Indianapolis Makes Peace with Me: a Haibun

(by Daniel R. Jones)

I was feeling cynical from living grid-locked in a city spelunking so far below the poverty line. I took a walk and passed children on blacktop with sidewalk chalk in hand. Underprivileged kids— if clothes, or a bed to call your own, or a father can be called a privilege.

I made my way to a park, passing kids playing pick-up baseball—kids who can’t quite reach the lowest rung on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, but still manage to find time to enjoy themselves.

I proceeded past a couple girls making a wish on a dead dandelion. Where there should’ve been hope and joy, I saw an invasive species and an old wives’ tale.

Superstition ensured
the weeds would spread
as children blew through ghastly heads.

I came to a playground and took my seat on a swing.

And there, suspended in air, swinging like a pendulum between love and hate for the place that I live, the city said it’s sorry:

For not being more conscious of itself. For teeming with cocksure gangsters in ’97 pimped-out Cutlasses, their seats slid back, one hand atop the steering wheel, feeling like the king of the world.

For the middle-aged men on Mopeds because they’ve got DUIs. For the fact that they drive in bike lanes, passing lanes, and sidewalks indiscriminately, always at 35-miles-per-hour.

For the stench of ammonia rising up through the ceilings of two-bedroom apartments and heroin needles strewn across tall-grass where children play.

For the morbidly obese, the ramshackle houses, for miles of industrial blight and the ratchet white girls with bad tattoos. For dirt-poor, underserved neighborhoods named after Parishes, such as Holy Cross and Little Flower.

For all this, the city says it’s sorry.

For not living
the way Christ said we should.
The Great Omission.

Forgive me, the city says. Forgive me and I’ll reward you with sunny afternoons and strolls through Ellenberger Park. With the sound of children laughing as they climb the jungle gym and snack on Takis.

I’ll reward you with charter schools where white kids learn to shout “aquí!” when they’re open in two-hand-tap football in the schoolyard. I’ll reward you with the Pour House, where the homeless are fed and clothed.

With a thriving jazz scene, and Book Mama’s and Irvington Vinyl. With rich cuisine at oddly named restaurants: “Bluebeard” and the “Slippery Noodle” and “Milktooth,” and with a world-class racetrack.

The city says it’s sorry
offers up its charms
Apology accepted: I take it in my arms.

Whitesnake and Carhartt’s

(by Daniel R. Jones)

Poets have a tendency to play hard to get, in the literary sense. They speak in riddles, only to gripe about dense readers who misunderstand them. Or worse yet, they tire of explaining the very lines they themselves constructed. There’s really no placating them.

I was working on deciphering just such a poet’s verse when Jack interrupted my thoughts by abruptly turning the stereo dial full-blast.

“It’s Whitesnake!” he said, elated.

The rest of the van was asleep on our long commute home after a particularly long graveyard-shift. I nodded, absently, unversed in ’80s glam rock.

“I used to have this CD I burned, and all 15 cuts were ‘Here I Go Again’ by Whitesnake,” he continued, with no loss of enthusiasm. “Every time I got fired, or had a girlfriend dump me, I’d just jump in my car and pop that sucker in the stereo. I’d drive for hours like that if I had to. By the end of the drive, all the bad stuff was behind me, and I had a new start. This song was the rebirth. It’s like…the Phoenix rising.”

He bellowed out the lines he remembered and hummed through the rest.

It was no secret that Jack was going through some personal struggles. His girlfriend, who was 8-months pregnant, had just left him. He was trying for the life of him to finally get clean; all while staring down the barrel of what looked to be a vicious custody battle for his first son.

Still, Jack sat, contented, drumming on the steering wheel, singing off-key.

And there, on I-94, just as the sun rose, I saw it. Out of grease-covered, musty Carhartt’s, Jack was being reborn. And a big old, campy Phoenix was rising.

Namaste: To Err is Human (creative non-fiction)

(by Daniel R. Jones)

I feel guilty calling their posture “impish,” but in several mythologies imps carry transcendent, supernatural knowledge, so maybe it isn’t such an insult?

There were six or so of the women, tiny and ancient, crouching outside our apartment on the daily, sucking down scented smoke and blowing rings that would put to shame the pool-hall regulars down the street. They were clad in Kurta Suruwal: traditional Nepalese dress, the colorful patterns contrasting beautifully with their tanned, weathered skin that resembled leather in so many ways. Their eyes were deep and friendly, constantly inviting you to conversation, but their tongues were unversed in English, making dialogue next to impossible.

Deepak, whose name means “lamp,” shed some light on these women, our neighbors. Like himself, they were refugees from Nepal. Several, in fact, were family members, sharing his inter-generational two-bedroom sardine can. 

To make their day,” he instructed me, “simply place your hands together, bow your head, and say ‘Namaste’: ‘I bless the divine in you.'”

In a former life, before he was driven from his home, Deepak used to be a professor. But when his political allegiances put him in danger, he was forced to emigrate from his homeland and work in a dog food factory on the outskirts of Cleveland, Ohio. In Nepal, he had fortune, status, and political sway. Now, he had nothing. As such, he always seemed to me a microcosm of Cleveland itself. The two were meant to be together, though both acknowledged one another only begrudgingly.

Pain, to him, was now measured on a scale of one-to-his-exile. We spoke often while the remnants of daylight slowly receded below the horizon. We’d watch his children push each other in shopping carts across strewn shards of glass. In such poverty, makeshift toys can be fashioned from just about anything. 

Sometimes Deepak would say wistfully, “You never can know what to expect out of life.” He was over trying to change the world. He’d decided it was enough to keep the world from changing him. He just wanted to minimize the damage.  

Sometimes, I would ask myself: how can being human feel so akin to the divine?

I could feel it: the crumbling brick building wanted to be rid of me. When I stepped out onto my balcony at night, sometimes I almost heard in its creaking a message just for me. “You don’t belong here, Daniel,” it seemed to tell me. “I am not your home.”

In Cleveland, there’s an expression, “Success in Cleveland is making it out of Cleveland.”

My mind was made up. I’d head home to Kalamazoo, Michigan, the city where I was born. 

I was about to experience 258 miles of sheer success.

In a year’s time, I had landed a new job out of state. I only had a week to pack up my apartment and be on my way. My Nepali friend promised to help me move out on our last day. It came as a relief to know I’d have some assistance amidst brown boxes, packaging tape and a sense of overwhelming, unnerving haste. 

But early on in the morning, Deepak received a phone call that pulled him away. I was forced to lug a queen-size bed down three flights of stairs with the aid of only my wife. After our U-Haul was jam-packed and ready to pull out of the parking lot, Deepak was still nowhere to be found. 

Perhaps moving so quickly felt too familiar.  But in his unwillingness to return, I never got to say goodbye to him.

Deepak, namaste.

I forgive the human in you.