Morningside Heights by Irene Marcuse

St. Valentine’s Day has come and gone and now
store windows have turned from pink to green
in preparation for St. Patrick’s Day.

On the street, a woman in a brown coat carrying
a huge brown umbrella eats a chocolate ice cream cone
while she walks. Her umbrella brushes mine.

Yesterday in the subway an elderly man had a seizure.
It happened on the express and everyone got out at 96th St.
I sat with him until the guards came.

Later I saw a man vomiting against the side of the church
on 114th St. He stood with his back to the sidewalk 
heaving liquid vomit the color of red wine. 

A few people noticed. I glanced at him once
and walked on more quickly. People sleep
on those steps, beg for money on the corner.

Sometimes I give money to the regulars, the old men
who stand with paper cups held out – “Got a quarter?”
“Spare some change?” “Can you help me out?”

Other times I just smile and look into their eyes, “No, sorry,”
I say, and they smile back anyway. When I donate, it’s often
God who answers – “God thanks you.” “God bless you.” 

In the deli, the cashiers speak Spanish to each other
and never look at or talk to the customers. The produce
market where I buy Kim Chee is owned by Koreans.

Saturday night, a dense misty rain thickens and curls
in my hair. When I go out I put on a hot pink sweater
and pink lipstick, against the gray weather.

I seek the street. Jazz seeps from the West End.
A couple kisses under the awning. Midnight. I buy
a loaf of bread, a beer, an avocado, the Sunday Times.

I run into my Spanish teacher, who tells me this story:
An older woman in a black dress, make-up, rings, no purse,
lying full length in the entry to his building, weeping.

“Voy a morirme, voy a morirme!” Other tenants stood around.
He was the only one who understood, asked her in Spanish, “Why
do you want to kill yourself?” She kept on crying.

He asked her name, where she lived. The woman would not answer.
Finally the police came and carried her away. “Why do these things
happen to me?” he asks. The question of the compassionate

who can only witness and walk on. I mean to tell him 
about the man in the subway, my helplessness, but
he’s already paid for his paper and started home.


- Irene Marcuse 1986