The skinny girl with Little Mermaid
t-shirt teeters her feet on the flats
of a low metal fence. Leaps and lands
on the sidewalk. Yelps because she can’t
grab a narrow branch’s tip, dangling
between the fence and the shut-blind window.
Great-grandmother, monument-solid, watches
as the girl perches, perches, leaps, leaps,
grabs, misses, yelps. Now the mother –
maybe aunt – drags a folding chair
from the side door, undoes the chair,
retreats, reties her apron. This is great-
grandmother’s post, between stoop
and sidewalk, for the next three hours.
I scribble the neighborhood affairs from
our second-floor porch across the street.
Great-grandma holds a totter-kneed baby’s hand.
The little walker stretches her far leg wide
from the woman, baby girl herself
three generations back. Splayed toddler steps.
Great-grandma walks the girl to a metal plate
set in the sidewalk. Puts her feet apart,
rocks so the wobbly plate clanks. A game:
see child, here’s how to make sound out of your life.
Press your feet down through your thighs
and it happens by itself.
The thing is this. Refuse the barren lots.
Reject abandoned land. Bury weeds and rubble
under rooms and walls, plumbing and stairways.
All the rest happens by itself.
It’s like there’s a phantom trampoline
sounding in the middle of the street. The springs’
creaky giggle bounces from the walls,
the backyard fences. Kids are crazy for it,
jump for hours, one floor down, one yard back.
Big mechanical cricket, it echoes to the end
of the block, into the dark.
Here’s how it goes. Pry the slumlord
from his rights. Destroy his parody property.
Purge his name from the address.
Send up three floors of homes
for the old, a collective kitchen
sometimes polling place, sometimes cozy
iglesia. The rest happens by itself.
Short-sleeved fellow with bilevel shopping cart
clatters down the block, stops to talk
with great-grandmother. His wheeled cages
await cans and bottles but he’s found none.
Then comes a younger man, on a bicycle
beneath my porch, 23 on his sleeveless
basketball shirt. Flips the lid of our
blue bin, roots for returnables. None there.
Sensing me, he turns his face up:
I wave, he nods, no words from either.
End of the block, he hits a mother lode
in someone else’s bin. Crams a bag
with empties, ties it to a handlebar,
sets off out of balance.
My wife has lived in this house
for thirty years. Time was when
we set a nervous eye
walking to the subway. Now
we stop for cyclists on the bike path
with kids in tandem carriers.
Forget you ever said bad neighborhood
and all this happens by itself.