Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Cussin' Paul Gets Religion

Word spread fast at the poker club where the retired men of the community meet and play almost every day but not on Sunday out of respect for those who go to church. But this is Saturday and the word is out that Cussin’ Paul, in his 80s now, and a charter member, won’t be coming to play anymore. 

The word is, Paul's gone back to church and wants to stay clean as he put it recently to his friend Pete. Too many times he starts cussin’ when he’s dealt the wrong cards and he wants to stop all that. Better not to play cards and not cuss. More important things lie ahead.

Paul is no holy roller. He doesn’t think a man goes to hell for cussin’ but cussin’ can lead to worse stuff, and he’s too old, he says, to deal with getting upset anymore. Some people get upset and get over it. Not Paul. Anger has always lingered in Paul for offenses big and small, real and imagined. He doesn’t look for trouble but if trouble comes to him he remembers for life who brought it to him.

He tries to explain to Pete over a glass of apple juice—Paul quit drinking too, not that he thought a man could go to hell for drinking in moderation but Paul does very little in moderation except perhaps pray. In fact, until he got religion recently, Paul never prayed since kindergarten. But he has always believed in God and he knows—not simply believes—that one day he will meet God. 

“About a minute after I die, Pete, I’ll meet my maker and I’ll have to explain all this crap I’ve done. Not a pleasant experience to look forward to and I don’t want to make the dung heap any deeper."

Paul has no idea how to explain all the grudges and hatred he has had and held onto in his life. Some people, he tells Pete, get upset for an hour or a day or maybe a couple of days. But Paul, he’s still upset with people who did him wrong more than 70 years ago, back in grammar school. 

“This is not good thing, Pete, if you don’t want to go to hell. Forgiveness is the key. And sometimes I think I can forgive someone but then I remember what they did. I think it’s easier to forgive if you can forget. But I never forget."

Although Paul is still alive, most of his grammar school offenders are dead and he’s glad he doesn't know where the other ones are. Maybe in nursing homes or hospice. And that, he tells Pete, is the reason he decided to go back to church and start praying because despite his record he wants to go to heaven. Hell is not the answer.

"Pete, I figure if I go to hell I'll meet a lot of those people I never had a chance to even the score with here and if they’re breathing down there, the whole mess might start up again. 

"Bad enough," Paul adds,"to spend eternity with the devil, never mind a bunch of no-good so-and-sos who would have died a lot sooner had I found them before I got religion."

Pete is finally able to get a word in.

“Paul, what’s all this got to with you playing poker with the guys. You’ve been doing that for at least 15 years and no fights yet. You cuss a lot but if you can stop cussin’ why not pray and play poker in between. A lot of guys are dying off at the club or getting Old Timer’s Disease. We need you to sit in.

Paul leans back, sips his apple juice and tells Pete the heart of the problem. One of the guys in the card room stole his girl friend maybe 50 years ago but he doesn’t remember who Paul is but Paul remembers him like it happened yesterday. 

"Cindy was her name,” Paul says. “I wanted to marry her.”

Paul says the guy has been in his sights for years. But it’s always been a matter of what to do about him now that Paul himself is too old to beat the hell out of the guy. Besides, he sold all his guns when he got religion. 

“I thought about poisoning him, Pete, but he’s so bad at poker it was just fun to beat him all the time. But that gets tiresome when someone you really dislike is still breathing. So when I got religion, as you guys like to say, I knew I had to forget about him, something I can’t do, or else quit the poker club. But if you can do me a favor, maybe there’s a chance I can come back some day.

Pete assures Paul he’ll do anything to help.

“Well, Pete, this guy was a heavy smoker most of his life and like a lot of the old-timers playing cards with us he has emphysema pretty bad. I heard he also has a heart condition and wears a pacemaker. So any time someone in the poker club dies, you give me a ring and if he’s the one, I’ll come back and you can deal me in.

