Fantasy Street

Feeling all at once imprisoned, I stalk for the door,
as I go, closing my coat up. Three gin and tonics–
no, I never should have allowed myself to have them.
But the hell with it,
Go–get out! Get through the blunt glass
and off into the incalculable darkness.
Sure enough: as I burst out, there it is —
freedom! freedom! freedom!

It seems I am going to explode out of my skin,
to shout! By some miracle, I keep my silence.
The lights are amazing and flashing– Fifth Avenue!
The cold is like being struck by a soprano bell:
clear, fine, trembling, penetrating.
An Irish policeman outside Canada House supports the dusk
like a dark column or pedestal.
Shuffling his slow black feet, he looks at me warily.
Am I too happy, too feverish? Might I be the camouflage
for our next I.R.A. bomber? Shaking with careless excess,
I push my bike across the south corner
toward 53d Street, past St. Thomas Church.
This morning three young French artists
had drawn in chalk near the staircase Delacroix’s
portrait of a peasant girl. It is almost half walked-off now,
ragged in the sodium vapor light mixed with late sun,
but somehow still thumping with life, like an angry heart.
Suddenly I look up and have
stepped into a furious cockpit of battling cacophonous music.
A bagpiper on the church steps is squalling “Scotland the Brave”
The clanless Highland vestment is Macspinningmill tartan.
“Help me get hame”, says his sign. A boon he’s been asking six months.
There’s talk he lives on East 76th Street with a Neapolitan mother.
Tonight he will not have the street to himself.
Six yellow trucks across the way–
pasted prow to taffrail with signs–squall, screech,
swarmed about by crowds of little men in beards,
tieless shirts, black coats. The speakers jitter and skid,
throwing away horas between the Chassidic hymns.
It is the Lubavicher bringing us messages from the Rebbe.
They inquire of every soul who passes,
“Are you Jewish?” They shout after us, “Wear phylacteries!
Observe dietary laws!” Shy little men with burning eyes,
they pop like skyrockets showering down on us with
flashing religious courage.
And straight ahead on the corner by the Tishman Building
the steel band won’t give up: it hammers wildly, dexterously,
mellifluously pouring out, over the already earthquake-torn ears
of our intersection, “Yellow Bird.”
It is battered to fragments by horas,
diced in the knives of the pipe chanters,
shot down over the crossway by up-to-date piety.
Enough! I run to the corner, almost throw the bike
ahead of me into the street,
fling myself on it like a demon.
A taxi klaxons by, coughing in my ears “Get out!
Fly from the hell of this music, fly! fly!”
At the end of such a day, give me a wonderful gift.
It is given. It’s as though a door closes–
silence–all the madness trapped in the intersection
turns in upon itself. Only a hundred feet away
a single violinist scratches at Bach arpeggios
under the beggars’ arcade at the back of the church,
uninterrupted, watched over by one serious girl.
And the Museum of Modern Art on the right gleams and billows
like a wave of quiet illumination. Through the ground-floor window
Marilyn Monroe’s enormous lips poise to eat
a nameless art student looking somewhere else in a timid beret.
And now, up the left of the street advances that old beggar
who looks like Khrushchev. He bangs his vicious
steel cane upon the sidewalk like a shoe.
He pierces you with malevolent eyes, snarls.
“Hee!” he whines “Hee!” jabbing his hands like a threat.
Now I’m gathering speed, everything begins to hurry into a blur,
the people in red, purple, yellow-green, violet
sew themselves along the quilt strip of the sidewalk like checks.
My time of day! Excitement and events
bob in and out of windows like winking eyes!

Ahead, Sixth Avenue, and the hour
and the kind of weather that makes me take a fierce breath.
The sky is full of clouds weighing hundreds of millions of tons,
overwhelming us like a wonderful painting.
Down southwest, vast new buildings glow with strange colors
like ice colored blocks of honeycomb candy riddled with yellow bees.
Now they fall over toward me under the weight
of enormous lilac and puce cotton cumuli streaked with smoke,
and salmon edges sliding along between upper surfaces of hazy blue.
I put my hands up to protect my head.
I look out and nothing has moved–
and yet–don’t I know absolutely everything has moved?

