Thursday, February 10

Chop down the memory tree

Nighthawks — Edward Hopper
No Rilke or Rodin here today. Just a bit of autobiography, an outbreak of remembrance triggered a couple of weeks ago when I came across this delightful poem by Elliot Fried at Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac blog (where amongst other treats you can hear Keillor recite it) ...

Daily I Fall In Love With Waitresses
by Elliot Fried

Daily I fall in love with waitresses
with their white bouncing name tags
and white rubber shoes.
I love how they bend over tables
pouring coffee.
Their perky breasts hover above potatoes
like jets coming in to LAX
hang above the suburbs—
shards of broken stars.
I feel their fingers
roughened by cube steaks softened with grease
slide over me.
Their hands and lean long bodies
keep moving so...
fumbling and clattering so harmoniously
that I am left overwhelmed, quivering.
Daily I fall in love with waitresses
with their cream-cheese cool.
They tell secrets in the kitchen
and I want them.
I know them.
They press buttons creases burgers buns—
their legs are menu smooth.

They have boyfriends or husbands or children
or all.
They are french dressing worldly—
they know how ice cubes clink.
Their chipped teeth form chipped beef
and muffin syllabics.
Daily I fall in love with waitresses.
They are Thousand Island dreams
but they never stand still long enough
as they serve serve serve.

This piece touched a soft spot in the tummy of my memory, recalling for me the fondness I have long felt for diner restaurants. My first meal in the United States was at just such an establishment and though I had not yet turned five, I remember still …

My parents, brother Phil and I arrived at JFK airport in New York in the summer of 1961, back when it was still known as Idlewild. We had flown in from Caracas, Venezuela, where I was born and spent my toddlerhood, which I now suppose ended on that flight to America. Leaving the only home I had known, my toys, bed and room, saying goodbye to family and friends and adiós to español, were all farewells a bit too outsized for me to comfortably pack and carry. On arriving in New York, there was more wild than idle at the airport; I vaguely recall a sense of feeling lost and adrift in the bustling vastness of the airport, with so many complete strangers hustling by as fast as the words I couldn’t understand. Nothing made any sense… until one of those seeming strangers picked me up and wrapped me in a hug; my Uncle Floyd, a gentle bear with a pencil moustache that stretched out above a rich deep voice as he bellowed “Larry, my boy!”, a call that would forever after in my life announce and rhyme with Thanksgiving and giving thanks, with Christmas trees and Easter eggs and all family holy days.

I suddenly felt less lost and, though perhaps nothing made much sense yet, there was now a possibility that it would, that my parents may actually have been right when they reassured me that I would be happy in America. This possibility began to flesh out soon after leaving the airport when Uncle Floyd wheeled his huge car and my entire family and our belongings into the parking lot of a diner, a real diner, one of those converted railroad dining cars, somewhere in Brooklyn (“God’s country”, as my Brooklyn-born dad must always clarify). Inside the curved silver walls of the strange restaurant, I now imagine that I was christened into my new American life with maple syrup and pancakes. No more arepas for Lorenzo; pancakes for Larry.

I digress … I actually wanted to talk about diners that came later in my life, all-night diners that I frequented for many years over a quarter century ago now, the diners conjured up by the Elliot Fried poem above. But, as my good friend Bonnie observed recently in a comment, sometimes we can only reach out by first reaching within, so while blowing on those memories, the long lost ember memory of Brooklyn baptismal flapjacks flared up, and I offer it here as the first course of this long all-night meal.

Unlike the daily enamoring of Fried’s poem, for me it was nightly that I fell in love with waitresses — the ones at the 24-hour diners I visited several times a week after work during the years I worked nights loading and unloading trucks. Perhaps that first Brooklyn diner planted the seed, but my fondness for diners stems from those years when me and my work buddies would punch out from work at 3 or 4 am and head for the diner nearly every night.