“Not a problem, Paul,” Pete says. "I’ll even call you if someone gets really sick. And if anybody falls out of a chair, maybe I don’t have to dial 911 too fast. After all, I’m the youngest guy in the club at 73 and the only one with a cell phone. You keep saying your prayers. I hope you make it to heaven because you’d be the wrong guy to run into in hell.

Donal Mahoney

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

He’d Rather Be Carrion than a Vulture

Perhaps young writers today who hope to write poetry or fiction while teaching at the college level might profit from my experience years ago when I had the same dreams. I was finishing a master’s degree in English, hoping to go on for the doctorate, and then teach as a professor of English at a college or university, and write poems for the rest of my life. Maybe a little fiction as well, I thought, after reading J.D. Salinger.

Then I attended my first English Department holiday party for faculty and staff at my university. I was invited because I had an assistantship that required I teach two courses of rhetoric a semester in return for remission of tuition and a small stipend. The professors and their wives were all there and this was the first time I had seen my teachers outside the classroom environment. 

The profs were a gracious bunch, all from good stock, and I was not particularly gracious nor from stock similar to theirs. I was the son of immigrants from Chicago where everyone was rough and tough and hard to bluff, or so they thought, and spoke a language riddled with balderdash and buncombe. All I had in common with most of my professors is that I, too, could write and spell.

As the party progressed, I mingled as best I could and talked with several professors who had guided me through Milton, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Old and Middle English, all the usual courses required for the master’s degree. All I had to do was finish my thesis. It was a barn-burner in gestation, tentatively entitled “Ralph Waldo Emerson: His Concept of Skepticism and His Doctrine of the Infinitude of the Private Man.” 

It was a hybrid piece, the spawn of two papers I had written for a class in Emerson. I needed to write an introduction, middle and conclusion, provided I could find some way to marry the two papers that had no discernible connection. Apparently I succeeded because months later the prof who oversaw my thesis told me in all seriousness that although he disagreed with my conclusion, my thesis was accepted. 

At the party, however, the profs did not yet know I wanted to go on for the doctorate, teach and write poems. I had had by then perhaps 12 poems appear under a pen name in the university literary magazine, typical juvenilia for a poet starting out. For some reason, I knew using my own name would not have been a good thing. But I did not yet understand why in light of my goals I should be more interested in writing and publishing literary criticism in scholarly journals rather than poetry. I knew, however, that was the way to get ahead in any English department. “Publish or perish” was the motto of the time and probably still is today for anyone who wants to move up over time from assistant professor to full professor. 

As the evening wore on, I finally sought out the chairman of the department. I had never had him for class but knew that his specialty was Victorian literature. He was a nice man who would have a big voice in whether I might get financial help to go on for the doctorate. To the best of my memory, student loans were not available at the time. My father’s hard work had made my first two degrees possible and I would never have asked him to pay for another one, although the assistantship I had for the master’s degree had lessened the load on him. 

The chairman asked about my plans and I told him about my desire to get the doctorate, teach and write poetry. He was obviously taken aback and asked if I had given any thought to writing scholarly papers. I said I was more interested in writing my own stuff. This obviously failed to reassure him that I might be a good candidate for the doctorate and he tried to help me understand why. 

He began by explaining that while writing poetry was a noble pursuit it was not a good way to earn a living teaching English at a university. Writing and publishing literary criticism in scholarly journals was the way to get ahead. I would be wasting my time if my intent were to write poetry or fiction. He was kind and honest and did his best to set me straight. To this day, I am thankful to him for doing that.

But even if I had thought of it at the time, I doubt that I would have said what would later come to mind as to why I was not a good fit. But I knew I would never want to write about what someone else had written if it weren't a course requirement. I wanted to write my own stuff or, quite frankly, write nothing at all. 

I don’t think it was a matter of ego or pride although that element had to be a factor. I had written enough long papers to take two degrees and I had had my fill of that kind of thing. To be sure, I thought certain types of writers were called to write serious literary criticism and their efforts could be helpful to scholars. But I was not a scholar in the traditional sense and not cut out for that kind of writing beyond the classroom. 

