Monday, April 13, 2009

BRIC-A-BRAC: Poetry in Motion

One of the more peculiar aspects of travel on Chicago's elevated trail lines is the occasional appearance of solicitors. There you'll be, barely paying attention to your surroundings, hoping against hope that no one will come and claim the seat next to you so you won't have to get into some awkward elbow showdown, and then your reverie will be interrupted by someone announcing, "Ladies and gentlemen, if I could just have a moment of your time..."

This isn't legal, of course. The CTA reserves the right to sell on their trains only to those major corporations who have paid to slap giant ads to the outside of the train car. But these are far from legitimate businessmen flouting the rules. As a rule, these folks are homeless, and the El has become a last refuge.

Typically, the pitch is a flat-out appeal for money, which is the most irritating, because who wants to just give someone money? Often, the panhandler will explain that they are trying to turn their lives around, and that the money is just so they can get a CTA pass (which always brings up the question of how they got on this train), but when you come right down to it, they're just begging. And years in the city make you hard to that sort of thing.

A few hardy souls want to sell you something. Sometimes it's a spiritual trinket, because there's probably a percentage of the population who can't turn down an appeal of a sacred nature. And I guess that's a step up from the Streetwise vendors who used to be a much more common sight on street corners.

(For the uninitiated, Streetwise is a quasi-periodical that homeless people are legitimately hired to hawks on the streets. I bought one the first year I was here, and I found it highly uninteresting. More memorable was the time a Streetwise vendor tried to sell me the latest issue in front of the Field Museum, and I was feeling generous, so I was prepared to hand over my dollar, and the guy tells me that he can't give it to me because it's his only copy. And then I got really annoyed, because I went from doing a good deed to being the victim of a scam in the space of a few seconds, and I guess it was only a dollar, but, you know, come on. So he didn't give me a damn Streetwise, and I didn't give him a dollar, and I've never been persuaded to try and buy one since. So that certainly worked out for everyone.)

The guy on the train today was different. I ignored the first several minutes of his commentary, because, you know, that's what you do. But as we neared the next stop (and probably moments before he switched cars so there was no chance of the authorities coming after him), he finally explained what he was selling.

It was his book of poetry.

His pitch kind of got more pathetic as it went on. Normally, he said, he sells his book for ten dollars. Sometimes, he went on, he marks it down to seven bucks. Today, he would be willing to let it go for a mere five-dollar bill. And if that wasn't low enough, he'd consider selling us a single poem for a dollar.

So there it was. I like to support artists. I like to get something for something. And by gum, I've got a dollar.

"This is called 'Glass Menagerie'," he told me as I dropped four quarters into his palm. "It's one of the first poems I got published."

It's not a great poem, of course, but it's interesting free verse. The poem is printed on nice paper. The poet -- Emmett R. McBain III -- has his e-mail address on the page. It's even got a copyright date on it. How on earth did this man find himself resorting to hawking his poetry on the El? The answer, interestingly enough, is in the poem. Since it's got a copyright on it, I won't share the whole thing with you. But this excerpt provides a surprising solution to my mystery.

Am I sane?
I am here
Am I sane?

The doctor
Will believe so

Not a nice place to stay
Not a nice place to visit
For me
At least

I'm glad I bought the poem.

(P.S. Four day gap in posts. Not too shabby. Gettin' back on that horse.)

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Oh, Hi! Didn't See You There.

The text message from my friend hit with the force of a lightning bolt.

If you're no longer blogging (safe to assume) could you at least do Facebook or Twitter so we can see what's up?

Now, we'll be diplomatic and overlook the fact that my friend's own blog lasted approximately two posts, and now looks like this. Because the fact remains that, well, it has been a while. Over 16 months.


A lot can happen in sixteen months:

* America can elect a black man president
* A baseball team from Tampa Bay can win the pennant before the Cubs
* A major motion picture can be released in which Pierce Brosnan sings

These are heady times, to be sure. And not to mention, significant personal life changes can take place, which I'm not going to get into at this juncture. But the point is, a lot of time has gone by, and there is definitely a lot to talk about. But the problem is, who the heck has the time? I don't. I mean, the reason I'm not writing here is largely because of the things that would be most interesting to write about. It is a dilemma.

So, what to do? My friend has made suggestions. However...

I won't Facebook. Don't trust it. More than half the people I work with seem to be on it, and it monopolizes their time, or makes announcements to the world about them which they are not necessarily eager to share, or half a dozen other things that just seem more aggravating than helpful. I know, I am old and curmudgeonly. So be it. I have precious little time as it is, and I will not be tied down to a webpage that demands I update my status.

(Fun fact: this blog engine's spell-checker thinks "Facebook" is misspelled. Ha!)

I also won't Twitter. This seems incomprehensibly stupid to me. It's text messages to the world. Really? Critical need filled? Look, this blog is already about the most navel-gazing thing I could do, and at my peak, I was updating it daily. Is anyone truly clamoring for me to provide new entries by the minute? I can think of no situation in which anybody I know needs to have a blow-by-blow account of anything that I have ever done or will ever do. And if they do, there's probably only one person at a time who needs that information, and I'll call them. Again, the future is not impressing me.

Which brings us back to the blog, which my friend has observed I no longer do. So that's out.

Or is it?

I'm giving me one last shot to make this thing work. I won't lie to you, I'm not optimistic. Life is pretty crazy, and I talk too much. But I've got a lot of things to tell you. Some of it even interesting. Bits and pieces you might actually enjoy.
And besides, as Lyle Lovett said,

I understand too little too late
I realize there are things you say and do
You can never take back
But what would you be if you didn't even try
You have to try

You do, indeed.

So wish me luck. Once we go.