Saturday, December 31, 2011

Haters Hate: The Ron Paul Phenomenon

ron paul2012 is almost here, and with it, the real start of the Presidential Election campaign. In less than a week a few voters in Iowa will brave freezing temperatures and pick their favorite Republican to go up against Obama in November. As I write this, most polls indicate that one Dr. Ronald Ernest Paul is poised to capture the hearts and minds of die-hard Iowans.

I can see his appeal. Ron Paul is no dyed-in-the-wool Republican. Although he served in Congress as a Republican during the mid to late 70s and early 80s, Ronnie rose to political prominence as a Libertarian when he ran for President in 1988 and got over 400,000 votes, third most that election. After that loss, Ronnie took some time off from politics and went back to medicine, his first love. Throughout this time, though, Ronnie continued to push his political agenda, most notably through Ron Paul & Associates, a company that he established in 1984 that produce various newsletters, including The Ron Paul Investment Letter, The Ron Paul Survival Report, and Ron Paul Political Report. He gained tens of thousands of subscribers and earned millions of dollars with these newsletters promoting his Libertarian ideas.

Flash forward twenty years...

Read the rest of the story on my latest  
From the Bottom Up on The Urban Twist.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Few Older Poems

Here are a few older poems written in the early 90s after the death of my mom & the break up of my first marriage, to Maria. Both have been the subject of quite a bit of my writing, but this is the early stuff. I was so bitter, back then.

The Daisy Field

I walked past the daisy field today
a rock garden
casting shadows on my head
my heart searched for you
lost in haze

But this heart, you see
this heart still has problems
with the way things ended
left me so fast
so unprepared

And who was I to deny
your request that you find rest
traveling the many rivers
of our homeland
and not stay trapped with worms
and things that crawl & squirm

But damn, mom! It might have been nice
to have a place to visit you on lonlier days
to think about those too few years
we were granted together

Now, unless I fly a thousand miles
to find your river home
I'm left to the sterile corners of my room
left to strain for memories--
sometimes I strain so hard
the tears burn me


I sometimes find myself
combing through the ashes
of what we once had
digging, hoping to find something
salvageable amongst all the dead

I search deep and long, longing
too long; because once I find hope
I uncover burning, breathing coals
blue-hot to the touch
remnants of you
burning me, watching me
blister & boil
and catch
until I almost become
one of you
one with you
or whatever happens
when two flames

I know one day I'll accept that there is nothing but pain within the ashes

Clean Rinse

I wash my hands
I wash my hands of you
and everything about you
the little burdens you try to pass off

I wash my hands
I wash my hands of you
scrub beneath the nails
if only I could pluck them off
to be sure the residue
the rest of you
was rinsed deep clean

I wash my hands of you
scrub them to the bone
and even then I scrub & scrub & scrub
until the bright white light of reflection
blinds me!

Is this all the brightness you could give?

Friday, December 16, 2011

An Open Letter to Jerry Falwell

Originally written in April, 2006, I'm reposting this ( with a few updates) from my old MySpace blog in memory of renowned writer & atheist extraordinaire, Christopher Hitchens. I know Falwell & his hate have been dead for a few years, but I like to think Hitchens would have appreciated my candor.

Fuck You:

Every time you open your mouth about Family Values, you insult me. Your claims that nontraditional families are leading to the decline of our country are equal to spitting in my face. What the fuck do you know about families, particularly nontraditional ones? You were raised in a world of lily-white palaces, where it was alright to treat a black man like a nigger. I read about your "conversion" from your segregationist ideals. I suppose segregation is a hard habit to break.

You want a nontraditional family, look at mine. My mother was a heroin addict for most of her life. There were hard times. There were even tragic times. But my mother, without the aid of my father— without the aid of any man for a lot of her life— taught us about the important things in life. She taught us to love everyone, regardless of who they are. She taught us not to judge others; that rather than judge, we should offer our help if they truly need it and we are capable. She taught us to strive for anything we wanted out of life.

Granted, not everything turned out roses. My mother died of AIDS in 1991. She never even told me she had it because of a stigma that you helped to foment in those days. The irony is that she had, seemingly, finally beaten her addictions, and was just starting to go after her dreams when death took her. My uncle succumbed to AIDS, and my little brother, who was 16 when my mother died, battled his own addictions and only a little less shame. He died of the same disease.

My sister, however, is the Queen of Retail, happily married and buying her first house. As for me, I've recently finished a novel and am working on a second. Hopefully, I can get them published. You probably wouldn't like them though. I model for art classes for a living. For now.  I have two wonderful sons who cause as much trouble as teenagers are prone to cause.

I have a sister-in-law whose gay who has a wonderful young son who is intelligent, talented, tolerant and plays a mean game of basketball. Most important is that he is happy. I will love him whether he's gay or straight. Jesus would, too.

