On Friday, I will be a guest speaker at Aspire Pacific Academy in Huntington Park. My friend, let’s call her Betty, was nice enough to ask me to participate and speak to the kids about journalism and writing. Betty informed me that I would be speaking to a mixture of the whole school, because the kids get to choose what topic they want to hear.
So, what should I say?
When I was younger, I was in the National Honor Society, and I remember we had a guest speaker come in to speak to us at our ceremony. It turned out she was my old babysitter, and honestly, I have no idea what she said, specifically, but what I remember having a huge impact on me was that she told me she traveled all over the world; she went to Japan and other parts of Asia. Sitting in that chair in Clinton, Massachusetts, in the lobby of an Elks Club, I started to see the world as a much bigger place capable of being explored.
I hope that’s what I can help some of these students with…imagining possibilities. Because the hardest thing in the world is to dream big! The hardest thing in the world is in the face of an overwhelming majority forcing you to accept your place in the world is to think you can be something special. Because in reality, being special is only held to an elite few. A small percentage of our class. And for some, feeling special or unique or important can come into conflict with so many issues: race, class, physical appearance. It’s a battle out there for so many young people; the battle has already been lost for so many older people. But younger people can still be taught to imagine.
Now, I know that sounds like highfalutin bull shit. You might even say, if you’re Joe Clifford, hippies take the back door. (Don’t worry, he says it with love.) But as a former teacher, journalist, and author, my goal is to change perspective, to force someone to look at their world and self differently, to see the world as full of possibilities. And I don’t care if that’s lofty. I don’t care if that’s difficult. What I care about is speaking my mind and leaving this world a better place than I left it.
So, when was that moment for me when I truly embraced possibility? Maybe I can tell the kids about that time in my life? It wasn’t quite at The National Honor Society meeting. I need to think a bit more about this tonight and tomorrow. Maybe it will help if you tell me some of your memories and your moments. Hopefully, that will trigger mine. So stand by for the next post. Your comments are always welcome.
On Friday, Heron and I flew into San Francisco to meet up with our family. I wanted to see San Francisco again. I haven’t been there since I read at Lip Service West, and it’s a city that reminds me so much of Boston…a place I once sort of called home. So below you will find a documentation of that trip, and it’s my first attempt at writing in the BuzzFeed blog format.
Our first stop in San Francisco was a walking tour in North Beach — the former stomping ground of one of my favorite writers…Jack Kerouac. We stopped at a bunch of Italian bakeries on the walking tour and ate pizza, linguini, homemade bread and macaroons and drank espresso. Our tour guide was Italian and grew up in North Beach. He told us the Italian flag is all over North Beach…but he said it’s hardly called Little Italy.
While I was in North Beach, I knew I had to stop at City Lights, but I wasn’t sure if we would have time. We had to meet Heron’s father at Pier 33 for a tour, and I led us off the trail to the bookstore. Of course, I ended up getting us lost and walking to Market Street, but that’s another story I will hear for the rest of my life…lol.
I love all movies and books about prison — Shawshank, Green Mile, Oz, The Fixer. By examining prison life, it forces me to look at my freedom, and it causes me to wonder: With prison always looming in the background of our lives, can we ever be free?
What’s amazing about the tour is that they give you a pair of headphones and an audio version of a former guard walks you through the prison. It’s amazing to hear stories of the prisoners. On certain summer nights, the prisoners ould hear the sounds of freedom — laughter, girls and music — wafting over from the San Francisco Yacht Club. Freedom was so close and so far.
I also didn’t realize that Native Americans, after the prison closed in 1963 , took to The Rock to occupy and protest their rights to land.
We had a great time in San Francisco, but then on Sunday, we drove out to Napa Valley. I didn’t realize how close Napa was to the city, and the drive was stunning. We stopped for some cherries on the side of the road. On a recommendation, we visited Mumm Napa for some champagne.
Then we stopped at St. Supery and played a little bocce ball.
In the end, it was an amazing weekend. I picked up a book by Williams Gibson and Kenneth Rexroth, and I even got some writing in during the plane rides. The book is coming along. It’s nice to remember to be a part of the world, while I’m trying to create one in an office on a Mac computer. Let me know what you think of the new blog form. Your comments are always welcome. Photos were taken by my beautiful wife, Bianca Lapin.
After I graduated from Stetson University in 2007, I didn’t know what was next. I was dating my current wife, Heron, and we wanted to stay together. Well, I wanted to travel and see somewhere new, but she had to find a place that made sense with her work. So we looked at the options of where she could go, and we decided on…Detroit, Michigan.
