Archive for August, 2008

on the sidewalk

She’s in a housedress, pulling out unwanted sprouts around a sapling in a sidewalk planter. “I’m gonna make a whole garden out here,” she announces, gesturing in a sweep that includes the whole street. She speaks in torrents. “Little white fences! I’ve got a green thumb. And you know, I work for the city, that’s right. This is hard work.” She steps back a little and shakes a fistful of weeds. “So every time I yank one out, I think about a politician I hate.” Her laugh is, predictably, a little unhinged. I bid her good morning and turn down the street. She’s still talking when I walk away.


by the vacant lot

There are four of them, huddled around a walleyed dog, their backs to the sagging fence. The accumulated stink of their cologne and their sweet cigarillos is unfathomable. Last week there was a pigeon splattered in the street in front of them. It is still there.

on the corner

Me and that drug dealer, we say hello all the time. He’s management, you can tell because he’s never drunk on the job. This time I walk by and one of his boys says, “got a fine ass on her.” The dealer thwacks the boy’s hat off his head and says, “don’t talk about her like that, she NICE.”

in the projects

They are eleven or twelve, some age just before sex alters their ways, though it’s approaching by the narrowest of margins. They are boys and girls piling on top of each other on one of the benches lining the walkway. One boy is singing, forcing his voice to squeak and growl for emphasis. He’s striving for James Brown but not quite making it that far. You can see it in their faces, they are getting away with something, all this squirming in each other’s laps, the contours of their bodies pressing together. They’re laughing and pushing and restacking themselves. In a year’s time this grace will expire, they will avert their eyes and decline to speak. They will never recover this moment.

in midtown

On a crowded corner there’s a young man with tight shoulders and clipped hair. Tourists surround him but doesn’t see them, he’s staring out across the street into the far distance of his imagination. His hands are moving in a pattern that repeats, it seems for a moment like genuflection: father, son, holy ghost. But it’s not, the motions are more intricate and subtle than a hastily drawn cross. He flicks two fingers at his chin, and suddenly I see that his fingers are talking, it’s sign language, and by the long stare it is clear that his hands are talking to himself. He says the same thing over and over until at last the light changes and his hands drop to his sides, his fingers still moving like pistons, muttering at the sidewalk.

on a backstreet

He’s leaning back against the side of his sedan, one arm stretched out above the door as though the car were his best girl. There’s a mambo playing, and all around the other men are lifting  beers swaddled in brown paper and shimmying in place, their heads thrown back with pleasure. Now he reaches into his pocket and scatters a handful of bright pennies in the empty street. A few small children rush over at the sound of the fallen coins, squatting to gather them. He watches with pride at what he has caused. The other men keep dancing in place as the song changes key.

on a sidestreet

Everyone here is maimed somehow. A pimply girl shuffles along, her head tipping back like a narcoleptic, she is nodding on something, coming unwound with each step. There’s a man dragging his leg along behind him like an unwanted burden. Then a skinny guy in hightops with breasts bouncing under his t-shirt rushes into one of the doorways. A round woman who guides her electric wheelchair with flipper limbs whirs past an old man with a bandage around his neck like an ascot. An elegant woman with upswept hair and three fingers in a claw-shaped cast is telling a story to no one. Then the nodding girl doubles back, tucks herself into the shade of a ghetto palm and gives in to the sleep that she can’t outrun.