On Returning to Baker, California
The World’s Largest Thermometer
is dark now, most of the ten-degree
bulbs shot out for target practice
and the Starbucks’ windows
boarded up and splintering to dust
in the gritted-desert wind are cordoned off
by a chain-link fence. Even the pastel- painted
Royal Hawaiian Motel, two stars
in the best of times, with it’s Luau Buffet
and watered-down umbrella drinks
has bid Aloha for better climes.
It’s been like this for some time,
this Death Valley town
too damn surreal to appeal
to any living thing unless
you include the conspiracy folks
who still line up at Lou’s stand
for Alien Beef Jerky to compare
notes about spacecraft sightings
in the unpolluted sky. But there’s talk
of building a UFO hotel
with a pool in the shape of an alien
head, a gift shop, searchlights,
a gourmet restaurant and espresso bar
just right for any wandering Plutonian
needing reading material or a quick
caffeine fix before the long trip home.
August, New York City
A summer sun is volleying
off concrete and chrome,
making knives of light
that slice through humid air;
this place stirred full of smoke,
full of grit, wearing so heavy
on my valley of empty space
like an inversion of heat.
On a cross-street near Broadway,
I look up at three banks
all blinking different
times and temperatures.
Why does each one
of them continue to tell
me that I am still too late?
Binghamton, New York, 1965
There was a Hometown Bakery
that made the best chocolate cake
known to man, and down the street
an Italian place that sold bread hot,
and thick, square pizza, with sauce
but no cheese, and coffee
that gave you a buzz for a week.
We had a Sears, not some catalogue store
but a real one with tools and tires;
two full floors with an escalator,
and over by the Chenango River that cut
through the town, a Monkey Wards
Around the corner, there were two full-feature
theaters until one boarded up and the other tried
porn films for a while to make ends meet,
and the White House Pub with the fifty-foot,
scarred, oak bar until they hauled it out for scrap.
And the trains: freights, dropping off
and picking up cars at the roundhouse,
heading west through Elmira and Horseheads,
Painted Post and Olean, or south to New Jersey.
Fifteen busses a day, Greyhounds and Trailways
going south through Scranton and Wilkes-Barre,
or north to Buffalo with stops in Cortland and Watkins Glen.
Bars, five-to-a-block serving bumps and a beer,
fried clam sandwiches from the kitchen in back,
open to three a.m. and only two hours to first mass
in Polish or Czech for first-shift workers stopping in
for a quick Host, praying to Whoever might be listening
that their jobs might hang around for one more day.
Richard Luftig is a professor of educational psychology and special education at Miami University in Ohio, now residing in Pomona, California. He is a recipient of the Cincinnati Post-Corbett Foundation Award for Literature and a-semi finalist for the Emily Dickinson Society Award.