How to Say Hello & How to Say Goodbye

Self-Portrait ,July 2012

I always have envied black men saying hello to each other. Complete strangers. They nod their heads, Hey brother. Walking down the street, in a public place, on a bus, even driving down the street. It didn't matter. Their saludos to each other became more pronounced when they're in a white place--white men, white women, the Man in charge. A nod and a hello. It was an honorable response to life. An honorable response to that ancient history that stretched back through bigotry and slavery all the way to Africa. Mother Africa. I wanted to understand but I always knew that I could not. I could only be a witness to that unspoken bond.

As a young man I wished for that between me and others.

Now I’m 70 and in the last few years I've discovered that old men do the same thing. Ethnicity and race doesn’t seem to matter. White. Black. Chicano. Whatever. Especially in gyms or in places over-populated by middle-aged and young people. A nod and a hello. The guy might be a Republican, a homeless guy, a Christian, a fool; me a democrat, a Buddhist, that idiot with the goofy hat, it doesn't matter. How ya doing? Have a good day. And this morning I realized this bond between old men is about vulnerability. Bodies knowing each other’s secret. I am him, and he is me. Knowing each other's history. Knowing what is our shared future—the universe opens up and I am no longer here. What is this? What is this thing I call “me?” That is our question. Man to man. An osmosis. A biologic memory and transference. A sense of compassion for one another.

I'm so delighted that this happens.

And I remembered, as I wrote this, my mother at the hospital, a few days before she died. I had lifted her into a wheelchair and pushed her outside into a little garden. We both knew she didn't have long to live. Her heart was leaking blood. Congenital heart disease. We passed another woman--equally old, equally feeble. My mother raised her frail hand and waved to the other woman, her boney fingers riffing a quiet tune like a piano player.

A final blessing, a final celebration.

Hello. Goodbye. Goodbye.


Book Review of the Collected Writings of Joe Brainard

Book Review of The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard

Joe Brainard was our Rimbaud.
Except he did it differently.
He was a painter too.
That’s what he said he was.
A painter.
He didn’t say he was a writer.
But he wrote a lot.
And I love what he wrote.
I take my poetry too seriously.
Shit like that.
That why I’m writing this.
Joe was a nice guy, it seems like.
And he was from Tulsa.


Too bad Verlaine and all those other dudes
Didn’t know that Rimbaud was their Joe Brainard.
It would have lightened things up for them.
Like it lightened things up for me.
But what is “it”?
Like Rimbaud wouldn’t have gone to Africa.
He could have stayed home.
He could have taken up painting.
But that’s how history is.
It never tells the whole truth. 


New York City, #7: In Memory of Anthony Horton

[Note: I've been back from NYC for more than a month now, but I want to finish putting up my bits and pieces of writing that I was working on while I was there. bb]

Photo of Anthony © Nura Qureshi

New York City is people. A cornucopia of people. Body types. Flesh color. Voices and accents. Languages. The streets and the buildings are full of these people. But it’s in the subways and busses that we get to know each other. We silently negotiate for seats. The give and the take. The rules of the game. Even the young tough men and women, they have their rules. Old people. Young people. Kids. The in-betweeners.  Everybody looks, even if we don’t look. We listen closely. We jostle. We touch.

And the imagination begins to open up.


There, in the darkness of a tunnel, is the ghost of AnthonyHorton. Since his death in March he’s been waiting for me to come back down into the subways. I knew Tony because of Youme Landowne. She collaborated with him to do the wonderful graphic novel, PitchBlack, Don’t Be Skerd. It’s the story of a black homeless man (an artist, a writer) who meets the Youme Landowne (children’s book writer and illustrator), a very white woman, in the subways one day. It’s a story about suffering, a story about compassion and understanding as two-way streets. Anthony and Youme journeyed on the subway together, and when I’m riding the subway, especially when I see a black homeless man, I cannot help but think of Anthony. I wrote this little riff to honor his memory.

