Warrior in a Place of Ghosts


Plenty Horses, photo via Wikipedia

The fickle winds swirled me around, like I was
a snowflake dashing among the bullets
and over the frozen dead at Wounded Knee.
I, who could read the spirit of The People
and also read the books of the Wasi’chu.
I, who was shunned as neither Brulé nor white.
I, a ghost in the land of the Ghost Dance.

After I shot the yellow leg leader
of the Šahíyena scouts who hunted and
drove us to that place where the winter winds
tossed away our life and lives like dried leaves,
I once again became one of The People,
not a murderer as the Whites said.
I was a warrior, only now one in a place of ghosts.

On December 29, 1890, a detachment of the U.S. Army’s 7th Cavalry Regiment entered a camp of about 350 Miniconjou and Hunkpapa Lakota people at Wounded Knee Creek to disarm them before returning to the Pine Ridge Reservation. But then a shot rang out, and some 300 Lakota men, women and children were gunned down. The Wounded Knee Massacre is viewed as the end point of the so-called “Indian Wars” between Native and European American people.

But a week later, a young Brulé man named Plenty Horses, recently returned to the Rosebud Reservation from the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, shunned by his people for being like a White and by the Whites for being Indian, shot and killed Lt. Edward W. Casey, commandant of the 8th Cavalry’s Cheyenne Scouts. By doing so, he hoped to regain standing among his people as a warrior.

Charged with murder, Plenty Horses was eventually acquitted based upon his need to be regarded as an enemy combatant in order to provide a validation of the Army’s massacre at Wounded Knee. It was indeed, a time and place buffeted by winds of hatred, confusion and tragedy. I hoped to somehow express that “world turned upside down” state of Plenty Horses’ unique situation on the anniversary of the Wounded Knee Massacre with this piece.

Midnight Mass

Over the boom of the juke box playing Dean Martin’s version “Ave Maria,” Don the bartender yelled, “Hey, Chet, don’t you think you should be seeing to your reindeer instead of coming into some bar?” as Chester Bonaparte swayed and limped into The Palais on Broadway that Christmas Eve afternoon.

The whole joint erupted in laughter, even Chet, his chubby cheeks red as the gin blossom nose that provided the pivot point for a face lit by his jolly, if runny, blue eyes, and anchored by his white scruffy beard.

Four hours later, Don tossed Chet for getting humbuggingly belligerent, though still chuckling, with three wise guys from the uptown Brockley Gang, saying, “It’s for your own good, Chester, so you can go home in one piece and make merry, go to Mass, maybe sleep it off and see what Santy brings.”

When Chester stumbled off the bus and then down the stairs to the dark doorway of his basement apartment on Sherman Street, he fell against a jingling package left by his sister Katie, who was an Eastern Airlines stewardess on the Albany to Philadelphia run.

At midnight, the bells of St. Patrick’s pealing up on Central Avenue, Chester lifted his head from the pillow and gave a jolly little laugh at how the empty mini-bottles of Canadian Club, Johnny Walker Red and Smirnoff vodka that he’d hung from a bush he stole from Washington Park sparkled in the flames from his burning kitchen.


I’m Dreaming of a Wet Christmas


The dormant grass has pushed aside
the blankets of white it normally wears
and instead sports green Christmas couture.
Rain has come this year, like Santa,
not the usual ho ho snow
that all of art and commerce
project upon our holiday hopes,
which we hang like stockings.

My nices outweigh my naughties,
so whichever white-bearded Big Guy
is really in charge up there
salted those rain clouds for another reason
than to turn this poet’s soul
from black to dinge. Though, even
if it was white — hey, it could be! —
this wet Christmas has grayed it, too.


No white Christmas this year for my home ground a few miles north of where the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers meet beneath the mistletoe at Cohoes. In fact, we could have some flooding. Now I’m no fan of the white stuff when it comes to driving or shoveling, but I do like waking on Christmas morning to the sight of my world covered with white frosting, like the cinnamon buns I always made for the girls’ Christmas breakfast.

In case I don’t get back here tomorrow or Thursday, Merry Christmas to you, lovely readers of my second-chance writing life. You are a gift to me.

Smile When You Say That


My daughters are mighty Amazonion warriors in the war against tooth decay, plaque and gingivitis.  They brush and floss and all that stuff dentists and their latex-gloved henchwomen preach.

