the third avenue el

I. 1886

a bridge and shining rails span the river

the long arm of the el stretches north

from harlem through the mainland

the seeds of the bronx are sown

tenements will blossom on fertile ground

there will be streets and streetcars and immigrants

will brave the broad ocean for their chance

in the land of the free

the colossus rises above new york harbor

glorious timeless stoic

her mighty limb bears a beacon of hope

a wary welcome to the new world

where geronimo is imprisoned

where chinese laborers are expelled from seattle

where former slaves are massacred in a mississippi courthouse

no one is indicted for their murder

in this great republic where the lord

and manifest destiny work in mysterious ways

a torch a tablet a stern look

staring toward the tempestuous atlantic

the copper matron will guide

exiles to the promised land

sure footed she is stepping

in the direction of south ferry station

II. 1920

from the battery park aquarium

to the botanical gardens and beyond

all for a buffalo nickel

a stadium will be built and there will be baseball

in the bronx and babe ruth and the yankees

will come and the crowds will cheer

in the golden age when the poor

inherit the earth one apartment at a time

the multitudes have arrived a new world is rising

farms become tenements

immigrants become americans

who will rest who will eat who will work

who will raise families and ride that great train

to a modest job and home to a modest kitchen

commuters flicker past trackside windows

curtains flutter and the glass shakes

garlic and cabbage and old country recipes

simmer on the flames of freedom

green stanchions green stations

lady liberty has turned green above the gray water

the sidewalks are gray the tenements are brown

or white or gray or red and the street gets little sunlight

children play and laugh in the shadows

the el sparks and thunders and storms across the sky

III. 1955

the sons and daughters of immigrants

survived poverty and prohibition

the depression and two world wars

now their children are given dog tags

and schools teach to duck and cover

when atomic bombs explode

but the economy is booming

the city thrives and factories flourish

televisions toys cars

disneyland gunsmoke the mickey mouse club

mcdonald's opens in illinois and eisenhower

sends aid and advisors to vietnam

this humble train this noble artery of democracy

the bronx harlem yorkville

lenox hill murray hill

little italy and chinatown

in this land where liberty proudly enlightens the world

rosa parks is arrested and the boycott begins

the third avenue el is mortal it lives it moves

it dies a long slow death

the aquarium has been closed and the fish deported

ellis island is abandoned to rot in the harbor

on the final manhattan run people doff their hats

and toast the last echoes of its passing glory

IV. 1973

the once great el is merely

a minor shuttle an appendix

lost in the intestines of the bronx

the dodgers and giants have migrated west

the yankees wane and rust

mottles the rivets of industry

america the beautiful wrestles with itself

broken glass lost dreams

riots and assassinations

planned obsolescence and withdrawal with honor

the weary el clatters like a faithful milk wagon

while tenements crumble and die

the world trade center rises above the skyline

the last passenger run is made in the dark

and the train disappears in the night

the streets will be quiet and sidewalks

freed from shadow but the world

will not seem so wonderful

towers will rise where towers have fallen

the bronx will rise from the ruin

ellis island will reopen and the children

of the children of immigrants will come

to behold that great green lady

her colossal foot trampling forever the broken chain of slavery

her torch pointing to heaven

where stars are innumerable stations

and the great train rumbles toward paradise

standing upon the fordham road bridge

on a walk from nothing to do to nowhere to go

i stop here beneath heaven and above the harlem

river which curves from spuyten duyvil to hell gate

