the banana man

looked like jimmy durante

had a room on 139th street

worked for d loi & sons

trucking bananas all over new york

got a free shine every saturday

gave us a huge bag of bananas

talked a while about the flats & trots

then took the bus to belmont or the big a

worked all the overtime he could

saved his money

& spent his vacations at saratoga

als pictures of old times

a boxer doing an l sullivan pose

three men in two piece bathing suits drinking beer

our shoe shine parlor back in the ’20s

when there were stands outside too

& uncle giaco was there

& grandpa

funny calling him grandpa

because i never met him

& i don’t remember giaco

except ma would tell me

how skippy howled every midnight

for six months after the car

killed him

he wasn’t really our uncle though

my grandparents took him in

when he was just off the boat

& he became a relative

worked in the parlor with al

opened up every morning at six

washed down the marble stand

& polished the brass footrests

six or seven days a week

went back to italy once

a month after his mother’s funeral

but mussolini wanted to draft him

he had been a runner for general pershing

& that was war enough for him

so he stayed on the ship

came back to brook avenue

& years later was run over by a car

crossing 138th street to buy us ice cream

& snapshots of faces i didn’t know

but al remembered

one or two of them gangsters

in the 30s they would sit on the stand

& polish their guns

al said

while he shined their shoes

photos of cats & dogs & cousins

a drill sergeant & some cops

aunts & uncles

old christmasses & customers

all turning yellow

behind the dusty glass

private rivers

private rivers

is dead              he stepped

on a mine        on the wrong road

in a mistaken land        in an old war              his young

dogtagged blood exploded        & dried brown upon green

backed leaves        that rotted in the chemical breeze

private rivers        is dead              he wound up

on the wrong road        the gossip goes

because the illiterate corporal        could not read the map

to the literate lieutenant who could not read maps

& was actually an actuary        & the old sergeant

had retired yesterday        & the new sergeant had not yet been delivered

& the platoon radio was not working

so the lieutenant        who never took advice from noncoms

could not consult the captain who had chronic gout & never left the base

& the major was on leave        & the general

at the peace talks        did not hear the explosion

but signed the letter anyway

the wake was a closed coffin        flag & flowers

affair              fat priests        babies bawling to be fed

nervous brothers        pale sisters        some pfc’s

a corporal in a wheelchair              the grandmother

prayed & cried & shrieked her grief

& the widow fainted at the cemetery

private rivers is dead        the news spread

& shattered our neighborhood

he was a seventh son        never known

to be in the wrong place at the wrong time

or to leave a poker game empty handed        never robbed        never arrested

never beaten by a crazy cop              & he was always lucky

playing the numbers        until they drew him

a seven in the draft lottery              & now

everyone was nervous              the patriotic eulogy

no consolation              how would life deal to us

spoke up a drunk gambler

if it didn’t leave enough of him to fill a coffin

Audio & Text:  the shoe shine parlor poems et al  section  I

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

the cop

one week he was a movie star

dyed his hair blond        quite unusual

for a puerto rican        & he strolled

up & down 138th street        smiled

gave autographs        & occasionally

a 3×5 glossy

suddenly he was a cop        the only one

i ever saw walk a beat in our neighborhood

138th & 137th        brook avenue        saint ann's

even brown place        in a regulation blue uniform

shoes shined        night stick twirling        a tin badge

& cap guns in a cowboy holster

every night he guarded the newsstand till it closed

got a free paper        & walked the newsman home

saturday afternoons the children followed him

the men who sat on milk boxes        playing dominoes

drinking beer        talking about the cock fights

would yell        hey officer        & ask directions

to places they were not going

or tell him of cars double parked around the corner

but he was a nice cop        gave accurate directions

did not give tickets

& when the streetlights went out        he directed traffic

when the riots came        in the summer of 67

or 68        probably both        he was there

in the middle of 138th street        with a riot helmet

& his dime store guns        with five or six

hundred other cops        who chased the crowds up the block

or were chased        or who stood in doorways

watching the stores        dodging bricks        while he sat

on a friend's car so it would not be overturned

once in a while someone would shout

rotten pig        & throw bottles at him

but they were always aimed to land

ten or twenty feet away

& i never saw a cop        smile

so much in a riot

private rivers

making it

great grandfather burned some government office

in some spanish town        made it to puerto rico

hiding in jungles        huts        from wanted posters

& police        must’ve hid pretty well because

somehow grandfather made it to new york

rolling cigars        surviving the depression        & me

