Grays Ferry

The name itself is dismal. Stumbling
Into adulthood, I spent a year there,
On a narrow, much interrupted street.
My austere block had a single, sick tree.
Tim Fender and I rented a row house
For only 50 bucks a month. Basically,
It was a shell, bought by this gay man
Who thought he would fix it up, but
Grays Ferry made him so depressed,
He just had to bolt. Being Catholic Irish,
This hood couldn’t have been congenial
To someone gay, unless he’s a priest.
Still, I seriously doubt the neighbors did
Or said anything. They certainly didn’t
Show hostility to Tim or I, two art fags.
Everyone suffered in Grays Ferry, and
In 1986, it literally stank, for there were two
Huge lots filled with garbage, thanks to a
Twenty-day strike by Philly’s garbage men.

I had left art school without a degree,
For why borrow money to learn painting
From all these failed artists? Why not just
Slink somewhere and paint? Though I never
Amounted to crap as a painter, I’ve taught
Myself to write, sort of, instead of hocking
My life to a bank, just so I could be misled
And muddled by stunted or puffed up typists.

That year, I manned up and mainlined Celine’s
Death on the Installment Plan and his Journey
To the End of the Night. After the first
Paragraph of Death, I knew there were risks
To reading further, but until I could finish all
One thousand-plus pages of these books, I
Didn’t leave the house. It took me a week,
Then I started my own novel, from which
I’d read on UPenn’s WXPN.
The response was great, actually, but
People were just astonished by my
On-air delirium, for the writing
Was a goofy mess. I had to toss it.
(WXPN liked my raving so much,
It even made me a host, until I
Really went nuts on a live show.)

The Grays Ferry shell was freezing.
I ate badly, drank rather well, kissed
Rachel upside down, bit her lips, and
Not in a nice way, either. I apologized,
And I’m saying sorry again, for one
Can never say sorry enough. I’m sorry.
Any lived life will trail loose ends, but what
Are unforgivable are malice and betrayal.
For a month, Tim had a boyfriend then,
Much later, told me he wasn’t really gay.
I wasn’t too gay, myself, for my prospects
As human, artist and writer were pathetic.
Irrelevant, young artists and writers lie
On gray sheets and dream of greatness
As society sinks further into stupid.
Hi, I’m stupid. This is stupid.
Nice to meet you, stupid.

The local, though, can never be stupid,
But I didn’t know it then, so I missed all
Of Grays Ferry’s breadth and depth, which
I never bothered to investigate. Tense,
I talked to no locals. I simply assumed
My future was in New York or, at least,
Downtown Philadelphia. What a farce.
Had I mingled in Grays Ferry, I might have
Discovered its trade in soiled underwear.
For 17 years, neighborhood boys would run
To swank Rittenhouse Square, to sell their
Skid-marked Fruit of the Loom to Fast Eddie.
A UPenn dropout, Eddie also paid these
St. John Neumann kids to piss, shit or throw up
Into his mouth. He kept shit in pizza boxes.
Though HIV-positive, Ed had butt sex
With some of these teenaged boys.
Before his trial, Uncle Ed died of AIDS.
Eddie studied economics, then music,
Married his high school sweetheart, divorced her.
The love of his life, though, was excreta.
Messy yet meticulous, he saved all of
His boys’ underwear in 312 trash bags.

To be an artist, you must not blunt your
Troubling vision, no matter how queer.
Hedge and you’ll be a half-assed punk.
To be true, you must be willing to die.
You must, as Gary Snyder says, “kiss
The ass of the devil and eat shit.”
You must have as much integrity
As Uncle Eddie of Philadelphia.

More Poems by Linh Dinh