– Essay by Jeffrey F. Barken, “Still-Life With Seashell”, Painting by Neelab Mahmoud –
“To have an opinion is to sell out to yourself. To have no opinion is to exist. To have every opinion is to be a poet.”
— Fernando Pessoa
Nat called to stall my driving. “Where are you?” She asked. I was approaching the tunnel juggernaut. Eyes darting road to dash and back to mind increasing traffic. I had to press menu and reselect the map. “I’m fifteen minutes out,” I said.
“You’re on time. That’s too early. Can’t you stop and get some half-and-half?”
“I know you’ll want.”
“Is there a bodega near?”
“Yes, a good one. Down the street. ”
“Sure, I’ll park at yours and jump out.”
“You can’t come at 10:30. We’re still getting ready.”
“IN A QUARTER-MILE TAKE THE FIRST EXIT,” the navigation hijacked our call.
“Shoot I missed—”
“REROUTING…. YOU ARE ON THE FASTEST ROUTE.”
“Did you hear me?”
“FOLLOW SIGNS FOR WEEHAWKEN.”
“Nat, I’ll call you back. The GPS keeps—”
“YOU WILL ARRIVE BY—”
“But did you hear me? Take your time.”
“Of course, I’ll text you when I’ve got the half-and-half.”
Across the comforting Hudson, Manhattan—monolith rows, spires taunt sky, magnetic. Rewind all my Empire days—employed top floor—that view of fate is liberty. I realized I’d forgotten my camera. Was I annoyed or glad? Disarmed, I’d miss my chance to do some street photography. Sure, there’d be shots of palisades and skyscrapers, loitering characters, bodegas with half-and-half—countless scenes worth shooting—but forgetfulness brings balance. Without a lens I’d be myself.
I parked with ease in Weehawken, but couldn’t find a sign enumerating weekend rules.
Two women were coming up the street with a little dog. They spoke Spanish.
“Hola, lo siento. Ustedes saben cuantos horas puedo aparcar aqui?
“No, quatro?” They deliberated in quicker words than I could catch. Leashed terrier tense near strangers, gave snuffed grunt in lieu of growl and hid between his handler’s legs. “Pensamos cuatro,” came the verdict.
They nodded and moved on. The little dog lingered, grumbling rearguard until his leash yanked.
Up ahead there was a cafe. I started walking toward the main street. Near the end of the block a young mom stood watching her tot approach a cat.
“Careful honey,” she said.
“Is there a bodega around the corner?” I asked her.
“Yes, cash only though.”
“That’s fine. Thanks.”
I made a point of walking slow. Shadows seized chatoyant streets, graffiti smiled. A pair of knotted long-laced shoes—soiled tongue-splayed Converse—dangled from strung wires. To have and to keep, I wanted every shot my shutter eyes could frame. Pictures preserve scant sense of purpose. That’s why I’ve always held the theory that poetry distills an image born of spite. Scalpel words bleed melodies. Illumined scenes tease chance, and may cast bliss, but circumstances tethered abyss intone enduring mockery.
Purchase achieved, I crumpled bodega receipt among nickels, pennies and pocket lint. Adrift streets tuned harmonic breaths, morning reunions calmed. I went back for the car and pulled around to park at Nat’s. I found her in the garden, busy watering drooping tomato vines.
“They’re so wilted, but wait ten minutes. You’ll see. They’ll be totally revived,” she said.
We hugged. My trips to the city used to be routine before COVID. We’d collaborate to host writing workshops, literary events and galleries. Two years had stalled an awful lot, but we’d also produced two triumphant and groundbreaking editions of Monologging. I’d brought wine. At last, we’d celebrate.
Jeremy, our Art Editor, brought out a table for lunch. Nat spread a green and yellow striped cloth. Then she took the rosé and the carton of half-and-half inside to chill. She promised to return with coffee. Jeremy and I shook hands. As he stepped back to light a cigarette, I stole my Big Apple glimpse—left side of the studio. Several new spindly high-rises towered above the old Manhattan skyline, casting barcode shadows.
