Monsanto’s Gift to War

A Poem by Donal Mahoney

Smitty isn’t Schulte.
He doesn’t drive a Cadillac
and doesn’t hit his wife
often any more.
Schulte, on the other hand,
drives a Cadillac
and hits his wife
usually on weekends
for no good reason.
He’s been doing that for
more than 40 years
ever since the boys
came home from Viet Nam

not knowing they had been
touched by Agent Orange,
Monsanto’s gift to war.
They had a double wedding with
girls they liked in high school.
Smitty says therapy
has helped a little.
He hasn’t struck his
second wife in years.
But Schulte hasn’t changed.
The police have come again
tonight, sirens blaring,
gumball lights swirling.

Two big officers,
matched like bookends,
march Schulte out in cuffs.
He’s cursing at his wife
who’s in a nightgown
bawling on the porch
as if Schulte’s going
back to Nam again.
Smitty swears Schulte
never left the paddies, that
he’s still knee-deep in water
bright with Agent Orange,
Monsanto’s gift to war.

A Study in Greed

A Poem by Donal Mahoney

For years Willie has saved his money,
investing it in stocks and bonds,
waiting to sit in his recliner
each quarter with a martini
reviewing his profits.
They often warrant
another martini.

But when the market drops
Willie loses money
and has to tell his wife
they’ll get it back again
when the market goes up.

But a tornado recently
curled into his life and
Willie had to sell most
of his stocks and bonds
to repair the havoc.

He’s very disturbed
about the debacle now
but more so when his wife
sipping a cup of tea
says imagine what it’s like
to have no money and a
tragedy like ours occurs.

Nibbling on a macaroon
she tells Willie thousands
of people all over the world
live with no money every day,
some of them in huts
with no running water.
Then she asks Willie if they
have enough money
to buy that new car.

A Piece of Fruit Every Morning

A Poem by Donal Mahoney

This morning Len sections his breakfast orange
with the knife he bought in Paris 40 years ago
on his honeymoon. He bought it from a vendor

at a street market selling every kind of knife,
beautiful creations he said he made at home.
Len no longer has that wife but he uses

the knife every morning to cut up his fruit
of the day. It might be a grapefruit, apple,
a melon in season but usually an orange.

Len never thinks about his first wife
but he remembers the blind beggar
sitting on a mat near the stand

pleading for a coin to buy bread
for breakfast as Len and his knife
rushed past to catch up with his wife.

At Sadie’s Soul Food Grill

A Poem by Donal Mahoney

Otis was once a monk
who took no vows, was
free to leave the abbey
and eventually he did.
I met him over chicken wings
at Sadie’s Soul Food Grill.

For almost 20 years
every spring and summer
Otis labored in the fields
raising vegetables
and crops of every kind.

In fall and winter he
would gather leaves and
plow the snow, wheel
ancient monks up and down
the endless silent halls.
He loved his work
because he liked to help
anyone in need.

I asked Otis why he left.
He said because at first
he thought life was a burp
somewhere in eternity.
He still believes that but
wants to hear the burp
before he’s in eternity.

Otis likes the chicken wings
at Sadie’s Soul Food Grill,
especially the real hot ones.
He ate chicken at the abbey
but nothing like the wings
at Sadie’s Soul Food Grill.
A real treat before eternity.

Another Birthday for Dr. Martin Luther King

A Poem by Donal Mahoney

The longer I live the greater Martin Luther King looks
compared with those who have tried to carry on his work.
The man had integrity, guts, ideas and class.

It was heartbreaking in the Sixties to be young and
filled with hope for change in America, only to see
JFK, MLK and RFK murdered in the same decade.

Young people of all kinds had hope back then even if
we saw little change. We thought it was time for a quiet
revolution of ideas in America. That never happened.

My hope is Mike Pence doesn’t succeed Donald Trump
the way Lyndon Johnson succeeded Jack Kennedy. We must
find a peaceful way to get through these next four years.

