Urban in Our Nature

IMG_0154

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 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.

Under the Tree in the City

Kchristmas-tree-train-set

Stopping for gas in little Chenango,
while speeding my way to Charleston,
I caught an October surprise.
The town’s Christmas holiday decorations
already flew like tethered reindeer
and it wasn’t even Columbus Day.

Back in Albany, the City waits until
November to hang festive banners
and sparkly wreaths from the street lights.
Here, people sometimes don’t notice
the decorations anyway.
We probably move too fast or our hearts
hibernate in those tall buildings
hovering over those street lights.

Some of us stand above the jingling joy
like impatient parents over their children
who lie down on the floor watching
the electric train circling under
the lights beneath the Christmas tree.
The kids want just one more time,
and one more, and one more, hypnotized
by the flash and miniaturization
of the Holiday’s crystallization
of moments they may someday forget.

I think it was that day in Chenango
I decided to flop on the floor of my life
and enjoy the trains’ lights and whistles
like a little kid in Albany
as they whizzed and circled each
remaining year, on our way
to another Christmas here in the city.

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.

Waiters

As the man in the midnight blue silk suit nibbled his date’s neck again, instead of the now-cold Chateaubriand for Two on the plates sitting before them, Eddie Pietro pulled at his collar and twisted his narrow black tie once more.

“Jesus F’ing Christ, why don’t these two just climb on the table and get it over with? At least someone would be done with their business before midnight,” Eddie said in the kitchen doorway to the busboy, Martin Leo.

“Chill, man, not like you got no woman waiting for you out there tonight,” Martin said to the back Eddie’s sweat-stained white shirt as the waiter steamed to the men’s room again.

Eddie parked himself on the toilet, locked the stall door and shook out the barest remains in the cocaine vial onto the back of his hand while, at a club across town, Loosh glared at his knock-off Piaget, decided he couldn’t wait any longer and whispered into the ear of the college boy on his lap, “Hey, Cariño, would you like a bump?”

Based on the Five Sentence Fiction prompt WAITING.

Threshing Room

Square-cornered morning sunlight pours
through the window and onto the bar room floor,
dust specks floating in the box-shaped ray
crawling closer to the window and a date with noon.
The day crowd only notice mahogany and bottles
and maybe faces, multiplied as in a housefly’s eye,
as the bottoms of glasses rise over their empty horizons.

At the end of the bar, a man in black looks up
from his crossword puzzle, its ink, his vision, smudged
from the slosh of his three-boilermaker breakfast .
He departs after tossing a crumpled buck on the bar
and steps into an afternoon as empty
as his last glass. At a nearby park he sits on
an empty bench in the small mid-day shade.

His suit and the paper bag in which he carries
six cold cans of Genny are stained in their sweat.
He empties and tosses each green can, as if it
was a seed to be scattered by a prairie farmer.
But it’s not. It’s like his days, mere husks left
on the threshing room floor, where the shadows
crawl longer, closer to his horizon and date with night.

Over at the dVerse Pub site, my friend Shanyn Silinski is asking for poems like seeds, growing something from them. As I always do, I twisted that request a little bit, darkening it and drying it to something different. Back to my gritty city poems.

My Regret

Albany at Night

Photo by Amarshall224

Here’s my regret.
I was born in its embrace and
more than likely will be buried in it, too.
My regret’s as old as or older
than yours, I’ll bet, and once claimed
more than a hundred thousand souls.
Many walked away from her, though.
They saw futures somewhere out there,
with regrets bigger and more exciting
than this laid ready for the taking.
It’s funny about the hold
of my regret, though, here
at the crossroads of history,
where men and laws have been made,
defended and broken. She’ll never
let me go, this Albany,
my town, my regret.

I’m catching up on some missed days of Poem-A-Day April and NaPoWriMo 2014. In this lunchtime drabble I combined prompts from P-A-D and NaPo, one calling for a city poem and the other calling for me to replace a tangible noun (in this case “town,”) with an intangible one (“regret”). Did a double-switch, like a National League manager, there at the end. I hope I did them justice.

The Man in Black ~ An Albany Story

Stunning small snapshot of interior of a pub

Stunning small snapshot of interior of a pub (Photo credit: whatsthatpicture)

From time to time, I post short stories I’m fretting over. Really, until I let them go to some unsuspecting journal, they’re all Works in Progress. And, after their editors reject them, they still are!

This story is my Albany-centric twist on the Hemingway classic “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.”

It’s a little more than 1,700 words, but hang in and I hope you like it. My fiction group colleagues did. They know me as more storyteller than a poet.

