Neighbors (a poem)

Neighbors – by me

Two blocks over, three blocks up.
Close enough to walk by every day
if I walked that way
but I didn’t, because the traffic was bad and I never liked
the smell of burning gas.
Two blocks over, three blocks up.
Spare a dime? Spare a dollar? Spare a cup
of coffee? Spare a ciggarette? Spare a light?
Make a buck; make a bed; make a life
of sorts, ’cause when life got too bad he ran away to the streets.
Not enough to eat there, but the pain was less
and the voices couldn’t find him in the sound of traffic
in the shadow of the dumpsters
in the clouds of gas fumes blowing past
the places where he hid from his.
Two blocks over, three blocks up.
We were neighbors of a sort
but we never saw each other
never spoke;
but hey, that’s city living for you. Everybody puts up walls
against the day the neighbor they refuse to talk to
in the hall turns out to have
a gun. Or a gas can.
Two blocks over, three blocks up.
The convenience store counter guy
remembered his name when the police came and
I read it in the paper – but I must confess that I’ve
forgotten it.
I think that when they found him, he was still alive, but
it’s hard to survive when you’re burnt that badly
and you’ve been living hard. And hey
This is LA,
where you’ve got to get bent if you can’t pay
and I’ve never seen
a thousand dollar bill
in a street guy’s cap or beat up coffee cup.
Two blocks over, three blocks up
close enough to the place I slept you could have seen it
looking north and east
if the other apartment buildings in the way wandered off to play
somewhere else
like he should have done that night
when a couple of guys
in a public-minded spirit
gave him a light
and then stood and watched him burn.
The Story Behind the Poem

When I was in my second year of theatre school in LA, I lived in a studio apartment in Koreatown, on Kenmore Avenue near 6th street, Flanked by a Korean gospel church, a parking garage, and a lot of pigeons. It wasn’t a bad apartment; it had a full bathroom, an everything room and a tiny kitchen, complete with a gas stove that constantly oozed a low-grade odour of rotten egg, taps that regularly ran green or orange or (on one memorable occasion) both at once, and a friendly resident mouse who regularly traversed the ledge under my window to get from his hole in the kitchen to his hole three feet over in my living room.

It also had no air circulation whatsoever and, being on the top floor of a four floor building, was unbearable in the LA summer heat.  I have very unfond memories of schlepping to the nearest 7-11 in my pajamas at one in the morning to buy bags of ice to cuddle, in the hopes of finally becoming cool enough to sleep.

Despite the half-gentrified, half-incredibly sketchy neighbourhood, the only crime associated with my building (yes, I looked it up) was an unfortunate incident in which a gentleman, involved I believe in a drug deal, received a bullet to the testicle and then sued for pain and suffering and residual impotence. It’s hard to take that entirely seriously.

Then, one day, I picked up the paper and read about an incident that had occurred the night before. In the small hours of the night, a local homeless man, a schizophrenic who slept in the parking lot of a little convenience store on the corner of 3rd Avenue and Bernardo, had been doused in gasoline while he slept and then set alight. This was someone’s idea of an evening’s entertainment.

This bothered me deeply. You DO NOT do this to another human being. Also, I’m a small-town girl. Crime doesn’t happen this close. The murder by slow roasting of this man whom everyone had forgotten was inside my space, almost (if I’d had one) in my own backyard. There are crimes that are understandable  – for personal gain or personal safety, driven by fear or vengeance or some other identifiable motive. This was different. This crime was driven by nothing more than boredom, and a pleasure in the act. The men who committed it stood over the body of their victim while he burned alive and watched it happen, just for kicks. I am not generally one for wholesale condemnation, but I will label this without hesitation an act of evil. Near enough to my apartment that if I’d been awake I might have heard him scream, someone had done this thing, and a man had died. I felt violated and guilty.

Needless to say, this stuck with me. The article in the paper talked a little bit about the man who had died – he had family in the city, but had drifted apart from them as his illness worsened and he lost himself in the streets. The people who worked and shopped at the convenience store knew him by name and occasionally gave him free coffees with their few extra coins. This smallest of the little men, who’d led a life of suppering and pain and had died the way he lived, had mattered to someone at least a little bit.

This is his memorial.

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