Burlap Man

by Peter Kahn

Lakeview, Chicago.  Summer of ’91.

 “…how do you uproot something that’s already taken hold?”    Historian, Arnold Hirsch, on failed attempts to remedy segregation in Chicago.

One simmering afternoon, he blocks your path

with an open paw.  Tells you he’s a panther escaped

from Lincoln Park Zoo.  He bleeds papaya juice,

pees coconut water, shits burnt sugar cane.

 

Tells you his claws are tree branches that won’t stop

growing.  His tail was eaten by a boa constrictor

and he’s afraid of fire and water and trees

and the #36 bus.  Tells you he’ll marry you

for $3 in quarters and a pack of Marlboro Lights.

 

Nappy tufts blast atop his head, shroud his cheeks.

Think Sula’s Shadrack.  Make him barefoot,

six foot four, wearing nothing but a sweat-stained

burlap sack and you have Burlap Man.

 

One bright night, as your darks tumble and you fold

your whites, you see him stopping traffic, like a moon

walking tree, on Halstead, waving his sack high in the air.

You join a crowd to hear him belting out Black or White

to heavy honks, beep-beeps and cat calls,

 

his privates jangling like tropical fruit.

As sirens shimmy and shout towards the street

party, he gets down on all fours and crawls away,

never to be seen again.