…But Don’t Touch

Photo by Luke Braswell

There she was, wearing nothing but slippers, a loosely tied white house coat, turquoise panties, a chunky necklace with big stones blue as her eyes, and a smile. I froze at the “nothing but” part of her wardrobe, but her smile put me sort of at ease.  

She answered my knock on the red door of the yellow three-story in West Albany.  The year was 1967. The house had to be eighty years old. It had red doors, shutters and windows.  Not just the window trim was red.  The glass in the first-floor windows wore a streaky coat of dark red paint, as well.  

“What can I do for you, cutie?” she said, opening her door wider and stepping back from the view of passersby.

“P-paperboy,” I stammered, not believing what my then-14-year-old eyes were seeing.  “Dollar twenty-five for the week, ma’am.”  She couldn’t have been much older than twenty.

“Okay, honey.  Where’d Danny go?”  The lady fished in from her house coat, pulled out a tennis ball, opened it like an egg and handed me two dollar bills from the wad she had inside.  “Keep it, sweetie.”

“Um, he told me he got his license and a job delivering office supplies after school.  Thank you.”  

As I started to leave the red entryway, the lady touched my cheek and asked, “What’s your name, honey?” 

That feeling was extraordinary.  Touch was not something we shared in my family.  At least not like that.  With five kids under the age of 15, touches at my house were fleeting, at best.  There was no time for lingering, to express warmth, even to feel warmth.  Most touches we felt were the back of a hand—some accidental, more often calloused and abrupt.  They weren’t placed on you long enough to feel warmth and, once they departed, you more often felt heat.

“Um, I’m James Burke, Jay…uh, Jay,” I said, glancing along the lines of her center-parted hair, past a face that was all eyelashes and practiced smile. Past that necklace. My stare eventually settled, like sand down an hourglass, resting on her scuffed slippers.

“Nice to meet you, Jay-Jay.  I’m Lo, Lola, Lolita, whatever you like.”  

“Close that door and get that brat out of here,” another woman screeched from across the dark front room.  Her face was all scarlet from the red window glow and, I guess, from anger.  “Little bastard’s scarin’ away business.” 

“What business, Kat?” a voice from the kitchen asked.  “Ain’t seen no more’n the same three johns here in the last three weeks.  An’ you givin’ it ‘way to that punk Ollie down the street.”  

I already knew who Ollie was.  Ollie St. Denis lived in one of the tenements five doors down the block.  He had beaten the hell out of Danny a few times, I’d learned. And two years ago he walked right into the flat where my Gram lived, right across the street. Walked out with her radio.  Gram died not too long after that.  

“Shut up, bitch.  You’re just jealous ‘cause you don’t have a strong man takin’ care you.  Just your retard brother, and who’s takin’ care who?” the chubby lady yelled into the kitchen.  Her eyes bulged all pink like babies’ rattles. She had her hair pulled back in a greasy rat-tail—so tightly that I don’t think she could have closed those scary eyes all the way anyhow.

A tall girl roared out of the kitchen.  She must have been close to six feet tall and wore platform heels that sounded like hammers on the linoleum floor.  They also put the crown of her head near the top of the low door jamb, which she clipped on her way to the front of the house.

“God … dammit!”  She teetered for a second, which allowed Chubby to bolt up the stairs to the left and slam a door at the end of the hallway.  

“Honey, I gotta get Nan some ice for her head.  Maybe help cool her down, too.  See ya ‘round, Jay-Jay,” Lola said.

I’d seen people get angry before, especially my Old Man, who could be as loud and profane as anybody in this neighborhood. But this scene shocked me to shivers.  What really confused me, though, was what else I was feeling besides that chill down my back.  I had seen that much skin before at the beach. But there it never gave me the same warm gooey feeling I got from peeking at Lo.  It felt good, I guess, probably because I thought it was bad

 “G’bye, thanks,” I whispered, and backpedaled out the door, out into the street, nearly being nailed by a passing Freihofer Bakery truck. When I got the honk of the truck and the screaming of that fat lady and the picture of Ollie out of my head, I was almost ready to collect at the last house on my route—the one with the boxer that bit Danny.  Twice.  

No, maybe next time. 

The following week, I had finished the U-shaped route and was doubling back toward home. I decided to step into the pharmacy on Ontario Street to check the comic books and get some ice cream. I always liked the smell of the place, particularly there near the ice cream freezer, sweet and creamy but with a buzz of freon. I was kneeling in front of the magazine rack when an old lady reeking of that old lady kid of perfume over leaky old lady drawers stepped over my feet and hmmph’d. 

“I don’t know what’s happening to this neighborhood,” she whined.  “Getting so decent people can’t even go to the drugstore anymore.  And no respect.  No respect.”

That last bit was aimed at me, I was pretty sure. 

I looked toward the direction of the pharmacist’s counter, where she came from. I saw just one customer.  Long dark hair, bell-bottoms, big chunky necklace, platform shoe tapping indignantly.

“Well, now that your respectable customers are taken care of, can I get some help here?”

It was Lola.  She handed the pharmacist a slip of paper.  He looked at them and I think I heard him say, “Who is this Emily Mastroianni on this prescription?”

“It’s my aunt, she’s got a wicked bad cough, they think it may be emphysema, and the doctor wants her to have that special cough medicine,” Lola replied, looking him straight in the eye and working those fake lashes so hard I think the papers fluttered on the counter. 

“Please wait.  Down there,” the pharmacist nodded toward the aisle where I knelt.  Lola turned toward the magazine racks, saw me and beamed, “Hiya, hon.  Jay-Jay, right?’

“Uh, hi. Yeah, hello.” 

As she clopped down the aisle, I tried to stop staring at her enormous blue eyes. Self-consciousness brought me down to the stretched scoop neck of her rib-knit sweater and embarrassment chased me from there to where the sweater hugged just below her hips.  I got those squishy feelings again and snapped back to looking at her eyes, now directly above me.  And fell on my butt.

“Whoa, there, Perfessor.  Whatcha readin’? Playboy?”

I stuffed the comic back in the rack and jumped up.

“I seen you around here before, haven’t I, Jay-Jay?”

“Um, I guess.  My Gram used to live around the corner across the street from your house.”

“No kiddin’!  Small world.”

“Yeah.”

“Where do you live?”

“Oh, ‘bout a mile back up Third, off’a Watervliet.”

“I been there.  There’s a couple bars an’ a drugstore on Watervliet, right?”

“Uh-huh, guess so.”

“I was thinkin’ I seen you before, when you stopped by the house the other day.  Prob’ly when you use’ta visit your Gram or around Watervliet Avenue, huh?”

