“When You Say You’re from New York City,” by Lana Hechtman Ayers

Lana Hechtman Ayers


the entire borough of Queens doesn’t count, 
especially our sinkhole spot in the borough, 
no yellow cab traffic honks, or women 
striding through streets in high-heeled pumps,
only roaring from Idlewild airfield 
practically at our backdoor. 
Rows of identical boxes built over swamps,
low-slung shops with parking lots
the size of half a Manhattan block, 
and the oxymoronic elevated subway
hurdling by, screeching brakes. 
Mother was the stay-at-home kind 
who’d rather be anywhere else—
especially singing on the radio 
or starring in some potboiler
like the black & white movie-star-
autographed photos framed on the walls,
like relations we’d be the black sheep for.
5 AM every weekday Daddy disappeared  
wearing army green coveralls, his nickname 
Mac machine-stitched into the bib center pocket.
He returned home twelve hours later, knuckles
calloused, smile askew, his eyes puddles
reflecting overcast sky.
I had a big brother with hands like those giant
junkyard claws—took, crushed, didn’t matter
whose or what. 
My tennis shoes too tight, big toe poking out
like an earthworm rain-smothered 
out of his dirt home. 
Daddy’s paycheck had as much stretch 
as a number two pencil, so we accepted food
from the church pantry, shame of walking 
ten blocks home with charity sacks
filed with unnatural orange cheese the size
of a car battery, cans of green beans slimy
as the slugs that infested the shrubbery 
outside our brick-front asbestos-sided
ranch house always a mortgage payment behind. 
Saturdays, Daddy mowed the three grass blades
jutting out from the rowdy dandelions that stood in 
for lawn while Mother escaped to some beauty 
shop for half the day,
came back with a teased high dome of hair
no robin would ever make his home.
Once in a while on a generous Sunday, 
there was Micky Dees
for supper, one large order of fries split
between the four of us. 
Rainy weekend nights drove us each to our own
shadowy, spiderwebbed corners of the house. 
Mine, sitting atop moldering mismatched shoes
in the damp hall closet, the scent of moth balls
a kind of anesthetic.
But if the weather held, we torched marshmallows,
no matter the season,
in a rusted-out charcoal grill out behind the house
in its gravel pit of a backyard,
swatting flies or mosquitoes or whatever
was biting at us, as something always was,
such was our glamorous New York City life.

from Rattle #80, Summer 2023


Lana Hechtman Ayers: “Poetry reached out to me at a young age, across time, distance, culture, gender, and religion, and showed me I wasn’t alone in my despair, that even the darkest moments could be survived. Poetry made meaning of the light of metaphor.” (web)

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