It was kind of a poem, TNB’s Rich Ferguson cursing about ten times in a row, rattling off “Fucks!” in spoken-word, submachine-gun fashion while at CSU Bakersfield. He knew he wasn’t going to get to cuss at the family-friendly Russo’s Books. So he had to let go.

None of us get to cuss much at Russo’s. And that’s OK. I get it. Bakersfield is a conservative city 110-miles north of Hollywood. The local Barnes & Noble and the now-dead Borders Books are the same way. Rich still wowed a crowd of CSU Bakersfield poets and guests, mashing together a few of his ditties into a twenty-minute performance as his body swayed beneath shadows cast by his dirty straw hat.

The week before, poet Michael Medrano of Fresno wowed the same class while at Russo’s with selections from his 2009 book “Born in the Cavity of Sunsets” (Arizona State University’s Bilingual Press). Michael rode into town on the Amtrak. It’s a nice ride from Fresno. I’ve taken the route. It swings through Central Valley farmland and cuts through little towns like Hanford and Wasco, places where gangs are out of control and mom-and-pop restaurants are still as tasty as ever.

When he stepped off the train he pulled along a black bag filled with his books, notes, an unpublished manuscript for “When You Left to Burn at Sea,” and some pages from a young adult fiction novel.

I pointed at him and we hugged like brothers.

After a Thai food lunch we grabbed some coffee in the sweltering heat and headed to class at the CSUB OLLI Program poetry course I was teaching. He took the reigns and taught about community. In fact, all weekend we spoke about working together, how poetry scenes in towns and across the nation are dead without writers and poets linking arms and digging in.

I was careful to mostly teach from Medrano’s book as well as Bakersfield poet Gary Hill’s works (including “From a Savage City”) and T.Z. Hernandez book, “Skin Tax.” All three poets, I believe, are part of a poetry brotherhood that needs to further help connect the Central Valley to itself, to Hollywood-L.A. (that would be Rich Ferguson and others I know) and even to Colorado. In fact, T.Z. Hernandez is a Central Valley writer now living in Boulder, Colorado. I’m really looking forward to an Oct. 12 gig at Innisfree Poetry Bookstore & Cafe with both Medrano and Hernandez. Hernandez mentioned calling it the “Vagos Locos Tour: Poetry, Stories y Mas.” Fitting for a bunch of crazy wandering Latino poets from California’s Central Valley.

After our gig at Russo’s we all ended up at an old mortuary converted into a mansion home with two basements and enough Chinese artifacts to fill all the secret tunnels supposedly beneath Bakersfield. Poets Philip Derouchie and Terry Telford showed up as I was whipping up some salsa and drinking too much Moscato. Derouchie brought beer. So did Medrano.

Poet-literary writer Jane Hawley was there talking up a storm, telling stories about the house. Melinda Carroll, who is the quietest poet on the planet, hung out (actually a tie with Veronica Madrigal, who brought some carne asada and helped me make some rather forgetful Spanish rice. Medrano later said, “Maybe it’s the mortuary that took your rice mojo”). Poet Sofia Reyes had to be talked into showing up.

I cooked the carne asada and talked poetry under the stars with Medrano. “An epic night of Central Valley poets connecting between cities,” I said. It was about then I dropped a tortilla, picked up and flung over the fence into an alley.

“Looks like a spaceship!” a voice from the darkness said.

Soon enough, everyone was eating, even my terrible rice, and talked it up about mortuary ghosts, including one in the house of a cat named Blackbeard. Don’t believe me? There’s even a painting of the cat hanging in a dark room above a bed. Another animal from the mansion dropped dead of a heart attack just days after our shindig. “Cardiac arrest,” Hawley said. “The trainer tried animal CPR.” Apparently you do that for show dogs named Rudy. You rip their little doggy chests open if you have to. But as I mentioned, the little guy didn’t make it. His owner was in Berlin.


(Photo: Dolls found in mortuary mansion closet)

Maybe there was forewarning at our party, because in the middle of dinner, Hawley, whose gramps owns the mortuary mansion, suddenly ran in an odd sort of gait, away from the rest of the poets and launched herself into the pool fully clothed. I can’t think of any other reason than she was possessed by either Blackbeard the cat, who may have wanted her or Rudy dead, or the spirit of poetry infusing her with vibrant energy for a symbolic journey of renewal.

When she emerged there was a june bug in her hair and she screamed.

The next day I got Medrano to the train station barely five minutes before the Amtrak was scheduled to leave. I watched as he ran and boarded one of the big silver passenger cars.

I think I might have worked off an entire cup of coffee in that lone jog,” he later said, grateful he came to Bakersfield and broke bread with a host of tireless poets.


In northern Westchester County, New York, not long ago, a man I know tried to end his life in a most horrible way.  It happened in the town of Bedford, famous for its tree-lined roads, for the millionaires who live along them, and, incongruously, for its maximum security prison.