Years later, when asked by someone else why I didn’t want to write criticism, I said I would rather have poems of mine be carrion in the grass rather than be the vulture who drops down to eat them. I no doubt found those words deep in my satchel of balderdash and buncombe. 

I never did go on for the doctorate and I think that was truly for the best. I worked mostly as an editor and writer for years with a late foray into raising money for charity. That also tapped my love for words. Nothing quite like trying to convince the wealthy to dig deep to help the poor. Some give willingly when the case is presented. With others, metaphorically speaking, a toilet plunger helps unless you point out the tax advantages. 

On my own time, I have done fairly well writing poetry, fiction and essays. It’s been an interesting life in that regard and continues to this day. Hundreds of students have also benefited from never having to hear me lecture on Dryden and Pope, had I taken the doctorate. I never did like couplets and probably would have said so at the wrong time. That probably would have been as politically incorrect as writing poetry rather than criticism while a member of the English Department at a good university.

Donal Mahoney

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Obvious and Hidden

The homeless are obvious in the city I drive into when business or a ball game requires that I make the tripThey’re napping on benches and dozing against buildings downtown, their possessions in shopping bags close by. They are by the standards of many suburbanites who drive by them an indecorous sight. 

Because the homeless in the city are obvious, people with homes often complain. As a result, the homeless are “served” by various agencies that want to meet their needs and help them get off the streets.

In my city, the homeless are served in frigid winters and torrid summers by herding them into shelters where they can sleep until they are sent back out when weather conditions improve. They get food from public agencies and private charities. Some good-hearted people simply drive up and give them food.

Largely unserved, however, are the hidden poor, because many of the hidden poor live in suburbs and stay out of sight. Many live with relatives who have taken them in. At best, life for the hidden poor is three "hots" and a cot and maybe watching TV all day.

Many of the hidden poor are old or disabled or both. Employers aren’t interested in them for different reasons, some valid, some not. But more of them live in the suburbs than the number of homeless who sleep on benches and sidewalks in the cities. You don’t need a government study to prove that. 

If you live in the suburbs, you may think you see the homeless only when you go into the city. But keep an eye out for the hidden poor in your own neighborhood. They are homeless in a different way even if they have a bed or cot at night. Sometimes they take a walk—or are taken for a walk--especially in the early morning or at dusk. Otherwise you might not see them or hear about them very often because few lobbyists are paid to advance their cause.

Donal Mahoney

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Something is Wrong

“The job should pay what the job is worth. You know that,” Bill told Fred. The two of them were at the same table in a nice restaurant awaiting delivery of prime rib after another hard day at the office. They were munching on appetizers and sipping a new imported beer. 

Until recently, Fred had agreed with Bill. Capitalism is the only system that will work in a functioning society. Throughout history other systems had failed miserably. 

"Employers have to make a profit,” Bill said. Fred agreed. Employers compete with each other for capable employees and they have to pay the going rate, sometimes more in certain areas of expertise if qualified people are scarce. 

It was hard for Fred to talk with Bill about his other concerns from a different, politically incorrect angle. But his experience at home over the weekend, where a Vietnam vet had done some odd jobs for him, had him thinking about work in America. 

The vet suffered from PTSD and had been unable to find or hold a job in industry, despite a degree in engineering and a willingness to work. Fred had hired the man to do odd jobs around the house when his own work at the office had become extra heavy. He was glad the man was able to help and he paid him well.

“Bill, I told you about this guy who does odd jobs for us around the house. An engineer with PTSD from Vietnam. Not able to hold a regular job because of his nerves. True, the work he does for me doesn’t require great skill but it does take time and energy. He probably put in more than 20 hours for me around the house this weekend. And his work was good—probably better than I would have done if I had had the time. My wife is happy and so am I. So the question is do I pay him what the job is worth. Or do I pay him what he is worth—as a human being. And how do I calculate that?”

