Allen Cohen: A Triptych
by Mark Rosenmoss
Part One: Pearl and Orange
Allen's apartment in Oakland, our first afternoon together, on a slow, cloudy November day.
Allen speaks of Buddha and of Christ.. he says they were just humans with rare insight..
The place is quiet and peaceful, an ashram. A perfect place for writing. Allen sits silently at his
computer in the bedroom, recovering from the morning trip to the hospital in Oakland for
tests.. From my easchair corner, I can see a slice of him, from bald spot down shoulder longish
fuzzy hair past bag backstrap demin shirt chair wheels..
Sitting on thestoop, getting stoned on the residueof random roaches.. Up the hill, through the
trees, the street sign at the corner of Pearl and Orange catches the late afternoon sun breaking
through the clouds. Back inside, Allen's in his wheelchair at the table, doling medication from
many bottles into little plastic compartments. " The pill-counting meditation ? " I ask, and he
nods, up and down, leading with his major shnozz, a weary yiddishe irony in his eyes.
He says after his liver heals, he'll go get his hip replaced. And then, he says, with that brilliant
smile, "And then I'll be the bionic poet." He seems sostrong, resolute, keeping his humor and
using established tools of inner peace to live in the Now, to bravely seek serenity even in the
Allen goes to lie down in bed.. I assist a tiny bit.. he hands me his crutches, and instructs me how
to rest them between the adjacent circular bedside tables. He works the words over in his
mouth, and after a couple of tries lands on: "Put the crutches in the crotches of the tables." He
smiles wildely at the elegance of the wordplay, and most especially to make sure I get it.
Back at Allen's for Thanksgiving. There's talk of going to Mark's house, but Allen's not feeling
well enough to be around so many people. On the TV that looks like it came from Dick Van Dyke's
den, we watch the Miami Dolphins slaughtering Dallas. The over-the- top jingoism of the half-
time show finale leaves us both staring, dumbfounded by the fullsome firestrom of hokey
smugness. The opening shot of a proud Marine (special forces/ green beret? definitely a hat and
gleam) saluting an enormous screen filled with fluttering flag, while a singer belts out lyrics
Now this nation that I love is fallin' under attack.
Soon as we could see clearly through our big black eye,
Man, we lit up your world like the fourth of July.
Hey, Uncle Sam put your name at the top of his list,
And the Statue of Liberty started shaking her fist.
And the eagle will fly and it's gonna be hell,
When you hear Mother Freedom start ringing her bell.
And it'll feel like the whole wide world is raining down on you.
All brought to you, courtesy of the red, white and blue.
I say to Allen, "Oh, NOW there won't be a dry eye in the house. Think these guys'll fire offf a few
rounds?" Allen replies, "They're going to bomb Louisiana. Just a little. Just shock, no awe."
Alan Moore comes over and we sit, we three men, on this very plain, quiet Thanksgiving day.
Marjorie's going tobring us some food, but its taking forever. We wait and wait, getting
hungrier and crankier by the hour. I think about al lthe parties happening everywhere, the
hors d'oevres and wine and pies and music and laughter, as we sit with our stomachs grumbling
in the fading early evening light. Allen tells a story, of how he and Annie would throw elaborate
Thanksgiving feasts, for a hundred people, the backyard strung with lights. And how, after all
the guests had gone, Annie and Allen would clean the place completely, down to scrubbing the
floors, before going to bed, so they could wake up to a clean house. When the food finally
arrives, we're famished. We heat it up and its all kinds of good things: turkey and sweet
potatoes and stuffing and cranberry sauceand gravy and pie. We quickly set the table, anxious
for our tupperware feast. We sit and Allen Cohen says grace. "Let's say thanks to Marjorie for
this delicious food, and thanks to all my caregivers for all their help. And thank you for the
travails..because on the other side is..."and as hard as I try to remember, to recreate that moment,
to look in my mind for Allen's eyes and watch his lips and figure it out, I cannot remember what he
said was on the other side of those damn travails.
