Audio: Read by the author.
Seventy years on and the scene still screams.
We’ve just crossed over the Fifty-Ninth Street Bridge
only to descend into the shrieking malebolge
they call Long Island City. It’s nineteen
forty-seven and we’re bump bumping
along under the wingèd crosshatched humping
shadows above the spittle-gray cobblestones,
past the grim brick factories as if underwater.
The glint of trolley rails, Fords and Chevys moaning
and yawing this way then that, the stuttering grind
of oil and coal trucks muscling in from everywhere.
My mother—she’s still in her early twenties—
stares straight ahead, trying hard as even I can see
to concentrate on driving through this nightmare.
My brother Walter, feet dangling, sits here
in the back seat tense across from me, and little
Emily, burbling, is saddled to the seat between.
I stare out the left rear window at the blare
of traffic. No radio. Just the roar of angry horns,
when suddenly, like that, from out of nowhere,
a monster cement truck comes slicing over, no warning,
just the exposed nuts of that gargantuan wheel
chewing up the left front door and fender
of our pre-war Ford like some demon out of hell.
Of course she has no choice now but to pull over
to the crumbling curbside, as the sullen truck pulls
over too, and then the cab door opens, and the driver
is yelling at my mother, demanding to know
where she ever learned to fucking drive, and no,
no, he ain’t taking no blame, lady, for none
of this shit, you understand? You unnerstan’?
And there’s my mother, trembling for the safety
of her kids, saying something at the looming man,
trying to reason where there’s no room for reason
because there’s no cop anywhere to be seen.
And then he’s off and gone, and we’re heading home
to greet our father, who, when he sees the damage done,
makes it clear he’s pissed. And there’s the lesson, son,
you’ve learned: that it’s a man’s world, you understand?
It’s men who make the rules by which we’re bound
and by which the world turns: a wheel roaring up on
you, as it just goes grinding round and round. And round.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.