The Hexacoto

Listening to the sound of one hand clapping

Tag: New York

Second Saturdays

I regularly attend what is known as the “Second Saturdays” reading series — an open reading session that showcases Singaporean and often American writers. People — amateur and experienced writers alike — are invited to share their work and at the end, a featured writer usually reads from his or her published work.

For the last session of Second Saturdays, before it goes on hiatus for the summer, I decided to read something that came from my own work and also that of Josh. I always saw the series as a great way to bring Singaporean and American writers together, and what better way to end the season than a piece that came from both places?

Before Josh died, he was very protective over his writing and never let anyone read anything he wrote — I’ve scarcely seen any of his work. Upon his death, with access to his lifetime of thoughts, notes, and writings, I wondered if his ghost would be angry at me for 1) reading something he never felt comfortable sharing 2) sharing a part of his work with strangers 3) deriving a piece from his and my collection of words.

Combing through his thoughts was difficult: his verses were often dark and macabre; testament to his life’s tribulations. But to represent his true self to others is to preserve his words in their entirety — life, death, foolishness and wisdom unedited.

Combining Josh’s work and mine was an endeavour. He had a penchant for profusion, I gravitated towards brevity. His ideas were surreal and mine were grounded in observational reality. Quite like the differences in our personality, our writing styles clashed. It was a wonder being together had even worked out. I had thought I would need to weave in and out of his poetry to integrate his words with mine for the collaborative pieces — that attempt felt contrite and was a failure. In the end, I found out that the best way to marry his work with mine was simply the way we had worked out — by coexisting side-by-side, without needing to become one.

The three pieces I read at the session are: An excerpt from a 10-part poem he wrote, a poem I wrote on my recent visit back to Singapore, and finally a poem which I had used his poem fragments and a part of one I had shared on this blog.

A Southern Gothic

3.
Pairs of lampposts
thunder towards us
at 60mph — two eyes
that widen, and then are overcome
by the next pair of posts,
more crooked than the last.
Tributaries of concrete,
the bloodlines of an efficient world,
blast their way through forests
and limestone walls.
Mechanical beasts shift their trunks
into the sides of pumping stations
and savor the black blood of the earth.

From time to time I will be at the wheel
and awake with a start:
Am I heading the right way?
And my grandmother whispers in my ear,
Let them pass you,
let them pass,
as they always will,
let them face the wrong way signs.

And now I can face the fireflies — the one spark
in the dogwood on the left,
then a torch of beings on the right
that ignites the forest into an enormous,
seizing strobe. Canals of concrete writhe
with the bodies of fallen bugs,
blinking like turn signals,
like lighters at a funeral,
like a child’s sparkler
on a hot and hazy
Fourth of July —
flowing as a gluttonous river
into the eye of blindness.

Washing Machine

When I was young
my father once punched a hole into the washing machine.
We were suppose to leave on a trip
but my mother had dallied.
I remember the yelling, the gesticulating,
and in a coup de grace,
he slammed his fist into the toploader
and plastic gave way to flesh
but not before leaving a gash
and he held in blood and pride
with a paper towel.
My mother was left speechless —
not solely because the appliance had been left splintered
but what is one to do when your husband
batters a daily household convenience?

I used to peer through the hole of the washing machine
and watch my worries spin cycle away.

Today,
the strength which punched a hole into the washing machine
now stoops and pauses to take more naps
as the anger has left
and all that remains is bitterness
from memories of an era bygone.
The rage which punched a hole into the washing machine
has crystallised into salt
that the elders supposedly consume — more than we do rice —
as we sit around and nod our heads
in obeisance.

NPY

I watched you bargain with the end of your cigarette,
contemplating, ruminating,
obsessing
with the concept of a minute
and how you wished you didn’t understand it.
You exhaled
and life and smoke exited in a curlicue.
“Everything is a spiral motion,” you said.
— Embracing arms, ivy choking a tree,
adulthood, regression, the corkscrew plot of our later years.
I frowned, and you silenced prematurely the dying ember
that hangs from your fingers.
We taste each other with our bodies
and read the future in our bones
and in our newfound knowledge,
we roll over to sleep.

I woke up and found that I have wet my bed
with tears that I cried into cupped hands
that slowly seeped through my fingers
because I forgot what you looked like.

A pile of clean laundry lies on one side of the bed
because I can pretend that you are there
as you used to enjoy jumping on top of it
when it is fresh out of the dryer.

Who will help me put the covers on the comforter?

I still sleep on my side of the bed
with my head faced away from the middle
I still try not to snore when I sleep
so as not to disturb your ghost.

