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Poet's Choice: 'Mike the Winger' by Robert Polito

By Robert Polito
Sunday, December 6, 2009

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"Mike the Winger" is from a new collection "Hollywood & God," which mixes poetry and prose, fiction, autobiography and even essay. The book tracks a continuum along what traditionally you might style "transcendence" and what we've come to tag "celebrity culture," and Mike is one of its patron saints.

The city of "Mike the Winger" is Quincy, Mass., where I lived from age 8 through college. The walk to Saint Ann's School took us down Hillside Avenue, along South Central Avenue to Newport Avenue, then through a mysterious concrete tunnel under the tracks of the old New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad and onto St. Ann's Road. The afternoons Mike appeared on his bicycle with a basket of new records at the foot of the South Central Avenue hill were rare and special, and rumors swirled about his circumstances, most of the stories at once confident and implausible. Was he a Korean War Vet, way older than he looked? A junkie? Retarded? Schizophrenic? A genius until some goons pounded his head with a pipe in a schoolyard fight?

Mike loomed a bit of a phantom -- but so did Quincy, amid its granite quarries, ancient water tower, Vaudeville Mondays at the Wollaston Theater (into the '70s!), sad beach (despite twin yacht clubs) and Quincy Square disintegrating around its Richardson Library and historical Adams House. But Quincy Square also contained "Remicks of Quincy," the posh clothing store a few doors down from Sears, where, if you were lucky, you might see Lee Remick visiting her father, Frank, and Jason's Music and Luggage, your destination for sheet music, instruments and the latest LPs. I made a pilgrimage to Jason's every Saturday, and so did Mike.

(Editor's note: To see this poem laid out correctly on paper or on your screen, click the Print button in the Toolbox.)

Mike the Winger

City of Presidents,

City of the Granite Railway and Fore River Shipyard.

.

But city too of condoms ground into our pitcher's rubber,

and city of water rats and black leeches floating in the spring runoff.

.

City of the first Howard Johnson's, the first Dunkin Donuts,

city of Lee Remick modeling summer dresses for her father's store,

.

And city now where Beatles albums drop from the sky

as Mike the Winger speaks from inside a circling crowd --

.

Pockmarked, pimpled and blazing,

he looks, Tommy LeBlanc said, like someone set his face on fire

then stomped it out with golf shoes.

.

As he straddles his new Black Phantom,

as he rocks on his new red Keds,

as he pounds his wire basket of new LPs,

.

Mike demonstrates the legendary gesture that gave him his name.

"I play 'em once, then I wing 'em," he says --

.

Every afternoon Mike spins his own Top 40 from his bike

like a paperboy launching the Patriot Ledger across our lawn --

.

"Those Rolling Stones? Those Beach Boys? Those groups all you kids like?

They're OK. But man, I love them Beatles --

they wing up real good!"

.

What about his parents? Where does he grab all that cash?

Nobody stops to ask,

caught in the awe of the grander phenomenon --

.

Manna from heaven --

.

Records eased from their jackets and arced into air --

.

Records pristine and gleaming in trees,

records scratched and gritty on the streets,

.

Amid shouts of Go Mike, Go nuts, Go wingnut,

Come on Mikey baby wing one over here --

.

The hits just keep on coming . . .

.

The dead are everywhere,

but if Mike is still alive,

he'd be tracking retirement age --

.

Though how do you retire from something like winging?

Mere technological obsolescence? Mike frustrated by CDs,

casualty to a digital age?

.

Maybe winging records is like making movies,

or saying Mass,

your calling --

.

You do it until you can't do it anymore.

.

Mike worshipped the early Gods of rock 'n' roll,

Chuck Berry, Elvis, Little Richard, and Buddy Holly,

then he winged everybody else..

None of the records Mike tossed have ever gone away.

Who would have guessed that?

City of John Adams and John Quincy Adams, our 2nd & 6th Presidents.

City of Miles Connor, rockabilly singer & art thief.

City of Robert Polito.

City of Mike the Winger.

Robert Polito, director of the graduate writing program at the New School, received the National Book Critics Circle Award for "Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson" (1995). His most recent books are the poetry collection "Hollywood & God" (University of Chicago Press) and "Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber" (Library of America).

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