411: Swann in the City

When I was a boy, probably long before you were born, I would deliver newspapers in the west end of Albany’s Arbor Hill.

Before I retired from tossing news to writing it, I suffered not much more than bruises and a knife scratch in conducting mobile commerce with the inhabitants of that eroding neighborhood. Needless to say, the tenor of business changed during and since my times there.

So many days now, I read or hear of another young guy, young like I was then, falling to a gunshot wound in my old streets. Some die. Most don’t. I sometimes worry that I don’t wonder much about it, though. I felt it coming.

I felt it in the steel of a razor on my chest. I could sense the momentum of it like I’d smell the miasma of cabbage and weed and spongy diapers in the hallways of Third Street and Livingston Avenue. Later in life, in my newspaper days, I’d recognize its cousin aroma in jails and prisons, the one with a soupçon or so of filthy bodies. It’s not an aroma you ever forget. Some of my old neighbors carry it on them like their tattoos to this day.

Every now and then, I’ll catch a whiff of it, and with a Proustian flash stronger than any almond cake, I’ll be whisked back to those times, a bag of newspapers over one shoulder and half my attention over the other. Today, the memories were dredged up by a request for a city poem. Maybe I’ll write another.

I’ve written plenty of them about my Albany, the city older than any of you live in across this vast land. It’s a small city, often with big city people moving through it on their way to even bigger ones. A lot of us came back here like salmon to spawn.

But there’s some things all cities have in common. We all have histories written in blood and sweat, which continue to drop on the concrete every day. We all know that young men catch bullets as easily in Albany as they do in New York, Detroit or Los Angeles.

I don’t know if that’s ever going to stop. But I understand where it comes from. I saw the snowball become an avalanche. I left only my bloody initials on the declaration of interdependence we call a street, a neighborhood, a city. I just hate to keep reading whole stories written that way.

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