past the train yard and bus barn and power plant

through bluffs of tenement and project

in a valley veiled in concrete and night

all those little people with their big lives

all those big people with their little lives

asleep now or wandering the streets

searching for a cool breeze in the humid gloom

or cheap or expensive thrills which bring

forgetfulness of whatever pain there is to life

and i have found the river

darker and deeper it seems than space itself

though the sky is a gray haze of city light

which obscures the stars as we are obscured

and i stand above unheard currents

where tall masted ships no longer sail

i watch striations of light on the midnight water

which casts no human reflection

and tells no tales of what it carries away

the silent inscrutable current is a thirst

to be salted by unfathomable oceans

and in the depth of this drowning darkness

the faint vision of dawn

bringing a new day to this weary world


detroit burns and the bronx is mugged

with socks full of stones the wicked beat

money from mortal flesh

pirates and devils

torment candy from the naive

riots and thievery and war always war

there are no loving arms

strong enough to fend off the world

blood and grief and bloated bodies

children starve and the innocent die but tonight

the slaughtered will rise from sprawling graves

tonight urchins will drift across mine fields

their ghostly songs whine like artillery

and in mockery eggs splatter

like bombs from unseen rooftops

o do wear a mask of a monster or mutant

it is less hideous than to look

helpless into the face of humanity

there were saints and gods among us

and we killed them

blessed are the dead who have been purged

of cruelty and greed

they know what we have lost

forlorn paradise heaven uncreated

they know and they will come

the intentionally killed the merely neglected

they who should fear but who love nevertheless

they will come who have been liberated

from the perpetual procreation of pain and stolen joy

they will come and they will dance

look look their bliss wafts through the tangible

we smile and we pray that the children will be safe

let us feed the darling monsters coin and corn

we who are so generous and who will send yet more

souls suffering to their graves for our great blessing

ne cede malis:  poem for the seal of the borough of the bronx

yield not to evil

meet misfortune boldly

wings spread

head cocked

beak in profile

one stern

alert eye

stares forth

the bald eagle is perched

atop the hemisphere

the stylized cupule

of an acorn

a triangular shield

where the sky is broken

by the straight beams

of a circular sun

whose indifferent eyes

surface over calm water

peace and liberty shining

on the ripples of commerce

and at the base

a small triangle


almost insignificant

it is the land

of new hope and old tradition

behold it is the bronx

here unseen millions create their lives

and await their fate

in the scroll

the ominous motto

ne cede malis

yield not to evil

all is surrounded

by a festooned circle

a suggestion of universal harmony

the sun has eyebrows

it is all so placid

the sky is cloudless

the waters still

the land a mere shoreline

a speck in eternity

and the eagle

watches his back

a wary carnivore

in a troublesome world

washington comes to visit

he arrives at grandma's house

just off cypress avenue

but nana does not serve him a bowl of her soup

and poppop does not offer him a hand-rolled cigar

and dad does not take his picture

because they are not home

it is 1781 and even their home is not there

but the british are

and washington is scouting enemy positions

so the redcoats welcome him

with cannon fire

from harlem and randall's island and nearby ships

but the general

continues his visit and goes

to the shoe shine parlor on brook avenue

uncle al does not give him a free shine

mom and aunt jean are not standing in the doorway

aunt helen is not watching from her window

and grandfather does not run out

into 138th street as he does

to welcome roosevelt's motorcade

he shines the cops' shoes

so they let him shake

the hand of the beloved f.d.r.

