Joe O’Connell

September 26, 2009

Marlon was my best friend for many years. Among the qualities I appreciated during those years were his honesty and generosity. He would talk, then grow silent and think, then talk some more—as if an invisible string were slowly drawing the truth out of him. Almost despite himself he would dig deeper to find what was behind things. He also gave greatly of himself—sharing his time, music, food, whatever he had at the moment. Many people blessed with far more give far less of themselves.

He was a deep thinker. I knew from the start that Marlon was serious because he laughed a lot. People who are only semi-committed to the truth take their thoughts too seriously to laugh. We liked goofy humor. We also shared a love of menudo—the Mexican soup made from cow’s stomach (tripe). Marlon would often surprise me on weekends by giving me a gallon of red menudo that he picked up at a place that he kept secret. So here is a silly poem I wrote at the same time that I met Marlon. Silly—but it touches upon everything we talked about: an appreciation of risk, a delight in the macabre, an appreciation of women, making every second of your life count, and generally going behind the kitchen door to the messy place where stuff is made. Marlon never told me where he got his menudo; I’ve been trying every place in Tucson since.

Young Man Eating Menudo

I’ve tried tacos, chimis, horchata

And burros since I came to the south,

But I’ve never eaten menudo,

The Mexican food that they warned me about.

Menudo is made from the stomach

Of cows plus some chiles and spice.

They serve it with flour tortillas

And sometimes an order of rice.

At lunchtime when restaurants were open

I stopped and sat down in the shade,

Under a spreading umbrella

In a place where menudo is made.

The steer growing fat in his stable

The cook slowly stirring her pot

Together were setting the table

Whether I knew it or not.

A waitress carried many bowls

Piled high on plastic trays

An oily smell hung in the air

And the steaming kitchen held my gaze.

The pretty waitress smiled at me

A smile for everyone she greets

Encouraging young men like me

Who sit confronting organ meats.

With waitress clicking pen to pad,

And ticking clock upon the wall,

I felt like I was going mad.

I’d used up every chance to stall.

I had just seconds to decide

To stop and welcome tripe’s embrace

To welcome organ meats inside

And consummate my year-long chase.

I thought I might order a taco

Deferring my fate for a day.

But what would protect me tomorrow?

Menudo would not go away.

My battered mind was sore and numb

My heart beat faster in my chest

But then a single thought emerged

Obliterating all the rest:

The universe has shrunk to fit

The space around me where I sit

The waitress stands within that space

Staring down into my face.

Her shirt is tight, the fabric thin

I see the stuff of life within.

This is no yuppie lunch café

Where the moving parts are hid away

The kitchen door is all that stands

Between our pious folded hands

And the rich and bloody maw

Of nature red in tooth and claw.

The core of life where life’s own heart

Says “every piece must play its part”

While one part dies, another eats

A bowl of chopped up organ meats.

And then,

Amidst the beating of my heart

Amidst the buzzing of my brain

A clear strong voice said “Play your part

Or do not come this way again.”

“You’d like to think that life is free

And isn’t purchased at some cost

But eat a meal and you will see

For you to live, some lives are lost.

“You might eat corn or broccoli

Tofu all your nights and days

But vegetables are also life

And either way some creature pays.

“Each heartbeat of your life is bought

Or borrowed from the lives you eat.

So hoist your fork and feed that heart

And do not waste one sacred beat.

“You say you cannot come to terms?

You do not want to play your role?

Someday you’ll die and be for worms

What swims before you in that bowl.”

I only stopped there for a meal,

I did not want philosophy,

But that clear strong voice had done its part

And sufficient courage came to me.

With a timid wagging tongue it was done,

My heart beating fast in my chest.

I ordered what I knew I would,

The waitress left and did the rest.

Soon she was back at my table

When only a minute had passed,

My stomach feeling unstable,

And menudo approaching me fast.

The waitress stood a foot behind.

She put the bowl in front of me

And finally I looked and found

Tripe was staring up at me.

I thought about tripe for a moment,

The site of bovine alchemy,

Turning grasses into steaks

With cud-digesting chemistry.

What once turned grasses into steak

Was turning ‘round inside my bowl.

There was no safer alternate

No glass of wine, no dinner roll.

Just a spoon, a bowl, and I—

A glass of water to the side.

The waitress left me all alone—

No time to run, no place to hide.

I thought once more about the steer:

As his life ends, my dinner starts.

A shame he couldn’t be right here.

Although he was—in little parts.

Everything that dies shall rise

I raised the spoon toward my lips.

My heart beat fast within my chest,

And down my throat the first bite slipped.

Before I knew I’d eaten more,

Menudo sliding down my throat.

Dribbles leaked on either side

And gave my chin a greasy coat.

Tables were packed close together;

The waitress was trying to pass.

She struggled and wiggled behind me,

Shaking her marvelous ass.

Then she was pressing behind me.

We paused and the moment was ripe.

Three bellies were joined for an instant:

Her belly, my belly, and tripe.

Belly to belly we paused there

The tripe, the young girl, and my gut.

I started to speak and then realize

My mouth might be better off shut.

What could I add to that moment?

What words could I pluck from the void?

To wittily make observations

Without leaving strangers annoyed?

I hadn’t been there all that long,

Twenty minutes, I believe.

Yet hours had passed within my mind

And finally I had to leave.

I paid the check and moved outside,

Walking home on darkened streets.

I walked an easy rolling gait,

A man digesting organ meats.

I lay down and napped after supper.

The outcome is always the same.

I thought of the waitress who served me.

I could not remember her name.

But mostly I thought of menudo,

The hominy, tripe and the rest

The chiles, the rice and the spices

And the heart beating loud in my chest.

Joe owns Creative Machines, a nine-person company that makes interactive museum
exhibits, public art, and simple machines to help the neediest people around
the world. Although (over) educated in the liberal arts, Joe is basically a
‘maker’ at heart—someone who compulsively has to put things together and
gradually expands the materials and processes he works with over his
lifetime. He grew up in New Jersey, making all sorts of gadgets in his parents’
basement. Joe began Creative Machines in 1997 to make museum exhibits. Many of
his sculptures (and indeed his entire business) are powered by photovoltaic
arrays. Partly triggered by recent travels, Joe has turned towards making
machines and art for the world’s most needy people. He aims for work that is
not a weak derivative of what works in the affluent West, but new forms that
can only emerge in places far from the center.

Joe writes poetry as a hobby and has enjoyed many years of friendship and
collaboration with Marlon.

Joe O'Connell Photo

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