The People’s Poet: Billie Nardozzi

9 photos of Billie Nardozzi in a collage

The People’s Poet. Billie Nardozzi at home in Green Tree.

You see poetry is open
For the whole world to see
And you can make it into anything
You want it to be
– Billie Nardozzi, “What Is Poetry”

 

Call him Bard of the Back-Pages or maybe the Classified Chaucer. Lamar Advertising came up with Pittsburgh’s Premier Poet and that’s hard to argue with. Around The Orbit water cooler he’s “The People’s Poet”–you can use that one too.

If you don’t know Billie Nardozzi, you haven’t been paying attention…or maybe you just don’t get the paper. For the last twelve years, the image of Nardozzi’s familiar schnoz, deadpan stare, and business-in-front, party-in-the-back haircut has appeared weekly in the “Celebrations” section of the Post-Gazette’s classified ads, along with short original poetry and contact information.

“I got the idea from the sports pages,” Nardozzi tells us, “each column would have a picture of the writer along with the name at the top and I thought, ‘Why don’t I do that?'”

In 2006, Billie Nardozzi did exactly that. He began creating new poems-of-the-week that have run consistently–with the occasional couple months hiatus–ever since. Along the way, Billie has earned a devoted following who commission original works for special occasions and invite him to read at events.

“I try to keep it basic,” Billie says of his writing style, “I go through the same things as my readers…so many times someone will tell me ‘I would swear you were writing that poem about me.'”

This past December, Billie’s invitation for Christmas cards drew a whopping ninety-seven different holiday letters from fans. He’s so fond of these that a batch of favorites have been professionally laminated and were close-at-hand during our interview.

three poems by Billie Nardozzi as they appeared in the appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette "Celebrations" section of classified ads

Recent Nardozzi: “I Love ‘Shop ‘n Save'” / “Godzilla Meets The Lesbian” / “‘The 3 Bees’ (Bell, Ben, Brown)” (2015-2016)*

If you’ve ever put pen to paper and tried to convince anyone to read it, you know what a pain in the ass it is. This literary dilettante has dipped his quill into the worlds of short and micro fiction, comedy, theater, poetry, and songwriting. All of these came with their own unique forms of rejection and heartbreak…and ultimately led to the immediacy and answer-to-no-one world of high stakes blogging.

We’ll never know for sure, but it’s hard to imagine an academic poetry journal or glossy magazine printing one of Billie’s odes to Olive Garden, the Ellen DeGeneress Show, or his local Hyundai dealership; sentimental reflections on holidays, family, and friends probably wouldn’t fare much better.

So it is with tremendous respect–one writer to another–that we appreciate how Nardozzi found a way to self-publish his own original work and distribute it to the 300,000 or so circulation size of the Post-Gazette. Like the Bolsheviks and punk rockers before him, Billie Nardozzi took the means of production and found a way to do it himself, getting his expressions of positivity, fun, and the human experience out into the world…and kept on doing it for going on twelve years now.

Billie Nardozzi in front of a closet full of colorful women's blazers

Blazer light show. Billie Nardozzi in the world’s most organized closet.

Brett Yasko is a graphic designer and Billie Nardozzi fan who has archived the poet’s contributions to the Post-Gazette almost since the beginning*. He has a similar appreciation for the unorthodox approach to publishing:

I started clipping his poems out of the paper in early 2008. I read the poems but I was more interested in how [Nardozzi] was using the newspaper to put his work out into the world. I know some poets and I know how hard it is to get “published” and then once you do, the audience is often limited. He was sort of gaming the system and I dug that. The photo he used was great and I loved his freewheeling ways with quotation marks. I said to myself, “I don’t know what will ever come of this–if anything–but I’ve got to start saving these things.”

three poems by Billie Nardozzi as they appeared in the appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette "Celebrations" section of classified ads

“If I Met Jesus” (1/26/2010) / “What Is Poetry” (4/10/2012) / “The Turkey Bandit” (11/23/2015)

The story took an interesting turn this past fall. On a whim, Nardozzi walked into a local Lamar Advertising office and booked a billboard for personal use. If you’ve driven to Bloomfield, the upper Hill District, or Polish Hill recently, you know what I’m talking about. The big sign on Bigelow Blvd.–at the awkward five-way intersection with Herron and Paulowna–is unmissable. It features Nardozzi’s name, home phone number, the premier poet tag line, and one of Billie’s “one-liner” aphorisms (which change month-to-month).

