by Rick Gray
My name is announced before takeoff.
It’s JFK again, but this is a new terminal.
I haul my carry-on past rich kids pouting
In First-Class, already juiced,
and step back onto the homeland.
Outside waits a man in a blue uniform and a silver badge.
“Are you a writer?” he asks. There are tribal scars
On his fat cheeks. I don’t ask.
“Follow me,” he tells me, and we walk together back
Down the tube to America. Our footsteps echo out of rhythm.
At the American Airlines check-out desk ten men are hovering over
my lost notebook of poems. I relapsed in the wine bar and my God punishes.
A man no older than thirty introduces himself as Tim from the Terrorism Task Force.
I told him I was not impressed, and that I believe in respect for elders.
I’m very traditional that way, Tim. Maybe it was my years in Africa when I lived in a hut.
Tim’s training did not include humor and, confused, he steps away.
The Boss moves in, a man with the pink alcoholic shade my ancestors taught me.
His face looks frozen in 1974. Very pre 9/11, with a suit that looks
lifted from the costume room of The French Connection.
“You’re a poet?” he starts. “You said it,” I swing back at him, “not me.”
“ A woman found your notebook and was very alarmed,” he frowns.
I try to break his Popeye scowl with a grin. He goes grim.
“Your poem called Bomb Threat is of concern,” he continues,
Lifting a torn page out of my notebook. Everything is written in green.
“And your comments about Homeland Security we all find curious.”
“That shit is weird,” the black guy with the scars exclaims. Everyone nods before
French Connection waves them still.
“I’m missing my plane,” I say, and a cop tells me to forget about flight.
“What was your destination?” another one asks.
I am going to Afghanistan to teach Shakespeare, I calmly explain.
I finally get my first laugh. But when I tell them to go fuck themselves, fascist pigs,
They’re back to business with my notebooks.
But not I.
No, I now have a growing audience of passengers for the Paris flight
And I was raised not to waste. Children are starving in Africa.
THIS IS NOT AMERICA! I shout to them.
I AM BEING HELD FOR POETRY! I cry, and don’t know why I raise my fist.
This must be the oral thrill of the spoken word I’ve read about
And I can feel Whitman and Ginsberg grinning below the New York dirt of JFK.
“Front page!” I bluff to the boss, flushed with my little fame, “New York Times!”
and pull out another notebook and start writing, staring into his badge.
Walkie-talkies come out and soon an alternative ticket is being printed.
They give an Irish cop the job of returning my notebooks; no one else will touch them.
“Hold onto these,” he gives me a wink I might, in a better mood, call Whitmanesque.
“It’s a shitty job,“ he apologizes as I take back my poems and head to another gate.
“Any good publications?” I hear him call out to me.
“Nope,” I shout back, “my job sucks too.”
Oh America, I don’t want to leave you!
I want to stay and write poems that make men huddle in airports!
I want to be pulled off your American Airlines and asked by scarred men if I’m a writer!
I want to make speeches about liberty to passengers to Paris!
I want to alarm everyone in the country!
But instead I’m off to another stupid war
To pay for my daughter’s ballet.
No one in America responds to my resume,
only these lost notebooks that don’t pay.
So before I step away from my homeland
I get one last jab at the Irish cop trailing me.
“I’m coming back soon!” I shout back at him from the tube.
“And we’ll be waiting!” he calls back to me, waving a little blue book.
Rick Gray served in the Peace Corps in Kenya
and currently teaches at the American University of Afghanistan in
Kabul. He was a finalist for the Editor's Award at Margie, and has an essay that will be appearing in the forthcoming book, Neither Here Nor There: An Anthology of Reverse Culture Shock. When not in Kabul, he lives with his wife Ghizlane and twin daughters Rania and Maria in Florida.
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