The Fellowship of Language and Culture

My native language is a dialect of Croatia known as Sansegoto, spoken in Sansego, but I never learned to speak it. There once were almost three thousand people on that island; today, there are less than three hundred. A famine following World War II and the war itself forced them to leave. My mother escaped from the island with her children and crippled husband, carrying me in her arms. I was thirteen months old, and the first language I learned to speak was Italian. However, I exist in a culture of three languages.

I have been exposed to it in my formative years through my mother’s circle of family and friends. I picked up a few words here and there and many bleep words. However, I learned their culture not through the vocabulary of the language but through every nuance of the dialect, every inflection in the sound, the modulation of the speech, the gasp, the snicker, and the laughter in the voice. They are as different from Italian or English as is the culture associated with each vernacular.

Language and culture are organic and intertwined. Lectures, books, and videos will teach vocabulary and stringing together words to form a sentence. But the learner has not learned the language unless she also immerses herself in the culture, for Development of a culture cannot occur without communication, and communication cannot develop without language. For this reason, once the student has acquired a basic vocabulary, the teacher will immerse her into the relevant folklore and literature that has influenced morality, lifestyles, and manners of the country.

“More than 650 new words, senses, and subentries have been added to the Oxford English Dictionary in its latest update, October 2019, including fake news, xoxo, Jedi, and mind trick. More than 1,400 new words, senses, and subentries have been added in the quarter ending June 2019, including bae, yeesh, and hasbian.” In January 2018, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) announced that it has added more than 1,100 words, senses, and sub-entries. Culture has changed and so has language. Dictionaries in other tongues will have their own lexicon metamorphosis according to the time and culture of their countries.

Language and culture are intertwined

My primary language is Italian at the basic conversational level. That’s as far as I got in my Italian school, enough to function and carry on a conversation, but not good enough to read Umberto Eco. To do that, I must rely on translation. I had lived in Italy, had my little friends, played girlish games with them, and learned family values. Too young to have acquired cognitive language, I understood the culture and where I fit. Eight years later I was uprooted to America and my Italian vocabulary dwindled in the process of acquiring English while I added American culture to my background without subtracting the others.

It is what happens to every immigrant that, in the process of gaining cognitive proficiency in a new language, the primary language becomes secondary. It is within this backdrop that I stutter when people ask me, Where are you from?

I am neither from here nor from there. I am from all the places that have touched me. To say that I am Italian would deny my cultural exposure with everything American and with my deeper core of Croatian culture. It is a matter of personal identity defined by exposure to languages and cultures that reached me through home environment, education, and travel.

Of Wine, Tears, and Folly

In vino veritas my father used to rebut my mother each time she complained about his tipsiness. In wine there is truth. But what is that truth when wine evokes so many emotions. One of my short stories features a character who drank to escape some ineffable truth. For me, it is the ritual of twirling the glass to see the clarity of its content as it makes tight swirls inside the bulbous goblet in your hand. Follow that with raising the glass to your nose. You breathe in deeply the aroma: is it smoky or oaky? A hint of cherry or berry? Peppery or flowery? So many sensations are alone to make your head spin and anticipate that first sip. Now you swirl the elixir to fill your mouth with all the aromas and…Enough! 

I can get carried away when drinking good wine, which is what happened this weekend on my visit to Paso Robles’ vineyards. This brings me back to wine, tears and folly and in vino veritas. What is the truth in wine’s loose tongue? I searched for poetry to see what the poets had to say. Sure enough, their emotions ran the gamut of human emotions. From the macabre “The Vine-Shroud” of Percy Bysshe Shelley, to the celebratory “Soul of Wine” of Charles Baudelaire, to “The Wine of Lover” by James Thomson, to the chimerical “I bring an unaccustomed wine” by Emily Dickinson, to the glorious “Ode to Wine” by Pablo Neruda, and let’s not forget Omar Kayyam’s “A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,/A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou.”

The field of wine inspired poetry is as wide as the emotional spectrum between tears and folly. Perhaps there’s no difference between them, but just a feeling of the moment, the truth in wine, in vino veritas, a wine-induced vagary that is all consuming until it dissipates like a snowflake in the spring.

From a selection of ten of the best poems, I selected this short poem by William Butler Yeats and another poem.

A Drinking Song

Wine comes in at the mouth
And love comes in at the eye;
That’s all we shall know for truth
Before we grow old and die.
I lift the glass to my mouth,
I look at you, and I sigh.
                       William Butler Yeats

To Samir

The wine of love, like its grape, may be sweet or sour
Let this poem be the pinnace to the sweet and
Bring my thoughts to you every waking
And sleeping hour.

No toast, nor tilted bottle
Nor raised glass can be
Without me thinking of thee.

My wine is sour.

Of nepenthe fill my glass
Quench my anguish
Elixir of bliss
Sate the void.

Rapture is embraced
fondling the empty chalice.

Your wine is smooth and sweet
fingering the caverns
of your latest lover.

But if your wine turns sour,
Turn to me.
I am alone and lonely
And longing for you
Every waking and sleeping hour.
                          Antonia Burgato

Yes, that last name is mine. I’d never dare put my name side by side with the great Yeats, but I’m full of the elixir and think grand thoughts. Tomorrow my cup will be dry and my grandeur won’t be grand. Let me indulge in my fantasy.

Enjoy the poems.

The Ephemeral Nature of Power

Years ago, while vagabonding through Turkey, I stopped in Kusadasi, a city known for good beaches, memorable shopping, carpet browsing, and raki sipping. But my interest to this resort town wasn’t the beaches or the shopping, but its proxity to two ancient sites:  Ephesus and the Temple of Apollo.

Legs of stone
Didyma-Temple of Apollo

Although Ephesus, an extremely well-preserved ruins of an ancient city, is a must-visit, it is the Temple of Apollo that jolted me out of my complacent reflections on visiting ancient ruins. 