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Faith ignites a message that falls on stone ears

Faith

A red glow spreads as
electric lotus lamps burn
from a rosewood altar.

Ignites

Three sticks of incense
stuck into the ashes of previous attempts
to reach you.
I flick the dial of a lighter
and it goes “schick, schick.”
A few sparks and the flame is lit,
a covenant made on one end.

Three sticks of incense
rouse and extend fragrant tendrils skywards.
An extension to the heavens —
patch me through, operator.
The sandalwood dance this way and that,
seemingly reluctant to secure the connection,
but like all prayer,
one speaks regardless
of whether the other side is listening.

A Message

“Tua Pek Gong ah, Tua Pek Gong,
my grandma looked to you
for conferrings of harmony
the pious could achieve.
For those who hold their faith each day
in sticks of burning wood.
Structured sutras calm the heart;
metrical relief.

I washed upon these concrete shores,
a boat with much to give.
And countless leagues I’ve had to cross
to berth my anchors in
a port of gold, or so I’m told,
where dreams are to be had.
But all I have to moor the tide
are merely ropes of tin.

Tua Pek Gong ah, Tua Pek Gong
I do not know the form in which to speak
the words that my ancestors would beseech
protections that would sooth the stormy seas.
But would your red auspices run its course
In lands where red is mixed with white and blue?
Where ships are not the vessels they were built
but kindling from the boards that have been stripped.
I rely on mantras that I borrowed
in hopes of days where boats could be ships

That Falls On

Rectitude is all I have when
circumstances bend my back

My communion withers
as three sticks of incense stand
on their last legs.

Stone Ears

A ceramic smile
glazed upon a statuette
could never waver.

The Dishes

20160723_133951

(This is post is backdated, written on 23rd July, 2016)

It is 6.30pm and I need to do the dishes to make food. I haven’t eaten all day. I have a lot of groceries that you had left behind that I need to use so they don’t go bad.



Josh, I can’t do the dishes you left behind. The cup with the poppy seeds for your stupid poppy seed tea, I’m sorry for getting mad at you for leaving poppy seeds all over the floor. I’m washing that giant measuring cup you filled with Lactaid because of your lactardness. I don’t know what the fuck was in that bowl that was your last meal you had while alive. I don’t know how to grieve in company. You were the only one I ever cried openly to. I don’t know how to do this. Yes I always noticed when you cleaned the house. Yes I always noticed when you did things for me. I just never said it. I want to be able to call you a cup slut again, when you use up all the cups in the house. I know you went on reddit Singapore to ask them about what to get me for my birthday. I really appreciated it and the gifts you got me, even though you were tight on cash. I just never told you that. I don’t know how to do your dishes, Josh.

It is 9.30pm. The dishes are done. I can finally cook now.

 

<– DAY 0

DAY 2 –>

Sanctuaries

stonewall

Yesterday, I was feeling very affected by the attack on LGBT nightclub Pulse in Orlando, Florida, but I wasn’t quite sure why. I did not directly know any of the victims, was not there, nor was I Latino — the majority of the victims — and my only connection to the incident was that I was a QPOC. But it wasn’t that connection that stirred something inside me. It was the idea that our sanctuary has been so easily trashed that struck me.

In 2009, I was bound for New York for college, and it would have been my first foray into the United States. In preparation for the journey, I researched as much as I could about the city, and learned that it was a haven for the LGBT community and the Stonewall Inn was where the LGBT rights movement first started. At the time, I had never experienced or dabbled in anything of that nature — I was too concerned with school and extracurriculars to be even bothered. Never been inside a gay club, never kissed, never held a hand.

But I learned about the concept that there are spaces where one could go and be amongst like people. Places where for while, one could let one’s hair down and not worry — nay not think — about disapproving stares, much less the fear of rebuke and reproach. Sanctuaries.

One of the very first few things when I had landed in New York and had generally unpacked was to pump up my unicycle (my preferred mode of transportation) and go for a ride in the city. I was curious about this Greenwich Village and Chelsea, spoken of in Wikipedia (Hell’s Kitchen had yet to be linked into the Gay Village Wikipedia article at the time, or I wasn’t looking very closely) and unicycled down the legendary Christopher Street I had heard so much of.

I wasn’t too disappointed. Back then in 2009, the West Village was on its way to being gentrified but still clung on to the vestiges of its gay subculture. I still saw, in broad daylight, men in leather suits and heels and caps, LGBT people openly holding hands and kissing, bears, daddies, twinks, dykes and all shades of the rainbow and I smiled.

“This isn’t too bad. I think this place could work,” I thought.

