W. D. Ehrhart  

Mostly Nothing Happens

East Mt. Airy, Philadelphia
    Walking home on Upsal Street,
I saw a group of young black men
gathered on the sidewalk up ahead.
What now, I thought, heartbeat
rising in a heartbeat, eyes
instantly attempting to assess
intentions, weapons, routes of egress,
do I just keep walking, do I
take a detour to avoid them, if I—

Shame arrived before an answer:
what would Harris think, I thought,
what would Harris think of me
for fearing who when we were young
was him?

Harris's girlfriend was pregnant
when we were young, and every night
the two of us would read her letters,
flashlights pressed against the floor.
God help us if our drill instructors
caught us, but gentleness was rare
and we were very much in need
of gentleness on Parris Island,
so together we would read
those gentle letters.

She'd write about the baby's kicking,
how she'd guess what sex it was,
and if it was a boy they'd name him John.
"That's my name," he'd say each time.
"I know," I'd say, too embarrassed
to admit I didn't know a thing.
I'd touched a girl's secrets only twice,
and only with my hand,
and here's a guy who's really done it—
done it and she's pregnant, and he's
neither married nor abandoned her!

All of this a wonder to a small town kid
who'd never heard sex talked about
in proper conversation, get a girl pregnant
and you marry her, no questions, no debate.
Furthermore, a town where Negros didn't live,
and terms like jungle bunny, nigger, coon,
if seldom heard in proper conversation,
were seldom far from lips.

But I was scared to death
of drill instructors huge as houses,
mean as pit bulls, psychopathic maniacs
out to keep the Viet Cong from killing me
by killing me themselves, or so I thought.
Who at seventeen could understand
how terrifying war would be,
how much more obscene? This place
was worse than any place I'd ever been.
I thought I'd never leave alive.

To my surprise, so did Harris.
Urban, street-smart, soon-to-be-a-father
Harris, just as scared as I was.
And his voice so soft, his hand
upon my wrist when we were reading
softer still, a heart so big
I thought that mine would burst.
Through all those lonely southern nights,
through all that frightened Carolina summer,
those two boys from Perkasie and Baltimore
stuck together and survived.

Harris is the reason why I'm here:
I chose an integrated neighborhood
because I didn't want a child of mine
to reach the age of seventeen
with no one in her life
who isn't white.

But something isn't working right:
The neighborhood's got crack cocaine
and dirty needles lying in the gutter,
muggings, robberies, burglaries,
guns more prevalent than basketballs
and people willing to use them.
Two teenaged kids, a couple on a date,
were shot two blocks from here
for two dollars, and just last week
a man was taken from his car
at gunpoint, shot, and left for dead
a football field's length from my front door.
How much longer will it be before
the victim's me, my wife or daughter?
And if and when it happens,
odds are high the perpetrator's
going to be a young black man.

I hate to say those words out loud.
I hate the world that's made them true.
I hate distrusting men
before I even know their names, and so
I chose to trust those men on Upsal Street,
and this time got away with it.
But every time I trust a stranger
just might be the time I'm wrong.
What then?

What would Harris do, I thought,
what would Harris tell me I should do?
Why not find him? Why not ask?

You'd think it would be hard to find a friend
you haven't seen in twenty-seven years,
but I found him faster than I ever dreamed
or ever cared to: Panel 26E, Line 105.
John Lee Harris, Jr., born September 12th, 1947,
killed in Vietnam September 21st, 1967.


You'd think that on the day he died,
an angel might have come to me.
A heron, or a raven.
But no. Only the day came
and went away again like other days
in Vietnam, and then my tiny piece of that
obscenity was over, so I thought,
and I too went away, wanting to forget.

I didn't think of Harris for a long time,
but I never forgot what he taught me,
and now I want to pound my fists
against that stupid granite wall:
"Come out of there, John Harris!
I need to know if what I am is cautious
or hysterical, a realist or just a racist,
how the world is, how am I to live in it.
I need answers," but instead
I get that war again,
still taking friends and giving only
wounds that never heal.

And now I've got this other war as well.
Last summer someone tried to force
my daughter's bedroom window open.
This was on a Tuesday afternoon.
Did Harris and his girlfriend ever marry?
Did they have a son and name him John?
Or did they have, like me, a baby girl?
And did he get to hold his child
and wonder at the tiny life he'd made
before he went away and died, fighting
yellow people in a white man's war?
Would he understand I'm not afraid for me?

That son of his would be a man
about the age of the men I passed
on Upsal Street last week,
the pounding in my chest so loud,
surely they could hear it.
I don't want to leave this neighborhood.
I want to think we'll be okay
if only we can touch the best
in others and ourselves.
I still don't keep a gun around
because I'm through with guns,
but every day is like a day at war:
mostly nothing happens,
but you never know what's waiting
when or where or how.
The first black friend I ever had
died one day when something happened.
Every day I'm always on patrol.
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    Copyright © 1996 by W. D. Ehrhart
Mostly Nothing Happens, Adastra Press, 1996
This poem currently appears in Thank You For Your Service: Collected Poems, McFarland & Company, 2019
Copyright © 2011 - W. D. Ehrhart - homepage
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