Weegee on the Beat
by Stephen Benz


© Weegee Archive/ICP

Ceaselessly prowling the streets during the graveyard shift,
[Weegee] took thousands of photographs that defined Manhattan
as a film noir nightscape of hoodlums and gangsters,
Bowery bums and slumming swells, tenement dwellers
and victims of domestic brawls, fires and car crashes.
He gave it its enduring nickname, the Naked City.
                                                                       — New York Times


Welcome to the Lower East Side, where paddy wagons prowl 
and shadows scurry about in a panic. The precincts of Cain’s mayoralty. 
A photo worthy of page six is all the redemption tonight’s victims will get, 
three stooges who turned traitor and tried the midnight dodge to no avail. 
The fat one sang for his supper and ended up with a splintered bone in his throat. 
Number two over there must have been your typical choir boy 
until he hit the wrong note. Bad day to put off confession, buddy boy. 
As for the third, he was clearly off key from the get-go. 
Time for his mug shot; the crime photographer leans in. 


One night it’s a sheikish fellow in a black suit,
patent leather shoes, pearl-gray hat;
the next it’s a darling blonde in panties and bra
splayed on a flophouse floor, ready for her glamor shot.
Bookies, madams, racketeers, call girls, pimps,
petty chiselers, gamblers, con men, jewel fences:
all dead and littering the gutter alongside the likes
of Mad Dog Coll, Legs Diamond, Spanish Rose, 
Waxey Gordon and Dutch Schultz.
Here’s the morgue wagon come to haul them off: 
the one strangled in a bathtub,
the one machine-gunned in a telephone booth,
the one spilling his guts in the gutter,
the one slumped in the doorway of an Italian café,
the one trussed up with piano wire,
the one bleeding out in a baby carriage,
the one doused in kerosene and set on fire,
the glamor puss, the sailor boy, the little piggy
who went to market and took a blow to the brain.


Every murder’s a masterpiece in the making,
the influence of the old masters evident
in lighting, palette, and perspective. 
Consider this moribund tableau:
a modern-day Holofernes sans Judith,
more blood and darkness than even Caravaggio
could imagine, ready-made for exposure.
The detectives circle the mise en scène 
admiring Judith’s knifework then light up 
their cigars in the corner, pleased the night
has produced legitimate entertainment 
and much relieved the rain has tapered off. 
Look at the way the arm of Holofernes falls 
meekly across the discarded blade, 
his hand still clutching—what? A feather? 
A flower? A coil of Judith’s hair? Hard to say,
moisture having tampered with the scene.
Can’t catch a break, the lead detective says.
Here’s more of the goddamn rain we didn’t need.


What drove this dim-witted trinity down the turncoat path
and brought them screeching to betrayal’s usual dead end?
Mere boys, innocent looking in spite of bullet holes 
and initiation scars. What skullduggery lured them 
into the ambush, the double-cross, the whirligig of time? 
The camera insists on knowing. Maybe it was 
maternal neglect or cronyism, maybe seductive advertising, 
the false pretenses of this brave new world. Or was it merely 
a misunderstanding, a translation that missed the mark
not long after the immigrant boat came to dock?
Whatever, it harbored a malicious force 
not even the courage of callow youth could withstand.
These boys had their catechism down cold, no doubt,
a severe nun whacking them into obedience
right on up to dropout day when they skipped
into the soda fountain for a malted
and left with a syndicate switchblade and payola.
They abruptly ignored the street map
marking the straight and narrow; they raced
right past the stations of the neon cross 
in favor of a via more dolorosa by far.
The lurker in the shadows promised blood money,
and off they went, packet in hand, la-di-da, executing
each of the assigned tasks to perfection.
They couldn’t resist the canard that led them here,
their picture-perfect rendezvous with Mister Doom.


No more sparkle left in this sweetheart,
such a pretty thing, hot off the griddle.
Impulsive acts got her nowhere, capricious attempts
to climb the spiral only confirmed
the dread she was at pains to conceal. 
With a trip of the trigger came a crackle of light
quickly suppressed. Turn and turn again
she could not find her way out of the whorl,
fully subsumed in the vortex that impelled her fall. 


Across the street, evangelists are handing out pamphlets to a curious crowd. 
The police scanner has conjured a body in the gutter: tomorrow’s frontpage photo. 
A stray dog makes off with the victim’s boot clenched in its jaws. 
The morgue crew waits at the threshold of an abandoned warehouse. 
Lovers shiver behind barricades. There are angels in the looming facades,
a mournful Mary etched on the spiritualist’s window. 
Drunks in a vacant lot serenade the scene and the beat cop waves his nightstick: 
Is it a threat or is he keeping time? The peep show girls wander past, 
bound for Hanson’s, a cup of coffee before bed. 
The priest who appeared out of nowhere to administer last rites 
is some kind of crank or quack spouting the wrong words, 
more Ogden Nash than scripture. Even the humorless detectives find it funny 
and some wise acre says, You’ll never get that in a picture.


