Copperheads

The New York Draft Riots

Vanish these walls, vanish this wealth, with visionary eyes that see 
back to hot July 1863. Vanish where wealth shines shopping on Fifth 
Avenue, five minutes from the lion-braced library, where I turn down 

my book. Vanish these great, gray walls, to see when this mirage 
was another, of a white-winged building housing motherless humanity. 
Try to see out of the eyes of two hundred frightened black orphans 

and their saviors, or, better, the eyes of one little girl under her bed,
who is to be beaten to sleep and burned alive. They come now, the
      first,
malignant rumble of mobs is heard. A giant, bearing a huge American 
      flag,

appears. Ten thousand men and women follow. They shout: NO
      DRAFT;
shout: KILL THE NIGGERS! One mob of ten thousand, among 
      many mobs,
one mad mob, is coming; Copperheads coming; but Mary doesn't 
      know

what they are. Snakes, she is told; and, people like snakes. Snakes? 
What does it mean? But behind them the sky is red, as if the sun had 
set in broad day, as if it had hit the earth and bounced back to the
      sky
	  
in cones of flame, like upward teeth, serrating the downward, hot blue. 
The fireworks for the Fourth, a week before, had shaken her. 
Looking everywhere, she saw no arms to hold her. BOOM BOOM!

Now again--BOOM BOOM! But this is wilder, worse. She caps her 
      ears,
her eyes rolling for a mother, while the giant bearing Old Glory juts 
his lantern jaw toward the white-winged building where she hides
      terror

in tears, holding her braided, ribboned head as, between her ten-year-old
fingers, distorted clangor of malignant mob-voice penetrates with 
curses and screams of coves and harpies, liquored-up looters, drink-mad,

blood-mouthed molls, ill-wind-shifted, now, toward Mary in the white-
      winged
Colored Orphan Asylum on Fifth Avenue, the ghost-building, inside tall
wealth, that I can reach in five minutes from this great, gray library,

close my book and walk out into the Fifth Avenue festival of limousines 
and be inside of its smoldering, ectoplasmic doors with the orphan
      children,
who are always poorest, with Mary, who hides under her bed, her eyes

spraying terror, shutting her ears to the Fourth of July or, now, 
a week later, to the flag-bearing giant leading a mob through the present 
affluent Fifth Avenue shoppers to BOOM BOOM KILL THE
      NIGGERS

NO DRAFT KILL, outside the library window on Fifth Avenue, 
      inside of,
behind, through, the tremendous modern traffc stalled at red, frustrated,
Manhattan-honking. KILL! Mary sees feet, fast feet. She doesn't

understand that the children are being herded out to safety, to 
Blackwell's Island on the East River. Mary sees feet 
scurry by her bed, sees a watery world, like one submerged, when she

looks out. Then, above her bed, something huge and malignant appears,
something too big. An evil thing! She will not come out from under,
      she will
not, as the white-winged building shakes like her body with battering

and the doors are pulled from their hinges. Mary tries to find her 
      mother
inside of herself, and finds an entrance and a dark hall. She goes in, 
finds herself upright, her legs steady under her. She pats the bodice

of her pink dress, straightens her pink ribbon--for she knows her 
      mother
waits at the end of the dark hall--as the giant lifts her to the sky--
knows a door will open at the end of the dark hall--and dashes
      her ten-

year-old body down, Great doors open, her mother shimmers with 
      beauty,
with long, strong, brown open arms. In fury at his loss, the giant howls
after the escaping orphans, and flames rise up around him as he moves,

touching, touching the pitiful beds of orphans, touching and torching, 
his small mad head hissing, spitting curses upon Lincoln, the top-
hatted ape, and Greeley, and niggers, niggers, for his tongue would
      fork

with curses if it could, as the white-winged asylum crumbles 
in flames inside of the facades of now with its BEEP BEEP of
      prosperity.
As if the great library walls had vanished, as if the market values 
      of now,

with their multi-millions of construction, were transparent, there
stands the Colored Orphan Asylum, and there inside is Mary, hiding 
      under
her bed. Mary and the flag-bearing giant. Mary and the mad mob. 
      I lean

back in my library chair and push up my glasses. I am trying to see 
      more
clearly. I think I don't understand any more than Mary did,
as the lion-braced library walls form around me again, shutting 
      me off

from my shopping, struggling fellow Americans on Fifth Avenue, 
      outside,
who cannot see the white-winged Colored Orphan Asylum as they 
      pass it.
But I know that all hurts must be outlived as humanity presses forward.

