This is just poetry. It won't save you, but it may locate you so that a rescue party can be sent out. — Dean Blehert

Saturday, June 9, 2007



Can I help you?
Is there something I can do for you?
What can I do for you?
Have you been helped?
Have you been helped yet?
Is there anything you need?
How can I be of service?
Can I be of use to you?
Can I help?
Is there anything I can get for you?
Can I get you something?
Is there anything you'd like?
Have you found anything you want?
How can I help you?
Can I help you?
Is there anything I can do for you?
Can I help?

Note: At the end of my last posting, I referred to "Can I help you?" as "another story." Here's that other story: I wrote this poem when I realized how -- if taken literally -- the most banal questions of hotel clerks, waiters and waitresses and others who "serve" us become voices of deepest despair. We want to be of use, don't we? What greater despair than coming to doubt whether we are of any use to anyone, wondering weather any of our attempts to help have done any good.

Most artists (and particularly poets, since poetry seldom sells, and the fact that people are willing to pay money for an artist's work assures him that SOMEONE thinks it is of use) -- most artists from time to time slip into this despair, wondering if anyone cares about their work, if anyone notices it -- but really fearing that their work is of no use, doesn't help anyone, doesn't befriend anyone, doesn't make anyone's day or life more joyful or aware or alive. We, too, are a service profession.

Such despair is not just sad: It's dangerous, since when we feel we have failed to help others, we are likely to attack others. Those who are most rote in asking "Can I help you" are also most bitter. Want to stop terrorism? Persuade the terrorists that they are needed and could contribute to the welfare of others. These are people who once wanted to help, but failed. Or they are still trying, but with mad desperation.

Please, is there SOMETHING I can do for you? Anything at all? (Blow myself up, perhaps?)

Reminds me of an old elementary school joke:

"The whip!"
"No! Not the whip! ANYTHING but the whip!"
"The whip."

By the way, there's a great study of how a person recovers from failure to help others -- it used to be on our TV screens every week, for about 12 years. It's the NYPD BLUE series, and it shows over those years (if viewed in sequence, as is possible now for seasons 1 thru 4, available on DVD) how a cop named Andy Sipowisc moves from below despair up to being a responsible guy who knows he's of use to others.

It shows him, at first, out the bottom (a vicious drunk). It shows, gradually over the years of the show, how he became a cop because he wanted to help (make the world a bit safer, provide justice, etc.), how as a result he must confront a great deal of stupidity and evil (the two being hard to separate), both on the streets and in the police bureaucracy, finding most of his efforts wasted: He occasionally achieves small vengeances, but seldom is anyone helped. He becomes increasingly bitter and cynical, etc., until all he has left is, when sober, his keen sense of when he is being told a lie.

You get all this just by getting to know the guy (better than just about anyone else in books, movies or, certainly, TV), and you see him gradually climbing out of it.

At first his attempts to fight his despair lead to more difficulties. When you put in order on a messy life, a lot of confusion and pain and terror emerge, pounce on one like the Furies of Greek mythology. Similarly Sipowisc's attempts at sanity lead him into relationships with others who are then endangered by his rages or by the criminals he deals with. But he persists (with help), and bit by bit, finds moments of hope, people he can help just a little (though he's inclined to make a snide joke of it at first -- always best, think the despairing, not to get one's hopes up, just to have them shattered). In one episode, just the sight of birds taking off from a rooftop (after a missing child has been located) lifts a weight off him.

By the end of the series, he's in pretty good shape as people on this planet go. He's handling what comes up, helping where he can, taking responsibility for the training and supervision of others, caring for a wife and son, and when he helps, he knows he's helped, and that the people around him are surviving better because he's there.

After all, it says on police badges that their purpose is "to Protect and Serve." Some police (the ones we call "bad cops") don't have a problem with this, since they became police for other reasons: To be powerful, to be in charge, to beat up "scum", to keep down people they fear, to stop things -- mainly anything that moves and isn't under their control. These are guys who gave up on the possibility of helping people long before they became cops. They saw a scary world and hoped, by becoming cops, to be even scarier than that world. (Often they succeed!)

But for a cop who really does want to protect and serve, the reality of the job can be devastating.
And in a small, less dramatic way, I suppose if a waiter really wanted to help others, he'd find it discouraging to think that all he could do for them is feed them mediocre, overpriced meals. He's seen people served the best he can offer who chew quickly at reluctant mouthfuls while ignoring one another or insulting one another, thousands of sullen faces refusing to look at the faces around them, eating without tasting.

I remember the mixed feelings I had about being a cab driver (NY, 1970 and 1974): On the one hand, the help I gave people was obvious and palpable: They wanted to go somewhere; I took them there. On the other hand, most of the people who hired my cab were frozen solid in ancient attitudes, stuck. And all I could do for them was move their bodies from one avenue to another.

It is remarkable how little most people are changed by moving them from one point in New York City to another.

The distance from the top to the bottom of a poem is far less than the distance from Lincoln Center to Canarsie or JFK or Harlem or Times Square. But I hope my poems move you more than my cab ever moved anyone.