So you see, your ideas of morality have no effect on the way families succeed or fail. Success and failure happen with nearly equal proportions in black families, white families, religious families, Atheist families and yes, gay families.

Please Jerry, stop insulting me and my intelligence almost every tine you show your face on television. Let God, if there is just one or any, be the judge of our lives here on the planet. Divert your energy to the issues that need them, like poverty, hunger and literacy. They are still here, Jerry.

What would Jesus do? Otherwise, I hope that everyone wakes up to your hateful lack of tolerance, and stops giving money to a bigot, a bigot who doesn't know Jesus from an asshole, not even to realize he is one, an asshole that is. You could change today, Jerry: be a Jesus instead of an asshole. I certainly pray you do. If not, please just go fuck yourself, and leave me and my families alone.

Irreverently Yours,
The Word Pimp
Fernando Quijano III

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Black Thursday: Did Black Friday ‘Jump the Shark’ by Not Caring About Thanksgiving?

Black Friday is no more
Editor’s note: this may contain offensive language to some. – BJ

Black Friday has officially jumped the shark. For those of you who might not be familiar with the phrase, it’s the moment when something that was once popular attempts to maintain or regain that popularity with a grand, attention-getting stunt that ends up failing miserably. It comes from 70s television hit Happy Days. In the show’s waning days, there was an episode where Fonzie, the main character of the show and icon of everything cool back then, jumps over a shark, while on water skis and wearing his leather jacket with a pair of swim trunks.

The show, having hit its creative peak, continued to offer storylines that were more grandiose than previous ones. It was that episode where most of the adults who were still watching Happy Days realized it had become a joke. The show went on for a few more years, but it was never the same. Now it’s Black Friday’s turn...

Read the rest on

Life with Mom: My Hero, My Heroin Addict

Artwork inspired by my mom & Mary Janes, her favorite candy
It’s odd having been raised by a mother who remembered being at Woodstock, but who didn’t remember where I, her six-week-old son, was that weekend. However, odd barely begins to explain my childhood and my mother.

Miriam Esther Figueroa, my mother, left home when she was 15. The story Mom told me was that her mother had caught her kissing a man on the fire escape during her QuinceaƱera, her 15th birthday party. She dragged my mother by her hair, through the window, back into the party, and proceeded to beat her in front of her guests. When the man who kissed her, her first kiss, offered to take her away from her abusive mother a few days later, my mom jumped at the chance.

She didn’t know this man. She didn’t know he was much older than she was or what he even did for a living. She definitely didn’t know he was a heroin addict. One evening, enticing her with the idea that it would make sex more interesting, he injected mom with a dose. Not very long after that, my mom found out she was expecting a child. The man soon abandoned my mother—pregnant, addicted to heroin.

She struggled during her pregnancy, eating at diners in New York and sneaking out when it came time to pay the bill, doing whatever it took to survive and maintain her habit. Carlos, my older brother, was born addicted to heroin and had to go through detox. My mother, frustrated that her child didn’t even have a crib—he slept in the bottom drawer of a dresser stuffed with a blanket—finally went to her mother, pleading with her to take her back. My grandmother turned her away, but offered to take Carlos. Having little choice, mom obliged.

I was not born addicted to heroin. When I came along, in the summer of 1969, my mother was happily married and clean. However, her criminal past eventually caught up with her. I was still an infant when my parents’ apartment was raided. The cops claimed to have found illegal drugs in the medicine cabinet. My father came home just as they were about to arrest Mom and I was about to be carted off by Child Protective Services. She was pregnant with my younger sister, Kyra. My dad claimed the drugs were his and let them arrest him, instead.

The loss of my father, convicted & sentenced to five years, sent my mother into a dark spiral. She began using, again. Kyra was also born addicted to heroin.

As you might imagine, mine was not the easiest of childhoods. I was a fairly aware child, and it didn’t take me long to realize there was something wrong with Mom. Everything came into focus, though, during fifth grade. We had a unit about illegal drugs. For the first time in my life, I felt like I had the all the information I needed to understand Mom, to help her.

I could hardly contain my excitement. I ran all the way home. I’d barely stepped through the door of our apartment in Hoboken, New Jersey, when I started telling Mom everything I’d learned, and that I finally understood what was wrong, and that I could help her stay off drugs. She looked at me, unmoved, and said, “What do you know? You don’t know shit! You kids are the reason I use drugs.”

I never mentioned her habit again, unprompted.

It wasn’t always bad. My mother was actually a very loving woman. She had an open door policy, willing to help anyone she could with their problems. After we moved to Baltimore in 1984, she did a lot of work helping to establish Baltimore’s Hispanic community. She helped families who arrived here find housing, employment and social services—whatever they needed to help make Baltimore home. She even translated for them and helped them get into English classes.

