On the Street
I’m not here, don’t look at me.
Don’t scream when your children look at me,
do you think bad dreams are contagious?
Do you think I’ll breathe bad luck on your children?
Suppose you’d spent the afternoon
shining in your lover’s bed
and then brought him home to meet your parents
and they screamed
“Don’t touch that, you don’t know where it’s been!”
You can’t see me,
I’m just a crack in your contact lens;
I’m just a crack in your mirror.
My hands are dirty.
I’ve got your shadow under my fingernails,
I can’t wash it out.
I’ve got the shakes,
my own skin isn’t speaking to me
and I’m not speaking to you.
I’m not here, I have no past,
no memories, no name, not allowed.
So I eat your memories like garbage,
all your buried broken promises
and the bad dreams you forge
till you see me. Till you don’t see me.
I’m not here.
We will defend this place
Till the last drop of beer
And the first drop of rain.
The wizards in old tales used to bury their hearts in secret places
And unless you dug up the heart and destroyed it
They were invulnerable and heartless.
Part of my heart is buried in People’s Park.
Not all of it.
not even the largest part —
Other places, people, and I’m no wizard
so I keep some of it myself.
Part of my heart is buried in People’s Park.
Leave it alone. It’s the part that will never be reasonable
never grow up and know better and do worse.
Breathing is sweet to it and wild and scary.
It remembers meeting soldiers’ bayonets with daffodils.
It remembers tear gas drifting over swing sets.
It will always be young.
Leave it alone.
I go to the Park sometimes to talk to it — not often.
Time passes and it doesn’t always recognize me.
But it tells me there are many hearts buried with it
All young, all proud of what they made and fought for.
Do not disturb them.
Do not build on them.
Do not explain that times have changed.
Do not tell them it’s for their own good.
They’ve heard that before.
They will not believe you.
There are many hearts buried in People’s Park,
and part of my own as well.
Oh leave them alone.
Street Crazy Playing the Flute
Her mind ran over her face like a train wreck.
What was left twitched, at off moments.
But she played a wooden flute
as if her hands belonged to someone who never worried.
Thin shoulders huddled around the music,
stuck in a pile of clothes that would rather be in a closet.
Might’ve been young if she’d been someone else.
A cold grey evening.
People hurried off the street before it didn’t rain,
nobody stopped to watch her play.
She blew elbow-shaped notes and chords
stamping like boots for warmth, almost a crowd
but no faces, she always had trouble with faces.
Inside, people made dinners.
Hospital food had been beef stew without the beef
and frightened jello.
Her flute craved candied roses and catastrophes.
She’d passed a restaurant once.
Thru the window she’d seen lobsters piled on a tray
and bright small sharp instruments
either for cracking shells or brain surgery.
Her flute poured out soft warm butter sauce
into the cold evening till if you were a lobster
you’d love to be eaten. She’d been 51/50’d briefly.
She hadn’t noticed enough to be annoyed
except they defined her flute as a hard object
and took it away. Now she had it back.
What would’ve been a smile for someone else
crawled onto her face.
Her flute played Mount Rushmore for a closing flourish,
not president’s faces (she always had trouble with faces)
but a mountain-sized hot fudge sundae with a cherry.
John the Baptist on the Street
Skinny, tattered jacket, tangled wild beard,
sharp knees on the sidewalk
outside a sandwich and salad shop;
a John the Baptist woodcut.
Someone had given him a plastic container
of salad-to-go instead of spare change.
He howled, head thrown back,
dirty fingers clawing limp cringing lettuce
till even the celery whimpered and bled.
His rage worked magic on mayonnaise
and carrot peelings.
They became the torn fur of a small desert
animal that didn’t get away.
He snarled, scattering bones in all directions.
John the Baptist turns wherever he is into desert.
He preaches to stones, lizards and cactus
in their own language.
When the cops came on a noise complaint
he didn’t fight them the way he fought his salad.
He didn’t answer their questions, only waited.
Either they’d go away or take him away.
Either way they weren’t real to him.
Messiahs come and go, like the tide, in and out
but the Baptist’s still blocking the sidewalk,
raging, radiant and waiting.
The crowd shrugs off their eyes like soggy spitballs.
A grunge tribe share day-old donuts in the rain,
their belts low slung
down to the crack in their butts.
A wheelchair veteran with ghost fires
licking at his wheels.
Empty paper cups on mock fishing poles.
Their chants aren’t words anymore,
“spare change” is spoken dandruff
and must be brushed away;
what would a girl say if a new shirt
gets covered with begging dandruff?
Not even cruelty. Sometimes I wish it were.
The crowd hates the other football team
but they don’t hate what doesn’t exist.
The stolen shopping cart isn’t there,
even though it’s pushed by a skinny scream
piled high with junk and topped with a toy pink plastic phone.
Lovers leaning into each other
in a winter doorway aren’t there.
A mother aiming her crying child at the crowd isn’t there.
Sparechangers spend their days being erased like typos.
Saying “I am so alive, I’m here, sort of,”
is hard, mind-breaking work.
Goth girls play at being vampires
but it’s spare changers who cast no reflections,
no one wants to see.
If a tired guy with a cardboard sign has a small fuzzy puppy,
the puppy gets a smile.
The crowd feels guilty enough about people they love;
there’s no guilt left over for anyone else.
Julia Vinograd was Berkeley’s informal “poet laureate.” Her poems about Telegraph Avenue and life in Berkeley in the late 60’s and beyond were beloved by many. She died in December, 2018.