Tag Archives: satire

‘A Saintly Madness’ – Vagabond artwork for the latest Cinematic Project by Brian Alessandro…

Speller St. Films recently asked Vagabond to do some artwork for Brian Alessandro’s demo short A Saintly Madness, the NY author and filmmaker’s latest cinematic project as he begins to make plans on the feature film itself.  I have the pleasure of working and developing this project with Brian Alessandro and A Saintly Madness marked my official return to acting in nearly two decades.   (Alessandro was the director of the  controversial Afghan Hound.)

A Saintly Madness is a true communal, Socialist project itself  &  is the result of the latest example in a humble group effort.  A reminder: As we cross-pollinate our talents and all we contain inside we will slowly leave something behind on the cave wall besides our bodies and our dust. It all starts here. These artistic collaborations are not important as they are necessary – and vital.

Ia-saintly-madness-dennis4x6

Vagabond’s Barbara Kruger inspired 1980’s NYC artwork for Brian Alessandro’s Urbane & Checkhovian ‘romantic comedy for rebels’

Vagabond, one of the last true DIY punk rock artists and a genuine Puerto-Rican-Protest Artist is one NYC’s unheralded master guerrilla filmmakers and a wonderful visual artist.  Read more about the artwork here:

https://nothingtobegainedhere.wordpress.com/2020/04/19/a-saintly-madness/

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Revisiting Summerhill Seven’s “Notes of a Neurotic…” book

The “poemedy” aesthetic as created by Summerhill Seven (Alim Akbar) is the art of seeing every moment in life as perfected. I remembered this when I recently re-read Summerhill’s book “Notes of a Neurotic..” by Summerhill Seven . Touched that he proclaimed me the “Poemedy Artist of 2013,” I began to reflect on my first impressions of his writing and I thought it would be wise to share the original review I wrote of this poet’s brazen and beautiful book. (visit www.poemedy.com to learn more about his work)

Poet Summerhill Seven: Still crazy after all these years...

Poet Summerhill Seven: Still crazy after all these years…

Invisible Man: Thoughts on Summerhill Seven’s Notes of a Neurotic
Reviewed by Dennis Leroy Kangalee

Originally written March 5, 2005, Revised for publication July 29, 2005

Craziness on the Sleeve

“Sanity is not the goal. Since this book is by a self-proclaimed schizophrenic who inhabits a skitsofrantic life, then the lack of this state of being, often referred to as sanity, would have made these sololoquies impossible.”
– Summerhill Seven, “Trialogue”

I first met Summerhill Seven (Alim Akbar) in the summer of 2002 in New York City. I had been asked to direct a play about a group of local gamblers in a Harlem bar and had the arduous task of assisting the producer with the casting. I was not in the best of moods, was recovering from a nervous breakdown earlier that year, and was making a weak attempt at returning to directing plays which I had given up three years earlier in personal pursuit of filmmaking and writing. That summer, and well after that, I constantly had feelings of fragmentation, detachment, and rabid paranoia. I felt comfortable, however, upon meeting and eventually working with Summerhill Seven. You see, Summerhill is also a mad man.

I didn’t know much about Summerhill and still don’t. I know what I have to know and seldom ask or pry into his personal affairs and he seems to do the same. Our paths crossed, we ran in the same circles for a period, got high once or twice together, and even dated the same girl once. The girl was a writer from Chicago. She wasn’t crazy. This poor girl was psychotic and when I told Summerhill I would quit seeing her if he wanted to date her, he quipped: “Uh-uh, no, no you can have her.” I know he misses his mother, he was married once, he writes every day like a junkie looking for a fix, he adores Shakespeare, and shares my love for the Avant-garde. I always liked the fact that he was a lawyer. He seems to dig that I went to Juilliard – but didn’t graduate. We respect one another’s art and the demons that seem to rage within us. Summerhill was easily the most charismatic and fearless actor I had worked with in 2002 and certainly one of the most passionate and determined actors I have ever known.