“I guess.”

“Yeah.  Know what?  This’ll sound funny, but you really remind me of my first boyfriend back in Utica.  God, what a sweetie.”

“Oh, Utica?”

“Yeah, I was s’posed to go to school here, but … things happened,” she kind of drifted off.

“Mmm.”

The pharmacist called, “Miss!”

“Hold on, honey, while take care of my overhead,” Lo said, “I’ll walk ya partway.”

On that walk she told me that the girl who hit her head storming out of the kitchen was Nan.  Lo said Nan and her brother George came to Albany from down in Hudson to live with her Dad’s mother. She said their Mom, a white lady, was a prostitute and she didn’t want Nan to be one, too. 

About two months after Nan and George got off the Greyhound, their grandmother up and died and Nan took over mothering George.  Not long after she lost her job at the Public Market for stealing Bisquick and a couple cans of soup, Nan entered the family business.  

Lo said she and Nan first met one night outside a bar on Clinton Avenue.  She said they understood that there was safety in numbers.  They decided to partner up and arranged to move in with Kat, another girl in the neighborhood.  They pooled their cash and government checks to rent the yellow house with the red door.

I thought I knew what it was they did for money, but I didn’t want to be sure. 

For some reason, Lo ran into me lots of times after that.  She’d ask me about my family.  She’d tell me things about her life. Her flapping eyelashes were so sincere, I mostly believed her.  But I soon realized that Lo didn’t always tell all the truth.  Her words needed to be set aside, walked around and sniffed from all different angles before you took them all the way in.  

I felt that way about Lo, the person, too.  I especially liked the sniffing part.  She walked in a cloud that snapped my whole body to attention.  She smelled of citrus and spice and winter mornings and my lungs froze and I shivered when she was close enough to inhale.   

One afternoon in October, I ran into Lo at the drugstore again and she caught me sniffing her hair.  She laughed and said she got what she called her fray-grahnce from a head shop downtown.

“Oh, it’s not just your everyday pitchy-hoolie,” I remember her saying.  “It’s got other natural ingredients, oils an’ … um, attractants.”

“Uh-humm.”

Suddenly, I froze and Lola’s eyes snapped up when somebody yelled, “Hey boy, your mamma know you hangin’ wit whores?”  The remark  was chucked at me like a busted brick from across the street. 

It was Ollie St. Denis on the stoop of the tenement where his Grams lived.  His Grams, Mrs. Simpson, got the paper, but I almost never collected for it because Ollie scared me.  He’d get in my face and say stuff like, “Gimme dollar, boy,” or “Why you stealin’ from a poor black woman for dat shit, boy?”

“Least he got a job, Ollie St. Denis,” Lo yelled back, sounding more like Nan than Nan.  Meaner, tougher, though.

Across the street, Ollie growled, “I make money, bitch, and I don’t hafta lay down wit no stinkin’ drunk to get it.”

“No, you steal from your Grams and rob ol’ white ladies, don’t you, you punk?”

“Bitch!”  Ollie jumped up from the stoop, all red eyes, pointy black shoes and fists.  He hadn’t yet hit the curb when the whole neighborhood rattled, “Oliver!”  It was the voice of his Jamaican grandma, freezing him in his tracks.  “What you doin’?” 

“Nothin, Mamma Paulie, just playin’ wit da paperboy and his girrll-frannd.”  He stretched out the last word and snapped it off like a big rubber band.  Stung like one, too, for some reason. 

“Sen’ dat boy up here.  I sure I owe him money.  Why dat boy not collect?”

“Yes, Mamma.”

I wanted to keep walking with Lola, even though the change in her scared me a little bit, too.  But the lady wanted to pay and I didn’t need her yelling at me like she yelled at “Oliver.”

Ollie had returned to the stoop and stood in the paint-chipped, otherwise open doorway, so I had to skinny my way past.  When I bumped against him, it felt like one of those Home touches.

“You best watch you ass, boy,” he hissed, still squinting payback at Lo.

“Um-hm.” I mumbled as I slid by and walked into the narrow and dimly lit hallway, half of which was crowded by the stairway to the landing above. I bounced up the stairs, two at a time, to the third floor and, as always was socked in the face by the air up there, thick with the odor of over-cooked cabbage, marijuana and soggy diapers. I knocked and Mrs. Pauline Simpson creaked open the door.

“Come in, honey.  Where you been?  You not come by in a long time.  I like to pay my bills every week.  I can’t ‘ford no month’s worth of paper in one poke.”

“Oh, it’s just one week, dollar twenty-five, ma’am.  Uh, your grandson’s been taking care of me.”

Just like Lo always told me, you weren’t exactly lying when you told only the good part of the truth.

“Oh, he’s a good boy.  He just miss his mommy and friends in Mt. Vernon’s all.”

She fished in a purse atop a shiny cherry dining room table, the only decent piece of furniture I could see.  Nan said Ollie had sold some of his Grams’ things, which must have been the job he and Lo yelled about.

“Thank you, Miz Simpson,” I said.

“Take care, Baby Boy.  Don’t be a stranger.  I miss you Gramma ‘cross the street.”  She pinched my cheek, her fingers bony but warm.

“Yes’m, me too.  ‘Bye.”  I tugged away.

I found Ollie sitting across the bottom stairs, his feet wedged between the railings, blocking my way to the door.  The afternoon light came from outside through the open doors.

“Gimme the money she paid you, boy.  You got plenty.”

I could see the hems of Lola’s bell-bottoms outside through the doorway.  I was pretty sure she could see my sneakers on the stairs from the sidewalk, especially when I heard, “C’mon, Jay-Jay, let’s go.”

“The money, boy.  Now.”

“Jay!”

Ollie reached for my leg and …

“Oliver, come up here, baby, I need you.”

I jumped over Ollie’s legs and the railing, slipped on the mat and fell on the sidewalk at Lo’s feet.

“Don’t run, stand up and walk towards my place,” she said.  “Keep your head up and walk like you’re the biggest swingin’ dick in the neighborhood.  Everybody needs to see you ain’t scared.”

A couple of weeks later Lo and I met at the drugstore again and she walked me partway home and I told her that my Old Man was laid up with a bad back from his construction job.  She seemed really interested in if he was taking anything for it.  I told her he didn’t like taking medicine.  Something about being tougher than the next guy.  That didn’t mean he didn’t take painkiller with a head on it, though.  Sudsy head, not a skull and crossbones head.  She asked me what he did with the bottles of medicine he got.  