Me? I’m just a handful of steps above conscientious objector in this war.  Yeah, I brush my teeth every day, and I’m getting better about flossing more than only when I get a tough shred of steak or some celery strings caught between my teeth.  I don’t visit the dentist with the regularity of the rest of the family. I’m not lazy.  I’m not really fearful of pain or anything like that.  I just have this block about lying there and letting someone futz around one of the very few means of entry and egress my body has.

A lot of this stems from experiences I’ve had with dentists since I was a kid.  You know, traumatic instances that have laid psychological minefields between me and a smile like Julia Roberts’.

For instance, my first dentist was Dr. X.  He was a nice enough guy, I guess. But we’re talking about the dark ages of dentistry, before Americans learned that you could win fabulous prizes by suing the bejeezus out of imperfect health-care providers.  Back then, Mom would put me on a bus and tell the driver to let me off at such and such corner and I would just hop off and walk into the Doc’s little office on Allen Street in Albany.

If I remember correctly, it was a dark little place with magazines like Life and Look in the waiting room, sporting covers with Douglas MacArthur or Francisco Franco on them.  And, no I’m not so old that they were current.  Let’s just say General MacArthur had faded away a few years before I visited the Doc.  Occasionally Mrs. Doctor K. would be sitting behind a counter where she would handle appointments and bookkeeping.  You know, Mom and Pop dentistry.  About half of the time, though, you walked in, rang a bell and waited for The Man to come get you after he washed the gore from his hands.

Eventually, Dr. X. would usher you into his little museum of ancient torture implements.  Mind you, we’re talking the 1960s here.  First off, Doc did not use anesthesia of any type.  No Novocain, no gas, and, since you had to keep your mouth open, no bullet to bite on.

If I remember correctly, Dr. X. also didn’t believe in electricity much, either.  I have a vivid memory of having a tooth filled, in which Dr. X. used a drill that was powered by a foot pedal he pumped, like my Grandma had on her sewing machine.  Before I passed out, I know I smelled and saw smoke floating from my mouth.  Yep, smoke, like a signal for help when no one could hear my whining gurgle.  Every time I went to Dr. X, it was like the college of enamel cardinals had elected a new Pope.

Pained and disoriented, I would stagger outside to catch the bus home.  One time, I was so whacked out and blind from his keeping me smiling, that I caught the bus going in the wrong direction and sat panicked through a tour of parts of Albany I had never seen before without the security of Mom and Dad driving.

I successfully dodged full-fledged dental visits for quite some time after that.

Eventually, though, the price must be paid for allowing genetics and Crest to serve as one’s sole purveyors of oral health care.  It was then that I visited the offices of the dentist we’ll call Dr. Y on the recommendation of my Mom.

She said, “Oh, Dr. Y’s so nice, Joe.  He and your father were friends in grade school and high school.”   That sounded benign enough, so I made an appointment.

The weekend before my initial visit to Dr. Y, I was visiting the folks and mentioned to my Dad that I was going to see his old friend in a couple of days.  “Oh, Jesus,” he said.  “That guy!  He was such a weird kid, nuts about germs.  We would all go the Boulevard Cafeteria and sit in a booth and take turns spitting on his silverware.”  Uh, thanks, Dad, I thought.  I hope this guy is a professional and doesn’t carry a grudge.

That Tuesday, I walked across the big open porch that sat like an old lady’s lap on one of those great Victorian homes on upper Madison Avenue.  I checked in, noticed the yellowing dental hygiene cartoons on the bulletin board and waited for the call.  Lotsa yucks in dentistry when you’re the only one in the room who’s vertical, I guess.

“Joe?”  I looked up to see this beaming professional-looking guy standing in the doorway — glasses and brown hair, light blue scrub shirt like a real doctor.  “Hi,” he said, “I’m Dr. Y.  C’mon in and let’s take a look-see.”

Whew, I thought, as I lay back in his long cushy chair.  He seems like a nice guy.  Gentle timbre in his voice – I like that.  Pretty new equipment.  OK!  Very friendly demeanor.  This should be all right.

“Okay, Joe, lean back and open wide.  Let’s take a look,” Dr. Y said.  I remember he had these little magnifier lenses perched low on the bridge of his nose. I could see them as I gaped, wide-eyed at his face, thinking that Mom was right and Dad was kidding and exaggerating again.  Dr. Y’s eyes, even through those magnifiers, gave me a feeling of care from a true professional.

Just then he sighed and said, “You know, Joe, seeing you here, you remind me so much of your Dad when we were young.  You look so much like him.”  At which point, his kind eyebrows took on the form of a “V,” its acute angle pointed directly to the cavity-sprinkled target of his abuse for what would be the next nine months.  Damn that old man of mine.  How does that saying go?  Something about the “sins of the fathers?”

