One morning over breakfast my girlfriend, Milana, told me about an old boyfriend of hers who had self-published a chapbook of haiku. Peripheries, he’d called it. He carried dozens of copies around with him in a hemp shoulder bag and sometimes read his poems at open mikes and on street corners.
“He sounds like a jackass,” I said.
“Well, I thought it was wonderful that he had a passion,” Milana replied.
At the age of twenty-three I was still learning when to speak and when to stay silent. It was a painful process. This, I realized, was one of those times to refrain from saying what I was really thinking. So even though I wanted to demean the guy some more, I decided to let it go. I wasn’t going to let the ghost of this Steven Trimm character and his hemp sack get me into a pointless quarrel with my beautiful girlfriend. After all, Milana was living with me, not him.
“I agree. Here’s to Steven,” I said, toasting with my orange-pineapple juice. “Out on the periphery.”
“You think everything’s a joke, but for your information, being an artist takes a lot of courage.” Milana was a modern dancer and had many artist friends, whereas I was still floating around two years after graduation, working a dead-end job for the city of Buffalo. “It also takes hard work and dedication,” she said.
“I know that,” I said, “but Peripheries? It just sounds so earnest.”
“You think it’s easy to write a haiku?” she said. “I’d like to see you try it.”
A buddy of mine, Tim, had recently taught me an all-purpose phrase that he said worked like a charm with his girlfriend. “You’re right, honey,” I said, reciting Tim’s lines. “I am wrong. Honey, I was insensitive.”
Milana just stared at me. “What’s that you’re doing?”
“Are you imitating a robot?”
“No! I’m saying that you are right. I am wrong. I was insensitive.”
“So you admit that you can’t write a haiku, and that it’s difficult?”
“I am sorry,” I tried again. “You are right. I am wrong. Honey, I was insensitive.”
“Fine. You admit it then, Mr. Roboto,” she said. “You’re mocking another person’s attempt to be creative because you’re scared to try anything like that yourself, and you’re intimidated by people who do.”
One thing about me: I love a challenge. “Fuck that,” I said. “What’s a haiku pattern? Five-seven-five, right?”
“Oh, stop. I’m not saying . . . I love you for you, babe. I don’t want you to —”
“Five-seven-five.” I’d taken a few English-lit courses in college. “No sweat. Any monkey could write one.”
Milana smeared jam on her toast. “You’re insane.”
“You want a poem, lady? You’ll get one. Tonight. Count on it.”
She laughed. “Yeah?”
“Shake on it.” I held out my hand. “Honey-baby-lover-friend, it’s a deal.”
On my break from cleaning sidewalks that morning, I peeled off my sticky gloves, busted out my new ballpoint pen and notepad, and prepared to write. I touched the pen’s tip to the paper, eager to let rip.
Not a problem, I decided. Inspiration didn’t come all at once. I kept the notepad in the back pocket of my work pants for the rest of the day. Every now and then I made ready to compose, my pen poised over paper. “Fat cloud in the sky . . .” Five syllables. A start. It was tricky, because I had an inborn disdain for any type of structure, and the haiku is nothing if not structured. I put the pad back in my pocket.
My co-worker James, a tall, dark-skinned black man in his late thirties, walked ahead of me on the street with his pan and broom. Every now and then he turned and observed me from behind his mirrored sunglasses with a sort of vague anthropological interest. One of his favorite phrases was “White folks crazy.” I was doing little to dispel his blanket assessment.
James shook his head in mild reproach, and his out-of-fashion Jheri curls glistened in the sun. All the other black guys on our crew had shaved heads or close-cropped hair. They taunted James, called him “Dripmaster Flash,” but James never bothered to respond. He wasn’t their friend; he wasn’t my friend. He just showed up to do his damn job. He was not there to play the fool. Our boss, a balding white sadist named Mike McCloskey, left him alone. James carried himself tall, even when he was dragging four dripping trash bags across the street.
