our new neighbor jerking off his new leaf blower 
in a coarse Sunset Park afternoon up on the highest hill of Brooklyn where some 
Rich and poor are now living closer and closer —
 
I heard the faint notes of a symphony spilling out of a broken heart. 

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A Message on 125th Street, Harlem NYC (2011)

A Message on 125th Street, Harlem NYC (2011)

She was a quote whore and had legs like a seagull, beautifully bent as if awaiting take-off, eager to follow the visiting ships. We’d wheeled hypnotically for hours at a time once before in different corners of the world, often flapping in a cul-de-sac of frustration. I had learned of her through a truncated message tossed from a virtual skyscraper and tried my best to reciprocate.

I’d spent the better part of my life on the wing, but my wandering had slowed when too many of my fellow searchers were snared in world wide webs devoted to no one but the faceless spirit of the machine.

She sat like a beautiful Spider Monkey cross-legged on volcanic stone, waiting at the wall.
I caught a glimpse of her from above and behind, through the scalding chinks of the coppers’ chains and the dimmed windows of their Chevy Impala. There were crumbs and old newspapers and a crushed coffee cup kept rolling back and forth under the passenger seat. They picked me up for rolling a cigarette outside of Central Park – I wasn’t even smoking, I was just rolling it. They said I broke the law and was loitering and would have to be booked and they said they had witnesses. They drove around for a while and went back to the park entrance where they snagged me. My cigarette was still on the cobblestone. They asked around if anyone had seen me rolling the cigarette. The hotdog vendor just stared at them. He must have thought it was funny.
They shoved me back in the cruiser. Now they were pissed. They drove a bit, then laughed as they blared the siren and slapped me around a bit. I wanted to fight back — but if my fury had gotten the best of me I’d never make it to the wall.

They beat me so badly, a couple of the dead mariners’ souls’ tumbled out of me spilling onto the corroded seats of the car. I began to wonder if they would turn my feet into tobacco pouches.

— from “The Albatross Wall” (2009)

The Albatross Wall

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“What Happened to the Brother on the Block? (The NY Horror Vol.1)” – Spoken Word Recording

“What happened to the brother on the block? He turned into a Starbucks!”

Inspired by the Twilight Zone, the comedy of Pryor & Mooney, Theater of the Absurd, & the Folkways Spoken Word Recordings, this darkly-poetic satire about corporate-friendly gentrification in “21st Century Urbana” was recorded in one take in May 2010 and was mixed by Isaiah Singer, who applied spare musical arrangements and sound effects to support the “surreal midnight vulnerability” of Kangalee’s reading. The result is a perfect introduction to Dennis LeRoy Kangalee’s dramatic spoken word and fiction.  It was the first installment in a series detailing the gross bizarre suburbanization of NYC and, of course, led to his theatrical realization of “Gentrified Minds(The NY Horror Vol.2)” which includes an abridged version of this story via his now abandoned persona, the ‘Nomad Junkie’. .

Read an excerpt of the original story here.

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The author at Brecht's grave, Berlin, 2006 [Nina Fleck]

The author at Brecht’s grave, Berlin, 2006 [Nina Fleck]

The rain stopped and the sky nested stars that twinkled so crisply, so brightly it made you wonder how such a beautiful sky could hang over such a miserable city. He should have felt excited to be in a foreign city, but he wasn’t. Evil beginnings and wretched sameness would protrude. Trust no one, he suspected. And don’t look anyone in the eye…their lies, pretense, and pain would be enough to cripple a horse.