The story’s working title is…

The Man in Black

Beams of morning sunlight with squared corners ran through the window and onto the floor of Pauly’s Tavern on Central Avenue. The morning crowd never noticed the specks of dust floating in the box-shaped ray crawling closer to the window as the sun rose in the sky. They only noticed mahogany and glass as drinks sank to the bottom of their mugs and tumblers.

The college kids called Pauly’s an old man’s bar, and in truth, the morning crowd skewed closer to Social Security age than 21. Thorough checking IDs for the age of patrons was not Phil Papandrea’s problem, working daytime as he did. 

Barely a head raised when the scraped and scratched wood and glass door opened and the shadow of the old regular called Johnny stretched across the worn oak floor. Phil looked up, though, and noticed it looked like Johnny already had a head start on the other patrons.

Johnny ambled on long, unsteady legs to a stool at the far end of the bar, upon which the morning Times Union lay. Phil always left it there to save Johnny’s spot, one as sacrosanct in Pauly’s as the place on the shelf behind Phil where they kept the cognac no one ever ordered.

“Morning, Johnny, how we doing today?” Phil said.

“Ummph,” Johnny said, as Phil reached into the cooler beneath the bar and pulled out a green can of Genesee Cream Ale, popped the top and poured it into a glass.

“Here you go, champ,” Phil said, sliding the glass in front of Johnny.

Phil then walked down to the sunny end of the bar where a new member of the morning crowd was nursing a boilermaker and the New York Times crossword.

“Hey, Phil,” Ed Burley whispered, “what’s with the cans for the old guy? You’ve got Genny on tap.

“Aw, it’s just something we do for old Johnny. He buys his own beer up at Oliver’s Beverage store and we keep it cold for him here. Otherwise, I don’t think he could drink here.”

“Yeah, but…um…why?”

“Because he’s Johnny No-Cash. Can’t you see?” Phil said, in no way explaining other than to point out the jet-black toupee and black shirt and pants Johnny wore that gave him the look of a cartoon version of the iconic American singer.

“We let Johnny slide because the boss loves him. He lets him live upstairs and helps clean the place up at closing,” Phil said. “He’s pretty harmless unless you hassle him. Most of the college guys think he’s a hoot.”

“They don’t bother him?”

“Not too much. In fact, some of the Siena boys took such a shine to him they brought him golfing with them. Let him ride in the cart and caddy for them,” the bartender explained.

“I heard the other day he had problems. I mean besides what you keep under the bar,” Burley said.

“You mean trying to kill himself?”

“Yeah, well, that was something different. He’d been in here drinking all day and afternoon and some punks came in from St. Rose. I was off by then. They thought it would be fun to play with his hair,” Phil said, and jerked his thumb toward Johnny.

“It didn’t end well. He was so drunk and angry chasing his hair while they played keep-away, he fell and pissed himself. Johnny is anything if not fastidious about how he looks. A bunch of regulars stepped in, but Johnny was embarrassed and had to be carried upstairs crying like a baby.”

“Nasty punks,” Burley said. “Was that when he did it?”

“No, when Pauly closed he went upstairs and found Johnny passed out in his bed. Checked on him and he seemed okay. When I got here in the morning, cops and EMTs were already out front.”

“Who found him?”

“Believe it or not, his niece. Found him in the bathroom with a rope around his neck. Pulled down the ceiling lamp. She keeps tabs on him since he’s got no one else after his daughter died,” Phil said.

“Aw, man. really? Man, what happened to her?”

“OD’d. Right down on Judson Street. It’s said Johnny was in fair shape then, had a real job and real money, but that just drove him off the edge.”

“Phil!” Johnny boomed from the other end of the bar, rapping his empty glass on the mahogany.

“Keep your shirt on, champ. I’m coming.”

“Instead of playing slap and tickle with that guy, you might want to see if you can serve the drinking customers?” Johnny said.

Phil took Johnny’s glass and filled a new one with another can of Genny.

“You slept at all, champ?” Phil asked Johnny. “Been going all night?”

The man in black either did not hear him or just flat out ignored the bartender.

“Pauly told me to look out for you. I don’t need the boss getting pissed at me if you decide to keel over.”

“Fuck you. Go check on 39-Across down there,” Johnny mumbled into his glass.

“Careful, champ. No one’s bothering you. No need to get testy.”

Johnny stared ahead at nothing and silently sipped his beer.

Phil returned to Burley, poured him another boilermaker and wiped the bar.

“You say he had a real job?” Burley said.

