The Back of the Yard Boys

Updated: Jun 22

The back of the yard boys used to climb the church steeple at the high point of summer and throw their books onto the roof of the rectory building. On the days when the wind would come blowing off the plains the pages would catch and rain down a torrent of dead writers onto the street.

Fragments of high literature. A snow of language. White, yellow-tinged pages covered in black box print.

The shops would empty out and crowds would gather on the sidewalk to watch as a superfluity of nuns danced through the downpour trying to catch the loose pages.

We were never as bad as the back of the yard boys. Although we liked to think of ourselves as the masters of all creation, we possessed little by way of their violent panache.

Walking down the streets you knew not to make eye contact with them. Pug noses and not a jaw among them that hadn’t seen the edge of a stoop. If you saw them running you knew to get out of the way. If they were running toward you, you knew to run too. The cops made it their daily duty to knock their heads. If something happened in the neighborhood it was assumed, rightly or not, that they were to blame. They were called delinquents, criminals, hooligans.

They’d sit under the viaducts along St. Michelangelo Street and lay spikes in the road hoping to jack a truck with a load of cigarettes. Or they’d light the tails of small dogs on fire and send them racing into department stores, yapping in absolute terror. On one occasion they set a brothel on fire, sending the mayor and several aldermen rushing out with their pants around their ankles.

The back of the yard boys were an army. One hundred strong at their peak. Unbeaten and unrepentant. One could imagine that they’d reign over the neighborhood forever. Old men with baseball bats sitting in their rocking chairs under the viaducts. But somewhere along the line the rules changed and in time the back of the yard boys all fell away. New gangs replaced them, but none with the same style. Their violence lacked a poet’s touch. Drugs. Money. Guns. They were pedestrian thugs.

I still remember a time when it rained pages. Even months into fall you’d find a browned sheet of Yeats or half a Shakespearean sonnet crumpled at a sewer grating.

The wind has died down since then. There are no more books on the roof of the rectory, nor back of the yard boys to throw them there. The streets aren’t any safer, but the poetry is gone.

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