The Bedford Hills Correctional Facility — named for one of the town’s three hamlets — sits hard by the highway, just over a mile from the train station, surrounded by tall fences and barbed wire.  Woods encircle the compound.  From the ground, it reveals itself by a single approach.

Since it’s the only maximum security women’s prison in the state, all women convicted of murder in New York end up there eventually.  Once inside they don’t tend to bother anyone in the free world, and town residents are quick to note that most violent inmates came to this terminus as the result of domestic disputes, not premeditated crimes.

The penitentiary is in the town, but not of it.  Visitors and guards sometimes arrive via the local Metro North station, riding cabs the last mile and a quarter to their destination.  Occasionally one sees them trudging up the hill on foot, parallel the railroad tracks, past the post office and the stone supply and the small warehouses of Adams Road, one of a few areas zoned for light industry.

When Anthony Agostino (not his real name) looked out his office window, he might have seen these visitors passing.  Tony used a tiny building by the tracks as his office, a mile from the prison and no farther than that from the house in which he grew up.

Though as an adult he moved to a neighboring town, the prison offers a convenient geographic center for an examination of Tony’s life.  If you pinned it on a map, I suspect you’d discover that Tony conducted the majority of his business and personal affairs within a radius of less then ten miles.

He attended the local elementary school and the local high school, married a local girl and — after college at Syracuse — settled locally.  The business he founded was named after the street on which he and his partner grew up.

Tony rented that office near the prison for a long time, and when he descended into crisis he returned there, alone, to attempt suicide a few years ago.  He died of pneumonia this week at 49.  But the pneumonia isn’t what really killed him.

I came to know Tony by accident, a chance call off a Yellow Pages advertisement more than twenty years ago.  My wife and I had purchased a big old house on ten acres overgrown with vines and giant forsythia, with rhododendrons and lilacs that had bolted so high they covered the tops of the windows.

The prior owner asked one favor at the closing that I couldn’t abide.  Years ago, she said, when they’d lost a son, she and her husband planted an apple tree beside the house in his memory.  “I know it’s not in a great spot,” she said, “but please be gentle with it.”  My wife and I agreed too readily, eager to get on with things.

Besides the Nineteenth Century stucco house, the property had an old dairy barn warped to awkward angles by gravity and neglect.  There was an equally rundown cottage, a crumbling tennis court and an old pool.  Natural attributes included rock outcroppings, lawns, fields, woods and a pond so green that, on a still summer day, you might be tempted to ask where the groundskeeper had placed the flag pin.

We’d owned the keys two weekends when I went out back one Saturday with my new chain saw.  The apple tree we’d half promised to protect was diseased and bug-infested — and it blocked our view of the pond.  With my wife biting her lip in the dining room window, I made quick work of it.  When I carted away the last branches and we admired the view from inside, the place began to feel like ours for the first time.

With some help from a caretaker, who lived with his young family in the cottage, almost every weekend for three seasons I was serenaded by the whirr of the chainsaw and hedge trimmer and the sturdy clomp of a pair of loppers.  We cleared great stands of weed-choked wild raspberry, gnarled forsythia and maple saplings.  We hacked and dragged away bittersweet and wild grape.

Some multiflora rose vines were as big as tree trunks.  Their thorns pierced leather gloves, and their tendrils boomeranged ferociously when we tried to direct them, whipping us bloody.

But we persisted, opening up vistas that hadn’t been seen in a generation, saving some great old trees from strangulation by parasitic flora, and exposing stone walls that once marked cow pastures, before refrigeration and rising land prices conspired to put the local farmers out of business.

It was a satisfying year, offering more instant rewards than my job as a book editor.  When I brought a manuscript home and trimmed it with a pencil, the final product might still be a year off.  But in the yard, at the end of a day with the tools, you stood back and marveled at all the good you’d done.

Clearing had natural limits, however.  Soon we had to start adding.  We needed guidance, needed a plan.  That’s when I called Tony.

He had a woman who did his scheduling (later I’d learn this was his wife), and we made an appointment for that week.  He tried calling me Mr. Fishman, but I wouldn’t hear of it.  He was close to my age — late twenties, at the time — and that surprised me when I first saw him.  Most of our contemporaries then worked at big companies, as I did, not managing their own businesses.

But that was scarcely a note of dissonance.  I admired it, in fact, perhaps even envied it.  Tan and fit, dark-haired, handsome, Tony had an easy familiarity.  He dressed like a preppy in well-worn turtleneck and khakis, and while I hadn’t attended prep school, I could relate to the desire to look that way.  Anyone with certain ambitions could.

We walked around the property slowly, discussing immediate needs and grand plans.  I casually tested his knowledge, pointing to trees and bushes we’d saved and asking their names, some of which I already knew.  I never managed to stump him, and he responded with a degree of enthusiasm that suggested genuine love for his subject.

As he departed, I told him we’d be interviewing several firms, but I suspected he knew that we had hit it off right away.  Soon he was back with blueprints and plant lists.  My wife liked him.  Our relationship — dare I say — blossomed.

