On my floor there lives a very nice old
man. Foreign. He’s going blind.
I don’t think he was necessarily an act-
or but a vestigial life percolates up from beneath
the lines in his face and accent. Lately, reaching
out to him has become exhausting. He’s too friendly
now and thrusts his face too close. . . . I was friendly
when I moved in the building. I thought old
meant interesting. Besides, singles are always reaching
out somehow, even when we appear blind
to the personalities and plights that lie beneath
the surface of a stranger’s smile, that casual act
on the elevator where everyone’s an act-
or in some way. Alas, I lack the stamina to feel friendly
always. . . . One time I was standing beneath
the shower in the health club, and another old
man poked his head in. The steam must have blind-
ed him to the soapy mess in my hair. He was just reaching
for whomever he could find for help. What’s wrong with reaching
out when you need help? He had been a famous act-
or, probably used to bothering others. I almost blurted, “Are you blind
or what?! I’m showering!” I felt unfriendly—
then hypocritical, for I knew the showers were old.
After I got his to work, I heard him singing beneath
the nozzle and the steam. Tone deaf. Of course beneath
it all, I was just cranky about his not reaching
out to some paid employee instead of me. Was I getting old
all of a sudden? Old and irritable. O, why resent act-
ing friendly simply because you don’t feel particularly friendly? . . .
Sometimes in the elevator, I’ll read. The book or magazine’s a blind,
but is it hypocrisy? I wonder. Then, when a certifiably blind
person gets on—with a walking stick—the person lying beneath
my literary subterfuge looks up, and, actually feeling friendly,
says hello, implying I could provide some assistance in reaching
a floor if so desired. No, this is not an act:
When they don’t ask for help, I don’t feel cranky or old.
When they do, rudely, I fear I’m going blind, reaching
out to souls beneath loud showers, trying too hard to act
friendly always, and turning prematurely old.
James B. Nicola writes: “If anyone cares to perform ‘Everyone’s Friendly, Just about….,’ you can either enhance the repeated end-of-line words (slightly), or try to ‘enjamb’ through them. In this way, you may notice it exploits the sestina form to serve as a bridge between the ‘poetic/special/heightened’ and the ‘conversational/ quotidien/ casual.’ The balance, or tension, between the two is a concern we have in the theater as well, with the actor’s craft. More than once have I coached an actor with: “For heaven’s sake, don’t let anyone catch you acting!” The poem is the first sestina of mine ever published. It is from my first poetry collection, Manhattan Plaza.”
James B. Nicola has authored six collections of poetry, the latest being Fires of Heaven: Poems of Faith and Sense. Decades of theater work culminated in the nonfiction book Playing the Audience: The Practical Guide to Live Performance, which won a Choice award. Residence: New York City; born: Worcester, Massachusetts.