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On "A Step Away from Them"

Neal Bowers

This is not collage, because the assorted elements are not reduced to static snapshots of the city. Instead, they appear and pass away as O'Hara walks through them. The effect is something like a motion picture, with O'Hara in each frame. Saying what all the details mean is easy--they mean whatever they are, and their importance lies in their randomness and transience. . . .

Everything has equal significance--Puerto Ricans, dead friends, a warehouse--and O'Hara, caught up in the fullness of such a fife, returns to work with a book of poems in his pocket, his ruminations having led neither to sadness nor happiness but to an affirmation of his place in the teeming city-world.

From "The City Limits" in Jim Elledge, ed. Frank O’Hara: To Be True to a City. University of Michigan Press, 1990.

Kevin Stein

Borrowing a line from the poem itself, one could easily call this an example of O'Hara's "I look" poems. His ostensible intention for the poem and its impetus, at least initially, are identical, and both seem purely visual. Still, amidst the glow of "neon in daylight" and the smoke of a sign, the "blonde chorus girl" and the "lady in foxes," time suddenly and sullenly rears its ugly head: O'Hara, dead center in "Times Square," becomes aware it is "12:40 of / a Thursday" (and he dates the poem 1956). He is made fitfully aware that time imposes limits. On the most mundane level, it brackets the exhilarating hour of his lunch, and in a larger way, brackets his own lifetime as it already has those of his deceased friends Bunny Lang and Jackson Pollock, of whom he thinks while walking on the "beautiful and warm" avenue before heading "back to work." Quickly, though his "heart" is in his "pocket," O'Hara moves from the death of his friends to safer, more objective matters such as "BULLFIGHT" posters and "papaya juice."

From "Everything the Opposite" in Jim Elledge, ed. Frank O’Hara: To Be True to a City. University of Michigan Press, 1990.

Brad Gooch

"A Step Away from Them" follows O'Hara in handheld camera fashion, wearing his trademark seersucker Brooks Brothers jacket with a volume of poems by Pierre Reverdy stuck in its pocket, as he heads on his lunch hour west and then downtown from the Museum, past construction sites on Sixth Avenue, through Times Square where he stops for a cheeseburger and a glass of papaya juice beneath the Chesterfield billboard with blowing smoke, and then back uptown to work. In the writing of the poem O'Hara left a record for history of the sensations of a sensitive and sophisticated man in the middle of the twentieth century walking through what was considered by some the capital of the globe. Using a deceptively flat pedestrian voice-"it's my lunch hour, so I go for a walk among the hum-colored / cabs"--O'Hara discovered a new kind of pleasure in writing a more public poetry. As Allen Ginsberg later told an interviewer, "He integrated purely personal life into the high art of composition, marking the return of all authority back to the person. His style is actually in line with the tradition that begins with Independence and runs through Thoreau and Whitman, here composed in a metropolitan spaceage architecture environment. He taught me to really see New York for the first time, by making of the giant style of Midtown his intimate cocktail environment. It's like having Catullus change your view of the Forum in Rome."

O'Hara was fired by the challenge of finding the good in the bad, the poetic in the mundane, the ancient and divine in modem New York. His tendency, like Whitman's, was to mythologize its daily life. In "A Step Away from Them" even construction workers--staples of the midtown terrain--are made to seem mysterious and glamorous and tropically sexual:

First, down the sidewalk
where laborers feed their dirty
glistening torsos sandwiches
and Coca-Cola, with yellow helmets
on. They protect them from falling
bricks, I guess.

Likewise the growing Puerto Rican population of the city was assimilated in the poem--this latest in a series of mass migrations of ethnic groups having just peaked in 1953: "There are several Puerto / Ricans on the avenue today, which / makes it beautiful and warm." O'Hara had first sounded this theme a month earlier when he and John Button sat on a fire escape composing a collaborative letter to Schuyler written in gay slang about the recent fire at Wanamaker's Department Store to which O'Hara contributed the line, "And the Porto Ricans seem to be having such a swell time in the street outside." Kenneth Koch grounds the line to a recent incident of heckling from a group of Puerto Rican boys. "We were walking up Sixth Avenue going to Larré's to lunch," recalls Koch. "It was a really hot day. There were these Puerto Rican guys on the street who made some remarks which made me angry. I said, 'Shit. Damn it.' Frank said, 'Listen. It means they think we're attractive.'" O'Hara's libidinal fantasies and poetic fancies were equal and intertwined enough that he could see what he wanted to see, or needed to see, on the lunch hour streets.