She was a strict mother, sometimes too strict. She put an emphasis on education and expected her children to achieve their potential, and she didn’t accept excuses. Most importantly, she believed in us. Mom always told us to believe in ourselves. She supported my desire to be a writer from a very early age, making me promise only that I would one day tell her story. But she also taught us that it didn’t matter what we became. “Fernando,” she told me once, “I don’t care if you’re a garbageman, as long as you’re a happy garbageman. As long as that’s what you want to do with your life, I’ll be proud of you.”

That’s perhaps what was oddest about my mother, that she could have such a profound understanding of life, but had to struggle so mightily to shake an addiction that wasn’t even really her choice. She did, eventually. Then, in 1989, she went through some training programs and got her first job working for the Census Bureau. We worked there together for a bit, in an office in Towson, Maryland. For the first time in my memory, I got to see my mother walk through life as if on a feather. She finally had purpose. She had drive.

Tragically, that all stopped when she was diagnosed with AIDS. She’d unknowingly had it for some time, and it was already at an advanced stage. She died of AIDS-related complications in 1991. She was 41 years old. AIDS would also take the life of her brother, Andres, whom she deeply regretted introducing to heroin. Uncle Andy, as I knew him, was the closest thing I had to a consistent father figure growing up. My little brother, Joe, who was not quite 16 when mom passed away, would end up fighting his own vicious struggle with addiction. He eventually contracted AIDS, as well. We lost him on the day after Christmas, 2006.

It was an incredibly odd feeling when I made it to my 42nd birthday. I was happy to have made it, but outliving my own mother bothered me. She had warned us that she didn’t expect to reach old age. Mom constantly told me the story of how, after Woodstock, she’d brought Janis Joplin over to our place, how Janice had cuddled, even fed me. My mother was shocked to hear of Janis’ death, just a little over a year later. She also realized that, considering they shared the same habit, she might not be too far behind.

When my sons each turned 13, I took them out for a fancy dinner. We discussed girls over appetizers. They each proclaimed to know much; I reinforced the need to treat women with dignity and respect, and to protect against starting a family before being ready, something my mother and I had both failed at. Over dinner, we discussed the perils of alcoholism and addiction. I told them my mother’s story, the grandmother they met only as infants, and I was honest about my own struggles with alcohol during my early teens. Over dessert, I let them know that they could become anything they dreamed of. But I also let them know that I’d always be proud of them, even if they became garbagemen, as long as they were happy doing it.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Paradise Regained: How I Killed Bin Laden

It's just a feeling, a sense that something isn't... right. I'm strolling through El Yunque, the rainforest high in the mountains of northeastern Puerto Rico when it registers—an imbalance. Maybe eddies in the time space continuum. It's hard to explain. I'll try.

I come here to see the sky being born, to watch the clouds peel off the mountaintops and drift towards the sea. I come to listen to the higuaca birds croak and the coqui frogs chirp. In short, I come to be with God. It's not hard to feel a flaw on God's throne.

I'll admit that my first instinct's to avoid it. After all, I'm here to be cleansed, not to detail God's chair. But it's like ignoring trash because someone else left it behind—it's bad form. So I'm compelled to follow the disturbance to it's source.

The source is just some old jibaro, the Puerto Rican hillbillies who roam the mountains living off the land. I greet him graciously, and he offers me a cordial welcome and a box of mangoes, for five dollars. He's a dirty, old man, tall & gangly, wearing burlap clothes as tattered as his long beard and his wide sombrero. He's carrying a lot of weight, not the mangoes, but the gravity of thousands of dead souls.

"Viejo, you seem tired," I say, "¿Have you been to the fountain?" He bows his head a bit, shakes it slowly. "¡Bueno! Vamonos."

I lead him to the top of Las Minas, the waterfall the locals hike miles to for its waters' curative properties. We wade in. He's more cautious than I am, taking long but hesitant strides. "¿Lo sientes?" I ask, "You can feel it, can't you?"

I turn back to see his eyes widening wildly. "Si, but the current, la curriente—" His English is bad, his Spanish is worse, but he's right. I stop in the middle of the river and watch as he drifts closer to the edge.

"¿Ques pasa, viejo?" I shout at him, "¿Too much power?"

He's coming at me now, or at least he's trying to. He leaps out of the water towards me, but only ends up closer to Las Minas. "¡Help me!" He cries, finally, "I'm very rich. ¡I'll make you rich!"

"Look around you, viejo. I'm as rich as they come."

Poder! ¡I can make you very powerful!" He has to shout now in order to be heard.

"And yet you're the one being pulled towards the fall." I laugh. He drifts.

"¡¿Do you know who I am?!" He's shouting at the top of his lungs, but it sounds like a whisper. I can't quite make out the rest, muffled as it is by the fury of the water as it cascades off the cliff. It doesn't matter.

