Once - Poem by Philip Levine
Hungry and cold, I stood in a doorway
on Delancey Street in 1946
as the rain came down. The worst part is this
is not from a bad movie. I'd read Dos Passos'
USA and thought, "Before the night ends
my life will change." A stranger would stop
to ask for my help, a single stranger
more needy than I, if such a woman
were possible. I still had cigarettes,
damp matches, and an inaccurate map
of Manhattan in my head, and the change
from the one $20 traveler's check
I'd cashed in a dairy restaurant where
the amazed owner actually proclaimed
to the busy heads, "They got Jews in Detroit!"
You can forgive the night. No one else was dumb
enough to be out. Sure, it was Easter.
Was I expecting crocus and lilac
to burst from the pavement and sweeten
the air the way they did in Michigan once
upon a time? This wouldn't be so bad
if you were only young once. Once would be fine.
You stand out in the rain once and get wet
expecting to enter fiction. You huddle
under the Williamsburg Bridge posing for Life.
You trek to the Owl Hotel to lie awake
in a room the size of a cat box and smell
the dawn as it leaks under the shade
with the damp welcome you deserve. Just the once
you earn your doctorate in mismanagement.
So I was eighteen, once, fifty years ago,
a kid from a small town with big ideas.
Gatsby said if Detroit is your idea
of a small town you need another idea,
and I needed several. I retied my shoes, washed
my face, brushed my teeth with a furry tongue,
counted out my $11.80
on the broken bed, and decided the time
had come to mature. How else can I explain
voting for Adlai Stevenson once and once
again, planting a lemon tree in hard pan,
loaning my Charlie Parker 78s
to an out-of-work actor, eating pork loin
barbecued on Passover, tangoing
perfectly without music even with you?
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