We live in a moment in time that is crunched down-held up-sewn within the seams. We are hanging onto dear life in a punching bag that dangles on its last leg. No one is willing to risk it all to express the pain around us. No one is willing to free-fall as the majestic clowns and poets of the old were willing to do. In short: we are all afraid of the good fight. This is a problem far too great for me to go into right now, but one that keeps popping up in my head even as I try to gain distance on the “the scene” in America from Berlin, where I write this. Summerhill is easily ten years my senior, we are just barely contemporaries and commentators of the same generation. What I hold inherently sacred and vital to life – Summerhill does as well. This is what attracts me to his writings in his book. You see, at times, I feel like I have written it. (And no, to clarify he’s the schizo, I’m labeled the more fashionably – ahem – “Bi-polar”)

“I readily admit that the Americans have no poets; I cannot allow that they have no poetic ideas.”
– Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Part II/Book One

Notes of a Neurotic is an eclectic mélange of poems, humorous interludes, observations, and dramatic fiction. It is designed to “heal the emotions of the reader, the speaker, and the writer” This book is clearly a work of art that is reflective of the chaos in this world; a journey of an unstable man trying to find his way in this world…It is in many ways the spiritual biography of Summerhill Seven. Part manifesto, part confession – it is the current analogy in literature to what I tried to accomplish with my 2002 film As an Act of Protest. And being one of the only artists in New York City to publicly and proudly support my film (he taught it and screened it to his students), Summerhill’s work shimmers with a similar fever that mine has been dipped in. That is the fever of the split atom, the “crazy” urban black intellectual, the scared revolutionary artist…the neurotic. What I tried to do formally and structurally within my own directorial work Summerhill Seven has done as a writer. The difference is that where I may or may not have succeeded (my opinion alters depending on the day and my mood), I believe he has. Dashes and flashes of brilliance flicker, for example, in his Schizophrenic Skitsofrantic Soliloquies section These come off as Haikus or proverbs or as they have been aptly described as “the fruit of the poet tree”. In “Observation,” he writes:

I find that my life is a lot happier when I avoid white men in robes, whether they are black or white…robes.

Writing as an Arab American, he poignantly writes:

George Bush declared war on somebody and I don’t know who and I am losing my mind because everyone I know doesn’t like me and everyone I know doesn’t trust me.

His wicked and cool sense of humor stands to attention in “Peace,” which easily could have been part of a Richard Pryor monologue in the 1970′s. Check it out:

I prayed for peace and got it!
I was so dam bored I saw a dog and shot it.
The dog came back to haunt me,
Smoking a blunt and drinking coffee.
Can you imagine a dog with caffeine high?
But cool cuz he has chronic burning in his mind’s eye?

Summerhill Seven is a theater artist and I say this to re-iterate his approach and style to writing and assembling the works collected in Notes. In many ways, I feel relieved that he has begun to accomplish what I was waiting for. A new black literary voice who had one foot in theater, one foot in poetry, and one foot – ‘er hand – in outer space, or somewhere…Cosmic Humor is what I suppose we can call it. Something I myself have been tempted to explore. The combinations and mixes and the rapid pace of the altering styles is one of the main features of the new wave of Black American fine artists that emerged in the late 20th-early 21st century. Most of us who were interested in expressing his or her own unique voice – particularly those of us in Northern urban areas – did it in whatever vein we saw fit, even when the moods and shapes changed drastically from one moment to the next. Some just don’t understand the jazz of our work. Charles Mingus said that for him Byrd was it – the greatest – simply because he was expressing how he felt. The greatest self-expression abounds in simplicity, and yet its meanings and emotions are so doubled and tripled and full of inborn contradictions and philosophies about life you can experience the work over and over and never get tired of it.

Form follows function in Summerhill’s Theater of Neurosis. And just when I feel he is going along with the flow of the stream and giving in to what the audience wants, he opts to swim his own way. This is his saving grace and what keeps him rooted as an artist. His interest in people, his pathologies, his political convictions, his sexual appetites, his impish desire at times to shock and annoy, most importantly – his sensitivity to the musical tones of life and the presence of death in our everyday existence. In his own unique way, Summerhill has created a post-modern metropolitan black Spoon River Anthology. Yes. This is another bizarre connection I have to him. The River Flows, the 1993 adaption, was the first off-Broadway play I ever did….I played Death himself and was like a character torn from Notes. These are not coincidences, for things don’t just happen -they happen justly.