What’s likely to catch your attention first, though, is the photograph of Nardozzi. In it, Billie’s top-heavy rock-and-roll hair has been teased into a curlier feminine incarnation, his nails are painted pink, and he’s wearing a decorative blouse and a pair of big rings. For those of us used to the black-and-white jacket-and-tie Nardozzi from the newspaper or his appearances on The Fetko Zone, this change in style was a bit of a surprise.

billboard with Billie Nardozzi's photo and the text "Put the 'freeze' on hate, and the 'heat' on love," Pittsburgh, PA

“Put the ‘freeze’ on hate, and the ‘heat’ on love,” Bigelow Blvd. billboard, November, 2017

It takes a lot of guts to do anything creative and put it out there in the world–the human race is not always kind to artistic expression. Attaching one’s real name and home telephone number ups the ante considerably. For an old-school Pittsburgher to address a cynical world with messages of love, peace, and good cheer, cross-dressed in ladies clothes, hair, and makeup on a twenty-five foot wide roadside billboard is about as daring a move as we can imagine.

As one might expect, not all the messages left on Billie’s answering machine are kind. He gets plenty of crank calls, along with a recurring lecture from a retired English professor on his use of quotation marks. None of these have ever been a problem, though. Nardozzi tells us the calls are “never threatening,” “I’m laughing along with them,” and “the good outweighs the bad.”

To underscore this last point, while we were talking in the kitchen, a nice-sounding caller named Jennifer left a lovely, heartfelt message of support and appreciation “from one artist to another.” Hearing the message clearly had Nardozzi beaming.

billboard with Billie Nardozzi's picture and the text "I wish you great cheer in the coming new year," Pittsburgh, PA

“I wish you great cheer in the coming new year,” Bigelow Blvd. billboard, January, 2018

Ultimately, Billie Nardozzi would like to publish a book of his work. He already has the pink and black design picked out as well as a to-the-point title, Poems and One-Liners by Billie Nardozzi. When the time comes, I’m pretty sure we can find him a book designer.

“I wouldn’t be mad if I never made any money,” Billie says of his investments in the Post-Gazette and Lamar, “If my words can make someone happy, that’s worth all the money in the world.”

There is absolutely no question that Billie Nardozzi’s words, spirit, and energy have brought joy to many, many people already. You see it in the handwriting on his Christmas cards, hear it the messages left on his answering machine, and feel it in the adoring comments on his FaceBook page.

Keats, Yeats, or any of them guys, Nardozzi ain’t. But then again, Robert Frost never wrote “Godzilla Meets The Lesbian” or “The Turkey Bandit.” Whether it’s more or less traveled, we don’t know, but here at the Orbit we’ll take the Nardozzi Road any time we get the chance.

Bonus video: Billie (neé Billy) Nardozzi performing “Super Bowl Steelers” with T.C. The Peanut Vendor on The Fedko Fone Zone, 2010.


* Reprints of Billie Nardozzi’s poems come from Celebrations, Brett Yasko’s archive of Nardozzi’s poetry as it originally appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and is used with permission of both Nardozzi and Yasko. Yasko also designed and published a printed book of selected Nardozzi poems of the same name. For more information, see: brettyasko.com/self-initiated/celebrations.

Poetry’s Uplifting Gormandizer: Scott Silsbe Serves Up “Muskrat Friday Dinner”

Poet Scott Silsbe standing in front of faded mural of Viet Nam veterans, Pittsburgh, PA

Think war is Hell? Trying reading this guy’s book! Just jaggin’–it’s good!

Inside, there are many, many nights of consumption–music and alcohol, laughter and greasy food. But also deeply personal reminiscences on childhood, past loves, missed opportunities, anecdotes of the day-to-day, awkward conversations. Yes, you’ll also find that great mother of all poetic downers–mortality.

Muskrat Friday DinnerScott Silsbe‘s just-released third collection of writing, contains all of these.

Some things are difficult. Some things we have to whisper.
Some things we don’t say at all. We have to keep it down.
Even if the laughter is all that’s keeping us alive or sane.

“Three Fragments” (excerpt)

A dirty secret: when poetry is recited at Chez Orbit, it generally involves both super-sized anatomy and the island of Nantucket–so we don’t have a lot of experience in the world of deep verse. Why? A prejudice, for sure: it feels like work in the same way some think about watching foreign films, or listening to twelve-tone music, or flossing. But it needn’t be that way.

Silsbe, who came to Pittsburgh at the turn-of-the-millenia to pursue an MFA in poetry from Pitt, expressly wants to get away from that kind of foo-foo academic writing and create work that’s direct, narrative, accessible, and decidedly not difficult. Muskrat Friday Dinner–from its title poem of a Downriver Detroit saloon staple to the rat-on-a-dinner-plate illustrations–delivers.

book cover for "Muskrat Friday Dinner" by Scott Silsbe

“Muskrat Friday Dinner” book cover, illustration by Paulette Poullet

“Poetry can be fun”, says Silsbe, “I wanted a book of good-time, drinkin’ poems that people will enjoy reading or hearing”.