but washington is not yet president

and the shoe shine parlor and 138th street

and cypress avenue and brook avenue are not there

though the millbrook is and so is the mill

and muskets fire and cannons roar

it is noisy as the fourth of july

and washington plans to attack manhattan

and bring peace and quiet to the neighborhood

but he marches to yorktown instead

and the rest is history


bootblacks on the loose

we are bootblacks on the loose

and we might be found

in jersey or north of the county line

on summer tuesdays we swim

at palisades amusement park

the world's largest salt water pool

we cling to the board beneath the waterfall

and lose ourselves in the briny roar

saturday night it's pepper steak

at a chinese restaurant in yonkers

or a burger at ho jo's

where uncle al tries to convince

the waitress that i am an unusually short thirty-one year old

looking for a date

thought i am thirteen and still wrestling with puberty

sunday afternoon it might be

the bowling alley by yankee stadium

or the billiard parlor on brook avenue

cousin billy is gifted with great strength

and an abundance of enthusiasm

he subdues the pins with brute force

he breaks the rack with a thunderbolt

scaring the balls into pockets

and he pounds the leather into a shine

while sandy finesses his strikes and sweet talks

the bank shots and coaxes the shoes

to perfection

i suck at everything but have fun anyway

i am learning to sweat my way through a shine

not the strongest

not the suavest

but i get the job done

i cannot outswim

uncle al though billy

can beat him at bowling

and sandy can beat him at pool

but al's arms are like tree trunks

he has been a bootblack

longer than the three of us have been alive

and no pair of shoes

can make him sweat

he loves to take us places

when we are not working

and to play gin rummy when it rains

and to lie in the sun

on the boardwalk at palisades

and smoke a cigar after lunch

while we wait

so we won't get cramps

the proper amount of time

between eating and swimming

is exactly how long it takes

for al to finish his cigar

so we watch the manhattan skyline

and boats on the hudson river

and women in bikinis

and we wish

the day would never end


his father was a bootblack

and he is a bootblack

shining shoes with graceful movements

a faint smile beneath his moustache

while big band music plays on the ancient radio

and when the brushes dance

over the leather he leans

slightly like a man

gently holding the waist of a woman

in a prohibition era ballroom

p.s. 43

jonas bronck elementary school

he settled in paradise

on the east bank of the harlem river

divinely guided to a virgin forest

of unlimited opportunity

that needed only an industrious hand

to make it the most beautiful

region in the world he claimed

but we grew up on streets without trees

and we gathered in the auditorium to watch

space flights on a black and white television

the stage had a mural

of the purchase of the bronx

guys in tight black suits and long white stockings

and some sachem outside a longhouse

the suits were not spandex

and the longhouse was not made

of barclay-barclite fiberglass panels

and just beyond the panorama

maybe some old lenape was saying

there goes the neighborhood

they are letting the whites in

they do not even speak the language

is that real money or are these guys just

a couple of broke tulip farmers with counterfeit wampum

when a launch was delayed we watched reruns

of  my little margie

then it was back to the space race

because america must beat russia to the moon

so the commies would not invade the bronx

and we stockpiled tanks and troops in europe

and we saved the world for democracy

though we could not save the neighborhood

from drugs and crime

and in our kindergarten classroom

midnight vandals threw the teacher's coffee into the aquarium

the goldfish was floating belly up in the morning

no one talked us through our sadness and fear

it was a tough school

if you barfed in the cafeteria you had to clean it up yourself

which led to more barfing

you cleaned and barfed till you barfed no more

and there was nothing more to clean

then you went to class or went home

my mother had her own memories

of this educational institution

where teachers put clothes hangers

inside kids' shirts to encourage good posture

and criticized mom because her parents spoke italian

and not good english

so when they sent letters home in spanish  

which neither she nor i could read

she shared her disgruntlement at the main office

but the next letter came again in spanish

and she returned again and again

she was quite good at expressing disgruntlement

in perfect bronx english

most of us were not bilingual but we were quick learners

in kindergarten we were not taught the alphabet

but the first grade teacher assumed we knew it

we learned this is the way life would always be

full of irony and incongruity and strange paintings

and of love and disgruntlement and rebellion

in third grade i became enamored

with a leopard skin coat

there was a redhead inside it

i don't remember her name

but what a coat

when they painted the doors pink

and put a DO NOT TOUCH sign on the wall

how could i resist

shoving my hat into the wet paint

they would not arrest me for it

they would not send me to the principal

the redhead would not be impressed

even my mother would not yell

at something so absurd

it was like the rich taking money from the poor

it was like going to the moon while the world was dying

it was like sending troops to vietnam

it was like arsonists burning tenements

