The story of urban life, identity, and assimilation, from a Brooklyn-born poet often called the “Pablo Neruda of the North.”
Tony Went to the Bodega But He Didn’t Buy Anything
Tony’s father left the family
and the Long Island city projects,
leaving a mongrel-skinny puertorriqueño boy
nine years old
who had to find work.
Makengo the Cuban
let him work at the bodega.
In grocery aisles
he learned the steps of the dry-mop mambo,
banging the cash register
like piano percussion
in the spotlight of Machito’s orchestra,
polite with the abuelas who bought on credit,
practicing the grin on customers
he’d seen Makengo grin
with his bad yellow teeth.
Tony left the projects too,
with a scholarship for law school.
But he cursed the cold primavera
the cooking of his neighbors
left no smell in the hallway.
and no one spoke Spanish
(not even the radio).
So Tony walked without a map
through the city,
a landscape of hostile condominiums
and the darkness of white faces,
till he discovered the projects.
Tony went to the bodega
but he didn’t buy anything:
he sat by the doorway satisfied
to watch la gente (people
island-brown as him)
crowd in and out,
thought: this is beautiful,
his bodega grin.
This is a rice and beans
today Tony lives on Tremont Street,
above the bodega.