After a Snow

A Poem by Donal Mahoney

Used to be after a snow
our doorbell would ring
and we’d find boys
with shovels in hand
looking to make some money.
Because of the snow
there would be no school.
The boys would be happy.

But in the last two years
after a snow it’s been men
more than boys
ringing our bell
with shovels in hand
looking to make some money.

Some are blue-collar workers.
Others once wore suits and ties.
Most of them are broken men
long out of work and willing
to shovel for anything
tp buy something
their families need.

Riding Schwinns in ’56

A Poem by Donal Mahoney

You had to have a Schwinn
to lead this pack of boys
riding bikes full speed
baking under the Chicago sun
laughing after senior year
heading to the local park
to play a game of ball
or lob a cane pole
in the park lagoon
with stinkbait on the hook
to catch a bullhead,
cousin of the catfish,
small but just as tough.

Riding Schwinns was High Mass
in the summer after high school
before everyone would join the Army
or wait to be drafted.
Maybe one or two of us
had sober fathers working
and we would go to college.
I was one of those.
Going to college was something
I was told I’d do from third grade on.
So do the homework, my father said,
or he’d wash up and visit the nuns.

Korea ended not too long before.
Two guys ahead of us
would never ride a Schwinn again
or go to college on the GI Bill.
One guy did come back.
For years he walked in circles
around his family’s back yard
smoking real Pall Malls,
unimpaired by filters, very long.
Butch was shell-shocked,
neighbors said.
We’d have to pray for him.
They didn’t call it PTSD back then.

By Mistake He Later Said

A Poem by Donal Mahoney

Every once in awhile
over the last 40 years
Ralph wondered what might

have happened to the guy
who had moved in with the mother
of his children and drank all the time.

He remembered the kids saying
when they were small
the fellow got up one night

to go to the bathroom
and got lost in the hallway
went back to the wrong room

and got in the wrong bed
with Ralph’s daughter,
by mistake he later said.

Forty years later
in a technicolor nightmare
Ralph saw the guy’s name

blink on a neon billboard
and Ralph Googled him to find
the fellow had won the lottery

and moved to Arizona,
got cancer and died.
None of the children,

adults with families
of their own now, knew
what had happened to him

except for the daughter who
wakes up and Googles him
in the still of the night.

Why Sweat the Small Stuff

A Poem by Donal Mahoney

My wife told the mailman
she plans to leave me

and my boss said Friday
I’ve been laid off.

My doctor says
I need four stents

even though
I’m not that old.

My son hates our nation
and plans to join ISIS

and my daughter says
she’s three months pregnant.

Last night I told my story
to a drunk at the corner tavern.

He used to be a preacher
and now can’t find a job.

He says I shouldn’t worry
about life’s ups and downs

because if, like him, I’m saved,
why sweat the small stuff.

An Opinion on Events at the University of Missouri

An Opinion Piece by Donal Mahoney

I was born, reared, educated and worked as an editor in Chicago for many years. I now live in St. Louis, Missouri, where work brought me long ago. In retirement, I stay busy writing a little of this and a little of that.

But I am distracted now but not surprised by the racial discord at the University of Missouri, a year or so after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis. I find racism in St. Louis much different than I remember its counterpart in Chicago. But I am white and still a Chicagoan, albeit an expatriate, and perhaps that skews my thoughts. I like the people of Missouri but I’m not one of them. I lived too long in Chicago that almost as many years in Missouri cannot counteract.

I find that unlike in the Chicago I recall, where racism was often loud and abrasive, racism in St. Louis has until recently seemed largely silent.

But as an outsider I find racism in St. Louis is part of many white folks’ emotional DNA while perhaps it is not in Chicago, at least to the same degree. I can’t speak, of course, for blacks in either state except to note the obvious. Until recently blacks in Chicago addressed issues more forcefully than in St. Louis. And then came the killing of Michael Brown.

Missouri was and is still considered by some to be a Southern state. Not so Illinois. Nevertheless, I have found that many whites in Chicago and in St. Louis respond to blacks negatively but for different reasons.