Part of the novelty of O'Hara's poem--published a year later in Evergreen Review--was that nothing seemed made up. Reporting his stop at a greasy spoon, Juliet's Corner, O'Hara follows with "Giulietta Masina, wife of / Federico Fellini, è bell' attrice," The association had surfaced because of his viewing La Strada a few weeks earlier. "John Button and I saw one of the all time great movies the other day, La Strada and man, was it ever!" he reported to John Wieners, then at Black Mountain College. "It has Anthony Quinn, Richard Basehart (what a nice last name) and someone named Giulietta Masina who is a genius, she's the End. Also the director, Federico Fellini, seems to have a few insights into the soul not often granted by the Heavenly Hiders." O'Hara's adoration of Masina reached its peak a few years later when he met her at the home of the Italian countess Camilla McGrath, who translated as O'Hara--his hero worship always to the far side of theatrical--fell to his knees in front of the actress and gushed, "You are not simply a great artist, you are a fact of our lives!"

The true subject of the poem, though--like that of the equally ambulatory "The Day Lady Died" three years later--was revealed in its title. In "A Step Away from Them," written the day after Jackson Pollock's funeral in the Springs, O'Hara was feeling keenly the proximity of the line of death over which his three friends had so recently walked, or slid:

Bunny died, then John Latouche,
then Jackson Pollock. But is the
earth as full as life uses full, of them?

His reactions were not morose or baleful. Rather, the closeness of death, the personal awareness of decay and change, of "the Manhattan Storage Warehouse, / which they'll soon tear down," only made him feel more alert to his surroundings. He began to seize on moments, and street markers, and tiny objects such as wristwatches, with a new intensity in a poetry increasingly celebrating the dailiness of everyday. It was a poetry in which, as he put it in a later essay on Edwin Denby's dance criticism, "attention equals Life."

O'Hara had learned his lesson during his recent stay in Cambridge. New York was the place for his poetry and life. Settling with a newly energized commitment into his job at the Museum, where he would remain until his death, O'Hara also settled more deeply into his poetry. Writing "In Memory of My Feelings" and "A Step Away from Them" during the first six weeks of his return, he laid out the two productive directions of much of his work over the next three years. "In Memory of My Feelings" leads toward the abstract emotion and large scale of the Odes (published in 1960), and "A Step Away from Them" leads toward the smaller, more intimate "I do this I do that" poems, which most directly influenced the "second generation" of New York School poets who began showing up at O'Hara's door in the early sixties.

From City poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara. Copyright © 1993 by Brad Gooch.

Marjorie Perloff (1973)

The structure of this poem may look random, the details--Coca-Cola signs, hours of the day, objects seen in store windows--are seemingly trivial, but in O'Hara's imaginative reconstruction of New York City, everything is there for a purpose. We might note, to begin with, that the speaker's thought processes constantly return to images of life, vitality, animation, motion. From the "hum-colored / cabs" to the skirts "flipping / above heels," everything is in motion. Even the sign above Times Square "blows smoke over my head, and higher / the waterfall pours lightly."

But what particularly delights the poet is the paradox of heat and motion: no matter how hot the New York streets, their life force remains intact:

                                            . . .A
Negro stands in a doorway with a
toothpick, languorously agitating.
A blonde chorus girl clicks: he
smiles and rubs his chin....

At this point, "everything suddenly honks," and the moment ("12:40 of / a Thursday") is endowed with radiance.

Just as the Negro's languorous agitation forces the observer to pay special attention, so he finds "great pleasure" in the conjunction of opposites of "neon in daylight" or in the absurd tableau of the lady unseasonably wearing foxes, who "puts her poodle / in a cab." Such unexpected juxtapositions are pleasurable because they allow the poet, who remains essentially "A Step Away from Them," from the blondes, Puerto Ricans, and laborers on the Avenue, to create new patterns in space, new compositions of color, texture, and light.

