May 27, 2013

Francine Marie Tolf

EAST ROGERS PARK

Chicago

I dreaded that walk home from the Morse Avenue El stop
to where we lived five blocks away, across Sheridan Road,
at the edge of a park by the lake
where even the trees had graffiti
and kids set off cherry bombs nightly
on a beach strewn with broken bottles and plastic caps.

No supermarkets in that neighborhood
we’d moved into for cheaper rent,
only liquor stores with grillwork across grimy glass,
7-11s stocked with overpriced milk and lunchmeat,
a currency exchange with two cameras,
and a rib joint that served take-out.

Some people had marigolds and geraniums in window boxes
that they cared for meticulously.
Some people cleaned beer cans and Styrofoam plates
from their yards every morning.
I began to recognize them
on my way to the train where I stood on the platform
with black girls who tried to act tough,
hawking up and spitting onto the tracks
where the third rail, the one holding death,
stretched innocuously.
There were Pakistanis in cheaply made business suits
talking Urdu into cell phones,
young mothers in spandex yelling at toddlers in Spanish,
Russian teenagers playing rap music on boom boxes.

Homeless people sometimes slept outside
our first floor dining room window.
I’d go out there on weekends with gloves and a garbage bag
to clean up after the empty pints
and half-eaten fast food they left, things I could not imagine
picking up before I lived there,
used condoms and tampons,
urine-soaked clothing.

I tried not to hate
that neighborhood, but I did, I was
scared we would never get out
and sometimes I thought
why should I, why should I be luckier
than anyone else.

Yet with all the stupid
chances I took, the alleys I cut through at night,
the blocks I should never have walked down,
I was never once bothered
as I’d been in better neighborhoods
where I’d had my breasts grabbed, my purse stolen,
a knife thrust at me one evening
by a man in a brown leather jacket
who got twelve dollars, some change, and all my IDs.

Never, that is, except once
on Morse Avenue, walking past two black men
spread-eagled against a cop’s car
as the officer questioned them
and the usual crowd of gawkers
shuffled and stared,
A Jamaican man with very dark skin
and blazing eyes
stepped in front of me, blocking my way.
Why is it always us they stop
when everyone knows it’s the fucking Russians
who run drugs on this corner,
even someone like you has to know that!

I wish now I had touched
his hand or his shoulder
when I answered him because
I wasn’t frightened, I understood
it wasn’t me, this white woman he’d never met,
who inspired such rage.

But I didn’t, I simply said
I don’t know, I don’t understand
And he let me step past him
with an expression that stays with me—
something damaged beyond repair—
but I didn’t look back
as I headed towards home.

from Rattle #21, Summer 2004

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