Reality is something like me carrying
the bicycle down the steps in the morning,
with a grip at the seat socket on the left
and the stem of the steering post on the right,
carefully placing my recently broken right foot
on the tattered step covering,
crazing open the doors with a little help
from my Puerto Rican neighbors,
“Gracias, gracias!” saying, especially if it’s
the dark white-bearded one who shaves only once a week.
He will hold the beer can in the sack
with a far-away eye which seems to say
it is not I drinking this beer, opening the door
for this American with the suspiciously Spanish-looking wife.
Who rides a bicycle but a boy or a fool?
Help a fool is a kind of harmless custom.
The sidewalk is reality.
We have lost the last tree. The only one
to survive being pissed on and beaten.
And was getting to be a pretty good tree
in front of the shoe store, but obviously
rot had gotten in somewhere.
It failed in the wind last night,
and of course will not be replaced, except by
the beer cans and candy wrappers which seem to be
the true proofs of human occupation and human interest.
The bums in front of Garcia’s are watching to see if Anselmo
will continue to sleep when the sun
comes over the roof of the Brittany building
and shines hard in his eyes.
Their interest isn’t unkind.
Our bums take good care of one another around here.
I’ve seen two of them pick up a third
who had fallen off his egg crate in the street
and set him tenderly back up on end, teetering crazily,
and put his beer can again in his hand.
First, setting the bicycle off the curb,
I look back in the bus barn to be sure
nothing is coming out. With a quick hop and push
I set off against the traffic on the wrong side,
to the corner of 54th Street, then sweep
to the East, before them all, on that street, the one street
I know as I know my face or my kitchen table.
Reality! This is Reality Street—littered with
dog shit and broken auto parts, full of holes
and broken glass to protect a full block
of private cars of policemen in no-parking spots.
They know each other by their lodge signs.
Then the Youth Center, that used to be the night court.
I gather speed, sliding between the front bumpers
to the right, and the outside doors of cars to the left,
banking and spinning the pedals,
I’ve forgotten my broken foot, I’m flying!
Then I must wait to pass the paddy wagon,
they’re loading up with girls-the wigged and raincoated haul
from last night’s war sweep on Eighth Avenue.
The clean up! They’re cleaning up the Avenue,
and professional fucking is being abolished again.
It will have to stand for whatever is being washed this week.
The girls are bored and angry,
they don’t laugh when the cops joke
and the boys from the brick Greek church whistle.
The girls want to get on with their job,
of which this is a piece of the red tape.
I squeeze by and brake it at the corner.
Stopping, I rest, I beam at pedestrians.
It’s 9 a.m.—Exuberant senseless beam—
these are not natives, but people going to work.
Four cops discuss departmental gossip.
They cross against the red light.
No-one in this city obeys any law of any kind.
Cops less than anybody.
And then, I’m off again, going down
in the maelstrom of Reality Street. Everybody turns
at this place into 54th Street from Eighth Avenue.
Why? Are they going to the Municipal Parking Lot on the right?
Or to the unemployment office for waiters and dishwashers
on the left? (a mysterious place full of crises
and explosions). And there’s Bryant Hotel.
Alan Hovhaness lived there briefly last year.
I used to see his tall, hesitant, disjointed walk
mooning along thinking of distant extreme musical space.
“Hello Alan!,” I’d yell, he’d turn and look as though
he’d never seen me before or anything before
and grin shyly. “Hello,” he’d say.
Did he really know what was talking to him?
And now he’s living in Seattle. That’s reality.
Crossing Broadway is a sort of adventure.
This invincible instantaneous daredevil in me
is quite boiled down into a sort of egg-cup
of security and dutifulness,
but Broadway now, is something else, is always being excavated.
Don’t you suppose the Mafia is holding a secret convention
down one of the holes, or digging a mysterious subway to Sicily?
They pave it again with asphalt and sand
as soft as chewing gum.
My bicycle rises up and rolls down
through hole after hole like waves,
honking bravely at all the pedestrians.
They look offended. Impudent motorless wheels!
They defer to cars, they respect trucks.
They’ve been converted to a religion of pure weight!
I skid to a stop at Seventh, and hurry across
through the taxi line for the airport trade
from the Hotel Americana. I park outside the crazy poster store.
Inside, I’m surrounded by Raquel Welch’s breasts,
girls with steak quarterings on their rumps,
blonde nudes climbing cliffs, Nixon taking a dump,
calendars of Kamasutra positions, one per month,
four foot long inspirational zen poems on purple banners,
red fire-lighters a foot long.