“They usually just sit in the back of the medicine cabinet until Mom flushes ‘em down the toilet.  She worries about the babies getting into things.”

“I’ll take ‘em.  Since they’re just gonna get flushed anyway, why don’t you give ‘em to me?”

“Ummm.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, Honey,” she said, resting her hand on my cheek.  “I don’t want you to get in trouble.”

Just like always, my head started spinning.  For an instant, I didn’t even see her.  That intoxicating perfume hit me like it was one of those painkillers and I felt flashes of maybes, could-bes, risks and rewards in my head.

“Uh, I s’pose I could get you some of the pills.  You know, from way in the back.”

She put her arm around me and pressed her mouth to my ear.

“Jay-Jay, thank you.”

She gave me a little kiss and suddenly started crying, just like that.

“I’m sorry,” I blurted.  “Did I do something wrong.”

She rubbed her eyes, smudging black stuff on her cheeks and flashed me that steel smile.  

“It’s okay, I’m better now, honey,” she said.

 “What do you need all this medicine for?”

“Pain, honey.  Pain”

I brought her two full bottles of codeine which I saw her empty them into her hollowed out tennis ball. I found she always kept in her purse or a coat pocket. We never talked about medicine again on our walks.  I asked Nan why Lo was taking all that stuff and Nan said that Lo used the same cough medicine prescription at the drugstore around the corner from my house, and at Honikel’s on Central, and the Delaware Avenue Pharmacy.

“She hurts, baby. But she ain’t harmin’ nobody else.  Jus’ herself, I guess. She ain’t even tippin’ the needle like that motherfuckin’ ex of hers.  The one what turned her out.  She don’t hurt nobody.  An’ she gives the world a lotta love, baby.  She’s jus’ tryin’ to not feel much of today so she can get to tomorrow.”

After dinner one night late that December I was collecting and Lo invited me all the way in past the red door.  I felt that she must have been celebrating the holidays pretty friskily. She hugged me and kissed me and thanked me for being her friend.  She sat me on her couch, gave me a glass of wine, and put her hand on my thigh.  For a second I actually thought we were gonna.  You know…gonna.

On  the table next to her was that tennis ball, lying in two pieces, neither of which held anything but drowsy memories, I guess. She asked me if my Dad had any more medicine at home.  Then it hit me.  It hit me and it hurt me like the Old Man had hit me.

I grabbed her hand from my thing and held it in front of me.  I looked her right in those blue eyes.  For the first time I was actually looking at what might be really her, whoever she was.  I saw past the false lashes, past the almosts, the “Honey’s,” the warm touches.  She knew I saw her whole truth, not just the good stuff.  

Lo got quiet again and she put her hands into my back and pushed me to the door, saying I’d better get out before somebody happened by.  When I exited the heat of the yellow house I discovered two five-dollar bills hanging from my jacket pocket—her Christmas presents to me or just more of her overhead, I didn’t know.   

As I stumbled into the dark outside, a gentle snow had laid its hands over the street, stoops and parked cars, covering the decay that became more obvious every day inside and outside these homes.  It was pretty, the cars looked like wedding cakes. It even made the dying neighborhood smell better, like an air freshener for a whole four square blocks, but it was another lie.  Another …

“Whadda you doin’ here? I told you never to go in my house.”

I didn’t need to turn; I knew it was Kat.

“Merry Christmas, paper-b-o-y.  Santa give you any presents ‘cause you such a good b-o-o-y-y?”  

Ollie.  I whirled to see him and Kat, each holding up the other.

“No, you ain’t been a good boy.  You been hangin’ wit whores again.”

The fact that he was hanging on a whore, or one was hanging from him, was lost on Ollie.  But the five-spot sticking out of my pocket was not.  

“Gimme that money, boy.”  He pushed Kat down in the snow and grabbed my arm.  

He fumbled for my pocket, missed, and smacked me in the mouth. All I saw then was a bright green light and his face under a cap.  I grabbed his arm, he smacked me again and we slipped on the snow to the sidewalk, Ollie on top of me.  Ollie’s weight knocked the wind out me.  Everywhere I looked was colored lights.  Some were red and yellow and green and hung on the fronts of houses.  Some were there even when I closed my eyes as he hit me again.

Ollie pushed his hand down against my face—it smelled like an ashtray and weed—and punched me with his other hand. Then I couldn’t catch my breath at all.  It felt like Ollie had gained a hundred more pounds.  It turned out he had.

“Get off him, you fuck.”

It was Lo.  She had pounced on his back, wrapped her legs around the pile and was scratching his eyes with one hand while the other beat his head with the heel of her clunky shoe.  I can’t say I wasn’t grateful for the rescue, but then she missed Ollie and hit me in the forehead, too. A white flash of light dimmed to yellow.

Next thing, Kat jumped on top of Lo, trying to get her off Ollie.  Then I heard Nan’s voice and apparently she grabbed Kat and I thought I was going to die right there, suffocated in a pile of over-perfumed prostitutes.

As the lights began fading to black, I had a sense that I was floating, everything felt lighter.  It turns out George had heard the ruckus from upstairs and had rushed to the street and started peeling bodies off my chest.  When he was done, he held Ollie at arm’s length. Nan cinched her arms around Kat’s waist, lifting her flailing legs above sidewalk.  Kat kicked snow and spit steam and cuss words at the only two characters left on the ground.

“I warned you!  I told you to stay away from that kid,” her eyes about to pop.  “But no, you had to take him in, like a fuckin’ puppy.  Used him like some dumb john or somebody from that mobbed-up guinea family of yours.  Yeah, Miss Mob Princess.  Wouldn’t they be happy to hear about you now?  A hooker. Princess Cocksucker.” 

Lo stood up, her house coat and hair wet from melted snow and stuck to her.  She had changed in a second.  Still kind of pretty, but more vacant, sick, pathetic.

Two cop cars, lights flashing, slid around the corner.  Another one roared down Livingston from the other direction, schussing to a stop there on the corner. Its windshield-mounted searchlight trained on us like we were center-stage of a risqué dance recital.

“Awright, everybody stay where you are. What the hell’s goin’ on here?” the first cop out of his car bellowed.  His hand was on his gun.  Mine was on my head.

“Well, Ollie, what a surprise to see you in the middle of something like this.”

“Officer, I was walkin’ my girlfriend here home when this crazy bitch jumped me and started hitting me wit’ that shoe,” he whined. 

What a lying puss, I thought.

“Wait a minute, hold on,” a bony sergeant got out of one of the cars and approached us with a long black flashlight in his hand. “I know you,” he said, poking it into Ollie’s chest.  He turned on the light and flashed it in the faces of each of the ladies from the yellow house.  