Arty or arch, these short poems ain’t. That said, fun may depend on one’s sense of humor. But yeah, if you don’t get too worried about the condition of Silsbe’s over-worked liver, you can hopefully enjoy the vicarious thrill of waking up on the living room floor or arriving home with the dawn all from the comfort of your chaise lounge.

The book is so, uh, human-readable in fact, as to sometimes feel like a collection of journal entries, day-after tall tale-telling, or (very) short fiction–narrative, in plain English, and real. “I want to document the world around me,” Silsbe says, “The poetry should be personal so that it can be universal.”

If there’s
enough
money
get me
pork rib.

“Found Poem–Express Lane, Giant Eagle”

Silsbe’s experiences may or may not be truly universal, but they’re sure close. We’ve ridden in that car, ate that midnight meal, ended up in that tavern and didn’t know how or why. You’ve heard a record that felt like it was written just for you, longed for a person behind a second-story window light, seen the beauty in a perfect new snowfall…and then ruined it with your own need to slog through and get home to bed. Everyone past a certain age has received a phone call where he or she ended up needing a black suit.

Silsbe talks about individual pieces taking days–weeks, even–to get right. But the poems have an immediacy that feel like they were inked right then when the memory was still fresh–at the end of the night, or first thing the next morning–his head still throbbing and ears still buzzing.

It’d be nice to get some down so we don’t lose them. Stories grow soft with time. Though sometimes we fill in the gaps with juicier details to make the story better, making the story our own, with the hope we don’t lose the best parts, we don’t sacrifice the real story. As if we really know or care what that is.

“Old Writers Talking About Old Writers” (excerpt)

Us, we’re still buzzing too. Silsbe is right: it is fun to read a book of poetry (twice, even–we had to take notes!) and we’ll do again. Also interesting is getting inside the life of a person we kind of know [full disclosure: Silsbe was an acquaintance prior to the book’s release] vis-à-vis this tightly-edited, metered take on real experiences, Pittsburgh places we know, and people around town.

“There’s something in our makeup that craves to create a beautiful object”, Silsbe says in the poem “Ceremony”, “Essential to that is the knowledge that no thing we create can ever be without defects.” Defects? Yeah, well, maybe–sure. But hat’s off, Mr. Silsbe, you created some real nice stuff here. Thanks for letting us in to have a look.

My God, how I loved living on the earth.
There were those things that sustained me
all those years–the names of the clouds,
the vesper sparrows lined up on a branch,
her bedroom light on behind a red curtain.
I would circle the block just to see that–
knowing it meant she was in there, alive.
perhaps waiting for me, and perhaps not.
But there. And that presence was enough.

“Searchlight”

author Scott Silsbe dressed in suit and tie, drinking whiskey from a bottle in front of a wallpaper beach scene

Another day in paradise. Silsbe at “The Beach”. [photo: Scott Silsbe]

Muskrat Friday Dinner is Scott Silsbe’s third collection of poems. All three are available locally from Caliban Books in Oakland as well as “other fine booksellers”.  Those either preferring or requiring the magic of The Internet can achieve the same from Amazon.


Quoted poems taken from Muskrat Friday Dinner, White Gorilla Press, Belford, NJ ©2017 Scott Silsbe and used with permission of the author.

On the Trail of the Wild Pawpaw, Part 2: Pickin’ Up Pawpaws

eight smaller pawpaw fruits in a white hat on wooden table

Hatful of holler. The first score.

First: a warning. One should not purchase tickets on the pawpaw express without knowing what she or he is getting into. When you opt to “ride the lightning”, you’re hopping on the front seat of an emotional and physical roller-coaster that won’t be slowing down until it’s thrown–nay, broken–all who boarded with anything less than total commitment.

Be prepared to give it all up. Relationship? Over. Career? Gone. That itchy skin? It’s not going away. Don’t bother paying the rent–you’ll be sleeping in your car most nights, anyway. Friends, family, loved-ones? Kiss them all goodbye–they’ll not be seeing you any time soon. When, or if, you reconnect, the vacant look in your eyes will tell them you’re never really coming back.

pawpaw fruit hanging in tree, Pittsburgh, PA

All that glitters. Nearly-ripe fruit sing their siren song, Squirrel Hill.

