Memories of West Street and Lepke
Only teaching on Tuesdays, book-worming in pajamas fresh from the washer each morning, I hog a whole house on Boston's "hardly passionate Marlborough Street," where even the man scavenging filth in the back alley trash cans, has two children, a beach wagon, a helpmate, and is "a young Republican." I have a nine months' daughter, young enough to be my granddaughter. Like the sun she rises in her flame-flamingo infants' wear. These are the tranquilized Fifties, and I am forty. Ought I to regret my seedtime? I was a fire-breathing Catholic C.O., and made my manic statement, telling off the state and president, and then sat waiting sentence in the bull pen beside a negro boy with curlicues of marijuana in his hair. Given a year, I walked on the roof of the West Street Jail, a short enclosure like my school soccer court, and saw the Hudson River once a day through sooty clothesline entanglements and bleaching khaki tenements. Strolling, I yammered metaphysics with Abramowitz, a jaundice-yellow ("it's really tan") and fly-weight pacifist, so vegetarian, he wore rope shoes and preferred fallen fruit. He tried to convert Bioff and Brown, the Hollywood pimps, to his diet. Hairy, muscular, suburban, wearing chocolate double-breasted suits, they blew their tops and beat him black and blue. I was so out of things, I'd never heard of the Jehovah's Witnesses. "Are you a C.O.?" I asked a fellow jailbird. "No," he answered, "I'm a J.W." He taught me the "hospital tuck," and pointed out the T-shirted back of Murder Incorporated's Czar Lepke, there piling towels on a rack, or dawdling off to his little segregated cell full of things forbidden to the common man: a portable radio, a dresser, two toy American flags tied together with a ribbon of Easter palm. Flabby, bald, lobotomized, he drifted in a sheepish calm, where no agonizing reappraisal jarred his concentration on the electric chair hanging like an oasis in his air of lost connections. . . .
From Selected Poems by Robert Lowell, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc. Copyright © 1976, 1977 by Robert Lowell. Used by permission.