The Temple of Apollo, built around eighth century BC, is a massive graveyard of fallen stones on a sandy desert. Rising tall above the debris of massive stones and broken pedestals are Two vast and trunkless legs of stone supporting an equally massive lintel, as if offering an entrance to the sky. Near them on the sand,/Half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies.

Seeing the two columns and the shattered visage side by side, the words of


Percy Bysshe Shelley pelted my brain. Was this the site of his inspiration for “Ozymandias”? It is possible, but my research did not confirm this. Nonetheless, I made posters of these pictures with Shelley’s words between them, as a reminder of the ephemeral nature of man’s sovereignty.

I’ve published on this topic years ago, but considering the egomaniacal mindsets of many of our world leaders today, I am updating this post in the hope of jolting some complacency out of some constituents. Enjoy the poem.


I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp’d on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock’d them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away 
                                     Percy Bysshe Shelly


The Power and Myth of Facial Hair on Men

Through the ages, men have adorned themselves with facial hair of all sizes and styles—from raggedy long to designer stubble—like women would wear jewelry bought over-the-counter in the neighborhood discount store or at Tiffany’s in any Fifth Avenue around the world. Are facial hair for men an instrument of selfhood and vanity as much jewelry is for women?

The Myth of Facial Hair

People have attributed magical powers to hairs since mythical times. We see that in Samson, who was indestructible until Delilah cut his hair. That hair on men possesses special power is a curious myth that continues to this day. Throughout history, beards and mustache have been donned by distinguished men, in the belief that something about them changes for the better. 

The Myth Continues

Charlie Chaplin sported a toothbrush mustache, bushy, short, and shaved at the edges, that had become a symbol of the character admired all over the world. Oliver Hardy, of Laurel and Hardy, sported a similar mustache with a similar effect on his audience. And Graucho Marx grew a toothbrush mustache that stretched to the middle of his chin. The surrealist artist Salvador Dali had a needle point mustache that curved up to meet his eyebrows.

Does that mean that donning a mustache will turn you into a king of comedy or a loved international figure? Adolf Hitler donned a toothbrush mustache, and he was neither funny nor loved. The four important women in his life were all younger than he and easily affected by his power. One had attempted suicide, the others died by their own hand.

From Confucious to Sophocles, Leonardo DaVinci, Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, Abraham Lincoln, Fidel Castro, the Hells Angels bikers, and must not forget Walt Whitman, my muse, whom I quote in my tagline, and who said, “A beard is preferable in a man as ‘a great sanitary protection to the throat’.”

Facial Hair Tell a Story

Facial hairs have a story behind them. A survey of women from all economic classes concludes that most of them attribute sexual appeal and manly strength to hair. But that is not important to all men. Fidel Castro’s beard “arose out of the difficult conditions he was living and fighting…and that turned into a kind of badge of identity.” Abraham Lincoln’s was inspired by a letter written to him by an eleven-year old girl during his presidential campaign.

I have got 4 brother’s and part of them will vote for you any way and if you will let your whiskers grow I will try and get the rest of them to vote for you   you would look a great deal better for your face is so thin. All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husband’s to vote for you and then you would be President. (Grace Bedell)

Some people might believe that sporting hair makes them appear more masculine. For me, neither mustache nor beard nor any combination of them makes a man. Which brings me to the questions. What makes man? Certainly not one thing alone. One solitary heroic act in life does not make a hero, but a series of them do. Think about Senator McCain, who earned his reputation as a hero not to one heroic action, but through many, where he displayed strength of character, integrity, unselfishness, intelligence, humor and la di la da and. This is what makes a man, facial hair or not.

As for me, I ask that if your face is masked by hair, keep it trim, clean; and soft. Most of all, keep your lips exposed. I don’t care to have your toothbrush in my mouth when I kiss you, and I don’t want a facial massage by bristle brush.

Does anyone remember the days of Yul Brynner, when bold was considered sexy and powerful? What makes you go gaga in a man?


El pianto de l’emigrante

La onda la va, la onda la vien
E nel pasar
La me impronta la ga cancelà

Ritorno al me paese
Cerco le me raise
Alberi trapiantai
Fruta straniera

Nel cimitero, là sul muro
Xe la foto de me papa
Pescador el xera
El mar lo ga soterà

Dondelando ne la cuna de la onda
La pace el ga trovà
Nel mar ch’el gavea amà

El me tronco ormai
Ga meso raise
En un novo campo
La so fruta in fior
Ga bisogno de me amor

Lontan mi son
Da quel paese incantado
Ma la onda me ciama
La voce nel vento
Atraversa un continente
E anca el tempo

Xe el canto de le sirene
Che me tormenta el cor
Un cor distante
Che me ciama al me suol

La onda va, la onda vien
E nel pasar
La me impronta la ga cancelà

What Poetry Can Do for You

Poetry does not exist. Music does not exist. What? You scream, “I listen to music every day.” True. But, can you touch poetry? Can you touch music? No. They touch you the moment you make time for them because these art forms exist only in time. Without you making the time for poetry and music, they are just notes and words in print. For these art forms to exist, you must bring them to life by taking the time to listen to them. Without you making the time for poetry and music, they are just notes and words in print.

The forest and the tree—Someone (other than you) might ask: Does a forest exist if nobody sees it? The answer is a loud “Yes” because the forest, as a collective of trees, has mass; it exists in the physical world and, as that, it exerts a force on you and its environment. Poetry and music have no mass; they have sound that can only be heard if you open yourself to it, if you make time for it. It’s like taking a walk in the forest. It promises nothing and gives you life. Read poetry because it makes clear to you all the mysteries in life, all the things you don’t understand. Read poetry because it opens your mind and, all of a sudden, you hear yourself say, “That’s exactly how I feel.”