Andrew Moore is one hard dude to get an interview with…at least, this time of year. You can’t fault him, though–the author’s late summer schedule is solidly packed. Readings and signings at bookstores in Charleston and Brooklyn; judging the Best Pawpaw Contest and presenting at the Ohio Pawpaw Festival; fruit sampling with customers at the Erie Whole Foods; a talk at the nature club in Sewickley…and that’s just a couple weeks worth.

All that, and Moore still made time for Pittsburgh Orbit, right at the mid-September peak of pawpaw season. We knew we may never have this chance again, so we hit him with the big guns right away: Have you ever been bonked in the head by a falling pawpaw? (It could happen!)

As luck would have it, in the last six years of researching, writing, and extensively traveling the pawpaw belt–Ohio to Louisiana, Virginia to Kansas–a fruit-to-cranium collision has never occurred. Moore took this in stride, as did questions about his wife’s tolerance for that demon pawpaw and the amount of refrigerator space devoted to gestating seeds. [Answers: very much, he loves her a lot; and about the size and volume of a shoe box, respectively.]

Author Andrew Moore holding three huge pawpaw fruits in a pawpaw orchard

Andrew Moore with the enormous pawpaws of Deep Run Orchard, Maryland [photo courtesy of Moore]

The Orbit consumed Moore’s 2015 book Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit (Chelsea Green Publishing) with a gastro-bibliological gusto that invoked what we can only call Pawpaw Fever. It is the definitive work on the subject and as such, Moore has created an elegantly-constructed and fascinating journey through a (literal) landscape both seemingly prosaic (pawpaws grow wild over most of the eastern half of the U.S.–they’re not rare) and at the same time otherworldly (an ancient fruit, re-arriving out of nowhere, with a narrative gift-wrapped for locavores and foodies alike).

Pawpaw contains a couple broad theses that ring long and loud after the last page is turned: the pawpaw as neglected super food that rightfully deserves to be back in markets, lunch bags, and restaurant menus, and the mystery of how this once-ubiquitous early autumn staple that colors so much American history managed to disappear almost entirely from the nation’s collective consciousness. It’s a great read and, needless to say, the book is Orbit-recommended.

pawpaw tree with sign for free use

The giving pawpaw tree of Squirrel Hill

When last we left our blogger, he was deep in the heart of the Schenley Park pawpaw patch, considering an uncertain fruiture (that’s a future in fruit). The pawpaws dangled tantalizingly in all directions, but like Coleridge’s ancient mariner, there was nary an “Indiana banana”–not to mention pawpaw, paw paw, paw-paw, or papaw*–to eat.

Why? Well, one of the pawpaw’s challenges is that it may only be gathered (either shaken from the tree or collected from the forest floor) when ripe. Unlike, say, a tomato or a banana, the hard pawpaw prematurely selected from the tree will never ripen. That’s no big deal out in the wild, but in the very limited supply and unmet demand within metro Pittsburgh, it’s a real crime to prematurely pick the fruit or overzealously shake the tree.

The hunt was on. We got to the, uh, low-hanging fruit (sorry) first–Schenley Park’s pawpaw patch and the magical pawpaw trees of Squirrel Hill. Moore praises the latter: “God bless [the homeowner/planter] for introducing so many of us to our first pawpaw.” This blogger is no expert, but he’s been around the pawpaw patch enough to realize that while a great entry point, these are chump change, amateur hour, gateway drugs. Both sets of trees are well-known and well-traveled destinations at this point, and as such they’ve been over-shaken, abused, ravaged, and the fruit is rarely given the chance to ripen sufficiently.

A large pawpaw cut in half with spoons and a knife

Giant pawpaw, halved.

So…blah blah blah, but what do they actually taste like? Well, I’ll tell you: they’re freakin’ delicious! The blanket description of “tropical” is safe, and banana is clearly the closest common fruit flavor profile. Some of the fruit we found was darker in color (more orange than yellow inside) and absolutely tasted and felt like caramel custard.

One other detail we never saw mentioned is that the pawpaw is really fun to eat. You slice it in half, eat it with a spoon, sorting tasty pulp from the large seeds in your mouth. They’re really unique–like a small dessert right there in every fruit.

So, our early goal of uncovering free public pawpaws right in the city gets mixed marks. We did indeed taste the fruit of several different trees, but weren’t able to uncover any real surprises. The chase is still on, though. As Moore tells it, the trees give themselves up in October, flashing a bright yellow where others go all dropping leaves and fall colors. The dedicated hunter marks her prey and bides his time for the oncoming season. Until then, The Orbit will be out there, cruising the trails…watching.

potted pawpaw tree, Frick Park, Pittsburgh, PA

Future fruit. Potted pawpaw at Frick Environmental Center, likely destined for their “From Slavery to Freedom” garden project.

