A Bird or a Shadow?

Life is a passing shadow, says the Scripture. Is it the shadow of a tower, of a tree? A shadow that prevails for a while? No, it is the shadow of a bird in flight. Away speeds the bird, and there is neither bird nor shadow.

In the almost-dawn we park in front of our hospital./Not much is happening./Men go in and out of the cock-fighting place across the street./The dealer stands on the corner./Two teenagers make out for hours on the stoop down the block./Same scene every night this summer.

After the Trade Center got hit, I started thinking about what really lasts. In a thousand years, will people even know about it? Maybe we'll be like the fall of Rome, but it’s just as likely we'll be like the fall of the Mayans. Vanished into a tangle of jungle and myth. This poem is about 1995, one summer in one city. To one medic. Will anyone care what one medic saw? Other people were watching the trial of O.J. Simpson obsessively, being slaughtered in Bosnia, fleeing a volcano in Montserrat. But I can only be in one place in one time.

Enter Yolanda. Long-time Aide in the ER./Each night, on her break/she walks across the street/and down the steps of one of the tenements, into the basement./Half an hour later she comes up a different set of steps/a few buildings away. I have no idea what she's doing./She's a middle-aged Hispanic woman/who seems like she might be religious.

Sometimes I feel like we're all just little bits of God. Like eyes. Blinking into this earth and blinking back out, making our tiny corner of the world visible to some Being we can't begin to imagine. 

"Yolanda has all the connections anyway," Joe says/"Her ability to go in and out of doorways/is just one more manifestation/of her ability to connect with the universe.”

ManTraps

9/30/2016

I’ve been thinking about how the city used to be. One summer in the late eighties or early nineties I went into a store on Ninth Avenue called The Fun Emporium, made my way through the joke vomit and fake police badges to the back, and bought a book called Mantrapping. It was an entire book of detailed instructions on how to construct man-traps. To trap and kill people. The Fun Emporium was right next to Show World, this kind of sad-sack peep show place with a facade like a circus tent and a plaster lion on top. 

But what was it like, really? Those wild west, blow-your-head-out times that everyone wishes they were a part of.

Like a pot, like a plow

“There was heroism every night of the week. the patients were so poor, everyone was poor, people were desperately poor. The nurses aides washing patients night after night. The kindness was incredible to me.”  —Tom English, SCH ER Nurse

Like a winnowing basket

“What is this little bitty place where everyone knows each other? I’ve lived in the city my whole life and I never heard of it.” —Mike Rosenblum, SCH Paramedic

Like a plowshare, a pestle

“I never even met the supervisor who hired me. He was already gone. I just came in and started work. Never had a physical or in interview or anything. I never had to get a TB test the whole time I was there.  There was never any administrative stuff. Ever. —Diane Sendra, SCH Paramedic

A mortar, a brush . . .

“I felt like I’d joined a crew of pirates.  —Chris Summers, SCH Paramedic

Why did I buy that mantraps book?  I know I had a reason. 

In a flash-bang of color, this is what I remember:  

1988 Summer skating up Sixth Avenue dodging the trucks and west on 51st night not yet fallen asphalt radiating heat through the double doors into the smell of baked-on filth past Frank and Otis two skels I know from the street tied into wheelchairs drooling as they sleep off the afternoon’s drunk across the ER in my skates Joe from security growling Maggie how ya doin’ like he always does as I whiz past into the ambulance room supplies stacked every which way and the day guys rumpled and sweaty hand me a pointy hat they bought at the Renaissance Fair on their day off slow it down slow it down

2016. I took a class in field recording in the Sierra Nevada. The instructor told us that birds have a much more acute sense of time than we do. When he slowed down a sparrow song that just sounded like a high-pitched motor at normal speed, it suddenly became an intricate, perfectly timed melody. Crickets are the same; that insect buzz turns into an exquisitely tuned choir if you slow it down enough. We live too long. Maybe I need to slow down events to make sense of them. To see the connections. Find the harmony.

1992. Slow it down. Slow it down./We don’t have to punch in anymore. The time clock’s broken./The bus is overheating. Our supervisor pops in to tell us that/contrary to popular opinion, the A/C is working./We just don’t understand the nature of air-conditioning./It doesn’t necessarily make the air cool, he explains./It only takes the temperature down ten degrees./So if it’s 100 outside, which it is, it will be 90 inside the bus./Such is the nature of air-conditioning.

Then we hit the streets. Driving west into the wide pink sky./Kids play in the rush of an open fire hydrant/spraying the ambulance with a bottomless tin can as we pass./Men slap dominoes onto a card table in front of the Social Club./A viejo sells piraguas from a cart on the corner. /You have to order by color. Red. Green. Blue. Yellow./The street is my summer. Spanish music from an open window./Melting tar and fried chicken and a jar full of ice.

