The Lessons of Mr. Wu

I'm in NYC for a few days between the sales conference for Cinco Puntos (Consortium Book Sales and Distribution is our distributor) and the Book Expo next week. I'm trying to get some writing done, putting together a poetry manuscript, looking through old journals, writing whatever I want. And every day for a few hours I get to wander the streets. This is something from my journal.

Monday around 2pm I was deep in the hubbub of New York City, leaving Times Square on the “R” Train going south. I like the "R" Train. It's not so crowded, the cars are newer. A couple of young people were smooching a couple of seats down. In her excitement the girl dropped her can of Coca-Cola, the boy tried to grab it, but he was too late. A puddle of the dark sparkling sugary stuff spilled out onto the floor. The girl giggled. The boy apologized, he picked up the can before it was completely empty but what else could he do? She snuggled her head into a comfortable place on his shoulder and hugged him around the waist so he went back to the more important business of fondling her. A black woman, old like me, hurrumphed at their activity. The train started off and the puddle began to flow, becoming a long tiny river reaching inch by inch back toward where it came from. Like it had its own intelligence, like it had something to say to me--the Tao of Coca-Cola. I watched it slither toward the end of the train. It never came to a logical or physiological conclusion. The train screeched to a halt at 34th Street and the river reversed, understanding the laws of its existence, and snaked back the other way, its integrity intact. Once more a tiny crest of the Tao flowed past my feet. The woman looked at me and pursed her lips. She too was a student of the little rivulet. Weird, huh? 23rd Street. The Coca-Cola repeated its performance, but this time half-heartedly. I suppose this is entropy. I’m always trying to figure out what that word means. Although I can feel it in my bones.The girl and boy got off at 14th to play kissy-face in Union Square. That was my wish for them. The black woman watched them go, gave me a big smile and rose majestically for her exit at the 8th Street Station. A few others came and went, but nobody stepped on the river of Coca-Cola. It would have been a foolish and unlucky act. Bad mojo. I got off on Canal Street. I had business with a Mr. Wu.

When the weather is good he sets up his card table on the south side of Canal near Mott in the swirling humanity at the edge of Chinatown. His business he calls “Grass Arts.” He cuts small thin strips of bamboo and thick grasses, he dyes the strips various colors and then he braids them into exquisite little animals. Like palm crosses the church ladies make to celebrate the arrival of Jesus to Jerusalem, but these animals are lovely and very delicate. Real craftsmanship. I bought a mouse and two swallows, gifts for grandchildren and friends. $20 bucks I gave to Mr. Wu. Happy for my success I took the slow way home. I’m on vacation and I get to enjoy the bustle and chaos that is New York City. After walking around through Columbus Park, I took the #6 to Grand Central Terminal and walked to Bryant Park. I clutched my bag of Grass Arts. I didn’t want to lose it. I sat in the green grass under the library and read my book. And then after a while I hopped the #104 bus, still clutching my paper sack and my purse.

Oh, it was a beautiful springtime ride up Broadway toward my borrowed home on the West Side. People came and went. I got a place near the window and went back to my reading. The book is Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Malantes. It's gotten great press, I was given a galley (one of the bennies of being a publisher) and so I brought it along. The book has swallowed me up. The first half of the book is about a platoon of soldiers (boys really, 18 and 19 years old, some as old as 23) struggling through the gunk of the jungle in the rain and mud, little or no support from their command. Their clothes are rotting off, pus is oozing from all their sores, their feet are swollen with jungle rot. They are fighting and suffering and dying, their commanders and the chain of command lost in their own mechanical psyches of ambition and fear and delusion. I was one of the young men who dodged that war. For good reasons too--I never wanted to go to Vietnam, I didn’t know anything about Vietnam, I didn’t believe anything that was told to me, and I was afraid. But I have friends who did go. Now all these years later I am sure that violence answers absolutely no question of politics, nationality, ethnicity or whatever reason the power brokers use to stir up their pot of madness,. But how do I know this really? It remains an abstract idea. So I study violence like a man who has misplaced something in his house. Something that I need to find and understand. Sure, this is crazy, but it’s who I am and it's what I do. I'm an old man now. At 107th I got off the bus. I was hungry and somehow sad. The sorrow inside the book was sinking into me. I went home and ate.

This morning I got ready to send one of Mr. Wu’s little birds to my granddaughter Birdie. The pink one. Birdie loves pink. But the sack of Grass Arts, I realized after searching frantically around the apartment, is still on the #104 bus. The bus went into Harlem, my sack of Mr. Wu’s gifts like a piece of flotsam in that puddle of Coca Cola, moving along to wherever it goes. I hope somebody found them and passed the beautiful little animals to their children or grandchildren. Or maybe an old man found the sack and he needed the money so he sold them to somebody on the street. I hope so anyway. I hope those little creatures of grass found a good home for a while.

Tomorrow I will go back to see Mr. Wu.


Glenn Buttkus said...

This journal entry already reads like a Hemingway short story, like a Faulkner road trip diary. I always detect the poet in your prose, like your entries on the camping trip with your son, and your trip up the mountain in New Mexico to see the Jesus statue; lively, full of color, acerbic yet hopeful, the writer's watching the world and processing his moments of perception. Hope you got back to Mr. Wu, and found solace in more of his grass art. Have you written short stories or novellas? You should. You have an IN with a publisher I hear.

Joseph said...

Bobby, vivid mementos from your New York stay--the Coke stream and Mr. Wu's animals, the commentary together with the photos.