GOWANUS CANAL ©1988 James Lampos (First published in the Bad Henry Review, Vol 5/6, 1988)
The tugboats moored on the Gowanus
Canal are mourning tonight, letting out long
humid notes that echo in the machine
metal valley between South Brooklyn
and the Slope. Bells of surviving
Red Hook churches sound the hours
as old men add up their points
and cough up their dough
in the private cafe backrooms
Smoke windowed black limos
slice through the mist
like a permanent Sunday past
the spare-parts shops and lumber
yards, through red lights
steady and unscathed
over the deserted broken
cobblestoned and tar patched roads.
The back seat bosses watch television,
sleep off dinner and make decisions
on their way to Court Street funeral
parlors and family reunions.
A scarred junkie moon
illuminates the overgrown courtyards
and vacant lots, looks through
the empty shells of long abandoned
row houses or tar papered shacks
still inhabited. Still inhabited by the boys
on the nod crashed on the needle
and bottle strewn floor dreaming of reliving
that first power rush. Still inhabited
by the bachelor mechanics of 3rd Avenue,
still inhabited by sleepless families,
still inhabited by sad widows
sitting by the window
counting the cars to pass the night.
In the apartment above the Time
Machine Tire Shop, a man lays restless
in his bed howling beneath the finite
ceiling and watching the late show’s electronic
terror in a humid evening fever. He doesn’t know
I see him as I walk by--walk by feeling
like someone with a spade
is turning over
the soil in my bowels.
The moon twists and stretches
in the oily waters under the 9th Street
bridge. A creaking barge
sits waiting for it to be raised.
Hector sits on the deck,
lighting a cigarette hoping
to get back on time to his wife,
to a beer, to a dreamless sleep.
Four cans of Ballantine
will put us away tonight.
"What do you mean
the kid’s not back yet?
Why the hell can’t you
keep an eye on him?"
Hector’s shouting and Wanda’s crying
as the Spanish minister’s promising
hellfire and repeating the number
for donations on the Christian station.
Downstairs a rickety 1940 B-movie geezer
comes out of the 3rd Avenue Pub
muttering to himself: "You’d better
watch it Henry, the boys are gonna
bust this place up tonight.
Get your men together
and get outta here,
they’ll be coming
down hard allright..."
The Red Hook Boys roam Smith Street
looking for some action, another taste
of old-time passion and glory. They’re crossing
the border into the lower Slope all decked
out in brand-new Puma shoes,
brass knuckles, blades, spiked leather
wristbands and belts.
Hip-hopping high jumping
the turnstiles with a nothing-coming
grace, they shoot up the stairs
to the subway platform
and get down on the rails
for a memory race
down the trestle
to the 4th Avenue station.
The switchman looks the other way,
calls ahead, and holds up the trains.
The dogs howl
remembering the legend
of hot summer rumbles
that tore up the streets
for three days straight
back in ‘71. But no one
fights in the streets these days,
no, now it’s done in the dark,
in the hallways of walk-ups,
in the warehouses of the Bronx,
on the docks and Port
Authority piers. They’ve traded
in the knives for guns and the bikes
for Impalas, smashing windows
at Dominic’s corner store
for running horse in the Project.
with a cut,
colder than snow
a soul on ice.
Orders from the boss,
midnight dumping unseen:
bodies sinking deep
in the Gowanus.
Used to be the Canal carried
boats heavy with enough fresh fish
and fruit to feed half of Brooklyn.
But now its dark along the docks clear
from Red Hook to Sunset Park.
Windows are all broken,
hoods are popped open,
and even the diehards
need a good recharging.
Old industrial injuries and Night
Train headaches--no one can
think straight. Carrying more weight
everyday, harboring permanent limps
and instant suspicions, swollen lips
and bleeding fingers.
But the reactions
remain quick--the instincts
inside an unbreakable
heart, there’s a faith
and love burning in the scars,
deep inside the head
there’s a sense
that can separate
the living from the dead.
See these hands, they still have
feeling in them---
to fix anything.
See Mickey and Slade got sprung
from the Tombs and are back to tell
their tales to us wharf-rats
squinting over trashcan tip sheets.
They gave up tagging
trains in the BMT yards since the guards
started using razor wire, shotguns, and Dobermans.
They’ve been working in the forgotten
corner playground beneath the El,
two cans in each hand,
spraying a desperate ecstasy--
throbbing letters making love
inside pulsating messages,
volcanic coded colors
clashing and bleeding
into each other.
Spreading the word,
the street level news.
Language that won’t fake
it coming from the tongue.
iron fences unevenly line
both sides of a rising
buckling road that cuts
through grounds of untended
grasses and groaning Oaks;
road ending dead at the humming
formaldehyde factory where men masked white
concentrate in the floodlit
forbidding receiving yard.
