“Songs Over Sidewalks” by Luis J. Rodriguez

November 14, 2016

This poem was written to commemorate the end of the California Community Foundation’s centennial at We Are Los Angeles, Nov. 12, 2016.

By Luis J. Rodriguez
Poet Laureate of Los Angeles

Every summer when Santa Ana winds scatter around dry leaves and dead
tree branches, and droughts make kindle out of the formerly green,

a human hand or lightning strike can awaken the fire in all things,
fire that also burns inside each of us, becoming the searing

soul-birth of creativity—and of dirt, seed-ground for new plants,
flowers, regeneration. Wildfires are metaphor and reality for our internal

and external terrains. Things come back, but not always like before.
There’s a natural order to life, a rhythm we often miss, but the tones

persist despite our lack of hearing, of paying attention—or just ignoring.
Tempos and beats come at us every day, every hour, in dark and in light,

as drops of water or gust-hands on our faces and backs. Los Angeles is music
but also muscles, a rain dance often with no rain, neon glare and smog-tinged

skyline, held together in a spider-web called freeways,
a place where even Jacarandas and palm trees are transplants.

This city gives and takes away, but in nature whatever is removed is returned,
even if in surprising ways, unexpected, with a twist.

The human way is too chaotic, nonsensical, although laden with inventiveness.
Buildings are bricked, stuccoed, and nailed together with stories,

survival stories, war stories, love stories, the kind of harrowing accounts
Los Angeles exudes at 3 am, when ghosts meander the upturned pavement,

rumble by on vintage cars, and all night diners convert to summits for
the played out, heartsick, and suicidal—fodder for Hollywood scripts or L.A.

noir novels. There’s a migrant soul in this rooted city, Skid Row next to
the Diamond District, waves of foam against barnacled piers,

cafes and boutiques next to panaderias and botanicas. Ravines and gulleys
turn into barrios; rustic homes with gardens dot bleak cityscapes;

and suburbs burst with world-class graffiti. Fragmented yet cohesive,
Los Angeles demands reflection of ourselves, and the unstable ground

we call home. As in nature, the inequities can be breached, the gaps bridged,
for home is also an invitation to care, to do whatever

balances, whatever complements, whatever unites and clarifies,
as poverty, violence, and uncertainty shake up safety and sanity.

The key is for human law to align to natural law, for people to proclaim
“enough is enough” and “what I do matters,” with deep

examination, proper adaptation, full cognizance. No persons should die for lack
of a roof or food or compassion. As John Fante would say,

they are “songs over sidewalks,” imaginations on the interchange,
humanity that deserves connection, touch, breath. These roads, bridges,

alleys also contain concertos. Breezes over ocean’s darkest depths are rife
with harmonies. And a howling moon and red sunset serve as backdrops

for every aching interlude, soundtracks to revive the inert. Los Angeles is
where every step rhymes, where languages flit off tongues like bows across

strings, skateboarders and aerosol spray cans clatter as daily percussion,
and angels intone “we can do better,” while haggling at garage sales.