Conclusions:

The bad news: According to Moore, there just aren’t that many publicly-available patches in city limits to get your paws on pawpaws…right now. It’s not a case of us not looking close enough–they just aren’t there. Between the amount of city build-up we’ve had, 150 years of heavy industry, and that damned knotweed, whatever wild pawpaw may have hugged the rivers pre-industrialization likely didn’t survive the steel industry, et al. What is here now was almost surely planted very consciously.

The good news: There is no lack of American pawpaw, even very close to Pittsburgh. As Moore says, “This is not an endangered species…you see it everywhere, especially starting right around the Mason-Dixon line** (and south)”. The Orbit finally got its first big score from a set of trees in the North Hills and realized very quickly how fast you can fill a big bag and why one probably shouldn’t eat eight pawpaws in twelve hours.

Further, Moore paints a portrait of an exciting future for Pittsburgh pawpaw. The fruit is either “having its moment” or “coming back”, depending on how you look at it. [Moore’s book is clearly a not-insignificant factor in this.] Pawpaw is on the cultural radar now like it hasn’t been for several generations and the number of city projects in parks, schools, and community gardens–not to mention all the private growers adding a couple trees to their yards–is huge. According to Moore, in five or ten years there will be more city pawpaw trees than you can shake a stick at…or, you know, just shake the fruit out of.

Man seated at table with a large pile of pawpaws.

Driven to madness. The author, with pawpaws.


Pittsburgh Orbit has accepted Moore’s spelling pawpaw (one word), but paw paw (two) seems to appear even more often “in the wild”.
** Basically, the Pennsylvania-Maryland/West Virginia border.

Street Beat: Who is the Dirty Poet?

Three of The Dirty Poet's poems taped to a light post, Pittsburgh, PA

In the wild: The Dirty Poet’s work where most people experience it

You’ve seen his work. At least, you have if you’ve loitered around any less-than-respectable tavern, coffee shop, or music venue in Pittsburgh’s East End over the last decade.

Xeroxed in small batches–usually two or three bite-sized poems at at time–cut down to vertical half pages, and taped to light poles, left on bulletin boards, and passed hand-to-hand (if you know who to talk to), The Dirty Poet is an old-school bard of the boroughs, a tale-teller of the tarmac. Like the clergyman preaching to drunkards on Skid Row, The Dirty Poet takes the mountain to Mohammed with that very deliberate pre-Internet mass communication, the flyer and handbill.

The Dirty Poet sits on a set of Pittsburgh city steps with his face hidden behind an open copy of his book

The Dirty Poet: his head is always in a book

The Dirty Poet, who spoke with Pittsburgh Orbit on condition of anonymity, claims he is the best read poet in Pittsburgh. Admittedly, this is probably not a high bar, but it would be difficult to name any competition for this title*. “People read these poems that would never read any other poetry,” says The Dirty Poet, and he’s right.

The work is taken out of the English department, out of the bookstores and coffee shop readings, hell, you don’t even have to enter a building–it’s right there on the sidewalk. One needn’t have a college degree or even a library card. [Spoiler alert: you do need to be able to read.] By taking the poems directly to the streets, taped up on light poles, it’s as populist and mass accessible as it could be. Whether he’s reaching people hungry for an unslaked thirst for verse or just bored and waiting for the bus, they’re all [OK, some of them] joining the revival in this tent.

Photocopy of "It's Always Sunny in New Brunswick" by The Dirty Poet, taped to a light pole, Pittsburgh, PA

The Dirty Poet has also been at this a long time. Writing his whole life, he began the practice of pairing his Xeroxed literature with the other gig flyers, ads for weight loss studies, and rock band stickers that litter the street some fifteen years ago. That’s more time than most poets have cumulatively spent in grad school, getting rejected by literary journals, and giving up writing entirely.

In our conversation, El Dirtero spoke with obvious pride about the many chance meetings he’s had with readers as he’s plied his trade on the pavement. “Guys in their twenties come up to me and tell me they’ve been reading me since they were teenagers,” the Dirty One says, “I think I speak to a universal feeling of alienation.”

The Dirty Poet sits on a jersey barrier with the graffiti "Your vulgarity is a virtue"

The Dirty Poet: vulgar, virtuous

But what of the poetry itself? It’s loose, personal, true, vulgar, cynical, sly, smart-alecky, profane, and, yes, possibly (but not usually) dirty. It also doesn’t rhyme and it’s definitely not for everyone. “I write poetry to process my experience,” the Soapless Shakespeare tells us. Subject matter ranges from the topical (politics, gun violence, race relations) to observational (hypocrites of all faiths and isms, technology dependence, media and mass culture) to many personal anecdotes of characters and experiences throughout his life. The Great Unwashed assures us these are all true.

