Home at the Edge of the World: Alameda Poet Laureate Inaugural Poem

Home at the Edge of the World
Alameda Poet Laureate Inaugural Poem

2015-01-06 13.03.12There are houses down your shaded streets –
beneath your oaks, your ginkos, your avenues of palm –
Leaded in glass, shingled in fish-scale, spangled with gingerbread,
Victorian ladies tarted up for Carnival,
their history and lore curving like a staircase into view.

Gentlemen strolled in spats, ladies swung their parasols,
bay breezes curling with fog and the clank of halyards, snapping flags. Water, at every turn,
glittering to shore, to ship, to ankles and toes.

Neptune would have been pleased to see his name emblazoned,
to hear the calliope, the splash and crank, the punch of tickets.
Men pummeled each other in the ring at Croll’s, the Nickelodeon competing with the cry of merchants, seagulls, girls on the beach.
With popsicles and peanut butter.

The famous train stopped here, golden, spiked. Immigrants worked invisibly,
then vanished from the record,
as if they’d never owned that shop, inhabited this neighborhood.

We’re at the edge of the continent, a dot on the map, an island of sand and silt.
We have our own secrets, our dirty clothes, our backyard politics – small minds and big mouths –
our stories of brutality and red-lining, of spite and malice.

I came here a refugee from the Marriage Wars, empty-handed at Starbucks, where I found a roommate, a latte, a lifeline.
The past was closed to me then, our future uncertain
as airplanes crashed into buildings and fell to dust.
From desperate shores I washed up, crumbled like the missing tower of City Hall.

I didn’t know yet2014-08-27 10.58.35
That in Alameda the past is under your feet, in shell and sand.
That the streets of Bay Farm were paved with the bones of other people’s ancestors.
I didn’t know
That some islands are real and some islands are made.
That we could live here for three generations and still be new.

But I have roots here, I’m an Alamedan, too —

My mother, just a child in the Depression, came down
from tawny oak-strewn hills for sand from the beaches for her sandbox.

My father, just off the ship, his Navy uniform still salt-damp from the Sea of Japan,
took a drink at Wally’s Corner, then
crossed the green bridge, up the road to the University, to stand at Strawberry Creek and think,
I’m finally home.

He brought my mother down Trestle Glen, Park Boulevard, Grand Avenue, Webster, through the Tube to their apartment on Lincoln Avenue – the Ulysses S Grant – to take out trash and mop the halls in exchange for rent.

My brother came, a squalling newborn at the hospital where consumptives once went
to bask in sunlight, to dry their shattered lungs.

He crawled, he walked; my sister followed, and we moved away
to suburbs where there was room to grow.

But I came back.
My daughters became Jets; my stepchildren were Hornets,
my allegiance to the home team shifting when the rent was raised.

I’ve met a prince here, and been a pauper,
and married the same man twice on green grass by the water,
lived in houses big and small, with stories of their own.

2015-07-19 20.32.23Alameda, Alameda, your name is lyrical on my lips —
you showed me how far I could walk on shifting sands before drowning.
Before I was in too deep.
Before I thought to ask for help.
Before I learned to save myself.

Alameda taught me that even the least of terns has power.
That even people living in mansions sometimes lose their beach.
That two newspapers are better than none.
That when there’s trouble, raise the bridges.
That when in doubt, hold a street fair.

Alameda, Alameda, you’ve unfurled me, shucked me like an oyster.
Tell me your secrets. Send me scribbling
to the page.

 

Julia Park Tracey
Alameda Poet Laureate
2014-2016

judge not, and hot water

I’m back at my post after five days in the redwoods, where our little green house sits. This is the house we just bought, using bubble gum, baling wire, rolls of pennies and our winsome smiles. I’ve been masterminding its renovation, getting inspections and starting to paint, buying things like beams and plaster-patching mesh and oddments from the hardware department.

