Invisible

Several months ago I met a guy at the Iglesias Garden. He had fallen on hard times after working construction and getting injured. A rogue blade flew off a power tool he was using and sliced through his cheekbone. Miraculously, he kept his eye. He had a number of surgeries and was loaded up on pain meds. Eventually, as the story goes, he couldn’t afford the meds when the script ran out, was still in pain, so took a substance cheaper and easier to find on the streets, got addicted, and his whole life fell into the proverbial gutter.

But he’s resilient and strong and wakes up in the morning for the daily hustle.

I ran into him recently at Graffiti Pier. We walked around and talked for a while. He recounted memories going back to his childhood visiting the pier with his grandfather. Back then, it was in full operation and pretty much open to the public. “The biggest crane on the whole river,” he said. “Seriously, it was enormous.” They used to climb it as kids and jump off into the water. “I almost drowned,” he said. “I went down, it must have been 20 feet, I needed another breath before I made it all the way to the surface. Don’t know how I made it. A lot of people died right here. A lot.”

You can feel the ghosts. The place is eerie and surreal. All the abandoned concrete pillars adorned with graffiti. People go to the pier to swim, fish, barbecue, practice their spray paint skills, you name it. Although private property, it is totally unofficially Philadelphia’s urban sanctuary for artists, photographers, tourists, weirdos, crust punks, neighbors, runners, etc etc everyone steps foot on that pier. It is dazzling. It is dream-like. And it represents something wildly human and free.

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It is abandoned, and perhaps dangerous, but that adds an element to its charm.

We continued to walk around as he recounted the days when horse stables sat at the entrance. He remembers petting the horses fondly. He said he hadn’t been there in years. All the memories bubbled up visibly into his eyes.

He said he’s living under 95, but the cops came by and gave them a weeks notice. He keeps getting pushed around. The homeless in general keep getting pushed around. They have no where to go, so they move around like refugees in their own city.

It is sad and frustrating, at times infuriating, to think about folks and how they get to be so down-and-out. A lot of people blame the individuals for making poor choices, but the reality is, a lot of them are unexpecting victims of an uncaring system. The type of healing he needed, specifically, was not offered to him. He nearly lost half his face. He was loaded up with pain killers and sent on his way. When the pain doesn’t subside, what does one do?

Our streets are swimming with opiates.

If you live in Philly, walk down to Kensington & Lehigh and you might just get stabbed in the foot by a needle. People openly shoot up and discard their needles right there on the curb. I’m not trying to be dramatic or hyperbolic. I’m not trying to paint poverty porn. I’m not trying to virtue signal. This is, simply speaking, the reality I see on a daily basis.

Conrail, a division of Norfolk Southern, the same company who owns the pier, also owns the tracks in Kensington where the homeless had been living in a tent city. Philly’s Skid Row. It was pretty much, as the saying goes, out of sight, out of mind. The people living there got the boot though, and now they live scattered about the surrounding neighborhoods. A lot have taken refuge under the tracks along Lehigh.

One thing that made me take heart: As he and I talked, he mentioned he’s gone back to the garden where we grow food. He said he picked a bunch of tomatoes and squash. It encouraged me to keep growing. I often go there alone, and sometimes meet neighbors picking food, but it’s another thing to hear it from him. A few tomatoes here and there isn’t changing the world, but it’s a means of connection and showing that some of us care.

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City Intimacy

Wandering downtown, on the lookout for the moon, but she is nowhere to be found. The buildings obscure the rise up. Instead, I find so many people, and emotions, the blur of city busy-ness sweeping up the wild instinct, cajoling the primal pulse of heart and erotic nakedness of thought.

You ever walk by a person and get a whiff of their life, little glimpses at where they awoke in the morning, what books their noses are stuck in… ?

It happens here and there, the stories. But more so, it’s a quick emotional sense, a drive-by connection, fleeting

Like a pedestrian passing, rushing with tinged anxiety, maybe late for dinner, trying headlong to be on time.

