A rowhouse in South Philly,
Home of cheesesteaks and hoagies,
Phillies and Flyers and Eagles.
The front steps, cement, four of them
Shared with the house next door.
An enclosed porch, mostly window,
Unheated, cold in the winter.
Below it, two small windows,
Set into the russet brick face of the cellar,
Each with its black metal grate.
The windows open only once or twice a year,
When the coal truck rumbles up and
Backs onto the sidewalk.
My mother opens a window from within.
The driver pulls a grate aside,
Inserts the tongue of his chute
Through the open window
So the coal will flow
Into the bin below.
He pulls a lever and the coal begins to pour,
Thousands of black chunks, a ton of them,
Down the chute and into the bin,
There to rest, quiet, dirty, dusty,
Until my father shovels it
Into the furnace’s fiery mouth
On cold winter nights.
It is my earliest memory.
I cannot explain why it stays with me,
But it does.
The grates on the cellar windows,
They are central to it.
I had had, I guessed, a soft childhood,
The cosseted first-born.
I was on the sidewalk
In front of our house that day
At play with other children.
(Our street teemed with children in those days,
When V-mails arrived from an uncle at Anzio.)
Did I trip or was I pushed?
It could have been a push.
Some of the neighborhood children
Thought a push from behind a fun thing.
I do not remember, and it does not matter.
Whatever the cause,
I found myself hurtling, face first,
Towards the cellar windows and their black grates.
Face met grate,
The grate hard, rigid, unyielding,
And with the pain,
Not much pain, but enough,
This small world of mine,
It was not what I thought it to be.
— Tom Gannon