But the vibrancy of the lunch hour would not seem special if the poet did not remember, near the end of the poem, those of his friends--Bunny, John Latouche, and Jackson Pollock--who can no longer perceive it. The faint undertone of death, captured in the final image of the Manhattan Storage Warehouse, soon to be torn down, qualifies the poet's response and heightens his awareness of being alive. The poem has, in short, been moving all along to the central recognition of the affinity of life and death, to the perception that death is, as it was for Wallace Stevens, the mother of beauty. The poet's knowledge that he is only "A Step Away from Them," from the fate his artist friends have met, makes the final glass of papaya juice and the awareness that his "heart"--a book of Reverdy's poems--is in his pocket especially precious and poignant. Death, in short, is always in the background, but the trick is to keep oneself on top of it, to counter despair by participating as fully as possible in the stream of life.

Of course "A Step Away from Them" would be spoiled if it included any statement as bald, abstract, and pretentious as the one I have just made, and indeed the only place in the poem where O'Hara is perhaps guilty of such a lapse is in the question, "But is the / earth as full as life was full, of them?," a question which did not need to be asked because its answer was already implicit in the poem's network of images....

From Contemporary Literature (1973).

Marjorie Perloff (1998)

In this famous "lunch poem," public events, political or otherwise, obviously play much less of a role than in Ginsberg's "America." Indeed, the poem's oppositionality would seem to be all on the level of rhetoric. For Wilbur's highly crafted stanzas, O'Hara substitutes a nervous, short, tautly suspended free-verse line; for Wilbur's studied impersonality, O'Hara substitutes the intimate address, whether to a friend or to himself, he describes in "Personism"; and for Wilbur's elaborately contrived metaphor, his "I" substitutes persons, places, and objects that are palpable, real, and closely observed.

The poet's lunch-hour walk, presumably from his workplace, the Museum of Modern Art on 53rd Street between 5th and 6th Avenues in the direction of Times Square, is full of enticing sights and sounds: cabs hum, laborers in hard hats (whose "dirty / glistening torsos" the gay poet subliminally desires) are eating sandwiches and drinking Coca-Cola, the skirts of girls in high heels (the then proverbial office uniform) "flip" and "blow up over / grates," the myriad cut-rate jewelry shops on 6th Avenue try to outdo each other with "bargains in wristwatches," the huge Chesterfield ad above Times Square blows smoke at the cigarette-friendly pedestrian, a black man, hanging out in a doorway makes eyes at a blonde chorus girl walking by, and the Puerto Ricans on the Avenue are enough to make it, by the poet's dadaesque reasoning, "beautiful and warm." Pleasurable, too, are the absurd contradictions representative of New York life: the "Negro ... with a toothpick, langorously agitating," the "neon in daylight" and "lightbulbs in daylight," the lunchspots with incongruous names like "Juliet's Corner" that serve cheeseburgers and chocolate malteds, the ladies with poodles who wear fox furs even on the hottest summer day, and so on.

But, as James E. B. Breslin noted in his excellent essay on O'Hara, the poet seems to be "a step away," not only from the dead friends (Bunny Lang, John Latouche, Jackson Pollock) he will memorialize later in the poem, but from all the persons and objects in his field of vision. "Sensations," writes Breslin, "disappear almost as soon as they are presented. Objects and people ... remain alien to a poet who can never fully possess them." For Breslin, the poet's malaise, his inability to hold on to things, to move toward any kind of transcendence beyond the fleeting, evanescent moment is largely a function of O'Hara's unique psychological make-up. But since, as Breslin himself suggests, O'Hara's fabled "openness is an admitted act of contrivance and duplicity," we might consider the role culture plays in its formation.

