Conversation With An Elder

A report back to Ira Grupper:



When you read that dedication

Anne Braden wrote to you, I got it!

I understood what it and you meant.

Hair standing up on my arm, tear in your eye.

When you told about how you had a certain conscience?

About working at the cigarette factory – I got that too!

And as a good student may,

I listened to every word, like it was gospel.

(I know now why us workers in the movement

have a tendency to throw all our works into the wind!)

The answer my friend …

When we stopped in Indianapolis

to get some lunch on our way back from Labor Notes in Chicago,

we stopped at Shapiro’s. You had matzo ball soup, I had a Ruben.

I was thinking about Kurt Vonnegut, that signed ACLU program my

Mother gave me. You talked about your kids, the struggle and asked me …

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

I asked you, “what was Carl Braden like?”

You told stories about being beaten in

the Mississippi summer race war.

We talked about the poet John Beecher.

Talked over a Brown’s soda about how my street smarts,

were all but gone. One of your other students told me awhile ago,

that he loved my mother because she had three children in tow

when she fought against Goliath.

I was young then, reading letters written from jail by Mandela,

listening to all the words of the Bob Marley songs.

Literal translations of the struggle.

And you said …

“You can’t take religion from the working class”

I am thinking about John, Paul, James, Mary and Joseph.

All my family names. I am thinking about Check’s and Shack’s.

I am thinking about the bakery on the corner,

where Grandma got the bread sliced.

I am thinking about a brown derby from Dairy Dell –

that bookie at Tim Tam’s bar.

I am thinking about all the books you said folks threw

into the Ohio River when the last Red Scare happened.

I am thinking about Muhammad Ali and his gold medal

he throwing it in the Ohio River in disgust.

I am thinking about the time I sat with

the Imam at the 4th street mosque.

He told me about when he was young how he went crazy

praying too much. All I asked the Sheik was one question.

“What do you think about Sufism?”

And he told me not to speak of that here.

At the place where a brick came through the window

back when 911 had just happened! When everyone was

huddled together, faces in hands – then on the carpet.

He told me about his life in Pakistan –

the mental institution he was taken to.

When i visited the once Mad Farmer,

told you about his kitchen.

How his wife complained that he wouldn’t

get the stove fixed.

I listened to every word he said too.

Like gospel, like sage advice. He said …

“Take care of that boy!”

I asked him why Carl was buried

in Eminence, Kentucky. Then, we drove in his truck,

along the Kentucky River, to bring in his sheep.

He said once that he, “sees God fishing in the Kentucky River.”

And you are the teacher! Not me!

So in conclusion … We are all wage slaves!

Don’t mourn, organize!

And in the words of our Savior Joe Hill …


Ready, Aim, Fire …

Let us pray:

Moss does not cling to a rolling stone.


Peace be with you.

And also with you.

In Shallah,

Solidarity Forever,

John Paul Wright

Sundi Drive

A quick Sundi drive up to the Tobacco store.

And how many bourbons could there actually be?

Straight down the buffalo trail:

Preston and east on Eastern Parkway to Hunter Thompson’s

(he ran from here like a bat outta hell) neighborhood and

Mark Anthony Mulligan’s streets. Where is he I wonder?

(a homeless angel)

The ol’ Highlands :

And I am talking Louisville, Kentucky blues shit RN.

Behind an ol haunt, in the parking lot of St. Brigid

a homeless man washes his feet from the church hose.

I say, “that’s one way to get Jesus to wash your feet brother!”

Offer a bottled water, he smiles and says, “bless you.”

I always have water in my painted pony art car for this.

Back out to the streets of this lonesome southern wanna-be town.

If you stay here you gonna get stuck here sense of place.

The long way home, through Germantown :

A line around the local little ice cream joint!

And isn’t this a fine day to dream?

I scream you scream :

The radio is playing some sentimental

open road song on the local bluegrass radio show.

A double stop twines memories from the fiddle and

these streets I have ran, explored, they know me.

I know them lamenting like the E minor chord to A minor chord.

This song is a cookie-cutter twenty-somethings bluegrass

new grass mindless recreation of the working man’s blues.

These streets are just like worn out metaphors.

Nobody goes down the dark mines around here anymore.