In Notes, Summerhill liberally sprinkles his book with quotes from everyone from Saint Baldwin (James) to the prophetic rancor of early Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and the poetic wisdom of William Shakespeare. These quotes serve to remind the reader of either a theme or concept being explored or expressed and/or to give the actor reading it a cerebral inspiration on the page that may lead him down the correct path as he begins to dramatically interpret and perform a specific text. The book – a slim 148 pages – is packed with conceptual ideas, puns, clever plays on words and titles (i.e. poet tree, poemedies, essalogues, etc.,) but I am not interested in or willing to indulge us into the meanings behind those phrases or titles or explain how “clever” the author can be. Who cares? Real art is not about being clever. It is about expressing how much you know about life. And for all of Alim Akbar AKA Summerhill Seven’s broader appeal (when he performs, my wife refers to him as “the thinking man’s Will Smith” in the sense that he is good-looking and charming enough to be able to garner a willing and very harmless mixed crowd) and his ability to hold court with a potentially more varied audience than me, for example, his strength is not in the trappings and superficial aspects of his more liberal and accessible poetry. No. It is, I believe, in the heart and soul of his prose and monologues-proper. Or what he refers to as his Essalogues. This is where Summerhill excites me the most and where he is at his best.

Heads Up

The short story “Heads” is one of the most provocative and honest pieces in the entire collection. In its Raymond Carver-esque minimalism, tongue-in-cheek bravado, and muted satire, Summerhill recounts how he killed three white people (a racist punk, a lawyer, and a landlady) and is completely at wits end working and living with white people. They are simply too much to deal with and they do nothing but constantly aggravate and annoy. The entire idea – whether it is treated humorously or with straight up tragic insinuations – of killing white people or the “oppressor” is one that has infiltrated and consumed a great deal of modern Black American art work. It runs through the plays of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, the music of Public Enemy, and has been finessed and relayed masterfully by composers such as Bob Marley and is hinted at within the canvasses of the painter Aaron Douglas. Not literally, but in spirit. Even my own early work constantly wrestled with my own anger and frustration over what to do when living in a racist society. Summer’s treatment of the matter is less directly heavy handed, however, and not as tragic. It is much more absurd and has the maturity it takes to see the scenario through a simple and clean filter: it’s all a day’s work. The humor is venomous and already present in the opening paragraph:

I mean the idea of killing four white people in the twenty-first century
just for what, to redress some historical wrong? I just simply was not with it.
But now, that I have already killed three, I am starting to get into it.
I mean, I really am starting to get the hang of it.

Funny stuff. Very dry, very simple. What makes it funny is the element of truth behind it, what makes it creepy is that you know the narrator is tired and doesn’t have time for jokes. Or perhaps the former is the latter and the latter is the former? I don’t know, now I’ve confused myself. Anyway, it doesn’t matter – what the story reveals and how Summerhill seems to express it so effortlessly is what counts. Our narrator tells us he killed his first victim because he was called a “nigger,” he killed his second victim because he couldn’t stand working with, for, under this incredibly arrogant and prejudiced man who was one of the head lawyers in a law firm that had hired our brown-skinned narrator. Any black person who has ever worked in an office setting or corporate environment instantly recognizes the sort of white male that Terry Apath is. This is where you know that the bond and anticipated audience of this story is black because of the casualness and simplicity unto which the story is relayed. As with the tradition of African American literature – the story is very oral and has a great deal of “signifying,” and radicalizing simply within the speech/text. I point this out because I do find it important that black writers still approach their work in such a cool and naturally stated way. In an era of “Who is your audience?” and “No one will understand your references, people are not smart as they used to be,” it is refreshing that Summerhill invites the reader into his world, into his neurosis and doesn’t comment on what they may or may not understand. Instantly you are a confidante and this is what made some of the white listeners uncomfortable at the Book Party in February 2005, when portions of the book were read in public. Not that ayone objected, no. White people will never object to anything considered “artistic,” within a black or mixed milieu for fear of being labeled racist or a “phony liberal.” They will just roll their eyes, squirm, or smirk – as if to say “That is sooo hateful, I could never…! I’m more developed than you, gosh you people with your Superfly-Shaft-Badass-anger. I’ve seen it all before! I’m Jewish and I don’t write stories or fantasize about killing Germans or Arabs!”

First of all that would be a lame excuse and a ridiculous comparison. But of course they don’t have to write about anything similar – white people take out all their aggression directly. They don’t have to write stories, they can blow up countries. They don’t believe in art or therapy and when they they do – they site only musical artists. As if to imply that music is “free” from any political-social relevance…I am obviously generalizing here to make a very serious point.