I’m in the tunnels going downtown on the #1 train between 103rd and 96th. I hear something. A grumbling. I look out the window. Rising up out of the earth is another train. A ghost snake burrowing up from a deeper tunnel. The windows lit up. Men and women gathered together in a box of light. The #2 Express. It could be us. But it’s them. What’s the difference? Tony Horton would tell you the difference. Except he would tell you there is no difference. Us and them. Them and us. Tony could tell you because he was an artist and a poet. And he used to live down in these tunnels. The tunnels were his home. His city. He pledged his allegiance to the darkness. And to the country for which it stands in darkness. Tony was a citizen of this darkness. He could feel himself in the walls. This is where his friends lived. People like him. Men and women. Neighbors. He had the dark maps in his head. He knew where his people lived, he knew the secrets of the tunnels. This is where he found his strength and his wisdom. The palm of his hand. That’s why he felt safer down here. He hated the city streets. The people up there didn’t understand. They lived in the daylight. How could they understand? Sunlight does not translate into earth-dark. It’s a different language altogether. Tony was our pioneer into the world that will come. That’s what he said. These tunnels. Down here he was meant to find himself. Here in the dark he battled against his drinking. Here in the dark he battled against his gods. Here he battled against his memories. No mother to find. No father to find. He looked around and could not find himself. Maybe he himself was not there. Maybe we aren’t here. Maybe that is the secret. He refused to live inside the light. He said everything he needed he could find in the garbage that he dragged into the darkness.

Tony found an empty room in the tunnels. The room would become his home. But first he needed to camp out in that room. The room was black. Don’t be skerd, he said. Don’t be skerd. The room is warm. Tony waited for the rain. And soon it rained in the world up above. Tony’s room didn’t fill up with rain water. It didn’t even leak. He felt like he was home. He found an old mattress and a hotplate and a lamp. He brought cardboard for the floor, he found an old blanket. He moved in. He stole electricity from the subway wiring. He had made himself a home. He had found his own kind of light. Stolen light. Borrowed light. Light to live by in the earth dark. He had a place to sleep. It was all free. He wondered what the word “free” meant. He went up into the streets and into that other light to beg for money and to beg for food. To see a few friends. But he always came back to his home. He was safe down there. And warm.

And one night a spark from the hot plate set his world afire. Tony died down in these tunnels. A terrible screaming death. You can read about it in the New York Times.

─in Memory of Anthony Horton                   
With blessings to Youme Landowne and her family


New York City, #6

Poet Eileen Myles amid the cat food on 9th Street, NYC

Last Saturday: Great dinner with poet and novelist Eileen Myles, Ernie the Cat’s mother (see below), at the Café Orlin on St. Mark’s Place off 2nd Ave. Many great topics of conversation, but also she retold me the story of Ernie the Black Cat, how he came straggling up to her place in San Diego, black baby cat, big globs of gunk dripping from his eyes. Eileen babied little Ernie, gave him a name when the vet wouldn’t treat him without a name. So Ernie was named and familied and mothered up. Rosie, Eileen’s (friend, partner in the old sense, travel companion, also pet) pit bull was still alive, so Ernie lived in the garage, made friends with the family and became an indoor/outdoor cat. But on his own terms. Ernie always insists on his own terms. Even Rosie liked him. Then Rosie died. Poor Rosie. Poor Eileen. Ernie took over some of Eileen’s heart. She has a big heart. Lots of space to move around in. But they moved to New York and Ernie hated being an indoor city cat. Also he didn’t get along with Eileen’s new partner. Probably a little jealous, knowing Ernie. So Ernie got to come live the Byrds on Louisville in El Paso. It was okay with Ernie. He had stopped by to visit once and spent the night. Eileen and her partner now happily have two dogs and two cats. And Ernie and the Byrds are happy with each other. Life is good.

So Eileen gives me her new book, which is really two books, one book Snow Flake: New Poems, and turn it over and, lo, it’s a second book Different Streets: Newer Poems (Wave Books). Here’s a poem from Snow Flake where Ernie gets to talk—


yes, Ernie
why can you
have junk
food & I
cannot. Why can
you have a
giant plate
and I can
no longer have
my crunchy
treats. Why
am I served up
a cold fish
you’re not
so thin
I know.  

Ernie the Cat at Home in El Paso: Yes, sure, he misses Eileen.


New York City #5

The Tub in John & Sylvia Downstairs Bathroom: Puro New York City

Sitting on the pot this morning 
And reading dead Joe Brainard poems
(I miss Joe Brainard and didn’t even know him)
I overcooked the steel-cut oatmeal.
It still tasted delicious.
Spring strawberries.
Dried and sweetened cranberries.
Maple syrup.
Oatmeal is full of forgiveness.


