Channeling Ferlinghetti’s ‘Autobiography’

I am leading a quiet life at the Hacienda de las Flores every day watching the waiters in the hotel restaurant ignore the time and the ways that Americans want their eggs. I am leading a quiet life in room seventeen. I am an American. I was an American girl. I read Nancy Drew and became a girl scout in the suburbs of Memphis. I thought I was one of the children in Mary Poppins, speaking with a British accent for months and imagining the Thames. I had a baseball glove and a pink Schwinn bike. I got the glove because it came free in a Westinghouse washing machine that my father sold. I won the bike because I entered a raffle at the service station on the corner and the manager put the fix in but I didn’t know until twenty years later. I can still remember going to the cemetery every Sunday and playing on the tombstones so I wouldn’t have to watch my grandmother cry. I had a happy childhood. I saw Italian women cook every day. I looked for Odell, my grandmother’s black maid, under the dining room table where she went to hide when storms and my grandmother’s anger came down with their lightening and thunder. I did not get caught stealing a red wooden skateboard because I hid it and rode it on the next street over, not until it split, but until it got stolen from me. I chopped the limbs off of twenty-six Christmas trees that I dragged home, or I told my daddy I would, because we had a new fireplace. I landed on my feet when I climbed trees and fences. I have seen a black girl reach to touch my hair at the same time I reached to touch hers. I have seen my grandfather smoke a cigarette through a hole in his throat. I am rereading The Road, the resulting journey of what happens when many people make the wrong decisions at the same time. I have seen garbage men and Elvis when I was riding my tricycle. I have not been to the Tuilleries since last summer, but I still keep thinking of going to Mexican beaches and Canadian strawberry farms. I have seen garbage men on TV walk down the streets of Memphis behind a minister whom we killed even though we did not pull the trigger. I have eaten the best Chinese food in London. I have heard fireworks in Mexico for Lucy for many nights in a row. I do not want to like it here in San Miguel de Allende in Mexico, and I will go back where I came from to see less oppressive poverty. I too have ridden trains trains trains. I have travelled among women, not knowing or caring if they liked only women. I have been in California with my American grandmother, Mickey and Goofy and Fresca. I was in England after John Lennon was killed, accused of his murder by passengers on the tube who loathed me because of my American gun laws. I have been in awe when my students stole baby Jesuses out of the mangers and grew up to be decent human beings. I have seen the spirit of the holy in my child’s face singing and the laughing women at Mexican restaurants and outside in the square still laughing in the middle of begging with their mouths empty of teeth and of nourishment. I have heard the sound of my yelling at night. I have wandered lonely as a crowded mob on New Year’s Eve in London. I am leading a quiet life in San Miguel de Allende every day watching the world walk by in its mismatched sandals.

I once started out to Dolores Hidalgo to buy pottery but ended up eating vanilla ice cream in the main square. That cerveza ice cream was much too much for me to even consider. I have engaged in bus singing, Styx and Rembrandts. I flew too near the pyramid of the sun, I bet I’ll have to give up my seat to an old abuela, I heard my friend state. I am looking for the name of the guy who sings, Oh Baby I Love Your Way but never remember on my own. I am looking for the porn at La Cucaracha that patrons never watch. The bartenders should be better observers. Home is where I’ll Be Missing You. But Mother never told me: I need to sneeze. I didn’t bring a tissue. I guess I need to use your sleeve. Phil-Collins weary, I wait for Godot and Flaubert and Lorca and Neruda and Atwood and Kingsolver. I sing in churches even when I do not know the words. I have seen the peppers and the barrels of beans. I have seen the mass in the Mexican cathedral where the people gathered in tight throngs like midnight mass in America, stuffed in pews, kneeling on broken tile and broken compromises, making too many little children be still and too quiet. I have heard my friend cry: Little Stevie Winwood? Dead? No! I have heard an angry salad growl, grrr. I have heard the French play classical music in their parking garages, but not in Mexico because there are no parking garages. I have slept in my hotel room while my friends peered at naked lovers through a window on the street. I have heard my daughter say: you just missed a thousand people. I have worn dirty blue jeans and walked up to the river that was empty except for quiet sludge. I have dwelled in only one city, Memphis, where trees and houses and lives were cut down to build expressways that never happened. What old men what collection plates what crying children! What old women with missing teeth, lives lost among roasted corn and mayonnaise and cell phone vendors! I have seen the statue of the priest who screamed and started the Mexican Revolution in 1810, Miguel Hidalgo, riding his horse in the middle of the square, pointing peasants the way to freedom from Spain and France but not toward birth control. I know that RUSH did not sing Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto. I have heard a hundred housebroken happy endings. They should all be ditched. It is long since I was a Catholic schoolgirl in a plaid uniform with a wool blazer that smelled like spaghetti meat grease on rainy days when you had to sit in the cafeteria at lunch or like weed when you didn’t.

