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Deja vu

Blue-kerchiefed women, bent over brooms made of switches, were sweeping the October streets of Sofia. Small women, old women, figures hidden by faded blue smocks, lowered faces unseen as eyes search out dust, a wrapping or an apple core, but not as much litter as in the world's other cities. . . . Cobblestoned squares in Bulgaria shone from their brooms; at midnight, glistened from hosing. They seemed to sweep day and night, in some archetypal, eternal, anonymous dance.

Not a bad job on a fine autumn day. Surely a miserable task in the rain.

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As I walked past, sometimes I'd hear what sounded like words, sometimes a sort of humming. I imagined them reciting ancient Balkan epics to themselves, or repeating their prayers in archaic Slavonic. As if their words would fly up, sucked by the sun, then like feathers slide down the gleaming cupolas of Aleksandr Nevsky Cathedral. I imagined the street sweepers as young, dancing, perhaps serving as models for the gracious saints and madonnas on icons. . . . Instead of faded blue cotton, they wore robes of crimson and gold.

Cathedral bells rang, the women glanced skyward, I wrote of them in my poems, and flew back to America.

This spring morning in Washington the trashmen dumped my whole trash can in the street. Not that they meant to, it was no political or social gesture: they are friends, and we share hot drinks on wintry days, or cold drinks in the summer, and they tell me about coaching their Boys' Club teams, or politics, or Ezra Pound. We don't talk trash.

This morning's avalanche was only an accident. The truck driver must have speeded up suddenly, or the masher hiccoughed, and they didn't have time -- or inclination -- to clean up. Nor did I. Surely the city would -- or the trashmen. . . .

Fat chance of such a miracle. I must hurry off to lecture now, hurry back to work on our opera. Maybe by the time I return the squirrels and birds will have consumed crumbs and apple cores, the rain will have dissolved the bits of old newspapers and drafts of manuscripts. I can only hope that some omnivorous monster will remove the broken jars of jams and grape juice jugs. . . .

During my lecture I'm distracted by visions of the whole street blocked by garbage. And what will the neighbors think? I still dream of miracles, and hurry home to finish writing my libretto before Mary Coleman, my composer-collaborator, arrives. No time for banalities.

But banalities have time for me. Nothing artistic or musical about the heaps of scattered trash. No question that it spreads out from mym house. Who else has such creative trash? The next-door lawyer? The foreign correspondent three doors up? The politician four doors down? Perhaps.

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Regardless: no question that Im must sweep it up.

All right, all right, I've picked up trash before, if never to this extent. This evening I must sweep the whole street. I drop lecture notes and operatic notions, put on rubber gloves, grab dustpan and broom, and face realities: broken glass, soggy paper, bits of bills and poems, all laced with ancient ketchup honey-glued. . . .

The traffic has picked up, cars whiz past. No one I know, I hope. And may all my neighbors stay in their houses. Lines of librettos lace my brain. At least I am still dressed up, I do things in style.

Crystalline sky, crispening air, jays and cardinals, magnolia cones. T. S. Eliot's "garlic and sapphires in the mud."

Shards stick in the fissures of asphalt. . . . Honey won't come up with a sponge. . . . What will the neighbors . . .? When will the libretto . . . ?

The public thoroughfare has become my private responsibility.

Then, as I bend and crouch and sweep, finally hose down the street, I hear the carillon of our nearby cathedral begin to chime. While the melody is different, suddenly I see -- no, feelm -- Sofia and her old street sweepers. Who may not, in fact, be so much older than I. Merely more picturesque. And I know vividly -- what of course everyone knows -- that sweeping the streets is a dirty job, fair weather or foul. No illusions of romance there. But now we have a kinship in our tasks, a sisterhood -- although, in the old Russian phrase, a song from a different opera.

The street sparkles. With only a few chips of gla ss. Time to go in and write mine

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