I hit the end of Christopher St, past the leather and daddy bars, past McNulty’s (love that tea/coffee merchant) but did not go to the piers, as I didn’t know about it then. I then made a U-turn and then back up 8th Avenue, all the way into Chelsea.

There, I saw a different gay people of a different ilk. Men with buzzcuts in their 30s and 40s bulked up with muscles exploding out of their inexplicably tight tank tops (I dubbed them the Chelsea gym bunnies), skinny gay men yakking all the time and the smattering of sex shops selling underwear, poppers and porn. I didn’t dare go into any of them then, but yet I still felt safe standing in the streets even as I was among some of the people physically quite unlike me — in skin colour, size, and much more. Yet I felt like I belonged.

I was merely standing in the streets of these gay-bourhoods and already I felt for the first time I was surrounded by a community of people like me, a refreshing change from the dour looks back home. I wasn’t even in a gay club (that’s another story) but even though I was in a strange land, I felt safe, despite having been traipsing New York City roads and traffic on one wheel on one of my first few days here.

“Welcome to sanctuary” the city seemed to be saying to me.

And over the years, I have made many friends, created many communities, have been accepted by many communities, and created my own family here in New York.

The Pulse club was one such sanctuary for many gay men and women to enjoy a night out without the fear of “faggot” being yelled their way. A place where LGBT people who were not yet ready or able to openly hold hands in public without being attacked to hold each other. A space where the only judging going on were eyes sizing you up whether to say “hi” and bring you home for the night, and not whether you were abominable sin.

But that night, all around the country, LGBT people were reminded that they were still from being safe to walk upright. That despite being surrounded by “allies” and the recent developments in gay rights, all it takes is one mentally ill person, one hateful person, any straight person welcomed into a gay space but ultimately striking fear into the gay people around him because he was told to quiet down, to make us question how safe are we, even in our sanctuaries.

And that was why I was perturbed.

“That’s something we write for white people”

chowmein

I know, I am super late to the game. Everyone worth his or her salt and MSG has already written about Calvin Trillin’s piece about Chinese food “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?” in the New Yorker.

I was quite nonplussed at his poem; it was a fairly tasteless poem, at best skirting around blandly with race while trying to give the impression that it was edgy and exciting. However, I was rather intrigued by the second stanza.

Now, as each brand-new province appears,
It brings tension, increasing our fears:
Could a place we extolled as a find
Be revealed as one province behind?
So we sometimes do miss, I confess,
Simple days of chow mein but no stress,
When we never were faced with the threat
Of more provinces we hadn’t met.
Is there one tucked away near Tibet?
Have they run out of provinces yet?

I’ll explain why that stanza piqued my interest after this fun story:

Near where I live, there’re a couple of Chinese takeout places. One claimed to be Hunan, but was probably about as Hunan as Trillin’s piece was insightful. Maybe the owners were indeed from Hunan, and that Hunan takeout restaurant merely meant “Hunan people making Chinese American food for people”. In fact, my neighbourhood being primarily Caribbean, Haitian and African American, their best seller, aside from General Tso Chicken Special, was actually fried chicken wings with french fries. Every time I go in there and wait for my order, most of the clientele would order “Fried Chicken Wing w FF”. I was probably the only one who bothers to look at the menu.

One night, after work, I was feeling kinda lazy and I just wanted Chinese takeout. As anyone in the U.S. knows, on Chinese takeout menus, under the noodles section there are usually “chow mein” dishes. I had no idea what chow mein was exactly, but since I speak Mandarin, I assumed it was simply fried noodles, because it sounds like “chao mian” (炒面). In my experience of ordering fried noodles, they’re usually fried wheat or egg noodles. So I went up to the acrylic-shielded counter and ordered in Mandarin, “I’ll have an order of barbecue pork fried noodles (叉烧炒面), number 18.”

She responded back in Mandarin, “Number 18? Oh you want fried rice vermicelli (炒米粉, chao mi fen)?”

I was confused. I asked, “Hang on, doesn’t number 18 say ‘chow mein’? That’s fried (wheat/egg) noodles, right?”

“Ohh. no,” she said. “That ‘chow mein’ is simply something we write for white people. While ‘chow mein’ does sound like fried noodles, it actually refers to rice vermicelli here. White people order ‘chow mein’ and get rice vermicelli and they don’t know the difference anyway.”

“Ah, I see. Uh, ok, so can I get the barbecue pork fried vermicelli then?”

“Sure thing.”

“So who orders the chow mein if most of the people here order fried chicken wings and french fries?”

“White people.”

“Oh, I see.”