Have you ever seen the desert flowers in bloom, a field of California golden poppies, or a field of yellow daffodils or white daisies and remained unaffected? Poetry allows you to see things in a way that you’ve never seen before. Just try reading William Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” without being moved by it. Go ahead, open this link and listen to the poem being read. Your investment of three minutes and twenty-seven seconds will be well rewarded.

Why read poetry? Because poetry is the true truth. It discovers the depth of you. In the words of the Spanish Poet Antonio Machado,

No es el yo fundamental
eso que busca el poeta,
sino el tú esencial.

It’s not the fundamental “I” that the poet seeks, but the essential “you.”

This page is dedicated to my selection of one poem a week. You will receive the poem of the week every Sunday evening or Monday morning. The reader’s job is to read the same poem every day of the week. If you can find a recording of the poem, listen to it.  But, always, read it aloud, let it touch you and let it enter your being until it moves you. Here’s a short one to make you think:

First Fig

My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!
                          Edna St. Vincent Millay

And here’s another one to make you a child again.


I made myself a snowball
As perfect as could be.
I thought I’d keep it as a pet
And let it sleep with me.

I made it some pajamas
And a pillow for its head.
Then last night it ran away,
But first it wet the bed.
Shel Silverstein

And, oh, there are so many to help you understand and grow.



Précis of Canaries Can’t Cry

Themes of rebelliousness and of love found and lost recur throughout Canaries Can’t Cry, which takes place against the backdrop of life in three languages and three cultures in one family. The novel by Antonia Burgato is written in two parts. The first part centers on a young Anita rebelling against her rigid father and her fight against a curse he had placed on her marriage. The author stitches the stories Anita told of her life on an island in the Adriatic that spans the time between the two world wars.

The second part is told in the daughter’s voice, whose rebelliousness against her mother has an uncanny similarity to Anita’s rebelliousness against her father. Both living in America, the mother clings to the old-world culture of the remote island while her daughter embraces the new world culture that spans the time between Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and George Bush—a time that comprises the social and cultural movements of the Elvis Presley phenomena, the Civil Rights uprising, and the women’s liberation.

The novel charts the course from clash of daughter and father in the old world to a clash of mother and daughter in a new world and how they reconcile their cross-cultural differences.

The book is now available on

The Tree in the Schoolyard

One by one or in groups, they came in strolling, strutting, shuffling, and meandering to their seats inside the bungalow. Every hour on the hour Mrs. Foster stood outside the classroom for six minutes, door opened, greeting her students in for their fifty-four-minute required lesson in English.

The sun was white hot over the concrete school yard, as it was over the San Bernardino Mountains to the east, barely visible through a summer haze that rose from steaming asphalt pavements and industrial fumes. The sun was white hot, too, over the Santa Monica Mountains to the north, where the Hollywood sign was visible on clear, crisp days. Today the haze rose over Griffith Observatory and tempered the brilliance of its white building and glistening black dome.

Mrs. Foster brought a hand above her eyebrows to cast a shadow over her eyes as she ushered her students into the classroom. “Get in. Get in. It’s cool inside. Copy the agenda that’s on the board.”

A lonely tree in the square cement cutout in front of her classroom had six leaves on it. Same as yesterday. It should be in full leaf in the midst of summer, she thought. The water sprinkler in the center of the square rained on the tree like clockwork each morning before the start of school, but at mid-morning, the water still hadn’t filtered through the soil, and a muddy puddle stagnated inside the cement cutout. The tree’s spindly trunk and bare branches seemed more appropriate in a stage set for Godot than a schoolyard. Mrs. Foster looked at that tree for those six minutes every hour on the hour. She couldn’t avoid it as she stood outside her classroom in full sorry sight of it, waiting for her students to come in, and when the school tardy bell rang, she closed the door and shut out the sun and the view.

Mrs. Foster removed the cardigan that was draped around her desk chair and put it on. The air conditioner always blew at full blast. She gathered the crumpled absence notes that returning students had dropped on her desk, and began the roll call. “Christian Aiken?”


“Jesus Belasco?”


“You were out yesterday. Did you bring a note?”

“I put it on your desk.”

She flipped through the absence notes. “It’s not here.”

Jesus emptied his pockets and the wrinkled yellow note fell out. He walked to her desk. “Sorry, Missus. I thought I put it on your desk.”

Mrs. Foster uncrumpled the note. “1—Medical reason” was checked off and signed at the bottom with what looked like Jesus’ scribbling in place of a parent’s signature.

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Political Correctness Gone Amuk–Sensitivity Is a Two-Way Street

Be careful of what you say. The word police are everywhere. They’re not a corps of an established budgeted department, with well-defined guidelines under which to conduct their policing. That would be easy to live with as we would know the rules.

Who sets the rules?

We, the people advocate free speech, human rights, animal rights, rights of the disabled, gay/lesbian marriages, religious tolerance, ethnic tolerance, are the self-appointed police operate under the fear of committing an offense against the tide of political correctness, whose standards change with each phase of the moon. Operating without a governing body, we have made ourselves the word police to uphold standards in an “enlightened society.” Not only do we police our colleagues and friends, but we also police ourselves. Have you ever paused in mid-sentence weighing the sensitivity of a word on the tip of your tongue and then opted for another, more neutral word? Were you afraid of offending someone, or of being labeled insensitive, or of making yourself vulnerable to a law suit? If so, you have policed yourself into silence. If you observed a person talking to you halt in mid-sentence, perhaps that person held back for fear of offending you.

The scale of Sensitivity/Insensitivity

We live in an age of heightened awareness. There is no room for bigotry in the workplace, in the halls of ivy, in the newsroom, and on Capital Hill. Sexism, racism, homophobia, xenophobia, Antisemitism, Christian bashing, Moslem-bashing, and any other form of closed-mindedness is intolerable in an enlightened society to the point that we must carefully measure our words on the scale of sensitivity that ranges from prejudiced to tolerant–and sensitivity is a two-way street. Not only must you select your words according to the tolerance scale of the listener (which may differ from yours), but they must be made aware of that difference and accept that tip in the scale should a word escape to cause that tilt. 