Another person, eyes wide in an attempt to repress fear, perhaps unused to the city, unsure what lurks in the saturated unknown. He’s probably watching too much cable news.

There’s youthful excitement emanating from those going out for the night, dressed to impress, feeling good, reeking of desperation and cheap cologne, unaware of their surroundings, loud as can be, ready to drop bills and gulp shots.

Homeless folks bundled up, broken down, begging, or just sitting, talking to no one in particular. One man slouched against the cold concrete of a building, he’s crumpled like his cardboard sign, fast asleep as people bustle by. I can’t imagine how tired he must be.

But there’s a lot of that in general: People tired, ready for a couch, a bed, ready for a vacation, a holiday, anything. And frustration. There’s so much frustration in the city. Furrowed brows, confusion, impatience, existential crises deeply expressed in far-off looks, wordless stares into the void of everywhere.

I stop to listen to a man on a loudspeaker. He stands with a small group out front the municipal building downtown. He speaks about dealing drugs, using drugs, finding God, encouraging the youth – and, I catch a wave of sadness. It echoes off the city walls, the faceless windows. The street lights absorb the words in fluorescent indifference.

I thought God might come through with unbridled lifeforce. Ecstatic dance, joy, unrecognizable movements even. Not every time, I suppose. In the fractalized everyday overwhelmingness of kaleidoscopic urban reality, sadness figures in prominently.

When I was younger, and still to this day, a curiosity of mine finds a home in mythos- gods and goddesses presiding over parts of life representing human behavior, personalities, archetypes, feelings.

I learned about Weeping Buddha when I was given a wooden statue by my mom. His story stuck with me.

He was a “great” warrior full of hubris. He fought everyone and anyone to prove his mighty strength. All his challengers fell before him, dead. Until one day, a masked man challenged him. They fought tooth and nail, evenly matched the whole way.

Blow for blow. Viciously.

And finally, the masked man got caught off guard, and they both tumbled to the ground. But not before a near death blow was made. The masked challenger fell limp.

To ensure victory, the great warrior slit the challenger’s throat. Blood stained the sword. With sweat dripping in maniacal laughter, he reached down and pulled off the man’s mask. To his great dismay, it was his son.

The great warrior began to weep. And he didn’t stop weeping. How could he be so caught up and kill his own son?

Right then and there, he gave up the life of war.

He continues to cry and cry, day and night, to this very day. People who find a terrible sadness visit him, and shed tears alongside him, and so, he is known as the Weeping Buddha. Sharing the world’s suffering.

I take a pause as I’m writing. Feeling as though I’m wrapped in a memory, getting off track, wondering how I’m going to return the writing to the city landscape.

At this point, I’m in a bar scratching up the blankness of paper with pen mark after pen mark. People leave me be, but through experience, it’s only a matter of time before someone barges in.

The bartender comes over and asks if I’m writing a book. We smile and flirt.

How many times have writers sat and stirred a particular feeling? Swiping pen to paper like a wand across a canvas, the ink trails a fleeting mark of romance. “By chance, dear writer, what are you writing? I don’t really want to know, though. You’re just piquing my interest. Tantalizing my creative sparks. I want a piece. A fleeting glimpse.”

And I let it happen. Why not? Part of writing is living the story. Giving over to mystery.

A trio of folks plop down next to me and the one guy almost immediately reaches out and says, “Hey, hey. My friend here is from Toronto and she’s loving the vibe and didn’t want to interrupt you writing, but she wants to know if she can trace her hand on your paper?”

I say “Of course, sure thing, why not.”

And just like that, we’re intermingling, chatting. Within a few moments, I realize I know the guy who first said what’s up. We share experiences. He’s showing both the woman and her husband around town, giving them a taste of Philly. We get to talking about mutual friends, free spirits, disappointments, and the complexities of relationships.

All this, in passing.

