"Ode to Old Yinzers" by Stephen Lin
 

When an old man with
the sparse teeth of a newborn
began speaking to me through
music playing so loudly
in my headphones that it must
have been ambient to anyone
outside the carefully partitioned
space I take up in public,
I took out a single headphone
acknowledging that yes, he
has become entitled to the
attention, to the existence,
to the life of everyone and every
thing he has ever encountered,
but that right now, he will
only get half of my ears
as my full attention sizes him up,
as I square my shoulders waiting
for the blow to land and 
I realize he is asking me which
bus that is, creeping 
through the distance
of swinging stoplights.

 

I tell him “It’s one of the 61s,
maybe a C or D,” how distance
blurs together objects 
related by proximity, 
how contradictions sharpen
the presence, the
presentiment of a human form
abstracted into an outline.

 

He says “I sure hope it is,”
then pauses. I’m watching
the opening and closing of
that fallow mouth, its few
yellow teeth like gold prospectors,
clacking like the chink of
pickaxes out West. He asks
“Where are you from?”
I tell him “Pittsburgh, born and 
raised,” standing on this corner
in Squirrel Hill, a five minute
walk from my high school,
twenty minutes from my mother’s
house, the first home our family
ever owned, bought from the life

insurance from my father’s cancer, 

twenty feet and across the street 

from where he collapsed one night, 

coughing up blood.

 

The old man shakes his head and asks
“No, what’s your nationality?”
and all I can think is: Isn’t there more
important shit we can be talking
about right now? All I can think
is: The butterflies are still
here, and it’s mid-winter. Isn’t that
fucking terrifying? Can either of us
get out of here, will our ancestors take
us to a sanctuary in some imaginary
South where the trees are still alive
and animate with the soft rustle of
wings? 

 

You know, this poem could have been 

so much more than you, old man,
our conversation could have been
the platform for half-baked truths,
hard fought and questionable wisdom, 

we could have been brilliant for a moment,

more real to each other than sunlight 

on a cold day when the atmosphere is
burning. Instead we are reduced
to the rhetoric of another
microaggression, another off-white
page against which I imprint
characters, making words seem
foreign to myself as a means of
demanding to be allowed to be
myself, to be anything, to get on
the bus in the city I will die in,
and ride it until one of us gives out.