For more than a decade we used Tony’s services.  In that time, there were long periods when I worked from home, and when he pulled up with his crew I’d jump from my desk, greet him, chat over the job he was doing for us and over other things — neighbors, nature, town happenings, our lives.  His business was thriving, but he never seemed rushed.

We watched him grow, not quite our friend, but a warm acquaintance, someone to root for.  He bragged about his daughter and told me his wife was sad that a second child never came.  He revealed that his grandfather had maintained the grounds for many years at an old estate down the road, since divided by the construction of a highway.  He called me when he split with his business partner.  He spoke of peaceful moments fishing alone on the lake by his house.

A few times, when I was driving by and saw his car, I dropped into his office unannounced.  It was a glorified shack, really — maybe not so glorified.  Barely heated, two rooms, up and down — the downstairs where his crew knocked around and the upstairs where he sat drafting.  They had three or four trucks that they squeezed onto the dirt lot every night, parking them within inches of one another.  People walking to the prison might have brushed right by one of those bumpers on occasion.

When I joined the board of the local Nature Conservancy chapter, I talked Tony into donating his services on a project near a river two hours away.  We worked together beside his crew that day, landscaping around a preserve lodge.

He didn’t need the business I’d bring him.  Over the years, he acquired many clients who were millionaires, living on big estates, proffering big projects and big maintenance contracts.  It was largely Wall Street money, fresh and easy.

Somewhere along the line, it dawned on me that Tony had a foot in each of two worlds: the world of his grandfather, close by, where he’d dig a hole alongside his crew; and the world where he spent Saturday afternoons shooting the breeze with wealthy clients on their patios.  The world of the big shiny Land Cruiser that he drove, and the world of the soiled landscape trucks parked on his lot.  The world of the house on the quiet lake, and the world of the shack by the railroad tracks.

When I moved a few towns away, he continued to do some work for me, but that wasn’t the core of his territory.  We drifted apart as our business relationship faded.

Then, maybe five years ago, I was standing in line at a Dunkin’ Donuts when someone tapped me on the shoulder.  It was one of Tony’s subcontractors, a stone mason who, like Tony, had grown with the economy from managing tools to managing jobs and men.  He still had the big hands and forearms of  a mason, though.  His name was Carmello.  He asked if I remembered him, mentioning the connection to Tony, and I said of course.

“Did you hear what happened?”

“No.”

“A few months ago, Tony tried to kill himself.”

I craned forward, as if I hadn’t heard right.  We exchanged awkward half-smiles, the kind that cross people’s faces when they know they’re in the midst of a heavy moment.  Then Carmello told me the story as he knew it.

It involved a personal transgression that doesn’t require detailing here.  Suffice to say it was something secret but not illegal, revealed suddenly to his loved ones.  It was something millions of people have done and then worked through, gone on with their lives.  The revelation needn’t have led to other irrevocable actions.

When Tony learned his secret was out, though, he went to his office and drank a container of acid.

It nearly killed him on the spot.  It did kill him later.

I ran into him a couple of years after it happened.  His face was sunken but his eyes still had vigor.  We were in the vicinity of my office and I insisted he come up and tell me everything.

He didn’t, I now realize, and probably never had.  But he told me a lot.

He told me what it felt like when the revelation hit, when he knew the facade had been shattered — “shattered” is my word, not his, but it’s the right one.  The word he used to describe his state before the revelation was “invincible.”  That originated with his therapist, the one who tried to help put him back together.

Tony had constructed a world for himself, a world where the boy who grew up in a little house a mile from the prison could interact in one moment with a dirt-encrusted crew and in the next moment with Wall Street titans who lived behind automated gates.  And if he could do that, he convinced himself, he could do anything.  But, of course, he couldn’t.  Tony had entrapped himself.

When she heard the story the first time, my wife, a trained social worker, observed that a person who drinks acid doesn’t merely intend to kill himself.  He intends to punish himself.

Tony didn’t fully articulate to me what he felt at that moment when he went into his office and poured the poison down his throat.  It was a blur to him, I think, like they do it in movies sometimes with the music screeching urgently and the camera swinging from focus.  In addition, the subsequent therapy had clearly distanced him from it, as had, perhaps, the pure act of surviving.

Nevertheless, it happened like this.  He went to his office and he gulped the acid and then he thought of his wife and his daughter.  When he related it, I don’t think he recalled the physical pain of that moment.  He remembered dialing 911 and passing out.

And when I asked him what he’d been thinking, all he could say was, “I was invincible.  I had been invincible.”

“And then?”

“And then I wasn’t.”

As Tony lay comatose in a hospital afterward, one wealthy client rushed to the hospital with a check for $100,000 and tried to force it on Tony’s wife as a gift.  She wouldn’t accept it.

Acid down the gullet is a nasty business.  It took them months to give Tony the semblance of physical normalcy.  He looked like a shadow of himself when I last saw him, skin and bones, the face and body of a man who has crawled out of the desert.

But I asked him how he felt and he said, “I feel free.”