The poetic turn of phrase came to him in an unlikely way: when a woman stormed out of a bodega on Lenox Avenue in Central Harlem.
“How dare that man behind the counter say that I can’t get honey in Harlem,” she shouted.
The moment stuck with David Ellis, a poet: 16 years later, he returned to this encounter when deciding what to name his second self-published book of poems. The result, “Honey in Harlem,” rhapsodizes encounters like that one in a collection of 91 free-verse poems reflecting the people, the history and the places of the neighborhood he has worked in for more than a decade.
“I knew I had books inside me,’’ Mr. Ellis, 39, said. “I’m writing for where I live. I’m writing about things I’m passionate about.”
Mr. Ellis works as the library technology coordinator at St. Mark the Evangelist School on 138th Street, where he tries to instill the passion he has for poetry into the students. Last year, he took them to his home on City Island in the Bronx, to show them the landscape that inspired his first book of poems, “Beach on City Island,” published in 2016.
Sun stretched it’s legs just the sound of lapping waves watching seagulls play
— Acquainted With the Morning, from “Beach on City Island”
“He’s gotten the kids more passionate about reading,” said Christopher Keramidas, the school’s after-school director.
Mr. Ellis is a man obsessed with what he will leave behind. It’s why he teaches. It’s why he writes.
“I try my best to write timeless poetry, that’ll stick around, you know.”
Every morning, Mr. Ellis takes a bus from City Island to a subway station in the Bronx to get to Harlem.
His walks down Lenox to work have inspired most of his poems. Pieces like “90 Degrees on Lenox” invoke images of ice carts on corners, chocolate brownstones melting in the sun, and packed streets filled with music, yelling, talking and laughter.
He tucks these moments away, preserving them as poems that he writes on scraps of paper or on a notes app on his smartphone. He takes pride in connecting with the community.
“I definitely could not have written this book if I just stayed in a bubble, and worked in Harlem and went home,” he said.
Though the man who inspired the poem “The Juiceman” sells lemonade from a shopping cart in the book, in real life he is known around Harlem as “the Soup Man,” selling his concoctions out of a cooler along 132nd Street and 145th Street.
Pushing his shopping cart
Crashing sound of ice in his huge container filled with
Hot sunny day
— The Juiceman
“They call me soup, soup,” the Soup Man, whose real name is Gregg Strayhorn, said. “I was baptized by community and I can’t beat that.”
Mr. Ellis marveled at the word play.
“They call me the poet, you know” he said. “Baptized by community … I like that.”
Mr. Strayhorn said he has not known Mr. Ellis long, but that does not stop him from talking as if they are old friends.
Like Harlem, Mr. Ellis’s poems reflect the clash of two worlds — the past and the present.
“I’ve seen shops open up, close. But if there’s anything that’s certain in life, it’s change,” Mr. Ellis said.
The shift from past to present is evident in just a few blocks. Oxtail, fried chicken, and mac-and-cheese by the pound from Jacob Soul Food and Salad Bar become tacos from Cantina Taqueria and wood-fired pizzas from Babbalucci.
Though he is obsessed with the past, Mr. Ellis roams a new Harlem, frequenting places like the Red Rooster and Lenox Coffee, restaurants that opened less than a decade ago.
“I’m a Whole Foods kind of guy,” he said, finding no issue in patronizing the high-end supermarket welcomed as a status symbol by some and criticized by others as a sign of gentrification since it opened last summer.
In the back of an independent bookstore, Revolution Books, a small crowd gathered for a reading from his latest collection on a recent Wednesday night.
For many, his words reminded them of a Harlem that wasn’t quite the same anymore.
J.E. Franklin, a longtime Harlem resident and playwright, said the poems reminded her of a time when the people in Mr. Ellis’s poems actually lived and breathed in the neighborhood. People like James Baldwin and his brother, David, whom she said she spent time with.
“It took me back,” Ms. Franklin said.
Luke Bracey is a longtime social worker at the Harlem Hospital Center. Like Mr. Ellis, he frequently walks up and down Lenox Avenue. On a good day, Mr. Bracey will walk the 19 blocks from 135th to 116th.
“It’s the lull of my thoughts,” he said. “It’s a good walk. It’s a good walk.”