Fear/less: My City

Photo by Daniel Kwak.
Photo by Daniel Kwak.


You’re too stupid to be afraid, my mother used to say.

Maybe I was. Wandering the streets, riding subways, entranced

by the Red Hook light hitting metal, by the clotheslines, the pigeon coops.

Getting lost, coming home after dark, keeping secrets.


Painfully shy, my fear of people never caused fear of my city.


I was not afraid, at age seven, in Brownsville, going to the store with my cousins, tucking our dollar bills under our arms, just in case.


Not afraid, at nine, walking to Coney Island along McDonald Avenue,

the rank smell

of caged chickens following us, trying to find out if it was still all there in the winter.


Not afraid of exploring bridges with my two silly friends from day camp, even the ones closed to foot traffic, authorities called to rescue us over 59th Street.


Not afraid the night I rode up to El Barrio alone because the Young Lords had taken over a church and I was convinced that the cause would keep me safe. And it did.


I learned the rules of the street along the way.

Who to avoid. When to keep your mouth shut. Stay away from doorways. Walk like you know where you’re going. Never take your money out. Jump the gates. Climb the fences.

Run faster than the knife that might cut your pretty young face. Don’t tell anyone.


Survival skills.  And no matter how smart, young girls do not get away unscathed.

Some bad people, some bad nights.


But I was never afraid of my city.


Saturday evening, September 17, 2016.

We are sitting in the Garden at 6th and B, waiting to do some music.

Some poems.


My friend Ron texts me from Prague.

Explosion. Dumpster. Chelsea. Multiple injuries.

Pipe bomb explosion. Seaside Park.

Second device. 27th Street.

FBI. Homeland Security. On scene.

Cause “not yet determined.”


Images flood my mind as I read.

Eagles of Death Metal. Paris.

Pulse. The gay club in Orlando.

Young people bleeding on the dance floor. Dying.

The screams.

The smell.

The Towers.

The falling bodies.


Tonight, twenty-nine injured.

Were they sleeping?

Watching television? Eating dinner?

Do we have the right to be angry?

What about our bombs?

What about the Syrian children?

What about my friends?

What have we done?


We are here, making music and poetry,

Almost as far away as Ron, in Prague,

But here. We are all here.


Greetings to everyone, messages Ron.

Be safe, my darlings.


More texts.

Are you ok? Are you ok? Are you ok?

I do the checklist.

My son’s in New Jersey.

My daughter’s at home down here.

Wait…Gerald lives in the Hotel Chelsea,

Janis and Kevin and Jackie and Gary

and Michael and Tessa Lou and my cousin Lynn

who hates me, all in the neighborhood.


Are you ok? Are you ok? Are you ok?


Before 2001, we never took attendance.

Not even in the ’70s when they called it

Fear City.


But we were not afraid of our city.


We were always home.

On rooftops, street corners, broken

glass, basement clubs.

There was no word for homeless.

We were always home.


I am not afraid of my city.

Neither am I intrepid.


I had my first panic attack on an Upper East Side avenue.

Armies of tight faced women marched by.

I’m afraid to ride a bike in traffic.

I have trouble catching my breath between subway stops.

My heart races when the elevator comes to a sudden halt.


But I’m no longer afraid of people.

And I am not afraid of my city.


I hate every new wrinkle and crumbling tooth but I’m glad

that I did not grow up in fear. And I got to grow old.

I remember the feeling of invulnerability.

They say all young people feel it but I don’t think they do

anymore. I see it in their eyes.


What in the world,

like Bowie said,

what in the world can we do?


We live.

I live.

Newscasters look at us with sad eyes.

Sometimes we get scared, too.


But when I lie in bed at night,

thirteen flights above the river,

listening to rain or traffic noise,

I am struck almost senseless

by the lights of the bridges and

the safety of my concrete walls.


I am not afraid of my city.

Puma Perl on W. 23rd St., 2012. Photo Travis Blair.
Puma Perl on W. 23rd St., 2012. Photo by Travis Blair.