The woman who traced her hand chimes in a bit more, and we break off into our own little conversation. She says, “I saw you writing. I saw spirit. You know, I’m a believer, but not like that, nothing crazy, but I just saw SPIRIT, and oh my god it’s making me cry. I just saw you spilling your soul into that paper,” and she tears up and wipes her tears, sniffles.

I tell her what a happenstance. Look at what I’m writing.

It all makes so much sense. Weeping Buddha, the despondency of urbanity.

Before long, they take off, and we a hug a long hug. What warmth in a chance encounter.

Two people
in a big city
longing for connection,
something loving
and human
from a stranger.

xoxo

How Uncouth: Reverence for the Dirt, the Goddess, a Wild Garden Salad

The rain came in waves. Like oceans of orgasm. Five or six of them. Wet and sweaty and drenched. I lost count.

I stood under a tiny structure. Usually a place of refuge from the sun, but in this case, a safe haven to keep dry from the rain. Or so I thought. Intermittently, the sun popped out amidst thick grey clouds, but those rays only served as a false flag the storm had passed. Every time I saw a bit of blue sky, I walked into the garden & continued weeding. I stayed out for the lighter rains, but for the torrential falls, I took cover. Either way, I wound up soaked.

Throughout the course of the storm, the winds were both chilled and hot, which caused shivers to raise up and roll across my skin. A thunder clap reached so far into me, it cracked my skeleton, and my nerves jumped out of my body. It caught me by such surprise, I laughed at my timidness in comparison to the omnipotence of nature. There were moments I questioned why the hell I would be outside amidst such a storm, but that quickly passed because it all made me feel quite alive & connected.

And then, when the storm finally did pass, I dug right into the dirt. The soil was so soft, the weeds came up with such ease.

Calling them weeds, though, does such a disservice to what is actually growing amidst the vegetables and covering the rest of the lot.

Mugwort reigns in these parts. That creeper of a plant with her silver undersides & risqué name. Artemisia vulgaris. That enchantress of dreams. I pull up mugwort for days. I pull up so many plants for days, there are moments I wonder why the hell I would pull up plant after plant after plant knowing they just keep coming back, but that quickly fades when I see pretty red clover and pluck the flowers to add to the collection in my pocket. I like taking them apart, separating the tiny flowers from the flower head and adding them to salads. The tiny tubular flowers nearly disappear amidst the larger green leaves, but regardless, they are packed with nutrients.

Off to one side of the garden, along a fence, grows a patch of melons. Before we planted the melons, morning glories grew there. They still do, and it’s apparent they don’t care for uninvited guests. So I’m pulling up what feels like hundreds & thousands of morning glory seedlings. Despite this, I like them. As the name indicates, you have to catch their flowers early. They grow mostly along the edges where they are free to roam and climb, like a witchy coven of vines and flowers just radically doing what they do.

There’s so much natural spontaneity.

I met one neighbor at the garden who is half Puerto Rican & half Hawaiian. I saw him before the start of the rainstorm. He said he likes to get wet. I laughed, I do too. We chatted briefly, but then it really started dumping buckets. He went home, and I took cover under the tiny structure.

After the rainstorm, he came back around, so we chatted some more. He rattled off so many stories about his kids, his wife, his life in the military, his upbringing, his grandparents, where he’s been, the police, the neighborhood, everything. He’s lived a full life.

He offered a blunt to share, but I don’t smoke all that much, so I said no. He said no I’m offering it as a gesture of peace like a peace pipe. He smiled. I smiled. I couldn’t say no to a peace pipe.

We walked over to a mulberry tree where he likes to sit, smoke, and reflect. I took one puff and passed it back to him, but he said it’s mild weed it’s not that heady shit that makes you sit there STONED it’s homegrown by a friend there’s no paranoia it just makes your eyes click makes you aware. So I took a few more puffs and we passed it back and forth a few times and I got a nice mellow stone.

I invited him into the garden, because wild edibles kept catching my eye so I darted back and forth showing him the flowers of this and the leaves of that & it sparked that urge to keep playing in the dirt.