“Yeah. Was a manager type with Price Chopper, I heard. But the thirst was in him and then his daughter…”

The sun had mopped itself from the floor and the bar glowed in the reflection of the light on buildings across the street and flashed from the windows of each passing car and bus.

“Woe Ho, Philip!” came the greeting from Frankie Noonan, the beer delivery guy, several cases of long necks piled on his cart in the doorway. “Comin’ through, gents.”

As Frankie reached the end of the bar, where it hinged upward allowing bar staff and deliveries entry, Johnny banged his glass again.

“Phil!” he roared.

“Easy, Johnny. I’m coming. Would you mind scooting over a couple stools while Frankie delivers his goods and hauls out the empties?”

“I would,” came the cold reply.

“No, seriously, Johnny, you gotta move so we can get our delivery.”

“Yeah, c’mon, buddy. I’ve got eight more stops to make today. I won’t be long,” Frankie said.

“Told you, no. Phil, where’s my beer?”

“Unless you move over, Johnny, I ain’t serving you any more. You’re being a nuisance keeping me from taking care of business here.”

“What’s the problem, old dude? I’m just trying to do my job. I won’t take long. Promise,” Frankie said.

“Go round,” Johnny said. “Phil, you want me tell Pauly you’re pissing off paying customers? You think he’d like that?”

“I don’t think he’d mind me kicking your ass out of here while his beer’s getting warm and undelivered,” Phil said.

“Another Genny, now,” Johnny said.

“That’s it, you’re outta here. I’ll let the boss settle with you when he gets here. Until then you’re not going to be my problem anymore.”

Phil slid over the top of the bar and grasped Johnny’s shoulder and pushed him to the door, the old man resisting, but unable to overcome the bartender’s strength.

“Just you wait, punk. If I was 20 years younger….”

“Yeah, and about 20 beers lighter. Out,” Phil said and pushed Johnny out into the bright sun on Central Avenue.

After Frankie made his delivery, Phil went back to talking to Burley, who was beginning to show his liquor, too.

“Which way did he go?” Phil asked Burley.

“Down Central.”

“He didn’t go ’round the corner here?” Phil asked.

“Nope. Headed that-away.” Burley pointed east.

“Okay, he didn’t go back upstairs then. Fuck.”

“What’s a matter?” Burley said.

“Aw, Pauly just has a thing about the old guy. Worries for some reason. Doesn’t want him going to some ghetto joint for his hooch. Or drinking himself to death on the street. Guess he reckons it’s better the old bastard does it in a neat place like his.”

“Yeah, but he can buy his Genny at some store and find a quiet place to drink in the neighborhood,” Burley said. “He’ll be okay on a nice day like this.”

“Yeah, I guess,” Phil said. “It’s just that the boss worries.”

“Sure,” Burley said, “he’s got a nice old-fashioned place here. Not too many around anymore. I guess Pauly figures he needs a crazy old drunk as part of the decor.”

“Must be.”

“I guess I’ll be headed out,” Burley said with a grunt, slipping off his stool. “Thanks for the entertainment, Phil. You really should get a band in here during days, though. These passion plays don’t play so well with this crowd.” He pointed to the quietly buzzing mid-day drunks.

“Yeah,” the bartender said.

“Look, you know as well as I do that God looks out for the likes of Johnny No-Cash. Else why would he still be coasting up and down the Avenue and will more than likely be darkening your door tomorrow. I’ll bet he’s back right after you go off shift.”

“You know, you’re probably right. I’ll tell Pauly when he gets in. Let him worry about his old mascot,” Phil nodded.

“Sure, see ya tomorrow, Philip, my boy,” Burley said, oozing out into Central Avenue.

He looked west up Central and then down in the direction he last saw Johnny. Burley smoothed the narrow old tie onto the front of his shirt. He crossed Central and walked south on Quail Street, stopping in a bodega run by a Pakistani guy for a six-pack of Genesee Cream Ale.

“Thanks, my friend! Have a lovely afternoon and evening,” Burley said.

He walked two more blocks south, sweating through his dark suit just as the cold cans of Genny sweat through the paper bag in which he carried them.

Burley stopped at the park on the corner of Madison Avenue and found an empty bench in the shade. The light was good and the shade was cool. Over on the basketball court young black men were running up and down in a loud shirts-and-skins game of run-and-gun.

Burley, pulled a can from the pack, popped the top and took a long, cool draught of ale. Cops would be by to hassle him about drinking in a public park, but not before the black kids got into his face over why an old white dude was sucking down beers watching them play hoops.

Until then, though, he hummed and occasionally quietly sang “Because you’re mine, I walk hmm..mmm…” 

 
©Joseph Hesch 2013