even when the slumlords did not pay them

it was like writing poetry

instead of working on wall street

it was like jonas settling the bronx

and thinking he could improve paradise

it was because there was a sign

saying not to

it was because the tenements

were crumbling and the trees had vanished

and john wayne had killed all the indians

except for a few token sidekicks

it was because

it was there

and i had a hat

and the paint was wet

and i was a stupid kid

with a pink hat

receiving a great education

in america

cypress avenue

the avenue is named for the trees

that once grew in the morris arboretum

before the age of development and ruin

they are gone but their spirits linger

on this quiet avenue in the noisy bronx

a half mile of peace and simple wonder

or is it just childhood illusion

the thrill of saint mary's park

the lure of the randall's island walkway

the corner candy store

that sells joyva halvah and joyva joys

chocolate covered raspberry jelly bars

so tart and sweet even hamlet

would find succulence in the dull world

at grandmother's apartment her cooking

brightens the railroad flat

the aroma seeps out the window

and the street seems to sparkle

there is a green beauty salon

a turquoise shoe shine parlor

p.s. 65 with its light brown bricks

sparrows chirp in the schoolyard

and when the basketball courts are deserted

in the solitude of a sunday afternoon

even a clumsy kid

can pretend to be an all-star

the millbrook housing projects

are young and pink

christmas lights blink in various windows

i watch the flashing colors

to the point of insanity

while daddy warms up his 54 plymouth

in an outdoor parking lot by a scraggly locust tree sapling

as the car radio plays

wonderland by night

and i wonder

about the abandoned public school

p.s. 29 is bone white in the harsh sun

a spectral glow in the dark

the children say it is haunted

and i am a child

and in a long narrow store

lost in the red and yellow flames

of arson perhaps

father buys me the black knight of nurnberg

it is the missing piece

of my collection of aurora plastic models

the red knight of vienna

the blue knight of milan

the silver knight of augsberg

there is a gold knight of nice

i do not know it exists but it would be nice to have

i would lust for it as i did for the black knight

but my temporal desires have been temporarily satisfied

i am happy for a while

and safe for a while

in bed at night surrounded

by stuffed animals that protect me from bad dreams

while the knights keep watch from my shelves

there are tears and joy

there are more things to fear in heaven and earth

than i can dream of

as i glue together the armor

that protects me from the world


we squat we crawl we kneel

we lie on the sidewalk to shoot

bottle caps from square to square

in a game that demands

intimate contact with the street

and we play it with a summer frenzy

on a worn slab of cement outside 514

smooth almost as hallway marble

the only one like it on the block

in the neighborhood in the known world

unmarred by cracks and even

the residue of long discarded chewing gum

has become one with the surface

a man-made stone made perfect by time

and we study the board with the intensity

of pool hall hustlers and we flick

the middle finger off the thumb

make the shot and go again

hit an opponent and advance

we grow calluses on fingers and palms

we wear holes in dungarees years before

it becomes fashionable

our knees blacken but we do not care about arthritis

and we do not care how stiff the iron-on patches feel

before we wear holes in them too

our mothers mend and sew

our fathers say

who do you think i am rockefeller

when we ask for a dime to buy soda

so we do not ask for new pants

they were children of the great depression

they are hard working men and if there is change

in their pockets we will get that orange nehi

and we will save the cap and fill it

with melted crayons and we will line up

and shoot away the summer afternoon

angling from square to square

one to four on each corner

five through twelve midway on each side

thirteen in the center

again and again we crisscross deadman's zone

and must avoid disaster

like our fathers went from poverty to war to the thankless jobs

they are grateful to have

like the big boys flirt

with drugs police crime paternity

they hope to get out of adolescence alive

and survive their unknown futures

there is a wall around berlin

the russians are building missile bases in cuba

and vietnam looms beyond the sunset of many childhoods

the line between victory and defeat is chalk thin

we must make that crucial shot

into the thirteenth box

dead center in deadman's zone

and live to tell about it

the tire man

nixon is rising and the yankees are falling

and i am walking to my political science class

i walk up the hill and down the hill

and a long way along fordham road

in my adolescent oblivion

and i stop

when a tire rolls across the sidewalk

i do not drive but i am a good pedestrian

i yield to rolling tires

even those not attached to cars

another tire follows it

and another

i see a tire lying on the ground

and the man in the back of a truck

drops a tire straight down so it hits

in just the right spot and rolls

across the sidewalk and up the ramp

to be caught and loaded onto the dock

they do not teach this in college so i watch

i cannot explain the vectors involved nor the probability

of repeatedly dropping a tire onto the exact spot

to give it sufficient momentum and an accurate path

i left the engineering program to become an english major

so the poetic beauty of it is enough for me