“Girls,” he nodded as he lit each of them, “we’ve all met before, I believe.  And you, big boy, I’m seein’ way too much of you on the street these days.”  

“And now who the fu… the paperboy?  Oh, how I love the holidays.” 

“That little bastard’s been trying to rob my house,” Kat screamed.

“I see,” the cop said.  “Then who beat the hell out him?  Your boyfriend said he was walking you home when the Christmas Angel over there jumped him.  Nobody said anything about anybody breakin’ in here.  You ladies have anything to say?  No, no, wait. Kid?”

“I was collecting for my route, officer,” I mumbled through already puffy lips, wincing into the interrogating flashlight beam.  I could feel the blood dripping from my mouth, tasting of salt and steel. I wiped my mouth and noticed the blood smelled nothing like a raw steak, more tangy.

“I was finishin’ up when he came an’ tried to take my money.  Lola tried to stop him and everything went … crazy.”

Lo said nothing.  She wrapped her house coat tighter around herself, kept her head down and shivered.  She appeared to be looking at nothing, like her eyes had turned backwards and stared down the hollow of her.  

Just then, a pickup truck came hauling down Livingston and slid up to the curb behind the police cruiser.  One of the cops put his hand to his hip.  I looked up, saw my Dad jump out of the truck with an expression so dark it scared me more than Ollie.  How the hell did he…?  I turned away, choosing to look across the street, where I saw a skinny woman’s silhouette in the window, a telephone stuck to her ear.

In that house, next door to my grandma’s old place, lived Mrs. Mason.  She sometimes remembered me as the little kid who used to chase down the Wiffle ball I fouled into her yard.  I could still remember crawling under her rose bushes, the sweet and green aroma and thorns that’d jab into my hand and head. Outside of her garden, her life’s work was to sit in a wing chair close to her front window and serve as sentinel for her neighborhood and all its changing life. 

“Officers, that’s my kid there.  What’s he done?”

What had I done?  Jesus Christ on a bicycle, look at my goddam face will ya?  Yeah, I kept hitting that guy over there’s fist over and over with my face. 

“From what we can tell, nothin’,” the sergeant said.  “And we’d like to keep it that way.”

“Hey, Jimmy,” one of the cops yelled from his position at the end of Ollie’s right arm.  “This your kid?”

“Hey, Eddie,” the Old Man growled to what was probably one of his bar buddies from the old neighborhood.  “Yeah.  You takin’ him?  His mother’s going bat-shit at home.”

“Nah.  Sarge, this kid’s okay.  Let’s just take the hookers and Ollie and the big kid and sort ‘em out at the house.  ’Sides, it’s almost time for my 10-20.”

“But Lo and Nan and George were tryin’ to help me,” I yelled.

“Shut up, Jay,” my old man hissed, as he grabbed my shoulder.  “Get in the truck.”

Ollie and Kat and Nan started howling about fairness and justice and white this and pig that.  As my old man pushed me into his truck, I turned to see George braced against the cops’ efforts to get him in the patrol car.  Two of the cops wrestled with him and he shook one off and another one belted him behind the knees with his big flashlight.  With George down, the first cop kicked him in the gut and whacked him in the neck with his flashlight. I tried to yell to make them stop, but the Old Man clamped his hand around the back of my neck and manhandled me back to his truck.  The cops handcuffed George and threw him like a sack of wet laundry on the back seat of their cruiser.

My father punched the accelerator as he put the truck in reverse and whipped the steering wheel.  I looked out the rear window as the cops loaded Nan and Lola into one of the patrol cars.  Lo still was staring at nothing.

That was the last time I ever saw her.

When we got home, Mom was crying.  She hugged me then pushed me away to sob in my face that Mrs. Mason had called and asked did my Mom know that I was hanging out in whorehouses.  And then she told Mom that she had called the cops about the whorehouse across the street and because I was about to be killed by a “nigger with a knife.”  

“What’s wrong with you?” Mom wailed.  I thought the swelling on my forehead and mouth and the blood on my chin and jacket made that pretty clear, but she didn’t see it that way.  “You have to work. You’re supposed to be an example to all your brothers and sisters.  You’re the oldest. How do you think this looks to them?  What do you have to say for yourself, James?”

“I think … I’m goin’ to bed.  G’night.”  

At which, my Old Man belted me in the back of the head.

I actually thought about swinging right back.  But what good would it do?  Nothing would change.  I’d still hurt, no doubt worse when he got done with me.  And Mom and the Old Man didn’t even realize the real trouble I was in.  How could I go back into the neighborhood after what had happened tonight?

I walked out of the living room into the kitchen.  I pulled some ice from the freezer and wrapped it in a dishtowel.  I turned on the faucet and let the water run until it was really cold.  I wet the towel and ice, put them to my mouth and closed myself in my chilly bedroom off the kitchen. 

A cop came to the house the next morning, Christmas Eve, and took a statement from me.  He said that this wasn’t Ollie’s “first time to the fair,” whatever that means.  Other witnesses confirmed Mrs. Mason’s story, so Ollie probably was going to be headed away for a few years, according to the cop.  I kind of felt bad for Mrs. Simpson, so I decided to give her the paper for free from now on, even without Ollie there to rob me. 

The detective said that since the yellow house was rented in Kat’s name, she was charged with solicitation and fostering prostitution and a bunch of other beefs.  It looked like she wasn’t going back to the neighborhood for a while either.

He said Miss Mastroianni, Miss Brown and her brother faced assault charges and were being held because they apparently they didn’t have anyplace to live anymore.  

That afternoon, the Old Man drove along with me on the route, slowly shadowing my steps in his pickup.  I didn’t want him around, the feeling of his eyes on me just made me angrier.  I just wanted to deliver the papers and get warm.  Whether that was at home or not didn’t matter.  Not anymore.

Even though there was no sign of the girls at the yellow house, I placed the folded newspaper in the vestibule just as I always had, leaning against the inner door.  Nobody had shoveled the snow and it still looked like a wrestling mat for fallen snow angels.  Nobody cared.  Why should we?  It was the way of the neighborhood. It was my way now, too.

I didn’t care at all.  The lesson didn’t take me too long to learn, or maybe it did.  When somebody puts their hand, their skin, themselves on you, it seems that it’s just to control you.  I wasn’t going to be controlled anymore.  It’s a hard lesson to learn, but it’ll keep you from being hurt too often.  One way or another.

I spotted some blood on the snow near the house’s yellow wall.  My blood.

