Strumming Broke

Tony pays $280 per month for a room
Merely two blocks from the cracked bell,
Now more dinged than ever, but only
To the eagle-eyed. 7th and Market
Is no free-fire zone, but street noises
Disrupt sleep all night long. Honks,
Sirens and drunken shouts jab into
His already anxiety racked dreams.

Tony often wakes with a headache.
With no kitchen, everything’s nuked,
Or fried, surreptiously, on a hot plate.
Soon he may burn everything down.
On each floor is a shared bathroom.
“One of these guys shits on the toilet seat,”
Tony sighs, resigned, sort of, to such shit.

Tony was born and raised in Kensington,
A traditionally Irish slum that’s now
Irish, Puerto Rican, Black and Vietnamese.
Ever heard of a Kenzo Mouthwash? Look,
It’s when you bite on the curb as someone
Like Rocky Balboa stomps on your head.
The last time I was there, a young woman
Had just been shot, and as I was snapping
Her large candle-and-teddy-bear shrine, her
Teenaged sis shouted at me, “Hey, you can’t
Take photos! This is not a show and tell.”

Tony was delivering pizzas in Philly,
But that felt deadly, so he got a similar
Gig in Cape May, on the Jersey Shore.
On a good night, he’d earn 200 bucks,
Sometimes even more. Tony bought a
$40,000 home, then sold it
For a 20-grand profit. A dead uncle
Also left him 50,000. This was Tony’s
Financial, social and philosophical peak.
What is your apex, buddy? Ah, don’t say,
“The years before I was born,” or, “The decades
After I croak.” Say, “The moment they’re nabbed.”

(In drug rehab, Tony met Tina, whom I’d find
Dwelling in a Camden tent city. Freckled,
Redheaded and petite, she said she was
A former Miss New Jersey. She was cute.)

Though he has never heard of the word “busking,”
Tony has been busking for two years. He freaks
Strumming and singing in public so, this day,
He swills two cans of Pabst beforehand, outside,
Since he can’t afford to get buzzed inside a bar.

“I’m too old to be arrested for public drinking. Plus,
I wouldn’t be able to pay the fine.” Diffident,
Tony stands in the back corridor of a nearly empty
Commuter rail station, in front of a Dollar Store.

With luck, he’ll cover his beer investment,
Plus enough for reconstituted meat.

Linh Dinh is the author of two books of stories, five of poems, and a novel, Love Like Hate. He's tracking our deteriorating social scape through his frequently updated photo blog, Postcards from the End of America. Read other articles by Linh.