By CL Bledsoe
It was the second body I’d encountered in the streets of Baltimore. The first was during a field trip, while I chaperoned a group of kids to look at graffiti murals near Penn Station. The kids were in groups with student leaders and chaperones. I took a shortcut to get back to our meet-up point for some reason I can’t remember and came upon a circle of construction workers in an alley. I heard the sirens as I came closer and saw the man, unmoving on the ground. I overheard one person say maybe he’d been mugged. Another said something along the lines that he didn’t look like he’d had anything worth stealing. Someone else said he looked like a junkie. Police and an ambulance arrived at about the same time. I was ushered away as they put up tape. They kids went a different way, and I didn’t tell them about it.
The second body was lying on the sidewalk. We were running late for a poetry reading. I was a feature, along with a friend who rode with my girlfriend, at the time, and me. The man was lying on his side, his arms and legs drawn up in a fetal position. He looked like he was sleeping. He was a black man — they both had been — but what really grabbed me was the sight of a policeman. He stood over the body, his hand on his gun, his eyes wide. He looked from side to side, terrified. He was a black cop guarding a black body on the sidewalk. I didn’t know the story, but it seemed far more important than the reading I was on the way to give.
There were sirens approaching, and we left the policeman to his duty and gave our reading. My friend and I tended to read funny poems, but we weren’t feeling very comical. What I felt, instead, was a deep shame, an impotence. A man had died on a sidewalk a few yards away. The final reader asked us all to gather around and sit on the floor while he read single lines in poet voice, punctuated by long pauses. Each line was supposed to be something deep and mysterious about life. I went to the bar.
We had parked just down the street, and as we were leaving the reading, a group of men approached us, joking and laughing, along the sidewalk. The cop was gone. The body was gone. It was like they had never been there.