Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

And then, in an instant, it’s gone: the world of East Fifty-First.
Gone the round-the-clock clack of the Third Avenue El,
the clutch-grinding rattle of Fords and the clop clop
of those gray dun dray horses down on the cobblestone street.

Gone now the demon-like sparkles and screams of the El
that mixed with the curses of kids on the sidewalk below.
Gone too the hunchbacked ragman on that flint-filthy street,
and old Mr. Quinn muttering his curses sweeping the stoop.

Gone the shouts of the gang on that sad sidewalk below,
German and Irish most of the kids, a wolf pack with little to do
except toss insults at deaf Mr. Quinn, sweeping the stoop
or tarring the roof or stoking the coal and banking the furnace.

Irish and German, offspring of immigrants, who demanded their due
from whomever they could, like my six-year-old self,
as I fled, the one guinea kid on the block, and hid by the furnace,
a furnace in embryo myself as they doused me with cold kerosene.

Back from the movies under the El, my Brer Rabbit self,
humming zippety-do-dah while they torched Christmas trees
dumped on the street, then doused me with that cruel kerosene,
as my mother came running and screaming, until they all fled.

Cold fear glimpsed by the light of those crackling trees . . .
And the synagogue cantor handing out seedcakes and bread,
then Harry hurling the gift back at the old man as we fled.
The pity and fear of it, oh, and the gift of that bread.

And the go-cart Quinn built me and Harry smashed, and the bread.
And the gang on the tenement roof back those seventy years,
unfurling that flag with the swastika on it, and the gift of the bread.
And me in my First Communion knickers that May.

And Harry teaching us love words back those seventy years,
when Bobby and me had to jiggle up down and up down.
And me on my roof in those spiffy black knickers that May,
and my father slamming Harry’s brother in his wife beater’s shirt

when he’d had it with Harry and the brother went down.
All gone now, along with the cries of the Third Avenue El,
and the sullen huddled Fords and the blood-smeared wife beater’s shirt,
and the dray horses trodding west down my sad East Fifty-First.