Most Americans (particularly the young white American) miss the point when evaluating or simply even reading real African American fiction. It would be misleading, however, to imply that Summerhill is writing for white people. He isn’t. And when he does he makes it clear that he is. But this problem infiltrates black readers’ minds as well as whites. There shouldn’t be a need to specify or diffuse either way but we all know history and the way this world works.
My point: if White Americans aren’t going to read their masters or really dig into their own problems – the way Bob Dylan and Paul Simon did thirty-five years ago, then they had better read and taste the folk art of the Black American if they want to begin to understand their country, their world, their history…their neurosis. Summerhill doesn’t write about Pimps in the street and spray “hip” derogatory terms throughout his work. He’s beyond that, even though it is what is expected from Black writers and filmmakers. He doesn’t exploit “blackness,” women, or the so-called “urban jungle.” His grievances are real. He reveals the scowl behind the grin, the anger that is just below the surface. But for all his authenticity, no one seems to pay attention to Summerhill or several other artists working within the same mix. Folks will say: “Well, he’s got no audience, yet cause he hasn’t been on TV or featured on the front page of the Arts & Leisure section of the NY Times, or he hasn’t debut with some rising Pop Star-Gangster-Wanna-be-Hip Hop buffoon. Lies and excuses, my friends. But the reason this cuts deep is because being a theater artist almost lends itself to invisibility. Besides the Lincoln Center effete crowd and a few organizations, and a handful of WASPS in New England or Boston or even in good old “progressive” San Francisco – the theater means very little to people. Artists or otherwise. I often wonder if maybe that’s not the way it has always been….

For those who believe playwright Suzan Lori-Parks or David Mamet still have any true power or progressive instincts on stage – they are holding worthless promissory notes. Mamet imitates himself, Parks cashes in on what the mainstream audiences will expect her to turn in or evaluate – particularly as an African American woman. Neither are of the current state of consciousness emanating within the arts (whatever is left of it, that is) and both are very comfortable. Those looking for the real news, the truthful insights, and the still untamed social and political observations should read Summerhill Seven’s work and go underground…wherever that is. I guarantee the monologues and theatrical texts that Summerhill offers are a thousand times purer, personal, and poetic than anything in the mainstream theater or poetry houses. Because, similarly, if Russell Simmons destroyed comedy with Def Jam Comedy (as Bernie Mac claims he did) then he absolutely murdered poetry with his Def Jam Poetry. Nowadays, it is typical and passé’ to hear some Black or Latino or East Asian or Middle Eastern poet or some gay white chick with piercings get on stage and whine (these people don’t even know how to scream) about racism, sexism, the War in Iraq – all in familiar and rhetorical cadences, with a wink, nod, and bow to the word(s) “my nigga,” “George Bush-shit,” and/or something to do with “pussy-bush-the ghetto-the street-Gucci-Donna Karan-Park Ave-USA-” Blah, blah, blah, blah…Empty. It’s all empty. Such is the nature of pop. Particularly when it is popular to assume a stance of righteous anger. Summerhill himself is not innocent of any of these popular and accepted streams of current poetry, but Summerhill is not a poseur. He’s been to the gutter and back. He’s lived and as much as he loves poetry, even he has admitted that – similar to the state of hip hop and Pop music – the poetry in NYC scene is dead. It is dead because it has been co-opted.

Poetry, like the theater, is dead because it still sells itself out to pimps who want to rape it. Poets continue to bend over (like their cousins – the independent filmmakers) and completely ignore their pride, talent, and soul. Why should poets perform on main stage theaters, why should filmmakers want their films to be seen in malls? Is that the most we can achieve and hope for? Wouldn’t we rather gather in someone’s intimate apartment and create our own studio? Are artists that contemptuous of each other that we really can’t work together because we all just want to be richer than each other and get revenge on our un-supportive families or patronizing bosses or apathetic teachers? The poets of the night are dead – because they want to be. They drop their pants, grab their ankles and give up any virtue or innocence left. They are like victims who beg to be raped and then cry when someone tells them “Are you nuts? You need to do something about this! You need to call the police!”