I now go to another dentist.  Between Dr. Y. and my new one, I was a patient of another.  He was a real good oral surgeon and did a great job saving a couple of my teeth and did some great crown work for a pair he couldn’t completely save. Let’s call him Dr. Z.

If he’s so good, why do I go to a new dentist?

Well, I used to like to take the very first appointment of the day and Dr. Z. and I would open the office together.  One morning, he was scheduled to do a couple of fillings, so he plopped me in the chair and fired up all the lights and equipment in his area, yawned and took a look at my x-ray.  “Hmm, okay,” he said.  Grabbing a long-needled syringe, he proceeded to fire about a pint-and-half of Novocaine into multiple sites around my right lower jaw.

He walked away to greet the staff as they wandered in. Meanwhile, my jaw went to sleep.  Dr. Z. came back, smiled, and said, “All numbed up?”  He was so sure that I would be, that he didn’t even look at me for an answer.  His back was turned to me as he held my X-ray up to the light.  Just then I saw him freeze, flip the X-ray over and hiss, “Oh, shit!”  There are  only a few professionals who you do not want to hear those two words from as they are applying their skills to your person.  I’m told one is a bikini waxer.  Another is a mortician. Another is your dentist.

The perennially tanned Dr. Z. whirled around, ashen-faced.  He poked my now-droopy right lower lip.  “Uh, Joe, I’m sorry,” he said.  “It looks like I’ve anesthetized the wrong side of your jaw.”

I’m sure I looked like a goggle-eyed corpse laying there—mouth open and oozing drool, no chatter emanating from my normally peppy orifice, paralyzed in mind and body.  I lay, unblinking, staring at this once-Olympian god of gum health, now reduced to imperfect mortal.

“What do you want to do?” he sheepishly asked.  “We could numb up the other side and take care of your cavities. Or you could make an appointment for another time, which I fully understand you wanting to do.  We could take care of you then.”

I think the Novocaine had seeped into my brain, because I know I wasn’t thinking clearly when I grinned like a pole-axed stroke victim and replied, “Thathps okay, Dox.  Lethps get thithps over withps.”  I sounded like I was talking with the remnants of a popped balloon between my lips.

Dr. Z. worked his usual magic after that, efficiently and expertly anesthetizing, drilling, and filling my left jaw and its imperfections.

Waddaya gonna to do? I thought.  It’ll all be over in a couple of minutes and you’ll be done for six months or more.  What’s the worst that could happen?

“Okay, Joe, we’re done.  Rinse and spit,” Dr. Z. said.  That’s when I got a preview of “the worst.”  I lifted the water cup to where I believed my lips were and poured it in my lap.  I tried again, squishing it through the corner of my mouth where there was a slight sense of pressure.  My attempt to rinse and spit left nothing dry within a five-foot radius of my mouth–in three dimensions.

“I am so sorry, Joe,” Dr. Z. kept saying.  “Please, don’t have anything hot to drink for the next few hours and don’t eat anything solid for that time, either.”  Embarrassed and professionally de-pantsed at my expense, Dr. Z. moved me over to his partner’s half of the practice that afternoon.

Of course, I left the dentist’s office and sped right to work, where I discovered that Dr. Z. might have miscalculated on the amount of painkiller he had given me.  By noon I was still drooling, doing my best to keep my lower lip from hitting the space bar on my keyboard, and having a very difficult time speaking clearly.  How difficult?  I made Sylvester the Cat sound like Lord Olivier, spraying saliva around the office like a defective fire sprinkler.

My chin began to itch a bit then and I felt that I was getting some feeling back, so I joined my friends at an office pizza party for which I had previously kicked in a few bucks.  “Heck,” I said, “I can feel my jaw now.  I’ll just be careful.”  So, I grabbed myself a big gooey wedge of cheesy goodness and bit off a chunk.  Chew, chew, chew.

“Jeez, this crust is chewier than I thought.  And it’s a little oily, too,”  I said to myself. I could actually feel the ooze on my chin, which I felt was progress.

Wiping a napkin across my chin, I noticed that the oil was red and I had been eating my lip for the previous thirty seconds or so.

I decided to forego lunch to suck on a cold compress the rest of that afternoon.

But my teeth were perfect!

Okay, pass the floss and stand back while I spit.

Under the Tree in the City


Stopping for gas in little Chenango,
while speeding my way to Charleston,
I caught an October surprise.
The town’s Christmas holiday decorations
already flew like tethered reindeer
and it wasn’t even Columbus Day.