“What do you mean, Fred, pay him what he’s worth as a human being? You’re not a charity. He’s worth what the job he does is worth,” said Bill, signaling the waitress for two more beers.

“Bill, I’m beginning to think there’s more to it than that. As you and I learned in civics class too long ago, all men are created equal, as cliché as that may sound. We aren’t equal based on what we do, but by virtue of who we are as human beings. 

"Skills vary drastically but what makes anyone as a human being worth more than anyone else? This guy should be able to make a living, despite his disability. Like us, he’s an engineer. Why shouldn’t he be able to earn what the pols call a living wage. You and I probably would have a hard time making it on a living wage. We’re living much better. Shouldn’t he be able to earn a living, a real living, maybe not in the same ballpark as us, but enough to sleep at night? Not because he’s a vet but because he’s a human being.”

Bill wasn’t buying the idea. He was still upset about being delayed in traffic that morning by fast-food workers marching around downtown demanding $15.00 an hour to flip burgers.

“Fred, if you want to pay the man a living wage as a private citizen, that’s your right. But don’t expect private business to do that. Private business has to make a profit. How much are you willing to pay for a double cheeseburger? This prime rib tonight isn’t cheap and it would cost a heck of a lot more if bus boys were getting $15.00 an hour. Is there no place for entry-level jobs anymore?”

“I’m not talking entry level, Bill. I think people at our level in the fast-food business should make a little less so people who make the burgers can be paid well enough to live. I’m no socialist but something isn't right in our society now. Many people work 40 hours a week and still have to use food stamps. 

"At the grocery store the other day, the woman at the register—she had to be in her fifties—told me she’s on food stamps despite working at the store for 20 years. She’s damn good at what she does. As a human being what makes her worth less than you and me? 

"I just think people who work full time should be paid enough not to need food stamps. And that employers should be restricted somehow from hiring an army of part-time workers so they can avoid hiring people full-time.”

Perhaps it was a good thing their prime rib arrived at the table at that moment because Bill was hurting for answers and Fred was tired of sounding like a socialist. He was far from being a socialist. He was just tired of seeing so many people underpaid and living week to week. Never mind the way the truly poor have to live, he told Bill over dessert later, as it was prepared with flame by a waiter at their table. 

After the waiter had left, Fred said to Bill, “Should that waiter have to depend on tips to make a decent living? You and I can afford to tip well but not everybody can, yet the waiter still has to pay his bills. I wouldn’t be surprised if at times he hasn’t had to rely on food stamps like the lady at the grocery store. 

"Something’s wrong with how we deal with working people in America and we better fix it before the wrong people wreck the system instead of fixing it.”

Bill didn’t have much else to say about the matter. He still strongly believed a job should pay what a job is worth. And Fred, after holding forth for the evening, was even more convinced that the system isn’t working. He was convinced something is wrong with how people are paid, never mind how the truly poor are treated. If there are no jobs for them, government has to do a better job meeting their needs. Philanthropy is important but it can’t be relied on to carry to whole load. 

Sitting there with the last of his coffee, Fred knew that he had convinced himself, if not his friend Bill, that experts in economics had better find a way to repair our system. And elected officials and voters had better put those repairs into effect after arguing about them. Too much time had already been wasted. And the working poor and the truly poor no longer sounded like they’re willing to live on the scraps that fall from the tables of people like Fred and Bill.

Donal Mahoney

They Were Kept in the House or They Disappeared

After World War II, I grew up in a neighborhood where most people made it but some did not. I don’t recall social services being available then but they may have been. It’s possible adults may have chosen not to access them or perhaps did so very quietly, without telling neighbors and other family members. 

Many of the same problems we have with us today were present then but they didn’t have names such as Attention Deficit Disorder or Hyperkinesis. Families dealt with problems, for better or worse, unless they became so severe “authorities” had to be called in. The police would usually be the first authority to arrive and would take certain individuals away. But in cases not involving the law, fairly often the individual—adult or juvenile—simply disappeared and was not seen again. No explanation was given.