All that matters is that he didn't belong in paradise, especially not selling mangoes. All that matters is that the energy of El Yunque is slowly being restored as the dark, old man anchored by the weight of thousands of murdered souls is being washed out to the sea. I can now continue on my pilgrimage comfortably. I can now go watch clouds being born, in peace.

Monday, October 3, 2011

In Memoriam: Joseph Anthony Soto

My little brother, we called him Jojo, would have turned 43 today (May 1, 2017). Below is the obituary I wrote for him, followed by a poem/rap we collaborated on back in the 90s. Happy Birthday, Joe. You are profoundly missed.

Joseph Anthony Soto, Sr. of 1439 Rennert Road, Lumberton, North Carolina, was born in Jersey City, NJ, on May 1, 1974.He finally found peace on December 26, 2006, after a long battle with AIDS, at the age of 32. He was preceded in death by his mother, Miriam Esther Figueroa.

Joe gained the love and respect of almost everyone he met, and although he didn't always show it, he greatly apprecated all the love and care he received from the generous people of Lumberton.

Joe is survived by the love of his life, Sabrina Jones, his three children, Joseph Anthony Soto, Jr., Jada Miriam Soto and Jarren Evan Soto, his brothers, Carlos Carmona and Fernando Quijano III, his sister, Kyra Quijano, and a host of other friends and relatives. He will be sorely missed.

I've written three obituaries in my life, and that had to have been the saddest one so far, not just because he was my baby brother, not just because he died so young, nor just because he is the third member of my family (My mother died in 1991, my uncle Andy a few years later) to succumb to AIDS. Yes, it's sad because he leaves behind a wife and three young kids, but what makes it even sadder is the lost potential of a young man  whose power was never truly tapped.

Yes, there are lessons we can still take away from the loss of my baby brother. Always a "man," he would have us believe that he acquired HIV via unprotected sex, but as he was also a drug addict, could have almost as likely gotten it shooting up heroin. The irony that he died of the same disease that killed my mother and uncle, and that he likely started using drugs as a method of coping with my mother's death (Joe was only 16) doesn't elude me. And I'm sure we all need the occassional reminder that AIDS is still virulent here in the U.S.

Nevertheless, I will miss him and his stories. He had many to tell, all entertaining, many I will never hear. Below is a poem, a rap, that Jojo started, and that I helped to polish. It's neither the best example of Hip Hop nor poetry, but it reflected a moment in our lives when we used our grief to create something together. Something we were both proud of. After all, isn't good art merely an honest attempt at expressing our deepest emotions?

Rocked by Ages

You think you had it rough
Well I think I had it rougher
Mommy was a dope fiend
Daddy was a puffer
Five years old and learning how to suffer
watching Mommy jump from one man to another
Daddy disappeared when I turned Seven 
He's in jail or hell... know he ain't in heaven
Nine years old, livin' off cheese & Kix 
Mommy sold the foodstamps so she could get her next fix
Eleven years old, first time I saw the needle in her arm 
Imagine my confusion, imagine my alarm
Just that day, I learned about drugs in school
They said it was for losers, they said it was for fools
Tryin' to get her to stop, I laid down some law
She just laughed in my face, said it was my fault

& I crashed

Thirteen years old, hitting rock bottom
The disadvantages of life, yeah I got 'em
so I hit the bottle and the joint to set me free
Started off slow, but soon nothing could stop me
'til I looked in the mirror, and all I saw was Mommy
Fifteen, time to quit while ahead
Before I was too deep, before I was dead
while at it, I'd get Mommy out too
Get her in rehab, start our lives brand new
But for Mommy things would never be the same
Cuz she'd caught that big disease with the itty bitty name
Sixteen years old, at the hospital to say goodbye
But I couldn't say shit, I just watched Mommy die

& I crashed...

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Hitting the Wall

Darth on the WallYou may not be aware of this, but there are people occupying a small park near Wall Street, right now. It all kicked off with a march of about a thousand people (perhaps less, depending on who you believe) protesting “the blatant injustices of our times perpetuated by the economic and political elites” on September 17, 2011. A smaller contingent stayed behind after the initial protest with the intention of  “occupying” Wall Street until their demands are met.

If you haven’t heard, that’s because the mainstream media has been pretty quiet about the protest. The reasons for this media brownout are deemed many: There is no centralized organization (although that doesn’t stop the media from covering the TEA Party every time they fart), the movement is just not that big, and there is no major figure supporting the cause (although, thus far, Roseanne Barr, Lupe Fiasco, Michael Moore, Susan Sarandon and Cornell West have all stopped by to show some love).

The biggest reason for a lack of coverage, however, according to what I’ve seen reported by the press, is a lack of specificity on behalf of the protesters.  The New York City General Assembly, the group that seems to be creating the policy for which the protesters advocate, offer a list of  “demands” on their website which they call their Principals of Solidarity.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Hey, Look at Me!

