The Tale of the Thirteenth Floor
The hands of the clock were reaching high
In an old midtown hotel;
I name no name, but its sordid fame
Is table talk in hell.
I name no name, but hell’s own flame
Illumes the lobby garish,
A gilded snare just off Times Square
For the maidens of the parish.
The revolving door swept the grimy floor
Like a crinoline grotesque,
And a lowly bum from an ancient slum
Crept furtively past the desk.
His footsteps sift into the lift
As a knife in the sheath is slipped,
Stealthy and swift into the lift
As a vampire into a crypt.
Old Maxie, the elevator boy,
Was reading an ode by Shelley,
But he dropped the ode as it were a toad
When the gun jammed into his belly.
There came a whisper as soft as mud
In the bed of an old canal:
“Take me up to the suite of Pinball Pete,
The rat who betrayed my gal.”
The lift doth rise with groans and sighs
Like a duchess for the waltz,
Then in middle shaft, like a duchess daft,
It changes its mind and halts.
The bum bites lip as the landlocked ship
Doth neither fall nor rise,
But Maxie the elevator boy
Regards him with burning eyes.
“First, to explore the thirteenth floor,”
Says Maxie, “would be wise.”
Quoth the bum, “There is moss on your double cross,
I have been this way before,
I have cased the joint at every point,
And there is no thirteenth floor.
The architect he skipped direct
From twelve unto fourteen,
There is twelve below and fourteen above,
And nothing in between,
For the vermin who dwell in this hotel
Could never abide thirteen.”
Said Max, “Thirteen, that floor obscene,
Is hidden from human sight;
But once a year it doth appear,
On this Walpurgis Night.
Ere you peril your soul in murderer’s role,
Heed those who sinned of yore;
The path they trod led away from God,
And onto the thirteenth floor,
Where those they slew, a grisly crew,
Reproach them forevermore.
“We are higher than twelve and below fourteen,”
Said Maxie to the bum,
“And the sickening draft that taints the shaft
Is a whiff of kingdom come.
The sickening draft that taints the shaft
Blows through the devil’s door!”
And he squashed the latch like a fungus patch,
And revealed the thirteenth floor.
It was cheap cigars like lurid scars
That glowed in the rancid gloom,
The murk was a-boil with fusel oil
And the reek of stale perfume.
And round and round there dragged and wound
A loathsome conga chain,
The square and the hep in slow lock step,
The slayer and the slain.
(For the souls of the victims ascend on high,
But their bodies below remain.)
The clean souls fly to their home in the sky,
But their bodies remain below
To pursue the Cain who each has slain
And harry him to and fro.
When life is extinct each corpse is linked
To its gibbering murderer,
As a chicken is bound with wire around
The neck of a killer cur.
Handcuffed to Hate come Doctor Waite
(He tastes the poison now),
And Ruth and Judd and a head of blood
With horns upon its brow.
Up sashays Nan with her feathery fan
From Floradora bright;
She never hung for Caesar Young
But she’s dancing with him tonight.
Here’s the bulging hip and the foam-flecked lip
Of the mad dog, Vincent Coll,
And over there that ill-met pair,
Becker and Rosenthal,
Here’s Legs and Dutch and a dozen such
Of braggart bullies and brutes,
And each one bends ‘neath the weight of friends
Who are wearing concrete suits.
Now the damned make way for the double-damned
Who emerge with shuffling pace
From the nightmare zone of persons unknown,
With neither name nor face.
And poor Dot King to one doth cling,
Joined in a ghastly jig,
While Elwell doth jape at a goblin shape
And tickle it with his wig.
See Rothstein pass like breath on a glass,
The original Black Sox kid;
He riffles the pack, riding piggyback
On the killer whose name he hid.
And smeared like brine on a slavering swine,
Starr Faithful, once so fair,
Drawn from the sea to her debauchee,
With the salt sand in her hair.
And still they come, and from the bum
The icy sweat doth spray;
His white lips scream as in a dream,
“For God’s sake, let’s away!
If ever I meet with Pinball Pete
I will not seek his gore,
Lest a treadmill grim I must trudge with him
On the hideous thirteenth floor.”
“For you I rejoice,” said Maxie’s voice,
“And I bid you go in peace,
But I am late for a dancing date
That nevermore will cease.
So remember, friend, as your way you wend,
That it would have happened to you,
But I turned the heat on Pinball Pete;
You see; I had a daughter, too!”
The bum reached out and he tried to shout,
But the door in his face was slammed,
And silent as stone he rode down alone
From the floor of the double-damned.
