Illustration by Anne LeGuern


the trains are busy with bodies. There’s an ass
in every seat, hands on every inch of railing

and small acts of consideration are now
optional, says the poster by the sliding doors.

I keep my face covered among the commuters
which means my feelings are well concealed as well.

Displeasure, disdain, defeat: all of these are
possibilities that will not pronounce themselves to
any anonymous companions, even through my posture.

My headphones rest over my ears as is habit
and sing the songs I need to hear
whenever I need to hear them;
on this particular ride, I press pause

just as I’m sold to release my job, as the
people-watching grows intensely interesting.

The proper definition of panhandling
requires the act take place on the street, so

underground it’s just plain begging, and he is
on his knees in the middle of the train car,

a maneuver I’ve not seen before in this situation,
a bit of flair I admire for not having it myself.

But, ultimately, it doesn’t matter. It rarely does.
New Yorkers aren’t always friendly, but they are kind

enough not to make eye contact and pretend
a connection that isn’t there and never will be.

Not being from here originally, I am kind
in a Midwestern manner: I maintain
an emptiness in my weathered wallet

so that I do not have to ignore,
so that I do not have to lie.

Cortney Lamar Charleston

Cortney Lamar Charleston is the author of Telepathologies (Saturnalia Books, 2017) and Doppelgangbanger (Haymarket Books, 2021). He was awarded a 2017 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, and he has also received fellowships from Cave Canem and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. He is the winner of a Pushcart Prize, and his poems have appeared in POETRY, The Nation, The Atlantic, The American Poetry Review, Granta, and elsewhere. He serves as a poetry editor at The Rumpus and on the editorial board at Alice James Books.