A man casting an admiring look at a female runs the risk of being labeled a “sexist pig.” A simple compliment can be taken as sexual harassment. A dear old friend of mine from the old school of chauvinism had gone through great pains to change his ways. He was beginning to feel comfortable in a woman’s presence without feeling the pressure of acting out the role of seducer. When he met his liberated sister-in-law after years of not seeing her, he complimented her on how well she looked saying, “You look really good.” She snapped back at him with a coy, indignant smile, “You’re so sexist.” Feeling dejected, he found himself wandering the room and asking, “Can’t a man compliment a woman anymore?” Like the ancient mariner doomed to repeat his tale, he went around the room asking again, “Can’t a man compliment a woman anymore?”

Scale of Balance

We strive to balance the scale of sensitivity between prejudice and tolerance. Towards this goal, we run the risk of becoming a homogeneous society censorious of divergent thought. Individuals tipping scale on either side of center risk ostracism and social isolation.

Mankind is a tribal species and as such there will always be some hold out to prevent us from total eradication of bigotry. Being a member of the enlightened society, therefore, requires being tolerant of the intolerant for, if we’re not, we have closed our minds to what Jonathan Rauch, author of Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought, calls “intellectual pluralism, which permits the expression of various forms of bigotry.” An enlightened society must allow for diversity of thought in every circle, no matter how odious. Without that, we become a censored society.

I attended a dinner party one evening following Easter. One of the guests I’d known for a few years, talked with great fervor about having gone to confession and mass. When she had finished, I commented, “Good for you.” To which she got up from the table and left the party in a storm, leaving me, the other guests, and the hostess dumbfounded. I admitted to having been guilty of insensitivity, perhaps even of condescension. I extended my apologies. None were accepted. To this day, she doesn’t speak to me.

Now, President Obama fell into the same fangs of the word police when he called his long time friend Kamala Harris “The best looking attorney general.” It didn’t matter that he preceded that comment by calling her “brilliant, dedicated, and tough . . . exactly what you’d want in anybody who is administering the law.” The word police only heard what was meant to be a joke and a compliment, and they bared their fangs.

Antiseptic Salons of Boredom

Rather than run the risk of committing an offense, social gatherings have become antiseptic salons of boredom, devoid of exchanges of ideas. I once attended a meeting of teachers where the central theme was standard English. At that time the media filled the pages with reports of the Oakland School Board’s controversial resolution to use Ebonics—African American Vernacular English, coined from the words ebony and phonics, to teach Standard English to African Americans students. This was 1996. I bring it up now because the answer that I got from the speaker when I asked him, “What do you think of Ebonics?” is classic.

“I’d rather not talk about it,” he said.

The word police are listening.

The Many Flavors of San Sebastian

It’s old. It’s new. It’s rugged. It’s gentle. It’s shabby and chic, and it’s all deliciously delightful. It is San Sebastian, in the autonomous Basque region of Spain and where Basque, the oldest language in Europe, is still spoken.

I arrived tired at night, after a full day’s drive across the south of France on the Trans-European Motorway, and drove directly into one of the city’s underground parking lot, where I parked the car for $25.00 a day, never to retrieve it until I was ready to leave. This is not a city for cars. Upon exiting the garage, I was dazzled by bright lights illuminating two towers at the entrance of the Maria Cristina Bridge over the Urumea river. The spectacular, belle époque style, five-star hotel Maria Cristina stands majestically opposite the bridge. It is the holiday season and every street sparkles with decorative lights as far as the eye can see. Lights are strung from building to building across every street, throughout town. A walk to my three-star hotel was pointed with exclamations of oohs and aahs at the festive mood all around.

The following day began with a stroll on the promenade of the Concha Beach in the center of the city. The eponymous shell-shaped beach ends with Monte Igueldo to the south and Monte Urgull to the north. Both peaks offer spectacular views from the top. While it is possible to hike the peaks, it is best to take the funicular to Monte Igueldo, where the views are best.

San Sebastian is one of the city’s in the world to hold the highest Michelin stars per square meter, more than Paris. The old town is the hub of social life and comes alive at night when the tapas (pintxos as they’re known here) bars open. This is also where you’ll find the highest concentrations of the best restaurants. I strolled Old Town with the intention of having dinner at one of the Michelin rated restaurants, but the rows of tapas bars displaying their culinary creations on windows and counter tops drew me in. The bars are packed, inside and out. I must wait for my turn to the front of the line.

Going out for pintxos is a social event, so I look at the crowd around me and strike a conversation with a couple from England. They come to San Sebastian often, and they gave me some pointers on ordering pintxos. “Just have one in every bar with a drink. And you must have the gin tonic.” The gin tonic is made from an endless variety of gins and mixes and is served in a glass big enough to be a gold fish bowl. The gin is paired with fruit, spices and herbs and chilled with dry ice. I pointed to a pintxos displayed on the counter for its appetizing combination of color and textures. I don’t know what I had, but I had to have more. So, to the next bar I went.

I have overfilled my capacity for pintxos and drinks long before I covered one side of one street out of the many streets in Old Town. Pintxos is San Sebastian’s miniature haute cuisine at its best, and dinner at the Michelin rated restaurant will have to wait for another trip.


Naked Shelters

Tall and gaunt, Benjamin Plaskett was tired and disheveled when the clock struck five. Most clients had already left. Those who stayed behind did so for lack of other things to do and had to be ushered out by the security guard. Benjamin was among the first clerks to leave his desk. He was in such a hurry to get out that he didn’t take the time to remove the elastic band from his wrist. He passed one of his clients who was being escorted out by a security guard. He wished hi good night. The client told him to fuck off. Benjamin and the guard exchanged a look of disbelief. Both had been working there for several years and should have become impervious to verbal abuse. Many clients were people with problems that went beyond the financial aid offered by his office. Benjamin was frequently unable to give them the assistance they needed. From the bureaucratic end he met with obstacles, and from the client’s end he met with abuse.  He was relieved when the clock struck five.