— Ogden Nash
While it’s a common complaint that holiday traditions and stories have become too commercialized, this beloved tale actually began as a commercial gimmick.
Robert May created the concept of a misfit reindeer in 1939 at the behest of his employer, the Montgomery Ward department store in Chicago. Ward’s had traditionally given a free coloring book to children at holiday time. That year, store executives decided it would be more cost-effective to create an original children’s book in-house. They didn’t know exactly what they wanted, but had the notion it should be an animal story with a main character like Ferdinand the Bull. They gave Robert May, a 35 year-old Jewish copywriter, the project because he was known for his witty impromptu party limericks. As creative and well-suited to penning this poem as May was, the timing couldn’t have been worse. His young wife was dying of cancer, most of his meager salary was going to her medical treatments, and he had a four year-old daughter, Barbara to raise. Several months into the manuscript, May’s wife died, and his boss offered to take the project off his hands. By then attached to the work-in-progress, May refused to let it go. He continued to work on the story by night, using Barbara as a sounding board.
When he first presented his concept, it fell flat with the corporate executives who pointed out that bulbous red noses were associated with alcoholism. Not willing to relent, May convinced his friend and coworker, illustrator Denver Gillen, to create an adorable, child-friendly character. After a number of research trips to the Lincoln Park Zoo, the story came to life in pictures, and Montgomery Ward gave the project the green light. (Click here to view that original, handwritten, illustrated manuscript.) The first year, more than two million copies Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer were handed out and the public fell in love with the story. The verses best come to life when read aloud, as in the video below.
Although the story of Rudolph was “work for hire,” and therefore belonged to Montgomery Ward, the corporation allowed the rights to the intellectual property to revert to Robert May after he fell upon hard financial times. His brother-in-law, songwriter Johnny Marks then wrote new verses for the story, set it to music, persuaded Gene Autry to record it, and it became a hit. The song’s success paved the way for many more commercially successful ventures including the 1964 animated TV special starring Burl Ives.
Robert May eventually remarried a coworker, converted to Catholicism, and had five more children. He left Montgomery Ward because managing Rudolph became a lucrative full-time job. May died in 1976, but his Christmas story lives on. True to the song, Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer has, indeed, gone down in history!
In seven days the big feast will be upon us. Whether you’re hosting or traveling the time crunch has likely begun. With due respect I’ll keep opening remarks brief. Here are three smile inducing poems dedicated to those facing an eipic grocery trip in their very near future. Have a blessed Thanksgiving!
The potato that ate all its carrots,can see in the dark like a mole,its eyes the scarsfrom centuries of shovels, tines.May spelled backwardsbecause it hates the light,pawing its way, padding along,there in the catacombs.
(Copyright ©2008 by Bruce Guernsey. Reprinted from New England Primer by Bruce Guernsey, Cherry Grove Collections.)
I am a Grocery Bagger, and I Have Feelings
The beets pass through my hands
waiting to be juiced by the vegan
they will scream as he juices them
and stain the floor a terrible red
only a dollar
must we then conclude
to be white
is to be cheap?
the pieces of lettuce strewn on the floor
are the discarded cloaks of fairies
the snowy mold on the strawberries
their frost-touched pillows
and they have stolen the price signs
to make the palace of their king
shall we blame mere mortals
for the actions of fairies?
for where others see Incompetence, I see only Beauty
(Originally sent as a joke to poetry.com)
A Supermarket in California
What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking at the full moon. In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations! What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families shopping at night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!–and you, Garcia Lorca, what were you doing down by the watermelons?
I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.
I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?
I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans following you, and followed in my imagination by the store detective.
We strode down the open corridors together in our solitary fancy tasting artichokes, possessing every frozen delicacy, and never passing the cashier.
Where are we going, Walt Whitman? The doors close in an hour. Which way does your beard point tonight?
(I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the supermarket and feel absurd.)
Will we walk all night through solitary streets? The trees add shade to shade, lights out in the houses, we’ll both be lonely.
Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?
Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher, what America did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry and you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat disappear on the black waters of Lethe?
(Penned in Berkeley, 1955)
With Halloween just nine days away, it’s time to enjoy a little warm-up scare. The first thing along those lines that came to mind was Room for One More, the classic urban legend style horror story that took place in a department store elevator. The notion of department store elevators got me thinking about the dreaded 13th floor, though the only department store I know of that ascends to those heights is the Shinsegae Centum City in Busan, Korea. That shopper’s paradise is 14 stories high, though this number may be somewhat elastic since I am not sure if the 13th floor was omitted.