I had to buy a Simpson Strong Tie item with no name, just a number, to hold a large truss and joist in place. I had to buy four of them, in fact, and the one place was out of them and I had to go elsewhere and ask for it by holding out this odd-shaped piece of metal and say, “Gimme two more o’ dese tings.” Want to feel like a dummy? Walk around with unknown pieces of metal in your hand at hardware stores and ask for help from smug salesfolk. The metal-thingies have no name. But they are indispensable. And they cost about $4.50 each, by the way. (I’m not kidding about the no-name. No one knows what they are called. But they all know what to do with it. “Oh, yeah, we have those — wait here…”)

So — cha-ching! I’ve had guys digging into the septic tank and measuring our sludge. I had a creepasaurus with long fingernails inspect our house for termites. Finding none, he ardently tried to persuade me to inject poison into the soil up to 10 feet deep to keep termites out. Prevention, he says. For a problem that doesn’t exist. For only $2,000. Umm. No, thanks. A nice fellow came and changed all the locks. Another nice fellow walked on our roof and we made a deal. Two more took crowbars to our living room ceiling. The roofer came back and addressed his crew to the roof. They left behind a lightweight, yet solidly sheathed house with sparkling new rain-gutters. The little green house (which isn’t green in color, just in spirit) is so pretty now, I could bust.
We’re going to have a new ceiling, new baseboards, new floors, new paint, new light fixtures and a new garden… all underway as we speak, and much of it re-using what we have or what I found on Freecycle. I feel good about the green-ness of it all.
Which leads me to two topics. Judgement, and hot water. One might lead to the other, you’d think. Not necessarily. So there I am in the new house over the weekend, washing dishes by hand, conserving water carefully, using my soap swisher, biodegradable organic soap, second-hand dishes, handmade dish-scrubber and organic cotton knitted dishcloth. My new neighbor (the ones with the trash and hoarding problem) drives up in her minivan and proceeds to unload bushels of groceries in plastic bags: sweet cereal, lots of ramen noodles, Capri Sun drinks, tons of junk food, individually-wrapped snack items. I didn’t see a fresh vegetable in the load, except a large sack of potatoes. I didn’t see any milk.
I just washed my dishes and watched and counted the number of plastic bags and my mind sped along and I —- had to stop. Because who am I to judge her and her choices? Some kind of green goddess? Is it my job to tell a struggling single mother with myriad domestic challenges, not least of which is a husband who she’s just ditched who abused her and the kids and made all their lives hell? Without going into further details, the woman has enough on her plate. It is not my job to change her, to improve her, to show her my golden way. It is my job to love her. It is all our jobs to love her, and the other people around us who frustrate and challenge us. Isn’t it? It is. Go read your (insert holy book of choice here). Then tell me I’m wrong.
We made friends with our new neighbor and offered to help her clean up her yard when we get a Dumpster and she was so excited. We exchanged hellos a number of times over the weekend and it turns out she’s sweet as pie and really making great strides in her own journey. But even if she wasn’t a sweet Cinderella — even if she was boorish and loud and stupid and repulsive — it’s still my job to love her, not to judge her by whatever class, environmental or other status I live by/in.
And so, to hot water.
We are closer to the cycle of water in our new home than in the city, because the source of the water is the river, and the end result of where it goes it the river. Our septic tank percolates into the dirt, runs downhill to the creek that leads to the river. So what we put in, stays in it and will eventually, at the molecular level, get to the river and the ocean. This is a bit daunting. The responsibility is palpable. It would be so easy to slip and send something toxic down the drain — which is why we’ve made the house totally green. So I’m doing my dishes, per above, and I realized how often I reach for the hot water, versus just water, or cold water. Like — so much. I realized that we — I personally and we as an industrialized nation — are addicted to hot water. Must have it for baths! Must have it for cleaning! Must have it for everything! When I rinse off a dish or a vegetable or my hands, I always turn on the hot water. Why? Because it is easy and thoughtless. It’s always there. I tried to notice how much I reach for hot water over the past few days — because it maybe easy and available, but it isn’t free. And I admit, I’m a glutton for hot water.
Try thinking about hauling your water from a well in the yard. Think about walking 10 minutes to the river, then back with a full pail of water. Think about walking five or ten miles daily with one large jar on your head. Think about gathering the wood to heat the water, and when you would use the hot water in that case. And also think about the oil that is pumped x-many thousand miles from here and how far it is shipped, and what it does to the atmosphere to transport and burn fuel on a grand scale so we can use hot water whenever we want to.
When I put it into that context, I started paying more attention to when I really needed hot water. It turns out that cold water does just as much good in most cases as hot. You really only need hot water when you need to disinfect — such as washing diapers, or dishes, or washing your hands after going to the bathroom. But rinsing your hands after cutting vegetables doesn’t require hot water. Rinsing out a glass before refilling it — cold water is just fine. Rinsing dishes before the dishwasher, if you do that — cold water, because the machine will use hot to kill whatever germs are there.

Just something to think about on this (here) gloomy July day.