Same color as the window, I thought.  I kicked some snow over it.

Lo’s shoe stuck out of a dirty pile of snow by the curb.  A dog had drilled a yellow-rimmed piss hole next to it. Same color as the house.  A fitting, final punctuation to my lesson.  

I kicked the shoe into Livingston and ditched the Old Man by walking home, alone, against traffic, on a one-way street.  

Alone. Felt kind of good.

Actually, I didn’t feel anything.

I’ll keep this story up only for a week or so. Sorry it’s so long. It’s always been meant to be the title and tent pole piece of a story collection based on men who have difficulty with intimacy. I revised it and added some more sensory detail, particularly smells, in response to the latest prompt from Canadian writer Sarah Salecky’s Six Week’s, Six Senses summer writing project. This is also one of my Albany stories, based on my hometown at various points in its history.

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Keep the Change ~ 3rd Street, Albany, 1968

“Oh, it’s’a Friday already? Come in, come in,” Mrs Dargenti would say most weeks. The old Italian lady would invite me across her threshold and fish a buck and a half out of a gold-clasped change purse each week for her daily newspaper.

I can still smell the pungent bouquet of garlic, oregano, basil and olive oil, with a hint of what I’d someday learn was anise. From the living room walls, four generations of strangers, captured in First Communion piety or Wedding Day solemnity, intimately stared across the entry at me.

The living room furniture glistened under plastic coverings, preserved like Wednesday’s leftover lasagna, protected from time and tipped wine. I imagined everything inside was like it always had been, except now the sounds of Papa and the kids were replaced by the voices of Jerry Vale, Dominico Medugno and lonely sighs in italia.

Across the street in the three-story walk-up, six families lived (twelve, if you wanted to be accurate as a census), the hallways cloaked me in darkness while the air choked me in its closeness, redolent of boiled cabbage, piss, weed and something more felt than seen or smelled.

If anyone opened the doors to you, it’d usually be as far as the chain lock would allow. If that lock was off, you weren’t invited past the threshold.

“Whachoo want?” any resident younger than fifty would say if anyone even answered the door. I’d tell them I was collecting for the newspaper delivery. Inevitably, they’d say to come back later, tomorrow, next week, when no one would answer my knock.

But if Mrs. Symonds, the matriarch of the family answered, sometimes she’d open the door enough for me to see inside, where a dingy sheet covered the sagging sofa. A pair of mismatched sheets hung from curtain rods on the two front windows, providing a modicum of privacy from without.
Within, however, there was no such thing. Four rooms and a bathroom left little space to fit the grandmother, her son, her daughters and her daughters’ children.

If Mrs. Symonds paid, it would be apologetically for two of the four weeks she owed, and it would be with three crumpled singles she’d pull from her stained housecoat. I’d eat the balance of the other two weeks, cutting another three bucks into my earnings for the month.

I really didn’t want to go back into the building. The soundtrack from the other three flats, sometimes say James Brown and others maybe Marvin Gaye, never drowned out the backbeat of the looped percussive bang of my heart when I climbed to the second floor. Not after a guy I’d never seen before stepped out of the shadows by the stairs and cut a memory into my chest.

Later, when my connection to newspapers was to fill them with words instead of delivering them, I drove along my old paper route. There, the home that once preserved its past still stood. It now sported an out of character, unpainted front step of cast concrete, it’s aluminum railing canted to the left. Lengths of stained green vinyl siding sagged or flapped from its sides.

Across the street, a vacant lot stretched like a glass-strewn grave where the other house stood. If it was a fire or some stillborn plan for a new building that brought it down, I’ll never know.

The truth is, despite an effort to preserve some hazy, idealized past or merely survive the present, the future can be as cold as that thin blade, as hot as the desperation and anger crouched behind locked doors and beneath staircases and as inevitable as the fact you may be able to go home again, but home may not be there to greet you. Especially not with a buck and a half. Forget any ten-cent tip.

In retrospect, you can keep your change.

Don’t know why or from where I wrote this. Just started scribbling in pencil on a notebook page. Maybe Inspiration has run its course in my life. These days, it feels like that housecoat pocket of Mrs. Symonods.

Echoing Days on the Muhheahkunnuk

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The Cohoes Falls, frozen in winter.

As I count down these,
my dwindling days out here
in the country for old men,
I feel my life closing in
even though here the sky’s
so much wider and higher
than it was over the city.
Even with steely buildings
shouldering me on their
right-angle ways toward
this corner and that,
I always managed to escape
thoughts of fewer tomorrows
to the here and now
of the river the ancients
called Muhheahkunnuk.

We’d wander from the anchorage
at Beverwyck to the falls
of Cahohatatea, in concert,
rippling like an echo south,
then north then south again.
I forgot it’s tune here and now,
where the trees shoulder me
toward another sundown,
whispering and cracking
like these old bones. Can I
head back upstream to my life’s
chiming Cahohatatea, perhaps
to drift on new echoes of this
old journey? The we can back up
to push off again tomorrow.

Cahohatatea is the name for the waterfalls where the Mohawk River drops into the Muhheahkunnuk, the Mahican name for the Hudson. Since I retired, sometimes I think the thing I miss most about working in Albany–Beverwyck to its Dutch inhabitants–are my noontime walks along that historic “river that runs in two directions,” its waters pushed back upstream by the tidal flow from its mouth at Manhattan.

Dramatis Personæ

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The man emerged from Grand Central Station, ran through puddles reflecting city lights to the line of cabs, jerked open the door of one and jumped from the rain into its back seat. The cabbie, texting his girlfriend in Queens, jumped a bit in surprise. He got a little more startled by that sort of thing lately. Didn’t used to, but now he did. You could never be too sure about anyone anymore, he would say.

In the rear view mirror he sized up a typical out-of-town business type, probably upstate insurance or real estate, just a little wetter than usual.

“Hey, buddy, you want to quit shaking that little umbrella back there? You don’t see me blowing exhaust into your office, do you?” he said.

“Oh, sorry,” the out-of-towner said.

“Yeah, well…So where we going?” He usually didn’t have to ask. In this town people get off the train knowing they’ve got to be somewhere ten minutes or ten years ago. From the looks of this fare–late 20s, not really expensive raincoat, white shirt, red tie, phony Ivy, like maybe Syracuse or Albany–the hack figured he would say Fulton, John, or William Street, something in the insurance district. Not cool enough for Wall Street. Not flashy enough for Broadway. Not hipster enough for Chelsea. Besides, he thought, the last two types would have taken the subway and he’d have never have them dripping on the back seat.

