Horses in the ’Hood

Clip clop clip clop.
That’s the sound
you hear in the afternoon.
Horseshoes on asphalt.
Kids whooping it up.
Colts snorting.

Pop! Crack! Pop! Crack!
That’s the sound you hear
at night.
The crackle
of gunshot in the air.
Somebody yellin’
in the distance.
Helicopters choppin’
the sky overhead.

This my neighborhood.
Strawberry Mansion.
North Philly.
Only this ain’t no palace.
This the place you hear about
on the news every night.
The place no one goes to
unless you have to.
The place where
every day you wake up
might be your last.

When Daddy and his friends
Ride their horses down the street,
people stop in their tracks
and gawk like they can’t believe
what they seeing.
Folks shake they head like,
What the–?
We got cowboys in Philly!
Sometimes I pretend
I don’t know him
and just let him ride on
past me.
But some of the guys
at school
don’t let it go.
They always digging on me:
Yo, Tex,
where your pony at?
Or
Hey, Country,
why ain’t you out riding
in a rodeo?!
I just shut my mouth
and look at the ground.
Count to ten.

Don’t call me Cowboy.
Or Tex.
Or Country.
I hate all them names.
I’m just plain Coltrane,
or Cole
like my moms call me.
My daddy,
he the one runnin’ the stable
on Fletcher Street,
the one keeping
the “tradition”
alive.
I don’t care about
no tradition,
I’m just trying to
lay low
and make it
through the day.

But sometimes
that’s a hard thing to do
when your daddy
is a cowboy.
Man,
who ever heard
of horses
in the ‘hood?

Daddy say
horses in my blood and
that I got ta protect
the old ways.
How’m I gon’ be
the next Kobe
if everyone thinks
I’m some fool
on horseback?

Most them kids
look at me
like I’m some
kinda freak.
But I ain’t no
ghetto cowboy.
I just happen
to be the son of one.
And that
ain’t
my fault.

The old heads
in the neighborhood
is even worse.
They dress
like cowboys–
boots, hat an’ all.

Tex,
The oldest
of the oldheads
say
I should be proud
to call myself
a cowboy.
He say cowboy
is a black word,
like from back
in the civil war days
when slaves
was called
houseboys and such,
and the ones
that herded the cows
was called cowboys.
He say
they was so good
that the white dudes
took that word over
and made it a good thing
to be.

He say black cowboys
roamed
the prairies
from coast to coast
and up and down
the Chisolm Trail.
But now,
this here
is all that’s left.
One neighborhood,
in north Philly,
where there ain’t
a cow in sight
‘cept for the one
in my Big Mac.

People like my daddy
take that cowboying
real serious.
When you walk in
the front door
of his house,
you’d think
we was in a stable.
Saddles and riding blankets,
brushes and horse feed
is what you’ll see.
He even had to move
the TV
into the bedroom
’cause they wasn’t
no more room
to sit down
with all that stuff!
But it’s not as bad as
Uncle Petey.
He actually keep
his horse
in his house.
I’m not kidding.
That horse got a room
just like Petey do.
My moms went over there once
and knocked on the door
just as the horse
was making his way out
and down the front steps!
My mom says
if that ever happens
with us,
she’s leaving
fer sure.
And I’ll be
right behind her.

Me,
I wouldn’t be caught
dead
in one of them
cowboy hats.
I got my uniform:
my Sixers jersey,
my Kobe shoes,
my Phillies cap
slanted just right.
That’s what I’m
talking about.
I’m a baller,
straight up,
just like Kobe.
He from around here too,
so it ain’t so far fetched
that I could follow
in his footsteps
instead of
my daddy’s
cowboy boots.

Actually,
he don’t wear
cowboy boots
like them oldheads.
He a working man,
got his white T, jeans,
and work boots.
He keeps his cowboy boots
for special events,
like Saturdays
at the Speedway.

The Speedway
is a strip a emptiness
over at Fairmont Park
where everyone
gets together
to race their horse.
The horses all got names
like Rocket
and Lightning
and Wind,
things that’s fast.