Because of the times, it fell to families to care for adults and children who for various reasons could not function in what was then a simple society. 

Uncle Jack, for example, was an older adult cared for, in a way, by his family. As far as I know, no one outside his family ever dealt with him or his problems. He drank heavily and lived in the basement of his sister’s home for years while upstairs she and her husband reared their children and had what passed for a normal life. 

I was friends with one of their sons and I would often see Uncle Jack stretched on the couch in the basement when we would go down there to play. He was as much a part of the basement as the couch. He was always friendly whether drunk or on his way to becoming drunk. He liked kids and was no threat to us. 

Back then I recall no programs, private or public, that would have helped Uncle Jack. No doubt Alcoholics Anonymous was helping people, but I never heard of the agency in our neighborhood where drinking was a problem in many families. For some alcoholics, religion was thought to be the answer. I don’t think Uncle Jack tried it.

Another difficult case involved Joey Joey, as he was called, a boy in third grade and a classmate of mine. His mother invited three of us over for lunch one day, perhaps to see if good food might enlist us to play with Joey whose behavior was erratic and unpredictable. 

Today they have medicines and services that help modify such behaviors. Back then Joey was simply called “spastic," although none of us knew what the word meant. It’s likely he suffered from a variety of disorders identified and treated today

I don’t doubt his mother, a very intelligent woman, must have taken him to the doctor but Joey never changed. In time, he simply disappeared. Perhaps his family moved. 

Petey was another case in point. An aggressive boy, Petey disappeared in fourth grade after hitting a girl in the third row for some infraction never disclosed. Until then Petey was the toughest kid in fourth grade, a classification he savored and his classmates knew well. But after he hit the girl, he was never seen again although rumor had it he was sent to military school. We all thought he would at least come home for summer vacation but he never did. 

His failure to appear became even stranger as the years went by because grammar school relationships, good or bad, were important and always renewed whether one might want them to be or not. 

I currently interact regularly by email with a classmate from kindergarten through high school, someone I have not seen in 50 years and it’s as though we’re still playing basketball together. He was expelled in senior year and retired long before I did but as a millionaire. Brilliant, he probably had Attention Deficit Disorder or some similar problem that made keeping quiet in class difficult. 

Another problem child was Bobby. Unlike the others he did have irregular facial features, indicative perhaps of some illness unknown to us then but well known today. No one thought much of that. He was just Bobby. He never said anything to classmates but did go to school, “mainstreamed" with the rest of us although that term wasn’t used then. 

Before Bobby disappeared, my mother saw him one Sunday morning sitting on his front porch eating night crawlers from a dish. Perhaps the family had plans to go fishing. 

My mother mentioned this to me later since she knew that I went to school with Bobby. But she would not have talked to his parents nor reported him to anyone. There was no one to report him to and telling his parents would have been considered an affront back then. It was no crime to eat night crawlers. 

In my neighborhood, there was no social agency active at the time that I recall devoted to helping children like Bobby. I was no angel myself so if there were professionals in the neighborhood trying to help those in worse shape than me, I would certainly have known about it and steered clear of them. 

When I finally escaped and went to college in 1956, things had not changed. The area was bereft of social services except for a newly-built YMCA where the staff members had a religious agenda in conflict with the predominant religion in the neighborhood. We boys would listen to the staff so we could play on the outdoor basketball courts, the best in the neighborhood.

I remember coming home from school on summer vacation after junior year and seeing an old friend up on the main street where everyone still gathered. Maybe two or three of us had gone on to college in a neighborhood where money was scarce. Most of my friends had joined the Army or had become police officers and firemen.  

When I saw Jimmy, however, I remembered immediately what a terrific athlete he had been in high school. He could play any sport and might have won a scholarship if he had been good with books.  Today he might be classified as hyperkinetic, which served him well in sports but not in the classroom. When I saw him that summer night, he was in early adulthood leap-frogging parking meters in front of Tony’s Pizzeria. He cleared them as easily as a kangaroo but the police, driving by, stopped and took him home. Only one person saw Jimmy after that, and it was some years later.