We park on 42nd Street./A French tourist stops to pose with us for a picture./A homeless man needs a cup of peroxide for his blistered feet./A jazz band sets up on the corner and starts playing/and half a dozen Chinese portrait artists get ready/for another night of drawing white people from the midwest.

A cop leans agains my door, chatting./He’s stuck on foot post, hot in his uniform/hoping something will happen and hoping it won’t, just like me./Slowly the pink sky goes purple, the commuters vanish/replaced by hustlers and boys looking for fun and trouble./We sit in the bus with the engine off and the windows open/eating grapes, with no idea what this night will bring.

 

 

 

 

No More Strange Days

When I write about my early years in the city, I feel like they were less choreographed. I was always stumbling across things I never knew existed. Or maybe it’s just that I’ve been through so many moments I’m less easily surprised now.

An orphaned kitten pushes its head against my stomach./We follow the cops through a bumpy field/Tall grass parting/as we lurch along./A homeless couple stares from an abandoned truck-trailer./A skinny man stands on the concrete platform/where passengers once lined up. 

Now, when I go places, I feel like most of what I see has been thought up and approved. Scripted, so that anything unexpected is just someone else’s entertaining plot-twist. There’s less room for a penniless, out-there person to really make their own world. 

Ricky the animal man. Faded orange hair/blue eyes and a rooster tattooed on his bare ankle./He lives in the station waiting room/with a tin stove and a scuffed-up easy boy./Out front, four dogs lie in the sun.

That was one of the things I liked best about working on the ambulance. Moving in and out of scenes where I really didn’t know what was going to happen next.

Sitting on the edge of the platform with the August sun bearing down/and nothing to see but the sky-blue sky/Ricky tells us stories of the others who live here./The gingerbread men. Every morning they emerge from the slots/beneath a parking lot that abuts the field.

Sometimes I wonder what happened to the people that made the city so strange in the eighties. I can’t picture them surviving now, when all the space is filled with stores and buildings and it takes so much money to live. The homeless people I see around look so much more beaten down. Like they fell out of the visible world, and all they want is to get back in. 

What's actually interesting?

8/4/16

As I’m working on revising and cutting today, I keep wondering, what’s actually interesting? Does anyone care that my partner Errol at Met used to have dreams in 1981 that guided us when we played the numbers? Now that there are no numbers, and hardly anyone remembers Ching-Chow. 

In the year of our Lord 1927, an inscrutable cartoon/entitled “Ching-Chow” appeared/in the New York Daily News.  

We never actually hit, but we always came close. That was what kept us going. Some of the others guys at Met used Ching-Chow, but they didn’t have any better luck than us. I remember someone teaching me how to do it one night. It had to do with counting the horizontal lines.

For 63 years, Ching-Chow’s elliptical captions/graced those pages. If you knew what to look for/if you had the knack, you could predict the outcome/of the daily numbers game.

There was a place we would drive to, I think on 2nd Avenue, where you could put down money—for us, $3— and then periodically stop by to find out which number had come in. The first one, the second one, then by the end of the shift they had all three.

Everyone played the numbers./That brokedown brick road to riches.

We’d get the first two, then the rest of the shift we’d talk about what we were going to buy with our loot. Now that there’s the legal lottery games, no one plays the numbers. Is it interesting that we did? That it was so woven into life in the eighties, no one even thought about it? At some point, everyone who played the numbers will be dead. Then, will people want to know the details? Or will it just be like vacuum-cleaner bags. Like, who cares?

The Santeria Princess

3/23/16

1984/Crossing in front of the ambulance is a woman dressed entirely in white./A Santeria princess, walking among us./On Ninth Avenue is a small store, filled with candles, room spray, and statues./All the magic is here, in Hell’s Kitchen, baking in the summer heat.

How did we know she was a Santeria princess? Somehow, all these facts and legends from the neighborhooded permeated the hospital. Eveyone knew about Santeria, about the longhaired derelict who was a DEA agent gone bad, about the Westies keeping disembodied hands in their freezers.

In a fifth floor walk-up apartment/a man collapses on the worn rug, barely breathing./A candle flickers on the altar/The only bright spot in the room/St. Barbara’s face illuminated by flame/stark as the lightning that struck her pagan father dead.

Part of trying to capture a time in my writing is trying to sink back into the soup of givens that made up the world then. I guess you would call it, “common knowledge.” Except of course common knowledge is always restricted to one culture in one time. So it’s not common at all.

