Thrashing Thru the Passion, the latest album from Brooklyn indie-rock band the Hold Steady, begins with a striking description: “He shaved his head at the airport / In a bar at the end of the concourse.” The song is called “Denver Haircut,” and it’s an intriguing enough opening that you can imagine being there at the far end of Concourse C at Denver International Airport, watching some guy with a cordless Wahl clipper and a sense of purpose.
October, 1931. Imagine that you’re riding a southbound train from Montreal to New York City. The woman across the aisle smells strange, a mix of rose water and formaldehyde. She has packages everywhere, on the seat beside her, in the rack above, bags, boxes, some wrapped in twine, some in brown paper. The paper looks stained, as though what’s inside is leaking. She’s got a portfolio full of prints and drawings. She keeps knocking over a big striped umbrella.
Hen Medic: Maude Abbott and the Dawn of Cardiology
It was a hot Los Angeles day when Dad took me to the Oaxaca Festival. As the women onstage twirled their colorful skirts, I could feel the sun sink into my skin and sweat drip down the sides of my face. The light fell directly on my neck and shoulder. I wished I’d brought sunscreen.
A statuette of the Virgin Mary stood guard as my mother and I sipped from glasses of wine cooler on our living room floor. We’d propped our front door open to let in the breeze, leaving only a flimsy screen between our shelter and the world outside. Every once in a while, we’d hear our neighbor calling for her wayward son or the laugh track of a sitcom playing too loudly in the next house over. We’d echo it with giggles of our own, seated on faux mink blankets from the Philippines laid over ceramic tile.
A wooden chair, washed up on the beach between Nauset and Wellfleet. All drawings by the author.
“We will remember within what walls we lie, and understand that this level life too has its summit, and why from the mountain-top the deepest valleys have a tinge of blue: that there is elevation in every hour, as no part of the earth is so low that the heavens may not be seen from, and we have only to stand on the summit of our hour to command an uninterrupted horizon.”
—Henry David Thoreau, July 1842
The idea to follow Henry David Thoreau’s walks came plainly while I was standing in the shower at dawn one May morning, listening to the water drill my skull and lap my ears, wondering what I could do to stop the dreams of my past girlfriend. This was some time ago, when I couldn’t find a way out of the doubt, fear, shame, sadness, and pain that had arranged a constellation of grief around me. In this last dream, the one that got me into the shower at sunrise, she was in labor. Her husband—my dream had rendered him with dark hair in a cowlick, wearing a red shirt rolled to the elbows—stood bedside, holding her hand while she took deep breaths. I stood against the wall, touching a white handkerchief that I wanted to offer them. She looked up at her husband. He closed his hands over hers, something I must have seen in a movie. Though I wanted to leave the room, I stayed, because my legs weren’t working just then. I kept touching the handkerchief. The baby came. There were three of us in the room, and then there were four.
Amos C. Martin Ltd., Wallenstein, Ontario, Canada, circa 1960. Photo by Clarence Martin
I think of him now the way I saw him last: my grandfather, seated on the edge of his hospital bed with the pale shanks of his legs angled to bare feet on rubber floor. He was thumbing through a Maclean’s when I arrived at dawn. Despite the catheter tube and the IV drip at his side, he wasn’t taking this one lying down—not yet, anyway. On that December morning, his eyes sparkled with unspent energy.
Blood seeps through the gauze on Salima’s foot. It’s what we notice first: the dark, rusty seepage a sharp contrast to the pastels of her pajamas and room. She’s thirteen, we learn, but the distant look in her eyes belongs to someone much older. She sits squat on the bed, chin resting on her knee. She seems mindless of her burns. Her mother and sister also survived, but three others in her family were killed when the American helicopter opened fire on their tent in Kandahar.
My grandfather, Luis A. Ferré (1904-2003), was the third governor of Puerto Rico and the founder of the Pro-Statehood Party. When I was little, he used to say it is better to be a big fish in a little pond than a sardine in the big blue sea. It was a reminder of how good we had it on our little island, and a warning against leaving it in pursuit of a bigger and impossible dream.
We are driving through downtown Columbus, away from the Greyhound station. I spent fifteen hours on a bus traveling from New York City to visit for Christmas, a holiday, my mother reminds me, that is not even about Jesus anymore. This is a thought she has reiterated over the years, yet it never prevented her from partaking in the holiday during my lifetime. The absence of a decorative tree and gifts reflected a lack of money, not a rejection of the commodification of religion.
Día 29 desde el huracán y sin luz. Todavía las jornadas en mi trabajo, por la falta de energía, son más cortas. Mi oficina, a la que llamaba (y ya todas mis amistades conocían como) las catacumbas jurídicas, se perdieron, por lo que nos reubicamos en la biblioteca. Intento llegar lo más temprano posible, para traerle agua fría a mi querido amigo y colega Francisco, para preguntarle a los demás cómo están, si han dormido, a Pabsi si tiene gas y saber cómo siguen su mamá y Lalo (el gato), y a la vez contarles o contarnos todos a modo de terapia de grupo que seguimos a oscuras, que algunos no tienen ni techo, que el gobierno nos amputa las esperanzas en pequeños trocitos, que muchos se han ido, muerto, enferman, emigran, permanecen….
de Las Pisadas Del Insomnio / from The Footsteps of Insomnia