I am leading a quiet life in the streets of San Miguel every day reading the Latin words in the Mexican churches. I have read the menus from cover to cover and noted and tasted the same food, deluded into believing the international differences between crepes and blinis and quesadillas. I read the newspaper daily, looking for a movie, a bar, an uncurtained window. I hear Mexico singing on the bus, I’ll Be There For You. One could tell that this bus is the same as an Indian or a Canadian train. I read song lyrics every day and hear my students wallow in the sad plethora of self-importance. I see where Neil Sedaka still feels laughter in the rain. I see they made, are making, will make Japanese women say arimaska at the end of all their sentences. I see another war coming and my stepsons will, unfortunately, be there to fight it on a continent that I do not want to visit. I have read the writing on the national election wall. I helped others read it and write it. I marched up Hospicio hill choking on air in my tight little lungs but hurried back to the hotel looking out for my rattled friend. I see a similarity between street dogs and me. Dogs are the true observers, walking up to the lowly and the important, peeing on the world in the streets of San Miguel. I have walked down one-way cobblestoned streets too narrow for buses. I have seen a woman take out the comic-book version of the Book of Mormon in Spanish to try to convert a stranger, a lonely man on the bus, teaching him to read.
I have heard The Beatles’ songs coming out of Spanish mouths, oblide, oblida. I have ridden monorails and believed the predictions of Tomorrow Land, crossed the deserts in New and Old Mexico and seen the desolation of the plains and wallowed in the wilds of the backstreets of Memphis with its roaming street kids in their pimped-up rides. I have seen them roll a kid down three flights of school stairs, rupturing his spleen for gang initiation. I am the hippie woman. I was a little white woman in a big black school. I suffered not at all because I could get back in my convertible and go home. I am an American. I have a passport. I did suffer in public but only at piano recitals. And I’m not too young to die. I am a self-made woman after attending four years at an all-girl Catholic high school. And I have myriad plans for the future perfect. I am in line at Walgreens for medications that I do not know how to pronounce or spell. I may be moving on to Mexican places in my dreams, but my feet stay planted on the slanted and broken Memphis sidewalks. I am not only a playwright. I am not a plain Jane. I am an open book to my golden retrievers. I am leading a quiet life in Memphis during the school year, contemplating room 17 at the Hacienda de las Flores in San Miguel de Allende for four weeks in the summer. I am an intricate part of the 190-page body of work called the first draft of my thesis. I have wandered alone in various European and Canadian cities but not Mexican ones. I have leaned on drunken shoulders, mine as well as those of others. I have written wild prose without capital letters. I am the woman called Yoda, someone who is short and wise and dresses badly. I was there in my night-bramble dreams. I suffered getting through the corn labyrinth somewhat. I have sat in uncomfortable desks in the inner-city high schools of Memphis. I have sat in wobbly and splayed plastic chairs, like foals trying to stand, in the middle school in San Miguel. I am a streak of the moon. I am a Mexican hill from where poets run down and away. I invented a recipe for Brie with apricot preserves and horseradish after watching my friend make up a movable feast out of nothing in my refrigerator and pantry. I am a frozen lake in the mountains of Colorado, and I wonder too, like Holden, where their ducks go. I am a word in a chasm of illiteracy and complacency. I am caught between a mountain of plays and a molehill of prose. I am a raid on the quiet. I have dreamt that my both of my breasts went missing but my body and soul lived to tell the tale. For I am a Tennessee moonshine still of storytelling. I am a Mississippi riverbank of narrative threads. I am a question mark on fire on a Unitarian lawn still burning. I fear a similarity between the grandmothers begging in San Miguel and myself as a grandmother in Memphis. I have heard the sound of summer tourists not screaming namaste in the rain, slipping and crashing on the sharp cobblestones in many cities on two continents. I have seen the grandmothers at the Jardin offer complicated faces after being stepped over. I understand their hard questions. I am a gatherer of tomatoes and basil in every market that I have ever visited. I have seen how kisses cause lingering liquid pain. I have risked attachment. I have seen the Virgin weep with sadness in San Miguel and St. Theresa burn with ecstasy in Rome. I have seen zoo lions with acres of new quarters, their necks like fur collars wound around like burdensome chains, not seek anything further than the comfortable isolation in their habitual cagey corners. I have seen Degas’ La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans uncomfortable in her wrinkled bronze tights even in Paris. I have heard foreign prayers whispered and cried on the funiculars in Montreal and Guanajuato and Lucerne. I have heard a Nazi siren sing wah-wah wah-wah in Amsterdam in the middle of the Anne Frank tour. I have danced with the lopsided women in the parking lots of the Memphis suburbs in October, joining the breast cancer survivors. Some did not speak loudly. Some had no hair and still sang with their hoarse voices.

I am leading a quiet life in Memphis every day, watching the Latino cooks making the fried catfish po-boys, wolfing down sweet potato fries in Midtown, and I have read somewhere, probably in Siddhartha, the Meaning of Life yet have forgotten just exactly when to use the essential details. But I am the writer here, and I’ll be the writer there in those faraway places to rediscover their recurrence. And I may cause the ears of those who are deaf to listen, learn, and follow directions. And I may throw my writing notebooks into the paella pan near Montpelier, at the bull ranch in the Camargue, or the debris pan in New Orleans, or at Mother’s Restaurant at Poydras and Tchoupitoulas.

And I may write my own epitaph, illuminated in the taxi signs, screeching and squeaking to a hard stop at the intersection of Memphis and Everyplace Else: It’s like you’re always stuck in second . . . second . . . second . . .

About the author

Natalie Parker-Lawrence’s is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of New Orleans. She lives in midtown Memphis in a 100-year-old…

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