Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2019  Vol. 18 No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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A Gun to the Heart of the City
I was in New York City for the stall-in. Got there early that morning, was walking
      through Harlem, and right next to a filling station, a cat walked up to me and said,
      “Hey baby, can you loan me three pennies? I want to buy some gas. I’m driving
      to the World’s Fair.”

—Dick Gregory

Eighteen hundred drivers volunteered. Eighteen hundred
cars to merge onto the Grand Central Parkway,
their noses pointed toward the World’s Fair in Queens,

their gas tanks near empty. Eighteen hundred men
and women for police reform and school integration,
for fair housing, inclusive labor, for the letter of the law.

A Crown Victoria sputters eastbound along the LIE.
An Impala stalls the Van Wyck at Hillside—
a missing inhibitor. Two sedans, discarded near Flatbush,

are put on display. It’s morning, April 22, 1964.
A friend misremembers. And in his misremembering
my mother sits in traffic. Clenched jaw, brake lights,

the car hoods slick with rain. It’s her first day
at the Löwenbräu Gardens. She’s running late.
But the New York Journal-American

had already declaimed the stall-in, first proposed
by Louis Lomax in a speech at Queens College,
as a clear threat to law and order. The Post called it

merely sound and fury, carrying no clear message.
Eighteen hundred cars on exhibit. Eighteen hundred extras
playing themselves. In his study, Lomax

must have thought back to Valdosta, Georgia,
his days as a shoeshine boy in an all-white barbershop,
how the laughter always doubled when the owner,

a garrulous man, would duckwalk across the checkered
floor to demonstrate how best to make your way
through a lynch crowd. To be up close.

The night before the fair opened, Mayor Wagner,
a liberal Democrat, denounced the would-be stall-in,
naming it a gun to the heart of the city.

Metaphor. Metonymy. The crime reported in advance.
Michael Brown bulking up to run through the shots.
It’s three a.m., and your children are safe.

What did you think would happen? A demonstration?
A riot? The city deployed over one thousand patrolmen
to the highways of Brooklyn and Queens.

Twenty-three protestors were arrested
in Jackson Heights, but the Grand Central was clear,
and Robert Moses welcomed fifty thousand visitors

to his World of Tomorrow. In another version,
one swept clean of our figurations, the metaphors
meant to mug us in the dark, my mother sits in traffic

on the Interboro Parkway, her mind a punch clock.
All around her the graves of artists and abolitionists—
Thomas Downing, Arturo Schomburg, James McCune Smith.

Car horns blare and bleat their discontent. My mother
lights a cigarette. She fidgets. One mile ahead
a woman has turned herself into a conceit,

blocking traffic with a stalled Chrysler, her placard:
Discrimination Is a Wall Which Side Are You On?
And the fat policemen who arrive in a huff,

and the tow trucks’ blinking lights,
and no one to spy the World of Tomorrow,
no one to walk through its gates.  

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