From 1976 to 1985 I worked as a Teamster at a transportation company that has long made scientific harassment the core of its management ethos and practice. The job did pay the rent and put food on the table, two concerns shared by poets and non-poets alike, or so I have been led to believe. But there was more to it than that. Somewhere in my history studies, I had been so taken by the thesis of two venerable Germans who long ago observed that philosophers have only interpreted the world but that “the point is to change it”, that I decided to drop out of college and go change the world from inside 42-foot semi-trailer trucks and from deep within a corrupt union. Working nights allowed me time during the day for community organizing where I lived and union organizing at work. A few of us took part in the founding of a nationwide rank-and-file reform movement, Teamsters for a Democratic Union, and began a chapter of TDU in our own Local 177.

The pay was decent and we fought like hell to keep it that way. The work was physically exhausting, but we were young and grew strong in the punishment; mentally it was stultifying, our dreams were still unquenchable though. We got harassed and treated like trash by the supervisors, but some nights we gave as good as we got. Some nights. And our union was misrun by hacks; quietly we would swallow our pride and loudly we spit fire. Some nights.

Every night we would emerge from the trucks physically spent and covered with dust. Working the graveyard shift and the ever-present cardboard dust turned us all into a monoracial brotherhood of sorts; regardless of whether we were black, brown or beige when we punched into work, by the time we clocked out, we were all just different shades of grey. And ready for coffee and some eats.

There was a poem in here somewhere …. Oh yes, here it is, it begins in the diner washroom where we’d stalk in on arriving to try to remove our grey patinas of dust and sweat…

caked in dried sweat
gotta hit the head
a quick trip to the terlets
we grimly smeared the grey grime
across our faces
patted down
our uncooperative hair
scrubbed our hands good
yeah, got them real clean
before we pissed

and then for some eats
boob banter
chit chatter with the waitresses
who for some reason
my memory has now all named

The menu had French omelets
Spanish omelets
German omelets
Italian omelets
English omelets
yeah, we chowed down
a lot of Old World worldliness
right there in Edison, New Jersey
had home fries too

Cheesecake could turn the talk sweet
to what we would do
when we won the big weekly lottery,
that would get Johnny Paycheck
singing on the mini-jukebox at the table
Take this job and shove it

On those other nights when
unbending lottery numbers
only made the coffee extra bitter,
there’d be elaborate plans for
daring heists
to knock over an Atlantic City casino
maybe two

Or wolfman Chris might tell us about the poem
he would write one day
“chop down the Cadillac tree”
what does it mean?
I don’t know he would tell us
but it’s a great first line
and we would all agree
a great first line

Or we would retell and celebrate
the night that him and Sam drove
into the City in Sam’s revved up GTO,
common sense damped down
and their courage souped up
on some beers and bourbons,
and drove the wrong way
across the Brooklyn Bridge
all the way to the other side
all the wrong fucking way to fucking Brooklyn
(God’s country)
without killing anyone
or themselves
or landing their fool asses in jail
a great line

With our gutwanderlustfulness sated
or Dillinger derring-do depleted
with our wrong-way one-line poems doing u-turns
it’d be time to split
we’d leave
our Josie sisters of the night
outlandish tips next to
crumpled cigarette packs
and a song still playing
on the tabletop jukebox
Don’t let the sun catch you crying

on the way out
there were arcade machines with some jeopardy
question and answer game
but when we did not want to not be stumped
by who directed Cool Hand Luke
(what we have here is a faaaailyour to communicate)
we would play the great new thing
how sophisticated
better than Pong even
or another game where
my electronic blips and bloops
had to break through
the descending brick wall
before your blips and bloops

and they did
our late nights yawned
with such howling triumphs

we were resigned prisoners though
and tunneled our walls
only halfheartedly
while inviting the blips and bloops
to do on our minds
the same numbing number
the trucks and night
had done on our bodies

and we left dust trails
in the prison yard parking lot
on the way to our cars
on the way home
on the way to sleep

Damn! Is that the sun coming up already?
Tomorrow was already here
and all I wanted to do was
sleep away
such alarming wisdom
and scrub my face away
on the pillowcase
    © Lorenzo — Alchemist's Pillow

In affectionate memory of Wolfie, with whom so many of those all-night work and diner sessions were shared and who, 30 years ago today, mistook a sunrise for a sunset, the wrong end of a shotgun for a friend and quenched his thirst and his dreams with a cannonball instead of a bourbon. Oh, Chris, what you’ve been missing…

Brooklyn Bridge, A Tribute in Light

Well, not sure how I got from Fried's perky potato breasts landing at LAX airport to Chris going the wrong way over the Rubicon in his one-line Cadillac, but strange things can come down when one begins to shake that memory tree...