So it’s all right. On! On! Across the street
fresh kitchen odors from the Hilton:
shrimp and cinnamon from this imitation New Orleans,
bay and thyme, garlic  and parsley from that pretension of Paris,
and a smoky broiled steak from a mock Kansas City.
The kitchen ducts snuffle over the marquees like wet commercial noses.
I glare at the animal doctor’s office across the way.
My wife stood there the other day shouting at the nurse,
who would not ask her boss to look at Peter’s gerbil.
Poor thing, with a paw swollen the size of a raisin,
all the local blood stopped by a tangled thread.
What kind of vicious snobbery chooses pet cats over pet mice?
On the second floor above is a sign
“Stairway to the Stars Bellydance Studio.”
I imagine them practicing their Phrygian birth dances,
palpitating from shaking diaphragm to the splay of the groin,
bent over backwards like some antique climax,
an ancient Busby Berkeley Musical improvidence
with thousands of finger gongs tingle-ringing,
thousands of stars in galaxies ascending
out of silver quivering up into the black empyrean.
Where are they now?

I am buffeted by the wind past the Americana Hotel.
I wave to the doorman of the old CBS building.
proving his manhood, he sneers back.
Why is it I am slowly encroached upon by I don’t know what?
The immense trenches of something going to happen
are about to swallow me.
It’s after six, I go home like this every day, but still
my heart pounds like a riot policeman’s feet, rapidly, gloomily.
By the side of Roseland stands the old black man
I see here often slapping his tennis ball
off the back of the Dance Palace,
catching it again on his worn racquet through the weft of traffic.
His T-shirt says “Old Men Need Love too”
He holds back his arm till I’ve passed by.
Thank You!  I shake my head to drive away the fear
that relentlessly extends its wires.
Eighth Avenue at 6:15, and traffic like Ney’s final
cavalry charge at Waterloo.  Stupid, enormous, brutal,
meaningless–you can almost see the empty-headed marshal
whacking the brass guns with the furious butt of his sword.
And now I know something is happening. From across the boulevard,
it catches my ear and eye.
Underneath bilious street lights, some vast mob
is pouring out of the church in the center of the block,
each carrying a vespers candle.
And over them the sky has poured closer
as the buildings droop, against a half-darkness
of invisible sunset in front of which the clouds
dip and rise, stately, like great black-and-orange whales
spuming with anger.
Beyond the choir and the escort of police cars
I hear a flapping torn screaming,
a red banner of fire sirens and police cars
pasting together toward me across the extremities of sound.
What’s happening? Is the Last Judgement arriving?
On a ragged spring evening when we know it’s impossible
to put up with one more day of the old winter’s ugliness?
No!–No!—I get down, I hurry my bicycle
along past the army of illuminated penitents.
I drift beside them watching, presided over
by a sky full of brooding, distant, frightened wails.
Their soft faces over the candles are peaceful,
even earnestly fatuous, overborne with importance and duty.
“What we are doing”–they shine–” is so
very urgently necessary for this city–for us!”

But now I hurry past the
to the place where there are sounds of everything burning up
and thieves coming through all the windows.
Vast rivers of candles are turning north.
I wait, biting my lip as they pass by me to the last baby.
I catapult my imagination
to the front of the Bodega Garcia,
where twenty-five of my neighbors wait quietly
standing on the sidewalk with beer cans.
It’s cocktail hour.
Frantically I urge them, look up at the windows of my house!
Find out what’s happening!
Is everyone there broken on the floor?
Is my kitchen crammed with policemen
looking at cut throats? Or are they–is everyone gone?
Snatched away to Little Neck or Patchogue?
“Wait! Wait! Christ, don’t go, even if you are dying,
wait for me! I’m coming, I want to go too!”
My heart crowded with catastrophes, I vault across,
half running, half riding,
thick with foreboding and excitement,
pick up my bicycle and stumble up the stairs,
face full of tears.

© Andrew Glaze 1978, from the book The Trash Dragon of Shensi.
(Originally published in The New Yorker, which buys all rights, and
therefore requires special mention each time a poem is reprinted.)

My father always told me “Fantasy Street” and “Reality Street” were published in the opposite order of how he wrote them. Although written first, “Fantasy Street” was published by The New Yorker three years after Atlantic Monthly published “Reality Street”. In both cases, the poems were the longest that either magazine had published up to that date. I don’t know if that record still stands or not.

In an interview my father explained that he was 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”.  My father referred to “Fantasy Street” and “Reality Street” as “Two Odes”. They are genuine bookends; “Reality Street” follows his bicycle route to work in the morning along eastbound 54th Street, and “Fantasy Street” is his return route home along westbound 53rd Street. Since he often bicycled home for lunch as well, it was a well wheeled path

In 1978, “Fantasy Street” was one of many poems in my father’s newly published book, The Trash Dragon of Shensi. That December, a wonderful review of the book appeared in The New York Times, written by Peter Schjeldahl. In it, he highlighted the poem as a favorite.
“The best rarely provide such companionable pleasures as “Fantasy Street,” a long, lush, windy rhapsody of a New York dusk, in which the poet, slightly drunk, went out on his bicycle. His bicycle? It’s an every so faintly ludicrous, cartoon touch (the poem fittingly appeared in The New Yorker), but it’s perfect Glaze. Just like his muse to catch him aboard that civilized vehicle.”