Time for a little self-promotion:

First off, the Baltimore Museum of Art is holding an exhibition highlighting this year's winners of the Baker Artist Awards as well as B Grant winners, such as yours truly. The odds of a Baltimore artist getting work in the BMA are slim under normal circumstances, nearly nil if your art is not of the visual kind. As such, I am both honored & humbled to be there, even if it's just a bio on the wall with a cute picture of me and a booklet with a sample of my work.

Anyway, the show is going on as we speak and ends on October 2. See it.

And if you can, please come to the FREE closing reception on October 1, from 7-11PM. I will be reading from my work.

You can catch me all over the Baltimore Book Festival throughout the weekend, but if you want to see me in action, catch me on Saturday, September 24 at 12:30PM with the crew of Little Patuxent Review for Poets for Change, a panel discussion about the role of poetry in social change. (CityLit Stage)

Then you can hear me read some of my work, along with other regulars from Eric Goodman's Lit & Art reading series, at 5:30PM. (Baltimore Free School Lit & Language Tent)

Finally, join me for yet one more reading with the wonderful poets who contributed to Life in Me Like Grass on Fire: Love Poems. This one will take place at Ahh... Coffee on Saturday, October 8 from 6:30-8:30PM. Open Mic to follow featured readers.

That's it for now, but keep checking back for updates.


Tea & Sympathy

Tea & Sympathy

The numbers are in. In the wake of the worst recession since the Great Depression of the early 20th Century, we now have more poor people than we’ve had since we started keeping track of poor folk—46.2 million. That’s over 15% of Americans now defined as poor, up from about 14% the previous year. In case you need to understand how our country defines poverty, if your family of four makes less than $22,314 a year, you are poor.

I’ve been there.

Read the rest of the story on my column, From the Bottom Up, on

Sunday, September 11, 2011

9-11 is a Joke

9-11 is a Joke

911joke 9 11 is a JokeI got out of bed today, September 11, 2011, at the exact same time I did ten years ago. I know this because I did the same thing I did ten years ago—I turned on the television. It was 8:46 a.m. They had begun a moment of silence in remembrance of the very moment the first plane hit the North Tower. What a tragedy, I thought then, a terrible accident, as the folks on Good Morning America tried to make sense of it all.

And then the second plane struck the South Tower. I saw it—a plane streaked from the right of the television screen and slammed right into the other building. Everyone who had become glued to the television, by this point, saw it—9:03 a.m. At that moment, there came the collective realization that we were under attack. This was no coincidence. This was an act full of intent and malice.

I was angry. I was scared.

(Read the rest of the story on my column, From the Bottom Up, on

A Little Puerto Rican

It had become such a part of my youth that I was shocked to learn during my first day in the ninth grade that I was no longer the Smallest Kid in the Class. That honor went to some kid named Eddie who had me beat by a good inch or so. Although I hated being so small, I was disappointed by having lost my title. I was still teased, but I’d lost the only thing that had set me apart since moving to Maryland two years earlier.

Being Puerto Rican—the strongest part of my identity back in Jersey—meant nothing here. No one at Stemmer’s Run Junior High had ever met a Hispanic, much less a Puerto Rican. “Are you Indian?” they would ask, a question that plagues me to this day. “Is that Mexican?” was the next question, followed by, “Do you speak Puerto Rican?” I tried not to let the questions, however absurd, bother me, and I answered them patiently. “No, I’m not Indian. Mexican’s are different. We all speak Spanish.” I also started using Freddy, my father’s nickname, because I couldn’t stand the twang they added when saying Fernando.

What did bother me were those who insisted on mocking my uniqueness with their own labels, like the kids at Hampstead Hill Junior High in Highlandtown that called me The Cambonian, or those in high school that refused to consider me anything besides Mexican or The Immigrant. One of those kids, a boy of Italian descent named Tony, wanted to beat the shit out of me when, after months of harassment, I pointed out that my family, having been granted citizenship dating back to 1899 following the Spanish-American War, had been Americans longer, most likely, than his family.

He refused to accept the facts, even though I opened up a history book and pointed out to him the part where Spain gave up Puerto Rico as part of the treaty ending the war, and where all Puerto Ricans were granted citizenship a few years thereafter.

Being so detached from my culture, my size became the only thing that set me apart, as long as I could find ways use it to my advantage. As boys who, like me, grew up height disadvantaged know all too well, the tendency is to get picked on incessantly. I was no different, except that I was more game than most. 

During the Hampstead years, rather than fighting the inevitable, I would ingratiate myself to my tormentors by playing the willing victim. “Sure, you can see how far you can lift/toss/bench press me,” just became part of my vocabulary. When someone suggested that I be placed in a gym bag and hung from a basketball hoop, I was the first to try to fit in the bag. And anytime they played their little macho games, like Letter B, or the one to test how hard a punch you could take right to the sternum, I was always all-in, making sure they realized that I could take it with the best of them.

