Roman Market (a poem)

Roman Market
BT Waldbillig
Monteverde, Rome
March 2003

I turn my wine-heavy head
and hurry past an ancient
Eritrean matron
settling into a forgotten corner
of this abandoned market
still littered with rotting abundance

She settles under a faded Madonna
hoping perhaps for shelter
from the delirious clouds
swiftly drifting across the muddy sky
and whistling hot-cold gusts
over the asphalt desert

Thunder-crackle deafens me
to her mumbled request
as I lift my eyes to glimpse
the tempest’s first droplets alight
the plaster-cracked Virgin

and marvel at how
they resemble tears

~BT Waldbillig
November 1, 2017

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The Love of a Grandmother

My dad isn’t the touchy-feely type but when he speaks of his mother and says that she was one of the kindest and happiest people he’s ever met, you can tell he means it. Now, I didn’t know Grandma Katie all that well and I was only 14 years old when she died in 1988, but sometimes I still remember her smile and I can still smell the baked ham she would prepare every Easter. Grandma Katie, who was widowed longer than I was alive, sat at the head of the table but hardily ate at all. Instead, she made sure everyone else was taken care of and she herself would return to the kitchen periodically to bring out a new dish or start a new course for the abundant Easter dinner. Grandma Katie left an impression on my life less from my own interaction with her than from the intensity of my father’s regard for her.

As Dante and I take our walks through Washington Heights, Harlem, and the Bronx, we frequently pass mothers and grandmothers taking children to school in the morning or walking them home in the afternoon. In Harlem, they might be from Black families who have lived in the neighborhood for generations. In Washington Heights, it’s Dominican immigrants with extended families. In the Bronx, we see women in head scarves from Central Asia or Africa doing their best to ignore stares and murmurs. But all of these women, just like my own grandmother, are doing their best in challenging circumstances to raise their children to be decent people. They could be single moms, widows, women working two or three jobs for the sake of Family — all of them sacrificing themselves for love of their children and grandchildren.

This morning in Highbridge Park, Dante and I saw a woman picking through the rubbish bin, pulling out glass bottles and aluminum cans to trade for a handful of coins. My other grandmother, Grandma Carol, used to collect aluminum cans and glass bottles. She was a factory worker and the extra money she pocketed throughout the year she spent on my sisters and me at Christmas. There was hardly enough room around the Christmas tree for all the presents we received. As children, we had no idea how lucky we were — not for the gifts but for the love of our grandmothers.

Perhaps the woman in the park this morning is saving so she can surprise a child with a rag doll or a racing car. Or maybe she was earning some extra money so that her family might enjoy an abundant Easter dinner in a couple of weeks. This morning in the park Dante and I greeted the woman. She smiled back at us as we continued our walk.

~BT Waldbillig
April 3, 2017

‘Being Poor’ by John Scalzi

Being Poor
John Scalzi
September 3, 2005

Being poor is knowing exactly how much everything costs.

Being poor is getting angry at your kids for asking for all the crap they see on TV.

Being poor is having to keep buying $800 cars because they’re what you can afford, and then having the cars break down on you, because there’s not an $800 car in America that’s worth a damn.

Being poor is hoping the toothache goes away.

Being poor is knowing your kid goes to friends’ houses but never has friends over to yours.

Being poor is going to the restroom before you get in the school lunch line so your friends will be ahead of you and won’t hear you say “I get free lunch” when you get to the cashier.

Being poor is living next to the freeway.

Being poor is coming back to the car with your children in the back seat, clutching that box of Raisin Bran you just bought and trying to think of a way to make the kids understand that the box has to last.

Being poor is wondering if your well-off sibling is lying when he says he doesn’t mind when you ask for help.

Being poor is off-brand toys.

Being poor is a heater in only one room of the house.

Being poor is knowing you can’t leave $5 on the coffee table when your friends are around.

Being poor is hoping your kids don’t have a growth spurt.

Being poor is stealing meat from the store, frying it up before your mom gets home and then telling her she doesn’t have make dinner tonight because you’re not hungry anyway.

Being poor is Goodwill underwear.

Being poor is not enough space for everyone who lives with you.

Being poor is feeling the glued soles tear off your supermarket shoes when you run around the playground.

Being poor is your kid’s school being the one with the 15-year-old textbooks and no air conditioning.

Being poor is thinking $8 an hour is a really good deal.

Being poor is relying on people who don’t give a damn about you.

Being poor is an overnight shift under florescent lights.