New York City, #4

When I’m in New York I visit the Village Zendo and the StillMind Zen zendo to sit zazen and attend services. They are both nice places. The sanghas are open-hearted and warm. It’s always nice to hear the bell ring and sit zazen with others.  Recently Pat Enkyo O’Hara, Roshi at the VZ, conducted a workshop—getting ready for death. There are forms to be filled out, wills to be update, end-of-life options to be considered, decisions to be made and important discussions to be had with loved ones. I didn’t go. New York is different than Texas. But I read her comments online. Enkyo O’Hara said that she’s always surprised how many people have not done this important task. Lee and I have never done this. Well, we’ve done it sort of half ass. I suppose we should. Even mentioning this here, Lee will get us ready to work on the project. She’s like that. I’m not. I’m a last minute kind of guy. Ha!

Anyway, Enkyo said that it’s a custom for dharma practitioners, especially teachers, to write a Death Poem every year. It’s one more way to remind ourselves that death is inevitable, although (strangely) it never seems that way as we go about our everyday chores making plans from one day to the next. Doing the poem is one more way to remind us not to squander our lives. Well, I got on a Death Poem toot. Trying to catch up, I guess. Here are two of them, again from this imaginative diary I've been playing with since coming to New York for the month.

The Roshi said to write a death poem. All the Zen people do it, she said. Every year. Then finally they don’t need to do it anymore. So I told her nobody knows me in New York City. My feet ache, my legs ache. Art gets in the way. Like Leo Stein. He fought with his sister Gertrude. They were saying goodbye. Alice had moved in. Leo wanted Henri’s Five Apples, and Gertrude wanted Henri’s Five Apples too. Leo was moving to Italy to chase a skirt. He called his beloved sort of “an abnormal vampire.” This was 1914. Gertrude was queer.  Leo stole the Apples and wrote to his sister, “I’m afraid you’ll have to look upon the loss of the apples as an act of God.” Like the Garden of Eden all over again. But differently. This is the end of my assignment. It’s my death poem. 2012. I am 70 years old.

Death Poem from NYC Transit
Going downtown on the Broadway #104
We’re all in this together
The canned voice of the bus lady
Says over and over again
Please exit from the rear of the bus.    


Of course, Basho, that old wandering cahoot, did a wonderful death poem, although he didn't know it was his death poem. He fell sick one of his journeys and this is the last poem he wrote--

falling sick on a journey / my dream goes wandering / over a field of dried grass


New York City, #3

Note: I'm in New York City. My good friends John and Sylvia Gardner have been kind enough to let me use their apartment on W 107th. I have some time to write and read and fiddle with the little pieces of my imagination. I miss Lee, my family and friends, and I miss El Paso, but this is good for me, going about my daily life. I've been writing sort of an imaginative daily journal. I'm adding parts of it to the blog as I go along.

Park Bench: 111th & Riverside, NYC

I think I lost my poetics somewhere. And I’m too old to be experimental. Don’t you think? Not a lot of time left and I got things to say. I just don’t know what they are yet. Right now it’s enough to be right here—a park bench the corner of 111th and Westside Drive on the walkway that leads down into the park. I have a cup of coffee from the Starbucks on Broadway. I had a nice long talk with my wife on the cell phone. We miss each other. Now I’m back to reading a book. Or trying to. I guess somebody could argue that this is a poetics, a lazy kind of poetics, the poetics I’ve ended up with, 70 years old and here I am sitting on a park bench. Like, there’s a pile of dog shit on the northeast corner. A beautiful spring Saturday afternoon. People are walking by. All sorts of people. They talk, they run, they push baby carriages, they walk their dogs. I pay attention to the dog shit. I want to see if someone steps in the dog shit, and I enjoy seeing how they each avoid it, some at the very last moment. Women have their walk. Men have their walk. It’s about what goes on in the hips, the groin, the sex, the stories of their bodies, the histories of their bodies going back to the beginning. Sometimes the different walks get a little confused. Women and men, men and women. That’s okay. The dharma—like this breeze and the sunshine and the blue sky—has no preference. That’s because each of us is the exact center of the universe. We don’t understand this. At least I don’t. Not right now anyway. Little glimpses here and there. It’s not unusual. But miraculously nobody steps in the dog shit. That delights me. I do wish somebody would clean it up. I guess that somebody needs to be me. That’s my mother talking again. She’s dead, but she doesn’t quit talking to me. I finish the coffee and walk over to scoop the dog shit up. Ha! It’s not dog shit after all. It a ball of black yarn that looks like a dog-sized turd. I leave it where it is on the sidewalk. Let faux dog turds lie. This one has let me be happy.

