“Cut off from country, from kind far distant
By cares overworn, pondering the ground’s shroud
Wretched I went thence, winter wearied
Dreary I sought the hall of a gold giver
Where far or near I might find
Him who in meadhall might take heed of me
Furnish comfort to a man friendless
Win me with cheer.”
—The Wanderer, anonymous 9th century Anglo-Saxon poem
And one day the well-heeled hipster beside his entitled entourage,
Their faces lighted, swallowed, in truth, by the mommy pod screens they worshipped,
O’erheard my mumbled lamentation,
Said, “What is this of which you moan the loss, old timer?
On what does your has-been soul reflect with such reverence?”
I’m adding eloquence here to his flat diction.
“Child.” I said, “ ’Twas a past hall of heart-born fellowship,
Home to a breed long gone to which my mind wanders.”
“Was there such a place?” he pressed on, punching his facey page buttons
Fanatically, addicted to the perpetual validation of his absent ‘friends.’
As I watched his darting vacant eyes, the bard within me,
His ancient engine light now switched on,
Opened to a tale of a life well lived, face to face and hand to brotherly hand,
A life whose consequences still worked blessings in the world.
The blank eyes of the hipster gazed at me with impatience.
He was worried about his next email, his next tweet.
I would not hold his attention long, if at all,
But the drink in me was strong and I would not be put off my tale:
Long ago, I began, from out of the wilds of the southeast,
Shores of what the Dutch called the Broken Land,
There came a man, a hero some say, a hardy soul of great charm
Open of heart and eye, a clear-sighted man who saw what mattered in others.
Raised by the sea and the harbor, he knew well the value of the hearth.
Mr. Smith he was called, first name of Kerry,
As in the county of his Hibernian forebears.
A fighter of fires in his young manhood,
His ladder-truck roamed the familiar roads of the Northern Bill
With his hearty comrades, that brave tribe,
Their faces oft blackened in ash and soot.
Proud was their carriage and strong of arm they were.
But a man of many roads was our Mr. Smith
And when one career finished, he did not lay down,
But went on to fare as a noble mariner south of the equator,
Bearing poor children to hospital
But I speak here of the 9th year of the 9th decade of the 19th millennium
Of this our common era:
Mr. Smith remained in these northern precincts,
The dark reaches of the burg of Williams
And there he opened a House of Hope,
His purpose being to serve the good people, should they come.
Let it be remembered that these were other times,
Unknown to the youth of this day—the nights were darker then
And the dead-seeming streets alive with unknowable terrors
And joys true for those souls brave be they who seek them.
But fear could not deter our Mr. Smith.
In time, in the House of Hope many gathered:
Stevedores and the bridge smiths,
Cane wranglers and small time cons,
Men who swung steel hammers for their meat,
And stalwart women who worked the local trades.
They came and laid their tools down, at the end of wearying days.
Their measures and squares were rested.
Tile-men and taxi-men and philosophers of everyday trials,
The wry Scot, of Greenpoint born,
Snake handlers of the southern boardwalks,
The artisans of shadowboxes and the portrait makers,
Painters of chaos and the Mermaid tribes,
Polish Buddhists, and Catholic Atheists, Daoists and Hebrews
Rubbed coats and traded grins.
And who can forget the devil-headed Baltimore brood
With their angst-strung satanic instruments,
And their rough bound sheaths of sardonic and surreal raging verse.
From Alabam, from Texas, from Kentuck, they came,
From the coasts of Delaware and the Carolinas they came,
From the steel cities of the southern Great Lakes,
From the broken down beer cities of the Midwest,
From far Japan and France and far New Jersey.
Troubadours and graveyard versifiers, snake oil purveyors,
Eccentrics of all contagions took sustenance there.
Even the strange black-suited Hassidim clan
Were known to enjoy their sporting pleasures in these hale confines.
Voluptuous women folk came, too, casting seductive smiles
Top of bar stools and generating a well-loved turmoil in men’s souls.
For there was romance aplenty seeded at these rails,
Some that lasted, some that failed miserably as is romance’s wont.
And what a trove of lovely ladies attended these patrons:
Celtic dames from across the eastern seas,
Londoners and Spanish beauties,
Texans wayfared from their rugged wastelands.
Actresses and playwrights drew the ale and mixed the liquors
And spurred the genial crowd to song; and sing they did
Spinning their salty tales, their paeans to joy and sorrow.
Many a midnight, the voices carried down these empty streets,
As the frail wine glass and the stout tankard kissed rims in brotherhood.
There were white powders too and green herbs.
And deep into the dawn hours, and oft-times illegally too,
Many were the nights that ne’er did end.
Often a dawn, the sleepers on gallery couches, in backroom bedrolls,
Would rise among the litter of oyster shells and shrimp skins,
Williamsburger platters yet unwashed, blackened catfish baskets,
And Right Bank chili sitting cold on the stove,
To go their separate ways with a heart felt “See Ya Later, Pal,”
Or “Good Day to you, Friend.”
Together we suffered laughed and wept
Through attacks from foreign shores, through depressions,
Deaths, births, marriages, all manner of crimes.
Often we marched back from personal success to a collective “well done.”
Often we crawled back from personal failings to a drink on the house
Forgiveness was king in these confines
And Mr. Smith was there to oversee it all with his beatific grin
And a sympathetic ear for tragedy,
And ever ready with an offer of a ride or bail money.
For you were a strange gravity, Mr. Smith,
To draw such a motley assortment of clowns,
Geniuses, cowards and bards and bastards of every color.
And when we drunkenly danced our intoxicated jigs
In the midnight hours, shouted our insane creeds to one another
For such passion there was no match in this vast city.
So here’s to you Mr. Smith—
Like the very streets, the river in its endless torrent,
All your dispersed flock shall keep your covenant to mind
In years to come: That no person should be a stranger
When there is another to offer comfort.
The old poetry of our ancestors once proclaimed
The earth-stepper steps alone across this cold earth.
And the gravedigger stands in his newly dug grave
Forceps in hand to pull the newborn down into eternity.
A brief flash of light is all this life can be;
It is our job to keep that light burning, to pass it on in a grand relay of passion,
So that every man or woman in the midst of their pilgrimage
Might look down from his bridge-perch
Between this and that, somewhere and nowhere,
Might look down into the transitory darkness,
When even the streetlights seem hesitant to indicate the way,
And he might spot a single light and a sign swaying in the East River breeze
In these late contested streets,
And he might think to himself:
I’m tired, yet there be light, I’m lonely, yet
There be welcome and respite for a time,
I’m hungry, yet there be a hot meal and good cheer,
A resting place for the wandering soul
In this uncaring world,
And indeed in the house of Kerry Smith
It would be true.
I then turned to my hipster inquisitor with tears in my eye,
Thinking a bond had been made betwixt the generations.
But he was long lost in his world of tweets and peeps, likes and facey page invites.
In fact, he had not heard a word I said, and I thought
Not just attention but soul was his deficit.
And I do believe I saw some piece of his mind flit away
Like a butterfly into the void, never to return.
[In memoriam Kerry K. Smith (1947-2014). Performed Saturday, January 17, 2015 at the South 4th Street Bar, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY.]