Being poor is finding the letter your mom wrote to your dad, begging him for the child support.

Being poor is a bathtub you have to empty into the toilet.

Being poor is stopping the car to take a lamp from a stranger’s trash.

Being poor is making lunch for your kid when a cockroach skitters over the bread, and you looking over to see if your kid saw.

Being poor is believing a GED actually makes a goddamned difference.

Being poor is people angry at you just for walking around in the mall.

Being poor is not taking the job because you can’t find someone you trust to watch your kids.

Being poor is the police busting into the apartment right next to yours.

Being poor is not talking to that girl because she’ll probably just laugh at your clothes.

Being poor is hoping you’ll be invited for dinner.

Being poor is a sidewalk with lots of brown glass on it.

Being poor is people thinking they know something about you by the way you talk.

Being poor is needing that 35-cent raise.

Being poor is your kid’s teacher assuming you don’t have any books in your home.

Being poor is six dollars short on the utility bill and no way to close the gap.

Being poor is crying when you drop the mac and cheese on the floor.

Being poor is knowing you work as hard as anyone, anywhere.

Being poor is people surprised to discover you’re not actually stupid.

Being poor is people surprised to discover you’re not actually lazy.

Being poor is a six-hour wait in an emergency room with a sick child asleep on your lap.

Being poor is never buying anything someone else hasn’t bought first.

Being poor is picking the 10 cent ramen instead of the 12 cent ramen because that’s two extra packages for every dollar.

Being poor is having to live with choices you didn’t know you made when you were 14 years old.

Being poor is getting tired of people wanting you to be grateful.

Being poor is knowing you’re being judged.

Being poor is a box of crayons and a $1 coloring book from a community center Santa.

Being poor is checking the coin return slot of every soda machine you go by.

Being poor is deciding that it’s all right to base a relationship on shelter.

Being poor is knowing you really shouldn’t spend that buck on a Lotto ticket.

Being poor is hoping the register lady will spot you the dime.

Being poor is feeling helpless when your child makes the same mistakes you did, and won’t listen to you beg them against doing so.

Being poor is a cough that doesn’t go away.

Being poor is making sure you don’t spill on the couch, just in case you have to give it back before the lease is up.

Being poor is a $200 paycheck advance from a company that takes $250 when the paycheck comes in.

Being poor is four years of night classes for an Associates of Art degree.

Being poor is a lumpy futon bed.

Being poor is knowing where the shelter is.

Being poor is people who have never been poor wondering why you choose to be so.

Being poor is knowing how hard it is to stop being poor.

Being poor is seeing how few options you have.

Being poor is running in place.

Being poor is people wondering why you didn’t leave.

[Click here for original.]

– – – – –

The Masters of this world have no idea how divorced they are from the lived experience of most of the inhabitants of the planet. To my estimation, this is true across political, social,  economic, national, and religious factions.

In my mind, the successful, the rich, the powerful, the beautiful, the highly regarded, the just, and the holy of this world possess little of value next to the mystery of humanity revealed in the lives of the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, the mentally ill, the marginalized, the abandoned, the hopeless, the suffering, the weak, and the helpless.

Qui potest capere capiat.

~BT Waldbillig
January 14, 2017

Which America?

I’m not a political junkie like some of my friends but I do try to keep up on current affairs, and one way I do that is by watching The McLaughlin Group on Sunday mornings. Back in my church days I kept company with some pretty hard-core conservative types — the kind that made Ratzinger look like a liberal — and I had occasion to meet Pat Buchanan, who’s a regular on TMG. He’s charming, affable, super smart and, the reason I still listen to him on Sunday mornings, every once in a while he’ll put forward an opinion or position that no one else dares to mention. At times he comes off as someone’s crazy uncle, other times he seems like the only sane conservative in the room.

Lately he talks a lot about restoring “the America we grew up in”. The problem for me is that the America I grew up in had some serious problems. The America of my youth was the America of the farm crisis, where the Republican president and Democrat-controlled congress did almost nothing to prevent the avoidable suffering of tens of thousands of honest, hard-working families who dedicated their lives to caring for the land (the land of my native Iowa is literally some of the most fertile land on the face of the Earth) and feeding all of us.

I still remember riding the bus to school and seeing a 10-foot high sign in the shape of a tombstone announcing the death of the American family farm. Our country never recovered from the farm crisis. Instead we created inter-generational rural poverty and handed over food production to corporations with no commitment to local communities and no love for the land.

~BT Waldbillig
March 13, 2016