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East Pettigrew Street

East Pettigrew Street

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I hear people say that times have changed. They talk about the rain and the heat and they talk about roads and waterways, and they talk about the human spirit. I hear them talk about the smoke in the air and the poison in the water. I hear them wringing their hands.

I cannot see them, though. Not unless they are on the tracks in front of me. Which still happens, of course, now and then. The suicide, or the attempt, the standing and staring into my single eye, so brave until the last second when they jump from my line of vision, out of the path of my sight. There are a few who stumble, of course. And even fewer who never move, who ride their fear to the last moment of their life.

I see only what is in front of me - the silver blue of the tracks at midday, their blueblack at dusk, their rosy glint at dawn. I see the worn ties, splintered with age and rot. I see the trees shouldering my path and the clouds covering it. I see the bright windows of the sun and the moon. It is all the same, I’m telling you. Though wood may change to metal, though metal may grow over with roots and vines, I’m telling you, the world is the same.

I am telling you this so that you won’t despair.

Always there have been people who lie down on the tracks and refuse to get up. Always there have been people who are lost, who ride their grief to nowhere. But also. There are still magical gypsy kings and beautiful, well-dressed women who run away with them. There are still hobos and drifters and there are still fires made in boxcars with matches and newspaper. There are still days that blister the paint on the sides of the cars and days when the tracks freeze over. There are still poets and musicians who compare me to a boat on water, traveling to find some long undiscovered truth. There are still murderers and there is still mayhem and there is still cruelty in men who were raised to hate themselves and so who never learned to love anything. They are the ones who come here to torture women and animals, who weep without tears, who see nothing though their silent, hollow eyes. There are still unattended children who throw rocks and roil the air with their wild and outrageous joy, a thing they won’t know how to name until they are too old to ever feel it again. There are still outsiders seeking a different path, outlaws running from the law and the lost running from themselves.

What I’m telling you is that the world is not less than or more than. Despair is as strong and true in humans as ever it was. As is romance and poetry and violence. People are as afraid as they ever were, and as hopeful. You are not unique in thinking that the world as you know it is going to hell. But you are not right, either.    

You are as foolish as any human ever was. You have a brain full of knowledge but a heart full of confusion. You built me, but I am stronger than you will ever be, and more steadfast. You didn’t know it then, but you made me to tell a singular story of this land and I am telling it: we are all, all of us, mad and solemn and desperate in our insistence on being here at all. We are licking the sweetness from our palms even as the buzzards circle us. We are trying not to become obsolete. We are trying to live.

Red & White

Red & White