Songs of Anthony St. James, 2021

Bayard Park, 1986
When I was a boy this town was so small
We could walk from one end to the other in no time at all
My father worked odd jobs and drove used cars until they died
It was quintessential small town American life

This town was a steam train once upon a time
From the main street square to the outskirts, it burned with enterprise
The industry crumbled, factories moved on or died
The levee broke open and swept us away with the tide

Nostalgia’s for suckers, we gloss over the bad things
Like a late May scar won’t heal, it just hides under summer skin
Tragedy shapes us, we keep it all inside
Some scars don’t heal, they’re all in for a lifetime

My parents were stern, they struggled for certain
I was raised to feel less like a blessing and more of a burden
They married for passion, then stood by idly as it died
For better or worse … until the money ran dry

Hey old friend, how’ve you been?
Glad you came for the reunion
When I left it was a goldmine
Which was the faster to pass you by … the town or the time?

My father drank often at some dive by the railroad tracks
The trains came and went but the loyals were nightly & steadfast
That bar was a graveyard where dreams and families went to die
Those ghosts still haunt with the passing of trains & time

Leaving on the Train
Caroline’s a dreamer, since the day we met
Can’t hold a thought from one day to the next
Apple of her mama’s eye, daytime drunk of a dad
Weight of the world and siblings on her back

She held out til 17, that was long enough
Courthouse wedding, mama cried and father never showed up
I took her in my arms and held her until that dreadful day
That I saw her leaving on the train

I fell hard for her coffee eyes and the taste of gin on her breath
The way she laughed and held a cigarette
Crooked floors and plastic walls, a house don’t make a home
Drunk and poor, we made it all our own

But her long legs kept her restless and kept me on my toes
Through dreams of dancing, cabaret, poetry and prose
Long after she’d lost her voice, I’d so much left to say
When I saw her leaving on the train

“Tell me son, where you from? Where do you call home?”
I’ve trailed her through so many towns, I don’t really know
A duplex in the suburbs, a trailer in a park
And neighborhoods you don’t go out after dark

She used to say that home was just a place or state of mind
Anywhere I’d keep her close, safe and warm inside
I couldn’t bear to watch her leave or even speak her name
When I saw her leaving on the train

I saw her not too long ago, at the plaza on Charles Street
With a suitcase, waiting on the 2:19
She had a man beside her, her hand clutched to his chest
Look on his face of love and regret

I saw it in that moment, she’d always chase the sun
Lovers a dime a dozen, we’d be the unlucky ones
He had the same look on his face I had on mine that day
That I saw her leaving on the train

Corner Boys
Catch the sunrise from the south side as it lights up Curtis Bay
Take a Diamond cab to the corner store, cash your check, go outside and wait
Follow Fire Head to the marketplace, don’t be even a few seconds late
Because the corner boys keep moving on

Keep your eyes peeled for the Crown Vic, like a roach in a crowded house
Always underfoot in the open air, trying to keep us all on the outs
Stay the course, feet loose & lips tight, there’s no time to make friends on the prowl
Because the corner boys keep moving on

How did we get here? Is everyone born with a plastic spoon?
Do we dare dream of better days or just those we don’t make the evening news?
Is it so much better than some ditch digging shift or the abattoir blues?
Does Fire Head’s name come from his long red dreads or his short, hot fuse?

Take the Light Rail to North Avenue, put the morning out of your mind
Catch a few winks by the telephone, it could ring again anytime
It’s a gamble but it’s a living, never known any other kind
Can’t afford to get left behind
Because the corner boys keep moving on

Penny Spades
“What’s the plan tonight, Francine?” she smiled as I asked
Like tonight was any different than the several hundred last
Penny spades and Black Watch from used plastic cups
I’ve lost all week, tonight I ride with lady luck

Bare bones in Greenmount West in ‘89
Just the stove for heat and a stack of scratched up 45’s
Then the rains came, like Big Sambo said they would
Our parents drowned; would they have saved us if they could?