“Um, I’m not sure, actually,” the fare said.

“Look, bud, you can’t sit back there just to get out of the rain. There’s a nice coffee shop back inside the station and another twenty in every direction you look. Unless you’ve got somewhere you know where to go, I ‘m sure I got other fares who know where they’re supposed to be delivered.”

“Actually, I’m looking for a woman.”

“Whoa, pal! I don’t know what you’ve heard, but every hack in this town ain’t got a deal with the The Emperor’s Club. You can still find a pro at any of the bars that are probably next door to all those coffee shops I told you about. Come to think of it, you could find a few semi-pros inside those coffee shops.”

“Oh, no. Not that kind of…of course, not that…I’m sure not…”

“Sir, please,” the cabbie, a part time waiter-writer named Gianetti according to his hack license, turned to the rear and said. “While you’re still fairly young? Shit or get off my pot.”

“Look, I met this girl two months ago on-line. Very pretty. Very friendly. She said she worked here in the city. I don’t work here. I’m from Albany. I know her name, but not an address. I know, I know. Really, I’m not a stalker. She said it would be great to meet someday. I thought I’d surprise her and visit the City. Call her when I got here. And then I went and left my phone on the shuttle to Beacon. That’s where I caught the Metro North to here. For all I know she’s been trying to call me, you know? And…”

“Is there some point to this poignant tale of lost love, other than you need a new phone, I need another fare, and we’re all looking to get laid in this hopeless, heartless city?” Gianetti said.

“Of course,” the young man replied. “She said she worked at a big law firm. Heather said–that’s her name, Heather, Heather Townsend–Heather said she worked for Plotkin, Webster, Something. Or Something, Taylor, Plotsky. Pinckney, Something, Something? Her Facebook page show’s she’s about 25, brown hair, gorgeous brown…”

“Buddy? Excuse me again? But there’s only about four or four and a half million women in this town. Another couple million come to work here each day. I mean I seen ’em all over the past five years, but I can’t say I’ve ever met a Heather Plotkin.”
“Townshend. Heather Townsend. She..”

“Whatever. Look, you got an address for this babe’s…this girl’s law firm?” he said.

“Oh, sure. Sorry,” he said, fumbled in the pocket of his Burberry knock-off (Gianetti could tell because, as he would tell some of his fares, “I know these things.”) and pulled out a sheet of paper folded in quarters. It looked like a leftover miniature taco, oozing black and red.

“Oh man, I must have gotten it wet running from the station to your cab. Shit!”

“You ain’t kidding, mister.”

“I’m sure it was on 6th Avenue and one of those 40-something streets, 42nd, 43rd, 47th, one of those” he said. “Look I’ll pay whatever it costs to find her.”

“Well, at least that’ll keep us out of Harlem…maybe. You’re sure it wasn’t 142nd, right? Long as you’re paying, I’ll drive.” Gianetti hit the meter and deftly pulled into traffic.

“Look, pal, I’m no romantic. I’ve seen the best and worst of people in my rear view mirror for the past five years. Seen them hug, punch, kiss, yell, sing, cry, fuck. Some nights all in the same fare. Even had one die back there. So nothing really surprises me anymore.”

Gianetti was pretty sure this guy was dopey or delusional, probably both, but it was a slow day and a fare’s a fare. Especially with his rent due Friday. At the stop light, Gianetti pulled out his phone and searched for law firms on 6th Avenue. There’s only about twelve fucking thousand, he thought.

“You don’t get outta Albany much, do you, pal?”

“No, just north and west, for the..uh, you know, business.”

“Figures,” Gianetti said under his breath.

“What say? Oh, and the name’s Michael. Michael Behan. Folks call me Mickey, though. Don’t ask,” he laughed and waved his hand at the back of Gianetti’s head like guys do when they actually want you to ask.

“Okay, I won’t,” the hack said to Mickey Behan’s disappointment.

Gianetti promised himself he wouldn’t rip this kid off. Even though he seemed as dim as the inside of a confessional, he was a fare, and he remembered when he came to this town for love from a place even more folksy than Albany, New York.

At the next stop, Gianetti scrolled down the list of law offices to the P’s.

“Why are we on Avenue of the Americas?” Mickey asked.

“Buddy, 6th Avenue and Avenue of the Americas are the same thing depending where we are. And there’s no Plotkin, no Webster, no Pinckney. There is a Day Pitney, though. But they’re on Times Square”

“Hmmm, I’m not sure. Maybe.”

“There is a Patterson Bellknap Webb & Tyler on…”

“That’s it,” Mickey cried, leaning into the between-seats plastic shield. “How far away?”

“Behind us a half-block and on this very street, actually,” Gianetti said. He pointed to the towering silver building shining in the rays of sun that had just broken through the clouds.

“That’s the Grace Building, 1114 6th. Says Patterson Bellknap’s on the 22nd and 23rd floors.”

“Aw, man. Thanks a million,” Mickey said. He reached for the door handle to exit the cab and heard Gianetti clear his throat.

“Whoa, there, Romeo. The meter says you owe me fifteen bucks. Sorry, but that’s how it is in this town.

“Wha..? Fifteen? For three blocks? Fine, fine, no problem. Here’s twenty. Keep the change.”

“I should think so,” Gianetti said.

“Thanks a million, really.”

Mickey jumped out of the cab in front of the Starbucks on the corner of 42nd and 6th and walked briskly back down the block toward Grand Central, checking his look in each store window along the way. When he reached the entrance to the Grace Building, he smoothed his hair in his reflection as he peered within. There, in the lobby, he saw a reception area and three guards between the entrance and the banks of elevators.

“Holy shit,” Mickey whispered through his teeth. “This is really some joint. Heather must be something really special.” Pushing his way through the heavy glass doors, Mickey shuffled up to the reception area and stood behind three men speaking what he thought sounded like Arabic. He scanned the marble walls with their brass fittings.

He had just about finished his reconnoiter when he heard…
“Sir? Can I help you, sir?”

On the left side of the reception desk, past the blue velvet rope, Mickey saw a 40-ish black woman peering at him over her glasses. She smiled a practiced smile and said, “How can I help you?”

Mickey scuffed up against the brass post upon which the rope was attached, giving it a bit of a half-spin totter, grabbed it and returned it to a steady position a few inches left of its original spot and walked his red face to address the receptionist with as much aplomb as he could muster.

“Uh, yes. I would like to see Ms. Townsend, please. She’s with Patterson Bellknap.”

“Yes, sir. Do you have an appointment?”

