Memorial Day: A Poem

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Unanticipated clouds advance, shifting the weight

of the world—or at least the measured objectives of

so many compulsory affairs—nonplussed after all

this time by their capacity to inspire, interrupt, or else

frustrate the better angels of Nature’s encumbrance.

Fathers linger absentmindedly at inexhaustible grills.

Mothers indulge in a quick cry behind bathroom doors

(more from habit than necessity). Bored children fish

in depleted ponds, muscle memory improvising

rituals handed down unthinkingly, like faiths or families.

Soldiers, acknowledged at last in their fortified shrines,

die afresh each time a bouquet drops like a shell

atop consecrated soil, foretold fates secured again,

courtesy of grim yet unconflicted officials, whose

solemn directives ensure that history echoes itself.

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The Problem With the Homeless Problem*

Who was he?

I think the same question each time I see him (every day: the same man in the same spot, holding the same sign that tells everyone who he is, now—begging the question: who did he used to be, at some point in the past?) at the intersection he has stood at for several months now: the cardboard sign he holds both question and answer: Homeless veteran (the explanation), can you put some pocket change in this plastic cup (the question). The sign says he is a veteran. Okay. And even if he isn’t actually a veteran, he has been homeless long enough to be a veteran; or if he is not actually homeless, he has been acting the part long enough to earn the title. Either way, it is time for a promotion.

And so, I think, this is the problem with the homeless problem: it wasn’t (some of us learned—too late) the ones who hustled or even approached you who were down and out; they were the ardent ones, half the time they weren’t even homeless; it is the ones you never even saw, even when they sprawled on the concrete right beside you, the ones who were down, the ones who were out, the ones who had nothing to ask for, nothing to say, nothing to do except wait, sit it out until time or the whiter man’s burden delivered them that eventual, inevitable verdict. It was the ones you could afford not to be afraid of, the ones who could not even hurt themselves, because they’d already dug as deep inside as their ashen fingers could reach, the ones too dead to tear out their hearts, but not dead enough to unloose their souls, the ones who learned (too late) that death was only impatient for the fools who feared it, it had all the time in the world for those who the world owed nothing except the decency of an overdue death.

Could that be me?

The ultimate fear, the oldest worry. Who knew how it happened, who could make sense of it? And yet. These people do not wake up one random morning, on the streets and out of their minds. Or do they? If you believed the signs the man on the corner held, the government did this to him—and could do it to anyone else: that was his message, his mission.

The problem with the homeless problem is that these people who don’t see you and can’t see themselves are all chasing something they can no longer name: memories. Or, even worse, it is the memories that are chasing them, speaking in tongues they long ago ceased to understand.

A memory:

Newark Airport. That shithole. A place has to be exceptionally beautiful, appalling, or incomprehensibly pointless in order to be easily remembered years after a brief visit.

When I was a kid, (I couldn’t have been much older than ten) my father and I had a layover in Newark airport. Even then, I was perceptive enough to understand that this was no place I ever needed to return voluntarily.

An unassuming older man (at any rate, he was noticeably older than my old man, which made him old) sat in one of those impossibly plain plastic chairs, with his pants leg rolled up. It wasn’t until we got closer that I realized two things: he was alone, and he was scratching at a series of scabs on his shin. For some reason he looked our way at the moment we passed him, and after sizing us up, he stood and amiably approached my father.

“Sir, did you need someone to help you and your son carry your bags?”

“No thanks, we’re okay,” my pops replied, looking ahead and picking up the pace.

The man was persistent. In the space of fifteen seconds—my father denied him three times—my emotions slid from the appreciation of possibly having someone carry my suitcase for me, to the vague, uneasy sense that my father was being somehow rude, a jerk, to the unsettling awareness of recognition. I sensed something I’d seen plenty of, but never before in any person older than myself: fear. I saw it in his eyes, and felt it in my insides.

As we walked away my old man waited until we were at a charitable distance, then looked at me meaningfully and offered the somber assertion: That’s as low as you can go. I asked him to elaborate, as was my style, and he was either unwilling or unable to add anything to his observation, as was his style. It wasn’t that I didn’t understand what my father was saying, I understood him perfectly. It was because I understood him that I needed him to say more, to talk to me a little longer about it, about anything, anything to interrupt that silence and the sudden thoughts that accompanied it.

It’s easy to believe that people like this exist for our sakes: they are dying lessons on how not to live, warnings of what could happen if you weren’t careful and found yourself scratching at scabs in the world’s ugliest airport. We forget, or we don’t allow ourselves to entertain the idea, that these people have histories; that these shadows and signposts don’t happen to serve a purpose for anyone else; they were once actual people themselves.

