EDITOR’S NOTE: I wrote this piece back in 2011 and pitched it to a journal that promised to publish it. It’s obvious that didn’t happen, which is why – in honor of National Poetry Month and Dr. Tony Medina, I running it here.
For decades, the everyman personas such as Simple (Langston Hughes), Tramp (Charlie Chaplin), Christ of Elqui (Nicanor Parra), Mr. Cogito (Zbigniew Herbert) and Mudbone (Richard Pryor) have all taken American society to task—its follies, abuses and all—in attempts to shame it into improvement.
But if the 21st century’s any sign of where the needle swings on our moral compass, then our society still has ways to go. In Tony Medina’s Broke on Ice (Willow Books, 2011), his homeless character, Broke, is up to the task of getting us there.
Along the way, the reader glimpses Broke’s life experience through conversational poems, tall tales, anecdotes, episodes and jokes. Condemning America’s corporate and political greed, the wealth imbalance, and classicism, Medina lines them up like targets in a carnival shooting game and fires away.
In this 128-page collection, nothing’s off-limits, not even the mainstream media that’s likened to paparazzi in the opening poem, “Broke Celebrity (Culture)”:
They stalk me at the
Shots of me
As I sit
Along the curb
Reading this poem, I thought about the media frenzy over Ted Williams, who was homeless in Columbus, Ohio, until a videographer’s Jan. 3 recording of him demonstrating his radio voice went viral on YouTube and other social media sites.
At the time of the recording, Williams was at the side of the road, holding a sign offering his radio voice in exchange for donations. Subsequently, he was given a house and a full-time job with the Cleveland Cavaliers, doing voiceovers for the team and Quicken Loans Arena.
In “Broke Celebrity (Culture),” Broke speaks for the men and women of Indianapolis, Indiana, exploited by a reporter in her attempts to find another Ted Williams. His sarcasm could also be a rebuke to that reporter who asked homeless people to sing on camera.
They have me pose
Outside welfare hotels
Even have me
Hold up hunks
Of government cheese
Like award-winning statuettes
They treat me
Like a pampered pet
Some privileged poodle
Whose poop doesn’t stink
Snap and point
Have me turn
And bow and
Broke’s so down on his luck, he’s got to “put out/ an APB/ on the/ sun” (from “Broke Back on Concrete”). He’s auctioning off his ribcage for food, and his “life is a/ Morphine drip/ Where happiness trickles/ Down bit/ By bit” (“Broke But Busy”).
We’ve all seen him during our red light stops, weaving through the cars while waving his squeegee and bottle of cleaning fluid at us, hoping for our crumpled dollars and a handful of coins. Or we’ve seen Broke on the train, hopping “From subway car/ To subway car,” and these are all we’re able to give him:
Of I’m Broke
Dashed with the flat sweaty
Palms (“Broke Palm Reading”)
Perhaps our indifference tells us to look away. Or maybe we do so out of fear, with the current economic crisis—the massive foreclosures and downsizing job market—showing us how close we are to working the streets with Broke.
In that case, we’ve got the “Broke 12-Step Program” to help us survive out there, starting with number one: “1. Admit that you are broke.” With the seventh step, it becomes clear that no matter how down on his luck he is, Broke still has his self-respect:
7. Do not create your own job
opening doors at neighborhood
McDonalds, Burger Kings or
Indoor ATM machines.
Another favorite is number nine:
9. Remember: eating is like driving, having sex,
or riding a bike—you never really forget how
to do it; so, don’t try practicing chewing on
air—you wouldn’t want to be caught with a
Out of these 12 steps, perhaps the most pointed commentary is number eight, which alludes to how class factors into American society’s value of life:
8. Do not resist the temptation of allowing
yourself to be doused with lighter fluid and
set on fire by neighborhood youths while you
try to get some sleep and rest up for the next
full day’s work of panhandling from subway
car to subway car, or fishing through garbage
cans to eat.
While number eight is self-explanatory, I couldn’t read it without thinking about the recent incident reported on April 14 in Florida newspapers. According to reports, a Florida-based website has offered homeless men money to get beat up on camera.
The now-defunct Shefights.net, according to various reports, was a website with videos of young women punching, kicking and repeatedly hitting homeless men in the groin. According to various reports, several homeless men had a lawsuit filed in St. Petersburg. Broke’s advice to these men come in the twelfth step:
12. Don’t attempt to settle out of court
with your body fumes and the high heel
calluses on your broke and beaten feet.
The poem I kept coming back to is “Broke Con Carne”:
We meet in a subway car
We stare at one another, she and I
(This is no love story)
We both are broke
Both are hungry
We haven’t eaten in days
I stare at her, she stares at me
In a tense silent jailhouse ritual
She eyeing me, I eyeing her
We do not see each other’s humanity
To her I am a giant
Cheeseburger or a
Dry charcoal broiled
Pork chop with legs
To me she’s that human hotdog
I remember from
Watching the Wackiki Wabbit
Bugs Bunny cartoon
Only this time I don’t simply see
All hotdog and bun
I raise the stakes on my
I’m thinking Grey Poupon here!
Or her smothered in
Chili sauce and beans
Before you know it
The entire subway car
Smells like a Greek diner at noon
A not-so-kosher New York deli
A 4th of July picnic table littered with
A burnt and crispy potpourri
What’s interesting about this poem is that on the surface, it could be about two homeless people trying to claim their turf, or the subway car. Both of them are hungry after not eating for days or weeks.
One way of looking at the poem is how hunger makes it impossible for us to “see each other’s humanity,” or what we’re willing to do when our humanity’s tested.
Another way of looking at the poem is as a commentary on the delusional state of the powers that be.
That anybody in America can go almost a week without eating shows what happens when there’s an imbalance of wealth; and that it happens and remains off the politicians’ radars shows how much of a priority it’s not.
“Broke Con Carne” is also a poem about America’s excess and the consequences. That Broke is “a giant/ Cheeseburger or a/ Dry charcoal broiled/ Porkchop with legs” says a lot about the obesity and rate of heart disease in America.
With the task at hand, Broke’s got his work cut out for him. But knowing what I know after reading this collection, no order’s too tall for the 21st century everyman to deliver on.