He walked into a kiosk. The Turkish proprietor lowered the radio so he could give the Maestro his full attention. He knew he was American, but, more importantly, he knew he was on the prowl, in search of a common dialogue. The Maestro purchased some cigarettes and a couple of candy bars. The proprietor was excited to hear that he had come from New York City and inquired about Queens, Brooklyn, and Harlem. He explained that all of his favorite musical acts were from those areas and if he knew any of them. The Maestro replied that he did, of course, and the proprietor’s eyes lit up and he reached out to touch his hand. The Maestro was taken back a bit and of course he realized that no, he was not on a horse, had not carried a gun, and his was name was not Cortes. He wondered if this was when he was supposed to turn on the man and destroy him, but then saw that he’d have to destroy himself too and gave it up.
The proprietor kissed his ringed hand and released him. He then smiled and told the Maestro how much he enjoyed listening to music. The Maestro agreed and said that he was angry for not bringing his portable CD player and headphones. The proprietor graciously offered to loan him a set, but he refused. He then asked the Maestro why in the world had he come to Germany of all places (“the asshole of Europe”) and how long would he be staying. The Maestro told him his story and gave him a flyer for his concert.
A tall dark woman hidden behind a fortress of make-up and extremely tight black clothing entered the store. She chewed gum, talked on a phone, and threw Youssef (the proprietor’s name was Youssef) some cash for a couple of packs of cigarettes. Youssef tried engaging her in some lively chatter, but all attempts failed. The woman had cigarettes to smoke, gum to chew, and people to call. Talking with anyone was purely out of the question. Jilted again, Youssef gave her her change and waved goodbye to one more human being too quick, too fast, in a rush to go nowhere.
“They never look me in the eye. They always think I’m
trying to flirt with them. I’m not. I just try to talk…”
The Maestro smiled and nodded. His heart ached and he understood.
“I work here every day and no women will talk to me. It’s not real. I feel not real…That’s why I like to listen to music. I like Hip Hop music. And Blues music. Black music is the original music…It is the soul, no?”
He nodded.
“When the New Orleans happened, when the hurricane in New Orleans–I was very sad. Very very sad…I could feel…like my heart torn from my body. I saw these pictures and I thought it was just terrible. And those people suffered, lost their homes. America will not help these black people? It is racist, no? Like Berlin, here.”
Give me a break, pal, I just got off the plane.
“I want to know something,” Youssef intoned, conspiring with the Maestro, just standing inches away from him whispering in his ear. “Why the black people are not doing something about this? And I don’t understand the black people who always seem happy to be American. What does that mean?”
He understood Youssef’s question, but had no clue to answer and he didn’t want to get into it. “I don’t understand it either,” was all he could seem to muster. It was simply too early for this shit. Racism tomorrow, he thought. Right now let’s deal with the essentials: women, weather, and wisecracks. But of course he realized the essentials were the things you could never escape. Women are necessary to life, they give life. And destroy life. And they can make things difficult for all powerless men at all times if they choose to. Yes, women are always a fine and healthy obsession to discuss and dissect. Like cancer or the journey through the birth canal. But weather? Weather is not important unless you are leading a war on foot. Wisecracks are for the young and insecure. But discussions on Racism always rouse the soul and re-align the spine. It forces you to admit truths about the world and about yourself and the psychosis we have been led to believe in.

— from “The Maestro” a novella by Dennis Leroy Kangalee, (c) 2006

The Maestro

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What Happened to the Brother on the Block? (The NY Horror Vol.1) [story excerpt]

Brother on Block (original)
…And as he stood on the footbridge, overlooking the L.I.E, making his way over the foliage slithering through the cement that still managed to breathe outside of LaGuardia – he turned to face the Shea Stadium he always passed on his way home in his youth, instead he was confronted with a garish gleaming light that spat wasted electricity through the famous Rockefeller octagon – only it was the glaring red of the otherwise impotent graffiti, below, that caught his eye, which innocently asked: Which way to New York?

Leroy had the Church of Scientology on one side and JP Morgan Chase bank on the other.

He knew he was in trouble.

But he figured if he couldn’t find salvation in one, he could always find it in the other. After all, the other, and more ancient, religions had failed him interminably and maybe now it was time to get with the program: money or outer space.

“Fuck it,” he thought, “I’m ready for it. Bring on the aliens.”

He knew it wouldn’t matter, that no extra-terrestrial invasion would change a thing – regardless of whether we were or weren’t demons from another moon-planet or the swapped saliva under Tom Cruise’s armpit. His mother, ironing clothes when he came home from school, holding up and shaking the iron every time L. Ron Hubbard’s commercials came on – the volcanic eruption, the flowing lava on the screen: “What the hell did Dianetics ever do for Black folks!” she’d cry and as soon as the sales pitch vanished and Oprah’s face filled the screen – she would calm back down.

She was frantic for understanding and honesty and generosity. Especially when it concerned money. Other people’s money. This was probably why he felt as foreign from the Capitalists as he did from the Scientologists, but he’d better get with the program – quick – or he’ll be destroyed. Cause if the Aliens from Hollywood don’t save him, then money will. And if that doesn’t work there is always death. Because when you’ve got a bank you can’t join and a church you can’t believe in, then your options don’t seem that great.

“No, couldn’t be,” he said to himself every morning, “this couldn’t be the end…”

He knew it was, or could be, or would be and it scared him. He was desperate to make a connection.

On his first day back the adrenalin pumping only crystallized his prey. He turned on his heel, looked down the block, hoping to find another brother from Back in the Day.

One, named Creepy, was the type of brother you take for granted.

Creepy Fist

He was a record-keeping device with veins. Some kind of anthropological scout in the form of a camera that pumped blood.

He knew everything about Harlem and had seen all the changes. Which is why whenever he saw Leroy – he’d raise his fist:

“So long, so long, since I’d seen a man —

not a son with a gun, but a man with a hand.”

And of course no one ever listened to him. He was not a prophet (he always said things would get better). The looming shadow that lurked over the corner he frequented proved that. The residents of his neighborhood had grown tired of his hallucinations and desired coffee instead.

Or at least that’s what the land developers said.

They had replaced the Brother on the block with a Starbucks and it was just the beginning of a very quick extermination.

Starbucks
*

[An alternate version was originally published in “The Nerve Lantern”; then revised in the performance piece “Gentrified Minds: The NY Horror Vol.2”. This excerpt is from my spoken word text which can be heard here.]

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All The Smart People I Know Don’t Have Children

villagedamned[1]

What would they do with them?

Happily murder and warp and pervert them into three legged jungle gym monsters, putrid little hyenas on hind legs with credit cards and shoot em up with knowledge of stocks and bonds and baseball averages and when to say which curse word & when not to?

Who has time for this?

Even scarier: Who wants time for this?

Can’t we fix the crooked sign above the altar first?  Clean up some shop a bit, kick a little ass & get the crooked rooked regogos out first??

Can’t we at least let all the children who are children be children first & let them grow up before we implore & ingratiate this planet with more fucking kids??

Can’t we give it a rest, just sterilize maybe two or three billion males for a generation or so.  Wouldn’t you want to be able to make love & not worry?  Don’t you miss sexual abandon?  Wouldn’t it be nice to not care?  You could feed the starving babies & we could all take time to get to know one another…That’s a lot of work, isn’t it?

Or are you that egotistical that you need to spill your own seed?

(“It’s not that I dislike children – it’s what they might become. If I had to bear witness to my child’s lack of success I’m not sure I’d be able to handle it. I barely handle my own.”)

*

My greatest fear would be to have to explain to my child how to lie.  I’m not sure I’d be able to handle it.  I mastered it early, by observing the sweltering pain & bile festering in my parents’ eyes.

And now children take to these masks like an inchworm making its way across the Last Leaf.

Birth.

Money.

Talk.

Money.

Family.

Money.

Walk.

Money.

School.

Pool.

Summer camp.

Satan, Santa

Blue Jean crews.

High School.

College.

MONEY.

MONEY.

MONEY.

Madness. Sheer madness. That’s all it is…I sometimes wake up from a deep-sleep & ask myself “Is this all worth it?” Then I ask “What the hell IS this?” And I can’t make sense of the sloppy eyes & dumb mouths carving out slings to wear upon their hearts

& all I think is “There were no slings for hearts when hearts beat & bled or bowed & stood” And I ask the College boy who just got home last summer–I ask him when I pass him and his girlfriend on the stoop: “You ready, College boy?” “For what?” “For all THIS.  You ready?” And he doesn’t answer. And my heart (which never had an aspirin nonetheless a sling) twists for this kid and his doe-eyed girlfriend tugs at him begging for an answer

& I try to send a message but my lashes aren’t long enough & she mistakes my popping sockets for some wild-eye battle cry

& now I have to break the cool & say straight out (cause no one knows how to READ anybody anymore): “He’s got time to answer.  And when he can’t–he’ll figure it out.  Just don’t beat him up about it.  Learn the word ‘Tragedy’ first, and understand that we’re just here to be abused. Walk in the direction of oncoming traffic & always be kind to a lame horse.  For if you’re as sensitive as he is–they’ll get rid of you, too…it just may not be as quick. If it is–they will not forgive the man who’s quick to dis-assemble.”

She shies me away, He doesn’t look in my eye–so he missed it when I rubbed out all the pennies declared and the sleep that will not go away.  “This is important,” she says, and she turns up the volume on their computer screen to watch the latest News Crawl…

“No need for drugs anymore. All you have to do is turn on the TV.   Although I doubt you’ll learn as much about yourself.”

In truth, I didn’t know what to say.  She was cute & reminded me of my first crush, he was lanky and awkward and prettier version of how I might have looked at eighteen with a Caesar and basketball hands.  He was being sent to Tennessee in two days.  From there, he’d go into Iraq.  He was old enough to be my son.  Once he even tried to act like one – he knocked on the door & asked my Lady if he could ask me some questions about Shakespeare since I “speak so good,” & could I help him with his term paper?

My Lady was right not to tear out his delusion from such watery eyes & she said of course I’d help & I’d be only a few minutes & she coerced me into spilling my guts to the kid about crying havoc & letting slip the dogs of war – without mentioning of course that I was unemployed, non-degreed, &  increasingly un-published.  “But you write a mean business letter,” she teased, “and it’s not that no one will publish you – it’s that no one knows what to do with you”.

She definitely knows how to get me moving, that’s for sure.

I helped the kid with his paper – it was on Lear, not ancient Rome, but it didn’t matter – his future was so far off & away from our water-damaged ceilings and tiny kitchen, it wouldn’t have made a difference how many fancy metaphors or how colorful my language was in expounding on Shakespeare’s tragedies.   This sorrow was much greater & deeper & stranger.

“Mr. Kangaleri,” he said – as if I was some Italian Indian who could not speak English – “Mr. Kangaleri, I want you to know I appreciate your help…You…you do a lot…for me.”  He paused more than Brando & for a moment I thought this kid’s got something.  He’s got something.  But whatever he had…he was going to spill out over Iraq.  I wondered about his parents.

His mother was a sexy thing – her black-gray hair reminded me of a vanilla-chocolate swirl on an ice cream cone & I always smiled dumbly when I saw her.  My Lady & her traded secrets & beauty tips & sometimes Astrology books.  She dated a lot and eventually settled on some jerk who told the kid he had two choices: “Eat or be eaten.”

I would have told him he had at least three: “You can be in the fight.  Watch the fight.  Or produce the fight.”     I was still trying to figure out which hole I was in, sometimes it was all three.  But at least it meant I was alive, no? Then it dawned on me: no, the only options are the ones you make for yourself.  You didn’t have to join or fight anyone’s battle – your life itself is a battle.  You don’t need to look for a ring to get into, you are a ring!

I assured the boy he could be whatever he wanted as long as he had some passion.  As long as he had a yearning to be free.

That word fell out of my mouth so many times that morning my Lady started to get suspicious.  “Stop it, “ I assured her.  “Freedom is all we got locked deep down inside of us,” I explained to him,” it’s right there next to love, hate, & fear. And you can get thrown out into the field with the scent of one of them and that will determine who follows you, which hellhound will be blazing your trail.”

This scared him.  Although I didn’t have the nerve to tell him that, in the end, freedom was an abstraction.  And none of us knew it cause none of us ever had it.   “Your grandparents understand freedom.   Cause they remember what it was like when they still had to fight for it.  The more aware you are of what you can’t do and the more outraged you become – the clearer freedom is.”

*

The next day his mother’s boyfriend stepped to me & he made it clear my “terrorism” was not appreciated.

He handed me back the books I gave to the boy for his graduation – a well thumbed 1983 edition of Brave New World – which he held out like a bug infested mattress – and the Encyclopaedia Africana – which he said was too heavy for a boy to lug around & anything he needed to know he could look up online & besides he was “Puerto Rican” and “not Black” & he didn’t want to confuse the kid any more than he was.    He leered at me sideways & then said, almost proudly, “that’s the book that kid read before he shot the Congresswoman in Arizona.  I don’t want my kid carryin’ that shit, you know I’m sayin?  That’s like Hitler or something right?”

I had no clue what this man was talking about.  And when I closed the door I realized how sad it was that all the smart people I know don’t have children.  But who could blame them?  How could you compete with these creatures taking over.  It was men like him you’d have to contend with at PTA meetings or baseball games or god forbid if your kids got into a fight.

*

Frederico died eighteen months later.  He was blown apart in Iraq.  Accidentally killed by his own unit.  His body was shipped back to Washington Heights where his mother used all his medals as icons to decorate her front door.  Stupid woman.

My Lady showed me a letter Frederico had written for my birthday, shortly before he was killed:

Dear Mr. Kangeleri,

Hope you & Mrs. Kangaleri are doing well.  Happy Birthday to you!  I took your advice and have begun laughing whenever I say Happy Birthday!  You’re right – it makes it easier to swallow, less silly if you just laugh it out and celebrate yourself or your friends by yelling “HAPPY BIRTHDAY!” 

