Contrary to those who claim to know the arc of history or declare themselves on the right side of history, it is more wise than foolish to acknowledge the ambiguities of the present in these troubled times. If the study of the past teaches us anything, it’s that ideas and movements wax and wane, twist and turn. Predicting the future is as dubious as it is interesting. While certain trends seem set, the future, simply put, is wide-open and progress is as common as regression (leaving aside the lofty standards by which we judge such things).
Two poems highlight this dual reality of trends and surprises.
7th Ave. between 135th and 136th on the roof.
Evening and Night.
Pacing the roof, cigarette in hand, a bottle of beer, and a friend on the phone. Time Square shimmers to the south; the George Washington Bridge northwest; Yankee Stadium northeast. These are my terrestrial constellations as the city lights blot out the stars. These are my nights.
I used to haunt the fire-escape and watch the passer-byes. Most places people are hidden by glass and steel as they traverse from one place to another in their automobiles. In New York you walk and when you bump into someone it is flesh and blood (“Excuse me, miss.”) and not a call to the insurance company. In this city you can casually watch people go about their business or spot and plunder sidewalk trash (two bookshelves!). Despite the simplicity of opening the window and escaping my coffin of a room, I was ill at ease perched on the side of this Harlem canyon and not because of the height (a meager four stories). A boy from South Dakota, I grew up under open skies. Somewhere in my psyche I knew this was the problem. The sky was too small. I had gone from one confinement to another. And then one day as I sat outside my window a moment of imagination: wait, the roof, there must be a roof. Odd how your apartment door (this is my home, I go no further) creates an artificial barrier to climbing higher. Wasting not a minute, I left my apartment, and trotted up the extra two flights of stairs where I found the door. The alarm disengaged, the handle broken, I pushed it open. Continue reading
Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd. (7th Ave.) between 135th and 136th
7th Ave. between 135th and 136th
Boys playing catch with a tennis ball on the street. I slip into the corner bodega, grab a beer, and emerge to find one of the boys up on the fire escape. He’s retrieving his ball while his friend yells at him to hurry. Kid has some jumps. The end of the ladder is eight feet off the ground in front of my apartment door. The kid begins to descend the ladder and then I see the father (only he could have lifted him that high) waiting for his son to descend, blocking my way. Stuck, I watch, amused. “I’m going to jump!” declares the kid. The father, dismissive and annoyed, “No you’re not,” as he reaches up to help his kid down.
I have taught AP English Language and Composition for three years now. I always run a comparison between Malcolm X’s “Ballot and the Bullet” and MLK’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” They are both remarkable pieces and highlight the assimilationist v. separatist approaches to America’s cultural and racial problems.
Malcolm X’s piece is a treat to read. It is full of invective (those damn “crackers!”) and defiance. The anger is palpable. Rhetorically he pulls no punches. The black man has gotten a raw deal for too long. The whites have given him window dressing rights. Fuck the police. The relationship is irreconcilable—probably. The choice (bullets or the ballot?) haunts the speech. There is much that resonates with the current atmosphere especially in light of events in Dallas.
Looking South from 125th and 7th
6:55am 136th and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd. Five minutes till my carpool picks me up. Bordello isn’t open yet but the bulletproof, rotating window is being serviced. I order a cheap cup of coffee. “Son, how old are you?” an old, wizened reed of a woman sitting on a bucket asks me. “How old do you think I am?” I ask. Bearded, people usually guess 30. “24” she says. I had turned 25 a couple days earlier, but I shrug, “Yeah, you got me.” “Alright now, son,” she says, “for guessing correctly how about you buy me a bottle of water.” You’re not panhandling if you can do a good trick. I buy her a bottle of water.
Some night, dark, at Papaya King on 3rd and 86th. Order my hotdog. An ill smelling man in a grungy green army coat and knotted beard appears with his hand outstretched to me holding a quarter: “Fifty cents for a quarter?” You’re not panhandling if you can make me laugh. I give him fifty cents and accept the quarter.