Ludlow and Rivington, 1986
spies me coming and blocks my path—
tries to pick the lock on my change pocket
with what remains of his humanity,
muttering in a distant dialect.
I clear my throat by way of reply, but he’s no longer listening—
just raises a green flask to his lips and phrases a noisome tune,
like the last gasp of a bullet-riddled bugle boy
that fell out of his horn when his ghost fled.
Ghosts do not linger on this street
to trouble the toothless grey tenements.
Here they’re upstaged by the living—
rag-bound sots whose hearth is the flaming ashcan.
The calendar and clock beat them to the ground,
as a swig and a sob syncopate the rhythm.
Rhythms carom off tin windowpanes
as my man cranks his box on the street.
Eight D batteries die a violent death—
their blood spurts from torn loudspeakers,
spattering the bricks with broken music.
The youngbloods have covered the bricks with their tags,
leaving the pavement to the dogs,
whose hopscotch game boards decorate the sidewalk.
I leap to a free square on my way down the street
past rag bundles of dubious content.
Upstairs, rosary beads abrade tiny hands.
The sodden trumpeter cashed it in in a doorway,
his song taken up by leather panthers hawking junk on the stoop
before a cement door
with a hole just big enough to crawl through.
(This was probably the last poem I ever wrote, a sketch of the extremely grim Lower East Side neighborhood where I lived in the mid-1980s, inspired by a late-night encounter with the saintly trumpet player Don Cherry on my corner.)