Keeping that in mind, read the following and imagine it is the last scene of a play. Imagine you saw every meticulous slice of nonsense on Broadway, then got a headache from the imposters Off-Broadway. You went home, vomited, felt a lot better and swore to yourself over that toilet-bowl that you would never go “drinking” again. A friend begs you (or if you have no friends imagine a little angel flies into your face) to go and read/see Summerhill’s work and “taste” something new… You go, taste it, and realize maybe even half-way through – that what you are drinking ain’t new, it’s just what most of us under 40 are constantly denied: truth within the arts.
So, imagine: you are seated somewhere and it is dark. There is a slight chill that runs up your spine. There are maybe twenty people in this audience. Under the moon, the stage lights flash up from below – they are dim and but we see our Narrator clearly – because we experience something almost foreign in its brightness. The lights slowly dim as our Narrator admits: (perhaps in a choked up whisper)

Terry was fun to kill; killing the landlord was out of anger and I just did it because.
It was kind of funny, technically speaking I am not sure if it was on the same day
because the Arabs start their day in the dark at 12 am. But, as you already know the
landlord was Jewish, and for the life of me I don’t know when they start their day.
But since her Jewishness was incidental to the cause of her death, I guess it didn’t really matter.
I just strangled her for no more than a minute a two.
I had on the same blue-green Isotoner gloves that I strangled Terry with
.

Our man tries to smile, but can’t. He looks at his gloves , lights a cigarette, and looks out into the audience. Blackout.

Read Hang Time — Summerhill Seven’s poetic memoir, back in print and available now!

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Chase Bank Murder

The climax from my 2011 performance of “Gentrified Minds” in which the Nomad Junkie invokes the refrain from my earlier short story, “What Happened to the Brother on the Block?” — my surrealist tale about corporate friendly gentrification..one that has become more and relevant, especially in light of the sinister times we live in, the demise of community, and the psychopathic behavior of JP Morgan Chase & Co. With a nod to Gil Scott Heron, Lou Reed, and the spirit of the NYC protest poets — this was punk theater all the way…

*

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Tourists in Harlem…

The Nomad Junkie’s comedic interlude about ignorant, annoying, and ultimately racist tourists assaulting Harlem and “inner-city” enclaves. Written & performed by Dennis Leroy Kangalee, directed by Nina Fleck. This excerpt is from the 2011 premiere of “Gentrified Minds” at the Downtown Urban Theater Festival at the Manhattan Movement & Arts Center.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Petrification of Dennis Leroy Kangalee
…He kissed Cary again, who now lay in his hospital bed – covers up to his eyes, terrified, praying and hoping for something, muttering to himself.

And the room was cold and the wind outside started to howl and the wheel in the psychedelic junkyard kept spinning and he thought he saw Redd Foxx leap out from behind a wall of cranberry and there was no theme music, no laughter, no religious applause, , no Gold no Geld no Guilt no signs of warnings no trees and no stump, just poor Nancy in a corner intoxicating herself with crayolas and Freddy doing his Little Sid Vicious and the Plastic Man’s broken legs and Cary’s broken heart and the nurses’ twisted souls and the doctor’s bloated pockets and it was all just too…

He felt now he was going to die. Someone was going to die.
There were people dying at that very moment clutching a rock or a stone, swallowing sand, or trying to fight the Beginning of Time. Noble causes and desires.

Like sons and ladybugs.

— from “Where Ladybugs Go to Die” by Dennis Leroy Kangalee, (c) 2006

*

“He Thought He Saw Redd Foxx Leap Out From Behind a Wall of Cranberry”

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Henry O.Tanner's "Thankful Poor"

Henry O.Tanner’s “Thankful Poor”


*
The General’s son studied the picture with the patience and skill of an art expert, gliding his hand over Nancy’s crayon streaks of torture and sentiment.

“It’s Bruno,” he finally said, putting the picture down. And he rubbed his eyes the way he’d seen the General do or the way adults do when they remove their spectacles.
“Who? The bear?”
“Yeah. He was a bear in the forest. They called him Bruno and he returned to the area for the first time in over a hundred years…and they shot him.”
“What!?”
“Yup. I saw it on the news on Wednesday. After we had dinner in the rec room.”
The General started to pace. “They killed – ”
“They shot him, General. As he was bathing.”
“Perverts.”
“What’s a pervert?”
“Someone who shoots bears.”
“Have you ever shot a bear?”
“Do I look that sick to you?”
“I’m sick. Maybe I’ll kill a bear, too.”
“Never. I wouldn’t allow it.”
“Why do they kill horses?”
“Cause they can’t shoot artists.”
“What?”
“They starve ’em instead.”

— excerpt from my 2006 novella, Where Ladybugs Go to Die

Where Ladybugs Go to Die

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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)

 

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,