My birthday was last month and my two best friends, both pilots as well, agreed with me that we could do just about anything if we’d stop accepting and questioned the bigger picture.  But I’ll be honest, I have no regrets joining the Army but I do concede that it’s showed me that there’s more to life than picking up a gun or attaining a medal or getting promoted or defending a flag.  And the name itself “Armed Forces,” implies a shortsighted, almost limp explanation of what and who we are. 

I want to help.  Not be an armed force.

They keep reminding me that I’m not here to enhance my understanding of Ethics, but when you are flying over a holy city and all you hear are the sound of a million plus voices chanting & praying to their God, you know that there is something deeper.  You told me once you were a failed artist and that you could not give me sound advice cause you had no money and not attained much – but do you remember what you said before I left for basic training?  You said you were so far of the radar, that no critics would even review your work cause you had no demographics.  And you said you were a writer, not a Newsman, and that half your success as an individual was knowing this.  The other half was meeting a woman and falling in love with such a beautiful entity as your wife.   You said Mrs Kangaleri was your Pulitzer.  Well, for several days, even weeks – I mulled that over in my head, and I let your words wash over my brain. 

Flying over those souls as they lay in devotion to a God I’ll never see or understand made me realize what you meant when you first told me to read Shakespeare and Neruda and Langston Hughes or Kafka and then fall in love.  You told me a Man should have the experience of having the hairs on the back of his neck stand and a soft ache in his heart at the same time.  You said a man sees clearer when this happens, you mentioned freedom, and perception…You made me laugh cause you said these experiences were rare – like getting a woman to reach orgasm or making the perfect cup of coffee or creeping up behind cat without them noticing you or just observing the splendor and pride in the early morning sun.   I remembered all these things you said.  Well, I did not find my Mrs Kangeleri (yet!) but I am hoping I have time.  You told me I should not even think about marriage until I was at least 40.

But I did attain one portion of your assignment:

I felt the hairs on my neck stand…and I understood the promise and the pain of all that a writer struggles to express.  And I got that flying over Cairo.   In some way, it was like coming home. 

I am not sure where this war will lead or how it will end.  I am no longer angry for joining, yet I am ashamed at how ignorant I was before.  Is it wrong to feel that these people here or more my own people than my family or friends in New York or in the United States? 

I think I’m going to be a writer.   Aren’t there a bunch of writers who started off in the military? 

(Hey it could be worse: I could have become a police officer!)

Enjoy your birthday old man!

Frederico Luanta

I cried like a baby when I read this letter.  One night I came home late and ran into Frederico’s mother’s asshole-boyfriend.  He couldn’t look me in the eye and a part of me was waiting to see if he’d say anything cause I was looking for a fight.  The landlord fucked me on the heat, our bathroom still had molding and water leaking from the ceiling, the kitchen sink still overflowed when these spoiled brats upstairs decided to play Suburbs and use a washing machine IN THEIR KITCHEN.

Yeah, I was already on edge & looking for a fight, a razzled-dazzled gleaming bird of steel and blood was lurking in my chest, for several weeks my Lady was calling me “Jekyll AND Hyde” literally…I was on the move and I felt like the incredible Hulk when this sorry piece of human flesh slimed right by me.  I wanted to show the ingrate the letter his woman’s son wrote to me, I wanted to show him how beautiful and soulful this young warrior truly was, but I didn’t say a word.  “Lady Kangaleri” would have been proud, she told me later I had to stop wasting my energy on those types of people.  Frederico’s mother was not so hot anymore herself.

Her looks had left – I mean fled, and her capacity to talk and think and maneuver seemed greatly diminished.

*

When her boy died, she kicked out her Romeo and flew back to Puerto Rico.  Rumor had it that she had killed herself. I would have if I were her.  On second thought, I would have killed that jerk she was fucking for the past 5 years – that sorry sad demon who screwed up her son – and then I would have killed myself.

But she didn’t.  After 6 months in the Caribbean, she came back rested, warmer, 13 pounds lighter, and looked a day older.  She had a nine-year old brat with her who never ever once looked up to say hello when she passed.

When I asked her who the kid was, she said she was her “heart.”  (“she’s my heart, my new duende – isn’t she beautiful?  I told my brother let me bring her to New York for a minute and see if she could do some modelling.  She’s like Julia Roberts!”)

She then said she was going to open a Tarot Reading business.  She said she got a message from Frederico telling her to do this for America.

This is why all the smart people I know don’t have children.

Who would they play with?

 

 

A slightly different version was originally published in Lying Meat & Other Poems Beneath the Oil (2011)

 

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