From his candy store counter opposite Willowbrook Junior High School, Elmo Bridges surveys life beyond the Tiki Punch soda and squishy Choco-Diles. Then, he writes it all down, as poet laureate of Compton, and leaves it on a shelf for no one to buy.
"There's no money to be made in poetry," he says. But he's been writing inside the same storefront for 31 years, so many lines that "I could start reading to you now, off the top of my head, and I think we would still be here tomorrow at this time."
\o7 Down on the front, in my neighborhood
the folks got it bad, and that ain't good
Ambulance and police cars ramble all night,
trying to stop some front hood fight.
Down on the front--both day and night
all you can hear or see is fight, fight, fight.
They fight until some mother's son goes down.
On the front it's not well--it hurts like hell . . .
down here on the front.
Bridges, 65, speaks like a man in love with words as he recites against the street sounds that flow from North Willowbrook Avenue. Sometimes the competing noise comes from within his nameless shop, from the churning strawberry slush machine or the video games that blare in early morning or late afternoon, when the tiny place gets crazy with kids. Yet the poet effortlessly drowns it all out with the rise and fall of his feelings.
"There is no love lost between black people per se," Bridges told a recent visitor. "Why, they're killing one another. Can you imagine that? Kids from this side of the street going down the street shooting another kid, for no reason. Because he got on the wrong color shoestrings?"
With a shake of his head and a lost look in his eyes, the poet blames it on the isolation of youth, like those in "The Neighborhood" about which he writes.
"Some would kill to be identified," he said. "Some would shoot you down in the streets and let you know who did it and dare you to do anything about it."
Give him a magic wand, Bridges said, and "love would have to be on top of the list."
Listen to the sirens and the horns a-blowing,
ambulance, police and firemen going--
from the scene of the crime where it all begins . . .
to the hospitals, the ghettos where troubles begin and end.
It's not well--it's not well
down here on the front.
"I had always been in love with poetry, ever since I was a tot," he said. "The rhyming, the flow of the words. And there was a meaning behind it all, I discovered later. That you could say what you wanted to say and not offend anyone because 'it's poetry.' "
Being careful not to offend anyone was a necessity of life growing up on a Mississippi farm in the 1920s. He remembers his daddy teaching him that "if you want to live, be truthful and respect the white man, whether he is right or wrong," because black people could get lynched for doing any less.
He developed his stage presence from performing in church halls with his 11 brothers and sisters. They would sing and he would deliver a reading or two, artfully, so as not to "tell it like it is."
He studied as a songwriter in Chicago, vowing to "make it to Hollywood." But in 1955, he got as far as Compton before figuring that he might just as well sell rhythm and blues records from the shop on Willowbrook. When he couldn't sell enough to pay the rent, he switched to selling sweets. And, of course, chili Fritos. (Three scoops of piping hot Texas three-alarm into an open sack of fresh Fritos Corn Chips. A neighborhood delicacy at 85 cents.)
They play loud music both day and night . . .
all up and down the streets.
They don't try to distinguish the wrong--
from the right.
They just keep a loud upbeat . . .
down on the front, in the streets.
For years Bridges' writing has been read in Compton schools, especially during Black History Month, which ends this week. In 1983, the city proclaimed him official poet laureate. He no longer worries about measuring his words. And while many of his thoughts turn on a religious theme, nothing is sacred on the streets around his candy store.
What a shame!
What a price good folk have to pay . . .
to endure this wrath day by day.
Down on the front, things are not well . . .
for in my own neighborhood--
it's the beginning of HELL.
"I don't really have any special aspiration for achieving anything great, other than the fact that I want my work to speak for itself," Bridges said. "I know there is no (financial) come back, only someone might be helped.
"I can only hear the Master say 'As often as you do it to the least of mine, you do it unto Me.' So if I can help somebody, if I can cause somebody to turn from his ways of thinking and listen to what I'm sayin', then I'd be happy."