Three poems by The Dirty Poet taped to a light pole on Forbes Ave, Pittsburgh, PA

One final note: Pittsburgh Orbit was planning to reprint a couple of The Dirty Poet’s pieces here, but in the spirit of his work, we thought it only made sense to urge our readers to take the time, step outside, and check out the poetry where it lives, right on the streets of Pittsburgh. If you don’t see it, you’re not trying very hard. And if you don’t live around here, well, this is just one more reason to come pay us a visit**. The Dirty Poet will still be at it when you do.


* Billy Nardozzi, the “Chaucer of the Classifieds,” seems like the only legitimate competition for this title, but when you get into pay-to-play territory, the water gets muddied pretty quick.

** Those looking for a more substantial collection of The Dirty Poet’s work can find the collection Emergency Room Wrestling on Words Like Kudzu Press.

Rose of Sharon

angel statuary with broken wing under tree

Only when the sun had just crested the rooftops was it visible. There, in the backyard, under the Rose of Sharon, seen through the kitchen door. Just put the coffee on, pulled the bathrobe tight, squinted into the early light to make something out. It was staring back at him.

Colder now than it ought to be. Maybe that happened every year at this time. Remembered years past leaving Virginia in shirtsleeves and arriving back to Western Pennsylvania freezing rain. The rest of the seasons always seemed closer in sync, but the quick transition to fall made it feel like a different world.

Still looking out the window. The neighbor hates that tree. Every lovely spring flower produced aggressive new sprouts where it dropped anchor, many of them on her side of the fence. The neighbor has to beat them back when she weed-whacks around her tiny above-ground pool. One more thing to be mad at him about. Felt guilty–but not guilty enough to take out the tree.

The coffee maker gurgled and let out its last great gasp. Felt sorry for those people who couldn’t get up early, or forced to stay up late. Morning light, crisp air, near perfect silence. People rise earlier the older they get, he’d been told. Hoped to one day wake easily at dawn, to have the full sunrise experience every day, without effort.

The windshield of a green Honda held an angry note with neat Catholic school penmanship: I’d like to park in front of my own house. Park where you live! This familiar drama played itself out regularly. Strangers left their vehicles out front when they hit the bars down the hill or stayed over at the apartment building next door.

Retrieving the newspaper on a weekend morning, it was not uncommon to find random jetsam from the previous night’s revelry: a stray beer can, hamburger foil, an unfamiliar automobile. One time he’d found a ceramic coffee mug with the emblem of a rehab clinic in Carlisle. It was never a big deal. The neighbor thought she owned the twenty-four feet of city street in front of her house. She should have put in a parking place instead of that pool.

Note left on car's windshield reading "I would appreciate it if the next time you feel the need to abandon your vehicle you would do it in front of your home. Thank you."

The first day to see his breath. Streets uninhabited, save for a pair of early-risers sitting on benches in the sun, hands crossed on the top of a walking cane. A near-empty city bus rumbled through, headed out of town. Fast food bags, cigarette butts, and early felled leaves eddying with wind gusts in the inset storefront entranceways.

Trees at the lower gate to the cemetery make a natural tunnel that glows golden orange as the morning sun pours through changing leaves. Here, before the sounds of the city come to life, before families visit loved-ones, and before the joggers and cyclists challenge themselves up and down its steep terrain, was his most sacred place.

Clusters of deer bound up and over the hills, through the weathered graves, pausing in unison to look curiously at the human disturbing their quiet time. Each member of the small group posed in concert like a dramatic point in a modern dance, cautiously allowing him to approach as close as twenty feet before some inaudible signal triggers the group to spring off into the wood.

A dumpster filled with most unusual contents. Piles of fake flowers, wreaths, filthy teddy bears, plastic placards, laminated photographs. Lifting the container’s lid, there was a two-foot concrete angel with one of its wings broken off. Hoisted the statuette from the bin, cradled the heavy piece like a load of firewood, walked the half mile back to the house.

Home again, the sun higher now with the morning fog burned off, under the Rose of Sharon. Pulled weeds, rerouted a set of raspberry tendrils always reaching for more distant soil to colonize. Placed the statue along the fence where the creature had spotted him earlier. Maybe the angel could still keep evil away, even short a wing.