I realize, now, my father was wrong about one thing. That’s not as low as you can go. You can go lower, a whole lot lower. But perhaps it’s more disturbing to see the ones that are on the way down, it’s somehow easier to accept the ones at the bottom of the ocean; it’s the ones who are sinking, who are still within reach, who are drowning noisily in front of you, who sometimes have the temerity to ask you to hold out a hand. These are the ones we can scarcely tolerate, because every so often we look at them and see ourselves.

*Excerpted from a work-in-progress.

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A Not-So-Modest Proposal

Wouldn’t it be fantastic if, in addition to bumper stickers and salutes at ball games, we supported funding and social programs (and give more than fleeting thoughts) for the well-being of brave, often broken soldiers who have a whole new war to fight when they return home?

More thoughts on PTSD here, here, here, and here. And especially HERE. (An excerpt from the last link, written in 2008, is directly below.)

Movies like The Deer Hunter and Coming Home dealt with Vietnam’s immediate aftermath—the dead or wounded—but not many artists (certainly not enough artists) articulated the dilemma of the working poor who returned from the front line to become the unemployed, or unemployable poor. The vets who ended up in jail, or hospitals, or sleeping under bridges. Or the ones always on the edge (this was, remarkably, a time when shell shock was still a more commonly used term than Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and, as George Carlin astutely pointed out, perhaps if we still called it “shell shock” it might be less easy to ignore), the ones who, by all outside appearances, could—and should—be finding work, and contributing to society, and staying out of trouble. As politicians of a certain party confirm time and again, you cease to be especially useful once you’re no longer in the womb, or no longer wearing the uniform.

On albums like Nebraska and Darkness on the Edge of Town, Springsteen presented stories of the dirty and the desperate, the men and women straddling the line between paychecks and prison, the ones wrestling with the hope and glory inherent in the mostly mythical American Dream. All of them had a story, and many of them were archetypes from small towns and big cities all across the country. But “Born in the U.S.A.” might be the first instance where Springsteen takes a topical dilemma and wrestles with an entire demographic: the veterans with “nowhere to run (and) nowhere to go”.

Of course, in an irony that could only occur in America, none other than our PPP (proudly patriotic president), Ronald Reagan, (or, more likely, his handlers) utterly misread the song and tried to appropriate it as a feel-good anthem for his 1984 reelection campaign. Predictably, Springsteen protested. But what Reagan and his opportunistic underlings heard was, in fairness, the same interpretation so many other Americans shared. And who cares, anyway? It’s just a song after all. And yet, it is a shame that such an effective, and affecting, observation was celebrated as representing the very facile values (unthinking nationalism, unblinking pride) it calls into question. Again, Springsteen and his band deserve no small amount of artistic culpability for marrying such stark lyrics to such a buoyant, fist-pumping, car commercial sounding song. People hear those martial drums and think of John Wayne instead of Travis Bickle.

Why bring politics into it at all, one might ask? Music can be, and certainly is, enjoyed regardless of what it was intended to inspire. If a song moves you, or manages to make sense in ways that directly contradict the artist’s design, beauty is forever in the eye of the beholder. On the other hand, as George Orwell noted, “the opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude”. Put another way, “Born in the U.S.A.” is still relevant because the issues it confronts are still relevant. We not only have (entirely too many) struggling veterans from last century’s wars, we will have no shortage of men and women who have fought (or are currently fighting) in this generation’s imbroglio. History only makes one promise, and it’s that it will ceaselessly repeat itself.

And so, even as our ill-advised adventure in Iraq reaches its inevitable endgame (and our unrequited affair with Nation Building in Afghanistan chugs along with no end in sight), we will only be in the initial stages of dealing with the veterans who need care and attention. We won’t count the ultimate cost of “mission accomplished” until we consider the lives lost and the walking wounded, tallied up alongside the untold billions of dollars. The Democrats can’t create miracles, but they can continue to ensure that the people owed the most won’t get the least. (We will concede that when it comes to bumper-sticker braggadocio, no one pays lip service to soldiers, country and Christ like Republicans, but a checkbook and a soul always trump empty sloganeering.)

Remember this, when the small-government-soundbite hyenas crawl out of their tax-payer fortified foxholes to decry liberal “big spending” programs. Remember it’s these programs that, in addition to paving roads, building schools and providing health care, attempt to secure some support and solace for our broken soldiers. And remember, in two, or four, or forty years, these same curs will once again wrap themselves in the American flag; these same armchair generals and couch potato patriots prepared to fight to the last drop of other folks’ blood will be the ones seeking to slash programs designed to save the ones burning down the road.

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