Back in Albany, the City waits until
November to hang festive banners
and sparkly wreaths from the street lights.
Here, people sometimes don’t notice
the decorations anyway.
We probably move too fast or our hearts
hibernate in those tall buildings
hovering over those street lights.

Some of us stand above the jingling joy
like impatient parents over their children
who lie down on the floor watching
the electric train circling under
the lights beneath the Christmas tree.
The kids want just one more time,
and one more, and one more, hypnotized
by the flash and miniaturization
of the Holiday’s crystallization
of moments they may someday forget.

I think it was that day in Chenango
I decided to flop on the floor of my life
and enjoy the trains’ lights and whistles
like a little kid in Albany
as they whizzed and circled each
remaining year, on our way
to another Christmas here in the city.

411: Swann in the City

When I was a boy, probably long before you were born, I would deliver newspapers in the west end of Albany’s Arbor Hill.

Before I retired from tossing news to writing it, I suffered not much more than bruises and a knife scratch in conducting mobile commerce with the inhabitants of that eroding neighborhood. Needless to say, the tenor of business changed during and since my times there.

So many days now, I read or hear of another young guy, young like I was then, falling to a gunshot wound in my old streets. Some die. Most don’t. I sometimes worry that I don’t wonder much about it, though. I felt it coming.

I felt it in the steel of a razor on my chest. I could sense the momentum of it like I’d smell the miasma of cabbage and weed and spongy diapers in the hallways of Third Street and Livingston Avenue. Later in life, in my newspaper days, I’d recognize its cousin aroma in jails and prisons, the one with a soupçon or so of filthy bodies. It’s not an aroma you ever forget. Some of my old neighbors carry it on them like their tattoos to this day.

Every now and then, I’ll catch a whiff of it, and with a Proustian flash stronger than any almond cake, I’ll be whisked back to those times, a bag of newspapers over one shoulder and half my attention over the other. Today, the memories were dredged up by a request for a city poem. Maybe I’ll write another.

I’ve written plenty of them about my Albany, the city older than any of you live in across this vast land. It’s a small city, often with big city people moving through it on their way to even bigger ones. A lot of us came back here like salmon to spawn.

But there’s some things all cities have in common. We all have histories written in blood and sweat, which continue to drop on the concrete every day. We all know that young men catch bullets as easily in Albany as they do in New York, Detroit or Los Angeles.

I don’t know if that’s ever going to stop. But I understand where it comes from. I saw the snowball become an avalanche. I left only my bloody initials on the declaration of interdependence we call a street, a neighborhood, a city. I just hate to keep reading whole stories written that way.

Then Trust Me

Trust Me

“Nancy told me today Sasha’s coming to visit her tomorrow, so I’m going over to see her, my savior,” Lacey said in a tone as pregnant with hope as her belly, which was in its second trimester with our child.

I sighed long and loud with the memory that a year and a half earlier, Lacey had engaged in an affair with Sasha, who Lacey’s statement implied had saved her from me, or the me from three years before Lacey and I met, when I was head over heels in love with Sasha, who was utterly irresistible to everyone, knew it, and was comfortable with it.

“Sorry, that was just me being selfish and stupid…I told you I’d never be that way again, and I haven’t been…I mean really, right?”

“Then trust me,” Lacey said, rolling herself up to kiss my cheek, then rolling back and closing her eyes, an angelic half-smile on her face.

I rolled over, too, facing the wall, and didn’t sleep the rest of the night, thinking about her.

A Five Sentence Fiction based on Lillie McFerrin’s prompt word: TRUST.

Through a Cat’s Eye

Diana's Place

Photo by Diana Matisz, Copyright 2014

Sometimes I wonder if Cat
sees the same things I do
when he and I emerge from the brush
behind the house.
I see where She keeps family,
hearth and home, where
she sweeps away my cares,
calms my anger, offers her affection
as easily she sweeps
crumbs off its floor. I’m sure
Cat sees that warm place
where someone places crumbs
along the Warm Room floor’s
baseboard as bait on the trail
to the mouse Happy Hunting Ground.
But maybe he, too, sees the place
where she offers the miraculous hands
that soothe, that encourage,
that express love
in their housework roughness and
angel softness.
Maybe I’m wrong
and Cat sees what I see after all.
The Place of Hands where
Woman stokes our ferocity and
strokes us to domesticity.

My friend, the wonderful photographer and poet Diana Matisz, asked me if I would write a poem inspired by the photo at the top of this piece. I tried.