Miami Herald, The (FL)
Date: July 20, 1986
Author: MARC FISHER Herald Staff Writer
He suddenly appeared in my peripheral vision, sitting snugly against me, crushing my New York Post. I don't know whether he'd been sitting near me for a time or whether he just got on the train at Dyckman Street. First thing I really knew, he was asking me if I wanted to buy a poem.
This was not the standard come-on. Subway cons are usually more public, freaks in white robes collecting for The Children, Moonies or Spartacists (the last Maoists on earth). This white- haired fellow in a corduroy car coat and black shoes held together with masking tape made his pitch one-on-one.
He looked like my Russian ancestors in the stiff, grainy photographs on my grandmother's dresser top. He had a weekend's worth of white stubble on his face, and under the beard, gentle folds of soft skin. His hands, too, revealed no signs of hardship. I think he was once a soldier, but I don't think he ever worked in a factory or in the fields, or for that matter, even in an office.
He introduced himself. His name was Poet-O. I glanced down at my crushed Post. On the front page, in giant red letters, the tabloid announced its latest giveaway contest, Post-O. Was this man somehow the literary equivalent? Would his poem scream at me with one-syllable scare words?
"How much?" I asked.
"What you think it is worth," he said. "If you like it, you pay what you wish."
Hard to turn down. He extracted a Bic from his coat pocket and turned to me.
"Do you have some paper?"
I had the Post. No, I had a manila envelope with some papers inside.
"That'll do," he said. He took it and began to write in big, looping letters across the length.
First, the title. Evening in New York. He wrote poetry that rhymed. Long lines, to fit the envelope, I figured. He composed a 12-line ode to snowy sidewalks and shiny cheeks and lovers' talks and wintry weeks -- all in the distance from 191st Street to City College. There were plenty of clinkers in his verse, but there were images that came from life and words that meant more than they said.
He reached into his Gimbel's shopping bag and pulled out a stack of his own manila envelopes, bound by a frayed rubber band. He believed strongly in manila envelopes. He filled them with poems and clippings and pages torn from his favorite books. He had scraps of Shakespeare and Thomas Wolfe. He kept those words in old envelopes inside other envelopes.
His were the kind with fold-down metal clips on the back. Mine had the string that tied around a cardboard circle. Mine, Poet-O explained, were the kind with class.
I read the poem and said it was good. Ignoring the compliment, he asked for his work back for a moment. He'd left a space in the lower right corner of the envelope. He filled it now, with his signature.
"POET-O, Times Square Motor Lodge, New York, New York." And he added his phone number.
I told him I had only two dollars, and I needed 35 cents to get home and at least a buck for food.
"Keep it," he said. "You'll make it up next time."
Strangely enough, there was a next time. And another. I saw Poet-O four times in all. Always, he wore the same coat. Sometimes those sad black shoes and sometimes the galoshes he kept in their original box in his Gimbel's bag. I never saw Poet-O get off the subway.
I bought three of his poems. Twice, he wrote me the same one, about winter on 11th Avenue. Once, I gave Poet-O three dollars.
I could never quite tell whether Poet-O remembered that he had met me before. I never told him my name. He never asked.
Once, as I was leaving the train, he said, "There's a bakery outside where they make a very nice bialy."
I climbed outside and turned around. There it was. I put 15 cents on the counter and bought a warm taste of Poet-O's world.
Copyright (c) 1986 The Miami Herald
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