It didn’t take long before I was just another one of the group. What’s more, they decided that being their little guy, their French Fry as I was dubbed, I had to be protected. Anytime anyone outside our group tried to mess with me, one, if not all of them, would break in and scare off the offender. It wasn’t hard considering that my little gang included the biggest boys in Hampstead: Kirk, Russell and Stan. They were all nearly six feet tall by eighth grade. 

Kirk and Stan tipped the scales at close to, if not over, 200 pounds. I once got to see Kirk and Stan wrestle each other near Patterson Park. Afraid of getting in trouble, we all scattered after Kirk picked Stan up and slammed him into a car leaving a huge Stan-shaped dent on the side.

There was a downside. I could never stick up for myself, even when I wanted to. 

I was seeing this girl named Bobbi Jo who I’d met on top of one of the Spiders, what we called huge twin the playsets that inhabited the playground in Patterson Park. The older kids would climb unto the rooves, the Spider's back, where we could get away from the younger kids. It offered a great view of the park, as well as the perfect lookout point for police. 

Bobbi Jo was one of the first girls to show an interest in me since I’d moved to Baltimore from Middle River. She was welcoming, friendly and sweet. She was also a little too boyish for my thirteen-year-old tastes, short hair, flat chest. But as easy as it was for me to attract a girlfriend in Jersey, it was equally as hard to find one here. Here, I had to take what I could get.

Bobbi Jo was maybe a little too friendly, though. The day we met, after some flirting and kissing, we walked across the park to get home. I lived just west of the park, on Pratt Street. She lived northwest, near Patterson Park Avenue. We got to a large bush sitting in the shadow of The Pagoda that stands watch from the top of Hampstead Hill, the very hill that defended the city successfully during the Battle of Baltimore, in 1812.

As usual, I got distracted by the Pagoda, and when I looked back, she was gone. The bush whispered to me, beckoned me. I followed the voice, found the opening and made my way inside. With its thin trunk and its long, bowing branches, the bush created a cove, of sorts, that kept us hidden from the rest of the park. Inside was Bobbi Jo, and I was faced with a bush of another kind. Bobbi Jo had pulled down her tiny O.P. shorts, spread her legs.

"We can fuck if you want," she said.

I was never a prude, was always eager to give up my virginity, but this was sudden, unexpected. I immediately got nervous and scared. I apologized and made up some excuse about being late for dinner. Another time.

Bobbi Jo casually pulled her shorts back up, followed me out of the bush, and continued our walk to the top of the hill. I mentioned how cool the bush was, and that we would be hanging out there plenty, in the future. We kissed one last time on the corner of Patterson Park Avenue and Baltimore Street, said our goodbyes, and promised we'd see each other the next day.

Bobbi Jo wasn’t on top of either of the Spiders the next day. Her cousin Tammy was there, however, and introduced herself. She also introduced me to French kissing. Actually, I had French kissed once before. 

The day we left Middle River for Baltimore, as I was making my rounds, saying my goodbyes, Tasha, one of the cutest girls in Riverdale Village, invited me into her apartment. I'd always had a biggest crush on her, but she had barely ever said more than a few words to me the year I lived in Middle River. She closed the door behind us, whipped around, grabbed me, put her lips to mine, and our tongues were dancing, like flames. So I guess Tammy was actually practice. 

Tammy was more my type, more feminine, prettier. After a few hours with Tammy, I decided that I needed to break up with Bobbi Jo. Tammy said that Bobbi Jo would be there early the next morning. I ran off, excited, in love, delighted at my turn of events. I had choices!

Jimmy, one of my not-so-big friends, was the only one I told about the experience. Jimmy led around a crew of misfits that were always fun to hang around with. Jimmy soon realized that I wasn't really a follower, that I was just as smart and charismatic as he was, so we became close friends. I would go to his house, where he would brag about incredible lie after incredible lie while we played Atari

I hadn't seen him in a couple of days, so I was excited to tell him about my girl problems.He knew Bobbi Jo, so I asked him not to mention a word to her. I wanted to be the one to tell her so that I could break it to her as gently as possible. But when I saw Bobbi Jo the next day, she already knew. Jimmy had told her.

Furious, I found Jimmy on the playground and after a few choice words, punched him in the mouth. I wanted a chance to beat the piss out of him. He was eager for a little mano a mano, too, but Kirk and Russell weren’t about to let me get in a real fight. They stepped in and kept us separated. Granted, when Jimmy’s big brother Joe came around looking to exact revenge for hitting Jimmy so hard that he had to have the orthodontist separate his lips from his braces, the guys were there to stop that too.