O Saint Barbara protect me/From the miserable people who lurk in the shadows/Seeking to harm me.//O virgin Saint of revenge/I know we must pray often/Against a sudden and unprovided death.//O Chango, God of lightning/Of war and drums and lust/I know we must bathe often in roses and cinnamon.

There used to be a Santaria store run by Rastas a block from my apartment. They had candles and room spray and all, but if you went to the back and stood in front of a mirror, a drawer popped out and hit you in the stomach. If you dropped twenty bucks in and closed it, it would pop back out with a bag of pot in it. How did the entire East Village know to do that?

Watch now, the flames behind your eyes/lit by your servant, who dies/on the floor beside your feet./Two medics kneel beside him/Trying to wrest him from your hands.

                      from BrokeDown Palace

Did that really happen?

3/16/16

Writing is so much about remembering. Or more accurately, re-feeling. But sometimes when I’m going over my past, working on a poem, I think, “Did I just make this all up?” Like it’s some story I told and somehow the world believed it and it turned into memories. 

1983 July 4 

52nd Street. The abuelos play dominos on a TV tray/Boombox tuned to Spanish music/Little boys tumble in the fire hydrant spray/On this hot afternoon black-cat smoke up to my knees./We have a stat transfer. St. Clare’s ICU to Bellevue. Critical./Could there be a place grimmer than the St. Clare’s CCU?

Yes. Directly across the hall/The ICU lacks even flimsy privacy curtains/And is stuffed full of neurological casualties. There’s no staff./The place where the doctors and nurses sit/Surrounded by plexiglass similar to the bulletproof enclosure at a liquor store/Is over yonder. In CCU.

Our transfer is on a respirator, surrounded by a tangle of wires and tubing./I look at his chart. From what I can make out he was on the floor/Crashed, and got rushed to ICU./His blood pressure is being maintained with drugs./He has uncontrollable arrythmias./He must be transferred to Bellevue as soon as possible.

                        from BrokeDown Palace

 

I know this call really happened. But it seems so absurd. How could there have been an ICU where the medical staff is across the hall behind two closed doors? Maybe it was only that way on holidays. The other strange thing about that day was there was only one doctor covering the ICU, CCU, and all the floors, so they didn’t have anyone to ride with us. I know it wasn’t like that usually. But my friend Bonnie went to visit the AIDS ward with a group of singles one afternoon in the early 1990s and they never saw any medical people. She said the entire place seemed to be run by guys in hospital gowns who were smoking, drinking beer, and playing poker.

20,000 Ambulance Calls

Today, I calculated how many ambulance calls I did in my life, and it’s around 20,000. Then all the driving around in between calls, hanging out with cops or homeless people, meeting the men who built shacks on the pier, bullshitting with other units. It’s a lot to remember. The starkest things pop up fastest; homicides, people under the train, jumpers. But the rest is there, I know. I’ll be biking by a corner and think, oh, there used to be a boxing club on the second floor here, where the men were all black and spanish and the coaches were white. We had a berry aneurism in one of the rings.

Below is what I was writing today. As I worked on it, I suddenly remembered there was an apartment on West 30th Street inhabited by albinos. The twin girls were drug addicts, the 20 year old brother was on oxygen and smoked crack, and the oldest sister had an enormous ovarian cyst that made her look nine months pregnant. I can still see the brother’s room in my mind.

 

Across from St. Clare’s, on the second floor of a nondescript tenement, stood a peculiar urban outpost of darkest Appalachia. The apartment itself was a mechanical impossibility. Every grease-coated wall leaned inward. Every faucet dripped. A bulb screwed into the ceiling gave almost no light, but somehow illuminated each spatter and smear. This edifice contained not a single bright or decorative object. No salt and pepper shakers, no little statuettes. No pictures. Nothing. Only two jobless, toothless inhabitants. Grace and Bobby. Mother and son.                    (from BrokeDown Palace)

trying not to revise the past

BrokeDown Palace is a history in poetry. The history of the hospital I worked at, and the history of myself and the people who came before and along with me to build it. I was there for the 1980s, the 1990s, and the 2000s. Right now, I've organized the poems by decades and those are by far the fullest. But in a certain way they're harder to write. If I write about the world of St. Clare, for whom the hospital was named, I can build a world from distant history. Maybe it's the way it was or maybe it's not, but I'm not revising it trying to please my picture of myself.

You were born in the Mongol years/You could have met the son of Genghis Kahn./Eleven years old when the crusaders sacked Constantinople/Who were you? A noble child, wrenched by love/of poverty in her rough tunic/St. Francis in the moonlight, eyes like torches . . .

When I get to poems about the 1980s, I have to fight off the desire to improve my past. In light of what came after. It takes so many drafts to get beyond this, and I don't know if I always do.