Friday, June 27, 2014

Ten Things I See from the Division Street Bus, 1967

Ten Things I see from the Division Street Bus, 1967

1.      The young man in a white T-shirt
and black slacks puts his right hand
into his pocket and stands on the corner
of Division and California

His left hand holds a paper shopping bag
from the A & P.  He looks down Division
as if waiting for someone, and she’s late.

2.      A black man with a necklace of plastic
baby dolls, every one of them as naked
as baby Jesus, dances in front of the bank. 
He is singing that every time it rains

it rains pennies from heaven, heaven.
I love these songs sung by men with no wives,
no homes, no dinners of southern-fried steak
and mashed potatoes, no dreams of anything

but this gray sidewalk and a foolish dancing step.
Songs like this will let a woman in a blue scarf
with yellow flowers know that he too is someone
without hope or dreams.  This song will urge her

to take him home and sit him down at a table
that smells like some Sunday afternoon dinner  
he will always remember, even in the moments
before he dies, no matter how he dies or where.

3.      And with him dances his chicken.  A beat
red rooster he found in Humboldt Park
in the bushes at the southwest entrance
to the park next to the statue called Home,

a statue of a father kneeling to embrace
his daughter, his lunch pail chiseled like him
from rock that will last as long as fathers
come home and their children wait for them.

4.      The bus speeds up, travelling eastward,
toward the lake it never reaches
because the route bends south on State Street.

5.      A seventeen- or eighteen-year old girl
walks past Pierce’s Deli.  In her heart, she carries
a secret she fears will make the boy she loves
angry.  If she could find some way to tell him
that wouldn’t hurt him, she’d say a rosary
to the Blessed Virgin this Sunday after mass.

6.      There’s Polack Joe going into the bar
next to the New Strand Movie Theater. 
If this were ten years ago, I would say
he’s looking for his father Dulek, a drunk
who survived the killing on Monte Cassino
so he could drink too much and run naked
like a crazy man in the streets.  So long, Joe.

7.      A school girl in a plaid-green skirt circles
around and around her little brother,
her arms spread wider than she’ll ever be,
wider than her mother’s love, and wider
than the white-checkered table in their kitchen. 

She’s going faster, and making a roar-
ing noise like wind in the winter pines,
and her brother shouts, “Danusha, please stop,
you’re making me dizzy and I’ll fall!”

8.      A man stands waiting for the bus.  
As it angles toward the corner,
the driver sees he has no eyes,

not even dark glasses or an old rag
to protect the passengers from this sight,
just the empty mouths of his sockets,

Red like the chicken I saw dancing
with the singing black man.  The doors open
and the blind man gets on.  His feet

are sure, so is his hand grasping the rail. 
He drops a quarter in the coin box,
and asks the driver to call out Ashland

The driver looks square in his eyes
and says, Mister, you ought to put
something over your eyes.

9.      Two well-dressed men shake hands
in front of the Russian-Turkish Bath. 
The younger man is smiling and saying
something quickly, the older man laughs

and we can all hear it in the bus,
even with the traffic that grinds
toward Milwaukee with its Polacks,
Jews, Puerto Ricans, Austrians

Mexicans, Italians, Ukrainians,
even farm boys and their wives and children
from someplace in Mississippi
where the levee broke ten years ago

and cursed the family to a life
of geographical evolution,
toward this city and the shopping
they’ll all be doing on Milwaukee.

10.  At the dreaming center of Chicago
is an island formed by the intersections
of Milwaukee, Division, and Ashland

Once, Indians stripped the skins off buffaloes
here, and lived in huts children have been taught
to call hogans.  The driver calls the stop,
and the blind man is first to leave the bus,
thanking the driver for his courtesy. 

A woman presses the blind man forward.
She’s in a hurry, and he understands. 
His grip is still sure on the rail and he’s
getting off as fast as he can.  I’m behind him,
and I’m behind her and leave the bus in turn
walking quickly to the subway entrance. 

A legless man sitting on the sidewalk
raises his wool cap to me and in Polish
offers me a pencil.  Like my mother taught me,
I toss a quarter in his cap and say in Polish,

“Thanks, but you keep the pencil.  I’ve got plenty.”


The photo of Nelson Algren walking on Division Street is by Chicago photo journalist Art Shay.  

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Escape into Life

Margarita Georgiadis, anointed

Five of my poems were recently featured in the online journal Escape into Life. 

The poems are somewhat different from those I normally write.  If you've been coming to this blog for a while, you know I often write about my parents and their experiences in Nazi Germany as slave laborers.

Often when I do a poetry reading, people ask me if I ever write poems that aren't about my parents.  

I do.

The Escape into Life poems -- with the exception of "Life Story" which is about life in the refugee camps after the war -- aren't about my parents.

