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SHJ Issue 8
Fall 2013

Three Excerpts from As an Alien in a Land of Promise

by Hank Kalet


Tent City 2: photograph by Sherry Rubel
Photograph by Sherry Rubel

shelter, protection,
temporary lodging for the homeless poor,
maybe the trees, the tarps,
the tents. perhaps the cops,
or not, or the courts.
maybe the plywood
or a sleeping bag, a rough mattress
on a rotting pallet,
the leftovers, waste,
no-longer-wanted, donated

in the end, he says, beggars can’t be choosers



Shopping carts and duffel bags,
the plyboard camp
spreads across the culvert out
into the woods—

“As a group, they are atomized. They
have no face; they have no voice....”

Tent City 5: photograph by Sherry Rubel
Photograph by Sherry Rubel

machine hum of a generator,
crow of a rooster, diesel growl
of eighteen-wheelers
speeding toward
the nearby warehouses

on a rusted-legged table,
old blankets and cotton
dress shirts, a pair of shorts,
dresses, sweaters, the unwanted,
refuse, waste, leavings, scraps
from closets emptied
before a move

used to live with my mother
until she died and I fell
into depression. I waitressed,
worked as a home health aide,
a cashier, cleaned houses,

sometimes the owners
would give me clothes,
a dress she didn’t wear,
something for my son.

Tent City 3: photograph by Sherry Rubel
Photograph by Sherry Rubel

at the bent-legged table,
donations picked through,
collected, kept,
rubbish, rubble

one person’s trash
is another’s treasure, she says



The Mexicans settle in tents
set back from the road, huddle
around a fire pit, keep
to themselves

La mayoría que viven aquí,
no tenían dónde vivir.

one says
Necessity, says the preacher,
they have nowhere else

They leave in the dark, 4 a.m.,
stand in the cold, muster in the lot
off Route 9, wait for work.

There are a lot who get picked for work,
a lot who don’t. They can’t pay rent,
so they take refuge where they can.

They are from Puebla, from Mexico City,
the northern desert. They
do dry wall and pour cement,
cut grass on massive
industrial mowers.

They walk the mile down Cedar Bridge,
in twos and threes, headlights
in their eyes, the sudden shine
so bright like the flashlights
of border agents they skipped past
when they crossed to America.


Commentary by Hank Kalet

These poems are excerpts of a longer work focusing on the Tent City encampment in Lakewood, New Jersey. It is a poetic exploration of homelessness and the fallout of American corporate capitalism, constructed after a year of visits and interviews with the people living in the encampment. I began working on the project in early 2012 with a photographer and filmmaker, with each of us pursuing parallel artistic paths.

Tent City 4: photograph by Sherry Rubel
Photograph by Sherry Rubel

Several things inspired me to work on this project—a long-standing concern for the poor that has been a staple in my work as a columnist and reporter; C. D. Wright’s fabulous book, One Big Self, one of the truly great pieces of American literature to have been produced so far this century; and the stark and remarkable photos of Sherry Rubel. Sherry had been visiting and taking pictures at a tent encampment in Lakewood for a couple of months, when I became aware of her project through a short blurb on the local news website I was editing. Her pictures impressed me and I immediately started writing. A month later I visited Tent City for the first time with Sherry and a filmmaker friend Jack Ballo—and so was born the Tent City Project, a collaboration on a single theme that has produced three distinct, but overlapping works.

Jack’s film, Destiny’s Bridge, tells the tale of Tent City, its battles with the township of Lakewood, and the dreams of its leader to build a sustainable community to house the homeless. Sherry’s photos—several of which are featured here—show the humanity of Tent City’s residents, some of whom find themselves in the woods as a last resort, while others are there by choice. As for my poem, I will let the reader judge its merits. Our goal was to present the truth—not journalistically, but artistically. The subject—the men and women pitching tents in the woods at the edge of Lakewood’s downtown, a half-mile from its minor-league baseball stadium—are too often invisible, and when they are not they are viewed with disdain. They are not alone. There are hundreds of these encampments—some organized, some that come and go—and they represent an essential truth about an American corporate capitalism that chews up resources and spits them out, ignoring the human and environmental costs.



SHJ Issue 8
Fall 2013

Hank Kalet

is a poet and journalist who has been writing about homelessness and poverty for several years. His poetry has appeared recently in Exact Change Only, Exit 13, Middlesex, Spitball, U.S. 1 Worksheets, and 1/25, among other journals, and is forthcoming in the fall edition of Main Street Rag. His chapbook, Certainties and Uncertainties, was issued by Finishing Line Press in 2010.

Kalet runs the poetry series at the South Brunswick Library, is a contributing writer to NJ Spotlight (where he covers economic issues), and has written for The Progressive magazine and In These Times. His political column runs twice a month in The Progressive Populist. He teaches journalism at Rutgers University and writing at Middlesex County College in Edison, N.J.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury