Back in the days when your grandfather's father,
maybe his father, was a young man down at the shore
amusement piers or the scruffy city lots over near
the wrong side of town, they used to call them nickel rides.
Steel boxes jacking up and down, bucking around,
make your back feel like it was worked over with crowbar,
your hips like they was smacked with a plank.
Back in my day, word was out about those nickel rides
on the Philly streets. I was in from the country, hard
down by the river and the woods, but even
I knew what was what. Saw clear enough that one day
while stretching my legs near the 30th Street station
waiting in between long-run trains, when the paddy wagon
pulled up and four cops jumped out, jumped a man I hardly
noticed, whacking him good with long sticks. I figured soon
enough that I needed to take a left, cross the street,
head up another, act like I never saw nothing, especially
a side-vision glance of him being cuffed and dumped
in the back of the wagon for a nickel ride. That unit
screech-lurching down the street like the driver wanted
to bust the brakes and run out all the gas all at once.
First off, the war on drugs is a concept. There ain't a war on drugs;
there's a war on people. All wars have casualties, atrocities.
All wars have losers. Only some wars have winners. Tonight
I see Charm City up in flames. Orange tongues of fire taunt
us from brick buildings. The old people say it’s just as it was
back in the King riot, nearly fifty years ago. They say
the neighborhood ain't changed much since those days.
We had one good store. Now it's burnt. Kids too young to remember
Tupac let alone Reverend King dodge in and out of focus,
like they were spun off their own nickel rides, dazed from the experience.
Philly, Baltimore, D.C. – I’m not much for cities. But a twist of fate,
a change of luck, and I could've been. Missed being born in Baltimore,
city of my conception, by a few weeks or a month. I got a parcel of kin
buried in the German saint’s cemetery in the Manayunk section of Philly.
Generation or two before them it isn't hard to fathom other blood kin,
all those years removed, being sold in an auction house in swampy D.C.
Of course, there’s a war on despair, too, though not official
and having no spokesperson. It’s often erratic, explosive even,
but is long going like the rest. Likewise, despair too is a concept,
and so needs a people enemy. And sometimes it's them, but in the end it's us.
Me, I avoid the nickel rides. I watch on my TV what's happening
one hundred fifty miles downriver in slacked-jawed sorrow.
Jerry Wemple is the author of three collections of poetry: You Can See It from Here, The Civil War in Baltimore, and The Artemas Poems. He is also co-editor (with Marjorie Maddox) of the anthology Common Wealth: Contemporary Poets on Pennsylvania, and teaches at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.