I didn’t mean to quit drinking, 
it just sort of happened. 
I’d always assumed 
it’d be difficult, or not
difficult, exactly,
but impossible.
Then one New Year’s Eve
twenty years ago
at the VFW, Craig and I
were drinking beer
from brown bottles,
peeling the labels off
into little confetti nests.
In Mexico 
the previous New Year’s Eve, 
I’d started drinking
again after a year sober. 
I traveled by myself
in Oaxaca for a month
and had at least two
beautiful experiences.
The bus I was on broke 
down in the mountains
and I watched the stars blink
on with a Mexican girl
who later sent me a letter
I never answered. That’s one
of the experiences. The others
are secrets. We left the VFW
at a reasonable hour for once.
I never took another drink.
I’m not sure why not.
I don’t think it had anything
to do with me. I think
it was a miracle. Like when
the hero at the last
second pulls the lever to switch
the train to the track the heroine’s
not tied to. I was always broke
in those days, whereas now I’m just
poor. I brought a Walkman
and a backpack stuffed with
cassettes to Oaxaca. I was sick
of them all within a week
and longed to buy a new tape
but couldn’t spare the pesos.
I listened to Live Through This
at the Zapotec ruins
of Monte Albán,
Rumours on the bus to DF.
At Puerto Ángel,
my headphones leaking
tinny discord
across a rooftop bar,
I sat watching the ocean.
An American man about the age
I am now
asked me what I was listening to.
I said Sonic Youth. He asked
which album, I said Sister.
He chuckled and said
“I’m Johnny Strike.”
It probably wasn’t a miracle,
but I couldn’t believe it.
Here was the guy who wrote
Crime’s 1976 classic
“Hot Wire My Heart,”
which Sonic Youth covered
on their 1987 classic, Sister,
which I was listening to
on my Walkman
at the end of Mexico in the sun.
Except actually I was
listening to Daydream Nation,
I change it to Sister
when I tell that story.
But it’s a beautiful story
even without embellishment.
That’s another of the Oaxacan
experiences I mentioned,
but the rest are secrets.
Oh Mexico, as James Schuyler
wrote to Frank O’Hara,
are you just another
dissembling dream?
Schuyler was too tender
for me then, but now
he is just tender enough.
I love his wishes.
That “the beautiful humorous
white whippet” could
be immortal, for instance.
But I can’t always forgive
his Central Park West tone,
his Austrian operettas
and long long lawns,
though he wasn’t rich
and was tormented
enough, God knows.
In the summer of 1984
in Salida, Colorado,
I had Slade and Steve Perry
on my Walkman.
I drank milk from jumbo
Burger King glasses
emblazoned with scenes
from Return of the Jedi.
You can’t buy tampons
with food stamps
even if your mother
insists that you try.
Salida sits along
the Arkansas River,
whose current
one hot afternoon
swept me away
and deposited me
in a shallow far downstream.
It was the first time
I thought I was going
to die and didn’t. The Arkansas
and everything else are mortal.
My mom had been born again,
to my chagrin. But lately I find
I do believe in God
the Father Almighty, Maker
of heaven and earth:
and in Jesus Christ,
his Son our Lord,
who was conceived by
the Holy Ghost. How
the hell did I become
a Christian? Grace,
I guess. It just sort of
happened. I admit I find
the resurrection of the body
and life everlasting
difficult, or not difficult,
exactly, but impossible.
There is no crazier belief
than that we won’t be
covered by leaves, leaves,
leaves, as Schuyler has it,
which is to say, really gone,
as O’Hara put it in his lovely
sad poem to John Ashbery.
But hope is a different animal
from belief. “The crazy hope
that Paul proclaims in 2
Corinthians,” my friend John
wrote to me when his mother
died. The Christian religion
is very beautiful sometimes
and very true at other times,
though sophisticated persons
are still expected to be above
all that sort of thing. Well,
I’m a Marxist
too. Go and sell that thou
hast, and give to the poor.
On his new album Dr. Dre
says “Anybody complaining
about their circumstances
lost me.” At the risk of losing
more billionaires, complain
about your circumstances,
I say. I listened to The Chronic
on my Walkman the summer
I worked the night shift
at Kinko’s. I was dating Deirdre,
who when I placed my headphones
on her ears and pushed play
said “Why is this man cursing
at me?” Said it more loudly
than was strictly necessary.
A crazy man
would come into Kinko’s
around two a.m. and ask me
to fax dire, scribbled warnings
to every news outlet in Denver.
He wanted to let people know
that God would punish the area
with natural disasters
if the county succeeded
in evicting him from the land
he was squatting on. He’d ask me
to help him think of various
extreme weather events
that God might unleash.
I’d say “Typhoons?”
though we were in Colorado.
He’d scribble typhoons.
Scraps of dirty paper absolutely
covered front and back with ominous,
angrily scrawled black characters:
attn. nbc nightly news there will
be fires tornadoes typhoons.
I would help him compose his screeds
then fax each one to Denver’s
major TV and radio stations, the Denver Post,
and the Rocky Mountain News,
which has since stopped its presses
for good. Except in fact I would
only pretend to fax them
and then refuse his money,
saying I was glad to help the cause.
What if he wasn’t batshit but a true
prophet? The Denver metropolitan area
was not visited by disaster
at that time, but this proves
nothing. Look at Jonah and
Nineveh, that great city.
I don’t believe he was a prophet,
but Kinko’s is beautiful
at two a.m. even if I hated
working there. The rows
of silent copiers
like retired dreadnoughts
in a back bay, the fluorescent
pallor, the classic-rock station
I would turn back up after
my coworker turned it down.
Did the guy sketch amateurish
floods, tornadoes, etc.,
on his jeremiads or did I
imagine that? I wish
I’d thought to make copies
for myself. I wish I’d kept
the Mexican girl’s letter.
I wish I’d kept the copiers
with their slow arms
of light, the lights of DF
filling the Valley of Mexico
as the bus makes its slow way
down and Stevie sings what you
had, oh, what you lost. Schuyler
and his wishes! “I wish it was
1938 or ’39 again.” “I wish
I could take an engine apart
and reassemble it.” “I wish I’d
brought my book of enlightening
literary essays.” “I wish I could press
snowflakes in a book like flowers.”
That last one’s my favorite. I wish
I’d written it. I would often kick
for months until driven back to a bar
by fear or boredom or both. I saw
Tomorrow Never Dies—starring
Pierce Brosnan, the second-worst
James Bond—in Oaxaca and
came out wishing my life were
romantic and exciting and charmed
or at least that I had someone
to talk to. So I stopped at the first
bar I saw, and someone
talked to me. It’s so sad and
perfect to be young and alone
in the Zócalo when the little lights
come up like fish surfacing
beneath the moon and you want
to grab the people walking by
and say who are you, are you
as afraid as I am. And you don’t
know that twenty years later
you’ll be writing this poem.
Well, now I’m being sentimental
and forgetting that in those days
I wrote the worst poems ever.
“I held a guitar and trembled
and would not sing” is an actual
line I wrote! The typhoon guy
could have written better poetry.
Today I want to write about
how it’s been almost twenty years
since I owned a Walkman.
Just think: there was a song
that I didn’t know
would be the last song
I would ever play on a Walkman.
I listened to it like it was just
any old song,
because it was.