Old Orange Avenue

Chubby Checker twisting them wild at Joyner’s nightclub.
Ray Charles chugging down here when he played the Chitlin’ Circuit,
and before him Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Ella herself.
Even those superstars hunkered down in Jackson’s Rooming House
at the edge of The Scrubs, a quick shot from the train station.
It was the only place that would take them.

Tampa was a 45 record in those days
and you know who was on Side B.
Orange Avenue, the dividing line,
stretched from the Heights to downtown,
crammed with shops owned by black folks,
bright as a strip of silver tinsel, nights adazzle.
Shop doors opened before our first coffee:
the ladies’ beauty parlor, the barber’s, the dress shop,
the butcher’s, the vegetable man driving his truck slowly down
Lake Avenue, past Palace Drugstore into all that bustle.

But Old Jim Crow: he spread his fingers and played us all
like a minstrel tune, making some folks crave white face
so bad they’d set a tree on fire to hear it scream.
Then the one-sided record of our life skipped, skipped, skipped;
a seethe of summers and the new interstate carved up
all the old neighborhoods, black and white. Too late.
The old Avenue ignited, a blistering belt,
vinyl nights blazing like plates of gasoline.
So, city fathers erased the name, stubbed out
the flurry of daily black life. White folks sat quiet.
Flypaper hanging from the fans twisted,
twisting with black bodies in 1968.

 

by Gianna Russo

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