Escape into Life is a great site, and my poems are accompanied by 5 wonderful paintings by the artist Margarita Georgiadis.

 Here's a link to the poems and the art.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Aging Isn't Easy

I just turned 66 and last night I got a birthday note from my sister.  She wanted to know about my health, so I told her about the arthritis in my shoulder and knees, the swelling in my ankles that I get more and more often, the odd sensitivity in my teeth, those sorts of minor problems.

Afterwards, I thought about our mother.

She dragged herself through two cancers, chemo, a mastectomy, several strokes, near blindness, major heart trouble, and more and more.

She never gave up hope, however.  Even when she had the final stroke that left her almost completely paralyzed, she still made it clear to me that she wanted to live, that she didn't want the doctors to allow her to die without a struggle.

I hope I go out the same way:  Hoping -- like her -- even when I don't believe in hope.

Here's an old poem about my mom and her hope:


When she was seventy-eight years old
and the angel of death called to her
and told her the vaginal bleeding
that had been starting and stopping
like a crazy menopausal  period
was ovarian cancer, she said to him,
“Listen Doctor, I don’t have to tell you
your job.  If it’s cancer it’s cancer.
If you got to cut it out, you got to.”

After surgery, in the convalescent home
among the old men crying for their mothers,
and the silent roommates waiting for death
she called me over to see her wound,
stapled and stitched, fourteen raw inches
from below her breasts to below her navel.
And when I said, “Mom, I don’t want to see it,”
she said, “Johnny, don't be such a baby.”

Six months later, at the end of her chemo,
my mother knows why the old men cry.
A few wiry strands of hair on head,
her hands so weak she couldn’t hold a cup,
her legs swollen and blotched with blue lesions,
she says, “I’ll get better.  After his chemo,
Pauline’s second husband had ten more years.
He was playing golf and breaking down doors
when he died of a heart attack at ninety.”

Then my mom’s eyes lock on mine, and she says,
“You know, optimism is a crazy man’s mother.”

And she laughs.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Remembering D-Day: 70th Anniversary

Today, June 6, is the anniversary of the Allied invasion of Europe.  It's a day that means a lot to me.  

My parents were two of the 15 million or so people who were swept up by the Nazis and taken to Germany to be slave laborers.  My mom  spent more than two years in forced labor camps, and my dad spent four years in Buchenwald Concentration Camp.  

Like almost every other Pole living in Europe at that time, they both lost family in the war.  My mom's mom, sister and infant niece were killed by the Germans when they came to her village.  Later, two of her aunts died with their husbands in Auschwitz.  

After the war both my parents lived in refugee camps for six years before they were allowed to come to the US.  My sister and I were born in those refugee camps.  June 6, 1944 was the day that long process of liberation for all of us began.

I've written a lot about my parents and their experiences, and here are two poems from my book Lightning and Ashes about those experiences.  The first poem is about what the war taught my mother; the second is about the spring day in 1945 when the Americans liberated my dad and the camp he was in:

What the War Taught Her 

My mother learned that sex is bad,
Men are worthless, it is always cold
And there is never enough to eat.

She learned that if you are stupid
With your hands you will not survive
The winter even if you survive the fall.

She learned that only the young survive
The camps.  The old are left in piles
Like worthless paper, and babies
Are scarce like chickens and bread.

She learned that the world is a broken place
Where no birds sing, and even angels
Cannot bear the sorrows God gives them.

She learned that you don't pray
Your enemies will not torment you. 
You only pray that they will not kill you.

In the Spring the War Ended

For a long time the war was not in the camps.
My father worked in the fields and listened
to the wind moving the grain, or a guard 
shouting a command far off, or a man dying.

But in the fall, my father heard the rumbling 
whisper of American planes, so high, like 
angels, cutting through the sky, a thunder 
even God in Heaven would have to listen to.

At last, one day he knew the war was there.
In the door of the barracks stood a soldier, 
an American, short like a boy and frightened, 
and my father marveled at the miracle of his youth 

and took his hands and embraced him and told him 
he loved him and his mother and father,
and he would pray for all his children 
and even forgive him the sin of taking so long.


The boy soldier in the liberation poem is in part modeled after Michael Calendrillo, my wife's uncle.  He was one of the first American soldiers to help liberate a camp.  His testimony about what he saw in the camps was filmed for a documentary called Nightmare's End: The Liberation of the Camps.  You can see a youtube of him talking about what he saw in that camp by clicking here.  

Here's a link to a presentation I gave at St. Francis College about my parents and their experiences in World War II: Just click here.

My daughter Lillian sent me the following link to color photos from before and after D-Day from Life Magazine. The photos are amazing, and a large part of that amazement comes from the color. The color gives me a shock, a good one--it takes away the distance, makes the photos and the people and places in them immediate in a profound way. 

Here's the link: Life.