putting dirt in his pipe        sitting always

by the television        watching yankee games

never cheering        smiling sometimes

dying in a railway flat

on cypress avenue where he lived twenty years

in the south bronx

where my mother also lived        forty years

met my father        married        sent him to wall street

each day dressed in the suit he wore

even on saturdays

while she stayed home

remembering to me her father        the handsome

little italian        who also made it to philadelphia

then to new york        the south bronx        sweeping speakeasies

founding the family business

the shoe shine parlor

i worked there seven years        sweating

reading plato’s symposium        tristram shandy

playboy magazines between shines

not speaking spanish or italian but laughing anyway

at the customers’ dirty jokes

never listening

even if they spoke english        mind never there

body pushing brushes        burning two-&-a-half-cent cigars

mind someplace else        in riverdale        la rive gauche

in bed with the playmate of the month

in that spanish town a hundred years ago

but always

someplace else


a small man with a twisted body

five feet three

a size six shoe

& the other a four

so it wasn’t much trouble

to give him a free shine

while he spoke to al

not really talk

but al understood his

choked sounds & gestures

& understood almost everybody

no matter what language they spoke

or smiled & pretended to

we helped coffee on & off the stand

when he came around on saturday afternoons

or sunday mornings after church

he usually brought al coffee

sometimes smelled of whiskey

& was always happy


his father was an exporter

so it wasn’t as hard for him to leave italy

as it was for a lot of others        & work

his way up the coast        florida to phillie

bought land there with his brothers-in-law

had a barber shop        & a store        on main street too

but he left it        all in a family argument

returned only for funerals        & weddings

the old fashioned kind        with buffets        home pressed wine

virgin brides

he made it to new york        with his wife

& the children they had on the boat        & in various other states

then in manhattan my        mother        the ninth & last

not counting the two who died of pneumonia & tb

all living in a cold water flat by the polo grounds

then in the south bronx        right around the corner

from the shoe shine parlor he bought

in the early ’20s

worked it with his sons

swept streets        & speakeasies on the side

bartended after the repeal        had as much fun

as anyone during the depression        went fishing & crabbing

in pelham bay before it was polluted        & sometimes

on sundays        treated ma to a ride on the third avenue el

& once a year        took the whole family for a picnic

sailing the dayliner to bear mountain

but mostly he worked

ten or twelve hours a day        came home        took a short nap

woke        went for a walk        returned with the paper

read it & made sure his daughters were home by nine

he never let his children curse        & never

let anyone call him a son of a bitch

would say        i’ve got a real mother        & fight to prove it

only time he’d ever fight        & he usually won

once he even got hit over the head with a barstool

but he proved he had a real mother anyway

two days later        he collapsed behind the bar

his friends        carried his corpse

home        in a chair


had a glass eye that didn’t fit well

but he was too poor to get another

so folks called him blinky        the one eyed junkie

because he was a junkie        & twitched a lot

trying to keep his eye from falling out

he wasn’t like the other junkies who weren’t like him

& who hung around        wasted        waiting to score

watching who to rob        & mugging people

angel’s father's head bloodied        stabbed in the chest too

not because he fought back        but because they wouldn’t take chances

or waste time asking        & in a rush they pushed maria

who lived next door & was seventy six years old

down the stairs        took her pocketbook        the social security money

just enough to pay the rent        & buy thirty dollars food each month

she spent ten weeks in the hospital        with fractured ribs

& a broken hip        so they could get their fix

but blinky wasn’t like them

maybe he didn’t have much of a habit to support

or maybe he dealt on the side

but he’d just hang around the supermarket

carry packages home for a quarter or half-a-buck

take odd jobs        paint apartments

sweep sidewalks        bring down the garbage for the super

in bad times he’d beg by the subway

one night blinky overdosed in some basement

folks said he didn't move an eyelid

when the cops carried him to the ambulance

word got around he was dead

someone painted a cross on the sidewalk

put a bouquet of plastic flowers next to a hat

read the bible & took a collection         for blinky’s funeral

he said        & the old women walking home from the stores

dropped in dimes & quarters

some stopped to listen to the prayers

two weeks later blinky returned

he woke up in lincoln hospital        stole some clothes & walked out

right past the cops & nurses        back to 138th street hoping for a fix

when he saw the cross still painted on the sidewalk

& found out about our donations

he had some fine ideas on spending the money

so he & a few friends went looking for the man who took the collection