“Looks like they kept right on building throughout the whole pandemic,” I said.
Jeremy puffed rolled Drum and nodded, wafting scents of chocolate.
“Why are all the new skyscrapers so thin?” I asked.
“They’re for billionaires,” Jeremy said. “Nobody that rich wants neighbors, so each floor is a single apartment.”
Nat brought the coffee along with my manuscript. She’d received a text from her assistant. Charlotte was enroute. Interim pre-lunch, we sat down and discussed some of the political essays I’d been writing, as well as my novel. We set the date for publishing Monologging. Jeremy went back inside to continue work on his latest motion graphics project.
“We’re passing symbols at the expense of policy,” I described my role on Ithaca’s Common Council. “I think if we’re honest, all we’re really presiding over is the slow de-politicization of society.”
“Please, let’s steer clear of politics today?” Nat asked.
Last gulp of coffee filled the lull. Leave too much unsaid and it takes pains to turn the subject.
“Any deals on the horizon?” I asked.
“Two books seem very promising.”
Nat looked toward Pheroze’s house and wondered aloud whether we ought to get him already.
“Not yet,” I said.
Nat gave me a glimpse of her days since COVID struck. She and Jeremy had moved into the studio together at the start of the Pandemic. The space was an opportunity for them both to focus on their art, and for Nat to commit more time to agenting authors. Throughout the pandemic, they have also been devoted caretakers, tending to 93-year-old Dr. Pheroze Wadia, the celebrated Rutgers philosophy professor, Parsee immigrant from Mumbai, and renowned patron of the arts.
“There are good days and bad days,” Nat said. “I want this to be a really good day for Pheroze.”
Charlotte texted again. Her car was through the tunnel. We walked out front to greet her. An SUV promptly pulled up. Charlotte stepped out and her driver helped extract a hard cased trolly from the trunk. Now she’d officially embarked on summer odyssey. Her fate was in the hands of Ubers and airlines. Bound for Montana later that eve, there she’d meet her family and attend a belated funeral service to spread a loved one’s ashes. Next she’d fly east, overseas, to join her MFA program in Paris. She was working on a collection of stories about stolen girlhood. Returning to our garden table, Nat made further introductions. Decidedly, it was time to open wine. Then she suggested we take a look at my manuscript together.
I’d never had this experience before. Two industry professionals were diligently reading and discussing my work in-person. The precision of their commentary as they honed in on various virtues and flaws they saw in the prose or discussed how to tackle the scope of the project, gave me an incredible view into what it takes to evaluate writing for the biggest publishers. They were generous, brutally honest and exacting in their critiques.
“Jeff and I can have hour long calls debating diction and alliteration,” Nat laughed.
“That’s the experience I want with this book,” I said. “We should be certain of every word.”
Charlotte agreed, and I relaxed. These are the scenes that make the writing life worthwhile. The day had warmed. Charmed morning gone, ice crisped rosé lit quick on empty stomachs. Nat checked her phone. “The food will be here soon,” she said. “I’ll get Pheroze.”
Nat and Jeremy helped the professor down the metal stairs. They led him to the chair that they’d prepared and stayed beside him until he’d truly settled. Nat gave his glass sommelier’s pour. Pheroze sipped to taste and motioned more.
“It’s good. Very good. Not as good as that French one we had a few weeks ago, but very very good, no doubt, and good enough the same,” Pheroze said. His accent thinned and thickened.
“It’s Italian,” I said, but he didn’t hear. He was enjoying meeting Charlotte, who smiled bright but also spoke too fast, and faint, seamless elate, denying ears due punctuation.
“I’m sorry but you’ll have to speak louder and slower,” Pheroze said.
We all sat back, took swigs of wine, recalibrating pace and volume.
Jeremy brought out plates and silverware. The food had arrived. Nat had ordered from their favorite Mexican spot. Spiced grilled chicken, shrimp, and vegetable fajitas filled delicious fresh made tortillas doused cilantro, sour cream and salsa. We soon found ourselves deep into another bottle.