This general dread of the number thirteen (Triskaidekaphobia) has been around for a long time. though nobody knows for certain how it got started. A Norse legend states that twelve gods were sitting down to a banquet, when a thirteenth god, Loki, showed up and wrought havoc. Some say Judas was the 13th to sit for The Last Supper.
Thought it wasn’t until 1885 that the first skyscraper was built––and that one was only twelve stories tall––in skyscrapers that followed thirteenth floors were often omitted––officially at least. That hasn’t changed. According to Otis Elevator Company, up to 85 percent of elevator panels today omit the number 13. The practice is so pervasive that emergency responders generally assume that to be the case.
In this uncharacteristic epic poem, Ogden Nash addresses that missing floor. It’s a delight to read any time, but perhaps it’s most enjoyable this time of year. Read it, and get into the spirit of a spooky Halloween!
This week two of my friends went to see a taping of The Late Show with Colbert and came back impressed. My friend Steven Smith has interviewed Colbert and said he’s a nice guy. I like Stephen Colbert, too––for lots of reasons. Among them, he likes poetry.
Billy Collins explains what it means to be U.S. Poet Laureate.
Elizabeth Alexander explains the difference between a metaphor and a lie.
MoMA’s Poet Laureate Kenneth Goldsmith discusses his book.
And finally, though she’s a patron of poetry, not a poet, Caroline Kennedy talks about her book, “Poems to Learn by Heart.”
Donald Trump is in the air.
Donald Trump is in our hair.
Donald Trump is everywhere.
From the August 24th sacred sighting in Wildwood, Missouri when his face appeared in vegan butter, to his campaign rally in Iowa where he mocked Asians by speaking broken English, this Republican front runner is inspiring the nation. Twitter is alive with made up Trump quotes about his favorite book — the Bible. On the other end of the spectrum, there has been at least one eerie porn parody of The Donald. Understandably, the bards are waxing poetic.
by Donald Trump
They make fun of my hair.
They make fun of my hair.
On the street. On dates.
At dinners – a thousand dollars a plate,
And still they do it.
I know you think I’m a total winner, but it hurts!
The way they always make fun of my hair.
They call it a fox, a beaver,
They call it a panda – not the one you’re thinking of,
But the weird kind.
When I go to bed,
I imagine it’s a beautiful creature
From the myths of the Greeks – not the Greeks today,
But a long time ago, when they had their act together…
In the dark, in the night,
My hair gently rises from the 24-karat wig stand,
Flies through the window,
Gallops across fields,
Leaps over streams.
It’s free. It’s magnificent.
I say to my hair, I like you. You take charge, like me.
I still have to shoot you,
But you won’t sit on my wall, big guy.
No. You’re going right here, up top on Mt. Donald,
So you can go where I go, see what I see, and date the broads I date.
My hair paws at the earth and snorts. It agrees.
I take its life, its spirit,
And I waste nothing – just like the Native Americans, I use every bit of it.
We go together. We will not be ashamed.
Those who find free verse poems too arsty and pretentious can enjoy Perez Hilton‘s populist poetry slam:
Yes, Donald, you’re right. “Our country is in seeeerious trouble.”
This distinguished thinker from Pulaski, Tennessee was a poet, essayist, editor, and professor known for both depth and levity.
Below are a three of his humorous poems.
Twirling your blue skirts, travelling the sward
Under the towers of your seminary,
Go listen to your teachers old and contrary
Without believing a word.
Tie the white fillets then about your hair
And think no more of what will come to pass
Than bluebirds that go walking on the grass
And chattering on the air.
Practice your beauty, blue girls, before it fail;
And I will cry with my loud lips and publish
Beauty which all our power shall never establish,
It is so frail.
For I could tell you a story which is true;
I know a woman with a terrible tongue,
Blear eyes fallen from blue,
All her perfections tarnished — yet it is not long
Since she was lovelier than any of you.
I know a quite religious man
Who utters praises when he can.
Now I find God in bard and book,
In school and temple, bird and brook.
But he says God is sweetest of all
Discovered in a drinking-hall.
For God requires no costly wine
But comes on the foam of a crockery stein.
And when that foam is on the lips,
Begin then God’s good fellowships.
Cathedrals, synagogues, and kirks
May go to the devil, and all their works.
And as for Christian charity,
It’s made out of hilarity.
He gives the beggar all his dimes,
Forgives his brother seven times.
‘I love the rain,’ says thirsty clod;
So this religious man of God.