Looking back, I’m grateful to have had them around. Kirk once saved me from a stint in Juvie. There was one idiot in my class, I can’t even remember his name, who just seemed to have it out for me. Coming in late for school one day, he took the opportunity of passing by my desk to knock my books to the floor. When I got my chance, I knocked his books across the room. 

Next period, gym, coming out of the locker room, I felt an arm wrap around my neck and yank me to the ground. The idiot was choking the life out of me, and the more I struggled, the harder he squeezed. Finally, just when I thought I would pass out, he let me go.

Once I caught my breath, I peeled myself off the ground and picked up the first thing I could find, an aluminum baseball bat. That bastard had his back turned to me chatting with some friends. I crept up close behind him and swung, as hard as I could. The bat stopped inches from his head with a smack as Kirk caught it with one hand. 

“Freddy, are you nuts?!” I remembered Kirk yelling as he yanked the bat out of my hand. I felt nuts. I must have looked it too, judging by the fear in that kid’s eyes when he spun around to realize how close he had come to getting beaned by the little Puerto Rican. He didn’t give me any problems after that.

High school pretty much broke up our little band. I got into Baltimore Polytechnic while everyone else was fated to attend Patterson High, their zoned school. Two plus hours of daily travel time and a heavy homework load made it nearly impossible to even meet up with the old crew, except for the occasional weekend. They were always excited to see me, but I could tell even then that they were getting used to not having me around. None of them felt the need to see how high they could lift me or how far they could toss me anymore. They didn’t need me. They’d never needed me.

I didn’t need them either, I would think in fits of anger. They never even let me fight my own battles. But that’s not exactly true. It’s not that they felt I couldn’t handle myself in a fight. The truth was that they knew that while I did hang out with them, I wasn’t part of them. They knew then what I’ve only realized recently. As violent as they could be, they could see I wasn’t. Not really. I just needed to fit in somewhere. They weren’t protecting me from getting hurt. They were protecting me from becoming like them. And now, I had outgrown them.

I ran into Kirk one chilly November night on Castle Street. He asked me what I was up to, and I let him know I had decided to join Poly’s wrestling team. “Oh yeah?” he replied, all excited, “Let me see what you got French Fry!” He reached out to grab me in one of his crushing bear hugs. I ducked under, grabbed around his knees offering a hug of my own, and pulled, hard. He fell on his back with a loud ¡fwoomp! and started laughing uncontrollably. 

I helped him up and he was still laughing, shaking his head. He offered me a friendlier, less painful embrace. “It’s great seeing you, French Fry” he said, still laughing, still shaking his head as we both continued on our separate paths.


A poem I wrote during the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, once I realized Bush was going to use the tragedy to promote his political agenda.


Rock a Bye baby
on the tree top

Sleep tight America—
slumbering giant— 9-1-1
was no emergency.
Rest assured that our
government has our best
interests at heart, like
when daddy used Afghanistan
to slay the big bad red
bear then left it in a lurch,
lost in poverty, lost
in discord, little land lost
with nothing but its rock
& sand & guns, & poppy
fields. But father knows

When the wind blows
the cradle will rock

Night night America—rest
right knowing the son,
the puppet president,
has it all under control,
the bees buzz buzz buzzing
in his ear, telling him where
to steer the bombs to leave
the corpses of our bastard
brothers, bloodied & belittled
because they would not be
ignored. The sins of our
children directly reflect
our fathers at their worst.

When the bough breaks
the cradle will fall

Let's fight America—hold
your flags up high
as you send your children off
to die to keep those Iraqi
pipelines flow flow flowing
with that pitch black blood
pumping up our SUV
fetishes while we let
the red black green
blood flow in the riverbeds
of the Congo—so long as
those niggers keep mining
what we need to power
our laptops, our cellphones
& our playstation2s . Who
the fuck cares which nigger
owns the those mines…
No, its mine! BANG!
NO! It's mine! BANG!
All while daddy stands idly

Down will come baby
cradle & ALL

Peace is in sight America-
Ginsberg was wrong, Ferlinghetti
was wrong, there is no need
to howl & scream, those dead
& beat beats didn't know we could
dream while our country watches
over us, profiling us in our sleep,
the land of the free
to be afraid. So just keep sitting
tight America
ready to fight
flexing your might
ignoring the light
shortening your sights
abandoning your rights
just so you can sleep
through the night.
Hush little babies
don't say a word,
I'm just some insomniac
mocking bird crying the call
of down will come baby
& all.

September 12, 2002

Monday, August 1, 2011

Pissed On

This story was originally published in Smile Hon, You’re in Baltimore’s Waste Issue.

