Tuesday, August 13, 2013

121. modulations of a bar napkin

by horace p sternwall

illustrated by roy dismas and eddie el greco

editorial consultant: Prof. Dan Leo

for previous chapter, click here

to begin at the beginning, click here

click here for synopsis of all chapters so far

we return to bob's bowery bar, where the inseparable hipsters sniffy and rooster are still waiting on the two bills  (bill gray and bill leighton)  to return with a "lid" of marijuana, which they hope to sell at an outrageous mark-up to two very strange but apparently filthy rich out-of-towners   (the messrs o'toole and burgoyne) whom they encountered earlier that night in the stairwell of the venerable hotel st crispian...:

"what are you doing to that poor bar napkin, that never did anything to you?"

rooster had found a pencil stub in his pocket and was scribbling something on a curiously pristine napkin he had found wedged under the jukebox selection in the booth.

"i'm writing a poem, what else would i be doing?"

"writing a suicide note, maybe?" sniffy blew a perfect smoke ring, but it was barely visible in the bar's murk.

"ha ha. that's not funny," rooster replied without looking up.

"you gave your life savings away to those so-called poet clowns and now you decide to write a poem yourself? a little late, isn't it?"

"i was suddenly inspired."

"great. i'm suddenly inspired myself."

"oh?" rooster added a word or two to the napkin.

"i'm inspired to think that maybe our friends the bills aren't going to show up and maybe we should look elsewhere. instead of just sitting here like a couple of cockroaches under a sink."

"well, that was always a possibility. i mean, that's life, isn't it? possibility."

sniffy sighed. "no philosophy, please. check out those idiots over there, will you?"

she looked over at the bar. the irish poet seamas mcseamus, the western poet howard paul studebaker, the nature poet frank x fagan , and the romantic poet hector phillips stone were huddled together. their drink-ravaged faces, barely visible through the smoky haze, were lit up with laughter - laughter tinged with desperation, but laughter all the same.

"can't you see what they are doing?"

rooster followed her gaze. "having a good time, i guess. why begrudge them?"

"they are laughing at you! doesn't that bother you?"



"look, you walk past thousands of people every day. or see them on the subway or in elevators. how do you know what they are thinking when they pass you? any of them could be thinking - that guy looks like a complete idiot - or that girl has no fashion sense at all and should be thrown in the river. and you will never know it. you start caring what people think and you'll go crazy." rooster kept his eyes fixed on the napkin as he delivered this soliloquy.

sniffy blew another smoke ring. "you're hopeless. let's get back to serious business. i think one of us should stay here and wait for the bills and the other go out and try to score someplace else."

"what if we score someplace else and then they show up?"

"it's their tough luck for making us wait."

"that wouldn't be very courteous."

"are you kidding? it's all in a night's work for them. it probably happens to them every night. if they do find some stuff it isn't like they can't sell it to somebody else."

"i guess so. so who else can we try?"

"how about bunchy?"

"bunchy? you want to go up to times square? after we came all the way down here to the bowery? and it is getting late."

"the night is young. and bunchy isn't working out of the angle bar any more. he hangs out at the hot poker bar on 14th street."

"i didn't know that."

"you have to keep up with what's important. see, that's what happens when you waste your time caring about stuff like the a-bomb spies or wallace stevens's new book of poetry. you miss out on what's under your nose. what's important to you personally."

"all right. you go find bunchy and i'll finish my poem."

"no, you go find bunchy and i'll stay here."


"because i'm a poor defenseless female who shouldn't be walking the streets alone -"

"take a cab."

sniffy ignored this. " - and you're a big strong man."

"i'm a poet."

"go ahead. you know you'll like the hot poker bar. maybe you'll meet some handsome young fellow just off the bus from casper wyoming."

"don't start. what about my poem? i haven't finished it."

"i'll finish it."

"you will? gee, thanks!"

"anything for a pal."

"all right." rooster pushed the napkin and pencil stub towards sniffy and stood up. he looked past the bar toward the door. "the things i do for love."


rooster headed for the door. as he did, the four jolly poet-companions fell silent.

"hey, want to buy just one more?" frank x fagan called after him. rooster shook his head without turning around.

seamas, the boldest of the crew, cleared his throat and shouted over to sniffy, "i don't suppose, missy, that ye'd be interested - "

she gave him the finger. then she turned her attention to the poem on the napkin.


the indispensable entrapment of my soul
cries to heaven like a snapped cable on brooklyn bridge
o how many condensed atoms of steam
on how many coffee cups clanking

into how many million ironclad sinks
bloodied with the lipstick of a million unloved lips
sneered at by an unseen moon
sinking beneath the scum and foam of the thersitean age

o bayonne! o west new york new jersey!
highways unhitchhiked! thumbs in green tweed vests!
lonely adonises of chauffeurs in the rain!
weeping waitresses buried in pistachio jelly!

a potato that can never be peeled
an effulgence of compressed energy
in the blank gaze of a dachshund being walked
on a sidewalk that can never be swept

by barbara frietchie in a -

that was it. sniffy shook her head. hart crane, she thought, always flipping hart crane.

she picked up the pencil and in the first line she crossed out "my soul" and substituted "chimpanzees".

in the second line she crossed out "heaven" and wrote "orangutans" and crossed out "brooklyn bridge " and wrote "yoo hoo chocolate drink".

after a slight hesitation, she left the third and fourth lines intact.

in the fifth line she changed "ironclad sinks" to "wallis simpsons".

this is thirsty work, she thought. maybe i should get another beer. or at least a cup of coffee.

she looked around. she didn't want to lose the booth if she got up and went to the bar. but it was not as crowded as all that.

suddenly her vision was blocked.

"mind if i sit here?" the voice was not familiar.

"i very much mind. no, wait - ." the guy could hold the booth. she would not have to talk to him. she looked at his hands, which held a beer bottle so he wouldn't be asking her to buy him a drink. then she looked at his face.

"what do you call it," sniffy asked the guy, "when you're thinking about something and then it happens?"

"kismet?" he looked at her with a sad expression.

"no - something else."


"yeah - serendipity. that's it. i was writing a poem about orangutans and i looked up and saw your face."

"jeez, that's not a very nice thing to say."

"saying nice things is not my fucking stock in trade. do you want to sit down or not?"

"yes, thank you." he quickly sat down across from her but stayed on the outer side of the booth.

"just hold my seat while i go to the bar."

"sure. thank you, miss - miss -"

"smith. and it's my real fucking name."

"of course. you don't - um - express yourself in a ladylike manner."

"i'm sitting here in bob's fucking bowery bar at four o'clock in the fucking morning. how fucking ladylike is that?"

sniffy's new friend pointed to the napkin and pencil stub. "writing a poem, huh?"

"that's what i said."

"i'm a poet too."

sniffy stood up. "welcome to the fucking club."

122. "the same magnetic cloud"

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