I Speak of the City: Pedro Pietri

Puerto Rican Obituary
Originally uploaded
by OBermeo

A few months back Barbara found a near-mint copy of Puerto Rican Obituary at the San Francisco Public Library’s used book bin for $3. To say I was shocked would be an understatement. I held on to the copy for quite a bit of time before bringing it to the counter as if I was waiting for someone to come by and snatch it away.  “Excuse me, sir, the book you’re holding in your hands is much more valuable than three dollars.”

Cuz if that did happen, I would have been forced to agree with them and give back the book. But once I actually paid for it? Different story, broski.

“Excuse me, sir.”

‘No, you excuse yourself, papa.  I know exactly what I got in my hands and you best believe it’s worth more than three bucks but I already paid for it and unless you’re willing to argue the merits of quid-pro-quo in an open market economy in civil court… step off!’

Or I would’ve run like the wind with the book under my arm yelling ‘Catch me if you can’ like a homeboy gingerbread man.

Either way, the book is now in the happy confines of the Sexy Loft Library alongside some other great used book bin finds.  And on days like today, Pietri’s birthday, I can flip through it (gently) and find a great gem of a poem like “Unemployment.”  A poem as true today as it was nearly forty years ago.  The colors, the scenery, the details; all so specific.  No ambiguity.  Nothing coy.  The thing, the idea, the person, the City, the sentiment; all at the forefront so the poem can continue speaking for the poet who saw it all.


he gets on the train
at 125th street
and st nickalaus avenue
white shirt black tie
gray suit shoes shine
new york times help
wanted ads under his arm
his hair is neatly
process his wristwatch
does not function
the diamondless ring
he wears costs five dollars
on the block after
all the stores
close down for the day
on the train he takes
out his wallet & counts
500 imaginary dollars
after 59th street
came 42nd street & 8th avenue
& he gets out the train
& walks to the nearest
vending machine
& deposits a nickel
for a pack of dentine
& stares into the broken mirror
of the vending machine
for the next fifteen minutes
assuring himself
that he is looking good
and then he proceeds
to the employment
agencies and five
hours and three
hot dogs and two
hamburgers one pack
of cigarettes and
one pint of wine later
he is still homeless

© Pedro Pietri
from Puerto RIcan Obituary (Monthly Review Press, 1973)

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  1. I have a Fielding Dawson chapbook in my library. Two bucks at the used bookstore. Went home and searched Amazon. $187. I wanted to drive back to the place in spats and fur-covered lapels and spout off to the owner in full Edward G. Robinson, “Nyeh! Look who’s woith two bucks now, flatfoot! See? Nyeh!”

  2. “no ambiguity. nothing coy.”

    amen. and i think also not clever for the sake of being clever.

    yeah, the old book smell on this one is ‘authentic’! remember what steve from the poetry center said when we showed it to him – this bookstore did NOT know what it had there. reminds me of what barbara christian said in the african american women’s lit class i took way back when. she found all these af am women’s novels – paule marshall, dorothy parker, etc. – used and in ‘dime stores,’ and this is how she was able to begin researching af am women novelists, making ‘serious academic study’ of them.

  3. @Rich ♪ Damn it feels good to be a gangsta ♫

    @Barb I love the smell and texture of this book. Definitely a highlight of our collection. Nice point about finding serious scholarship in the shelves of used bookstores. Gives me hope that despite all the commercialization around us, true literature will always thrive in the second-hand/gift economy.

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