Ray Charles — Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying ...


  1. nice...your poemis grea is the opener...i have a great affinity for they tend to gather all walks of life together...and of course the food...not necessarily the most expensive but typicall hits just the spot....

  2. Your Teamster era, uncooperative hair and smeared face, is a facet of you I hadn't imagined, LLL. Keep those surprises coming. Excellent poem.

  3. Hi Brian. I agree, in terms of representativeness of diversity of peoples, diners may be one of our more democratic institutions.

  4. Yes, Tess, though not often expressed here, those years and friendships and experiences are an important part of my life and always with me in one form or another.

  5. Oh Lorenzo, thank you for this, the walk down memory lane, the poetry, the pieces of your life that made you the man we know today. Using the diner as the central point brought us all in to share too, to indulge in how and what we experienced and built this nation.

  6. I am so moved by this piece, especially your poem, that I don't quite know where to begin. Here are my strongest responses: First, I love the raw honesty of this writing. We all strive for authenticity, but it is always emotionally difficult to work so close to the bone — and that's what this is — hard-chiseled close to the bone. Second, I am genuinely touched, moved, and sometimes disturbed by these images that flow from your words. I just think I want to go for a walk and think about what you have written. Perhaps that's my third point — your writing is so thought-provoking, so strong that it is literally yanking memories out of my own past. Well done, my friend. Very moving and very, very well done.

  7. Ahhhh. So this is some of the stuff that forged Lorenzo. I begin to see, I begin to understand.

    The little boy, so fragile . . . I’ve seen a photo of him in one of your posts . . . introduced to the wildness of the Cig Bity, and the relief of a wild hug from an adoring uncle. I feel the brotherhood start there, the fraternity of hearts bonded by blood, and later on by the sweat and dust.

    The poet’s voice puts me there with Larry (and kinda makes me wish my name was Josie) and is no less lyrical than the voice of Lorenzo that me and your readers have come to love and learn from, about lofty arts and culture here at your pillow. I absolutely love learning about these grimy layers of your past.

    I’m also pretty tickled that your post today is a synchronous one for me, after posting about Detroit and its tough and persevering strength, and where Sam’s GTO and Chris’s Cadillac were probably built (if not in Lansing, even closer to home, where I was born). And you a night shot of NYC, and me a night shot of Detroit! :)

    Just beautiful, LLL.

  8. I am speechless.

    I am moved by it all.

    Thank You for sharing so much.

    Love your poem.

    Love diners. My Mom's parents had one:

  9. What a riveting, revealing glimpse into a hardcore part of your past, Lorenzo! And that poem had all the gutwanderlustfulness of some rumbunctious Beat poet.

  10. A fascinating, moving and unmissable post. The trip down memory lane, your poem, the way you describe yourself and your workmates make a blogpost to savour and remember for a long time.

    I was part of the Int. Labour Movement (Miners) in the UK and knew a lot about the Teamsters of the time you describe although we were never directly involved. The unions international representatives participated in conferences of the movement with which I was involved.

  11. the weight of labour - physical and otherwise - a surprise and then not a surprise because it's all a part of the work you've got to do whule you're here lorenzo. i spent ten years in a factory and learned almost everything there is to know about knowing and not-knowing and then i threw that knowledge at the teaching of little children and knew immediately why it had all been put in my way and i was able to let go of the why's around why was i the skinny clever artistic boy put into that not my world world?! lorenzo i'm stopping for breath. steven

  12. oh Lorenzo, this is so beautiful. Touching tribute - your writing brings these memories into the present, makes them so alive. I can just see the whole thing, the grime, the girls, the working and the dreams. What a shame that Chris did not survive. I commend your skill here, your willingness to look back and deep.