Consider, to begin with, the repeated metonymic displacements of specific metaphors. New York's yellow cabs are compared to bees ("hum-colored"), but their color relates them to the laborers' "yellow helmets," worn to "protect them from failing / bricks, I guess." Yellow helmets, yellow jackets: the poem's brilliance is to connect these disparate items and yet to leave the import of the connection hanging. Is the tentative explanation ("I guess") about "falling bricks" tongue-in-cheek or serious? In the same vein, "skirts" are no sooner seen "flipping / above heels" in the hot air than they are described as "blow[ing] up over / grates," (perhaps an allusion to Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch), even as the sign high up in Times Square "blows smoke over my head." "Blow," for O'Hara, always has sexual connotations, but "blow up," soon to be the title of Antonioni's great film, also points to the vocabulary of nuclear crisis omnipresent in the public discourse of these years. The muted and intermittent sounds of skirts flipping, smoke blowing, cabs stirring up the air, and cats playing in the sawdust give way to the moment when "Everything / suddenly honks: it is 12:40 of / a Thursday." Here sound is illogically related to time: gridlock in the streets, an absolutely ordinary event in midtown Manhattan, somehow makes the poet look up at the big clock above Times Square and have the surreal sense that time is coming to a stop. The connection is momentary (rather like an air-raid siren going off), but it changes the pedestrian's mood. At 12:40, at any rate, lunch hour has passed the halfway point, and now thoughts of the dead come to the fore--or were they already there in the reference to the "sawdust" in which the cats play? The pronoun "I" shifts to the impersonal "one"; "neon in daylight" is no longer such a pleasure, revealing as it does the "magazines with nudes / and the posters for BULLFIGHT," and the mortuary-like "Manhattan Storage Warehouse / which they'll soon tear down," the reference to the armory in the next line linking death with war.

By this time, the "great pleasure" of the poet's lunch hour has been occluded by anxiety. Not the fear of anything in particular: O'Hara's New York is still a long way from the crime and drug-ridden Manhattan of the nineties. On the contrary, the poet's anxiety seems to stem from the sheer glut of sensation: so many new and colorful things to see--new movies starring Giulietta Masina, new Balanchine ballets for Edwin Denby to write about, new editions of Reverdy poems, new buildings going up all over town. Colorful, moreover, is now. associated with persons of color: the poet, exoticizing the Other, takes pleasure in the "click" between the "langurously agitating Negro" and "blonde chorus girl" (a sly parody of the scare question being asked with regularity in the wake of the Desegregation Act of 1954, "Would you want your daughter to marry a Nigra?"), and he observes playfully that "There are several Puerto Ricans on the avenue today, which / makes it beautiful and warm." Yet--and here the contrast replicates the juxtapositions found in Look or Colliers--for every exotic sight and delightful sensation, there are falling bricks, bullfights, blow outs, armories, mortuaries, and, as the name Juliet's Corner suggests, tombs. In this context, ironically, the actual death references in the poem ("First / Bunny died") function almost as overkill.

The "glass of papaya juice" of the penultimate lines sums it up nicely. Papaya, now sold in every large city supermarket, was a new commodity in the fifties; the recent Puerto Rican émigrés (who, for O'Hara, make it "beautiful and warm") were opening juice bars all over Manhattan. Papaya juice was considered not only exotic but healthful, the idea of drinking fruit and vegetable drinks that are good for you being itself a novelty in this period. The juice bar O'Hara frequents on the way "back to work" makes a wonderful contrast to the hamburger joint where he had lunch. Cheeseburger & malted: this all-American meal, soon to be marketed around the globe by McDonald's, gives way to the glass of papaya juice--a new "foreign" import. But the juice the poet ingests is also contrasted to the heart which is in "my pocket" and which is "Poems by Pierre Reverdy." The heart is not in the body where it belongs but in a book, placed externally, in the poet's pocket. And again it is a foreign vintage.

In the postwar economy of the late fifties, such new foreign imports created an enticing world of jouissance. But what is behind all those pleasurable "neon in daylight" surfaces and desirable "dirty/ glistening torsos" that attract the poet? For O'Hara, there is no anchor, even as the heart is no longer the anchor of the self. If, as a slightly later poem begins, "Khrushchev is coming on the right day!", "right" refers absurdly, not to any possible political rationale, but, with wonderfully absurd logic, to the fact that the September weather is so invigorating, with its "cool graced light" and gusty winds, and the poet so ecstatic in his new love affair with Vincent Warren, that surely it must be a good day for Khrushchev's visit! The public sphere thus becomes a cartoon backdrop against which the poet's "real" life unfolds. And yet that life, as we see in "Khrushchev" as in "A Step Away from Them," is everywhere imbricated with race and gender politics, with thoughts of dispersal ("New York seems blinding and my tie is blowing up the street / I wish it would blow off ") and death. Apolitical? Intentionally, yes, but very much itself a construction of the postwar moment.

