Open Carry America

GunBack in February I posted a blog about guns after that guy in Chapel Hill assassinated his three young Muslim neighbors over parking spaces. The only responses I got faulted me for not promoting universal open-carry laws to prevent such atrocities. Since then such NRA self-defense madness has only metastasized. There probably is no stopping it. I guess it is like whacking off—worse than pointless but it makes you feel good about yourself.

From the New York Times (6/25/15):

But armed people are more likely to use guns to harm others or themselves rather than to kill in self-defense, according to a new Violence Policy Center study of federal records. In 2012, there were 259 justifiable homicides by a citizen with a gun, compared with 8,342 criminal homicides by armed citizens (plus tens of thousands of gun deaths in suicides and unintentional shootings).

Such numbers mean nothing to self-styled Rambos, for whom there is only one #1—themselves, carrying heat. Duh.

Reading Henry Luce’s Mail

Henry Luce Stamp






1966, Manhattan. Michael Joyce and I were sharing a railroad flat in Spanish Harlem. Michael was going daytime to that Catholic college in Brooklyn and working full time as night manager of the City Squire Hotel midtown. I was going full time to night school at CCNY and working days as a mail boy at Time-Life, Inc., in Rockefeller Center, pay around a hundred bucks a week, which was plenty. Each floor in the Time-Life Building had a mail room and a mail boy. We wore gray uniform jackets (never laundered) that identified us as that floor’s servant.

Somehow I got the executive floor, where the ceilings were higher than on any other floor and the secretaries all wore miniskirts with no stockings. It was a quiet floor, busy but quiet, reserved sort of. The best looking secretaries worked there, young with long legs. Executive assistants they called themselves. They enjoyed having someone below them to order around. I didn’t mind. My private domain—the mail room—was bigger than any of their cubicles.

I had all the big wigs, including Hedley Donovan, the editor and chief of everything, along with the head of foreign correspondents, so that all their confidential wires came through me. I also had Mr. Luce himself, the Old Man. Not yet dead, he still came into his imperial, walnut-paneled office once a week or so, on his way to or from some formal function. His secretary—the only older woman on the floor—was always there, keeper and guard of the founder’s sanctum sanctorum.

Mr. Luce got a fair amount of corporate mail, all of which came to me. Much of it, most of it, had nothing to do with Mr. Luce himself, but was about one of his publications—Time or Life or Fortune or Sports Illustrated. Part of my job was to open all of his mail, read it, and redirect it. I thought of myself as his shield, deflecting the arrows of his enemies. And his enemies were legion and often ungrammatical. Some of the nastiest letters were about his wife Claire Booth Luce. Those I just tossed in the trash. Serious threats I forwarded to the legal department. The man was well hated.

Out of every hundred letters maybe five made it through to his secretary—kiss-ass notes or thoughtful observations, an invitation or two, if I thought the sender was worthy. I never met Mr. Luce, never saw him come or go. I think he had his own elevator. He died that winter.

Hedley Donovan demanded twenty fresh, sharpened pencils in the two cups on his desk every morning—ten black No. 2s and ten reds—all the same height. He would use them all in the course of a day, and I would retrieve, resharpen, and recycle them all to the lesser editors. But on some late afternoons when everything had quieted down, I would sit at my mail room work station and feed Mr. Donovan’s used pencils one by one down to the unused erasers into the electric sharpener. Just for the hell of it, thinking of miniskirts.

Canisius High School Class Of ’63

Canisius RingsIt’s that time of year. Caps and gowns time. Canisius is the Jesuit high school in Buffalo that I graduated from 52 years ago.


Canisius High School Class of ’63

They say that armies are always trained
to re-fight the war that they last won.
Four years of Latin and a whole homeroom
lost to Greek; Father Riesert’s giant
slide rule above the blackboard of his
physics classroom; the unheated pool
where we naked water polo warred.
All the past was invested in us—
Caesar’s Gallic Wars and Shakespeare,
authority’s unquestioned dominance,
the sport coats and ties, dictated haircuts,
pride of place, and fear of jug.

All that was before.

Before Nam and napalm,
before Jimi Hendrix and the pill,
before foot prints on the moon,
before Joan Baez or hash brownies,
before satellites linking and stealing
our lives, or all the glaciers melting.

We who were born with the bomb
can bear witness to the before and after.
We have watched it all change—
black holes replacing purgatory,
irony supplanting orthodoxy.
Even the number of dimensions
has expanded beyond comprehension.

