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eat this, walt whitman | by joshua bernstein
           

It’s Monday night in a Brooklyn coffee shop and Cal has brought a compliment from Bensonhurst: “My wife wanted to tell you she liked your story about your, you know, circumcision,” Cal Begun says, pointing toward his lap. “She was laughing all over the house.” I thank Cal and sip my scalding coffee: It’s not every day a 76-year-old ex-computer programmer with an acrostic poetry obsession pays you a compliment. It’s not every day you meet someone who writes acrostic poetry. It’s not every day—wait. Do you even know what acrostic poetry is?

Think back to recess and presidential fitness tests. Fourth-grade English, perhaps? Teacher tells you to scrawl your name down the page like so:

J
O
S
H

Then Teacher tells you to write a poem describing yourself, each line starting with a letter from your name.

J      ust about the shortest guy is me

That’s an acrostic. It is to free-verse sonnets what Lincoln Logs are to an architect. To Cal Begun, though, the acrostic is a poetic art rivaling Shakespeare or Rimbaud’s best. To Cal, the acrostic is the only kind of poetry. The puzzle and chess-loving retiree doesn’t “enjoy reading other poetry because they’re always writing about insignificant things like flies.” Cal hates depressing poetry. He likes happy poetry, poetry that spells out people’s names. And he’s just about spelled all of them.

“I think I’ve written, oh, 500 or 600 poems,” Cal says, rifling through his green, checkerboard satchel. Inside the fraying satchel are inch-thick folders—some covered with cats, others monochromatic—filled with Cal’s favorite poems. Inside these folders—labeled Names, Birthdays, Holidays and so on because “it’s the only way I can keep track”—are enough odes to choke a librarian: there are odes to gambling, flying, Hanukkah, waitresses, CVS, bus drivers, garbage men—and even one for Ramadan.

What do you know about Ramadan, Cal? You were a computer programmer for Merrill-Lynch and Oxford Health.

“Oh, I kind of read a newspaper and took all the facts and made them into a poem,” Cal says, his nearly full head of hair inches from his satchel. “I don’t really know too much about Ramadan.”

A-ha! Red-handed! But you have to be guilty of something to be caught red-handed. Cal, the self-described Bensonhurst poet, is only guilty of scattering poetry across the Brooklyn borough. Satchel in tow, Cal spreads his acrostic love wide: “I’ll give a poem to a checkout girl, a barber, a dentist; I have a poem for just about everyone,” Cal says, still shuffling his papers. “I’m always asking people’s names and if they’re married; I have a poem for just about everything. And if I don’t, I’ll write it.”

At that, he removes his chalk-stub fingers from his bag. His eyes twinkle as he hands me a photocopied page.

“I wrote it for someone else, but you get the idea,” Cal says. In my hand is an “Ode to Joshua.” A smirking teddy bear is on the page. Smiling politely, I slide the poem into my pocket. Cal returns to his bag, removing laminated bits and folded scraps. There’s a note from his granddaughter, thanking him for her name poem. Another crumpled sheet acrostically exalts Wendy’s. And McDonald’s. And a barbershop. And a taxi company. He has written a poem for everyone.

I met Cal one windy afternoon at a Brooklyn small press fair. Rated Rookie’s designer and I were sitting in the grass, hawking Rated Rookie to disinterested lesbians, when Cal strode up: “I’m a poet,” he said. “Take a copy of my book.”

He handed us a Xeroxed yellow booklet with “Poems by Cal Begun” typed across the front. We opened the booklet and found page after page of acrostic poems. There were odes to waitresses, barbers and his wife, Gloria. Eulogies for Brooklyn cronies. And paeans to Weight Watchers. An example:

Ode to Beauticians

B  ecause you face an impossible job day after day
E   veryone looks up to you as you go about your way
A   lthough they enter looking like Medusa (the Gargoyle)
U   nder your skilled hands they go out like goddesses (in oil)
T   hese customers come to appear and feel great
I   t's no wonder they say, "It's You I Appreciate"
C   hances are they think you’ve been with Oleg Cassini
I    ’m sure, though, you’ve learned from the Great Houdini
A   lot of beauty is what you always create
N   ot a hair is misplaced for that important date
S    o how come you have trouble finding a mate?

Cryptic. Oddly creepy. Mildly misogynistic. And, not least of all, delusional genius. We were awed. “How do you like my poems?” Cal asked, pointing a bent finger at the pages. Andrew and I, pondering “Ode To Donuts” (D  elicious to the palette—especially the cream), had one answer: “Fantastic, Cal,” I said. “We love the poems. Can we gi ve you a call if we want you to write one?”

Cal agreed. Two weeks later, he submitted “Ode To a Fart” (published in RR5). The grandfather wrote acrostic fart poems. I was ecstatic. An interview was arranged. Several months later Cal sat across from me, recounting his beginnings.

