Scoundrel Time

Poems By Erin Hoover

PR Opportunity at the Food Bank

It’s Thanksgiving and I’m at a dinner service
with a journalist, trying to wedge
my fable about urban generosity
into the newsroom’s
mollusk heart. I stand next to mothers,
their kids shouting Christmas carols,
also day-laborers, ex-prisoners, someone’s
grandmother, at one of the ministries
that feed people in the Bronx or Crown Heights
or Canarsie. I’m yanking people out of line

because I need stories, because the wallets
that open around Christmastime
have to know for whom. This interview
shouldn’t be an interrogation,
but with the room’s folding table and awful
light bulb, two white people,
me and a journalist, it’s clear screws

will be put. I want to say to the person
in front of me, I’m sorry I have to ask. And because
no one needs a pass from me, I don’t point out
the shame some feel their first time
taking charity. No shame

in lupus and HIV, the shit boyfriend,
the children who have moved on.
No talking about the mass of years carting home
jars of peanut butter and succotash. I ask

about things people are proud of:
their favorite foods to make, menudo or pecan pie;
a son doing well at math; what Haiti is like.
Ex-prisoners and present-day junkies say
they made mistakes, and I never ask what.
I can sell to a journalist
that the food pantry is another

bad break. In charity parlance, poor folks
are just like us, but say that here
to the scrawny child, to the armless man
a volunteer feeds peas by the spoonful. Tell it
to the home beautician’s expert lace front.
Before we go in to our free lunch, I remind
the journalist to look people full in the face
before he takes their picture,

when food is offered, to accept and eat.
Instead his camera sticks to his glasses
like a brick wall. He picks at his plate
of Salisbury steak, and studying a woman
at our table, produces a question,
an American one—

Who’s responsible for your poverty?

Honestly, I’m tired. I’d like to go home,
to my rosé, my couch, my nice neighborhood,
its plentiful Thai takeout and late shows
where comedians talk about something else.
I want to forget my sales pitch,
that this is how hunger ends, with chicken a la king
bubbling in Baptist kitchens, volunteers
who offer saran-wrapped dinner rolls along
with their prayers. But mostly,

I’d rewrite the journalist’s story,
make it about the night the check clears,
how the scent of frying meat can bloom
through a hallway. About the gratitude of any
Friday, any old cinderblock,
the sheen of fat that rolls in the skillet,
children noisily free
of anyone’s blessing. This is what I must picture
to do my job, not the scald
of chafing dishes in the priggish home

my journalist prefers, that Puritan
who can’t locate the crumbs of his thanks
without a little help. I’ll write for that person, too,
about the pleasure of a meal
without a poor neighbor’s tribute
to soften under the tongue. A lead
so unlikely, it’s news.


With Gratitude to Those Who Have Made This Book Possible

With the rich and mighty, always a little patience.
—“Spanish proverb” in The Philadelphia Story

I’ve got a story for you where I’m the asshole,
and the other assholes in it are my friends. A story
about the lives most of us will never afford,
though their scuttlebutt details seduce us. Its subject
is the people, and the parts of the city, that turn

the majority of us into Victorian urchins,
our noses pressed against bakery windows.
Among these friends is my college roommate,
who every summer invites me to her French chalet,
routinely forgetting that in order to eat

I heave my body daily into a Midtown office.
She tells me I’m better than that job when I decline.
But today I’ve been asked to a Prospect Park picnic,
and when I arrive, I’m hugged earnestly, invited
to sample citrus oil from someone’s endless

cache of gift bags. I’ve brought a summer salad,
corn and heirloom tomatoes from the greenmarket
I diced carefully to impress people that I’d hoped
a decade ago to be like, girls whose fathers built
pipelines in Africa while they wrote papers

about French Colonialism in school. Back then,
I pretended to be them, though at night I joined
the other scholarship kids to prank numbers
from our school directory, roused gentle Bitsy
from Potomac or dyspeptic Mortimer in Bel Air

at three a.m., because I could. Every distant
family member of mine would have to die at once
to inherit me into one of my friends’ second homes.
Of course I felt inadequate. But we spent
so much time together, it seemed I’d as easily

marry a Belgian prince or a hedge fund wunderkind
as they would. That first summer after college,
walking in Strawberry Fields, my dad asked me
why I didn’t rent one of those little attics
on Central Park West. He was unable to fathom

the duplex penthouse behind dainty windows,
or that at sleepovers at ones like it, I hesitated
to spit my toothpaste in Italian marble sinks.
And now my friends can’t picnic in Brooklyn
without someone commenting on the park’s

illusion of equality. Nearby, ordinary people
are frying their plantains, circling the clumpy field
in a game of pick-up soccer. From their vantage
I am the rich person, coddled as a tiny duke
or duchess in a Renaissance court painting,

or at least one of the glossy mastiffs they liked
to pose alongside. I only exist by proximity.
But it’s proximity that grants me a peek
into the bespoke panic room that generates
so much of what we call art, and who gets

to make art. The fault of these friends I look
at the acknowledgments of certain books
and find I’ve been the plus one at parties
for Brooklyn literati, people whose patios
reminded me of the time needed to write a book,

how the sting of rejection might be reduced, landing
on a golden cloud. Of course I was dying to go.
I’ve got a talent for noticing these friends’
failures, their bakery scones staling in the sun,
not an oily kernel left of my corn salad. My job

is to notice. I imagine the architects who sculpted
the park’s hills, believing the poor deserved
their share of countryside, and how growing up,
I bit into tomatoes we grew ourselves. We made
our own pleasures, unprofitable as the hue

on a piece of fruit. Vendors push the day’s last
coconut ices, as the sun sets on a lawn strewn
with chicken bones, soccer balls flattened to discs.
They have been kicked so hard, and so often.
How recently they amused somebody.


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