Amo, amas, amat — the first Latin
we were taught in freshman year.
Those Jesuits, they just sent us out
as raw recruits onto a battlefield
that Ignatius could never begin to imagine.
Would he have a website or a blog?
It has all been an end-game of sorts.
Whatever comes next will be more desperate.
But we did the best we could.
The end of the past follows us & just as well.
The future will be its own orphan.


Everything grows into somethingThe folks at the Special Collections and Archives of the University of Rhode Island Library have agreed to take my journals and papers for safe-keeping. So, for the past few days I have been busy getting all that in order to say goodbye to. The library gave me boxes in which to stash it all—fifty years’ worth, maybe 10,000 pages in all. The oldest of these files have followed me from Harlem to Berkeley to New Jersey to San Francisco to Samoa to Rhode Island. The 26 years of Samoa papers still retain the fond moldy smell of the islands.

There are at least a thousand poems and hundreds of pieces of both finished and abandoned prose to sort through. Every time I moved I threw away more than I kept, but there is still too much. I sort it all through yet another, final filter, filling black garbage bags with the less than necessary. So much paper waste—I have not lived a forest friendly life. But I do get to revisit raising my son in the benign bush of Tutuila and re-fear cyclones I had forgotten.

I’ll share a few pieces here, all from decades ago.


I want a t-shirt
that says on its back
Use Other Side First.
I want a ticket
that no one will question,
a friend in high places.
I want a history
where no one is named
and facts have no dates
but eons have names
like Nancy and Jane
where nothing happens.
Please pass the eraser.
Between us we can
get somewhere fast.
I just feel it rising
out of the sidewalk
and into my soul
nothing that I ever
needed or wanted
as naked as I am
as useless as cops
as salty as sex
as open as a wound.
I want an old day
to stop by and visit
to sit by the window
and tell me about
what the king will say
to the queen when they
finally are left alone
and all her sorrows
have dissolved in tears.


Santa Pajama

Santa Pajama was a bedroom community just up the coast from Vaudville. We drove up the coast road. The ocean was so calm it looked asleep. Samantha slathered sunblock onto her arms and face and shoulders. It was May.

When we got there I couldn’t find the place. I kept rereading the directions she’d taken down over the phone and kept getting lost. Samantha pretended to sleep.

What I finally found was the wrong place on the boardwalk above the beach. But the people there knew who Buddy was and sent us to a bar on the Vista Verde where we could find him. He wasn’t there but Samantha knew the bartender — remembered him from a Shinto halfway house up in Nofloss — so we stayed and drank diet maitais.

I found Buddy’s phone number on the on the toilet partition in the men’s room. I left a message for him on the machine that answered at a Swedish phonesex service. When I went back to the bar Samantha was gone and there was a new bartender. Her purse was still on the floor beside her empty barstool.

I slept in the car, in the back seat. I’m short. In the morning a 13 year old girl wearing a pair of men’s peach jockey shorts as a halter top and a pair of Italian roller skates was asleep in the front seat. I married her. We’ve got three kids now. We don’t live there anymore.



in order
just to know
questions re:
without which

Specs’ Saloon, North Beach, San Francisco


Specs himself outside his saloon, having a smoke and a laugh, 2004

Someone observed about the Buffalo I grew up in that there seemed to be a church on every block and two saloons at every intersection. They were all filled with good Christians. The typical neighborhood tavern carried the proprietor’s family name—Strinka’s, say, or Topolski’s or O’Connor’s—and had two entrances, one to the bar in front and another family entrance in the rear to the dining room. As most of the city was Catholic, these family entrances got most of their traffic on Fridays around dinner time, because the tavern’s cheap fish fry was a housewife’s welcome alternative to stinking up the house with the smell of cooking fish. And it was payday.

It was a blue-collar world. A shot of schnapps and a draft cost you fifty cents. For many the corner barroom was like another room on their house—a room free of family and kids. There were no TVs above the bar, no sports channels, and if there was a juke box it wasn’t tolerated during prime drinking hours, dusk to midnight, and for half the year dusk came early to Buffalo. Patrons either quietly conversed or sat alone inside the blessed freedom of their chosen cone of silence, studying their drinks and cigarettes, communing only with themselves and maybe their reflection in the back-bar mirror behind its picket fence of whiskey bottles. Normally everyone there would be a regular, and after a while bits of personal history would become absorbed as common knowledge and the men and women behind the bar became not just the dispensers of self-medication but also the reference librarians of local lore and current events.