—for Joe Somoza


New York City #2

POTUS on 23rd

The President of the United States motored down 23rd Street in a black limousine. When he was a young man, he used to walk these same streets. Ride the subways. A cornucopia of human flesh and language. Ideas and daydreams bubbling in his head. The #1 down from Columbia. He probably had a favorite restaurant in Chinatown. Some friends in Brooklyn. But now he’s a ghost inside the dark windows. A caterpillar. Lots of cops and barricades to make sure he stays that way.


New York City, #1

From Sylvia's & John's Patio on 107th

NOTE: I'm in New York City. My good friends John and Sylvia have been kind enough to let me use their apartment on W 107th. I have some time to write and read and fiddle with the little pieces of my imagination. I miss Lee, my family and friends, and I miss El Paso, but this is good for me, going about my daily life. I've been writing sort of an imaginative daily journal. Here's part of it.

I sat on the patio out in the brick canyon of apartment buildings between 106th and 107th, eating my dinner and drinking some wine. Somewhere in one of those windows a woman and a man were talking. But something changed. They were making love. The woman was giggling joyfully and then a nice sweet squeal at the end. The man was quiet in his duties and manly joy. Good for him. I hope they both slept well. Their ritual is celebrated in all of our different languages. Especially here in this city. Ask the Mayans. They say even the gods made love before they went to sleep. That was when the world was only black and white and some gray in-between. The world was boring back then. Making love was the best way to relax in the humdrum. This was the wisdom of the gods. They wanted to invent something to make our lives beautiful. They harvested the water and fire and earth and wind and they made the first rainbow. From the rainbow they smeared the gooey colors all over the place. It was exhausting work. The gods needed sleep. But first they made love in celebration—squeals and grunting all around the Milky Way. It was easy to sleep after that party. When they woke up, they invented New York City. I’m glad they did.


WAS IT A SURPRISE? Y mil gracias!

Grandkids Eddie Hollandbyrd and Emma Birdie Byrd with their good friend Ana Jo Yellen.
Photo courtesy of the El Paso Times

NOTE: On April 13th, Lee once again surprised me with a party, this time for my 70th Birthday. 160 people came. My gosh. Lee was expecting maybe 50 or 60, but suddenly she was flooded with RSVPs. Our neighbors across the street--Esther and Orlando Arriola--opened up their house for the party. And the wild rumpus commenced. I'm not able to write everybody immediately, but this is my first swipe at saying Thank you, thank you--to all those people who came, all those who couldn't come and all those who are my friends. I am truly blessed.

Dear All,

It was a wonderful party. Truly a wonderful party. I was in a walking dreamy ecstasy for most of the evening. Muchos abrazos, many tears, much laughter, all those memories, good food (“potluck is always the best kind,” and of course the Taco Man) and cold beer and delicious wine. Plus all the children. They were our witnesses. They will take some understanding from that party. That’s what I believe.

Two days after the party, Lee and I went on a business trip to Houston and then came back to desks full of stuff to catch up on. Long lists. Now I’m in New York City for a month, doing some business but also taking a sabbatical. Some time to myself, reading and writing. The older we get the fuller our lives become. So very strange. And yet, all that time, in the time since the party, in the back of my mind is this letter churning—“What shall I say to these people who have been so nice to me? Who’ve honored and blessed me with their good wishes?”

So this is my try to say thank you. 

Most everybody asked me, “Was it a surprise?” Many of you were at the Palmore Apartments in Sunset Heights when Lee surprised me with my 50th birthday. And then again when I turned 60. Same place. My gosh! So certainly I should have been expecting something. And, yes, I was. Yet it didn’t happen the way I expected it to happen, the weekend before, so I was left in an empty place. Afloat in a sad wondering. Maybe I was wrong. 70 years old and nobody cares. Pobrecito. I thought: “I guess she’s not going to do it. Shit.”