Neither of us knew anything about Michigan, but we moved there anyway. My heroes — Hemingway, Kerouac, Twain, — all said that if I wanted to be a writer, then I needed to travel to know places. So I figured, no matter what, Detroit was a new place, and I would surely be able to write about it one day. Yeah, I would find some job, and I would write at night — or even when I was at work. What did I know?
We moved to Detroit in the fall of 2007, and the presidential elections were underway. I can still remember McCain saying the fundamentals of the economy were strong, and then the economy suddenly fell off a cliff. Of course, the recession then pillaged the rest of the country, but what I found when we moved into Ferndale was that the recession was already there in Detroit. It was very hard to find work, and I ended up working at the desk of a YMCA, teaching guitar, and working as a substitute teacher in some rough schools. Now, I’m beginning, finally, to start to write about that experience. So here is a list of the greatest lessons I learned from my year in Metro Detroit — a city that I hold close to my heart.
1. Libraries and piano stores are safe havens.
I was out of work in Detroit for a bit, and it was tough to find a job. I thought because I had a degree from an excellent school in Florida that everyone in the city would want to hire me. Well, it’s difficult when everyone else is looking for a job, and they already know people there. So I had to find a headquarters to set up and look for a job, and it ended up being the Royal Oak Public Library. Every morning, I would drive over to the library, find a table, and look for work. I had no idea how to find a job, but I kept at it. And on breaks, I would read short stories by my heroes and search for an answer.
But what I noticed was that I wasn’t the only one who had this idea. There was free internet at the library, and the computers were always swamped with people. Homeless men and women from all over the city would be waiting for the library to open so they could use the computes and the bathrooms. I’ll never forget walking in with them in the morning. I had a cup of coffee in my hand; they held their change of clothes in a plastic bag. I really empathized with them. Of course, my circumstances were infinitely more stable, but I also felt like I didn’t have a home. And the library became a place of comfort for the lost and wandering.
I would also go on walks at lunch breaks, and I wanted to find a place to hang out where I didn’t have to pay money. What I found was that piano stores were a great place to relax. I would walk in and play the piano for twenty minutes, and then I would walk out and head back to looking for jobs. So no matter what happens to me in my life, I know I will always have piano stores and libraries.
2. Work is beautiful and can be art:
Many people don’t know this, but the Detroit Institute of the Arts is one of the best museums in the country. It might just be because of their amazing mural painted by Diego Rivera. It’s scales four massive walls, and it depicts men in the car plants, creating the machinery as the mural morphs to reveal that we are all also machines created by a similar assembly line. Seeing Rivera’s mural has proved to be one of the greatest artistic experiences of my life. That’s one of the first times I understood that work was art.
Back home in Clinton, Massachusetts, I worked some jobs doing manual labor, and I knew very early on I needed to find a way to use my mind instead of my back. But while I was going through this process, working at a farm or picking stones out of the Earth, I met so many people who made this their life. And I don’t know how to articulate it yet, but those people who worked with their hands were beautiful. They seemed to be at peace with something that I wasn’t.
Philip Levine writes such beautiful poetry about work in his collection What Work Is, and his poetry has inspired me beyond, well, I can ever express. He is a true “working-class hero.” I was lucky enough to interview him at the LA Weekly.
And now I remember seeing that Van Gogh had painted people working in the fields. I remember the people wandering around in the cold in Downtown Detroit, the snow covering the cars and the streets, when I drove into a hip restaurant to apply for a job waiting tables. I remember working in the YMCA, watching gym towels spin in a washing machine. I remember the snow outside of the high school where I was a substitute teacher, right off of 10 mile in Ferndale, or some mile, way beyond the reaches of my consciousness. I remember that I gave out all my books to my students, hoping they would find solace in words.
3. It wasn’t going to be easy.
Probably the best lesson I learned from Detroit was that it wasn’t going to be easy…being a writer in this world. It was a shock to find a city that wasn’t opening their arms to me, because I thought I was some hot-shot. It was a shock to find that securing a real job after college was not guaranteed. It was a shock to find that when I went to apply for teaching jobs they laughed at me and my American Eagle collared shirts. It was a shock to find the darkness thicker than the snow, thicker than the memory of night back home.
I was just a kid who thought that I could wander into a city and become a writer…or a teacher, but no, Detroit said, nothing is handed to you. You need to work for it. You need to bust your ass. And you need to be thankful for your job at the YMCA or a substitute teacher. You need to be thankful that you can teach guitar. You need to be thankful that you can see this part of the world, no matter how tough it is.
In the end, I feel that I had grown a lot in Detroit, and I didn’t even have it that tough. I love that city, because there will always be a part of me, a young and naive part, still wandering into piano stores and libraries, trying to kill time.