Every threshold means a new enigma.
A trapdoor ushers in pain’s next level.
Blind alley, dumb luck: what he never knew
made all the difference once
he reached the lightning round.

Snap out of it, jackass:
last words he heard before the ether hour.


Here’s another who hurtled along,
assuming the right of way,
impotent to alter the fateful course.
All his velleities were distilled
in the flash of the moment,
the dead-of-night crackup
that snapped him out of both delusion
and reverie. The one startling instant—
the only one he would ever know—
of feeling fully alive. It was all
in front of him, careening headlong,
an ineluctable collision with 
being, time, nothingness—
an elusive brilliance, blinding,
confrontational, exposed.
Raptured in his own wreckage.


Baby doll here made misadventure her stubborn bent;
no easy rationale could subdue the demiurge 
that had her dumbly groping
the blistered walls of this, her vice chamber.
She did not want to escape—stuck fast
in her desire, remorse readily stifled.
If she could speak for herself 
she would say hindsight 
was a critical waste of time, 
a lost cause once the spike
came on, the ragged rush, her skin 
turning to striped pelt as she assumed 
the unadulterated persona 
that was her greatest gift.


Looks like this bozo misread the signs.
Well, mister, you know what the tabloids say:
It’s a politicized environment
and backlash is always lurking
unseen but ready to roil,
all the unstable forces triggering
the ripple effect. You start off
everybody’s friend, the new guy,
potential ally. It’s all about lending
support, running cover, taking the hit.
Ingratiation greases the slippery slope,
fortune’s wheel the operative paradigm.
The ride up is one quick whoa-ho-ho;
and then the downfall, swift and certain.
Stepping over your remains,
the henchmen won’t break stride 
as they leave the scene. Sorry, pal, 
you’re the dawn patrol’s sticky business now.


What did this dupe learn
when his hour was up,
his unlucky number drawn?
How bones break and rattle.
How the body frazzles
and collapses in a burst of light.
How wounds expose the soul,
a gruesome sight the medics 
rush to conceal. It’s too late
now for further lessons.
He knows nothing 
of the photographer’s smirk,
the detective’s stifled yawn,
the dazzled crowd blissfully
applauding his melodramatic demise.
The all-too-eager witnesses have a story
to tell but they too are blind
to the impervious moral.
It’s midnight in Manhattan,
the show must go on.
Tomorrow’s illustrated edition
will reveal the glitter
in flecks of blood, the glower
in the pronouncement of death:
valuable knowledge and hard-earned at that.
But for this fella, overexposure suggests
God’s peace was way past understanding.


The eyewitnesses stare from behind barricades.
He fell in with the wrong crowd, someone tells
a head-heavy detective taking notes.
Meaning? Meaning he was keen for the big break,
thought he could play both sides.
It’s trouble waiting to happen when 
you’re in that deep. A sparkle in the rubbish pile,
a light winking in the third-floor walk-up,
a bombshell’s slender fingers touching your thigh.
The moment you think you might have it all,
the rope snaps, a thousand pinpricks light up the brain,
the bottom feeders scuttle through the muck
to pick apart the residue. You start knocking 
on doors in this part of town, you find out quick
what’s in store—a dead-end ride, a freefall
out into nada, a question with no good answer.


All the dicks circle up to ponder the imponderable:
what happened before what happened happened?
There’s grist for your mill, salt for your wound.
Lucky stiff: he can’t be bothered with riddles.
The conundrums won’t trouble his eternal peace.
He’ll just go on grinning, the death mask
everyone will ponder on tomorrow’s front page.
This is comeuppance writ large, the way-hey-hey
and hootchie-coo, death’s two-timing jitterbug.
Your basic memento mori cracked open on the sidewalk,
gaping wound displayed for a gaping crowd
desperate for small-hour entertainment.
It’s the decisive moment, folks, the greatest show
on Earth right here in Gotham,
Everyman’s psychodrama captured 
in the camera’s wide-eyed stare.


Stephen Benz has published four books of essays, including Reading the Signs and Topographies (both from Etruscan Press). He has also published a book of poems, Americana Motel (Main Street Rag Publishing Co.), along with essays in New England Review, Creative Nonfiction, River Teeth, and Best American Travel Writing. He lives in Albuquerque, where he teaches at University of New Mexico. You can find out more about Benz by visiting his website: stephenconnelybenz.com.

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