Aimed walk with this known
inevitable destination inexplicably is twisted
and severed, familiar terrain suddenly
becomes unsettling, and the air thinner as if
descended from higher elevations. An apparition
stands near the factory gates, in the empty field motionless,
her uneasy features rippling in seeming
metamorphosis with the slightest direction
shift of wind, sparking memories
undefined. Who is she? Here homeless
in this world, in the barren stretches
along the rotting piers of Brooklyn
New York with garments mended timeless,
back curved, and eyes piercing through electric
lines of strain. Has she returned to review
the works forsaken her, to examine
the foundations of ancient addresses or resurrect
a lost relation? Unresponsive
to voice and gesture, with my forward
movement she dissipates
into an atmosphere
of unattainable presence.
The air is heavy with
the smell of the harbor,
the all-night chemical plants
of Red Hook and the refineries
of Bayonne. Leaning over the drawbridge
rail; inhaling the fumes of phenols leaking
and motor oil oozing into the intestinal waters,
taking in the jailhouse blues of lonely Shepherds
complaining to the warden, old pooches crooning
to the stars beyond the chain-link sky, old hounds
howling spook requiems to their mothers out there somewhere.
I’m leaning over and hearing it all--the wail of alley cats
getting boned, the sputter of tired Detroit engines
turning over and warming up for Elizabeth,
seizing up in Red Hook, ending up dumped and dismantled
in some scrapyard far from home. I’m leaning over
watching the Canal smear its story as it flows,
the drain pipes cough up phlegm,
the tugboats blow their nose.
"C’mon, don’t treat yourself that way Joe."
I’ve come with a notion
Old Gowanus, to recollect
the splinters of dreams
and severed fingers
you’ve tucked away,
the stolen pistols
and sunken treasures
the piss, tears
dreams and sweat
stinking to the heavens--
that you were once a river
and hills rose from both
your banks. Brooklyn Heights
nourished you as it returned
your borrowed waters sweetened
with the blood of revolution.
A city was built
all around you--
a city of pizza parlors, churches and
Whitman. A city of pigeons,
ice factories and hit men.
Old Gowanus--you clogged vein,
sister of the Seine,
kin of the Thames--
I’ve come to reflect
by your giving pilings
and your storied gateways,
on your wood-frame
drawbridges and tenacious
catwalks, under the bypass
interstate artery overhead.
I’m killing time now
watching the staggered grave-
yard shift workers as they pass,
picking out who’s going to work
and who’s coming back.
Vinny comes by--familiar figure--
visionary and hungry,
talking to himself,
scrounging for cigarette money.
Splitting a pack
of menthols we head back
across the Canal
silent and smoking toward home.
Crossing back up to 10th Street I get a quick
sickly sweet whiff from the Christianson
Bakery preparing rolls for the morning
deliveries to diners across town, and a sudden
sting in my nostrils of sulfur growing stronger.
A red haze blankets the Slope, obscuring the clock-
tower, sending down a fire-light mist.
The kids, I guess, have been doing their homework--
they didn’t forget, ‘cause tonight they’ve blocked
the road and are putting on a show.
Block buster bottle rocket M-80
helicopter roman bomb candles
firing up the neighborhood,
ripping up the dirty curtains
and exposing our piece of Heaven
in a pure one-punch explosion.
The streets are covered
one-inch deep in a firecracker
confetti carpet of red.
The neighbors: Bruno, Stella, Izzy,
Carmen, Carmella, Hector, Wanda, Pops,
Vinny, Alely and me, Marie and everyone
else on the street are out on the sidewalk
with chips and bottles on folding tables
watching; the fathers are teaching
their kids how to hold
the sparklers proper--they’re showing them the way,
is Independence Day.
I head East up 10th
with a stray cat
following me, and the sense
of a spirit to my left,
just out of sight, two steps
behind me. Back on my front porch
smoking the evening’s last
cigarette, I tip my hat to the cats with trash can
salvaged chicken bones and the wreckers
hauling the spare-part remains of a Brooklyn
celebration. I watch them squeeze in and out of the dust bin
junkyard under the W.P.A. trestle
right there across the way,
all the while under
the spell of Ancients:
the green Boiled Hams delivery truck and the Chow
Mein fast-food van that have been stuck there for decades.
Finally then--at 3 A.M.--the sky
musters up a thunderstorm.
All the houses are dark.
A drunk leans against the trestle pissing.
I watch the water
roll down the street
carrying newspapers and debris,
paper cups and unnamed things,
in a stream
down the Slope
toward the Canal.