but no one could ever find him

little spic & big man

little spic

the name he was known by        but a person

could only speak it with affection              little spic

wasn’t shorter or taller        or bigger & meaner

or cooler & mellower than anyone else

& he didn't try to be

he just held his own

through tough times        struck hard        ran fast

when he had to              now he was the old timer

of the block        & drove the smoothest bus

in the bronx        too old to turn from anything

he joked with the passengers

& no taxi

ever beat him in a fair race               he knew enough

of the ways of the world to negotiate

translate or otherwise assist a friend in need

through any crisis from a wedding or a funeral

to football tickets & the recovery of stolen or confiscated property

he had many friends        never sought enemies

earned his title in grammar school during the ’20s

when the irish & italian & german kids who ruled the streets back then

would rough him up & get him down        until one day

he grabbed the biggest guy by the collar

shook his head a few times & said        in a fierce voice         yeah

i'm little spic        so what of it              that bunch

never troubled him again              they became buddies

& stuck up for each other like brothers

they were as tough as they had to be to survive

& as lucky              they lived according to the code of their pride

never crossed a friend        never struck from behind

or without good reason              they never took nothing

from those who had nothing        & that was more than could be said

for the loan sharks        local politicos        & insurance agents

who sold bogus policies        promises        & quicksand loans

to depression families               it’s a hard life

people are strange         little spic thought

& no matter how many friends he might make

he knew that some folks would always        if only

in a small but certain way        think of him as just

a little spic              so he figured he’d get the jump on them

any way he could              no friend of his

ever used his christian name again

& during the depths

of the ’30s his drinking buddies passed him a good tip

about a rough job        & they worked together until the war

driving trucks in the garment district              which is where

they learned the old trick of carrying a lead pipe in a rolled up newspaper

to fight off hijackers

& thirty years later

when he walked home late that friday night from the bus route

he got in ’47        he had a foot long rod of bicycle frame

in an evening news to fend off muggers              & so when big man

who was not so big he didn't have to prove his muscle

& who was known to prefer the pleasure of assault & battery

to the profits of pure thievery              staggered up to little spic

& grabbed his throat yelling        you damn ricans

i’m gonna kill allaya        & bury you in jersey              little spic

afraid it might be the last thing he’d ever do

swung his newspaper with all his might        & walked away with no hurry

leaving big man unconscious on the sidewalk

but he didn’t get too far when a police car drove up

& one of the cops yelled        hey old man

what happened to that big guy over there

& little spic said        with no hesitation

i don’t know        he was walking around real drunk

& he just collapsed

& the other cop yelled to two young guys

who were sipping a pint in a doorway across the street

hey what happened to that big guy over there

& they answered with no hesitation

he was walking around real drunk        said one

he just collapsed        said the other

well that’s as good as any place to sleep it off

muttered the cop at the wheel as they drove away

& little spic walked home to the wife who always waited up for him

& the two guys kept sipping their pint until all was clear

then they crossed the deserted street & walked up

real quiet

to big man who was snoring drunk on the sidewalk

nose up        jowls drooling        sprawled beside some trash cans

& boxes & bags of garbage              with a touch

light as a fly his wallet was lifted              he never woke

so holding their noses they stole his shoes

& biting back laughter threw them beneath a car

big man snored on in his stupor              so they slipped off his pants

threw them upon a nearby fire escape & split to spread the news

a hundred folks soon gathered        let’s take a good look

at this strong mouthed giant who seems to have insulted one too many of us

for his own health        someone said loudly in spanish               & it was a sight

because big man wore no underwear that night

& it wasn’t long till the laughter woke him              the crowd moved back

big man swayed to his feet & stretched a bit until he realized

he was standing surrounded in the street

so he reached to a pocket for his knife in case there was trouble

& jolted when he felt his bare skin

they’re on the fire escape        yelled a little kid

big man ran to the fire escape as the crowd opened around him

he ain’t so big        shrieked a woman from her window

& big man tried leaping to reach his pants        he couldn’t jump too high

because of his hangover but he kept trying anyway

the crowd became hysterical              big man went berserk

& tackled some guy around the waist yelling        give me your pants

give me your pants        give me your pants              until three cops drove up

