by Robert Cipriano
My father never learned from books
but like a cat: from stillness
and sudden fits of passion.
He never paid attention and spent his time
in Special Ed, where the beaten
and the bruised were culled to rot.
Still, frothing at the lips he learned the letters,
but not to join them in sound and meaning—
broken, never learning to express himself.
My father is a relic of New York,
raised in isolation—for twenty-five years
he only knew Italians—lived
hand to mouth with a fistful of friends,
who stuck their skinny arms
up slots for cigarettes,
and stole fresh donuts from morning deliveries.
In winter, they hustled the block
shoveling snow from one yard into the other
then in summer, they slept huddled
and uncovered on midnight stoops,
landlocked in Bensonhurst.
My father is a survivor, a cockroach
he jokes, and admits of all
his friends he should not have made it out.
One was stabbed under the boardwalk
another OD’d in a handball court
the others were arrested or adopted by the state,
and the last, was struck by a celebratory
bullet at a birthday party.
I don’t look like my father,
we’re alike in motion more than anything
as we swagger duck-footed through Chinatown,
passing faces which resemble mine
more than his, I feel their eyes on us:
The white man holding an Asian boy’s hand,
navigating the maze of street-side stands
to a deli in little Italy, where the green-eyed
butcher looks like him and passes stuffed olives down to me.
We board the train with provolone and dried salami,
and my father, humming an aria,
slides a knife from his back pocket,
fouling the air with the stink of cheese
as he slices and stacks it with sausage on his thigh.
People turn to watch us in disgust,
as if we’re a homeless inconvenience
but I, chewing with closed eyes,
am only embarrassed
between mouthwatering morsels
spicy, salty, sweet.