From Poetry On & Off the Page: Essays for Emergent Occasions. Copyright © 1998 by Marjorie Perloff.

John Lowney

Another poem that conveys its preoccupation with time and death through the transience of the lunch break is "A Step Away From Them." Whereas "Personal Poem" is more concerned with the interplay of the political with the personal in the contemporary "avant-garde," "A Step Away From Them" affiliates 1950s "vanguard" art with the historical avant-garde. The preoccupation with time opens the poem, with the announcement, "It's my lunch hour." It reappears soon after, when the poet looks at "bargains in wristwatches," is ironically suggested in the reference to Times Square, and explicitly signals the transition from present impressions to reflection on darkness and death, which takes place exactly at "12:40" (CP, 257). The images and actions described in the opening two verse paragraphs—shirtless laborers eating sandwiches, skirts "flipping / above heels," cats "playing in sawdust," a "Negro" smiling at a "chorus girl" (ibid.)—counteract the concern with time with their sensual vitality; they occur in rapid succession, in short enjambed sentences. The details of the urban scene draw the poet away from self-consciousness; "I" appears only in the references to time in the opening verse paragraphs.

The shift from the Lunch Poems' "strolling" poet who pauses at a "sample Olivetti" to the poet who "ponders" over the "eternal questions of life, co-existence and depth" occurs immediately after the announcement of the exact time in "A Step Away From Them." The artificial light of "neon" in daylight accentuates a darkness present even at noontime, as awareness of the transience of the lunch break initiates the reflection on mortality. This shift from natural light to neon is repeated with the association of "JULIET'S CORNER" with "Giulietta Masina," the Italian actress married to Federico Fellini (CP, 258). The movies provide the nighttime light with their "heavenly dimensions and reverberations and iconoclasms" ("To the Film Industry in Crisis," in CP, 232) to escape from the darkness of self-consciousness, especially from the consciousness of mortality. This preoccupation with death embedded in the structure of the lunch break becomes most apparent in the subsequent transition from present impressions to memory. Reflecting on the deaths of friends who were also public figures—Bunny Lang, John Latouche, Jackson Pollock—O'Hara fuses private memory with commemoration of artists, especially Pollock, who were commonly portrayed as tragic "victims" of the cold-war demands placed on artists. O'Hara momentarily takes a "step away" from his own autobiographical stance, replacing "I" with an impersonal, typical "one":

And one has eaten and one walks,
past the magazines with nudes
and the posters for BULLFIGHT and
the Manhattan Storage Warehouse,
which they'll soon tear down. I
used to think they had the Armory
Show there.

(CP, 258)

In replacing "I" with a reified self as past other, O 'Hara situates his own act of commemorating avant-gardist figures in an irretrievable past. This act of momentary self-destruction replicates the response to imminent apocalypse that O'Hara saw animating Pollock's painting, but it also evokes Pollock's violent death. The violence of Pollock's painting reflects a repressed subtext of postwar American culture, and the poem questions how the act of internalizing this violence can be an effective mode for counteracting it. The poem then proceeds to implicate this sense of imminent destruction as an ongoing condition of American modernization; the "Manhattan Storage Warehouse / which they'll soon tear down" is associated with images linking the reified body with ritual violence, "the magazines with nudes / and the posters for BULLFIGHT" (CP, 258). Finally, the release from morbid self-consciousness, from the reflection on mortality, occurs through the poet's oblique affiliation with the historical avant-garde. This act of affiliation stresses the role of memory for reading the present, as the isolated "I" misconstrues the location of the event that marked the arrival of the European avant-garde in New York: the Armory Show. As in "Memorial Day 1950," "A Step Away From Them" appropriates historical narratives to structure personal memory, but personal memory in turn capriciously subverts the authority of historical narratives. And as in "The Day Lady Died" and "Personal Poem," the "post-anti-esthetic" surface of "A Step Away From Them" steps away from morbid self-consciousness not only through immersion in the overdetermined present but through reflection and reconstruction of the cultural and historical patterns that inform the moment.

from The American Avant-Garde Tradition: William Carlos Williams, Postmodern Poetry, and the Politics of Cultural Memory. Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 1997. Copyright © 1997 by Associated University Presses.