Mark Anthony Sings, Jefferson County

Half A Millennium

Today is the first day after the winter solstice and the slow crawl to longer days could not have presented itself in any better a way. Woke early at four to a crisp morning county air that gave way to an orange-red, blue sunrise. Two cups of coffee later, I was ready to move these bones enough to start making breakfast. Wright’s thick cut bacon, gourmet yellow potatoes and onions, thick white toast and two over medium eggs all made to order with John Hartford’s music in the background. The Steamboat Whistle Blues and whoa nelly do I have a case of that. Especially the last section of the second verse.

The grass is all synthetic
And we don’t know for sure about the food
The only thing we know for sure is them steamboat whistle blues
I’d sit and watch my TV if I thought I could trust the news
About the only thing I trust these days
Is them steamboat whistle blues

Yesterday while aimlessly driving around I stopped at DQ, Dairy Queen and got a Spicy Chicken combo, large fries, Sprite and Reese Peanut Butter cup Blizzard. Not so sure about the actual food content. But plenty of soy, oils, flavoring and packaging. Not sure if the ice cream is a Milk product.

I have not owned a TV since my early twenties and spend little time listening to the radio news, so that part of the song does not apply however, I am a fireman on a 106 year old western rivers steamboat. Matter of fact, the only steamboat left operating from the packet boat era of transportation on the Ohio River. So, just about the only thing I trust these days is the lessons I am discovering about life on the river. There are many life lessons to dredge out of working on the river and the two that come to mind for the purpose of this mornings drive are :

things that are important must be preserved and taken care of and a meditation of the word drift.

Aimlessly drifting about the country landscape seems to be a good way to spark inspiration. Lately I have been feeling much like a piece of drift wood slowly making its way down a meandering river of life. Another reason for the country drive was to burn off the morning fog anxiety I woke with. As the country drive progressed and the fog started to lift ; just how crazy it is that this much fertile land is going to waste became the main focus of this time well spent meandering. That thought sparked a remembrance of meeting Tiécoura Traoré a couple of years ago.

Tiécoura Traoré  was on a speaking tour of the United States and was slated to speak at a Labor Notes labor convention in Chicago. After his last stop we were to meet up in Louisville and after a three day stay, hitch a ride up to Chicago. I was working with Railroad Workers United at the time. Tiecoura starred in the movie Bamako.

*** Wikipedia ***

The film depicts a trial taking place in Bamako, the capital of Mali, amid the daily life that is going on in the city. In the midst of that trial, two sides argue whether the World Bank and International Monetary Fund are guided by special interest of developed nations, or whether it is corruption and the individual nations’ mismanagement, that is guilty of the current financial state of many poverty-stricken African countries as well as the rest of the poor undeveloped world.[3][4] The film even touches on European colonization and discusses how it plays a role in shaping African societies and their resulting poverty and issues.

After spending three days talking about politics, culture and a tour of my place of employment the CSX Osborn Yards, we set off for Chicago straight through Indiana up I-65. We were somewhere about half way when Tiecoura asked to stop the car. We pulled off in on one of those long stretches of highways where for as far as your eyes can see, all you see is corn and soybeans He walked up and put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Brother, look as far as your eyes will allow and as much as you see is enough fertile land to feed the people of my entire Capital City.” We got back on the road, next stop the Eugene V. Debs house in Terra Haute, Indiana.

The fond memories of Tiecoura and all that we talked about when we met flooded my mind as field after field of rolling Kentucky pasture went by. The anxiety was in part fueled by trying to figure out what I am supposed to be doing right now. I am fifty years old, half a millennium, holy horse manure — WTF! How did that happen?

Writing is something I enjoy doing. I have tons of stuff to draw on, but not knowing what to do is troubling. Should I keep writing or go back and work on the poetry that almost is ready for a second book of collected works? Should I record that CD of songs that I have ready to work up or keep pushing forward.

My river man Harlan Hubbard side is telling me to “drift”, have patience and to keep dredging forward. It’s too thick to navigate and it’s too thin to plow is a river boating term. It means conditions are not favorable for cruising because of sediment in the river. Regardless of conditions, drift will still be making its way. Time well spent is a voice that enters into my mind these short winter days due to my close friend ship with Paul Hassfurder. Paul inherited Payne Hollow from legendary river man Harlan Hubbard. Payne Hollow is a handmade home built way off the grid on the Banks of the Ohio. Paul is certainly one of those river voices I hear guiding me through these too thick to plow pandemic times. Late last winter, before the shit hit the fan, Paul gave me a rare opportunity to sit in Harlan’s chair fireside to read Harlan’s, Payne Hollow, Life On The Fringe Of Society.

