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Tony Gentry

Challah French Toast at Veselka – poem

Updated: May 17

It was an August day – like this –

when the rush hit the woman

crossing right there!

So she sprawled as if to bed

across the yellow hood

of a taxi paused on red.

And there, across 2nd, where

a man actually caught a guy

jimmying his car door at 3 am

but met the wrath of a linebacker

turned drag queen who strolling

their way from the Village whipped

up a garbage can lid like a shield to

wallop him, drawling,

“Run, honey, run!”

to the startled perp, who did.

Felicity lived on the third floor

of that one. She barely

knew us, but found us a place,

sold us her Cuisinart that I still use,

with its NYPD etched ID. She

read my stories & found them worthless,

the first of many comeuppances

the city doles out like rain.

You know that church as the place

where a teenaged Patti Smith read her poems.

I get that but think first of memorials

to young men — Mark, Christiaan, Randy, Jim, Rudy –

held there in the plague times years ago.

That storefront – now a Starbucks – bore the scrawl

“Kill Gentry” the week we moved in upstairs.

In a building with an actual elevator!   To our fifth floor

aerie, like any of the city’s million old boxes,

a town in its own right, rife with sit-com strife,

tortured pasts, swaps & bargains and convoluted

relationships. People arrived from dead end towns

to whatever escape they could muster, all assaulted

equally by window-shaking sirens and squall.

The diminutive Sitnycki’s, pogrom refugees, who never

once complained of our boisterous parties, who served us

bublyky with tiny cups of coffee at Christmas.

Phil the artist upstairs and his thousand girl friends,

who caught a whiff of early CAD and hung up his brushes.

Rock critic Roberta, who crowded her daughters in a closet

to cosset neatly catalogued shelves of old LPs and her

husband Steve who started law school at 30 to serve

the poor and played third trumpet in Latin bands on weekends.

The solitary Chinese fellow below us, about whom I will always

wonder, was it my ceaseless loud rotation of Unknown Pleasures

that led him to the roof, where he jumped in broad daylight?

Right there’s where he hit and broke, from 7 floors it seems

you don’t really spatter. (In an hour like a dream’s erasure

people walked the spot as if nothing had happened at all.)

Baby’s born to Lisa and David, Roberta and Steve, boxy rooms

painted over in pink and blue. On that roof I sword-fought

with a chubby-cheeked toddler who plays bass now for his mom

as she sings at clubs from here to Montreaux, her marriage

like ours, long gone. George — still a friend to us both – who

took in Jim, gaunt and frantic, made a bed on which to lie

and rail against the dying of the light, when his family

wouldn’t have him.

How many odd hours I sat in this chair after midnight shifts

downtown, had challah French toast and bottomless Joe

and scratched out lines like these, like all the failed poets

online. Infected by glimpses of gods in the flesh –

grey-bearded Ginsberg in the lavatory at the Ukrainian

National Hall, gaunt Burroughs on Lafayette in that raincoat

and fedora, Richards slinking into a cab on Delancey.

We always waved to Joey Ramone stalking out of his place

in the new building on our block, tried not

to stare at Warhol, who stared right back.

It’s always the same, I’m sure. We wash up here by

the thousands, asift in a miner’s sluice.

We jostle, make friends, connive and share.

Most of us fall through, a few – the nuggets – shine.

At the time it seemed it was brilliance that mattered,

how far can the grasshopper leap? But the lesson

instead is to join that ant-like march to the train, day

after day, apply ass to chair, as they say. That’s

what the city rewards. Or sometimes, with that, audacity.

The sort of thing that led that sculptor

to pincushion himself with fish hooks hung from

a clothesline to be wretchedly tugged through

the air above 9th right there? How did this differ

from the neighborhood bum who wore a tower of hats,

a wardrobe of jackets, a pillow of socks, and jabbered

all day exactly like us cellphone minions now?

These are the things I’d consider at Veselka as

shadow sank down the walls. Try to decipher

some code, make no headway, ask for more Joe.

And where are we now, compadres? Of 2, 3 decades past?

You Midwestern poet run sites for minor league baseball.

You SF buff from William & Mary a new book on the way.

You junior editor (always a stack on your lap) hold the corner

office atop that building, one of the peaks midtown. Alison &

Buster, your ashes feed the flora of the Brooklyn

Botanical Garden; yours John Montauk tuna; yours

Christiaan the oaks of Esplanade Ave. AY

Mellencamp’s lead guitar; Nick Hanks’ pal in

flick after flick. Katy the laureate of the piedmont and

scourge of the Repugs. Donna in the Pacific Northwest

running your own small-town theatre. Here! Here!

Old pals, what time and effort can do! Scott in Atlanta

pulling young black actors along by the collar. George

walking the Brooklyn Bridge each day in a tie to

calculate our odds. Mattie a Hip Pipp, a Trash Maverick,

a Synnz, playing that Junior to death on Friday nights.

Your X Lynn – whom you met in our place upstairs –

actress turned Jersey masseuse (with roles

from time to time in the local theatre shows). Me?

I stood on that rooftop one summer evening of a day

like this (right where the Chinese man leaped), and

spread my arms and laughed in rue, “You have beaten

me.  I salute you. It’s been fun.” Then tunneled

out of the place. My school, my family,

my prison and hell. To make it, if not

anywhere, than some(no)where?

This was all long ago. Before 9/11.

Before Sandy and Momofuku and Bloomberg.

Was Jeter a rookie that year? Back when

bombing a subway car meant spray-

painting your tag on its side.

Everyone here has a personal New York,

that geezer at the chess set in Tompkins Square,

the girl in pig-tails herding pigeons.

Mine still hung sides of beef

outdoors where Google rules.

Ran racks of dresses up 21st.

Wired squats in East Side slums. I was

here the week all the IBM Selectric’s

hit the streets, filling dumpsters

all over midtown. I remember

the city-wide blare of car horns

when that baseball dribbled

between Bruckner’s

legs.  And a street ankle-deep

in firecrackers on the Fifth.

I too had an agent, for awhile.

Dreamed I ran naked up 5th.

Back now this morning at Veselka

where the coffee cups are the same.

A tourist, now, I guess. Washed up

on the bank, agog at the flow. But

toeing out timid with ruminant chews

of challah french toast like you said

young man — who danced in evening dress

in the Plaza Fountain — beat on beat on

against the current and this town’s endless

proffer of more.

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