Hazel Smith

. . . they represent a New York which hovers between modernism and postmodernism, a city in flux, constantly inventing and renewing itself, 'throwing away its previous accomplishments and challenging the future' (de Certeau 1984, p. 91). This is epitomised in the rise and fall of buildings. In 'A Step Away From Them' (O'Hara 1979, pp. 257-58), the poet begins his walk alongside a building site. But as the poem draws to a close he passes the Manhattan Storage Warehouse, just down the road from the construction site. This will soon be demolished, erasing both real and imagined histories. It is worth quoting this poem in full:

Here we can see that the poet re-presents and mobilises the city by means of the route he takes through it, and the walk and text are almost synchronous. Roger Gilbert—who classifies the walk poem as a genre—designates it as transcriptive rather than descriptive. He argues that while Coleridge tends to view the landscape as an organic analogue, or more simply as metaphor for some inner condition, the walk poem approaches the external world metonymically rather than metaphorically (Gilbert 1991, pp. 8-9). However, transcription suggests reproduction and does not fully capture the sense of creative renewal which the walk brings in O'Hara's poems. I prefer, therefore, to construct the term performative-inscriptive, using Austin's definition of a performative as an illocutionary act which achieves what it says, while it says it. Seen in this light, the walk poem has a performative, improvised and creative aspect which is closely allied to the poem as generative speech act, to be discussed in detail in Chapter 5. This link between walking and linguistic creativity is also made by de Certeau, who describes walking as 'a space of enunciation' (de Certeau 1984, p. 98). Relevant here is also the notion of topographical writing. This is used by Bolter to describe hypertextual writing, but he also concedes that much pre-hypertextual writing is also similar: 'Whenever we divide our text into unitary topics and organise those units into a connected structure and whenever we conceive of this textual structure spatially as well as verbally, we are writing topographically' (quoted in Snyder 1996, p. 36).

The walk, then, shakes up the static 'map' into what de Certeau calls the 'tour', the dynamic realisation of the map: 'First, down the sidewalk . . . Then onto the/avenue'. For de Certeau, walking mobilises paths in the city which he describes in terms rather like those of the hypertext, 'networks . . . of these moving, intersecting writings' which 'compose a manifold story that has neither author nor spectator' (de Certeau 1984, p. 93). Walking therefore creates associative links which forge new spaces and relocates mapped space. Yet the paradox is that 'to walk is to lack a place' (de Certeau 1984, p. 103), in other words, walking is associative rather than stabilising.

For to walk from place to place is to subjectively recast the city in ways which both intensify and disrupt it. Roger Gilbert argues that walking and thinking are closely related in the Western tradition, and walking induces certain types of mental process which 'cease to be wholly cognitive' and 'become instead a process of wandering as wayward and impulsive as the walk itself' (Gilbert 1991, p. 11). Gilbert's argument lacks a psychoanalytic dimension, but in fact the walk is propelled by the contrary motions of desire and lack. Steve Pile argues that de Certeau is constantly drawing on Lacanian notions of language and the real, and that the real city is for him lost, hidden, unreadable and therefore unconscious (Pile 1996, p. 226). It is this unconscious life of the city which walking can trigger and which 'carries out a guerrilla warfare with attempts to repress it' (Pile 1996, p. 227). In the poem 'A Step Away From Them' the surfaces of the city—the 'dirty/glistening torsos' of the workers and the skirts 'flipping/above heels'—become aestheticised and eroticised sites of meaning. But they also make the poet question the density and presence of the city as he thinks of his absent, dead friends: 'But is the /earth as full as life was full, of them?'

Furthermore, the 'long poem of walking' (de Certeau 1984, p. 101) carries its own particular brand of personalised politics which mobilises resistant meanings beneath the city's smooth surface. Walking is a way of subverting the city-concept, the all-controlling rationalised city which must 'repress all the physical, mental and political pollutions that would compromise it' (de Certeau 1984, p. 94). The walk poems register, though often indirectly, exclusions from, or alternatives to, the power structures of the city, even though superficially they might seem to acquiesce to them. In 'A Step Away From Them' it is the Puerto Ricans who make the street ‘beautiful and warm'.

from Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O'Hara: Difference/Homosexuality/Topography. Liverpool UP, 2000. Copyright © 2000 by Hazel Smith.

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