Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Aimless Reading: The J's, Part 5 (Lisa Jarnot)


Black Dog Songs
Originally uploaded by Michael_Kelleher
Jarnot, Lisa
Black Dog Songs

Sent to me as a review copy by the publisher. I used to write a lot of poetry reviews for artvoice, the local weekly, but they kind of got sick of all the poetry and started writing more about books of local and/or political interest. I used to love getting all those free books, especially the ones from Flood Editions, many of which contain excellent poetry, all of them impeccably designed.

In the summer of 1991 I stayed in the Bronx, living part of the summer on the eighth floor of the dorm I'd lived in during the school year and then towards the end of the summer moving into another university-owned off-campus apartment I was to work in again as an R.A. during my final year. Technically, I had only a semester left to finish, but I had no idea what my next step was going to be and was in no hurry to leave until I did. During the second semester I took graduate English classes to see if that held any interest for me.

My father got me a summer job working at Bronx Auto Rental on Fordham Road. I am pretty sure I was working for the Mafia. For instance, we had a bookmaker, Willie, a small, wiry Italian guy in a flat cap, about 60 years old, who came into the shop each day carrying a small spiral notebook and a pen, into which he wrote numbers chosen by each of the employees who wanted to place a bet on "the" numbers. Each person would choose a number and hand Willie the amount of money they wanted to bet. If someone "hit" the number Willie would show up in the morning next day with a wad of cash to pay out.

I recall one day a man came in who looked as if he could be nothing other than a hit man. He was middle aged, beefy, though not overly tall, hairy, tattooed all over with images that were, shall we say, of the india ink with a sewing needle variety, with a thick Bronx accent spoken through a cheesy, graying mustache. He told us the owner of the auto dealership of which we were a part had told him he could rent a car and that he would cover the cost. We asked for his driver's license, which he gladly handed over. We were required to make sure that no one had a moving violation on their record within the past year. Our computer sent the call directly to Albany, which would then send back a copy of the person's driving record.

Our friend the hitman had so many violations on his license that the computer actually told us he should not be allowed to drive. We pointed this out to him, saying it had to do with the insurance and that we'd need the owner's permission to allow him to rent a car. No problem, he said. We expected he'd return in ten minutes either with the owner himself or with some communication from the owner saying it was okay to rent him a car. Instead, he returned alone an hour later with a new, valid license, which we ran through the computer to discover it was not only legitimate, but completely clean. We rented him the car.

My other piece of excitement that summer came when one of our customers failed to return a car. He lived in Hunt's Point, which was at the time probably the most dangerous part of the Bronx. The manager gave me and another guy, John, the job of repossessing the car. John was a young, painfully thin Bronx local, owner of a major Napoleon complex, who spent most of the day goading myself and others with theatrically masculine taunts or regaling us with equally theatrical tales of his masculine prowess.

We drove down to Hunt's point and immediately located the car on a side street in front of a row house. Masculine John decided it was I who should take the car, while he courageously drove back to the office. I remembered the scene in Repo Man when all the sons of the old lady whose car Emilio Estevez come to repossess find him trying to start the car and proceed to give him a good beating with baseball bats and so forth. I stepped out of the car and before I'd even shut the door Masculine John drove off, leaving me standing there alone. I unlocked the door and got into the car, which was squeezed tightly between two other cars next to the curb. It took a good five turns back and forth, during which time sweat soaked through my work clothes and my heart pounded out a raucous Bo Diddley beat, before I was able to free the car from the spot and head back to the office, unharmed.

1991: In the fall I moved into a two-bedroom apartment at the corner of 186th and Belmont Ave. The building was brand new, two stories high, brick-fronted. I remember it had built-in slots for air-conditioning units that could be seen on the outside of the building. The apartment itself had hardwood floors, a living room/dining room and a decent sized kitchen. Once again, I had my own room, while my roommates, two strangers about whom I remember almost nothing, shared the other bedroom. We all shared a bathroom.

There was an Italian American social club on the corner, just for the young men in the neighborhood. Every time I walked past it I couldn't help feeling that all the people who complained that Spike Lee's depictions of NY Italian men were unfair caricatures had not a leg to stand on. Our little corner of Little Italy seemed to have sprung directly out of old Spike's imagination. All day long these young men, all of them wearing ostentatiously hideous and ridiculously expensive jogging suits, gold necklaces, and tennis shoes, would sit with their legs spread wide open around reversed barstools placed on the street outside the bar, gawking at women, taunting passersby, and generally making everyone within earshot miserable.

I used to buy my cigarettes at a little bodega run by a guy who'd been a policeman in Pinochet's Chile. He used to say that in Chile, unlike New York, there was order. No one would dare spit out their gum on a subway platform in Chile, he liked to say. I'll bet that was true.

from Black Dog Songs

Lisa Jarnot

When you grow up
you'll be able to write
poems and things will be
like they are now,
except there will be
more sardines, and all the
grilled cheese sandwiches
on white bread will move
away and it may still snow
on cold nights when the
dogs bark, wrestling in
the dark, but all the stars
are the same, and you
are the same, still wavering
in the hall light, unbridled
light nor dark.

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