"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
— Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus”
As the sky swings its fiery fist towards noon, I retreat
from the diminishing shade of Bryant Park to the cool interior
of the New York Public Library: clutching two slim volumes of poetry,
I wind my way through high-ceilinged halls, names of trustees
etched into the walls with gold leaf, looking for a place to read.
I duck groups of gawking tourists with Midwestern complexions
and cameras hanging from their necks, resist taking my own pictures,
remembering the admonishment against flash photography
at the entrance. In the air-conditioned digital gallery, I find a chair
but continue to wonder where they keep the books.
On my way to a toilet downstairs, tourists wait awkwardly
outside the women's restroom, and I smell their discomfort before
I see her: copper-skinned and statuesque, she stands just inside at the sink,
one arm raised over her turbaned head splashing water from the tap
into an unshaven armpit and muttering to no one we can see.
I press past her to piss, my bladder unconcerned; here, in this washroom,
we are all human stink. When I emerge from the stall, she is gone,
the floor shining wet from her morning ablutions: a respite
from the city’s grim patina within these hallowed halls
where we all, each of us, can feel at home.
Standing on a BART train surrounded by children who look like children I might have some day, little boys with their heads shaved close, little girls with hair in braids, tiny plastic barrettes in the shape of birds and fish and flowers clamped at the ends. I’m refreshing my smart phone as I travel back to Oakland early on this BART train under the bay, looking to see what our lives are worth to those twelve people sitting on that jury at the other end of the state, where other juries have decided in the past that our lives are, simply, not worth very much.
But my smart phone isn’t so smart under the bay, and instead I smile at the children surrounding me who are acting like children: climbing over their seats, climbing over each other, voices raised in the sparkling cacophony that happy children are known for. They are on their way home from a long day of field-tripping with young white teachers who look exhausted and protective when a middle- aged white man in a suit presses past the children with his briefcase clutched to his chest and his face a mask of annoyance. I wonder if he sees these children as children, or if he sees these children as so many animals, or a drain on the system, or a shitty way to end his workday, or living, breathing bull’s eyes. What do the other people around me see when they look at these little boys, smelling like little boys, full of energy and excitement, their eyes reflecting nothing but the sun as we come above ground in West Oakland?
I refresh my phone again and know what our lives are worth, know that the twelve people on that jury decided that these children are little bull’s eyes. I want to hold them all close to me, spread my arms around them, protect them from those who will involuntarily pull out their guns, take aim, and slaughter them for being little boys, for being little boys full of energy, for being children who look like children I might have some day.
I know you didn’t mean it that way, but today is a day when you’re the fifth person who didn’t mean it, and the other two meant it very well, and I just can’t keep my mouth shut anymore
because I said nothing when white hipster boys biking in the Mission, muttering “nigga” ironically as they passed. I said nothing but silently wished them transported to a small cabin in Missouri
with tiny dark windows like missing teeth, miles from anything resembling a main road, clothes waving lazily from the line stretched across the yard and illuminated by the cross being set on fire,
inside babies smacked by helpless women trying to keep them quiet while outside horses whinny and sigh and bullets and rope are eased from saddlebags, the night so disgraced that even the moon flinches.
No, I cannot keep my mouth shut any longer, I’m sorry. So when your eyes grow wide and indignant at being found out, when your face twists into tantrum, your cheeks streaked with fat embarrassed tears,
I find myself trapped between compassion and a desire for you to grow a thicker skin: a darker skin, perhaps, for Lord knows the rest of us can’t afford to be so sensitive, so tender, in this world full of people who never mean it that way.
Lauren Wheeler writes poetry and really short fiction. She's twice competed at the National Poetry Slam and has featured throughout the country, including at Cornell University, where she studied English. Her work has appeared in Monkeybicycle, PANK, and The Nervous Breakdown. She lives in Oakland, California. Learn more at laurenwheeler.com.