To both our delight, he speaks three languages: Puerto Rican, Spanish, and English, so we traded words. I gave him some plant identification & names, and he gave me some Puerto Rican. I was feeling stony baloney and goofy and my memory bounds along like an elephant; but it was worthwhile to readjust my tongue and vocal chords and practice what he was throwing my way. He kept calling me a green man and was trying to figure out how to explain it all to his wife. Like, this white nigga in the garden, you won’t believe what he’s growing, you will love this shit. I tried to give him some herbs to take home to his wife, but he said he wanted to bring her so she could see and learn.

It really struck me how amazed he was at the plants. Like we were on a foreign planet. He imparted to me as well, a renewed sense of amazement. Like wow, look at that corn. The way it sprouts tassels. The way they blow in the wind and shake off pollen and fertilize the silk that grows from a lower portion of the stalk. Maiz. It’s bisexual & voila, the male tassel and female silk birth ears of corn.

It’s so complicated, yet so simple.

I tend to relate gardening to zen, especially when it comes to weeding. Weeding a garden is both active and challenging. There is a focus required to make sure you pull gently enough so you don’t snap the stem and firmly enough so the roots come up. There’s also a letting go involved because I know I’m not going to get all of them. It teaches me to be content with the silence of equilibrium.

Like certain thoughts that come up in the mind, weeds can make you mad as hell. There are so many of them. And they just keep coming. So it’s good practice to weed, simultaneously, the madness from your mind.

I often leave a number of weeds, because often, they aren’t weeds. Purslane and lambs quarter are good examples of this. They pop up on their own accord, and they taste great in salads.

It’s wild.

There are so many plants who just grow because that’s what they do. They don’t need your attention or care, yet they can add flavor and nutrients to your life. They also impart that wonderful spirit of growing wherever the fuck.

Like the dandelion who will sprout from the cracks of the sidewalk AND detox your liver.

Here, there’s something to be said about soil quality or lack there of, & potency & poison. We don’t want to just willynilly eat any old thing that looks green. Educate yourself. Talk with people who are willing to share knowledge.

Also, if you’ve taken prescription drugs your whole life, just trying to shift to a more natural diet might be a bit of a struggle, especially if those prescriptions are psych meds. If we look at the body like a culture, how hard is it for people of an ineffective, racist culture, how hard is it to let a dead horse die and subsequently grow into the future? It’s difficult. The body is similar; it’s not going to change over night. I imagine there are people who specialize in those kinds of transitions, because, needless to say, the body is an intricate webwork of biochemistry & a wily, ineffable spirit that is impossible to box up.

There’s also something to be said about fear, lack of trust, and lack of confidence. How many people would rather buy a neat little package they find in a store vs harvesting something growing wildly in their own backyard? I understand there is hesitance that has been built in; too many of us grew up being taught that soil is dirt and dirt is dirty and dirty is nasty, disgusting, and just plain bad. Well, in one way, shape, or form, it’s true: the sacred mother is bad as hell. She is more powerful than we give her credit for.

It doesn’t surprise me people are scared.

headstones anonymous as barcodes

row homes flash tv screen luminance
entertainment & news

sidewalks covet used needles
& scratched lottery tickets

empty beer bottles pile up like bullet casings

trees loom large and cast shadows

a murder of crows
a murder of

American flags
& police sirens

in a neighborhood park
people gather to praise Jesus,
his image on a banner
bloody & crying

we put our faith in so many dark places

in the dead of the night,
the junkies move like zombies
& the crackheads move like ghosts

fireworks bang in the sky

there’s a reclaimed lot burning a bonfire
the sparks fly into the stars

Mulberry trees scatter the outskirts of the lot. There are no gates to keep people out, only fences bordering two sides to denote other peoples’ properties. The place is overridden with mugwort, and on any given weekday, birds and random litter occupy the space.

It feels wild & gritty.