& grabbed him        but he got one in a bear hug still yelling

give me your pants        give me your pants        as more cops dragged him away

& even after he jumped bail he was never seen in these parts again

though his name was remembered in stories & drunken ballads

which in our neighborhood always ended with the moral

you don’t mess around with little spic

the bust

i knew bo & bub        the two detectives who busted frank

they came in for a shine        drunk every friday night

never tipped        & seldom paid us              not like the other cops

not like the pimps & bookies who’d give bills

& say        keep the change

once bub told georgey        as he sat next to him on our stand

that they almost caught him stealing that mustang last night

& would get him the next        bust his ass too

but georgey laughed & said they wouldn't

& i sure wish i’d pounded        the brush into a corn or bunion

because frank never did nothing

except box in the golden gloves        train all day

walk his dog at night        & look a little

like georgey the rat king        who was doing lots of things

but it was frank they arrested        tackled him crossing 138th street

cuffed him & drove him down by the river

to the alley beside the furniture warehouse

where they beat him with blackjacks        held guns to his head & said

they'd shoot him & throw him in the harlem river

then they kicked frank & beat him with their pistols

until two patrol cars drove up to arrest them

but bo & bub identified themselves        so they all brought frank

to be booked with grand larceny        petty theft        resisting arrest

& several counts of assault & battery upon officers of the peace

the dog came home alone & frank’s mother was worried

but a few neighbors ran in yelling         frank’s just been busted

so they rushed to the police station

& sat there three hours before frank arrived

& even then the desk sergeant wouldn’t let his mother see him

or send for a doctor        until some friends

got a manhattan lawyer to take the case              free of charge

now bo & bub shine their own shoes              they’re doing two to five

frank’s walking a little dizzy              he can’t fight no more

& georgey the rat king        is still        doing lots of things

the long walk to bed

my footsteps echo down empty streets. the moon is full, but the stores are hidden behind steel roll down gates, & the shoe shine parlor is boarded over with plywood. the trash cans are in their usual places, & patches of black ice are unmoved by the wind. it does not snow much anymore, but the night is very damp, & cold. in my building, rusted icicles hang from the hallway radiator. they are a month old & still growing. i dream of nothing, shivering in my sleep, cold as a parking meter.


i was thirteen        there wasn’t much to do on those sticky august nights

except listen to the yanks drop two to the twins

look out the window        maybe see a star or two

& catch the latest on the all night outdoor poker game

when suddenly        thirty or forty guys turned the corner

from saint ann's avenue        came right down 138th street

ripping off car aerials        slashing tires

throwing bottles at a stray dog

the gamblers grabbed their beer & abandoned their milk boxes

as the gang hurled trash cans through store windows

set woolworth’s on fire        carried off a few televisions

& strolled away laughing into the night

ten minutes later the cops & firemen arrived

people looked from their windows to see what had happened

& our super        old jim        was sweeping the gutter

when a cop walked up        & bashed his head with a night stick

maybe he thought old jim was one of the gang

& couldn’t run fast enough to escape

or maybe he thought old jim pulled off the whole riot by himself

but i don’t know because no one ever saw that cop again

& jim wasn't arrested        just taken to the hospital

& let out two weeks later with a bandaged head & a broken nose

& went right back to work        sweeping hallways & collecting the garbage

folks would see him & ask        how you doing jim

& tell him he should go to the civil liberties union

find out who that cop was        & sue him        sue the city too

but i knew jim wouldn’t

& he didn’t

he was an old black gentleman        grew up in virginia

when i was a boy        we couldn’t walk on the sidewalk

if white folks was walking on it        had to walk in the gutter

he told me one day while i shined his shoes

& now he just said        i can’t sue that cop

it wouldn’t help my head none

besides        that cop is the law

i was brought up to obey the law

& i’m too old to change

the shoe shine parlor poems et al  is available as an e-publication from Smashwords:


the shoe shine poem

i tell ya man

i finished the shine

& as he got off the stand

i saw a gun in his belt

i started praying

as he reached for his wallet  

then he gave me a buck  

& told me to keep the change

& i said to myself

my prayers are answered

i ain't had a buck shine in a month

making it

the cop

the shoe shine poem

als pictures of old times




the banana man

little spic & big man

the bust


the long walk to bed