The sounds of errant gospel fill the air
From the bowels of Greenmount West to the heights of Union Square

The barefoot preacher cries “Bow your head & close your eyes
All you need to live the Lord provides”
But our confidence is tainted like the blood flow in our veins
It’s a miracle just to breathe the morning air
So deal another hand

Francine, my valentine; my childhood crush
Soul food took her health, the nightlife claimed her son
Not one day of work would she have missed
If there was work for patients on dialysis

The sounds of errant gospel fill the halls
And ripple through the sheets that hang in place of walls

“There are angels everywhere They keep us safe & hear our prayers
The good lord only gives what we can bear”
But our confidence is shaken, like our faith in city hall
It’s a miracle when both feet touch the ground
So deal another round

It speaks volumes when folks are more surprised
To see us alive & well than to hear that someone died
It’s hard to find somewhere to put your faith
Most days it’s just Black Watch and penny spades
Most nights it’s just Black Watch and penny spades
Most years it’s just Black Watch and penny spades
It’s just Black Watch and penny spades

Down on the Avenue
The streetlights glow a pale golden hue
But they can’t hold a candle to the evening moon
The smell of exhaust and subtle perfume
Hang in the air, then follow the cab as it moves
Down on the avenue

Flush with excitement & dressed to the nines
For jazz at the Silo and drinks at Divine
Some kind of strangers’ reflections are cruel
They only remind that one night is the best we can do
Down on the avenue

I used to tell you in the early days
In our first apartment when we’d lie awake
The sounds of the city were savage & cruel
I’d fly us away on the wings of a song and we’d move
Down on the avenue

Stories of drifters and poor, lonely souls
They’re pretty, but hardly worth their weight in gold
This poet reflects what she knows to be true
It’s a pity there’s only so much room for the blues
Down on the avenue

We saved a fortune for an evening with kings
I’ve broken my voice (and I’ve bled for the strings)
With you in a black dress (and you in a suit)
It’s worth it to walk just once like we’ve nothing to lose
Down on the avenue

“Love what you do and you won’t work a day”
The sentiment is lost when the work doesn’t pay
We’ve flirted with five star, stellar reviews
But nothing to liven the floors or get people to move
Down on the avenue

Our double shifts at the bar over town
Keep us afloat when we’re liable to drown
My words are alive when they’re put to your tunes
So why is the money so fleeting, and the people so few?
Down on the avenue

We saved a fortune for an evening with queens
Played every dive in our dwindling scene
You look like a prince in your black buckle shoes
You belong on a runway with nothing to prove
Down on the avenue

The streetlights glow a pale, golden hue
But they can’t hold a candle to the midnight moon
Tomorrow our dreams are yesterday’s news
Lost to the race like so many that never come true
Down on the avenue

North Star Girl
Sweet girl don’t cry, you’ll stain your face
Resentment tears can leave a bitter taste
That emptiness you feel, you’ve every right
But look around: this is no place or time

Your dad’s a legend at Pimlico & Laurel Downs
He won eight big dimes at the ‘78 triple crown
A Good Time Charlie, a bleacher butterfly
With a broken vow to never leave your side

But he don’t need your love to get high or feel alive

You look so grown up in your mother’s pearls
Does she know nothing of your daddy’s world?
I used to see them out on Friday nights
He’d call her Little Filly, and sparks would fly

But he don’t need her love to get high or feel alive

When you can’t sleep at night
When it hurts to hear them fight
Rest your weary head and close your eyes
Imagine all the pretty horses going by

Your daddy’s always off on his own race
And this lowly usher could never take his place
Win or lose, he pays me well each week
But there’s no company I’d rather keep

And you don’t need his love to get high or feel alive

Nick’s Cafe
It’s never after hours at Nick’s Cafe
No need to go home, no need to stay awake
Settle in for slumber in a corner booth bed
Your hat for a pillow, tucked beneath your head

We’re all happy losers here, the unfortunate sons
Lost in the nightlife and scared by the sun
Marching to the beat of a different kind of drum
Alone and out of place, you’re not the only one

There’s Troubadour Charlie from the Brass Monkey Bar
Plays sweet Southern soul on an archtop guitar
The stubborn old sailor, we call him Seafood Sam
Always telling tales of better days when men were better men
And the South Street Singers, they croon for spare change
All hours at Nick’s Cafe

