Residents We Did Not See

by Joe Engel

East St. Louis appeared

in the first left turn

after taking the wrong exit

on the interstate,

it’s impression formed

in the old tube TV’s

on plastic crates

outside of a pawn shop.

A house across from that

sat in a pile

of its own wooden remains

where it had collapsed,

not because of fire or demolition,

but old age and neglect.

My German girlfriend

knew how to travel,

don’t expect anything, she said.

Her German roommate

gawked from the back seat

at the sight of this neighborhood

where a row of houses sat

like sunken ships 

on the floor of a drained sea.,

and I knew that they were 

seeing America,

not as I was

stretched and divided ,

warring with assumptions

but with a travelers eye

for variety, the squalor 

like a dead branch just below

a limb rich with apple blossoms

on the same tree,

my own fears fed by this disparity.

American mythos  

taught that the first man

we saw would want my Chevy Metro,

point a gun, and pull me

out of my seat,

and a gang waited

to take our luggage,

while we idled at a stop light,

me soaked in my own whiteness, 

privilege tight

like a vice on my shoulders.

The German girls were fine

in their foreign skin,

no alarm over streets 

littered with nip bottles

and Taco Bell bags,

the thought of someone

wanting what you have.

At the red light, time stretched

and a dog pattered across the avenue,

passed between 

two boarded up houses,

mangy and free,

not fearsome enough

for me to hit the gas.

Abiding laws, I waited and waited

for that light to turn green.

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