“Simple days of chow mein but no stress,/When we never were faced with the threat/Of more provinces we hadn’t met.”? Trillin, I was pretty stressed out ordering that chow mein. I went into that Hunan takeout place expecting to go home with an order of fried egg noodles and left with an order of fried rice vermicelli instead. I’m not sure if universally in New York chow mein is always rice vermicelli, because some of my friends attest to them actually getting egg noodles, but they always order in English. In another Chinese eatery (cha chan teng) in Chinatown, I saw a sign for chow mein, but it was thankfully accompanied by the Chinese characters for rice vermicelli. I confidently ordered the chow mein this time expecting rice vermicelli.

It’s hard enough to be an expert on Chinese food, even as a Chinese person. But Trillin, when you claim that life might have been better in the simple chow mein days, I’m afraid you’ve simply been eating rice vermicelli all along, and it’s hard for me to take you seriously.

Seaworthy, But A Worth Not Seen

A ship arrived in the city
No one is aboard
A massive liner that could carry thousands
Not a soul to be seen
The finest luxuries afforded
No silverware even touched
A ship arrived in the city
No one knows why it was there

“Where did it come from?”
“When did it come?”
“How did it get here?”
“Who brought it here?”
“Why did it come here?”
“What will we do with it?”

Perhaps we could scuttle it, said one, use its wood as kindling
Perhaps we could make a playground out of it, said another
Perhaps as a homeless shelter?
No one thought to use it as a ship

And so the city folk took their axes
And hacked the ship apart
They pried plank from frame, steel from heart
The ship wept salty tears
For the ship crossed leagues and leagues of sea
To see a city it has heard of
Of shining ports and great big lights
Where ships could be ships

The interview that never got published

bmission

As some of you may know, I am currently writing for the International Business Times. On the day the snowstorm was supposed to hit, I pitched a story wondering how various cities in the United States Northeast were going to help the homeless. I got to go to the historic Bowery Mission in Manhattan, and the operations director Matt Krivich was kind enough to show me around. Beyond that, he helped with my request to talk to one of the homeless who was seeking shelter from the storm.

I got to interview Gerald Hudson, an African-American Vietnam War veteran. As much as I wished I could have written the interview as it was spoken to me, I had to quote Hudson as I would in an article; that is in the third person. Here is how the interview went as Hudson and I spoke.


Me: Are you keeping warm from this storm?

Gerald Hudson: I’m just trying my best, man.

Me: Do you mind if I ask you a couple of questions?

GH: Sure thing! I just want to let you know, thanks to this Mission, I have the warmest equipment around.

Me: What do you mean by “warmest equipment?”

GH: A jacket, man. This Mission gave me a jacket.

Me: Is that the one you’re wearing right now?

GH: No way. I only wear that specially when I go out. I ain’t gonna wear that in here. Do you want me to show you?

Me: Is that alright with you?

GH: Sure! Come, follow me!

(We walk to the chapel)

GH: I’m a grateful man, and I’m always grateful for what this Mission has done for me.

(We walk to the pews where Hudson has his stuff. He lifts his bag off the pews, and hidden underneath is a nice brown jacket)

Me: That’s a very nice jacket.

GH: Yeah, it keeps me warm when I go out.

Me: So how did you know to come in here for the storm? Did someone tell you?

GH: No, I’ve been here for two weeks.

Me: Oh, so you didn’t just come in for the storm?

GH: Nah, I’ve been here for two weeks. But trust me I’m trying to get a place to live. The last time before that was six months ago.

Me: I’m sorry?

GH: I don’t want to be here too much. I’ve been here for two weeks, and the last time I had to be here was six months ago.

Me: Oh, Where were you during the time you were not here. Did you have a place to stay?

GH: Yea, kind of.

Me: What happened, if you don’t mind me asking?

GH: Bad things happened, violence and stuff. I’m just trying to get a permanent place to stay, you know that? But I’m just waiting for the right time for that to happen.

Me: I’m sure that will work out for you one day.

GH: I’m a vet, you know that? Vietnam War.

Me: I’m grateful for what you’ve done for the country, as I’m sure many others are.

GH: I came back, and I had a hard time. I’m at the epitome of… of… (can’t remember what he said here)

Me: Are you a religious man?

GH: I’m a believer, I’m a believer in God, in the Father, and that he will take care of me.

Me: Well I hope things work out for you.

GH: I hope so too. Hey man you know I gotta try, but would you by any chance…? (hand gestures) But I don’t think you can right?

Me: I’m sorry, I’m not supposed to give anything. I wish you all the best.

GH: Alright you take care too, God bless.