James Swansbrough

Never as quiet at 4 a.m. as you'd think, especially not
on this Southside street. Ambulances, squad cars wail
and howl. Train whistles moan miles down the tracks,
winding through the city like tapeworms.

The Choo-Choo Hotel sign flashes three blocks away
like a shitty Vegas marquee tossed down by a tornado.
The sign looks derelict as I do in the daytime,
urban homage to oxidation and decay. Of a night,

it's a red neon locomotive and tender of luminous lumber.
Engine stack bellowing white-bulbed smoke, steam,
or whatever. The wheels and exhaust blink to mime motion
down the tracks. But the train never goes anywhere.

I'm going nowhere too. Just watch the neighborhood
gentrify around me, observe bungalow topple to condo.
Suddenly I'm the underdog with no homefield advantage,
my only solace rooting for the scavengers at their guerilla raids.

So I look the other way when a new AC unit loses its lineset,
when a new neighbor regrets copper gutters and downspouts.
Contractors cuss this street on the regular when they fire another
idiot for letting the chop saw and air compressor grow legs.

The realtors and developers all wear pants at their waistlines,
chewing mints to conceal their cappuccino breath.
But an Altoid don't mask the scent of bullshit, any more than
a handshake makes us equals in their dollar-sign eyes.

I've no need of being moseyed to some other part of town.
Can watch the dumpster divers just as easily from my porch
as these yuppies can from their soundproof lofts—at least
my glance ain't a glare down my nose. I wish us eyesores

could be left alone, but our block only means progress as rubble—
our only value created by our absence. Someone would probably
scrap that landmark Choo-Choo sign, given the chance. Toss a
swanky penthouse suite up in its place, framed in with repurposed

railroad ties, tracks as ceiling joists, Edison bulbs dangling
fucking everywhere. Make the owner feel like a commodore,
maybe he'll name his champion breed cat Vanderbilt, maybe he'll
hire us as porters and shoeshines for his speakeasy flapper parties.

Nah, I'd rather make them all wait for me to die. Make them
hunt for my next of kin to sign their papers after probate.
Meantime I'll watch shiny townhomes block my view
of that sign, of the sky, of the sun, and it'll stoke my firebox
with spite to keep me grinding along the rails.

James Swansbrough earned his BA from Davidson College and MFA from Sewanee. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Cagibi, Cathexis Northwest, The Write Launch, Please See Me, Tiny Seed Journal, Still: The Journal, and the Free State Review. He was named Honorable Mention for the 2019 Yeats Poetry Award, and currently lives in Signal Mountain, Tennessee, with his wife and two daughters—who all identify as unicorn mermaid princesses.

Previous Poem  Table of Contents  Next Poem