Still, our friends Polly and Rob had invited us to Ardovino’s Desert Crossing, two days before we left for Houston, so I was cool with that. Sort of. And the lucky thing about me and surprise parties is that I’m an oblivious guy. Especially if somebody starts me talking about things important to me. 10 years ago—before the surprise party for my 60th—Connie Voisine started talking to me about poetry and poetics. Jackson MacLow and his theories of chance. Weird oblique topic. I got lost in the conversation. This time Rob Dowtin did the same thing. He started talking to me about Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, in particular, the first one, Dukkha—life is suffering, change, anguish. An interesting concept. Especially if you’re about to turn 70 and it really begins to surprise you (lying in bed at night) that there really isn’t any light at the end of the tunnel. Rob’s discussion turned an ignition switch. I started to blab away 90 miles an hour as we drove up Louisville Street. I saw our friends Peter and Candy Cooper. Oh, yeah, now I know. But, really, that didn’t bother me: I was in Cuckoolandia by then. Swimming through a warm pool of euphoric air. Ideas. Images. Lee was on the front porch with Polly. I was hustled into the house. Yeah, something was happening but my mind was no longer in gear. I was buoyant. Grandson Eddie came to get me. Across the street was my granddaughter Emma Birdie. And Andy Byrd, our baby boy—a man now, a wonderful man—here from San Antonio. Surprise! My gosh. I began to weep. Lee was holding my hand. Behind them Johnny Byrd and Susie Byrd and their families and behind them 160 people. Friends from all my various lives. Surprise! Friends from Albuquerque when Lee and I were trying to figure out how to grow up and care for two kids who would become three kids in Las Cruces; writer friends from the world of poetry and ideas and culture and politics; friends and colleagues from the world of publishing and loving books; friends from when I used to coach Andy Byrd soccer; friends from my Zen Buddhist practice; friends from the glory days of the Bridge Center for Contemporary Arts; frontera friends and friends of political activism; Tuesday night friends from playing old man basketball at the Missouri Street Center and then hanging out way too late at the L&J; neighborhood friends; friends who are simply friends, good friends; friends who are friends because they are good friends of our children. A big mix of friends. The wonderful stew of my life. I am so blessed. I wandered among you enchanted and ecstatic, so blessed. Oh, so very blessed.

Lee and Susie, the Primary Instigators
So yes, the answer is that I was surprised. Very surprised. Still surprised.

My deepest thanks to all of you for your friendship. For those who could come, for those who couldn’t come but who wished to be here. Thanks especially to Lee Merrill Byrd, such a marvelous and enchanting woman, and to my wonderful children (how very lucky Lee and I have been) and grandchildren, all of whom played their parts in the drama of the party. And in the peculiar comedy of my life. And to Esther and Orlando Arriola who so generously opened up the doors to their patio for us all.

It’s ironic but so important for Lee and me to have found our home rooted here in El Paso. Here we’ve put our hearts and minds to the many lessons of crossing borders—all the many borders, oh, they are boundless—and we’re learning to be whole.

My love to you all. May we all, in our own way, be a blessing to our communities, to our friends and to our families.

I am so honored to be your friend.
bbyrd@cincopuntos.com (Please write if you have the yearning.)

PS. Oh, there were so many presents. Odd. Unusual. Artsy. Funny. Practical—like wine! Like mescal! All the potluck food that filled the table, a true cornucopia. Like friendship, the most practical gift of all! I’ll be writing to each of you as time allows. Also, see the links below for El Paso Times writer Ramón Rentería nice piece about the party, the photographs that appeared in the Times, a wonderful article by Cheryl Howard and also visit her facebook pages for more photographs.


PPS. THINGS THAT WERE BEHIND (please contact leebyrd@cincopuntos.com. Lee’s the keeper of reality)—
Large stainless steel bean pot
Large red bowl
Metal Bowl
Red tea towel
Black tongs

Post PPS: Lee promises to write an essay telling the real true story of how we first met. Ha! Keep her to that promise. You’ll never believe it. Hasta the next time. bb