Then and Now, the Essex Street Market

by Roger Mitchell
Featured Art: Hollywood Africans – Jean-Michel Basquiat

The person who took this picture took it
well above the parking lot across the street.
“Malted Milk with Ice Cream” cost five cents
once. Leroy’s on the corner sold “knishes
frankfurters and root beer,” and the cars
and everyone stopped moving for a moment
so this proof could be snapped of the way
a few things stood at the corner of Essex
and Delancey sometime between the Fall
of Rome and now. Which is also falling.

In the upper-right-hand reaches of the shot,
a line of laundry sags out of a tenement window.
The other end seems suspended in air,
like everything else, both in and out
of the window, the photo, the cowl of dust
that wraps the earth in its own heat. Damn,
said Napoleon, and he turned his horse
and started back across the steppe toward Josephine.

The half dozen newly planted trees lined up
in their iron jackets along Essex were leafless,
so winter must have been on its way, in
or out, we can’t tell. The little lie the picture tells
is that, though everything is about to change, it brought
life to a halt, so someone could open the door, now,
and let in a large whack of dust and noise,
the kind they make no room for in pictures,
passing them on to the woman in the next booth
who is giving, maybe the air, maybe her mother,
a colorfully athletic lesson in Spanglish,
involving, from what little I can make out,
most of what we call history, as it’s apt to look
when the future gets here, and “that fucker
Reynaldo.” I have no idea what Reynaldo’s crime is,
but, if you are listening, Reynaldo, get over here,
quick, if you don’t want to be history.


Roger Mitchell’s Reason’s Dream was published in 2018 by Dos Madres Press. His new and selected poems, Lemon Peeled the Moment Before, came out in 2008, The One Good Bite in the Saw-Grass Plant in 2010. He lives in Jay, NY.

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