The subway passengers leaned against one another to make room for one more. Benjamin hung by the subway strap and was amused by the poster of a woman in a long white gown offering a glass of Black and White scotch on the rocks to a man in a black tuxedo reclining on a sofa. He didn’t care to be that man nor to have that woman, but the whole scene had him tripping into an alluring world, free of decay and civil service. The subway came to a stop. Benjamin stretched his neck over the shoulders of neighboring passengers to read the name of the station, but the window was painted over with graffiti.

“Is this Canal Street?”

“Yes,” some unidentified voices answered. “Hold the doors. Getting out. Scuse me. Getting out.” Benjamin edged his way through the crowd.

To his relief the station wasn’t crowded, but a slow-moving line of people trudged the steps to the open air. A derelict, who didn’t have the two dollars for the Bowery Hotel, frequently slept off his drunk inside the subway. Today he was passed out on the subway steps, half way between in and out. This didn’t bother Benjamin as much as the pungent smell of urine throughout the station. He climbed the steps holding his breath until a draft of cold air hit him in the face, signaling the relative safety of breathing once more.

He walked north on Canal Street, past second-hand stores and discount stores with garment racks on sidewalks. A Jewish delicatessen had people standing on line at the counter while the Italian restaurant next door required reservations. Across the street, a Chinese vendor displayed his produce on the sidewalk—bamboo shoots, snow peas, ginger, gin seng. Benjamin recognized some of the products but couldn’t name most of them. He liked Chinese food but the sight of these ingredients grossed him out. He ordered Chinese takeout frequently by number from a menu because he couldn’t pronounce the name of his selection, nor did he recognize any of the ingredients from the produce stand on his plate. He liked the simplicity of the Chinese cuisine. Meat and vegetable cooked in the same pot, all served in one dish. No need for a knife and no extra dishes to wash. His mother was a good cook but not imaginative. She didn’t vary much between pot roast and meat loaf—wholesome food, she called it.

Benjamin thought he’d like Chinese food tonight, but first he must have a drink. He had just about killed the fifth of vodka last night, but there was enough left for one or two shots. He’ll finish the bottle, treat himself to an unpronounceable dinner, and go to bed early. Recently he’s been getting up late and having to rush to work; sometimes arriving late and getting docked a quarter of his hourly wage for every fifteen minutes. He couldn’t afford to be late for work again.

He hastened to the corner and turned towards Fourth Avenue. The cold westerly wind hit him mercilessly. He tilted his chin downward, pulled up his coat collar, and put the hands in his pocket. It didn’t help. He wasn’t wearing a scarf, and the wind blew right thru it. Just two more blocks to his apartment. He passed by a group of individuals in black leather jackets, loitering about their parked motorcycles. The bitter cold didn’t seem to bother them. They were drinking out of bottles in brown paper bags. It’s the antifreeze that’s making them insensitive to the cold. The hell with it, he thought. I need a drink right now! His favorite dive bar was just one block up. The sawdust on the floor gave the place a cozy feeling.

“Hello, Ben,” said Harry. “The usual?”

“Yeah, but skip the juice. Gotta get rid of this chill in my bones.”

“I know what you mean. The wind really goes right through you. I already have a houseful, and it isn’t even six o’clock.” He placed the shot of glass on the counter. “Three dollars.”

Benjamin gulped down the vodka and felt a burning sensation as it went down his throat, warming his chest, until it settled comfortably in his stomach. “Hey, Harry. Give me another.”

“Sure, Ben. There’s one thing about bar tending that beats every other business—there’s no economic depression. People come in when it’s cold to warm up, and people come in when it’s hot to cool down. When things go bad, people come in to forget; when things go well, they come in to celebrate. There’s always a reason for a second drink.” He returned the filled glass.

“You know, Harry. I wouldn’t be here if the landlord gave me a little heat.”

“Why don’t you move uptown?”

Benjamin shook his head left and right and rubbed his chin as if to comb a goatee he didn’t have, then he spoke to the newly filled glass. “The padded shelter where bars have carpets on the floor so that when people fall the shock is silently absorbed and no one gets bruised. “Here’s to uptown!” He finished his drink in one swallow.

“Don’t you have a girl uptown? You know . . . What’s her name?”

“Lisa. She likes her shelter.”

“Right. I’m not sure you can take it down here, Ben.” A fresh gust of air announced the arrival of new clients into the bar. “Look at them! The first of the neighborhood’s drunks. They’ll all be in here tonight . . . to get away from the cold. You better go home, Ben.”

“Sure, Harry. One more, then I’ll go.”

Benjamin was surprised to see there was still a bit of light outside. They days are getting longer, he thought. The winter was half over, and the wind was furious. He hurried inside his building and shut the fury out. The lock on the front door had broken long ago and now drifters found their way into the dark hall. There was one in particular who adopted the corridor as his home. Benjamin was never consistent in his feelings towards him. Sometimes he kicked him in the shin and told him to get off the premises. Other times he invited him inside to sleep on the couch, and occasionally gave him some change. Tonight, he felt generous. He looked in his wallet and saw that he had a five-dollar bill and some change in his pocket. He gave the bill to the drifter and turned the key in the two locks of his apartment.

He let the door slam behind him and secured the locks from the inside. The quiet of his place filled him with emptiness and made him vulnerable to the clamor of the day: Black . . . White . . .  Puerto Rican . . . Other . . . The questionnaire to be filled by the applicant echoed in his head. He removed the bottle of vodka from the kitchen cupboard. Took a swig. The noise of work bounced off the wall of his skull. He needed distraction. He’d invite the drifter in. Benjamin unlocked the door, but the man was gone. Just one more drink. Just to silence the voices. He poured vodka into a tall glass and added orange juice.