More by E. M. Schorb

Leadbelly

for the musical ghost of Blind Lemon Jefferson

   Leadbelly, grim with your Cajun accordian, 
with your harmonica blues, with your knife
   flicking down the twelve strings of your guitar
--the Rock Island Line was a mighty good road--
   bowing, scraping, white-suited trainman. . .
made your pride sick, but you sang,
   fast, strong, quiet, like a driven
demon, like you had to get it out
   before a razor dumped your guts
on a blood-mud taphouse floor,
   or some drunk crazy rednecks
nailed you up like Christ, in a dangerous world 
   for anybody but most America for a black
poet of low-down places and sky-high loves.

   Leadbelly, thirty years hard time murder, 
six and a half, sang your way out, ten more, intent,
   then Alan Lomax and his bro, John, folklorists--
makes you laugh inside at night--white boys,
   playing--but they get you out again and in 
the Library of Congress, that grinding
   voice part now of something big, like 
storm darkness, like that lifething,
   love, always beyond somewhere or
crying deep inside, in a dark place,
   yeah, big like music, big like that gal you 
call Irene! How many Irenes, you think?

   Even the Lomax bros, even them white boys, 
they know Irene--you driving them through
   New York traffic, them folkloring in back and you
being their folkloring black chauffeur.
   You drink sharp liquor in Harlem, play 
with Woody Guthrie, Sonny Terry, Brownie
   McGhee, the Headline Singers--radio too,
Hollywood and Three Songs by Leadbelly,
   a French tour. . . . You show 'em your razor 
stretch marks, your shotpitted pot.
   Good night Irene I'll see you in my dreams. . .
all that good hot mean hard American life
   and Lou Gehrig's amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. 
It's The Midnight Special! Fade me, Death!

The Nursing Home

There are more women than 
men in the nursing home and
more men than old doctors.

Staff doctors visit once a 
month. The few old men do 
very little but sleep. Two 

or three of them occasionally
gather outside in clear
weather for a smoke, which

is allowed them. I suppose
those in charge feel that
it can make no difference

now, and it brings the old
men a little pleasure. I
sit and chat with them

sometimes. Perhaps "chat"
is a bit too lively a word
to describe what passes for

conversation during these
puffing sessions. A lot
of low grunting goes on.

There is one old man who
is afflicted with bone
cancer and who says, in

high good humor, that his 
guarantees have run out.
He was a travelling salesman

in women's wear, and still
remembers how much he loved
women. Many of the women

have become little girls
again. They carry dolls
about with them, mostly

rag-dolls, I suppose so
they can't injure themselves
when they squeeze them.

To see these toothless,
balding old ladies, frail
as twigs, clutching these dolls,

is heartbreaking. Oh, to love
something! It's still there.
It has been in them since

they were little and had dirty 
knees and bows in their hair.
Some recognize me now, and,

when I give them a wave,
they wave back. It's a 
wonderful feeling to make

contact, but it is difficult
to tell how much they know.
The care-givers are kind and

efficient. They are mostly
young, and apparently try
to imbue the old with some of

their zest for life, but 
of course the old know all
that already--or knew and have

forgotten it. I wonder, 
can the young reverse their
situations with the old

and see themselves looking up
at such fresh faces from the
vantage of bed or wheelchair

or walker? I am too young
to join the old here in the
nursing home, this metaphor

(or is it the tenor of a
metaphor?) for the last days,
but I am too old

to feel the buoyancy of the 
young; so, at least for the
context of the nursing home,

I have arrived at yet another
awkward age. After visiting
my mother, who is only partly

present, I go out and sit
with the old men and have a
smoke. We hope for clear days.