Meanwhile, now that I had embarked on my new avocation as a poet, Main Street, which I had patrolled blindly for months with a pan and broom, suddenly appeared new and interesting. For once I was really looking at what was going on around me. I saw pigeons strutting Mick Jagger–like on cracked concrete. I saw three winos, gaptoothed and debonair, chatting on a junked lavender sofa under a skeletal maple tree. I saw a pink gum blob, melted on the sidewalk skillet, clinging in long, delicate strings to a fast-walking businessman’s wingtips. I saw Korean hot-dog vendors playing Chinese checkers on a rickety card table between their steaming grills.
Hell, I owed Steven Trimm an apology. For the first time ever, I was paying attention to the peripheries of my environment.
Twenty minutes into my lunch hour, I looked up from USA Today and wrote my first full haiku in a mad rush:
Priest on a blanket asks the new kid to join him for a slice of cake
Vaguely disturbing but evocative, I thought. More to the point, this first success opened the floodgate of my creativity. I wrote another, and another. I wrote about pigeons and street people and stray dogs and politicians and political unrest in the Middle East and whatever else was in the paper that day. By 5 P.M. I’d written thirty-one in all.
Most of these poems, thankfully, have slipped through the loosely woven net of my memory, and the notepad has not survived my many abrupt and ill-advised moves, but a few haiku still remain fresh in my mind. They are notable only for their lack of talent, their scornful tone, and their absence of compassion. One of Milana’s gifts to me, I realize now, was the daily example of her kindness. She wasn’t even all that tolerant, but she had me beat by a mile. Despite all my posturing and bravado, I was just a sheltered kid from a provincial town who found it easier to mock everything than admit ignorance and ask for clarification. I talked with phony authority on a wide range of subjects, and Milana’s frown was a gauge of my ignorance. When she was mad, she called me an “egomaniac with an inferiority complex,” an irrefutable diagnosis.
That afternoon James and I drove about a hundred wet trash bags to the dump. I rode shotgun and scribbled poems while James leaned out the driver’s-side window and said, “Hey, baby,” to passing businesswomen in power suits; “Hey, baby,” to college girls in short-shorts; and, mixing it up a bit, “Hey, hey, baby,” to the hippie chicks in their long peasant skirts who sold homemade jewelry and incense by the side of the road. Somehow this wasn’t creepy when James did it. Most of the women seemed to take it as a compliment. I have since tried to say, “Hey, baby,” to random women, and I wouldn’t categorize the results as successful. Some men can say, “Hey, baby,” with style and charm, and some men cannot.
James flirted with more women in an hour than most guys did in a month. He flirted with women in wheelchairs, women in passing cars, nuns in habits, and one woman whose head was in halo traction. He didn’t care, as long as they were female and in the eighteen-to-fifty-five age range. I don’t even think James was trying to get laid. He just liked to acknowledge their beauty.
“Mmmm,” James said, his eyes concealed behind his wraparound shades, his right arm draped over the steering wheel, “I love the summer.”
“Me too,” I said. “I like the scenery.”
He nodded. “Nice scenery.” We drove on to the dump.
The job had been decidedly less idyllic during the winter months, when, instead of pans and brooms, James and I had carried snow shovels. Our backs ached as we trudged through snowdrifts wearing hooded parkas, waterproof gloves, and rubber boots. During February in Buffalo a man’s thoughts sometimes turn to suicide. Attractive women still walked by us while we tried to get warm in the Main Place Mall, but James remained silent. Once I said, “Hey, James, you missed one. Didn’t that ‘baby’ warrant a ‘hey’?” and he told me to stop running my mouth. It was the only time he ever snapped at me.
The melting month of March seemed years away.
Even in winter we owned the street, James and I. Sometimes we were more like policemen than sanitation workers. We knew all the homeless people and kept up with the feuds and rumors. We knew that one old man had Alzheimer’s or some form of dementia, so we didn’t hold it against him when he pissed on the tram tracks. We knew that Lynn traded sex for drugs. One of the other guys on the crew, Tareq, once told me that Lynn was in her late thirties, but I refused to believe him. She looked sixty, minimum.
