forbidden places

in all the forbidden places

like round the corner

and too far up the block

and up and down the you'll fall from it fire escape

and across the bad boy bad girl rooftops

of fertile pigeons and antenna thieves

through the sinister shadows of subway stations

and beware of dogs junkies

and the drunken super


through the unexplored side streets of childhood

my mind wanders

that musk of the living

and dying tenement compels me

the gloom of alley and airshaft

the glow of sunlight on brick

i must navigate asphalt rivers

i must trek the broken glass

graffitied mainland to reach

the cement heart of the interior

and i will not return

i am the great explorer forever lost

in the concrete wilderness

i will discover america

flowering in the rubble



My father parked his car in a garage about nine blocks from our house. Almost adjacent to the garage was an abandoned tenement. The street was not wide, so we got a good view as we walked past. It had not been boarded up, and through the space where there had once been a window, I could see the ruins of the front room, in shadow, with broken walls, and the vague appearance of another room behind it. A damp smell emanated into the narrow street. Possibly the building had been made uninhabitable by a fire. I would never cross the threshold and explore the shadows beyond the broken door.

And there were other places I would not go. In the good old days people might sleep on tenement rooftops on hot summer nights or keep belongings in the basement storage room. But our mothers knew that the good old days were gone. They kept a careful watch on us. Our mothers let us play in the street, but we had to play where they could see us from the front window. And we usually stayed within our boundaries. But the forbidden beckons, and the imagination wanders.

Appendix: forbidden places

This is an early version of the poem:

forbidden places (@ 1989)

in all the forbidden places

like round the corner

and too far up the block

and up and down the you'll fall from it fire escape

and across the bad boy bad girl rooftops

of fertile pigeons and antenna thieves

and through the sinister shadows of subway stations

and beware of dogs junkies and the drunken super basements

my mind has wandered

and not yet has found home

I liked the images in the poem: fire escapes, shadowy subway stations, and rooftops where in the 1950s gangs sawed off television antennas to make zip guns. Behind our tenement there was a large open space, called an airshaft, so that there could be ventilation for the rear apartment windows. I guess the airshaft was about fifty by one hundred feet, and the bottom, which was maybe sixty feet below the roof, never seemed to catch a sunbeam. The building's supers had apartments in this gloomy underground world.

However, I was not happy with the last two lines of the early draft. I played with the poem over the years. I have always been fascinated with Conrad's Heart of Darkness, which led to the idea of exploring the urban wilderness. As I began contemplating  from the  banks of brook avenue  manuscript, I knew that this would be the opening poem. I did not want a poem that would be over a page long. I wanted a piece that would be understandable and that would lead the reader into the book. I also wanted a positive end to the piece, thus the promise of flowers emerging from the ruins.

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



Professor Lloyd Ultan's account of  The Grand Reconnaissance (which appeared in the Spring 2002 Bronx County Historical Journal) mentions Washington approaching on the Cypress Hill, and a cannonball landing near the Millbrook, a stream which is now beneath Brook Avenue. It is hard to imagine a Bronx landscape without tenements. In 1781, the British had a line-of-sight that allowed them to fire artillery from Harlem into The Bronx. According to Ultan, Washington arrived at a hill on 140th Street and Cypress Avenue as the firing began. My father's family lived at 141st Street, just off Cypress Avenue, and my mother's family had a shoe shine parlor on Brook Avenue. There is a historical photograph, which was published in Bronx Accent: A Literary and Pictorial History of The Bronx, and in The Beautiful Bronx 1920-1950. It depicts Roosevelt's motorcade on 138th Street on October 28, 1940. In the lower right, my mother and her sister can be seen standing in the doorway of 514. Above them another aunt is looking out her front window. On July 11, 1936, the Triborough Bridge opened. Roosevelt's motorcade drove through 138th Street. According to my mother, her father ran out and shook the President's hand. The police let him do it. They knew him because he had shined their shoes. It may have been the best tip he ever received.

Appendix: washington comes to visit

I wanted to write a poem about Washington visiting the South Bronx. The original idea was along the lines of  “even Washington fled from here.”

This is a rough beginning from my 1991-1992 notebook:

washington fled

washington fled

amid fear

maybe landings at port morris

maybe men of war

sailing the shallow bronx river

three ambushes

route the hessians at pelham bay

each slaughter they thought the last

imagination exceeds reality

in this land of battle

who would be surrounded

on a peninsula

there's white plains

and new jersey

the suburban wilderness

This is from a word-processing file dated the July 29, 1997:  

washington fled here (July, 1997)

even washington retreated north amid fear

maybe landings at port morris

maybe men of war sailing up the bronx  river

who wants to die on a peninsula

and the land was left to cowboys and skinners

political gangs who stole livestock of any persuasion

while the british fortified randall's island

to stare at the mainland

and they stared so long that the opposing sentinels

agreed not to shoot except for a rookie lieutenant

who was reprimanded and the practical peace prevailed

while the cowboys and skinners professed politics

but did not argue ideology with the cattle and horses they stole

and plundered the bronx as the dutch had counterfeited indian currency

making sewant of imported glass

using glass imitations of the sewant

they hung a quaker three times here

leaving him penniless and almost dead

ne cede malis on the bronx flag

yield not to evil meet misfortune boldly

the sun has eyes and shines

inside an acorn beneath an eagle

having left the beautiful bronx manor

valleyed between rolling bluffs and blue estuaries

fruits were grown here and exotic trees collected

a mill was built upon the brook that became an avenue

and the orchards and the exotic trees

and the forest vanished beneath the buildings

the brook into a vast sewer

Much of the historical information comes from an old book, The History of The Bronx and Its People.

The Dutch did counterfeit wampum. That fact made it into a draft of “randall's island,” then was cut as that poem was revised. It  is alluded to in “ps 43”  in the lines: “is that real money or are these guys just / a couple of broke tulip farmers with counterfeit wampum.”

The reference to The Bronx motto and flag became the subject of  “ne cede malis....”  The brook being subsumed by a sewer is referred to in “liberation, or the brook avenue parking meter quartet.”

In the summer of 2015, I was working to complete the from the banks of brook avenue manuscript, and the idea of a poem about Washington was on my list of possibilities. I read in Ultan's article that Washington had reached the hill at 140th and Cypress Avenue when the firing began, and that his guides took shelter behind the mill at 137th and Brook Avenue. The article also mentions how Washington and Rochambeau, amid the bombardment, had passed the hiding guards. So he really did visit the old neighborhood. But my family was not there yet!

I started to play with the idea of their not being there. This approach was much more positive than that of my earlier notes. I had fun imagining all the things that did not happen because my family was not there yet!

And I enjoyed suggesting that his plan to conquer Manhattan was motivated by his desire to stop the noise. “and washington plans to attack manhattan / to stop the noise / but he marches to yorktown instead / and the rest is history.”

I was delighted to come up with that ending: historical accuracy and a corny joke!

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