The Mass Poetry Festival is being held this weekend, and in honor of that we bring you the work of acclaimed local poet, Martín Espada, who is taking part in the festival.
Drawing upon both a personal encounter he had with a cab driver in Boston, and the story of a notorious murder case of Chuck Stuart, a Bostonian who murdered his wife, blamed it on a made-up black car-jacker and almost got away with it, Espada tackles issues of race by, in his own words, “framing the present through the lens of the past.”
Martín reads this poem, entitled Jumping Off the Mystic Tobin Bridge, for us.
Read Jumping Off the Mystic Tobin Bridge by Martín Espada
I close my eyes and see him windmilling his arms as he plummets from
the Mystic Tobin Bridge, to prove me wrong, to show me he was good,
to atone for sins like seeds in the lopsided apple of his heart, but mostly
to escape from me in the back of his cab, a Puerto Rican lawyer in a suit and tie.
I hated the 111 bus, sweltering in my suit and tie with the crowd in the aisle,
waiting to hit a bump on the Mystic Tobin Bridge so my head would finally
burst through the ceiling like a giraffe on a circus train. I hated the 111 bus
after eviction day in Chelsea District Court, translating the landlords and judges
into Spanish so the tenants knew they had to stuff their clothing into garbage
bags and steal away again, away from the 40-watt squint that followed them
everywhere, that followed me because I stood beside them in court. I would
daydream in the humidity of the bus, a basketball hero, flipping the balled-up
pages of the law into the wastebasket at the office as the legal aid lawyers
chanted my name. I hated the 111 bus. I had to take a taxicab that day.
What the hell you doing here? said the driver of the cab to me in my suit
and tie. You gotta be careful in this neighborhood. There’s a lotta Josés
around here. The driver’s great-grandfather staggered off a boat so his
great-grandson could one day drive me across the Mystic Tobin Bridge,
but there was no room in the taxi for chalk and a blackboard. He could
hear the sawing of my breath as I leaned into his ear, past the bulletproof
barricade somehow missing, and said: I’m a José. I could see the 40-watt
squint in his rearview mirror. I’m Puerto Rican, I said. It was exactly
5 pm, and we were stuck in traffic in a taxi on the Mystic Tobin Bridge.
The driver stammered his own West Side Story without the ballet,
how a Puerto Rican gang stole his cousin’s wallet years ago. You think
I’m gonna rob you? I said, in my suit and tie, close enough now to tickle
his ear with the mouth of a revolver. I could hear the sawing of his breath.
He still wanted to know what I was doing there. I’m a lawyer. I go to court
with all the Josés, I said. Stalled traffic steamed around us, the breath
of cattle in the winter air. Where you going for the holidays? the driver said.
I thought about Christmas Eve in court, eviction orders flying from the judge’s
bench when tenants without legal aid lawyers, or children old enough to translate
the English of the summons, did not answer to their names. Every year, the legal
aid lawyers told the joke about the Christmas Defense: Your honor, it’s Christmas!
I said to the driver: I will be spending Christmas right here with my fellow Josés.
The driver shouted: What do you want me to do? Get out of this cab and jump off
the bridge? We both knew what he meant. We both knew about Chuck Stuart,
the last man to jump off the Mystic Tobin Bridge. Everybody knew how Chuck
drove his wife to Mission Hill after birthing classes, the ash and pop in the dark
when he shot her in the head and himself in the belly. Everybody knew how
he conjured a Black carjacker on the crackling call to 911 the way the Mercury
Theatre on the Air conjured Martians in New Jersey on the radio half a century
before. Everybody knew how a hundred cops pounded on door after door
in the projects of Mission Hill, locking a Black man in a cage for the world to see
like the last of his tribe on exhibit at the World’s Fair. Everybody knew how
Chuck would have escaped, cashing the insurance check to drive away with
a new Nissan, but for his brother’s confession, the accomplice throwing
the Gucci bag with makeup, the wedding rings, and the gun off the Dizzy Bridge
in Revere. Everybody knew how Chuck parked his new car on the lower deck,
left a note and launched himself deep into the black water, how the cops
hauled his body from the river by lunchtime, when I walked into the office
to tell the secretary: Chuck Stuart just jumped off the Mystic Tobin Bridge.
I said nothing to the driver. I almost nodded yes in the rearview mirror. I confess,
for a flash, I wanted him to jump. The driver, the cops, the landlords, the judges
all wanted us to jump off the Mystic Tobin Bridge, all wanted us to sprout gills
like movie monsters so we could paddle underwater back to the islands, down
into the weeds and mud at the bottom, past the fish-plucked ribcages of the dead,
the rusty revolvers of a thousand crimes unsolved, the wedding rings of marriages
gone bad, till we washed up onshore in a tangle of seaweed, gasping for air.
Last night, still more landed here, clothing stuffed in garbage bags, to flee the god
of hurricanes flinging their houses into the sky or the god of hunger slipping
his knife between the ribs, not a dark tide like the tide of the Mystic River, but
builders of bridges. You can walk across the bridges they build. Or you can jump.