“Umm, no. But we’re good friends. Just let her know Michael Behan from Albany is here to see her.”

Dropping her chin to touch her orange and green patterned silk scarf and peering over her glasses once again, the receptionist caught the eye of the building security man standing just behind Mickey and raised her eyebrows. Mickey turned and looked over his shoulder and saw the guard sizing him up, for just what he wasn’t sure.

“Yes, sir. Let me ring Ms. Tomlinson’s assistant,” the receptionist said as Mickey and the guard exchanged glances. “Would you please take a seat over there?” She pointed to a row of benches near the left-side wall.

Mickey knew the guard was now keeping a closer eye on him as both moved to the side.

Within five minutes, a young woman exited one of the elevators and walked to the reception area and talked to the receptionist, who pointed to Mickey and then raised her chin toward the nearby guard.

The young woman slowly walked toward Mickey, who felt she was checking him for weapons or worse.

“Sir, I’m Ms. Tomlinson’s assistant’s secretary. We have no record of your having an appointment with us, nor does Ms. Tomlinson  know a Michael Behan. If you would like to see…”

“Whoa, whoa, wait a minute. Tomlinson?” Mickey said. “I’ve been speaking with Ms. Townsend–Townsend–for some time now. We are very good friends. Do you understand? There must be some mistake.”

“No mistake, sir. Dealing with international clients on very detailed subjects like intellectual property, we make a point of not making mistakes.”

“But..”

“Thank you, sir, but unless you have some business with Patterson Bellknap I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

“But…”

“I’m sorry, sir.”

“But…”

Mickey sagged and was about to make another plea as the young woman turned and clicked away on the marble floor tiles in what Gianetti would recognize as Jimmy Choo pumps, definitely not knock-offs.

“Sir?”

Mickey heard a deep, authoritative voice behind him. Startled, he turned and stared directly into the red tie of the navy-blazered security guard, who was at least a head taller than Mickey.

“If you don’t have any more business here in the Grace Building, sir, I’m going to have to ask you to please leave the premises. I’m sure you understand.” He smiled that polite kind of smile cops do that carries the inference of an impersonal dose of personal injury.

“Sure, sorry. I just don’t know why…”

“Sir?”

“Um, yeah. Have a nice day.”

“You, too, sir,” the security man said with a bare touch of professional sincerity.

Out on 42nd Street again, Mickey, jaywalked through the stop-and-go heartbeat of the city’s vehicular circulation, pulled his raincoat beneath him and sat on one of the upper steps of the broad stairway entering Bryant Park.

“What the hell was that?” he said to himself.

Mickey counted up the front of the building 22 floors and scanned the shining section of glass facade right to left and back again on the 23rd floor.

“Wonder which is hers?” he said.

Mickey had planned to meet with Heather and maybe have lunch, but it was still only 11:00 or so. He had a return ticket for the 5:15 PM to the Beacon train station where he’d catch the shuttle to Albany. He stewed that he had nothing to do for the next six hours. He recalled the cabbie mention a coffee shop everywhere you look and the Starbucks down the block where he left the cab.

“Might as well get a cup. I’m sure that’ll cost ten bucks around here,” he mumbled as he walked along the length of the park to the corner of 6th and crossed to the Starbucks.
The smell of coffee and the sound of busy people refueling on caffeine revived his spirits a bit, even though he was tenth in line to place his order. Mickey noticed the speed and no-nonsense attitude of the crew behind the counter and the light-speed clickity-clack, whirr and milk steamer shhh of the two girls working the barrista station. He looked back toward the end of the line and saw the secretary who had just shooed him from the Grace Building entering the shop. She noticed him, too, but made a point of looking right through him to the menu board.

“Yes?” the smiling young Hispanic woman in the green apron said as the two guys in front of Mickey went to wait for their Americanos. Despite her rictus smile, there was no mistaking the tone of voice wordlessly expressing her interest in moving this line along.

“Uhhh…”

Her smile turned to a thin line.

“Oh, right. Venti double hazelnut latte, please.”
“$9.43, sir.”

“I fucking knew it,” Mickey mumbled as he handed her his card and she slid it through the reader. He tossed a buck in the near-empty left-hand tip jar that signified he supported a strict interpretation of his Second Amendment rights.

He watched the barristas crank out the capuchinos, caramel macchiatos, and another pair of lattes. When his order was completed, the barrista looked up to hand it over. Her eyes opened wide and she nearly dropped the cup.

“Michael!” she said.

Mickey looked up as he grasped the cup and saw what may have been the face of the woman he had traveled to New York to see.
“Heather?”

He saw a name tag on her apron. Sure enough, it read: Heather. But she didn’t look exactly like the young woman whose face he’d been messaging to on Facebook for the past weeks.

“What are you doing here?” she asked. “Wait right there. Clarissa can I get my break soon?”

The Hispanic woman looked at the line, dwindled to seven, and three people waiting for their espresso drinks, including the secretary, who stood over by the cream and sugar station out of Mickey’s sight.

“11:30,” said the shift manager.

“Michael please wait. I’d like to explain.”

Mickey found an empty seat next to the door and sipped his latte, never looking up as the secretary scurried past his irritating annoyance. The cool air coming through the doorway as she left felt good on Mickey’s red face.

He stood up as a women in her mid-30s approached. No longer was there longish brown hair, but rather an asymmetric cut short on one side and almost buzzed off on the other. She was putting on her jacket when he noticed the tattoos stretching their flora and fauna down her arms from beneath the short sleeves of her top.

“I’ve only got ten minutes. Please walk with me outside,” she said.

Mickey stood and pushed through the door, allowing it to close on Heather. Outside, he stared across 42nd street and at the traffic.

“Michael?” Heather said.

“How dare you try to fool me like this?” Mickey said. He couldn’t look in her eyes. “I traveled all the way from Albany to see you, or who I thought was you, spent over two hundred fucking bucks, am embarrassed and tossed out on my ass by security in the Grace Building, and now I find you’re not an attorney at all. You’re a coffee girl at fucking Starbucks.”

“I didn’t think a vice president of a big dairy company would talk to me if you knew I was a wannabe theater MFA from Beekmantown. I play a lot of roles and I never thought you’d leave your office to come down here, especially on a Tuesday. I was going to tell you eventually…”

“You lied to me. My friends said, ‘Why would some lawyer from New York want to strike up a relationship with you, a…dairy guy from Albany?'”

“What difference does it make, Michael? Really. Didn’t we have that connection? You felt it, admit it.”

“How can I face everyone back home? They were right, you can’t believe anything on-line. Look, I’m sure you’re a nice, talented girl, but I can’t abide a liar. If I can’t trust you, I can’t have any sort of relationship with you?”