“I haven’t seen Murphy in here in a week.”
“It’s his back again. You remember his accident.”
“Did the union ever get them assholes to settle?”
“I guess they’re paying for another operation.”
“How’s his wife doing?”
“She’s off the drink, too, I think. Hasn’t been in. Want another?”

If Murphy didn’t make it, there would be a collection for the widow and the kids.

I entered this world when I was seventeen, and for the next twenty years—until I moved to Samoa—neighborhood bars, no matter where they were, would be my wayside chapels of peace and familiarity. If during that time the Catholic Church ditched Latin as its unifying language, corner saloons still spoke the same lingo of escape and observed a consistent liturgy of nonjudgmental sanctuary, filled with your fellow faithful. Homes away from home, the other room to your ancestral house that you could always find if you walked the streets and could interpret the neon semiotics of barroom windows.

I spent several years visiting, photographing, and researching the scattered remaining historic saloons of the California Gold Rush and Nevada Mother Lode country for a book I never wrote. I used to pride myself if plopped down in a new town—at a Greyhound Bus Station say—of being able to find on instinct the nearest convivial watering hole. I wonder how many thousands of such places I’ve walked into, just a stranger coming in the door and taking a stool at the bar and ordering a drink. Just do it right and nobody will ever question you. It is like entering a church and dipping your right hand into the holy water font and blessing yourself and genuflecting properly before the altar. In twenty years no one ever challenged me or tried to pick a quarrel. From Hong Kong to Belfast, in twenty different countries and every state of the union the sacrament was the same.

And so it was in North Beach where I found Specs’. I never lived in that part of San Francisco, but Specs’ became my neighborhood bar. I am a tad superstitious about talking about Specs’, because the place, which absorbed me forty years ago, is still there, just off Columbus Avenue on old Adler (now Saroyan) Alley, unchanged, ungentrified, and I am afeared to jinx its existence by writing about it as history. (Is this aging, when you begin to feel some responsibility for the past, some complicity with its integrity and survival?) I moved often in those years, both around and away from the Bay Area, but Specs’ Museum and Saloon remained a sort of borrowed nexus, the place where people could find me if I was in town or leave messages for me if I wasn’t. A place to find connections for work or the next apartment to rent or a new lover. But mainly it was a place to talk, a bohemian wayback machine. Again there was no TV set in the place nor a juke box. The bartenders were Irish maestros of gab. I made some good friends there, folks always ready to pick up the talk no matter where it had left off, folks who just wanted cohorts and a space to enjoy the end of their day.

A number of years ago I stopped in Specs’ on my way through San Francisco to somewhere else. It had been three or four years since my last in transit visit. I hung out at City Lights Books across the avenue until Specs’ opened after four. I took my old seat at the end of the bar between the front window and the reading lamp and opened a book I’d just bought. The bartender, a younger man whom I’d never seen before, was busy setting up the bar for business. I didn’t bother him with an order. All the memorabilia of the bar—the flags and shark jaws, old union posters and ironic signs, scrimshaw and Inuit art, framed newspaper headlines and eclectic photos—were all still in there proper places, all sepia stained like Civil War prints by decades of cigarette smoke. Then a green sixteen-ounce can of Rainer Ale appeared on a coaster in front of me. Green Death we used to call it, the strongest, most assertive brew you could buy there, the usual opening drink of the old sundown regulars thirty-five years before.

“What’s this?” I said to the unknown barkeep.
“You’re Enright, aren’t ya?” he answered, straight out of Dublin. “And that’s your usual, ain’t it? Where ya bin?”

I came back late that night, before closing. A different crowd, all younger, only a few of the old, hobbled and roseola-nosed regulars left. I came back to see the eponymous proprietor Richard “Specs” Simmons himself, who, dapper still in his 70s, would stop by to judge the closing crowd. We were glad to meet. We sat at a table near the front and talked the present about the past, as men will, catching up on people and their personal events—Deborah’s kids, Marilyn’s last known success, Kent’s funeral. Since my previous visit San Francisco had passed a law against tobacco smoking in all public places, including saloons, and now the dead-end pedestrian alleyway in front of Specs’ often held the best conversations, as smokers followed one another outside, placing coasters on top of their drinks on the bar. But when Specs lit a cigarette without moving from his table, I did too.

“It’s my place, after all,” he said. “If anyone wants to file a complaint, then fuck ‘em. They’re eighty-sixed forever and may they remain eternally childless.” He took a drag. “And I’ll gladly pay the fucking fine.”

Usual Group at the Window Table

How in Westerns the wheels of the wagons
always spin backwards the faster they go,
how ice and flame at first touch feel the same.
Take a pint and a seat by the window.