Outside on Allen's stoop, a chill gray almost drizzly December day. How a noontime can forbode,
heavy light presses into the retinas. The notion that each word alters everything that follows.
Inside, it's warm and dry. Allen's listening to Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong singing a duet:
I've been a roaming Romeo
My Juliets have been many
But now my roaming days have gone
Too many irons in the fire
Is worse than not having any
I've had my share and from now on:
I'm putting all my eggs in one basket
I'm betting ev'rything I've got on you:
I'm giving all my love to one baby
Heaven help me if my baby don't come through
I've got a great big amount
Saved up in my love account
And I've decided
I'm putting all my eggs in one basket
I'm betting ev'rything I've got on you:
It's the Ides of March. Since his new diagnosis, the cancer diagnosis, and after the weeks of
radiation treatments, Allen is older, much more frail and very tired. His mind drifts away in
the middle of things.
Next to the TV, there's a white cardboard box with a handwritten label in the upper left hand
corner: Book of Hats. In the bedroom, Allen is asleep.. I can almost see him in the fading light,
face pointed straight up.. Very quiet, except for the pleasant, ambient sounds: Ray scrambling an
egg, distant cars rushing like the wind, the cat's meow, tick tock of the dryer, a cardoor closes
on Orange or Pearl, some indecipherable neighbor chat, the drone of an aircraft, hum of
refrigeration, Ray clears his voice and his rubber soles squeak on linoleum. On the other
couch, the other Alan lightly snores, his belly rising and falling. Ray is in his room, fork
clicking on plate. Through the window, twilight grows.. a streetlight in the top center pane,
behind spindly branches.. the corner of Allen's entryway awning brightly lit by porch bulb.. and
in here the tracklights glare at me.
I wonder about poetry and how to make it. I want to ask Allen if I get the chance. Do you just
write, with no-mind, and see what comes? Or should there be intention? Is it a mental
photograph, an observation, a song?
In the bedroom, Allen stirs. Creeping in, I bend at the waist to show him my face: Hi Allen.. it's
moss." Brightly, pleased, he says "Moss," that smile in his voice. He needs to go to the toilet,
and he's confused about how to manage it.. so I help him out of bed and into the chair.. I roll him
out of the bedroom, across the middle room, to the bathroom, to a point where he says, "I can
make it in one move from here."
Back in the main room, Alan asks Allen does he want something to eat. Allen closes his eyes
and purses his lips and shakes his head no with a small grunt: "Upset stomach." So I wheel him
back into the bedroom and he tells me to close the door. He lifts himself out of the chair with his
arms and swivels his ass onto the bed, then breathes slowly with the exertion of it. His eyes
glance around out of bowed head, with that knowing "oy vey" look, almost a laugh. He sits there,
thin and tired. He's calm, going nowhere. His eyes almost close, then open, like a lizard. I relax,
catching his calm, breathe deeper, just sit.
Allen looks at me with his sweet eyes, reaches his hand out, palm down, slightly trembling. I
each over and he takes my hand in a firm grip. His skin is smooth and warm. He says, "So, if
we run into each other in one of these small rooms, gimme a hand, okay?" It's a gentle, crazy,
profound request. I answer: " Any time."
We sit there for a while like that,and then I ask it: "Allen, I was thinking about how to write
a poem. I wondered whether you just write and see what turns up, or does it have some
intention.. and I thought maybe I' d ask you." Allen says, "Got a piece of paper?" So I open my
notebook to a fresh page and hand it to him. He reaches for his sharpie, and for several long
minutes I watch as he writes slowly, meticulously, with close concentration and trembling
hand. Finishing, he hands me back the notebook. I look at the page and see three lines of utterly
illegible blots. "Can you read it to me?" I ask him. Allen takes back the book and stares for a
while at the ink marks. He reads,haltingly, "The oak..." And that's as far as he gets. He hands it
back to me and says, "You'll have to discern it yourself."
© Mark Rosenmoss
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