It wasn’t my first, but it was the first job I ever worked during the school year, not just a summer gig. I was great at it, too. I mean we’re only talking fast food here, the McDonalds on Dundalk Avenue near Willow Spring Road; but it’s where I developed my work ethic. Like most of the fresh meat, I began my career on the grill. I became the master of the short-lived McDLT, one of Mickey Dees’ attempts to compete with the Whopper. Soon enough I was training other new hires on the grill and was moved to the front to take orders and ring sales. There was even talk of promoting me to assistant manager during the summer.

For a sixteen-year-old, life couldn’t have been much better. And it wasn’t just how successful I was at flipping burgers and taking orders. I made lots of good friends. One of the managers, Rob, bribed us at closing time by plying us with pot and gin. We’d crank on the OJ machines (we sold the little plastic, foil-topped cups to the public), mix some drinks, smoke a bit of herb, and get wasted. The breakfast crew would come in to the cleanest, best-prepped store in Maryland. Rob would even squeeze as many of us as he could into his little, two-seater Fiero and drive us home.

My family liked all the food I brought home that would have otherwise gotten thrown away. Nowadays they might donate food to homeless shelters and soup kitchens, but back then it would all go to waste — straight to the dumpster. The cooler managers would look the other way while I stacked bags full of double cheeseburgers, fries and cherry pies at the end of my shift. My parents and sibs would actually wait up, if I wasn’t getting home too late, for a late night feast. I was a hero.

There were, however, villains. One was named was Mike. He was a particularly lazy, fat-assed manager who spent most of his shift, once the day shift managers were gone, parked at a table in a far corner of the dining room sipping coffee and chain smoking.

He’d hand his keys over to his lackey, a girl named Tia, for voids and other register issues. Tia took this as a sign of power to lord over the rest of the peons. So while Mike hid in his corner like a troll, Tia would scatter off like a roach to find her own crack to hide in.

Now, once you’re on a register you’re not supposed to walk away unless a manager knows. Once, I had to go to the bathroom really bad — not a surprise since we got to fill our little courtesy cups as often as we liked. Mike was unseen in his corner adding more yellow to his fingers and teeth. Tia, as usual, was nowhere to be found. I figured one of them would have to show up, eventually.
I kept taking orders and ringing customers. And then I realized I was trembling. I could still take orders, but my voice was halting as I had to focus most of my concentration on not pissing myself.

I looked around. Still no Mike. Still no Tia. At this point I was in serious pain. Finally, I had a brilliant idea. Maybe, I thought, just maybe if I let it out slowly most of the urine will get absorbed into my underwear and not show through my pants. So I did. I continued to take a customer’s order while slowly, carefully releasing the contents of my painfully over-bloated bladder.

I was handing the customer change when I realized that as good as my plan was, my tighty whities just weren’t going to be able to hold all that liquid. I tried not to panic as I felt the warm wetness of my urine drizzle down my legs.

The pants saved me. Back then, the uniform pants were a heavy, forest green polyester. I looked down. I could feel that parts of my pants were wet, but they didn’t look wet. Also lucky for me, I had drunken so much soda, the piss was so diluted, that there was no smell to speak of. When Tia finally showed up I was furious to the point of tears.

I promptly excused myself, ran downstairs to the employee bathroom and threw my soaked underwear away. The other great thing about the McDonalds uniform pants of old: they dried quickly. By the time my shift was over a couple of hours later it was like nothing had ever happened.

Regardless, I wasn’t going to let that happen again. Neither Mike nor Tia were around, as usual, when I found myself in a similar situation a few weeks later. I was working the drive-thru. I abandoned my post before it was too late, ran down the stairs to the employee bathroom and relieved myself the human way. I was able to dart right back to my post undetected. However, as soon as I opened my register I realized something was terribly wrong. There was money missing.

I noticed it right away because a customer had paid using a fifty-dollar bill, and that fifty was no longer in the register. The first moment I could, I asked Tia about it thinking perhaps she had pulled it from my register to make change. She knew nothing about it, she claimed. To me that meant she took it. No one else could have. I was worried, but it was the first time any of my drawers had come up short. Not to big a deal, right?

Wrong. I was called down to the manager’s office at the start of my very next shift and was promptly fired. I tried to explain exactly what was wrong with their location, about lazy, fat-assed Mike and power hungry, thieving Tia, but all the general manager cared about was policy. Policy dictated that any shortage of fifty dollars or more could be dealt with by termination. It didn’t matter how promising I was as an employee, that I was the master of the McDLT or the king of customer service. All that mattered was that I could be fired, so I was. I was too embarrassed, then, to point out that I had pissed myself.

And there I was, pissed again. This time, though, I was pissed off. My mother had this saying for people who said they were pissed off. It’s better to be pissed off than pissed on. I always thought she was right, but as I walked out of McDonalds for the last time in what would turn out to be a long time I couldn’t help feeling that I was both.

Reading “Pissed On” at Atomic Books