If all my sins were confessed in Islam
my body would have no extremities.
What do you call what you want to forget?
Take a pint and a seat by the window.

There are faults in the sky that insult me,
slick birds with no wings that call themselves souls.
Without your lost beauty no one knows you.
Take a pint and a seat by the window

Hong Kong / Vows / 1976

Hong KongI gave it all away, all the cash I had on me down to my least coin. It was like feeding chickens. That back street in Kowloon was famous for its beggars, and once I started handing out cash it didn’t take long. Pierre Cardin suit, Italian shoes, silk tie, a foot taller than all the poor dudes that crowded around me. In my coat pocket was my final purchase—a pint of Wild Turkey. I remember it was a chilly night, December. Of course, I had a hotel room to go back to, and the next day I could go to the bank and get more cash, but I was celebrating my freedom by giving away my chains.

Seventy-six was a tough year, my thirtieth—burn out and break down at my editor’s job in Berkeley, a state of imploding confusion in my so-called love life, shrinks and drugs and a growing fear of others. There was the odd but deeply felt conviction that I didn’t want a future, but I had zero attraction to thoughts of suicide. I didn’t want to perform; I just wanted to wander and watch. It had taken me less than a month to get sacked from my Hong Kong editing job.

A couple of nights before that night in Kowloon I had done a Kiwi bloke I had met the favor of taking him to a respectable whorehouse. He was headed off to an Arctic oil rig for six months and wanted a weekend of companionship to send him off. I knew where to take him from wandering and watching, not from performing. The American Nam thing was winding down, and there were a lot of under-employed prostitutes in Hong Kong now that the Yanks were no longer coming there for R and R. He picked his girl out of the second group the Mamasan sent over to our booth. He seemed happy and I got up to leave. Only Mamasan wouldn’t let me. She and a line of her girls blocked the door. What about me? Her girls weren’t good enough for me? By now some of the girls were cursing me in Cantonese and others were crying and running away. Mamasan picked up a bottle and waved me away from the door. The Kiwi bloke was laughing, but it wasn’t funny. Mamasan yelled something toward the back of the room, and the most attractive, princess-petite girl we had yet seen, dressed in a slit green silk kimono, stepped through a bead curtain. I would take her, Mamasan insisted. But I’m a priest, I told her. Ha, she said, priests like it more than most. Mamasan walked over to take the shy girl by the arm and bring her to me. I bolted for the exit, shouldering aside the girls who tried to stop me. They clawed at my back as I got the door open and hit the street running. Those words, but I’m a priest—that lie—stuck with me. Why not undo the lie and become a priest?

There are three vows—poverty, chastity, and obedience. You can’t grow up Irish Catholic without knowing that. I had a brother who was a priest. So, I decided to start with the first vow, poverty, and gave away all my cash. But that was just symbolic. I had decided that what a vow meant was to disavow all interest in what the vow forbade. Henceforward, money would be a null set. If I had some, fine; if I didn’t, fine. Its accumulation would no longer be of any interest to me, no longer any sort of index of success or failure. As I gave my cash to the beggars on that cold Kowloon back street, I smiled and said, “Null set, null set,” and they smiled back, nodding, saying “Nur sut, nur sut.” We had a great time.

I moved out to Zhang Zhou then, a tiny island on the outer edge of Hong Kong Territory, where there were no roads or vehicles and a room was cheap, a two hour ferry ride from downtown. A junk with an eternal oil slick trailing from it was anchored in the rock-bound cove outside my window. I considered the other two vows. I knew enough about the history of Christian chastity to know that it wasn’t about fucking but about non-attachment to the non-spiritual. I couldn’t imagine denying my impulse to fuck, but I had non-attachment down cold, as it were. If I couldn’t make a virtue out of that, I might at least employ it as an armoring vow. Obedience was the bigger problem. Thirteen years before the Jesuits had rejected me because of my psychological problems with authority. But I found a way around that one, too. I would pledge my obedience to myself, that inner self I had always fought with. If it said head north, I’d head north. If it said find a place to hide, I’d find a hideout. If it told me all this is wrong, I’d drop it and leave. One morning the junk and its oil slick were gone.

I tried to live that way the next five years, on the road a lot. For a while a few people worried about me, but they got tired of that and left me alone. I didn’t make much money, but I didn’t starve. All in all I don’t think vows are a very good idea—that authority thing again. After a while I was happiest when I forgot them and just got on with what I was doing, though I was still broke.