West Oakland, California.
The word crashes
into my left ear
like a well-aimed brick.
I can’t stand him…
he’s so ghetto.
I overhear at 15th and Broadway,
from a woman talking on her cell
louder than her designer heels
clicking down the sidewalk.
She’s sharing her disgust
for an ex-boyfriend
or maybe a neighbor
or maybe one of my students.
is rugged and beautiful
like the Wild West.
Soccer games on hard pavement,
the smell of your mom’s cornbread,
your uncle cheating you in dominoes.
West Oakland is
extra security at McClymonds games,
Bobby Hutton’s park after dark,
the crooked scar you can’t hide (and don’t want to).
West Oakland is
just down the block.
I bike to work today
and hear this woman at 15th and Broadway
talking about one man like he’s
a whole neighborhood.
Maybe he’s an ex-boyfriend,
maybe one of my students.
is a tourist trap.
and Hollywood setting,
romance novels and James Bond getaways.
It was home to Vivaldi
and Marco Polo,
was home to Hebrews.
15th century Jews
expelled from Spain the same year
they gave Columbus
three ships to get some quick tea from India.
Venice, city of rivers,
needed no walls
to wall my people in.
Forced all the Jews
into Il Ghetto Vecchio,
the world’s oldest ghetto
for the world’s oldest people.
The first people lucky enough
to hear that word slurred at them,
to enjoy such a privilege.
The high-heeled woman with an iPhone
at 15th and Broadway,
maybe a bank manager,
maybe my cousin,
calls him so ghetto.
I want to get off my bike, throw her
phone and matching purse into a brick wall,
and ask her:
Lady, do you know what that word means?
What do you have against medieval Italian Jews??
Cuz I have some Roman ancestors somewhere
who will fuck you up.
Instead, I keep biking,
stay silent, again.
I know a mother in West Oakland
who prays every night for her three sons:
one studies at Cal,
another at San Quentin.
She hasn’t seen either in years.
Her youngest sits in a high school classroom,
waiting for me to come teach
line breaks and resistance.
He is never late for class.
I might have been on time the first day. Maybe.
He writes strong and brilliant.
Like my brothers, he tells me.
I don’t want to fail him,
or his mother.
High school juniors in Gaza
cannot see Ramallah,
let alone Orinda.
Their school bulldozed by Jerusalem,
cut off by Cairo,
redlined by Washington.
Alone in the desert:
three walls and a sea.
No oasis, no Hebrew University
scholarships for underprivileged youth.
Vini. Vidi. Vici.
If we are the world’s oldest people,
how can we conquer and forget
our own bricked history so quickly?
I want to jump inside her iPhone
and tell her:
Ghetto is not fabulous,
but it’s not a curse word either.
It is hard fathers and harder mothers,
making a dollar out of a peso and fifteen cents.
It is twenty-three poems I hold in my hands
every Monday of spring semester,
only to let them slip through my fingers
too quick over summer break.
Whatever it is,
ghetto is not a fucking adjective.
If you must, the grammatically correct term,
would be ghetto-ish.
But that doesn’t sound right, does it?
Sound too much like: poor-ish.
You said he talked ghetto,
but who can’t speak proper English?
I lock my bike next to the school,
an extra bolt around the front tire
cuz I know.
The first floor hallway
smells like a broken toilet.
The bell rings when I walk in,
but all my students are already
waiting in the classroom.
One of them, the youngest of three sons,
smiles from the front row
and taps his watch at me.
I know, I say.
I’m late. But I’m here.
And I’m glad you are too.
We’ve got some work to do.
Venice, Italy. ‘Il Ghetto Vecchio.’