Cal Begun has two children and five grandchildren. They were born because of his initial acrostic. It was written 52 years ago for a woman named Gloria. “We’d been dating two weeks at the time, and she went away to the Catskills,” Cal recounts. “And I wrote her a ‘GLORIA’ poem. We were married one year later.” A successful beginning, yes, but Cal didn’t write another poem until his grandniece’s birthday 33 years later. “I don’t know why I stopped, but that got me going again, though,” Cal says. The Bensonhurst poet then wrote an acrostic for his employers’ newsletters (“To Your Health,” for Oxford Health), which was well received. He wrote a few odes for neighbors, chiropractors and Anytime Car Service. Years passed. Cal added an ode to Easter and a trip to Atlantic City. More years. More odes. More acrostics. Until Cal, after retiring from his last computer programming job with the city of New York in the late ’90s, dedicated himself full-time to the things that keep his mind active: chess, crossword puzzles and, of course, acrostics.

Cal… Cal… Cal!” I shout.

Cal’s head is still inside his green checkerboard bag. He’s looking for another “JOSHUA” poem, he says. I have enough, I tell him. But could you please tell me how you write your acrostics?

He looks up and bares his missing-tooth smile. “Are you sure you don’t want a cookie or something first?” he asks.

“Yes, err, no. The poems. How do you write them?”

“Oh, I just think real hard about the person or situation I’m writing about,” he says, “and try to make people happy.” Sometimes the poems take several hours or several weeks. Cal will devise a few lines one day, then a few more another day. That is, if he’s writing the poem from scratch. These days, Cal has so many poems he usually copies lines and says the same thing, but just spells it out differently. “But I always end with, ‘May all your dreams co me true or something like that,’ ” Cal says, twirling his coffee cup.

However, Cal’s cut-and-paste jobs have brought him prickly situations. A few years back, he wrote a poem in memoriam for Anthony Nucifaro, a neighborhood man who’d recently passed away. The poem was well liked. Several weeks later, another tragedy—and another Anthony. Time-conscious Cal passed the same poem to the new-Anthony mourners. Success—almost, that is, until Anthony Nucifaro’s son walked into the ceremony. He looked at Cal, then at the poem, then, according to Cal, said, “Did you at least change the date on it?”

Cal smiles. Laughs. Returns to his bag. For a man who, several years ago, received 41 straight radiation treatments to cure his prostate cancer, Cal earned the right to laugh about a death snafu. Especially after Gloria, his wife, beat her cancer, too. A few rustles later, he retrieves his Hanukkah and Christmas poem. This interfaith poem was Cal’s most difficult to write. He labored for weeks. Not wanting to anger anyone, Cal hoped the poem would embody the “spirit of the season.” Did he do it?

C  elebration time! ’Tis the joyous season.
H   oliday of lights is Chanukah, but what is the reason?
A  victory of the Maccabees when all seemed lost.
N   ow we know. We must fight whatever the cost.
U   sing oil that was meant for a day’s light,
K   indled, it shone for eight. What a great sight!
A   miracle we see reminds us of God’s ways.
H   ow shall we follow him for all our days?

&  Now I speak of Christmas—the holiest day of the year

C   hildren always get presents, but God’s message isn’t clear.
H   ow to deal with our mortality is heavy stuff for one.
R   emember, Christ lives on and his work is never done.
I     t’s time for new beginnings as we prepare for the new year.
S    o we vow to help our poor brethren. It’s okay to shed a tear.
T   omorrow we shall live in a world free from strife.
M  ake today something special, as it’s a wonderful life.
A   ll of God’s children are blessed with His love,
S    o enjoy the fruits of brotherhood—our present from above.

“Did you like that one,“ Cal asks. “Did you?”

“Yes,” I say. “I liked that one very much, Cal. But I’m wondering: Have you ever branched out beyond poems?”

“Well, I once wrote words for a song called ‘Ode to the Homeless.’ That one should appeal to your readers. It’s about the down-and-out. Do you want me to find it for you?” Cal asks, reaching for his satchel.

I politely decline.

“Then how about hearing my ‘Dentist’ poem? I have that one memorized.”

I agree. Cal beams beatifically. Then with much finger-wagging, and the glint of a man telling a well-rehearsed joke to people who always, always get the punchline, re cites the poem with all the requisite tooth-and-pain jokes.

I sip my coffee and smile the smile my mom taught me to give Rabbi Fox when he pinched my cheeks.

“You see,” Cal says, looking straight ahead, “I try to write inspirational stuff. I try to make people happy. Do you want to hear another poem? I have a poem for everything.”

If you want Cal to write a poem for your special occasion, send an email to: GrandpaCal@aol.com. Or, write: Cal Begun, 1949 66th Street, Brooklyn, NY 11204