In winter’s spider-eyed light strung through steam grates, the tunnels turn feral. This is the other city, the dark one of hidden passages, runaways and orphaned days and like me it sleeps in broken buildings and smells of a sad suicide from the fifteenth century, and like me it has smoked three things on the mold-furred walls which are the only altars of those who’ve dropped through holes in the sidewalk to descend to these steam tunnels rung by slick rung. This city shambles room to room. Drawn to the easy sound of sleep, it knows the pattern night pens on tender skin, knows your darkest secrets and tells no one except the sycamore which rips from its skin with shame. It wants absolution, taps your sins on water pipes to shudder out of faucets, ties them to the tail feathers of soot-mottled birds who beat up from the concrete-lipped curb, falter over cars, stutter then catch an oily gust and wheel into the scalded sky. It claims to be blind though it might have a thousand eyes, screams obscenities from 13th and University and pisses in alleys. Sometimes it drinks too much. Sometimes it begs for more. It hides tents among trees in the park by the sluggish river this red-eyed thing blinking from storm grates. It is a window breaking. Other people’s blood in its veins, skin on fire, smack, crack, meth, strychnine and scouring powder sold as speed, some drug or another telling it die, you must die. But it doesn’t die. Step around it on your way to the theater. It crawls through your bedroom window, a warm bed and in the morning the smell of coffee and bacon spitting in grease. That’s all it wants. Aching hands in underwear drawers, snagged silks. You are its worst nightmare. Coiled cable, blood and razor-wire, shredded muscle and blue bone, cold nights, the city under the city is where you’ll find me. Though not now. Now it is heat-hazed summer and sunset and I whisper the four-syllable name of the stranger I should have become and disappear through the back door of the Villa Inn where the cook paces the few feet between the makeline and the ovens muttering Chimbukee Chimbukee Chimbukee It’s been nine years since he’s known the burned light of his own country or a woman’s name churned in sea foam, nine years since he’s clung to flesh which smells of rosemary and dried tomatoes. He checks his billfold, thick with this week’s pay. Let’s go he says to me, pointing toward his apartment across the alley. Let’s go Super Ju. Party. Party, he says then reaches his swollen hands deep into his pants past the flour-grubbed belt line and with a hard twist adjusts his truss. We call him Chris though that’s not his name and I think to myself, Homer, Odysseus, the blood-blue sea, the sun in its relentless veracity be damned to hell and back. Sweating pizza drivers, me sleeping in my truck or if it’s winter in empty buildings and the steam tunnels, and every weekend the parking lot filling up with dope dealers with their out-of-state plates and hookers dropped off by their pimps and the homeless who stumble from the boarded buildings and doorways to this oiled kaleidoscope under the warehouses’ dark windows— the broken, fish-line-strung and eye-level hooked— this grease-barrel and sour dumpster-stinking, trash-can-blaze, busted bottles, pissed on pissed off fuck you fuck you kill strong-armed ambulance scream, parking lot and Chris saying Chimbukee Chimbukee Chimbukee cussing us, Scata. Malaka American. Sto dyavolo malaka, Pizza malaka. Deliver,Chris yells but slow night no orders, no tips so we yell back, You malaka. Give us pizzas. To krima sto lemo sou,Chris says Greek which to us means nothing. and just outside the fish-net stockinged, stiletto-heeled Star, Joy, Princess. Joy, I think, and am too tired to think anything else when she tells me she swings, asks if I have something, anything, coke, smack, speed, rock. At least some pot. Come on. Hook me up, she says. Then the teams. Salt & Sugar. Salt & Pepper. Nilla & Chocolate with their matching tattoos, Comedy & Tragedy. Happy one day, Dead the next. Angel, Love Boat, Crystal. I got first degree I got MG Blue ludes, 8-Balls, rocks, the dealers yell. Quiver & Shiver Come get my stash I got the stuff Tongo & Cash Lot of Candy Man & Sweet Stuff. Slick the Stick, a pimp caught up in his own rhyme. Lover Boy & Philly Boy. Wanna-be’s and gonna-be’s:
Reprinted by permission of Louisiana State University Press from Sixty-Cent Coffee and a Quarter to Dance: A Poem by Judy Jordan. Copyright © 2005 by Judy Jordan.