“You should have met Judy,” Pheroze mused when he learned I’d been elected to office. His late wife had been an artist and an activist. “You know what friends still say about Judy?” He said. “That woman didn’t know the meaning of the word no!” Apparently her efforts had been instrumental preventing commercial development of the promenade. When you consider a bigger city, it’s easy to assume that all the major land use questions were settled long ago, but this history was tangible and significant. Judy Wadia had made a real difference preserving the wholesomeness of Weehawken.
Now began our recitations. Pheroze wanted to read us his essay for Monologging. His memoir recalls a conversation with his father, Papaji, and he playfully made his voice chirp as a child’s, asking “Papaji, what happens when we die?” I won’t spoil the reveal, but the piece prefaced the larger theme of our luncheon. “They love poetry in India,” he described the many porch readings that he and his childhood friends had attended before he came to America. It saddened him to think how Americans neglect their literary heritage.
Suddenly, Tennyson’s “Eagle” stirred Pheroze’s tongue. He asked me to look up the poem on my phone to trigger his memory. Amazing, I’d barely read the first two words, “he clasps” before Pheroze was reciting classic verse verbatim.
When it was over, I asked him what he thought of Kipling. This stirred the anger Nat had feared, she got up and cleared the dishes. Pheroze spoke intensely about the cruelty of the British Empire in India and lamented its legacy. Now the fate of the East was up “to brutes” like Modi, Xi and Putin, and there was tension among my hosts concerning what the West ought do to counter, as well as the hypocritical ways America wields power.
Jeremy stood back and rolled an after meal cigarette. Nat cracked the third bottle and refilled our glasses. Charlotte had memorized “If” by Kipling, and offered to recite. Welcomed diversion, she sat up straight, spoke clear. By her gentle yet deliberate pace, she held our ears and faithfully disarmed all tightened nerves.
We all cheered. She’d read beautifully.
“That poem I like,” Pheroze said. “I can forgive the British some things.”
At Nat’s urging, everything was building toward Pheroze’s promised rendition of Mark Antony’s speech in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. When she brought Irish cream and Pistachio gelato, he pushed his bowl toward her to serve and said “It’s now or never.”
What followed was something I feel truly privileged to have witnessed. From “Lend me your ears,” through the mocking honors due Brutus, and unto the close of Caesar’s coffin, Pheroze hit every tone required to lift his audience far away to Rome on stage through Shakespeare’s timeless language. Again we cheered. It seemed impossible that he could have memorized so many classic passages, and still recite with ease.
How had it become 4 o’clock? When Charlotte’s chariot called, Jeremy helped Nat take Pheroze back upstairs. The pleased professor was two hours late for his daily nap. I stayed to sober over one last coffee, then we said farewells.
That eve, I wrote to Nat and let her know how special the day had been. I told her it reminded me of Kerouac’s vision for a “rucksack revolution” in Dharma Bums, when “thousands or even millions of young Americans (go) up to mountains to pray…. making children laugh and old men glad, making young girls happy and old girls happier, all of ’em Zen Lunatics who go about writing poems that happen to appear in their heads for no reason and also by being kind and also by strange unexpected acts keep giving visions of eternal freedom to everybody and to all living creatures …”
“This pistachio—” Pheroze had said as he tasted the glazed ice cream succumbed to melt during his oration. “This pistachio is not as good as the other one we had in Istanbul. That was made with real pureed pistachios … But it is very good, and anyway, it’s the best we have,” he’d savored.
Jeffrey F. Barken is an author, photographer, and the creator of Monologging.org. Follow his “open journal” on Twitter and Instagram for a window into his creative process and to join in collaborative ventures. A list of his recent publications is available here.
N.I. Mahmoud enjoys exploring conflict; the mundane or the spectacular, in the present, future or past, she believes there’s no limit to how far a story can travel.