At Jefferson Park the young man swaggers in,
looks over the seven Sunday afternoon riders,
tries several seats, finally sits and stares
at the middle aged white man
who looks up from his book
half intimidated by this frank exam.
He sees no point in staring back,
checks his wallet by tensing his butt
in the seat corner and resumes his reading.
Ahead near the exit, two black women
dressed for some event - theater, a party -
The el slows and stops
at California Avenue. He's spotted his prey.
He times his move, snatches the gold medals
from one woman and snaps the chains.
Strings of light swinging from his fist,
he exits as the doors close behind him.
Heading for the station turnstile, he stares defiance
at the reader, who realizes what happened
only as the car moves forward, as the chatting
turns to screams, tears, frantic advice.
"Honey, you hurt?" "Tell the conductor.
He can radio back." The woman rubs her neck.
Tears of pain, embarrassment, anger.
"He’ll be gone. Forget it."
Exhausted, wrinkled, still smelling from seven hours
in coach. Too high to sleep, too tired not to try,
the young man wasted energy fighting
and seeking sleep.
Rolls of film stashed
in his socks near the bottom of his duffle
hold a month of Europe, more memories
than he can retain or relate, a fraction
of the experience, captured light and shadow
destined to define and frame that time.
Now, dazed, he faces the adjustments
of clock and custom.
Cheered by the familiar
in signs [Hemorrhoid Suffers Alert!] and
in voices ["I told the son of a bitch to fuck off."]
around him, he is settling already into the old grooves.
After the recycled air in the plane cabin,
the dank rush of subway fume is fresh.
Home is not an ocean but only minutes away.
Too tired to mentally sort the souvenirs,
he knows they will be happy to have him back.
"Safe and sound."
How much can he tell who
of his adventures?
ORD on his luggage is not for ordinary.
Like a half made up chalk white faced clown
with surgically rebuilt twisted nostrils,
the burn victim stares, defying us to look,
defying us to ignore his gothic melodrama.
A crescent moon of glaring red bruise-scab
beneath his eye stretches across his cheek
to a curl of cropped ear. Above both eyes
awkward eyebrows. Painted?
Raw scarlet lips scream from the pallor of his face.
A tight white cap hides whatever happened to his scalp.
He turns and shows taut spider web
granulations pulled across his other cheek,
skin applied with a palette knife.
That ear is whole, but as strangely pale
as is the thin hand that grips the seat bar
to lift him into the aisle. Then we see
the shiny pink rounded stump peering
from the other sleeve of his oversized jacket.
Did he open the door to hell half way?
Has he all his toes? genitals? nipples?
A half scorched soul? A ceramic heart,
new hardened and fragile? We look
in fascination. We look away in fear.
A streaker trots the central platform.
Careful of his feet he wears sneakers.
The paleness of his body is accented
by black hairy tufts at armpits, nipples
and the navel-groin spear.
His penis, an inverted metronome,
slaps his thighs in time as he zigs
and zags through gapping clumps
exiting, waiting at doors or for the other train.
Shock, surprise, amused and nervous laughter
trail him. His buns pump up the escalator.
Sneakers disappear. Car doors close.
Lost bet? Fraternal initiation?
Or just perverse pride?
Some other mental illness?
The el moves ahead.
Is he embraced
by cheering buddies,
police or no one?
Is the victory as private
as the parts revealed?
Was he laughing?
What color were his eyes?
Amid the shining chrome, reflecting glass and plastic seats,
the rubber edged doors open.
A man with a plant, preposterously large and yellowing
from lack of sun enters.
A moribund office decoration?
Someone's abandoned memento rescued from the garbage?
Its mixed foliage interspersed with bare and berried twigs,
the only blooms are withered calyxes
with drooping obscene yellow spikes.
All in a round green ceramic pot hugged to his gut.
He makes it safe in a window seat
apologizing as twigs disturb my newspaper.
Smiling he sits beside it, accompanying this faded beauty.
At his stop he lifts it carefully in one hand
and brushes the shed leaves and berries from the seat
before he exits green bouncing.
Momentarily softened faces slip back to impassivity.
We are left in our bright lighted space, still enclosed, plastic furnished.
All is hard, enduring, surviving vandals.
I resume my reading.
Waiting for the Subway
A rumble pushed ahead with a rolling rattle
rumors a mighty beast, a dragon at a distance,
deep in its cave.
Between the trembling tracks mice slip into drains,
candy wrappers sweep softly forward,
edges of newspaper lift and stir.
The hollow roar grows, gains bulk, swells
to crescendo and bursts into the station.
The platform edge crowds, peers and retreats,
hands go to ears, eyes squint out dust.
Threatening to ignore us it streaks by, flashing sleek silver sides
and momentary masks awry.
Then halts, relieves itself of passengers,
accepts new strangers,
chomps shut and strains away.