In Chicago, blacks moving into a white neighborhood meant property values would drop, a happening anathema to white property owners and to be avoided if at all possible. Blacks were also considered to be bearers of crime, doubtless due in part to the poverty they lived with then and many still live with now. To what degree the lack of opportunity caused by racism in whites is a contributing factor is difficult to calculate but impossible to deny.

In Chicago, I found that not many whites, myself included, knew any blacks well. As a teen I almost got to know one black man while I was working at a summer job in a soft drink factory. He was an older man who worked the day his son was executed by the state later in the night. He never said a word during his shift. A white supervisor told me about the impending execution the way a good reporter might, sans any emotion.

The black worker looked no different that day doing his repetitive job than he did any other day, putting empty soda bottles into holes in a conveyor belt so they could be washed and sterilized. Except for two breaks and lunch, he could not stop inserting the bottles. If he stopped, the conveyor belt would stop. He used both hands to stuff the bottles in the holes as the machine clanged on, the conveyor belt rising and disappearing into the steam of the soapy boiling water. It was like watching a dwarf stand in front of Niagara Falls running in reverse.

In my time in Missouri, I have lived in St. Louis and in a rural part of the state. I have found whites and blacks may know each other better in St. Louis than in Chicago even if they do not like each other any better.

In the past, rural whites and blacks in Missouri lived in fairly close proximity as blacks often worked for whites on their farms. Perhaps from their rural ancestors, urban blacks and whites in St. Louis bring with them attitudes and opinions about each other that have not been driven off despite the different kind of life many of them now lead in an urban area.

After three decades in Missouri, following four in Chicago, I am still surprised that blacks have not rioted in St. Louis long before now, not that whites in St. Louis have given them greater cause to do so than whites may have done in the Chicago I knew.

But the lethal silence of racism in Missouri that I sense must have aggravated and now continues to aggravate problems over three or four generations. As a social illness, I find this silent racism not unlike AIDS in that until it begins to show, one doesn’t know if someone else, white or black, is a carrier.

When I first emigrated from Chicago, I told my wife, a University of Missouri Journalism School grad with four books in print, that I thought St. Louis was another Watts in gestation, that some day the lid would blow, and the destruction, seen and unseen, would be incalculable. It hasn’t blown yet but there are days I think I hear the water boiling.

The day Michael Brown died was one of those days. The day the president of the University of Missouri resigned in the face of black protests was another. I have to wonder if there isn’t among blacks protesting at the University of Missouri some subliminal connection to what happened in Ferguson. I also have to wonder if the roar of the black students now isn’t louder as a result of what happened in Ferguson. Is it all part of the new continuum called Black Lives Matter?

Despite local, national and international coverage that might lead some to a different opinion, Michael Brown was no angel nor was Darren Wilson, the white cop who shot him. One was a young black man and the other a young white cop raised in the simmering silent racism that I, as an outsider, believe is pandemic in St. Louis and parts of rural Missouri.

I realize that many natives of the state will resent and dissent from this opinion. I disagree with them but understand they have a different emotional DNA than I do. I’m not saying mine is better. It’s just different. Growing up in Chicago I learned to yell in the face of any kind of oppression, real or imagined. Black folks there did so as well. Not so in St. Louis, until recently.

I don’t believe racism over time will evaporate in Chicago, St. Louis or other parts of the United States. The Pulitzer-prize-winning black poet Gwendolyn Brooks, back in Chicago in the Fifties, wrote something to the effect that racism in America will disappear when we are all “tea-colored.”

From my experience over many years in both cities, I see no reason at the moment to disagree with Gwendolyn Brooks. But as do others on both sides, I have hope. Hope is the advent of progress. We need more hope fueling our actions and less gnashing of teeth.

Caseworker, 1962

An Essay by Donal Mahoney

In 1962, I was a caseworker, not a social worker, in the Cabrini-Green Housing Project in Chicago. In that era, the difference between a caseworker and a social worker was simple. A social worker had a degree or two in social work and was qualified to work with the poor. A caseworker usually had a degree but not in social work. And a caseworker usually had too many clients to have time to do social work even if he or she had a social work degree and knew how to apply it.

