Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Civil Blindspots

Civil Blindspots

City planners seem to succeed
where King Śuddhodana failed Buddha,
but I see it.

It is easy to detect imperfections
in this gleaming, bejeweled metropolis,
not as obvious viewed from street-level of
the Magnificent Mile, with cathedral-capitalism spires
reaching to the heavens, threatening to wedge-open
the needle’s eye for as many camels as possible.

Pay the exorbitant fee to be lifted onto
the observation decks of these majestic towers,
it is much more apparent up here, but only if the observer
knows where to observe the divining line.
It traverses north and south when facing west,
and east-to-west when viewing south.
It is funny that many cannot see with their eyes wide-open
that which I cannot avoid viewing, no matter how tightly I
shut out the light with my lids.

With one eye, I see the future,
in all of its optimistic, sanitized,
chrome-polished glory.

The other eye sees a twisted, sinewy,
amalgamation of present and past,
my past entwined with this city like
the rusted remains of a chain-link fence
protecting a condemned building that was
once home to countless lives scraping to earn an honest living,
or hell-bent on strong-arming higher-quality lifestyle
by any means necessary.

From the man-made summits,
the horizon blends into haze,
it is easy to forget that people live in this nebulous realm,
but from the imperceptible margins,
there is a clear view of the majestic “big shoulders”.
They cast long morning shadows on playgrounds full of broken swings,
its paint-chipped benches occupied by jobless adults
passing around bottles in brown paper wrappers as they trade
addictions and stories, mostly of failure
and how the system is stacked against them,
or how to game the system for infinitesimal, fleeting successes,

but sometimes there are tales of those who tried but failed.
In what passes for the story’s moral,
the star-crossed dreamer isn’t mocked for his failure,
but for trying in the first place.

About ten miles from the Magnificent one,
the shadows fade by noon, revealing an elderly, shoeless man
chugging a beer in the middle of a pothole-mangled street.

The cops can’t even be bothered
to slow down enough to harass him.

He is a fixture; just another curiosity in front of a sandy,
vacant lot that was once a vibrant juke-joint twenty years earlier.

No one knows his story, the battles he has fought,
the turmoil he has endured, or even caused,
during the many acts of his life.

No one has even seen him begging for spare change
though he must have to at some point to finance
the only comfort he seems to relish.

Each day, the shadows reveal him,
each night, they reclaim him.

Some afternoons – weather permitting – affluent college students
would follow affluent sociology professors
on audacious field-trips to the ghetto neighborhood of my youth.

I knew they were sociology classes
because they used phrases like “urban blight” and “moral decay”.

I knew they were affluent because they always seemed to talk about,
but never directly to me or the “mostly fatherless” neighborhood kids
who had no hope of higher-learning or advancing
beyond the adults squatting in the playground
or that man swilling beer in the sun
that no one ever sees begging for cash,
though it’s assumed that he does.

I knew their trips were audacious because
each time I saw them bringing their discounted empathy
to my urine-scented streets,
I wanted to punch their smug faces.

As if they could capture the “plight of the negro”
without speaking to a single one of us.
As if we would be too stupid to grasp the inner-nuances
of their safari trips, and in grasping the concept,
also grasping the dehumanizing elements of their studies.

They observed that we were poor and hopeless.
Had they spoken to us,
they’d have learned of our fears and aspirations.

The evening hues cast unique features,
with skyscraper lights upstaging the distant twinkles.
On one such night, I sought out the darkness,
my gaze affixed to the heavens, veiled in youthful enthusiasm
as the earth’s shadow began to devour the moon.

Oblivious to this dueling jostle for attention,
a woman approached, asking the 16-year-old stargazing me
what up there in the sky could possibly be more interesting
than the dual bulging globes of flesh
pressing to escape her blouse to meet my approval.

She asked if I was old enough to date,
which made no sense to 16-year-old me because clearly I was.
Only when she asked how much money I had
did I finally connect the faded dots of this constellation.

Turns out that the perfect location for novice astronomy
was also ideal for other transactions that work better in darkness.

To this day, I don’t know which sight was dimmer;
a woman desperate enough to risk solicitation with a minor,
or the vacant, desolate glint of abject despair in her eyes
after I said, “None,” turning to distance myself.

None of this is visible from downtown’s corporate towers,
though the towers are clearly visible
to anyone who chooses to raise their gaze.

I guess the longer someone lives on the margins
of the structures of others,
with scaffolding soaring higher into vertical displacement
the less often either party are to see each other,
let alone seeing each other’s humanity.

It seems that King Śuddhodana could’ve
hidden the world’s suffering from Buddha’s observation
by imprisoning him inside an observation deck.

Written for dVerse Poets - City Songs for Poetics. Many other dVerse Poets also contributed to this prompt. Go here to read their work.  


  1. epic.

    distance (how high up you are) the city looks much different than when you are down in the nitty gritty...ha...we have those fixtures as well...new faces join them, but i know homeless guys that have been there since i was in high school. you wonder how some of them keep it going...lot of truth in that summarizing stanza...

  2. I like "from the man-made summits, the horizon blends into haze." Living in the margins or getting lost in the cracks is common in such large cities..you've shared a lot.

  3. Depthful and thoughtful write! Really gives a picture of 'city life.'

  4. There is so much in your own Chicago poem, Barry. You have conveyed the contrasts of your city most efficiently. The personal testimony and reflection are priceless. I can feel the bitterness and regret in your words but I must say I really liked Chicago when I was there a month ago.

    1. Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts. I agree, Chicago is a great place to visit. But living there for my 1st 18 years (mostly in housing projects) showed me many of the flaws that live in the margins.

      Like many places, Chicago has the potential for greater levels of inclusiveness. Would be nice to see some of that potential realized some day.

      But it is absolutely a great place to visit.

  5. What a walk through and progression .. from the glass-towers (love the references both tho Buddha and the Bible) then deeper and deeper and away to explain the barriers (the sociology professors on safari a harsh reminder) and then to your personal life.. all of the sudden I feel like a sociology student myself (but maybe ready to listen)

  6. Wow! It is certainly easier to look than to see. Powerful piece.

  7. Love the capitalism spires threatening to wedge open the needle's eye for the camels!!! LOVE it! A poignant portrait of the homeless man. And oh, the despair in the eyes of the woman of the night. Some city streets are mean streets.