The telephone rang.

“Not yet. Not yet,” he said, removing an ice tray from the freezer.

Four rings, five.

“Stop that ringing!” He dropped two ice cubes into his glass.

Six rings, seven, stop.

“It’s about time you gave up.” He kicked off his shoes, took his tall glass and reclined on the sofa. With his free hand, he rubbed his forehead back and forth, as if to erase a memory that was thrusting to the surface.


Each day, for eight hours, a narrow counter separated Benjamin Plaskett and his coworkers from lines of bitter and clamorous unemployables in a room that was as big as a ballroom and dull as a barrack. “Ne-ext,” Benjamin called out into the fully occupied waiting room in his head.

“Black and White and Puerto Rican. Other.” He sang the echo of the questionnaire to the beat of the cha-cha. The drink didn’t erase the voices of the day but made them tolerable—almost pleasant. Benjamin found harmony in the rhythm of the questionnaire. He took a last sip from his glass. He danced in the kitchen, empty glass in hand. “Black. White. Puerto Rican. Other. Cha-cha-cha.”

The phone rang again. Benjamin looked at the instrument with annoyance. He emptied the ice tray into a bucket and refilled it with water. With both hands he transported the tray to the freezer, careful not to spill on the floor. On the sixth ring he picked up the phone.

“Hello.” Benjamin listened to the solicitous voice coming through the instrument. “I’m sorry, Mom. I thought we were having dinner tomorrow.” He gazed at the ceiling, then at his nearly empty glass. He rested the telephone cradle on his shoulder. Undistinguishable words rushed out from the tiny holes in the hard plastic. He was tempted to plug them up. Instead, he sipped on the melting ice in the glass until the voice came to a stop.

“Look, Mom. I’m really sorry I forgot about tonight. Maybe you can freeze it . . .  We could have the pot roast tomorrow . . . You’re playing Bingo? How about the day after tomorrow? . . . No, I won’t forget. Thanks for the call, but I’ve gotta hang up now . . . No, I’m not sick . . . No, Lisa isn’t here . . . Mom, really. I just forgot about tonight. Nothing more.”

Benjamin dialed Lisa’s number and let it ring and ring. He let his head fall against the armrest. “I wonder what she’s up to tonight.” The palm of his hand once again rubbed his forehead and stopped on his eyes as if to shield them from a light. But it was dark. The sun had set a while ago, and he had not turned on the light. He remained lolling on the sofa. The phone still ringing in his ear. From his head, a word, sometimes a sentence, gushed through his lips. “You’re not eligible . . .Ne-ext . . . Black . . .  White . . .. Puerto Rican . . . Other . . . I can’t help you. Go to line C.” And then softly, “Black . . . White . . .  Puerto Rican . . . Other . . .” The words were lost in the dark room. He hung up the phone. He turned on the light next to the couch and surprised a cockroach on the coffee table, next to his empty glass. The vermin wriggled off the table to blend in the safer background of the roach-colored floor. He removed the rubber band from his wrist, stretched it between his fingers and snapped it at the roach, stunning it. His boyhood skill at shooting birds with the sling shot, had found its purpose. He took pleasure in the vermin’s contortions and crushed it once more with his heel. The rubber band around his wrist had been neglected for too long and furrowed his skin. He rubbed that wrist with the other hand then put the rubber back.

His gurgling stomach reminded him that he should eat something; but the refrigerator was empty—it had been empty for several days. He knew this, still he opened and closed the refrigerator repeatedly. Then he remembered is plan to eat a Chinese dinner, but he’d given away most of his money. He could always have a sandwich on credit at the dive bar.

Falling snow paved the streets sparkling white. An invigorating, fresh scent displaced the daily smaze, and the city looked clean. It seduced him to take  the long way to the dive bar. The breathtaking scenery inveigled deep breaths. Bitter cold air shocked his lungs, and he breathed out a cloudy ribbon of breath. He buttoned up his coat and walked leisurely towards Fifth Avenue with the wind blowing in his face. Occasionally, he turned around and walked with his back against the wind. His footprints in the immaculate snow seemed sacrilegious, but they were quickly blown into the air and replaced by new snow. Snowflakes fluttered by the street light, tossed by the wind until they fell to the ground. Tomorrow they would turn into slush.

There were few people in dive bar, most of them regulars. Benjamin knew them by sight; a few by name learned during drinking bouts. Two of his drinking buddies hunched over a table, too drunk to drink any more. He ordered a sandwich and two shots of vodka before the server refused his request for a third drink. 

“You know I’m good for one more,” Benjamin said.

“I’m closing early tonight. The weather is keeping people home. Why don’t you go home, Ben?”

“Yeah, you’r’e right. Just one more for the road.”

“That will be seven-fifty.” Benjamin looked at him with a questioning stare. “Pay now. I’m locking up.” He looked at the guests at the tables.

“What about those guys?”

“All right. All right.” Put it on my tab. He walked towards the Harlem River with the wind on his back. The snow was accumulating rapidly on the streets and on the skeleton of trees.

“Black . . . White . . . Puerto Rican . . . Other. Cha-cha-cha.” He shouted to the wind and took an erratic, little jump, but the words had lost their music. He tried a little dance step and slipped. Convulsed with laughter, he shaped a snowball and aimed it at a red neon light. He missed. What did that sign say?” He barreled towards the light. “Beer on Tap.” Money, thought Benjamin. He searched is pockets and counted two dollars and sixty cents in change. That was good for one more drink.

The saloon was dark and smelled of stale liquor and sweat. Still, the place was better attended than the dive bar. The snow on his hair had begun to melt and trickled down his neck, inside his shirt.

He ordered a straight vodka and was accosted by a tramp. “Buy me a drink, Mister?”

Other tramps had begun to surround him. Their movements were slow and lifeless—wraithlike. Benjamin gulped down his drink and ran out.