“Hey, there, Tareq,” Lynn would call out in a coy voice. “Why you ain’t called me?”
She teased all of the sanitation guys, trying to provoke or embarrass us.
“You left your wallet in my bedroom,” she said to James once, who just walked by her in silence.
“Some sad shit right there,” Tareq said, shaking his head.
One of the few haiku I remember was about her:
A rotten molar she spits from her mouth and coughs clutching a gin flask
Drugs and alcohol weren’t the only problems these homeless people had. Many needed far more help — medical and psychological — than we street sweepers and snow shovelers could offer. Once, James and I actually drove a stabbing victim to the hospital on High Street. Somebody had plunged a flathead screwdriver into the man’s chest. The ambulance took forever to get down Main Street because of the tram, and the police were nowhere to be found. We stood around like morons, leaning on our shovels, the orange light from our truck’s beacon flashing across the dirty yellow snow.
Finally James said, “Fuck this. Grab his legs.” I hoped he wasn’t talking to me. He definitely was, though, because he said, “Hey, Slim,” which was the nickname our boss had bestowed on me. I was a tall, gawky kid, all rib cage and elbows. My knobby knees pushed against my work pants. I hated my body and always had. Only really scrawny or superfat guys were ever called “Slim.”
“Grab his damn legs,” James said.
I shook my head and explained that you weren’t supposed to move an injured person. Everybody knew that. It was a rule as common as “Don’t swim for an hour after eating.”
“Come on now!” James said with exasperation. “Move, Slim!”
Against my better judgment we hoisted the shrieking man into the sour-smelling bed of the pickup truck, where he lay among the bloated garbage bags, and James drove fast through a lace curtain of falling snow. It felt like we were in a movie: he was Danny Glover, and I was Mel Gibson.
Later we heard that the man had pulled through, and we were famous for a day. Some homeless people clapped and cheered when they saw us shoveling, but James didn’t mug for the crowd, and I followed his lead. We cleared a walkway and continued on, business as usual, and I thought about how James had acted the night before, with no concern for lawsuits and prevailing wisdom. He’d just hit the gas, ignored all traffic signals, and saved a man’s life.
Day after day for two years I worked beside James and ate with him in Sbarro and Taco Bell, but I can’t say we were friends. I don’t think any of the guys on our crew could say James was their friend. He was one of the most private men I’d ever met. When the other guys talked about football, food, and women, James wouldn’t join in. I knew nothing about his life except that he had a daughter. We were co-workers; that was it. And this job was just something you did to keep the electricity on at night.
Another of James’s trademark phrases was “Ain’t got nothing to do with me.” He said it so often, in all situations, that I sometimes tried to get him to say something else just for variety’s sake. If drops of rain were hitting the windshield on a warm April afternoon, I’d say, “You think it’s gonna rain today, James?” trying to get him to laugh and call me a fool.
He’d just shrug and say, “Ain’t got nothing to do with me. If it gon’ rain, it gon’ rain.”
I’d push the issue: “But what are the chances of precipitation today, would you say? Fifty percent?”
He’d stare dead ahead through the wet windshield. “Ain’t got nothing to do with me.”
At the time I decided James was speaking philosophically, saying that in his view only God had dominion over the world, and a man shouldn’t try to control what was not in his power to control. It occurs to me now that he probably went home at night and said to his wife, “Rain smacking the windshield clear as day, and this crazy-ass white boy asking if it gon’ rain.”
On the way back from the dump that day, after I’d written my last haiku, I asked James to stop at the liquor store. “I’m having a little get-together at my place tonight,” I told him. “Nothing special. You should stop by. Milana would like to meet you.”
“Mm,” he said, taking off his sunglasses and rubbing his eyes.