there are a few sliders and curves but the tires

always get to where they are going

and when the show is over i go to class

where tests are being returned and the professor says

i gave you 35 points for putting your name on the paper

because it is good to know your name

so how can one of you get a 42

i do not know who got the bad score

and i do not know the name

of the tire man

just another nondescript earning an honest living

he will never run for president

he will never pitch for the yankees

but there are no spitballs

and he throws a perfect game

a small but perfect world

at thanksgiving we give thanks

for all we take for granted

the turkey the lasagne

the ceiling over our head

our apartment in the south bronx

the bedrooms are small

the dining room is not

we gather and feast

and the table is cleared

soon construction begins

the plywood is covered in a green grass mat

the tracks are laid out and screwed down and wired up

the engines and cars are placed on the rails for a test run

then the landscape is made complete

a city hall a bank a hospital

suburban townhouses

a farmhouse a barn and pens for the livestock

cows and pigs and chickens and trees

little people sitting on benches

at the station or on lounge chairs

at the little motel or in a suburban backyard

or walking to the bank or the mailbox

or waving lanterns beside switch towers

there are platforms for the unloading

of milk cans and logs

a radar tower and a light tower

a water tank and crossing signals

these are the toys my parents never had

during the depression

and now dad works in the financial district

where the buildings are tall and the streets are narrow

crowded by day and deserted by night

and before the world trade center

there are clearing houses and discount shops

and the bargains come home

the landscape is filled in

and expanded to the tall buffet

connected to the lowlands by mountains

which mom makes by painting grocery bags

and crumpling them and shaping them

a beautiful illusion in the heart of reality

a small but perfect world

where the streets are clean

where nobody gets mugged on the way to the store

where no one sets buildings on fire

where no one dies of an overdose in a back alley doorway

it is like living in the land of leave it to beaver

a small but perfect world

where there is much to be thankful for

christmas comes and the new year is celebrated

then each illusion is put back into its box

and the dining room table

is again just the dining room table

and school reopens and the cold of january sets in

and we are

still thankful

the fountain of youth

the sewer backed up and the street filled with glowing green water which all began when a neighborhood juvenile delinquent who was not very neighborly and who robbed from friend and foe alike like he just did not care lifted the manhole cover to show us the sights so we gathered to watch in awe brown walls of waterbugs writhing like times square on new year's eve and a few leapt up into daylight and into our nightmares for these were the winged tanks of the cockroach army whose armor mere sneakers could not destroy and we jumped back squealing and laughing then but not later and this neighborhood juvenile delinquent who was not very neighborly and who robbed from friend and foe alike like he just did not care liked to impress us so he threw seven milk crates perfectly suitable for sitting down the shaft but no one would sit in the street that hot summer night to talk and to watch the kids play punchball in the dark and there would be no open air games of dominoes or poker because the sewer backed up so much that the city sent a crew to repair it while we stood in the doorways to watch the strange sight of something actually getting fixed but things get worse before they get better the old timers always say and the maintenance crew flooded the sewer with dye which went down and came up and the waterbugs went down and the milk crates came up and the street filled with glowing green water which the maintenance men left like they just did not care so for a week no one played outside and the neighborhood juvenile delinquent hung out somewhere else and the shoppers and the commuters walked next to the buildings to avoid the chartreuse stench which took so long to recede that it became the evergreen symbol of what the city thought of us like it just did not care and of how we could not play on our own street which we would never forget though someday we might get lucky and hit the number or write a hit tune and move someplace where glowing green water would never happen somewhere like fifth avenue or sutton place where our bodies grow old and fat while our spirits drink immortal rage and compassion from the fluorescent green ooze of the waterbug writhing fountain of youth

bootblacks on the loose

Audio & text:  from the  banks of brook avenue   section II

Click the triangle to listen to the poem while you read it.

the third avenue el: I. 1886

the third avenue el: II. 1920


ne cede malis: poem for the seal

of the borough of the bronx

grandfather: a photograph


cypress avenue


the third avenue el: IV. 1973

grandfather: a photograph

standing outside

the shoe shine parlor

a short man

in a long apron

brushes in hand

elbows bent

a gray face

an impatient smile

as if to say


take the picture

there is work to do

my customers are waiting

the tire man

from the banks of brook avenue  is available as an e-publication from Smashwords


the third avenue el: III. 1955

standing upon the fordham road bridge

washington comes to visit

p.s. 43

a small but perfect world

the fountain of youth