Under Grand Central's tattered vault —maybe half a dozen electric stars still lit— one saxophone blew, and a sheer black scrim billowed over some minor constellation under repair. Then, on Broadway, red wings in a storefront tableau, lustrous, the live macaws preening, beaks opening and closing like those animated knives that unfold all night in jewelers' windows. For sale, glass eyes turned outward toward the rain, the birds lined up like the endless flowers and cheap gems, the makeshift tables of secondhand magazines and shoes the hawkers eye while they shelter in the doorways of banks. So many pockets and paper cups and hands reeled over the weight of that glittered pavement, and at 103rd a woman reached to me across the wet roof of a stranger's car and said, I'm Carlotta, I'm hungry. She was only asking for change, so I don't know why I took her hand. The rooftops were glowing above us, enormous, crystalline, a second city lit from within. That night a man on the downtown local stood up and said, My name is Ezekiel, I am a poet, and my poem this evening is called fall. He stood up straight to recite, a child reminded of his posture by the gravity of his text, his hands hidden in the pockets of his coat. Love is protected, he said, the way leaves are packed in snow, the rubies of fall. God is protecting the jewel of love for us. He didn't ask for anything, but I gave him all the change left in my pocket, and the man beside me, impulsive, moved, gave Ezekiel his watch. It wasn't an expensive watch, I don't even know if it worked, but the poet started, then walked away as if so much good fortune must be hurried away from, before anyone realizes it's a mistake. Carlotta, her stocking cap glazed like feathers in the rain, under the radiant towers, the floodlit ramparts, must have wondered at my impulse to touch her, which was like touching myself, the way your own hand feels when you hold it because you want to feel contained. She said, You get home safe now, you hear? In the same way Ezekiel turned back to the benevolent stranger. I will write a poem for you tomorrow, he said. The poem I will write will go like this: Our ancestors are replenishing the jewel of love for us.
For years I went to the Peruvian barbers on 18th Street
—comforting, welcome: the full coatrack,
three chairs held by three barbers,
oldest by the window, the middle one
a slight fellow who spoke an oddly feminine Spanish,
the youngest last, red-haired, self-consciously masculine,
and in each of the mirrors their children’s photos,
smutty cartoons, postcards from Machu Picchu.
I was happy in any chair, though I liked best
the touch of the eldest, who’d rest his hand
against my neck in a thoughtless, confident way.
Ten years maybe. One day the powdery blue
steel shutters pulled down over the window and door,
not to be raised again. They’d lost their lease.
I didn’t know how at a loss I’d feel;
this haze around what I’d like to think
the sculptural presence of my skull
requires neither art nor science,
but two haircuts on Seventh, one in Dublin,
Then (I hear my friend Marie
laughing over my shoulder, saying In your poems
there’s always a then, and I think, Is it a poem
without a then?) dull early winter, back on 18th,
upspiraling red in a cylinder of glass, just below the line
of sidewalk, a new sign, WILLIE’S BARBERSHOP.
Dark hallway, glass door, and there’s (presumably) Willie.
When I tell him I used to go down the street
he says in an inscrutable accent, This your home now,
puts me in a chair, asks me what I want and soon he’s clipping
and singing with the radio’s Latin dance tune.
That’s when I notice Willie’s walls,
though he’s been here all of a week, spangled with images
hung in barber shops since the beginning of time:
lounge singers, near-celebrities, random boxers
—Italian boys, Puerto Rican, caught in the hour
of their beauty, though they’d scowl at the word.
Cheering victors over a trophy won for what?
Frames already dusty, at slight angles,
here, it is clear, forever. Are barbershops
like aspens, each sprung from a common root
ten thousand years old, sons of one father,
holding up fighters and starlets to shield the tenderness
at their hearts? Our guardian Willie defies time,
his chair our ferryboat, and we go down into the trance
of touch and the skull-buzz drone
singing cranial nerves in the direction of peace,
and so I understand that in the back
of this nothing building on 18th Street
—I’ve found that door
ajar before, in daylight, when it shouldn’t be,
some forgotten bulb left burning in a fathomless shaft
of my uncharted nights—
the men I have outlived
await their turns, the fevered and wasted, whose mothers
and lovers scattered their ashes and gave away their clothes.
Twenty years and their names tumble into a numb well
—though in truth I have not forgotten one of you,
may I never forget one of you—these layers of men,
arrayed in their no-longer-breathing ranks.
Willie, I have not lived well in my grief for them;
I have lugged this weight from place to place
as though it were mine to account for,
and today I sit in your good chair, in the sixth decade
of my life, and if your back door is a threshold
of the kingdom of the lost, yours is a steady hand
on my shoulder. Go down into the still waters
of this chair and come up refreshed, ready to face the avenue.
Maybe I do believe we will not be left comfortless.
After everything comes tumbling down or you tear it down
and stumble in the shadow-valley trenches of the moon,
there’s a still a decent chance at—a barber shop,
salsa on the radio, the instruments of renewal wielded,
effortlessly, and, who’d have thought, for you.
Willie if he is Willie fusses much longer over my head
than my head merits, which allows me to be grateful
without qualification. Could I be a little satisfied?
There’s a man who loves me. Our dogs. Fifteen,
twenty more good years, if I’m a bit careful.
There’s what I haven’t written. It’s sunny out,
though cold. After I tip Willie
I’m going down to Jane Street, to a coffee shop I like,
and then I’m going to write this poem. Then