Every morning at 5 a.m. Mr Eliakim
sent me to sand floors in a different neighborhood:
Utrecht Avenue, Gerritsen Beach, Dyker Heights,
and sometimes into zones where our huge city
fades into the next: Ridgewood, Cypress Hills.
An old man in a porkpie hat
who seemed offended by daybreak,
he waved his hand vaguely and said, Go.
Perhaps it was his wife who copied the addresses
in tight cursive on file cards:
Young Israel of Flatbush, Mary Star of the Sea,
Sons of Italy, The East, Elks, street numbers
with four or five digits: perhaps we all suspected
our city was not just architecture but impinged
on the night sky in its multiplicity,
on the brain’s circuitry, the charge cloud.
Those streets at that hour were almost always empty.
Once a tenement bloomed in flames.
Firemen hurtled up spindly buckling ladders
in orange helmets, bearing pikes, in absolute silence
under pulsing lights, while an old couple watched
holding hands, in the formality of disaster.
Once a knot of children played an atavistic game,
London Bridge or Green Man Rising, their faces ashen
had they danced all night? Were they plague survivors?
By daylight I found my destination: a padlocked barbershop,
a widow’s walk-up, chock-a-block with pewter rabbits,
a ballroom whose round concave ceiling was decorated
with fading constellations, startlingly accurate.
I traveled with two machines: Silverline drum
contoured like a lawnmower, and Taurus edger,
like a snapping turtle in its welded shell.
As soon as I plugged in, changing the fuse in advance,
the roarpower, weaknessabolished me.
I couldn’t linger without gouging a hole to the next ceiling.
I couldn’t think without “thinking” “thoughts.”
I began to wonder, why do I live in ten thousand days,
each no different from the next? Why not the present?
Why not a unified soul in a mortal body?
Why am I still a stranger to my wife and child,
my body, the air, the throbbing polished handles?
The room filled with smoke and sawdust,
ground varnish, lead and antimony, dead bees,
roach turds, stale Schlitz dried to a gum
and when the engine snapped off
the floor was much as before. Once an elderly haberdasher
cursed me in Armenian, pointing with a shaky finger.
I can still see the grain.
The streets home were extraordinarily dark.
In high lit windows, fathers upbraided sons,
lovers kissed, mothers crooned to swaddled infants,
all in great silence, all slightly larger than themselves.
I watched in awe during the interminable red lights.
When I came home, my wife and child were sleeping.
I undressed on tiptoe not to wake them
and lay listening. Always the clock
withheld the next tick, nothing was silent
as the roar of power. Surely there was a purpose:
I could run my finger across tongue-and-groove
and feel a lover’s smoothness, almost a candor
touching me back. But was there necessity?
Was that vast city really built from bricks and mortar
and the ersatz materials, veneer and ashlar
or sloughed from its obsession with itself?
Had it hypnotized itself into being?
Winter came. Parking was tight.
Snowploughs blocked Gates and Vanderbilt.
Spring. The baby teething, crying from a dream.
Summer. Spaldeens bouncing out of alleys.
Laundry inching from roof to roof.
Wooden spoons and rainbow stickers.
A paisley dinosaur with a rueful grin.
The child’s first singing birthday.
She wailed for nerves
and three snuffed candles.
The mother and I rarely spoke.
Winter followed winter.
Wake me before dawn. Those streets
are inside me now, cold and silent.
Let the siren come, and the circling light.
D. Nurkse's most recent book is A Night in Brooklyn. He is the recipient of a Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.