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09/2005

A Walker in the City

Alicia Suskin Ostriker

Excerpted from No Heaven

What you see is what you get,
An inventory of garbage lying loose—
The poor are always with us, but the rich
Lurk behind one-way glass in limousines
And an entire class of attractive youth
Increasingly able to make money
Without actually working
Increasingly are into arts and leisure.

There's power and there's glamour and there's grief,
That's what a city is for, it's why we come,
There's violence more or less unchanged
Apart from a brief spike on nine-one-one.

The movies and TV are minting it.
Maybe the city should publish maps
Showing the areas of greatest crime
For the benefit of the interested tourist
With special blue stars for locations
Of especially famous crimes, the way in London
Two shillings lets you follow the career
Of Jack the Ripper with a little booklet.

Midown East Side, here's where Robert Chambers
Strangled his pretty girlfriend during sex
In Central Park. Up by the reservoir
Someone from lower Harlem jumped and raped
And beat for kicks, get it, a woman jogger
Into not death but coma. We thought it was
Five boys, but that was wrong. Running between
A playground and a lake, Strawberry Fields,
Some blackbirds in the shady sycamores
Mark where across the street on 72nd
The Beatles fan Mark Chapman killed John Lennon.
Imagine there's no heaven, and imagine
The people living in a world of peace.
You have to take the A train to see where
Bernie Goetz pulled out his .44
And stopped the boy he thought another mugger
From sneering with his friends, from making fun.
They come on with their nasty stares, unlaced,
It's so hard to be white, to be a man,
When black kids don't respect you. Here's Howard Beach,
Another white on black question of turf
And goodbye Yusef Hawkins. Here's where the woman guard
In the parking garage got herself shot
Between bright eyes for being eyewitness
To some drug dealer's murder. Here a Bronx housewife
Weary of scrubbing cracked linoleum
Trying to clean her street of crack, lost it,
And the proud Haitian in his candy store the same,
As he wiped his hands on his apron,
And half a dozen children caught in crossfire
One steamy week in summer. Mama, mama
Ayudame, no puedo—
Here's the house
Where Joel Steinberg hit his little daughter
For pleasure, or for anger, breaking bone
After bone, yanking the soft blond curls
While the mom cowered in her druggie daze.
The case is special because he was a lawyer
And had a lot of money, otherwise it wouldn't count.
It wouldn't count. And in this very courtyard
Of comfortable brick and stone
Kitty Genovese, mother of them all,
Ushering in an era,
Screamed, in 1960, being stabbed
Several times in the chest by her old boyfriend,
Help me! Somebody help me!
None of the neighbors who heard that woman scream
For an entire hour called the police,
A sensible restraint, all things considered.
That was the sort of thing that shocked us then.

It is important to keep the selection of crimes
Racially balanced and symmetrical
For tourist purposes, as the mayor says.
Right now everyone seems worried
About black people killing white people.
That's the disturbing thought if you are white,
Though naturally most of the people killed
Are men of color. There could be a key
At the map's bottom explaining what was what
If you are here on a self-guided tour.
Maybe the sponsors of the map could be
The NRA, and maybe they'd agree
To have an advertisement on the back,
Like flower shops and banks in highschool yearbooks.

We'd need another color code to show
Where most nonviolent crimes have taken place,
Wall Street, City Hall, Police Headquarters, The Board
Of Education (Bored of Ed) and Columbia University.
Some people rob you with a knife
Some with a fountain pen
Some with an IBM.
And a map to show the areas
Of crimes of omission?
Color the whole map red.
Color the city red.
Color it ghost white
For the death of compassion.