“Who said anything about a relationship?”

“Isn’t that where this was all heading?”

“Umm, not like that kind of relationship. I mean, I think you’re very nice and we really hit it off, but don’t you think it’s a little premature to be talking a relationship. I mean I’ve only just this week got a play…”

“Yeah, gotta play. And I gotta go. My train’s leaving in an hour and I’ve got to get over to Penn Station. Look, I’m sorry this all happened. All very embarrassing, but I think it’s best if we just forget about all this,” Mickey waved his hands back at the Grace Building, over Heather’s head at the Starbucks and then straight up in the air.

“I’m sorry, Michael. I really like you and I’d like to get to know you better. I was so surprised someone in your field knows a lot about theater and…”

“Yeah, I thought you were some Renaissance woman. Attorney, artist, traveler. Christ, what a dope! Goodbye, Heather. Is that really your name?” He extended his hand.

“Yeah, Heather’s my real name,” she said, grasping his hand and noticing its roughness and its perma-stained knuckles and nails like that of a workman’s. She shook her head and wondered why Mickey was headed east on 42nd Street toward Grand Central when Penn Station was nine blocks south on 6th Avenue.

Jenny Grandjean, following the instruction of her acting teacher to chronicle each bit of emotional and sensory experience of her life to mine and in turn inhabit in some future role, fished in the pocket of her green apron and pulled a little notebook from her pocket. She scribbled in it for a minute, looked back up 42nd Street, shrugged, sighed a contented sigh and went back into Starbucks.

On the page it read: Character study: As M left her in their hotel room for the last time, returning to his wife and her fortune, Heather lay across their bed, taking in the smell of him, recalling the effect of his rough but gentle hands upon her shivering skin, feeling the heat of their passion leave the sheets just as he left her arms, her face burned with the knowledge their love was madness, but it was a beautiful madness…

Here’s a too-long draft of a story I wrote for Sharyl Fuller’s Writing Outside the Lines prompt. which asked for a story revolving around the phrase,  “It was a mad and beautiful thing … “ This one was struggle, not just with coming up with a story, but with wandering around New York City in the street view of Google Maps. Hopefully you didn’t need a map to find your way through my story, yourself.

I Dream of Riding the Treetops from Cahohatatea to Skahnéhtati on Butterfly Wings

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They say, before the White Man came to this place, a squirrel could travel tree-to-tree from the western bank of my great North River the Mohawk called Cahohatatea to the Father of Waters, the Ojibwa’s Misi-ziibi, and never once touch the ground.

The premise that some ambitious arboreal rodent might make that half-continent jaunt upon the green leafy or needled tops of what was not yet considered American timber is hard for me to envision. And that saddens me.

Some fine artist should recognize in poetic imagery that’s how it was, instead of Mountains, Prairies and Oceans that roll upon America’s margins like the heads of nicely poured beers. No purple mountains, and no fruited plains, a lesser writer’s reach for something that bounced on the right beat and rhymed with “grain.”

Yep, someone should address that pre-Columbian Interstate 10 at altitude because we’ll not experience anything like it again. Though how many really care about that lush here-to-there anymore? Our wild trees now exist within dotted-line walls on maps, like deciduous Black Rhinos or coniferous Karner Blue butterflies.

The latter are dainty flappers who once shared my home territory with wild everything elses from the shore of the erstwhile Cahohatatea all the way to the Mohawk’s Skahnéhtati, their “place beyond the pines.” I’ll bet those pines were as thick as God’s hairbrush, though are surely as sparse now as the once-black hair on the back of my head. From where I look, neither will I ever see again. And I dream of experiencing them both a least once more.

As I said, sad.

Somewhere Between A-three and A-four

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There’s a beat to the river,
as it plays its own music
through the valley,
as it imparted its pulse to mine.
You must stand by her side
to appreciate the sound of the wind
turning her to glistening corduroy.
The wales angle to her sandy hems
of shoreline, where the ripple
and the slosh of this living thing
lie somewhere—in being and sound—
between the stream and the sea.
My world’s grown so small
since I left her side. Like a grebe,
I took one last breath, a dive
and, with a heave of wings,
watched myself shrink on her mirror face,
as we drew apart, our heartbeats
grown dissonant with the distance,
and I lost my way somewhere between
a-three and a-four.

Catch-up day for Poem-A-Day April. This is poem #23 and once again a sigh about no longer walking, as a poet would, with the Hudson at my side.

Urban in Our Nature

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Corner of State and Pearl Streets, circa 1912. My great grandfather walked a beat here, or so I’m told.

I remember gray spring days on Bradford Street every time rain goes beyond “threat” and before it hits “wet,” in that aroma its footsteps raise marching down Central Avenue to my stoop, a petrichor composed of raindrops and the pulverized concrete and dreams upon which generations built my Albany. I’m the panting beast who hears church bells in the peel of a beat up rubber basketball against a once-orange ring and its hanging chain netting on a heat-shimmering black top half court in Hoffman Park. I’m the guy who would whistle along with the birds every day at noon when the City Hall carillon played Happy Birthday—and I hate that song. But someone else walking these concrete trails needs celebrating, and I’m down with that. I’m the fourteen-year-old paperboy who met head-on the metastasizing disease of fear creep from places I was never allowed to go until it infected where I had nowhere left to. I am the old man who no longer is sure what an elm tree looks like, since Dutch Elm disease long since killed all the elms the Dutch planted in my city. I feel like an endangered species now myself, someone who, like his fathers before him, remembers the tough nature of growing up in an old city that turned even tougher in its kill-or-be-killed relative present. But do not let me hear you whine your big city insults about gingham dresses or Sears Roebuck suits. I’m an old wolf who survived the dark forest where the two rivers meet, and if anyone can bay about the place where Hendrick Hudson was punked back to one-day Manhattan, it won’t be you. I earned these scars from her sunlit streets and darkened hallways, these tears only we who have cradled in her crusty touch are shed for her dead and still dying history, this accent that is no accent to my pack’s ears give me the high ground to howl at her setting sun. And it hasn’t set yet, bub.

I write too long, these prose poems in which I swim (and usually sink) these days. This is one inspired by Robert Lee Brewer’s call for a poem (I hope this qualifies) with the title “Urban (blank).” My #6 for poem-a-day NaPoWriMo. I am a city boy and from a city I’ll bet is a hell of a lot older than most of yours on this side of the Atlantic. And while she makes me cry in her lost history, we still have a history together, my Albany and I.