old jail on new street

by Margaret Tsuda

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The old jail on New Street
has what looks
ironically like a
sedate, white painted
front door.
Over it a funny
electric clock with a
gaudy neon rim
keeps time.
Two wide and handsome
magnolia trees frame the walk
on either side.

But
when I drive by from work
sometimes the van is
in the yard and the
young men
the handcuffed young men
climb awkwardly down.

They can’t see the clock
from the side yard and
they don’t look at
the trees.

What do they see?

What would I see
if I climbed out of
a prison van
hunched and handcuffed?

Defeat
despair and a
no-future world–
apprehension filling
my belly like wet cement.

Muggers
addicts
car thieves and
drunks, yes.
But, men, too!

O, God!
There is more to
being a man
than this!

There’s joy to being a man!
There’s peace to being a man!
There’s confidence in
achievement
security in oneself and
loving and sharing.

But, who will tell them?
O, God! who
can
tell them?

Every day
another
van-load climbs down
hunched and
handcuffed beside
wide magnolia trees.

There must be
someone
to tell them!
Is it
you
or me?

Parts of the old Essex County Jail on New Street (including the administration building, pictured above) still stand, in a ruinous condition, one hundred eighty years after it was built. 

Margaret Tsuda’s “Old Jail on New Street” first appeared in the Christian Science Monitor of March 29, 1971, and was republished in her collection Cry love aloud (1972).

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