His horse is called Boo.
’cause when he scared,
he run faster
than the eyes
poppin’ outta his head.
When he race,
my cousin Smush
sometime
sneak up on him
and when they lower the flag,
he yell Boo!
and boy,
that horse will fly.
His feet
barely touch
the ground!

Daddy say he like seeing
the earth
speed by in a blur.
It’s like flying.
The only sounds
is the horse’s hoofs
thumping
on the dead leaves and dirt,
gruntin’ and sweatin’
with every gallop,
an’ the wind
whistling in his ears.
When it’s like that,
all a his problems
just fly
right outta
his head he say.
I can kinda see that.
Maybe one day
I’d be into that kinda thing.
It’s the rest of the time,
when we’re not at
the Speedway,
that I don’t like
the Cowboy Life.

Sometimes
at night
the horses get scared.
I get up
in my pajamas
and shoes
’cause daddy’s too dang old
(he almost 35!).
I go out back
and whisper
in the horse’s ears
to calm ’em
from all the city noises—
the pops,
the chops,
and thumping bass
of cars passing by.
‘Specially ol’ Boo.

The first time
I ever laid eyes on that horse,
I knew he was trouble.
He had a crazy look
in his eyes,
and his hair stood up
every which way—
like he just woke up
from a nightmare
or something terrible.
He was spooked
from the start,
which is why
we named him Boo,
’cause everytime
something moved,
he jumped
like someone
just dropped a spider
on his back.

Daddy got him
for cheap
at the meat auction
before they was gonna
put him down.
He seemed
like a country horse,
’cause when daddy rode him
around the neighborhood,
he was all on edge.
I don’t think
he was used to seeing
so many black folk,
even though he
was black too.

When Boo’s spooked
I give him some carrots
and tell him the stories
I heard the old heads
talk about,
’cause I figure
horses like stories
about horses.
Stories about roaming
the Chisholm Trail,
where there was no fences
and the open road
headed to nowhere
and everywhere
at the same time.
Not that I believe that stuff.
It’s just fairy tales and
I don’t got room
in my head
for things that ain’t real…
‘cept if helps
to get Boo
to sleep.

“He’s a wild one.
Just like you.”
I guess that’s how
my old man see me,
a bit wild and
outta control.
That’s why he got Boo,
to keep me company
or busy in the stables.
He figures Boo’ll
keep me outta trouble.
He think
if I’m into horses,
I’m not gonna be
roaming the streets
looking for trouble
like my cousin Smush.
Streets got him
and they ain’t lettin’ go.
He used to a nice boy,
my pops say,
but now he hooked
on the thug life
and won’t even look
at a horse no more.
He say horses is fer girls
and white dudes.
I can’t say I disagree.
Still, I don’t wanna be
like Smush neither.

So I stick to the stables.
And every once and a while,
when I know my friends
ain’t around,
and everyone’s away
at work,
I put on my cowboy boots,
the ones
my daddy gave me,
and give ol’ Boo a ride
around the corral
in the vacant lot
across the street.
I be ditchin’ school
sometimes
to do it.
I don’t know why.
I think ol’ Boo need me
sometimes,
so don’t make nuthin’
of it.
The rest of the time,
I got my uniform on,
my game face ready
to take on the world.
Don’t call me Tex
or Country.
I’m just Cole
from Strawberry Mansion,
the last frontier
of the ghetto cowboy.

And I play pretty mean ball too.

G. Neri is the Coretta Scott King Honor-winning author of Yummy: the Last Days of a Southside Shorty. For his first book of verse, Chess Rumble, he was named the recipient of the Lee Bennett Hopkins Promising Poet Award. His latest novel Ghetto Cowboy is the 2012 winner of the Horace Mann Upstanders Award. The above unpublished verse was inspired by a real neighborhood in North Philly, which in turn, inspired the novel. To read more about the real black urban horsemen of Fletcher Street, visit www.gregneri.com/cowboy.html.