The shock of cold air nauseated him. He stumbled along, grabbing lampposts, and vomited in the snow. It occurred to him that he might not make it home.  Why did I forget dinner with my mother? He would welcome some hot tea now. He imagined his mother wrapping a blanket around his legs. There was no sense going home to an empty apartment. More animated now, Benjamin headed north. His mother lived les than two miles away. He had walked that distance many times before.

The snow on his hair had begun to freeze and he couldn’t feel the tip of his fingers. He ran a little distance, then faintness overcame him. He was sweating feverishly and the sweat was turning into a body suit of ice. One more mile to go.” A light ahead. He headed that way. A bare light bulb over a wooden sign: Bowery Hotel. Benjaminn pushed the door open with his shoulder and entered a room lined with mattresses. Men covered by blankets slept soundly. He recognized the drifter from his building. He looked peaceful in his sleep.

A man behind a desk, blocked further entry. “We’re full,” he said.

“Just let me stay here a bit.”

“Two dollars.”

“Let me stay indoor for a while. Then I’ll go. I’m not feeling well.”

“Two dollars.”

Benjamin walked south until he realized that he was heading in the wrong direction, then backtracked. His body was numb. Familiar voices began to drone: Black . . .White . . . Puerto Rican ,. . . Other . . . He fell. Snowflakes fluttered about him and came to rest on his body.

The following morning no one noticed the white blanket protecting Benjamin from the wind.

Breaking Away

Her mother’s words echoed in her head like a voice in a cave. “You’re good for nothing . . . , nothiinn . . . , thiinn . . . .” Her fingers curled into a tight fist, teeth clenched inside a locked jaw. She wanted to cry, to tell her, “That’s not true.” Instead she fronted a stone face that fought hard to suppress tears and ran to her room. A three-by-two-foot aquarium with three fish in it sat on top of Melinda’s commode, next to the television. It had three fish in it—an angelfish, a rainbow fish, and a guppy. She knew each fish by its scientific name, had studied its habitat and habit and had built a reef around them complete with pebbles, coral, and shells. She made sure to change the water and filter regularly, to clean the glass inside and out and not to overfeed the fish. She spent hours of solitude watching the fish swim in the small tank—round and round they went, sometimes forming circles around each other, sometimes pecking at the dead coral.

She stood in front of the aquarium and watched the three fish in it swim freely among the coral in the pebbly bottom, with no one telling them they’re good for nothing. “. . . nothinnn . . . thiinn . . . ” The echo subsided. She wished she could swim with the fish and feel the water massage her body far away from the sound of reproving human voices. She put on a DVD from her Jacques Cousteau collection and submersed herself in the world of plants swaying with the currents and fish weaving in and out of them at will. One day I’ll swim among them.

Soon after she graduated from high school, she had her car tuned up and bought new tires. She packed some summer clothes, her fish tank, and DVD collection. She was going to California. Was a career in scuba diving her dream or was it just a notional escape? The question would forever haunt her unless she tried it.

“What you gonna do in California that you can’t do here?” her mother asked.

Melinda didn’t want to tell her that she was going to learn scuba diving. She couldn’t bear to hear her laugh.

“I’ll find something.”

“You better call me.”

“I will.” She put her car in drive and did not look back.

Melinda rented a one room apartment in Venice, two blocks from the beach. The place was noisy—cars screeched to a stop outside her window, music blared from the T-shirt shop on the street, and pedestrians strolled with boom boxes attached to their hands. But the apartment was cheap, and she could walk to work at the flower shop, where she learned to arrange beautiful bouquets for weddings and wreaths for funerals. She marveled at how much beauty there was on both occasions: one joyous and full of promise, the other somber and marking an end. Both floral arrangements fit her mood—a part of her looked forward while another part had expired.

There were many days when unsold flowers were sent to the waste bin. What a pity to throw away such beauty, she thought. They still have a couple of days of bloom in them before they wither and die. One day she found calla lilies, white daisies, blood-red roses, white mums, and purple carnations among the discards. They all looked perfectly good, and she could not bring herself to throw them away. She decided to make a wedding bouquet from the lilies and daisies and a funeral wreath from the roses, mums, and carnations. When she was done, she locked the shop and took the floral arrangements home. She put the bouquet in the refrigerator and left the wreath in the car. She walked to the Venice Pier Beach and walked to the end with the funereal arrangement in hand. The shops had closed for the night and the pedestrian path, with all its street vendors and performers, was eerily dark and silent. A crescent moon shined bright above the pier, casting shimmers in the undulating water below. She walked, reef in hand, with purpose, to the end of the Pier. A few anglers leaned against the railing to the right and left, with and ever slight up and down motion of the hand. They looked at her with mild curiosity and then returned to their fishing. At the end of the pier, she leaned over the railing and threw the funereal wreath to the sea.  “Goodbye, good for nothing.” She rested her arms on the pier and watched the wreath bobbing up and down with the wave until it disappeared.


When she opened the refrigerator the following morning, the wedding bouquet greeted her with its scent and beauty.

“Today we begin,” she said to the flowers. She drove to the local dive shop and signed up for classes.

The instructor was an older man, a science teacher by day. Lessons began in the swimming pool of the YMCA and ended with weekend field trips by boat to swim in the kelp beds wearing full gear. She was not a good swimmer and struggled to keep up with her classmates. She wished she could call home to hear some supporting words, but knew her mother’s habit of quashing dreams. “Now that you’re working, you can start paying your way,” her mother had said when Melinda got her first job at the local diner. “Fifty dollars a week.”

“I want to save up for a car.”

“So you can cruise with your friends at all hours of the night?”

“No. Sometimes I have to work ‘til closing, and I don’t like to walk home that late.”

“Fine. Forty dollars a week.”


“Thirty.” Melinda was hoping to have enough money saved up after high school to be able to get away.

The music from a boom box outside her window brought her back to the present.

“I can do this,” she said to herself.