It’s been an eventful week with a lot of exciting news, and I haven’t even had the opportunity to document all that’s been going on. Last week I had a new piece appear at the LA Weekly on Matthew Specktor’s American Dream Machine. I loved writing this piece, and it seemed to have a connection to the piece I wrote a couple of months ago on trying to rediscover the California dream. I was lucky enough to interview Specktor at Musso and Frank’s in Hollywood. That restaurant is one of the coolest places in the city. I love how it’s dripping with the ghosts of an ancient Hollywood. Now I’m working on a piece on Chiwan Choi. I’ll be interviewing him soon. Looking forward to that.
Another exciting development: As part of Booktalk Nation, I will interview Matthew Specktor on the program. I’m going to have a discussion about his book American Dream Machine. This is going to be a pleasure. I’m so excited about this event, and I really hope you will sign up for the talk. Click on the link above and enter your email. You will receive a phone number and a conference-call code.
And finally, my good buddy, your good buddy, Joe Clifford had his novel, Junkie Love, appear on bookshelves everywhere. Have you picked up your copy? Well, I believe you can buy it here: Amazon. Lol.
I was in a rehab center from July, 2011 to July, 2012. Now, I didn’t end up in this facility in the traditional way. I wasn’t dealing with drug addiction; I wasn’t struggling with alcohol addiction; and I wasn’t seeking treatment. In fact, I’m being a bit coy here…I needed a job.
In May of 2011, I graduated from the MFA Program at Florida International University — have you heard about our great alumni: Richard Blanco, Dennis Lehane, Joe Clifford and Patricia Engel! — and I moved out to Southern California to live with Heron. I didn’t know anybody out in L.A. I bugged my teachers endlessly for contacts until they threw some names at me, and I cherished those names like lifeboats on a sinking ship.
Of course, when I moved out here, I reached out to those contacts, and I learned a lot from them and continue to benefit from their knowledge and experience, but I didn’t find a job…at least right away. So I scoured the city, looking for something to pay my rent and bills, and I came across an ad on Craigslist to teach creative writing at a rehab center. Well, I was a teacher, and I was a writer — Could there be anything better?
I applied and got the job. I couldn’t wait to start, but as you might have read before, I had to drive 44 miles through the worst traffic in the country from Long Beach to Woodland Hills. That’s beyond the point. I’m not here to bore you with the same story of transportation.
Well, after I started working at the rehab center, I realized the drive was killing me, and I wanted a job where I was writing more. I loved teaching, but I was dissatisfied and wanted to write all the time — or at least more and get paid for it. I became frustrated. I became anxious. I became impatient. Suddenly, I felt stuck in a situation.
Everyday I listened to the counselors talk about the steps and the Big Book, and initially all this jargon just washed over my head. What did I care? Of course, I wanted to help the kids — oh, more than anything in the world — but I wanted to teach them through words and writing and other sunshine bullshit that I still believe in.
Then one day, something changed.
One of the counselors there — he was this huge guy with a mullet — caught my attention. He took me aside and basically told me to look around. Be a part of this team. You’re trying to run your own show, man. Be here with us. Be in the moment. That’s what this is about. You’re going to move onto something better soon, but for right now, be here, be with us.
He woke me up. I was so fixated on the next step, being a writer, and moving on that I wasn’t in the moment. I began to listen to him more when he spoke to the kids. He used to walk around the room, flicking his mullet, smacking kid on the back, hugging people who walked into the room. His personality was so large you couldn’t help but pay attention. And his mantra was always — be in the moment.
I’ll never forget this story he told about being in jail. He talked about being overwhelmed by the amount of time he had to serve. That it became impossible to not future trip and let your anxiety spin out of control. And he said the only thing that mattered, his only comfort, was that the second-hand on that clock kept ticking.
That was a really profound moment for me. Sometimes, I live like I’m in jail. No, I’m not comparing my life to an actual prison, but I’m saying that I can feel stuck; I can feel trapped; and I can forget about that second, that moment, because I’m so disconnected that my own impatience and ambition can be a trap. That’s the greatest lesson I learned. That I needed to struggle, to fight to be in the moment. To remind myself that this very next word is the next word I’m going to type and this very next thought is the next thought I’m going to think and this very next breath is the next breath. The rest, to a certain extent, is out of my control.
This was humbling. I’m an ambitious guy, and I’m never satisfied. But when I forget to focus on what’s in front of me, well, that’s when I slip up and lose control. How hard is it to be present? How hard is it to remember nothing in the future is guaranteed? How hard is to believe that the path you are on is guiding you to a place of happiness?