Let Me Tell You Somethin’

three stacked, crushed cars in a junkyard

Let me tell you somethin: I seen the whole thing.  I was there.  Not like em other jagoffs trying to say they saw this, they saw that.  Them’s all liars.  I know, cause I was the only one on a street.  Here’s what happened.

I’m takin Debbie to work that mornin and she starts yellin at me pull over, I gotta buy a lottery ticket.  I say Debbie, what’s a big deal?  She says it’s a lucky day, it’s Mario Lemieux’s birfday (she gets this from her phone) so she’s gotta play sixes.  I say Debbie, every week you gotta new lucky day you gotta play the lottery, how come they never hit?  She just tells me quick squawkin and pull over.  So I stop up at Little John’s, that quickie mart right by the bend goin up the hill.  I’m waitin in the car and Debbie gets aht to buy her lottery ticket.  I tell her Debbie, get me Yoohoo while yer in there.  I gotta cut back on the coffee, doctor’s orders.

So I’m waitin in the car, I got the radio on, and like I say I’m lookin rond and ere ain’t nobody aht.  I don’t know if yinz remember that mornin, but it was rainin and it was cold, ain’t nobody wanted to be aht in at mess.  Debbie’s takin a while.  I’m thinkin Debbie, whatchu doin in ere?  You makin it with Apu?

Then all the sudden I seen in my rearview mirror this big ass pickup truck come barrelin up the hill.  Now, I’m not talkin no Silverado, no Ram.  This is gotta be a Ford F-650–that one looks like a semi cab.  You remember Plaxico Burress used to drive one of those?  My buddy Ronny calls me one day and says hey, you want to go check aht Plaxico’s truck.  I say Ronny, how we gonna find Plaxico’s truck?  He says he lives down there on Pig Island–Washington’s Landin they call it now, cause George Washington once took a crap there or somethin.  A bunch of Stillers all got condos there, he says.  This truck is so big, Plaxico can’t park it in his garage so you can go see it right on the street.  I say O.K.

So we head dahn there and we can’t find his truck nowheres.  They only got one road and a couple dozen haases so it’s not like we missed it.  I say Ronny, he’s probably aht havin dinner or somethin.  The man’s gotta eat, keep up his energy.  He’s gotta play Baltimore on Sunday.  You know those bastards are a bunch a criminals.  Ronny says, hey, let’s go get a beer and we’ll see if he comes back.  They got this little bar there called The Troll on acconta it’s under the bridge.  We go in ere and have a couple beers, maybe some nachos, and Ronny’s gettin on pretty good with the barmaid.  Now, I can’t do that stuff no more, Debbie’s got my balls locked away pretty good.  Ronny and I come back from Ricky’s bachelor party aht at Climax’s and Debbie just abaht tore me a new one.  She says you better not be bringin no stripper disease in the haas.  I says Debbie, they’re dancers and ere ain’t no diseases goin rond.  I says what disease do you get from dancin?  I says did Michael Jackson die from dance disease?  I don’t think so.  She says I can smell it on you.  You just better watch what yinz are doin.

Anyway, Ronny’s coochie-cooin with the bartender so I’m lookin aht the window and ere it is.  I say Ronny, we gotta go.  He says what’s a big hurry, me and Becky here are havin a nice conversation.  I say Ronny, Plax’s truck is back.  So we take off (remind me to ask Ronny if ever got that girl’s phone number) and let me tell you, this thing is the biggest meanest pickup truck yinz’re ever gonna see.  The whole thing is jet black and it’s got these big chrome exhaust pipes runnin up like a big Mack.  You ever see that movie where Dennis Weaver’s gettin chased dahn the highway by an evil truck?  It looked like at.  So wouldn’t you know, we’re standin there lookin at the truck and who comes aht the door of his haas but the man himself.  He says whatchu guys lookin for?  We tell him Plax, we heard abaht your truck and we wanted to see it for ourselves.  We tell him this thing is awesome!  Turns aht the guy is real nice.  He comes dahn, he shakes are hands, he even opens up the cab and shows us what it’s like up ere in the captain’s seat.

Now, where was I?  Oh yeah, so this monster truck-drivin sonofabitch thinks he’s Rusty Wallace comin up 18th Street right at me.  First thing I think is if this bastard clips me, I’m screwed.  Insurance company sends you that new card in the mail before you even pay, so you start thinkin that you don’t hafta.  At’s how they gitchu.  It’s like them deals where you got a card and if you buy ten buffets you get the next one free.  I don’t know nobody who ever got that free buffet.  You’re gonna lose yer card or the place’ll go aht a business or somethin.  That happened a me with that CiCi’s Pizza and Old Country Buffet’s too.  It’s goofy.  All I need is Debbie yellin at my dead body because I missed the insurance payment.