The Philly Socialists built the garden, an effort headed by an organizer from Colombia. Her name is Mara. There are five raised beds, a picnic table, a wooden archway, a large sign, a rain barrel, discarded tires, and a small, open-air roofed-over area.

Somehow Mara got into contact with Cesar and his family, who are from Mexico. They do Aztec dance-performances donning full regalia: loincloths, tribal face paint, medicine shakers, and headdresses made from feathers, feathers, feathers, and more feathers. One headdress even incorporates a stuffed deer head. It’s truly a sight to behold.

I was pleasantly surprised when I showed up at the garden and they were there to bless the grounds. Drums, whoops & yells, chanting, and conch shells resounded the air. They brought corn to plant as well, so I went back home to retrieve the extra vegetable plants at our house.

When I returned to the garden, Mara and I borrowed a truck to take a trip to Home Depot to pick up garden tools and extra soil.

It amazes me how fluid & trusting people can be. Here is a group of strangers coming together, more or less spontaneously, to accomplish a common goal. Namely, building up a garden. & Everyone’s sharing resources. Not only that (and this is kind of a separate tangent because I saw a couple folks at Home Depot), it amazes me how many friends I run into on a regular basis. I haven’t lived in this area for like 6 years, but it’s like I never left. A few weeks back, a friend was picking up food at an Indian place we were walking by, and he yelled from down the street, “Jozef Maguire, Philadelphia welcomes you back to the neighborhood!” It warmed my heart. & Granted, my dad lives in the area, and I have friends who throw art shows and poetry readings around town, so it’s not like I’ve been completely absent or on the other side of the world, but still, it’s heart warming & unexpected.

I guess this is community. I say it loosely, because that’s how it is. There are core groups who grind together & create more intimacy, but at the end of the day, there are so many people living in the city, and the loose connections that reoccur on the outer edges and slowly strengthen help to create the larger picture. The myth of a city is important. It gives everyone a story to connect to & explore.

The interesting thing about America is (and this is ever present in her cities), there are a variety of myths.

The next block over from the garden, a Puerto Rican festival was taking place. They were bumping music & the smell of BBQ drifted in the air. The whole atmosphere was one of celebration.

There was a PBS film-maker there too. He shot video. He’s been following Cesar around to document his life & work. Most recently, Cesar painted a mural dedicated to Pope Francis’s visit to Philly.

Cesar is a sturdy, squat, unassuming man originally from Mexico. He has long hair and a greying mustache & goatee. He expresses his appreciation & gratitude more often than most people I know. And he does so in such a way that it feels natural and humble. There’s no bravado involved.

It’s a good reminder.

After the dancing, we collectively planted the vegetables & Cesar lit a chalice of incense and swept the smoke over the plants as he said a prayer to the rain, to the earth, to the seedlings, to the corn.

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I don’t know how I find these happenstances in life, but it resonates with me deeply. I don’t know what my role is exactly, but I often feel like an agent of change, and if the transformation has already been kick-started, I often feel like a silent force, like a wind that helps push the ship across choppy, unpredictable seas.

To be literal, I’m a gardener tending to the growth of plants.

There was a clay pot that held a special significance. We transferred water from the rain barrel to the pot. Right away it felt different from what we usually use: a tiny, plastic watering can that is most likely a toy meant for kids. The bottom is yellow and the top is pink. It’s playful & practical, but it feels less ceremonious than the clay pot.

When everyone left, there were a few of us who stuck behind: Jeff, a punk & carpenter from West Philly, Mara, the organizer from the socialist group, and Cesar, the artist. Jeff told us about a Latino punk festival that occurs in NYC midsummer, and perhaps, when they pass through Philly, he’ll get to work on organizing a mini festival. That excited everyone. The conversation spurred on, and we talked about reaching out to neighbors who live in adjacent buildings, and perhaps, we can paint murals on their empty walls.

I get the feeling these folks are dreamers & activists. Like the seed that turns to plant that turns to flower that turns to fruit, there’s a grounded-ness to the whole chronicle.

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