Friday, August 12, 2005

The Number Three Train at Chambers St. Station

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The Number Three Train at Chambers St. Station

He is tall and fat and smells bad.
Around his neck hangs a hand-lettered
cardboard sign printed in black magic-marker.

It reads: “Homeless. Please Help. Give WHAT you CAN.”

The man lumbers through the crowded subway car
and shakes a plastic cup in the faces of the people
in the orange plastic seats.

His feet are bare. They are hugely swollen and cracked
and turning black in some places, white in others. He shouts.
He mumbles his shouts so that you hear only the noise
of his pain but not the words.

He is a bear, I think. A terrible, wounded bear.

His stench is awful and people turn their heads,
waving their hands in front of their faces, grimacing.
No one gives him anything. We won’t meet his eyes.
I certainly don’t. The money in my pocket burns.
My face burns.

I want him to leave, to leave this train and to leave
us alone. I don’t want my daughter to be seeing this.
She is uncomfortable, too. We are all

We are all uncomfortable.

He shakes his cup and mumbles in his blank pain and
when the train stops and the doors open we step off the train and
the doors shut and the train lurches forward and takes him
into the dark.

The train shrieks and the earth trembles underfoot.
When we climb the stairs to the street,
we hold our hands over our faces. Accustomed to the dark,
we find the light unbearable.



Blogger LKD said...

You've read Kundera's book? The Unbearable Lightness of Being? Your last line brings the book instantly to mind. It's been a few years since I've reread it. Perhaps it's time to reread it again. That and Sheltering Sky are 2 books I open every few years or so just to see what new things they will reveal to me. Or rather, what I will reveal to myself through rereading.

Scott, this poem does what so many of your poems do. It makes me squirm. It makes me ache at my own lack of compassion in these situations. That's what good poetry should do. It should reach down inside the reader and say I am you and you are me and we are we.

Thanks for being so real.

And damn, thanks for knocking one the heck out of the ballpark upon your return. I'm glad to have read this tonight.

10:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hope it wasn't just a very detailed and carefully wrought costume, scott. new york, especially, has so many of them. and a good many of those poseurs do fairly well at this. the trick is to find an unusual image for yourself and tweak it until everything is just right. this time you didn't give anything, but your guilt is established and had you seen him again, you'd have your hand in your pocket and a couple ones or a five to put in the cup. you need that, scott, and he knows you need it, and you've served one another well. this isn't to say that the guy couldn't do with some help. perhaps he could. but perhaps he is resourceful as well ... and knows more about you than you think.
that he can even scrawl out a sign in magic marker is itself a kind of tell. the street people i see around here don't carry any signs at all. bah humbug, say i, you take care of your family, don't you? and you're good at your job, really good, and in most of the things you do, you're really trying to alleviate some of the suffering and hardship in the world. and that extends to your art, scott, you want to help, anyway you can. but christ, man, do you owe everyone? don't be ashamed of who you are: be ashamed of a country like ours, where such encounters are commonplace ... and ask yourself how to change that. we shudder at the thought of a welfare state, but hey, look at what we opt for in its stead. the wealthiest country in the world, and we can't take care of our poor? something is terribly wrong, scott, but the answer doesn't lie in a handout to some wretched stranger in a city you may never visit again. jim

11:22 PM  
Blogger tearful dishwasher said...


Thanks so much for your comments. You know, I haven't read Kundera's book yet. I'll seek it out and give it a read. I saw the film years ago and have always intended to go to the source, but haven't done it yet.

Anyway, thanks again. It's good to hear from you as always.


Well, yes. I know these guys. As a street cop I arrested and fought with and rescued them by the dozens. I'm under no illusions about their scams and their addictions, their stupid cunning, etc.

I know that I have what I have through hard work and sacrifice and luck, and that if that bum and I were swapped- you took everything I have away from me and gave it to him, in a year or two it would be back the way it was- I'd have a house and a job and a family, and he'd be on the street again.

But as a human being I respond to pain by wanting to aleviate it. And what is the cost to me to do so? When I see these people, stuck in their own suffering with no way out, I imagine that the dollar bill or handfull of coins I toss into their hands or cups or hats land on the enormous scales of life, on the side opposite to the bullets, bombs, and acts of cruelty. Not that the balance will be tipped by my small act, or that balance will even be acheived, but as an act of hope and compassion.

And, yes, when I do give I also harm. One beer closer to liver failure, one crack vial closer to heart attack, whatever.

It's a delicious and awkward paradox.

All best to you.


7:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

shoot, i know. and it's getting to the point we have more paradoxes than plans to cope with them. i guess ny just made me a colder person, and LA didn't help either. didn't mean to sound like a preacher, though. what i really wanted to do was just welcome you home. glad you made it safely, scott. there's a huge void around here when you're away. jim

8:16 AM  
Blogger tearful dishwasher said...


It's good to be back. I missed this place, too. Missed you and everyone.

I think the secret is to see it as clear as you can and then still give a shit. How we do that, I'm not yet sure.



8:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

me either, but i think the answer is somewhere between malcolm boyd and william boyd. j

9:00 AM  
Blogger 21k said...

also very glad to see you back & safe

great post, you captured the dilemma


11:33 AM  
Blogger tearful dishwasher said...

Hey Deirde-

Thanks for the welcome home.

I loved those horse pics on yr blog, that looks
like a wonderful life you've got going for yourself.

All best to you always-


6:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


it si not easy to write a homeless poem... I think you got it here, without sounding judgemental of those who do not help out...or pitying him. You lay it out. Bottom line, you do not want your family to have to "smell" or experience this man, this event. You say he smells bad, yet you do not write a parody, it is how it is. I am enjoying your writing and art, and am so grateful that I was directed here.


6:29 PM  

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