To be hired by Cook County Department of Public Aid as a caseworker in 1962, all one had to have was a degree in anything and the ability to pass a test. I passed the test and was assigned as a novice caseworker to Cabrini-Green, perhaps the “toughest” housing project in Chicago at that time. I was assigned to two high-rise buildings with 458 families. I remember their addresses as clearly today as the address of my childhood home. Some things one always remembers.

Being a caseworker in Cabrini-Green was not a job coveted by many. But I was fresh out of grad school, had a pregnant wife, and absolutely no interest in business where salaries, of course, were higher and “careers” potentially much better. I may not have had any training in social work but I really didn’t need any formal training to keep filling out and filing new forms for the many changes that occurred in the lives of the families in my “caseload.”

There are many stories of clients and their lives that I remember because they are impossible to forget. But the one I remember best may illustrate why some “poor people,” even today, 50 years later, fail to climb the ladder of success as many middle-class and upper-class families wish they would, if not always for compassionate reasons.

My story involves a young black man, married with two children, who managed to graduate from a local junior college despite living in Cabrini-Green. I happened to see a notice in the neighborhood posted by a major grocery chain looking for a manager trainee at its nearby store. A high school diploma was required. I thought my client was more than qualified.

When I went with my client to the store to make his application, I thought nothing about the workers, at least the ones I saw, being all white and the customers being all black. This was 1962 and that composition would have raised no eyebrows in most stores in the neighborhood surrounding Cabrini-Green. I still thought my client had a chance to get the job. He had a degree from a junior college, looked comfortable in a white shirt and tie, and spoke “white English” in public. He seemed very intelligent.

I was probably about the same age as my client but I came from an all-white section of the city, home to blue-collar immigrants, and my father paid my college tuition. My client worked to pay his tuition and feed his family at the same time. Although I thought he would get the job at the grocery store, he never thought he would. But since I was his caseworker, he went along to fill out the application. Sadly he turned out to be right. And I learned a lesson that day that made a deep impression on me as a novice caseworker.

I can only hope that things are different today, and to some degree I suspect they are. Qualified minorities do get hired in many situations they would not have in 1962. Times change, in some ways for the better but not always for the better. And some things remain stiflingly the same.

Over the decades since, I have often wondered what might have happened to my client and his family. I thought about him again this morning when his mirror image appeared as a news reporter on a TV station in St. Louis. The young reporter looked almost exactly like my client and talked almost as well as he did. The reporter, however, looked as though he knew he would get the job at that station in 2015. My client knew the grocery store would not hire him in 1962.

In St. Louis now, black reporters and black anchors are not the exception to the rule, especially since the 2014 death of Michael Brown in one of our inner-ring suburbs, Ferguson.

I imagine the TV station required the young reporter to have a degree and probably the ability to speak “white English” in public. How he talks on his own time is his own business. After all, I was able talk any way I wanted to when I went home from my job at Cabrini-Green. My kids used to say I sometimes slipped into my father’s Irish brogue when things didn’t go exactly as I had planned. At times I still do. Our roots are always with us.

Pineapple Upside Down Cake

A Poem by Donal Mahoney

Nothing is anywhere anymore,
Dad shouts over the phone.
His reveille again at 4 a.m.
Will I come over and find it?

What’s missing, Dad, I ask.
It’s midnight and I’m in bed.
It’ll take awhile to get there.

Your mother went to make
pineapple upside down cake
hours ago and still no cake.
She’s nowhere to be found.
I called the neighbors.
They won’t come over.
It’s just me and the dog
and he’s asleep.
Son, I need your help.

Mom died 10 years ago, Dad.
You and I went to the funeral.
We buried her at St. Anthony’s.
Remember all the rain?
And then the rainbow shining?

Son, you’re right again
Sorry I woke you but where’s
the pineapple upside down cake?
I’ve been waiting for hours.
A little snack and I’ll turn in.