Payne Hollow / Winter 2019

So here I am a seasonal employee of a National Landmark, Steamboat, given an opportunity to enjoy some time well spent trying to make heads or tails out of this, that or the other. That’s an old country saying I learned from a Locomotive Engineer back in my CSX railroad days. The metaphors of the railroad work well with the river. What I hope to do with this writing is to bring several life memories together with what I am doing now. Drifting. I sort of feel as if a very long journey has come to a close and now its time to write the book. I tied to do that a couple of years ago by writing a book I titled, The Table. The Table became too personal too quick as it was written right before a Timequake, aka a divorce. Kurt Vonnegut explains a Timequake is a period of time when time shifts, due to some kind of something, and free will comes to an end. In his Timequake, he is thrown back ten years after trying to write a book that he said, “did not go anywhere.” Well, folks, friends and neighbors, that for many will be the covid years of 2020 and possibly part of 2021. No?

This is a work in progress, feel free to send any suggestions or edits or whatever. It takes a village so they say!


Aimless. (a work in progress)

In search of meaningful work to do I traded the expanse of the river for the wide open spaces of this country work. Purposely not paying much attention to the world around me, I turn off the constant drone, barely able to make it through the news at the top of the hour. This isolation is supposed to be what is keeping me healthy in these unprecedented, pandemic – what ever the hell this is times. It’s me, two older horses, two dogs and an old farm house. Today I got bored and went on an inspirational country drive. Bourbon barns and I can only imagine how much money is stored in those monolithic warehouses.

The road is winding through a part of Kentucky that is rolling hills and wide open spaces. A million dollar home rests on the hill with a double wide close by. A rolling creek follows the road over way to Bloomfield, Kentucky. Not much to see. A small one upon a time town. Churches up on hills and a Wikipedia entry that told of a wild murder back in the day and how the town had a notable person who was the President of the L&N Railroad. The road cut through town had its old shops and frontage that looked like the yesteryear postcard add the contemporary Hometown Pizza. Once I came to this little ol’ country town a long time ago with a friend named Jason. He was a groundskeeper over at the Abbey of Gethsemani. We drove over from Taylorsville to get a slice of pizza.

Bloomfield, Kentucky

I moved in with him when he was working in Taylorsville, Kentucky to work at stripping tobacco. I was about twenty four years old and aimlessly looking for something to do. Making six dollars an hour cash back in them days was pretty good money. We lived in the old schoolhouse on the “bad” edge of town. The house was very old and had no heat except kerosene heaters. The running water was shut off due to lack of pay, but he had turned it back on by simply lifting the cap in the front yard and turning a bolt. The electric was off also due to lack of funds. We burned candles and an old railroad lantern in the living room for lighting. Jason was a very strange fellow. His parents were publishers of a religions magazine or something like that. He was kinda spooky and not easy to read. His car floorboard was filled with the shells of pistachios that he was constantly eating when we drove. One late night while high as hell we decided to drive out the Abbey of Ghethsemini.

It was about three or four o’clock in the morning when we got there. This trip, one of many, was before we moved in together in the old schoolhouse. The evening had started at the Twice Told Coffee House where he had just finished painting the sign on the front windows. We showed up to the Abbey and he proceeded to enter into the place in a way that was like we were entering his gated apartment building or something. He had a loaded key ring that opened all the doors. We were high as hell, quiet as possible not to disturb the holy silence of the place and once we were inside, we were face first into free orange juice and muffins. There were a few people milling around having breakfast. The florescent lighting of the place was in stark contrast to the darkest hour of dawn that we had just slipped out of.

After eating our midnight munchies Jason suggested that we should go watch the monks sing. I was all about it. So we got up from our table, cleaned our own mess and proceeded down long hallways to the passing stares of the few folks that were up at that early hour. We got to the chapel and the monks were just getting started. The place was all wood. All I remember was a blond light wood, theater seating kind of atmosphere and things I kind of recognized from my growing up Catholic days The monks were I guess singing in Latin? There sure were not singing Buddhist monks, but my awareness to where were were was not focused on that in fact, we were at Thomas Merton’s famous church. I knew the place was special because of how it was talked about in the circles I ran in. The only thing I had on my mind that high lonesome morning was the story my Father told of expensive cars lined up at holiday time to get the fruitcake with the special “bourbon” ingredients.