Three times a week, for the next six weeks, she went to the Y. She dove into the deep end of the pool wearing the air tank, flippers, goggles, and snorkel. She swam under water, back and forth the length of the pool, checking her pressure gauge, clearing her mask, and always lagging behind her classmates.

On her first ocean dive, she let gravity pull her body off the boat, back first, in the fetal position. The cold Pacific Ocean shocked her, and she wouldn’t let go of her bent knees.

She had dipped her feet in the water of Venice Beach many times before, trying to muster the courage to submerse completely; but she couldn’t adjust to the cold. This time she thought that the wetsuit would protect her.

“It’s just an initial shock,” the instructor assured her. “Your body temperature will warm the water inside your wetsuit in seconds.”

He was right. When she stopped shivering, she looked around. The water was calm, and she was bobbing up and down with the roll of the waves. She felt weightless despite a weight belt and a full air tank on her back.

“The water here is thirty feet deep so check your gauges and stay in sight of your buddy.” The instructor locked the mouthpiece inside his lips and led the way down.

Giant kelp rose to the surface from a sandy bottom, its fronds swaying to and fro in a rhythmic dance with the currents. And there was Melinda swimming in the company of golden Garibaldi and rockfish. The silence was marred only by the sound of the breathing bubbles rising to the surface in a crystalline dance and the clicking of her equipment in sync with the beating of her heart. She could have swum forever, but the instructor signaled it was time to surface.

The second dive was from the beach. Timing was everything. She had to catch the wave at the perfect moment to avoid being crushed against the sandy bottom. Missing that, she would have to time the next set of waves, while her classmates waited for her on the far side of the breaker. Melinda stood waist deep in the water counting the waves in a set between each lull, the ideal time to swim out before the next set, dive under it, and resurface at the far side. Seven sets of waves rolled by her before she roused enough courage to plunge into the breaker. The wave crashed further out than she had calculated, and she was caught in the foaming fury that rolled her back onto the sand like a piece of flotsam. The instructor caught a wave back to reach her.

“How you doing?”

“Humiliated. Everybody made it to the other side except me.”

“Give me your hand. We’ll do it together.”

Hand in hand, they shuffled backwards to where the water broke. They turned to face the oncoming waves and began the count.

“When I say ‘Now,’ take a couple of deep breaths, raise your arms above your head, and nose dive deep under the breaker. Concentrate on your breathing and the rhythm of the waves. Ready?”



Melinda took a final deep breath, bit on the regulator mouthpiece, and lunged forward and down. The surf rolled over her, and she found herself bobbing in the womb of a swell. Above her, she could see the finned feet in scissors motion of her diving buddies as they treaded water. She surfaced among them embarrassed and apologetic.

“Fantastic!” said one of them.

“That was awesome!” said another.

“Let’s go,” said the instructor. The students kicked their fins in the air and disappeared in the ocean.

Melinda struggled to keep up with them. Her buddy slowed his pace to be by her side and occasionally gave her a thumb up. At times he pointed down to an abalone shell or to an eel behind a rock. Sea urchins were everywhere. A school of silvery fish passed her by, ignoring her intrusion into their world. She was at peace in this environment and slowed her pace even further to take in every inch of her surroundings.


Three more dives followed and her swimming improved each time, but she was still the last one in the group.

Then came the written test. She hadn’t studied the decompression tables nor done the exercises to calculate the safe ascent rate to avoid “the bends”—the intoxicating effect of narcosis that is the bane of many divers.

“You need to take the class again,” the instructor told her.

“You mean I failed?”

“There’s no such thing as failure. There is trying out something and learning that it isn’t for you. There is giving up, and there is perseverance. You aced the written part, but you need to become a stronger swimmer. My next class will begin Monday. Will I see you there?”

“I passed the written part?”

“Ninety-five percent.”

“I’ll be there.”

Again, she began swimming with diving equipment at the Y. Then came the first dive off the boat followed by the more daunting dive from the beach. The surf was more menacing this time, still she managed to surface on the far side of the breaker together with her buddies; but she lost the goggles in the process and couldn’t continue the dive. She swam back to the beach and waited.

At the end of the class, the instructor informed her that she had made great progress but needed to keep trying.

“What for? I’m good for nothing.” Nothinn . . . thinn . . . thiinn …

“Are you going to quit or are you coming back for another try?” The instructor silenced the echo.

“I’ll be there.” Silence trailed her voice.

Melinda returned to the Y for her swimming practice followed by the series of required dives. She had mastered the dive off the boat, where the waves rocked her like a baby in a cradle. The dive from the beach, however, continued to be a challenge. The surf seemed to gain fury with each dive, as if determined to remain unconquered. Melinda was waist deep in the water, facing the advancing breaker that gained strength as it came closer. She took a deep breath. The crest rose high. She arched her body, arms out front, and launched into the trough. She surfaced on the far side of the crest and watched the wave roll away, yielding its power as it approached the beach.

“That was awesome!” she shouted.

“Good dive,” said the instructor. Back at the dive shop, he presented her with the diving certificate.

“I can’t believe I did it!”

“You have a strong will. You can do anything you put your mind to.”

That evening, she wasn’t bothered by the cacophony of nightlife outside her window. The instructor’s words echoed in her head, “Strong will…anything you put your mind to…”

“I can do this,” she repeated to herself.  She saw a future flash in front of her. She’ll become a diving instructor; she’ll study the ocean, become an oceanographer; she’ll study marine ecology. The opportunities were plenty.  She called her mother. “Mom, I’m a certified scuba diver.”

“What’s the good of that?”

“I just wanted you to know. I’m gonna continue with my classes to become a professional diver.”

“You mean like a Coast Guard?”

“Could be.”

“Maybe some military discipline will put some sense into you.”

“It’s what I want, Mom.”

“You’re stubborn enough to succeed,” was as close as her mother could get to wishing her daughter well.

“No, Mom. I have a strong will.”