“Really, you’re invited,” I said. “We’d love to see you there.”
James gave me a look then that was different from his usual head shaking, a look that said I really was crazy, that my party had nothing to do with him.
I ran into the store and bought two bottles of vodka and a bottle of rum.
Walked five miles today trash swirling on street corners same as yesterday
That night Milana and a half dozen of her dancer friends congregated in the kitchen while my beer-gulping college buddies watched the hockey playoffs in the living room. Bottom lips pooched out like apes’, they spit tobacco juice into empty beer cans and shook their fists at the TV. Though I’d known it would be risky mixing Milana’s friends and mine, this was worse than I’d imagined. I wondered what James would have thought of this divided assemblage: men in one room watching ice hockey, women in the other room talking about the movement of their bodies. Really I knew what he’d have thought, knew the exact three words he’d have used: White folks crazy. And I had to agree with him: there was something wrong with us. But it has been my experience that there’s something wrong with everyone, regardless of race.
All night long I moved from kitchen to living room, an emissary bringing the news from one world to another. At some point in the evening Milana found the notepad with my haiku in it and showed it to her friends. I heard the girls read each poem aloud and laugh, and they cheered when I entered the kitchen. I couldn’t tell whether they were mocking me or not. Secretly I was proud of my work. I had never written a single poem before that day, and now I was the author of thirty-one. Maybe I would even self-publish a chapbook and dedicate it to Milana. Or to Steven Trimm, who had done nothing to warrant my earlier disdain. I was just a jealous prick who envied and despised all Milana’s other lovers, past and future.
It was a wet, hot June night. A dusty metal fan rattled in the open kitchen window. A stick of sandalwood incense burned a tear-shaped groove into the windowsill. The floor was sticky from spilled beer, but nobody cared. The dancers got drunker and drunker in the kitchen and discussed Rauschenberg and Merce Cunningham, “phrasing” and “partnering” and other dance topics alien to me, and I nodded my head and pretended to know what they were talking about. Then I joined the grunting apes in the other room and cheered for a bench-clearing brawl in the third period. But the two camps refused to mingle. They didn’t want to take the time to learn each other’s languages.
When the doorbell rang, I hoped briefly that it was James. I had a vision of him hanging out in the kitchen, standing a foot taller than the girls, drinking a rum and Coke and disarming them all with his smile. I answered the door. It was a pizza-delivery guy looking for my neighbor’s apartment.
After the hockey game ended, my buddies immediately herded down the stairs and drove drunk to Ronan’s Backstreet Bar for the Tuesday-night beer special: five-dollar pitchers. If it hadn’t been for Milana, I would’ve been at Ronan’s with them, squinting at the dartboard and drinking Hamm’s from a plastic cup.
The dancers relocated to the now-vacant living room. One of them clicked off Hockey Night in Canada with a laugh. Milana cranked up my stereo, and everybody danced. Two summers later Milana would leave Buffalo and join a well-known modern-dance troupe in New York City, but on this night in June my girlfriend danced toward me, rolling smoothly across the hardwood floor, languid and effortless, her joints like greased ball bearings, her hips doing things I can’t even describe. I wanted to hide, felt like I didn’t belong in this world with these people, but every time I tried to sneak away, embarrassed, Milana pulled me back into the center of the group.
“Where do you think you’re going, my man?” she said. “Dance with me.”
And I did, even though my moves were stiff and the results were pretty comical. I learned a lesson that night. Nobody even noticed my awkwardness. They were just enjoying themselves, celebrating. These women were immersed in the music, in their physical response to the music, and didn’t bother to register my insecurity. Milana smiled, her joy coming from somewhere other than her mind.
Stop thinking so much, I told myself. This ain’t got nothing to do with you. Just move, Slim. And it worked. On a fine summer night in Buffalo, surrounded by women whose names I no longer remember, I danced like a happy idiot for an hour or more, grinning and flapping my arms, uncoordinated as an infant, blessed as any human being could be.