I buy my paper, I fold it neatly behind my seat.
The clerk asks me about my foot. That’s how
I’m fated to be remembered. The paper customer who broke his foot.
I walk the wheels to the corner
by half a dozen kegs of Schaefer beer booming down
in the belly of the cellar of a bar.
I cast off past the Half Note and Jimmy Ryan’s
to the Hilton, with its bus loads of Japanese tourists
craning their necks, casting about
at a crazily tilted perspective with sore ears
and sleep-confused eyes.
In these full, hurrying streets, what a difference!
Everyone is spruce, sure, full of purpose,
upholstered with money and sex in green,
knowing how to enjoy a breeze and walk hearty.
The flagpoles on the ABC, CBS and Burlington Buildings,
the Warwick Hotel, flap with taut-natured snap.
This too is reality—or is it adventure?
I’m sailing in rash seas.
The light changes, four cabs crash through the red,
but we’re wise to them—we wait,
and avoiding the dip in the street by the Athletic Club,
I nod at the doormen of the Dorset,
and now at the top of the rise, it’s home-free,
I sail past the back garden and the trees
of the Modern Art Museum, avoid the driver-training car
of the Rhodes School, look up the skirts
of the girls with their books and their backs to the walk,
neatly slip past the back corner of a growling truck,
and up to the curb at the service drive.
There’s a no-parking sign across the street
from the University Club. Really reality!
I put down my parking stand with a clang,
unlock the chain, unscrew the front half of my French bike,
it’s beginning to rust from too much rain,
and I lay the front half beside the back,
chaining the two with a $22.50 hardened steel five pound chain.
This is reality too. Adventure with prudence.
Standing here, I think, I’ve made it once again
without re-breaking my foot.
—Look how they’re watching me-. You actor!
A bicycle in two pieces! Such elan!
I stalk and limp to what will happen today.
Oh Fifth Avenue!
© 1991, Andrew Glaze, from his book Reality Street.
In 1974, “Reality Street” was the longest poem ever published by The Atlantic.
(Three years later The New Yorker published the companion poem “Fantasy Street” ; the longest poem they had ever published in their magazine.)
In an interview my father explained they were inspired by 17th century poet John Milton. “I was trying to figure out how Milton would tackle “L’allegro” and “Il Pensero” if he were doing it in the second half of the twentieth century”. “Reality Street” was written before “Fantasy Street” and my father referred to them as “Two Odes”.
I don’t remember exactly when my father first decided to bike to and from work, but I know it involved several generations of bicycles. For a while he worked on his poetry and plays early in the morning, before work. Eventually he decided lunchtime was a better choice, when the weather cooperated. Since 54th Street headed East to his office at 5th Avenue and 53rd Street led back to our to our apartment building on 9th Avenue, a bicycle was the obvious solution.
In the ‘70’s, creatively designed bikes for city dwellers became available. They had smaller wheels, and you could easily take them apart for storage. I remember a day when he chained the two main pieces of his bike downstairs to a lamp post and thieves stole the seat. After that he brought the seat up to his office. There were other times when he brought various parts of his bikes upstairs as well.
Alan Hovhaness was a highly respected orchestral composer. They were acquainted, because Alan’s wife was from Birmingham. In the early 70’s they collaborated on a small musical that Joseph Papp wanted to produce. It never happened, because Papp insisted on a small orchestra, and Hovhaness insisted on two pianos.
The entire poem is a poetic documentary of life in mid-town Manhattan in the early 1970’s. Eighth Avenue no longer has a prostitute on every corner, each wearing a more elaborate wig than the next. There is no longer a bus barn depot across the street from where we lived. The bodega (grocery store) on one side of our building has been gone for decades, although the ghosts of the local drunks still linger. The Brittany Restaurant on the other side of our building had excellent French food until a fire put them out of business. Schaefer beer was bought out by Stroh’s and then Pabst. Even the Rhodes Preparatory School for girls no longer exists. “Up skirt views” were probably a daily event at the time, as the entrance was up a flight of steps and mini skirts were the trend. I’m not sure when the Hotel Americana disappeared. And yet, as with all major cities, despite constantly evolving, the flavor of New York City always stays the same.
Andrew Glaze, with bicycles, in the living room of his apartment at 9th Avenue and 53rd Street. His desk, typewriter, and working area is immediately behind him. The rest of the living room is behind the photographer.
Property of the Andrew Glaze Estate.