Prayerful Prairies

by Gerard Sarnat

  • Poetry
decorative header image from Volume V Issue 2 · Spring 2019

1. Whereby Sarnat The Gnat Flicked His Urban Prairie Silo

I was a ruffian whose cooties lugeed and whizzed

trudging O’Keeffe Grammar’s sludge which looked just like a funky Slushy.

Mined sleetballs with gravel ripped off salt trucks

to bilk protection gelt from flitty Iowa-nice

Cornhusker booger-eaters whose crotches slipslid like on rollerskates

when ambushed and swatted in Snowmageddon death match cakewalks.

Witnessed Davey roust his evomitocious

father from local bowling alley barstools before bouncers tossed the tomcat.

Stashed contraband Marilyn calendars

Teddy presented to this rookie for manning his corner bookie newsstand

deep inside a 5 finger discount Walgreen’s bookbag.

Lugged it four flights to the fam’s cold water flat

past Mr. Hatfield’s ground floor guard station

where the landlord’s master of the manor,

king of the castle, super of fu fa tenement dead-ender domains.

Mother revered the principal/home ec substitute, Mrs. Leech,

whose sociology noodged me to be hall/eraser monitor

since her tent dress became the tenant/hoarder

under us whose touched-up skin sipped vodka/vermouth

if her foul-mouthed hubby, the janitor/woodshop teacher,

hit the grain whiskey to keep Bergen-Belsen tattoo demons at bay.

Brown paper bag clutched, flowering it up with earflaps down,

Stanley Hatfield sat on the stoop,

jiggled skeleton keys dawn to dusk,

bamboozled folks he didn’t cotton to shell out rent moolah or get the boot.

Shakedowns so’s each unit’s paid-up on the barrelhead plus a smidge extra.

Purged those whose number came up empty first of each month period.

As funny money thin ice softened ‘n liquified, dirty coppers

in Stan’s pocket’d take a taste then paper the halls with eviction notices

before sofas ‘n worse kerplunked

onto the sidewalk. Foot soldiers hoodlumed

loveable rogue scofflaws to believe we’d be put on dry ice, cemented

into Lake Michigan—which loose-bowelled bunco spiel hardened

into shticks I ear-witnessed below the shudder of elevated Illinois Central trains.

Nights I’d schlep down, con Stanley Sr.’s marbled daughter

whose vagarious weight you might guess at a country fair cattle call

to out-naked us all on the fire-escape

or loudmouth fat Stan Jr. to roll-up the steel shutters,

open the front door for my big brother

whom Miss Joy’s Mary Janes tensely resented.

Not born till post hari-kari, the bomb and the Emperor surrendered,

I remember what turned out to be ration books

buried in Pops’ condom sock drawer.

At the time my nuclear family of origin was shoehorned

in Bubbe and Zeyde’s one room apartment.

Mom and Grandma always on bad terms, rapscallion

needed to be careful. Eventually Grandpa weaseled, told Dad to leave.

But Pops had mafia contacts

who bribed the Hatfield missus some kind of yenta

to let him have our current place for two tanks of fossilized TRexs

plus a week’s food coupons plus some unspecified “other favors”

in her not-Rembrandt Netherlands—

that’s just how Chi-town was during the final stages of winning the war.

Lucky GIs back from the front were overdomesticated

by cutesies’ baser instincts to make too many babies.

Ravenous Heebs scrambled to bootstrap beyond South Shore ghettocide,

but no matter where we flocked, newly minted parochial school thugs

pummeled up in my business

unless I surrendered the cornucopia

of Medimore’s penny candy, pocket change, crumpled Monroe nudies,

a flask of rotgut swiped from Hatfield.

2. Ready To Rumble

“When I was younger I could remember anything,

whether it had happened or not.”

—Mark Twain


Made my bones playing ledgeball on the block, but during college

no taxi’d drive back into the Southside snatch-‘n-grab boarded up

storefronts below Chicago’s elevated trains. Hertz’d have none of it;

Avis required signing stacks of notarized waivers. Bounding four flights,

I’m scrutinized by a scraggly old gent who cackled, Beg pardon, lookie

we got here in Spookville!—slamming the door before could catch my breath.

Back in the 50s, 71st and Jeffery seemed just booooring Jewish

(no one’d buy Christmas cards I sold door-to-door) except my riverboat

gambler Uncle Sugar whose fortunes handicapping the Daily Racing Form

turned a 3-hole Buick Special into a jalopy into a cherry Impala with rims

—you know that kind of thingamajig. But thanks to auspicious demographics,

later on playing with house money, I faked having survived the Blackstone Rangers.


Planning better lives, when they got the chance my parents moved

our quartet through prairie dog towns west to another walk-up

in paradise so Sis and I’d do well at the best available LA public schools.

As it happened, right up the alley of my lifelong partner whom I’d eventually

meet during high school, she spent indifferent time playing in the same alley

—though we didn’t figure it out until four decades had passed.

When Dad’s finances afford it, he relocated us to a ramshackle fixer-upper

a few miles north in the part of town the world thinks of as Beverly Hills;

the miniscule antique swimming pool’s hand-painted tiles were a drainless cesspit.

There no one played on the block or in the alley where only maids went.

Took months to get invited into mansions with triple-stemmed cherries, big rock

candy soda fountains, tennis courts—if you can believe it, even Otis elevators.


Harvard pre-med home the summer of South Central’s riots of 1965, I’d volunteered

to administer vaccines at the Watts Health Center. Maneuvering to avoid pepper spray/

duck snipers in here while outside, establishments burned and Crips pulsated blood,

jostled below window level by ex-gangbanger Community Organizer Julio Bates

(nicknamed Master), my high-tops bid to establish bogus street cred

based on résumé more than cajones: “No problemo. I was raised in Chiraq.” Rootstalk leaf-bug icon marking the end of the article's text.

Photograph by Jun Taek Lee

Photograph by Jun Taek Lee

About Author Gerard Sarnat
Portrait image of author Gerard Sarnat.
Photo courtesy of Gerard Sarnat
Gerard Sarnat is a physician who’s built and staffed homeless and prison clinics as well as a Stanford professor and healthcare CEO. His writing has appeared in U.S. outlets including San Francisco Magazine, The Los Angeles Review and The New York Times, as well as many international publications. His collections include Homeless Chronicles (2010), Disputes (2012), 17s (2014), and Melting the Ice King (2016). He has been married since 1969 with three kids and five grandsons, and is looking forward to future granddaughters.