 Amusingly, before The New Yorker agreed to publish the poem, they sent an employee out on foot to trace the route. His assignment was to fact check 53rd street between 5th and 9th Avenues and make sure the poem was geographically accurate. In August of 1978, my father mentioned this in a WNYC radio interview before reading several of his poems from The Trash Dragon of Shensi. The link to WNYC’s podcast of the interview is at the bottom of this post.

At the time the poem was written, my father’s personal office at British Tourist Authority overlooked 54th Street at the corner of 5th Avenue. Occasionally I would find myself walking past, stand across the street, and wave frantically until he or someone visiting his desk would notice my presence. They’d wave back.

“BTA”, as it was commonly referred to, originally had a two level storefront on 5th Avenue, but eventually consolidated on the 2nd floor. The organization was owned by the British government and most of the employees were English, but the PR department was an anomaly of US citizens. “The British don’t understand how to write PR for Americans” was my father’s explanation. At one point his job involved taking a British policeman (“a bobby”) on a tour of the US. At other times my father led US journalists on tours of the UK. I seem to remember something involving a visit from the Sheriff of Nottingham as well. Even now, online, I stumble across press releases with his byline in archived newspapers from all over the country.

Our British connection had unexpected benefits. In 1959 my mother was cast as Gwendolyn in The Importance of Being Earnest. To help her perfect an English accent, one of the BTA secretaries agreed to read the lines into a reel to reel tape recorder. My mother played it over and over again. By the end of the month, all three of us had the entire play memorized with a British accent.

 In 1963, when the Beatles were to arrive at the Warwick Hotel at 54th Street and 6th Avenue, I divided my day between cheering at the barricades with other fans, and taking breaks at the BTA office. Co-workers of my father would pop into his office to get an update from me. Ironically, when the Beatles did finally arrive, they drove the wrong way up 54th street to avoid a riot of fans at the opposite end, and passed directly below my father’s office. Sadly, I was at the barricades at that exact moment.

As for the landmarks mentioned in “Fantasy Street”, the Americana Hotel on 7th Avenue became the “Sheraton New York Times Square Hotel” in 2013.  The Museum of Modern Art still occupies a plot of land between 53rd and 54th streets, and their sculpture garden faces 53rd street.  The Marilyn Monroe picture my father mentions seeing inside the museum is the famous 1967 Pop Art version by Andy Warhol.  At some point in later years the Stairway to the Stars Bellydance Studio made it’s final ascent to heaven and vanished, but the owner (“Serena”) is considered a pioneer of the art form in the US.  Roseland Ballroom finally closed in 2014.  Originally built in the 1920’s as an ice skating rink, it survived several wars, hosted concerts ranging from Sinatra to Lady Gaga, and outlived nearby Studio 54.  A need for mammoth structural repairs killed it in the end. “The old CBS building” is at Broadway and 53rd where it housed The Ed Sullivan Show for many years, and is the second location I haunted as a teenager when the Beatles were in town.  Now titled, “The Ed Sullivan Theater” it has a long side brick wall on 53rd street with an unmarked stage entrance for performers. The back of the Roseland Ballroom was directly across the street. 

The “Bodega Garcia” mini-market that my father mentions near the end of the poem eventually went on to inspire a poem titled “Garcia’s Store”. It further describes the street life below our apartment window and highlights the owner of the store. That poem is included in the 2015 poetry collection, Overheard In A Drugstore.

“Garcia’s Store” and “Reality Street” have been discussed on this site in earlier entries. You can find them in the Poem Index on the Home Page.

Below is the link to the WNYC podcast mentioned earlier:
National Public Radio WNYC, August 21, 1978, New York City
“Andrew Glaze discusses his collection of poems, The Trash Dragon of Shensi. He reads some poems from the book including “Lights,” “Choir,” “Becoming,”and “Fantasy Street.”

—E.  Glaze
Marilyn Monroe Fantasy Street
Andy Warhols 1967 Pop Art vision of Marilyn Monroe, at the Museum of Modern Art.

BTA 1971
The poster says “Nottingham  Festival ’71”. My father is in the middle, “Maid Marian” is on the left, a coworker is on the right.  The photo was taken in 1971 at the British Tourist Authority offices, as part of a public relations campaign. My father was renown for wearing bow ties on a regular basis. 

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