West Fifty-third was still Hell's Kitchen
the summer I first came to town,
Eleventh Avenue was boarded up,
the West Side Drive was falling down;
Jimmy Carter was still President,
though he'd become a running joke;
Abe Beame had recently been Mayor,
and New York City was flat broke.
I, too, was broke, the flat was free,
and so I landed in that place,
a walk-up three-room shotgun which
a gallery used for storage space
and where I could stay as long as I liked,
provided I kept an eye on the art . . .
but truth be told, it was had to tell
where art might end and garbage start.
The premises hadn't been cleaned in years,
and clarity was not what the art was about
there was clutter right up to the ceiling,
and I didn't dare throw anything out.
The bowl of pasta off in a corner,
the wall struck here and there with pins,
might be a mural by Dike Blair
or an "installation" of Mel Chin's;
ink spilled across some binder paper,
pencil hashmarks by the phone,
might be a Vollmer, or a Tuttle,
or just a doodle by no one known;
a length of two-by-four was art;
an empty carton was art, too;
so was a hold in the plaster, where
an embalmed cockroach was on view.
There wasn't any inventory
and no way not to be impressed
with the thought that passing judgement
would be trickier than I'd guessed.
The entry way was the room in the back,
where a bathtub clogged the floor,
and a toilet filled an adjacent closet
left unencumbered by a door.
The entrance also served as the kitchen,
with no space, but with a range
on which I cooked whatever fare
I'd scraped together with spare change:
mashed potatoes drowned in ketchup,
kidney beans boiled in the can,
onions, pizza crust, and lettuce
chopped up with Crisco in a pan.
The middle room, which had no windows,
held a mattress, though no bed,
and what I hoped were only scattered
books I took a chance and read.
The room up front looked out on a lot,
and I used to sit for hours and stare
at days of 1979
from a Day-Glo painted chair,
contemplating a state of affairs
that appeared to be falling apart,
acquiring the taste for odd interiors
it takes to dwell in the House of Art.
I see myself then, learning to view
this world with a noncommittal eye:
the Russians are in Afghanistan,
stagflation is at an all-time high;
outside, the Iranian revolution
is in its first chaotic year;
inside, a poet's in the kitchen
washing won-tons down with beer.