At this very moment Debbie manages to pop aht a Little John’s and she’s jumpin up and dahn, she’s wavin her arms, she’s yellin somethin at me.  I can’t hear a damn thing.  Last week she got back in the car all giddy too.  I says Debbie, why you laughin like a schoolgirl?  She says they got this new lottery game with the gronhog.  I says did you win it?  She says no, I didn’t win, I just like this little guy, ain’t he cute?  I says I wasted ten minutes aht here waitin so you could pay money to see a cute gronhog picture?  I gotta be crazy.  I shoulda had my head looked at.  When I tell Ronny this, he’s gonna start tellin me everything we shoulda done with at dollar.  You coulda give it to a dancer, you coulda played four games on Cherry Master’s, you coulda got a burger on a dollar menu.  Instead, you and me are sittin in a car lookin at a tiny picture of a gronhog.  Turns aht this time Debbie really did hit the instant winner–twenty bucks or somethin.  The way she was carryin on you’d’a think we won the Super Bowl.

Like I was sayin, Debbie yellin and screamin musta spooked are friend in the death machine on acconta right at that second he starts losin control of that big truck, goin into a skid and headed right at us.  I start yellin Debbie, look aht!  Get your ass dahn!  I see that Yoohoo bottle drop ahta Debbie’s hand and splatter on the sidewalk and I tell you for one split second all I could think was God dammit now I gotta go back in at store get more Yoohoo.  But I come to my senses and duck, and let me tell you it was just in time.  That big Ford rolled a couple times, made a sond I’ll never forget as long I live.  The side of that truck is scrapin along the road and it sonds like Eddie van Halen on some kinda psycho acid trip freakin aht durin a thunder storm.  Somehow it skips on somethin and flips up in the air and lucky it did too.  It was headed straight at me and it woulda been goodnight Irene for yers truly.  I’m sure Debbie had what you call mixed emotions, like now who’s gonna fix the commode?  But also hey, I think Sidney Crosby’s still single.  Maybe he likes an older lady who can take care of him?  As it turns aht, joke’s on her–she’s stuck with me for a little longer.

Why is that?  I’m glad you asked.  That flyin truck caught just enough air to hit my Buick up high, takin the whole roof clean off just like my nephew Jimmy who eats the icin right off his cake and leaves the rest.  Whatcu gonna do with a piece a cake and no icin on it?  Don’t nobody want at.  I tell my sister Sheila, we should get Jimmy a little bowla icin so we don’t have to waste a cake.  She says yer gonna put nine candles in a bowla icin?  And he’s gonna blow that aht for his birfday?  What’s at gonna look like?  I say Sheila, excuse my French but I don’t give a flyin fig what it looks like.  It looks to me like we ain’t payin Giant Iggle’s to throw aht no uneaten birfday cake.

So I’m croched dahn across a front seat, I got my eyes closed, and suddenly I start feelin all this cold air and rain comin dahn.  It’s all quiet now and I gotta tell you I don’t know if I’m alive or I’m up in Heaven.  I always figured Heaven like in the movies where ere’s clouds and some hot lady angels playin harps and bringin you beers in gold mugs and stuff so I was a little suspicious.  Then I hear Debbie yellin at me and I know I’m not in Heaven.  I say Debbie, I’m OK I think.  I move a little bit and I got broken window glass all over me.  I sit up and I get jabbed in places I didn’t know I had.  If you’d a told me six months ago yinz’re gonna get your pecker caught on yer windshield I’d a told you jump in a lake, but it turned aht that way, didn’t it.

Well, that’s abaht it.  The ambulance come and get me, but I just got some cuts from the glass and the hospital let me aht that night.  They got a nurse named Clarise workin the sixth floor at Presbie that can take my blood pressure any time she likes, if you know what I mean.  I’m tellin Clarise she should consider dancin at Climax’s when don’t you know Debbie comes walkin in the door.  That didn’t go dahn too good, but I told her I was still on the Percosets, I don’t know what I’m sayin.  I had to pretend I was high on drugs a whole ride home.  I’m sayin the sky is purple and lookit that big spider and crap like at.

I gotta say everything worked aht pretty good.  The truck’s insurance bought Debbie and me a new car and Ronny’s got this thing worked aht for the bar where he says hey aren’t you the guy from that goofy accident?  And then I tell the story and somebody’ll buy us a drink.  Oh, you want to know abaht that jagoff truck driver?  He wasn’t so lucky.  He didn’t make it.  He ain’t no Plaxico Burress, neither.