A Previous Life

A Short Story by Donal Mahoney

It was their wedding night and Priya didn’t want to tell her new husband all about it but Bill kept asking where she had learned to walk like that. Finally she told him it was inherited from a previous life, a life she had lived many years ago in India, not far from Bangalore. She had been a cobra kept in a charmer’s basket.

When the charmer found a customer, usually a Brit or Yank, he would play his flute and Priya would uncoil and rise from the basket. Her hood would swell and she would sway as long as the customer had enough money to keep paying the charmer. She never tried to bite a customer but some of the men weren’t the nicest people in the world. You think they would know better than to tease a cobra.

Being a charmer’s cobra was Priya’s job for many years until she finally grew weary of the tiny mice her keeper would feed her so she bit him and he died. His family had Priya decapitated but she was born again later in a small village, this time as a human, a baby girl. After she matured into a young woman, she had a walk, men said, reminiscent of a cobra’s sway.

Priya told Bill she had been married many times in India, England and the United States but always to the wrong man. She would give the men time to correct their behavior but none did. As a result of their failure, she bit them with two little fangs inherited from her life as a cobra. They were hidden next to her incisors. Death was almost instantaneous.

No autopsies were ever performed. Death by natural causes was always the ruling. Priya, however, would move to another state or country before marrying again.

She told Bill she hoped he would be a good husband because she didn’t want to have to move again. She wanted to put down roots and have children. She was curious as to whether they would walk or crawl or maybe do both. But Bill had heard enough. He was already out of bed, had one leg in his tuxedo pants and soon was running down the hall of the 10th floor of the Four Seasons Hotel. He had his rented patent leather shoes in one hand and an umbrella in the other in case he ran into a monsoon.

Miss Tiffany’s New Neighbor

A Poem by Donal Mahoney

You don’t know me but
maybe we should meet.
I’m your neighbor now,
just moved in
down the street.

Yesterday I waved twice
but I guess you didn’t notice.
I wouldn’t hurt a soul,
but if I get upset,
ah, then, who knows?

The problem is,
my girlfriend Clare
married my best friend.
I’ve dated other girls
since then but now

they’re seeing other men.
I’m not certain what to do
but otherwise I’m fine.
(You’re really very pretty.)
And as I said before

you don’t know me but
maybe we should meet.
I’m your neighbor now,
just moved in
down the street.

Yesterday I waved twice
but I guess you didn’t notice.
I wouldn’t hurt a soul,
but if I get upset,
ah, then, who knows?

Homeless in Nome

A Poem by Donal Mahoney

I was beautiful once,
the homeless lady tells
the young worker

who’s filling out forms
before assigning the lady
a bed for the night.

She’s been homeless
for months since
arriving from Dallas.

She’s looking for a job
and maybe a husband
but hasn’t found either.

The worse thing, she says,
is the weather in Nome.
It’s nothing like Dallas.

With snow in the winter
and rain in the summer
in Nome she needs

something to crawl under.
Often it’s a man, she says,
with no home either.

Before Michael Brown and Freddie Gray

A  Poem by Donal Mahoney
 
Who celebrates 
the birthday of a tree?
Birds and squirrels, perhaps,
but not Michael Brown 
and not Freddie Gray
and not Rufus Jackson, who was
hung from a weeping willow in 1863.
 
Rufus stole an apple pie
cooling on a window sill,
a farmer’s wife said
She told her husband about it 
when he came in from threshing.
An uncle found Rufus
and cut him from the tree.  
 
His family buried him 
behind a willow not too far 
from a barn in Mississippi 
where two men took Emmitt Till, 
a boy from the city, in 1958. 
Both men said Emmitt had
whistled at a white man’s wife. 
 
The two men beat Emmitt, 
gouged an eye out, shot him 
in the head, tossed his body 
in the Tallahatchie River, not far 
from the grave of Rufus Jackson,
said to have stolen an apple pie, then 
hung from a weeping willow in 1863.