However, we would see his twin brother around the neighborhood, but he never said anything about Jimmy and no one would ever ask. Rumor had it that Jimmy was kept “upstairs" all day and taken out at night to a restaurant or bar in a different neighborhood for an airing. He wasn’t seen for years until another classmate, then in his thirties and out for a late night drink, saw Jimmy in a bar with his twin. Both were very reserved, simply nodded and said hello.

It was the trend then that adults, young and old, with problems not severe enough to disappear would be kept in a relative’s house, usually the house of the parents. Such an individual was not discussed in the neighborhood. But I recall no one ever seeking help from a specialist. In fact I recall no specialists with offices nearby except for the one who was there for years. He was an optometrist who relieved my myopia with spectacles in third grade. He was the first man I saw always wearing a white shirt and tie. He probably had a long drive home at night.

Today there is real help for people with problems severe and more severe than those I saw growing up between the end of World War II and prior to television. But in my old neighborhood, that help did not seem to be available. And so the afflicted were kept in the house or they disappeared. That, of course, is not the case today. Now there seem to be more problems and more professionals to assist with them. 

Donal Mahoney

Wednesday, September 2, 2015


During the McCarthy Era, when I was five years old, my father, who was an aeronautical engineer and had a high-level security clearance, pulled me aside one evening, rather roughly, after my mother had stuffed me with dinner, pushed his face into mine and commanded: Don’t ever tell anyone we’re Russian. His parents were Russian. Waves of his aftershave, Old Spice, radiated off his face and nauseated me.
I knew my grandparents. I knew they spoke with an accent, but didn’t know they were Russian. I didn’t know what Russian was. I didn’t know what he did for a living or that FBI agents came to his work, questioned him, and tried to entrap him into admitting that he was an alcoholic, an adulterer, and a homosexual, though he was none of those things.
I learned the lesson to keep my mouth shut, which served me well when I married a Sicilian and went to work for her family.

After I joined the Witness Protection Program and was relocated to a dry, western state, I became a poet. Later, I went on this vacation. Walking mindless round and round the promenade deck of this cruise ship is all I want for eternity.
No, I told the interviewer after my third, greatly acclaimed collection of poetry was published, I don’t take myself seriously. How could I take myself seriously? How could anyone? If I were a member of an animal protection society who snuck into slaughterhouses with a hidden camera, at great risk to myself then I might take myself seriously. If the owner discovered my activities and had his Mexican crew chief and her twin sister take me outside in the space between the killing floor and a set of battered dumpsters to beat the shit out of me and leave me like a carcass bleeding from the mouth, maybe then I’d take myself seriously. But I’ve already had my life of danger, and it was solely for selfish reasons.

Mitchell Grabois


If they were going to put me in the nuthouse I was going to need my collection of Bertita Harding novels. They had power. They would keep me alive, those stories of Karl and Zita of Hungary, Austria’s Franz Joseph and Elizabeth, the Mexicans Maximillian and Carlotta, Duse and Da, whose tale age cannot wither, and the glowing story of Clara Shumann. But my wife, a Lithuanian, whose hands were superlatively strong from decades of milking cows, tore them from my grasp and shoved them into the Fat Boy, where I heard them crackling in anguish as she held me away. I would have burned my hands retrieving them and not cared at all.
All I could save was my favorite, the story of the Braganzas of Brazil, who torn independence from the Empire of Portugal, which I had hidden in my patterned brocade vest, which I wore over my cummerbund.
They also took my zither away from me when they got me in the bughouse. They said I was disturbing the other prisoners, but how could the celestial music that issued from my fingers disturb the already deeply disturbed? I would have cured them with music, though I could never cure myself. That is often the way of the world: Jesus died for our sins.
The hell with you all. I was never cut out to be a farmer. When they release me I’ll take Bertita on the open road, and together we’ll find a green paradise, something like Ireland.

Mitchell Grabois