For God has come, and is it odd
He praises all the works of God?
‘For God has come, and there’s no sorrow,’
He sings all night–will he sing to-morrow?
— John Crowe Ransom
And wagged my wicked tongue so well,
My friends were listening close to hear
The wickedest tales that I could tell.
For many a fond youth waits, I said,
On many a worthless damozel;
But every trusting fool shall learn
To wish them heartily in hell.And when your name was spoken too,
I did not change, I did not start,
And when they only praised and loved,
I still could play my secret part,
Cursing and lies upon my tongue,
And songs and shouting in my heart.
But when you came and looked at me,
You tried my poor pretence too much.
O love, do you know the secret now
Of one who would not tell nor touch?
Must I confess before the pack
Of babblers, idiots, and such?
Do they not hear the burst of bells,
Pealing at every step you make?
Are not their eyelids winking too,
Feeling your sudden brightness break?
O too much glory shut with us!
O walls too narrow and opaque!
O come into the night with me
And let me speak, for Jesus’ sake.
Today, May 7, 2015 is the 70th Anniversary of Germany’s Surrender. In the context of Humor in America, I feel it’s appropriate to mark the occasion with a review of Sam Sackett‘s book, “Adolph Hitler in Oz.”
Don’t let the title scare you. It’s marvelous, worthwhile read. The premise is basic: With Germany on the brink of its demise, Adolph Hitler fakes his own death and find himself–without fanfare- in the metropolis of Oogaboo on the outskirts of Oz.
In juxtaposition reminiscent of an off-kilter dream, Laurel and Hardy are the first to greet him. Struck by the innocence of the Ozians, and true to his nature, Hitler sets about to convince the “meat people” that they have long been oppressed by a conspiracy of “non-meat people” (including the Scarecrow). But coping with talking animals, raising an army of pacifists and conquering a utopian kingdom that fares well without money is a path fraught with obstacles every step of the way. The unpredictable twists make this story hard to put down.
Though the morality in this tale is painted in simple black and white, Hitler’s encounters otherworldly landscapes, fanciful creatures and lily-hearted eccentrics are rich, nuanced, and witty. The vibe of the book is hard to describe. Think “Dr. Strangelove” meets a secular C.S. Lewis meets Animal Farm, chockablock with Abbott and Costello style interchanges and alive with the imagination and whimsy of an original Oz book. This uncanny exploration of ideologies and human nature makes many interesting points but never gets preachy or mired. Coming in at just under 300 lively pages, it’s a fun, accessible read unlike any other.
Reissued by New York-based Royal Publisher of Oz this children’s story for adults was first released in 2011. The new edition, available in paperback, has been edited to correct minor discrepancies pointed out by L. Frank Baum devotees who know Oz from O-Z. Its layout and illustrations by Patricio Carbajal are reminiscent of the books in Baum’s complete Oz series I discovered in our small neighborhood library years ago. This edition also contains a bonus author’s essay entitled “The Utopia of Oz.”
Whether you’ll be riding over the river and through the woods, running the TSA gauntlet before boarding your homebound flight, or having the full catastrophe in for the holidays, raising your tolerance and lowering your expectations is a sound strategy.
Andy Borowitz‘s “Emily Dickinson, Jerk of Amherst,” is guaranteed to make even your most taxing interactions seem delightful by comparison.
May your season be merry!
“We wouldn’t perish without poetry, but we’d be considerably less,” says contemporary, formalist poet Kim Bridgford. I concur.
Here she brings her fresh, vivid voice to a holiday steeped in sedate tradition.
This one is short, and so deceptively simply on the surface that it deserves more than one read. Chew on it a bit . . .
I hope you’ll find it as conceptually clever as I do. It made me smile wide.
Wishing you a blessed Thanksgiving week!
Inflatable Doll Is Bedazzled by the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade
There’s something here that stirs her in her soul—
Like Glory Hallelujah, his caress
The day that he got her from UPS—
Blues Clues, the Muppets, each Incredible,
Her hyperbolic family in a nutshell.
She loves their prideful air. In New York City,
It’s not her normal circumstance, with pity.
In this parade, they clear each obstacle.
And like the high school kings and queens in cars
That frame them like the faintest movie stars,
Her people wave and bobble like a myth.
Dare she begin to hope her offspring wreathe
The towered sky as Smurf or Looney Tune?
What rises up: the human or balloon?
Kim Bridgford is an educator, a critic, an editor, a fiction writer, a wife, a mother, an entrepreneur and the author of many volumes of poetry.