A man came up to me on the street and handed me a dollar.
“Why are you giving me this?” I asked.
“Because I like you,” he said, handing me another dollar.
“But I don’t like you,” I said.
“I don’t care,” he said, handing me another dollar.
“Why don’t you care?” I asked.
“Because I’m crazy,” he said, handing me another dollar.
“Why are you crazy?” I asked.
“Because my uncle killed himself in front of me when I was a child,” he said, handing me another dollar.
“Why did he kill himself?” I asked.
“Because he was sad,” he said, handing me another dollar.
“And why was he sad?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said, handing me another dollar.
“What’s it like to be crazy?” I asked.
“It’s great!” he said, handing me another dollar.
“Why?” I asked.
“It’s like living inside a comic strip,” he said, handing me another dollar.
“Oh,” I said.
“Any more questions?” he asked.
“No,” I said.
The man walked away.
I counted my money: nine dollars.
My daughter and I saw a black Santa Claus doll in the window of a store.
“Santa Claus isn’t black,” Sylvia said. “Santa Claus is white.”
I was in a terrible position. How could I deny the whiteness of Santa without denying the idea of a unique and singular Santa Claus? Should I say that Santa Claus is really black, but that the white elite has suppressed this information? Should I tell her that no one really knows what color Santa is, because he lives at the North Pole, and no one has ever met him? But why, then, do all those children’s books depict him as white?
“Yes, Santa is really white,” I said with a sigh, defeated by the sadistic racism of Christmas.
Over and over, I have submitted poems to this magazine. Over and over, the editor has rejected them. Finally, he accepted this poem.
how i got my names
I first changed my name in high school — from Michael to Micheal. But I was only briefly satisfied. Later that same year, I vowed to change my name to Flaubert: Flaubert Gorelick.
“I am changing my name to Flaubert,” I told my intimates.
“Oh,” they replied.
“No one will ever call me Flaubert!” I mourned. And I went back to my given name for the duration of high school.
At Cornell University, the door of each dorm room had a small metal frame that held a card announcing who lived there. It was common to write one’s given name on the top half of the card and one’s college major on the bottom half. As a hoax, I pretended to study hotel administration. Thus, I wrote “Mike” on the top half of the card and “Hotel” on the bottom half.
To my surprise, I discovered I had renamed myself Mike Hotel.
This was 1971, the height of the hippie era, and I had a crew cut and the name of a fictional pulp detective. I was fulfilled.
The following year, as I moved into my new room, I debated what name to insert in the small metal frame on my door. “Should I go with ‘Mike Hotel’?” I asked my sister.
“How about ‘Mike Motel’?” she suggested.
I wrote “Mike Motel” on a card, and to this day, old friends — some of whom are now botanists in Peru — know me only by this name.
The next June, I flunked out of Cornell and reverted to my childhood name. My girlfriend, her cat, and I hitchhiked south to Florida, where for a year I performed manual labor — first in a sheet-metal factory in St. Petersburg, then as a house painter in Gainesville. Finally, I landed my dream job, at the Mother Earth natural-foods store. Here was work I believed in: bagging raisins, prescribing orrisroot for pleurisy, beholding the yellow beauty of millet in its barrel.
Five months after I arrived, Michael Shields was hired. “Michael!” the manager would holler from the cash register, and both of us would run up.
I got an idea.
I visited Jennifer, the Princess of Love, a woman who always wore purple. “I need a new name,” I explained.
“You should be Sparrow,” she said. “You look like a sparrow.” (The princess, no doubt, was referring to my hair and eyes, which perch on my body like a bird.)
As Sparrow, I became the famous hippie poet of Gainesville, Florida, reciting such poems as:
GodGod doesn’t give a fuck about morality. God is an outlaw. He does what He pleases, when He pleases. If He needs a mountain, He cooks one up. Then He explodes it. It’s all a joke to Him. God had a son, but He killed him.
In 1978, I returned to New York City to finish college and moved in with my parents. I resumed my birth name, feeling that “Sparrow” was an embarrassment in postpunk New York.
But I could not write poems.
Part of my problem was my name itself. “Michael Gorelick” is ultimately a Jewish mixed metaphor, like “Trevor Goldstein.” Though Michael is technically a Hebrew name, Jews haven’t used it for three thousand years. My grandfather had the noble name Abraham Gorelick. His wife was Leiba, which she Anglicized to Lena. They named their children Benjamin and Jacob. The sons, however, dubbed themselves Ben and Jack and gave their own children assimilated names: Claudia, Johannah, Anna, and Michael.
The bad poetry of “Michael Gorelick” prevents its bearer from writing good poems.
So, while studying poetry with Ted Berrigan at City College of New York, I renamed myself Sparrow.
I noticed Ted never used my new name. “Why don’t you call me Sparrow?” I asked one day.
“Sparrow is a terrible name,” he said.
“But what about Nefertiti?” I countered, referring to another student.
“Nefertiti is a great name,” Ted replied.
And so, with the antiblessing of the poet king of the Lower East Side, I went forth to write my poems.
This poem replaces all my previous poems.