The Rental Class: “On Jasmine, in Palms”

Saturday, October 31, 2020

One aspect of Charles Olson’s poetry that turned out to be very influential in the Venice West scene was his interest in recording the dailiness of the neighborhood. Venice has completely transmogrified in the past sixty years and many adjacent neighborhoods have experienced various degrees of gentrification, too. Recently a poet named William Slattery sent me a poem about the neighborhood he lived in a quarter-century or so ago, and I thought I would share his candid recollections.

It’s Halloween today, and I have no intention of opening the door tonight to anyone who might believe that going house to house during a pandemic is an exercise in social responsibility. If there are to be people roaming about, let it be the people you knew years ago, remembered as William Slattery does in this memoir-in-verse.

I am also publishing this piece as part of the context as we rapidly head toward the final day of voting in this year’s national election. “The Rental Class” is the one of several classes that are rarely invoked when one is talking national politics, and yet the inability to escape the confinement of renting most certainly shapes one’s likelihood of voting. How can a vote make things better when nothing a politician does ever shifts the terms by which those who have property are far more privileged. No matter what your race, renting is not a proof of privilege.

I rent. I vote. I expect no improvement in the reprehensible health care that my insurance at work provides (Blue Shield — what a pathetic joke!) nor do I expect any improvement in the quality of air that I breathe. Will the person running to represent my district in Long Beach really address the parking issues? Such minor things as parking do matter, but even they are very unlikely to alter for the better.

Nevertheless, I voted. Whether Slattery’s neighbors are still alive and going to vote, I cannot say. Here, at least, is one of a hundred million backstories for what will unfold in the week ahead.

*. *. *. *. *

GUEST POET: William Slattery

On Jasmine, in Palms
Los Angeles, 1990s

zee . . . zee . . . zee . . .

alarm clock drags me to the beach
foaming with sheets, two small furry
seal pups wriggling toward body heat

lick open my eyes: they are dachshunds
and it is morning. Up and out . . .

large woman and gimp Shar-Pei
lunge toward us through the morning’s gray,
the black dog bounding in awkward joy
on its three good feet, fourth held weightless . . .

seizes my hand in its feather-soft mouth
while neighbor-lady makes earnest noise
to share the smallest things she knows . . .

my dogs ignore the whole commotion

7 a.m.:
the hard-faced black lady from apartment 3
strides past me, eyes averted. Five years
we’ve lived forty feet apart: once
she murmured hello, twice met my eyes,
and, every other day, stomped past
as if she were Jewish and I sold gas . . .

I don’t know why she acts this way:
because I’m white . . .
a man . . .
or me . . .

the serious couple from number 5
working with rakes and a water hose:
whacking at weeds, wetting down plants,
washing the sidewalk clean of dirt . . .

they never talk to each other or me
(their poor English, my poor Spanish)
but we give each other eyes of love . . .

and their little boy adores my dogs

Eva’s got to practice . . .

operatic soprano voice
climbing the scales until they break

it’s Tony’s turn . . .
he’s her husband, plays piano.
They’re music majors at UCLA,
perform duets, piano and voice,
for money here and in China
where Eva was born . . .

A difficult passage
from a classical piece, tried again and again
but never complete . . . Tony’s practice:
he works and works and works at tunes.
I’ve never once heard him play for fun . . .

courtyard divided by a fence . . .
out my one window, I look across
to my apartment’s mirror image
where the party dudes are waking up . . .

groaning, coughing, trying to remember . . .

“Did you see that one chick dancing naked
on the table before I threw up
all over her feet and she pissed in my eye?”

They hang out on the landing, smoking
with the two women who live next door
with their three kids and one sometime-
boyfriend they share between them, who
fathered two of their kids and scrounges
cigarettes from the party dudes . . .

all day, all night, someone’s crying
in that apartment: one of the kids,
one of the women, two of the women,
all of the kids . . .

never Boyfriend . . .

he disappears a lot of the time
to stay with another girl he loves . . .

but now he’s talking very intensely
in that rumble voice they lean close to hear . . .

Lydia, the little Latina
so pretty my body goes into shock
each time she smiles and tosses a wave,
opens the door to her husband’s knock . . .

“Lydia, I brought you money.
Let me in, honey, to see the kids.”
She grabs the check and slams the door.

“Lydia, what did I do?” he cries
out loud, then whispers: “Fucking bitch . . .”

Tony’s students
start to show up, one per hour,
children learning to play piano:
“Chopsticks,” “Chopsticks,” “Chopsticks,” “Chopsticks”

Six p.m.:
dressed in their best,
Boyfriend and the younger, cuter
of the two mothers (she’s seventeen)
float out the door and down the stairs.
She’s keenly excited, going out
on the arm of this handsome man
into a night so rich with promise . . .

her dress, his skin, the sky black velvet

they’re already back
and parked on the steps to leave the kids
and older girlfriend out of their fight.
She’s whining “What did I do?” and he’s
smoking, not talking, and she’s all
“I don’t understand. Talk to me, honey . . .”

and I’m trying so hard not to listen . . .

the harder I try, the harder I listen . . .

then there’s a sound, it sounds like a slap,
now she’s crying, first it’s surprise
then there’s another sound, it’s a thump

her gasp . . .
her footsteps running . . .
footsteps running after . . .
back to
the alley and I’m out my door
to the wall that divides their side from mine
and Boyfriend turns to me, rumbling voice
“Can I help you?”

(I’m so damned glad that wall is there . . .)

but I see her
crumpled on the ground behind him,
black velvet dress on black asphalt
all splashed in tears, black pool of tears . . .

and Boyfriend’s waiting for me to back off
or make my move . . .
but I just stand
right where I am to softly say

“I thought I might help you . . .”

Ten p.m.:
very quiet.

Four in the morning:
eyeball my walls
visibly shaking from music so loud
that lights snap on around the courtyard . . .

it’s the screenwriter straight below me . . .

but no one shouts “Asshole” or pounds on his door:
maybe we all know Van Morrison
that loud, that late,
means he’s trying to save his life.

— — — — — — — — —

William Slattery

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