This poem, whose title is unlikely to get me any points on the day of judgment, came out of a real encounter I had with a street guy last summer on a business trip to NY. And, lately, as the world learns how powerless we are against the random forces of nature, I cannot get him out of my mind. Why is he a street guy and I get to be the guy who lives in a comfortable home? Why was it hard for me to look him in the eyes? What happens to people like him, in a crisis like this?
As we celebrate a Pesach during which if Elijah the Prophet came to my door I might not let him in, I’m surer than ever that no poem—no matter how well-intentioned—can answer the the existential questions that we most want answered. And, yet, we poets continue to write. Perhaps we write out of hubris. Perhaps we write because we don’t know how to do anything else; and hope that our words matter.
The Prophet Elijah–Possibly–on 9th Avenue, Orders a Ham & Cheese (Easy Mayo)
Just outside a small bodega in Hell’s Kitchen,
a street guy says to me, “Hey man, buy me a sandwich.”
Dressed in layers, smelling like turned milk, he could be
my age, though it’s hard to convert street years into
roof-over-one’s-head years. I ask what he’d like—
Ham and cheese (easy mayo), blueberry muffin,
a small coffee—and enter the store to buy his meal.
I remember a fable from my youth: the prophet Elijah,
dressed as a beggar, granting some random Jew
the opportunity to hasten the redemption. All that’s
required: to drop a kopeck in a cup, to look a man
in his eyes. But every time, the random Jew fails.
It is hard to believe—this never ending defiance
of the odds, this stingy streak—to not encounter
a single decent Jew in two thousand years!
How tiresome it must be. Centuries of callous neglect,
the inevitable disappointment. And, finally, when the Jew
realizes what he has done, and attempts to erase the offense
with a shower of too-late largesse, Elijah cannot be bought.
Nor is he what one would call gracious. One time, appearing
as an ugly man, he approached his mark and greeted him kindly:
“Peace be upon thee, Rabbi!” To which the Jew responded:
“How hideous you are! Is anyone in this town as repulsive as you?”
And Elijah, always prepared with a snappy comeback, says:
“Perhaps you should tell the Master Architect how ugly is this,
his construction.” The Jew, realizing his grave error, begs
the prophet’s pardon, offers him money; says, if only he’d known
it was Elijah, he would never have uttered the hateful words.
The prophet has heard such excuses a thousand times and
each time, how much he yearned for a different outcome.
For the record, I bought him two sandwiches, two muffins,
two coffees. And slipped two twenty-dollar bills into the bag
with the food, because I did not have any fifties or hundreds.
And when I handed him the bag, I did not look away; hoping
to see, in his rheumy eyes, proof of the cosmic significance
of our encounter. How much I did not want to see what I saw
instead. Our chance meeting was no more than the world turning;
as it has, as it does, as it always will, until redemption comes.