As for me, my troubles are just the usual type
Heartbroken, restless, maybe wound a little tight
Nothing not fixed by hot coffee and pie
And the night shift waitress, she’s a sight for sore eyes

Jamie, she’s sweet as the cafe chocolate cake
Tough as the blue plate special: four dollar pepper steak
A hopeless romantic, unlucky in love
The years ain’t been kind to her, she’s all but given up

New York City nearly left her blind
She sunk like an anchor in the New England maritime
Every home’s been heartless like a town without charm
The night owls & early birds keep her safe until dawn
The South Street Singers croon to soothe her aches
All hours at Nick’s Cafe

It’s never after hours at Nick’s Cafe
Nowhere to be? There’s no better place to wait
We don’t play for keeps and nobody’s keeping score
When every table is taken, there’s still room for one more
The South Street Singers never take a break
All hours at Nick’s Cafe

There’s good times to be had and friends to be made
All hours at Nick’s Cafe

You Belong Here
The last time I left the city you were standing in the street
Stubborn and swearing in a sundress, you were calling out to me
Pennsylvania Station, slumped in a window seat
I swear your voice carried from Pigtown, pleading desperately
You belong here

Fireworks in the harbor place, the swearing in of summertime
Rooftop parties and cash bars would bleed my wallet dry
You’d wear those flats with the open toes to show your foot tattoo
The cracks & jabs from the upper class would never get to you
You belong here

Amid the hustle, the bright lights and the bums
But the stars never shine in the city sky and the night air weighs too much

The whistle cries from the night train like a high and lonesome sound
My heart sinks heavy in my Oxfords and weighs the Amtrak down
Petulant and pensive, I recall my nights with you
I’ll count the days til the next one, it won’t come a day too soon

One thing darling, promise you’ll never leave
If I’m lost on a reason to come back, you’ll be all the reason I need
You belong here

Christmas Parade
Comb the couch for fresh loose change
Cradle the bottle like a newborn babe
Smoke our cigarettes in chain
While we wait

The winter bites through ragged clothes
Three young kids wrapped in one old coat
That’s not the way the money goes
As of late

It’s hard to be not quite in love
The first year in, a baby comes
The second year, a second one
Then we eloped

Took some pills to ease the stress
Failed the factory’s urine test
Denied unemployment checks
And then we broke

The fire trucks light the way
We catch a glimpse of Santa’s sleigh
Each passing year the kids get harder & harder to persuade
Still we stand, we smile and we wave

I found some work out on the fringe
It’s not ideal, but we live with it
What won’t a man do for his kids?
I’m scared to tell

My wife keeps busy and discreet
She had a third kid just last week
But he don’t look a thing like me
It’s just as well

The fire trucks light the streets
We raise our hands to catch the sweets
Each passing year it’s getting harder to make the kids believe
Still we stand, we smile and we dream

It wasn’t meant to be like this
We barely talk, we never kiss
It’s hard to even reminisce
On our early days

Christmas day is two weeks off
The gifts will come, but at what cost?
Never dreamt we’d be so lost
…but we’ll try to lose ourselves in the parade

Mountain State
It’s a Pall Malls on the front porch kind of night
You can’t blame a man for keeping just one vice
I miss the way your mother smiled on nights like this
I wish I hadn’t so badly burned that bridge

It’s a long haul back home from the steeplechase
When you’ve come up short every cent of your petty wage
Does a bitter end still justify the means?
It makes nightmares from these big, romantic dreams

When the Carousel closed for the season
We were dying for one last run
To give up now would be treason
We’ll hit on the next one

$10,000 from a McJob check on a prizefight
Who ever said that lightning won’t strike twice?
Your granddad was a boxer in his day
It’s kismet, then: we can’t lose this way

When the ropes came down in the evening
We were dying for one last fight
To throw in the towel would be treason
It’s best to let it ride

Dearest daughter, forgive me, for I have sinned
I never meant for you to bear the brunt of it
I know your mother swore she’d keep in touch
But random cards & calls don’t count for much
It’ll do us well to trade the city lights
For a quiet place to see the stars at night
A cabin in the woods of the Mountain State
A chance to rest and rehabilitate

I’ve failed you from your first day in this world
I’ll fail you no longer, my sweet girl