Home at the Edge of the World
Alameda Poet Laureate Inaugural Poem
There 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 yet
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.
Alameda, 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