  13. Lorenzo, thank you for sharing some of Larry's moving story. You tell it well enough to transport me back to those years, though I was in California and carried mail for the post office. I am sure you've inspired others to time travel back to the seventies and eighties. May Chris rest in peace.

  14. Ahhh. So much becomes clear. Such a jolt, from Lorenzo to Larry at such a young age, from idealism to realism. And diners (were all those waitresses Josies because they were from Joisey?). The grit, the grime, the sweat and brotherhood--all those great equalizers--a poem worthy of Ginsberg. A wonderful tribute to a friend. I am sorry for your loss, but he is smiling because you chopped down that Cadillac tree just right.
    Thank you.

  15. Thank you for sharing some leaves from your memory tree, Lorenzo, the poem read part memoir, part stream of conscious goodness, my favorite lines:

    "chit chatter with the waitresses
    who for some reason
    my memory has now all named

    Glad you made it to America (our diners are quite good!) one of a few countries you must surely call home.

  16. I've not read your entire post as I have a fully belly even now, "“Larry, my boy!”, a call that would forever after in my life announce and rhyme with Thanksgiving and giving thanks, with Christmas trees and Easter eggs and all family holy days." I marvel at your childhood. Somehow it startles me that not every child came from the same sort of life I came from, even though I know it to be otherwise. It is as though childhood is a sacred bruise we hold by our side. I thought beneath your finger-stained shirt and hiked up pants, your bruise would look something like mine, but I am caught in the resonance of this one passage even, as though the light of it is something I have never known.

    I am eager to read through the rest of the meal - another time.


  17. Steven, I think I remember you mentioning those ten years in the factory sometime in the past on your blog. I greatly appreciate seeing you say it was central to many of the things you learned about life, about yourself and about "knowing and not knowing", and that you use that knowledge with your students. I, too, feel I learned very much in my years in the trucks. Of course, I also rue that when I look at what I feel I learned, I get the feeling they were things I should probably have always known or, at the least, learned much faster... but, then again, that would apply to most everything I have done in life.

  18. Robert, yes, somewhere between a beat and a Beat poet! Glad you picked up on the gutwanderlustfulness ... the word wanderlust is one of my favorites, but what could I ever tell a Solitary Walker about wanderlust?

  19. Thanks for your warm words and kind thoughts, neighbor. It is nice to hear these memories came across vividly, they certainly re-emerged vividly for me from over 30 years ago in the past. I really had no idea where this post was going when I started and even well into it. The last thing I wrote was actually the title "chop down the memory tree". Have a nice weekend.

  20. Come back and finish whenever your ready, Erin. They've got plenty of coffee refills at this memory diner ...

  21. This was a more intensely personal post than most so there is an extra dose of appreciative warmth in me on seeing all of your comments. I have tried to reply to everyone else via email, except for the friends above for whom I only have the blogger "no-reply" as return address. Believe it or not, when I started blogging it took me a few months before I realized that I was sending replies to comments to "no-reply". Oh well ...

  22. I come back, Lorenzo, and I weep. Never a better witnessing.

    “chop down the Cadillac tree”
    what does it mean?
    I don’t know
    It's all here, the passion, and the humility too.

    gorgeous, i say it quietly, like a kitten whose eyes aren't even open yet.


  23. I think they're a purely American phenomenon, we don't have anything like that here at all, never have other than the old truck stop diners. Must put at least one on my travel bucket list . . and pay attention to the waitresses of course.

  24. Raw, riveting memories Lorenzo so tenderly expressed. Wrenching as you close telling us of cadillac dreams aborted ... your friend never knowing what he missed and the hole he left in your heart.

    Thank you for this.

  25. Brillant Lorenzo!! the memories are priceless and the first lines of our lives shining through...what is the city without cheesecake and wrong turns can, will shower us with poetry or death sentence ..I love the song..Ilove the poem...I love being alive today....thank you...bkm

  26. I thought of 'Tis a little as well , one of Frank McCourt's memoirs.

    Honoured to read this.
    My heart missed a beat a bit at your telling of your Chris. How sad.


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