Dear Mr. President
filed 5 April 2003 | Chicago
by Christopher Piatt
Dear Mr. President,
When my mom entered the convent it was 1964
You remember 1964:
Red meat twice a day
Cadillacs that guzzled gasoline like it was sex
Senor Wences and his talking hand on Ed Sullivan
Shots of hard liquor that tasted like hard liquor
Everybody smelled like smoke all the time even the Kennedys
Lesbians got married and had babies
Straight guys loved musicals and bought cast recordings
Charlton Heston won awards for acting
And my mom became a nun.
It was the times I suppose.
The fucked up Vatican logic of
keeping one child stashed away at all times like a savings bond
praying it will mature and one day save you in a crisis
Christ. She was eighteen.
I don't know where you were when you were finishing puberty,
but I'll wager a guess it
wasn't under a habit, your tongue paralyzed in eight day vows of silence
and your menstrual cycle synchronized with that of 90 other postulants
Call it a hunch.
I'm not gonna bawl you out for this, but please pay attention.
Because when she left that convent it was 1968.
And to a woman who hadn't seen a television or a beer in four years,
It might as well have been 1984.
She missed, among other things, the Johnson administration;
that other great accidental President from Texas
And this is how my mom became a great jazz legend.
She never caught up.
Four years of the Twentieth Century
that were essential to understanding the Twentieth Century
Like going to the bathroom just as Haley's Comet passes
She'll never speak the language of the Baby Boomers; but she speaks Latin.
She always feels the fool, even now.
But see, Mr. President, her naivety is her genius.
Always just a moment behind,
she sees everyone for what they used to be capable of.
She's so behind that she sees the original goodness
that was there long after it's been compromised.
She's always just a moment behind the moment,
she drags behind the beat like jazz.
A plump, humble, Midwestern Billie Holiday my mom is.
My dad can't sleep.
I don't think he's had a good night sleep since he was sixteen.
You can relate to this, right Mr. President?
We have this thing in common?
That is, I brazenly assume your father can't sleep either.
Too much to think about, I suppose.
What his flaky sons are out there doing in the world.
or, in your old man's case, to the world.
Incidentally, my Pop more or less missed the '60s too.
He was introverted and prematurely bald,
so most of it wasn't an option for him.
But he did find drugs late in life;
His best friend is a brilliant redneck pharmacologist who keeps him in
little blue pain pills
that make him sleep like a 58-year-old baby.
I don't know if you can relate to this, sir,
but I just live to make them proud.
The things they endured
(I won't bother you with details, but they were gruesome
Nothing Dickensian, but things are rough all over)
If I've done anything right for them,
it's respecting the language
They're English teachers; public school
and I'd sooner die than dangle a participle
split an infinitive, double a negative
It would be like Oedipus at my house
They're quiet, but well-spoken
That's the legacy. Why fight it?
So I understand you better than you'd think, sir.
I don't mean to be forward, but you and me
we're a coupla George Baileys.
Trying to finish the jobs our fathers couldn't.
You, me and Mayor Daley
The George Bailey Club
You remember 1968.
Mayor Daley's dad Mayor Daley
tried to crack the Twentieth wide open with billy clubs and tear gas
but my dad was teaching high school in Kansas
my mom was pulling a Maria Von Trapp in Cincinnati
and I, though not yet born, was being saddled
with a job to finish.
March 20, 2003
You were holed in the White House situation room
trying to make mountains out of sand dunes
Mayor Daley was on the phone
trying to turn the Chicago Police Department into
Liquid Plumber on Lake Shore Drive
and I found myself in a crowd of 10,000
chanting, "the whole world is watching,"
and trembling with the knowledge that it was true.
The cops were angels, incidentally, for the first four hours
And you know when they turned on us, Mr. President?
When they started chanting "1968."
1968: The year my mom finally hit the atmosphere
1968: The year Mayor Daley father became a Shakespearean tyrant king
1968: The last year a musical won the Oscar for Best Picture until that
weekend when the whole was watching Chicago.
1968: The moment a Chicago cop grabbed me from behind,
put me in cuffs and made me man my father never got to be.
I have some free advice for your, sir,
one mama's boy to another:
Always confess to her.
Your mom remembers the person you used to be
better than you do
And when this shit's over
no Congressional proclamation
no landslide re-election
no exalted clergy
can ever absolve you for what you've done
Just your mom.
Or maybe mine
Who, when I told her I'd been arrested
was so calm that I finally cried over it.
You should call her.
She has a kindness you've not encountered
and she's a fine listener.
She'll probably correct your grammar
But you're a diplomat so you should be able
to deal with that
We don't have to be friends, Mr. President.
Or even pen pals
But you're a cowboy in the White House
I'm a country mouse in the big city
basically facing the same problem
We're never gonna be men George
Life is a hand-me down
We'll grow into it
Get some sleep, okay?
I'll try if you will.