My twentieth summer I got a job in Door Locks
at the Ford plant where my father has worked
for twenty years. Five in the morning
we'd stand tired in the glare and old heat
of the kitchen, my father fiddling with
the radio dial, looking for a clear station.
There weren't any women in my department.
At first the men would ask me to lift
what I couldn't, would speed up the turntable,
juggling the greasy washers and bolts,
winking at each other, grinning at me.
In the break room they would buy me coffee,
study my check to see if I got shorted.
They were glad I was in school and told me
to finish, they said I'd never regret it.
Once I got loaned to Air Conditioners,
worked three days in a special enclosure,
quiet and cool and my hands stayed clean.
Out the window I could see Door Locks,
the men taking salt pills, 110 degrees.
In rest rooms there were women sleeping
on orange vinyl couches, oven timers ticking
next to their heads.
At lunch I'd take the long walk to my father.
I'd see him from a distance, wearing safety glasses
like mine, and earphones, bright slivers of brass
in his hair--him standing alone in strange sulfur light
amidst machines the size of small buildings.
Every twenty minutes he worked a tumbler,
in between he read from his grocery bag of paperbacks.
He would pour us coffee from a hidden pot,
toast sandwiches on a furnace. We sat
on crates, shouting a few things and laughing
over the roar and banging of presses.
Mostly I remember the back-to-back heat waves,
coffee in paper cups that said Safety First,
my father and I hurrying away from the time clocks,
proud of each other. And my last day, moving shy past
their Good Lucks, out into 5:00, shading my eyes.
If you have had the good fortune to work with your father, even if it was just around the house, write a poem about it.
A time when you worked with adults and did the job. You were proud of yourself, and you could see that the adult was proud of you too. How doing the work made you proud of the adults who do it every day.
MY FATHER TEACHES ME TO DREAM
You want to know what work is?
I’ll tell you what work is:
Work is work.
You get up. You get on the bus.
You don’t look from side to side.
You keep your eyes straight ahead.
That way nobody bothers you—see?
You get off the bus. You work all day.
You get back on the bus at night. Same thing.
You go to sleep. You get up.
You do the same thing again.
Nothing more. Nothing less.
There’s no handouts in this life.
All this other stuff you’re looking for—
it ain’t there.
Work is work
PATTY'S CHARCOAL DRIVE-IN
First job. In tight black shorts
and a white bowling shirt, red lipstick
and bouncing pony tail, I present
each overflowing tray as if it were a banquet.
I'm sixteen and college-bound,
this job's temporary as the summer sun,
but right now, it's the boundaries of my life.
After the first few nights of mixed orders
and missing cars, the work goes easily.
I take out the silver trays and hook them to the windows,
inhale the mingled smells of seared meat patties,
salty ketchup, rich sweet malteds.
The lure of grease drifts through the thick night air.
And it's always summer at Patty's Charcoal Drive-in—
carloads of blonde-and-tan girls
pull up next to red convertibles,
boys in black tee shirts and slick hair.
Everyone knows what they want.
And I wait on them, hoping for tips,
loose pieces of silver
flung carelessly as the stars.
Doo-wop music streams from the jukebox
and each night repeats itself,
faithful as a steady date.
Towards 10 P.M., traffic dwindles.
We police the lot, pick up wrappers.
The dark pours down, sticky as Coke,
but the light from the kitchen
gleams like a beacon.
A breeze comes up, chasing papers
in the far corners of the darkened lot,
as if suddenly a cold wind had started to blow
straight at me from the future—
I read that in a Doris Lessing book—
but right now, purse fat with tips
the moon sitting like a cheeseburger on a flat black grill,
this is enough.
Your order please.
The first job. It’s not what you’re going to do all your life. But it changes you. You have a new perspective on red convertibles. You get caught up with it and you “present each overflowing tray is if it were a banquet.” Try to catch how it made things different--new. Name the things--and the satisfaction the job gave you.
She slides over
the hot upholstery
of her mother's car,
this schoolgirl of fifteen
who loves humming & swaying
with the radio.
Her entry into womanhood
will be like all the other girls'--
a cigarette and a joke,
as she strides up with the rest
to a brick factory
where she'll sew rag rugs
from textile strips of kelly green,
bright red, aqua.
When she enters,
and the millgate closes,
final as a slap,
there'll be silence.
She'll see fifteen high windows
cemented over to cut out light.
Inside, a constant, deafening noise
and warm air smelling of oil,
the shifts continuing on . . .
All day she'll guide cloth along a line
of whirring needles, her arms & shoulders
rocking back & forth
with the machines--
220 porch size rugs behind her
before she can stop
to reach up,
like her mother,
and pick the lint
out of her hair.
"Entry into womanhood." What does it mean? Does it mean being responsible for yourself rather than having other people being responsible for you? Is it something more than having your first period, or more than getting pregnant, or even more than having a baby? What is something that would mark an entry into womanhood? Write a poem that tells about it happening.
All day I stand here, like this,
over the hot-glue machine,
not too close to the wheel
that brings up the glue,
and I take those metal shanks,
slide the backs of them in glue
and make them lie down
on the shoe-bottoms, before the sole
goes on. It's simple, but the lasts
weigh, give you big arms.
If I hit my boyfriend now,
in the supermarket parking lot,
he knows I hit him.
Phyllis, who stands next to me,
had long hair before the glue machine
got it. My machine ate up my shirt once.
I tried to get it out, the wheel
spinning on me, until someone with a brain
turned it off. It's not bad
here, people leave you alone,
don't ask you what you're thinking.
It's a good thing, too, because all this morning
I was remembering last night,
when I really thought my grandpa's soul
had moved into the apartment,
the way the eggs fell, and the lamp
broke, like someone was trying
to communicate to me, and he
just dead this week. I wouldn't
blame him. That man in the next aisle
reminds me of him, a little.
It's late October now, and Eastland
needs to lay some people off.
Last week they ran a contest
to see which shankers shanked fastest.
I'm not embarrassed to say
I beat them all. It's all
in economy of motion, all the moves
don't need to look at what
I'm doing. I'm thinking of the way
the leaves turn red when the cold
gets near them. They fall until
you're wading in red leaves up to your knees,
and the air snaps
in the tree-knuckles, and you begin
to see your breath rise
out of you like your own ghost
each morning you come here.
Write a poem about a routine job and what you think about while you are working. The question is: how can you take pride in yourself. Is there a connection between how well you do the job and how you feel about yourself? Is there a connection between how well you do the job and what you think about while you are working? Can you give a sense of why the job is important to you?
A FIRE STORY
Lake George, 1984
There was just no time
to call for help
over the hill
from the main blaze
where he had followed
the evening flight
of a spark that might
start it all over,
keep burning for days.
As it got darker,
he circled the fire,
fighting it by its own light,
first from the truck,
then into the brush
with the one-man tank
strapped onto his back.
Feet crunching the char,
he kept spraying the edges,
sparks searing his face
rising up to make stars.
He kept circling in
until all was dark,
as his feet extinguished
one final spark.
That was when
he realized he was lost,
without a flashlight,
no moon in the sky
and all around him
the big woods quiet after
the crack and whisper of flame.
He knew then
is a kind of a marker.
When it's gone,
you can't always
be sure where you are.
Sometimes, when it's over,
all you can do
is just sit in the ashes
and wait for the sun.
Write about a time you had to deal with serious trouble. How only concentration, and devotion, and hard work could take care of the problem. How you did what needed to be done, and how it felt afterwards.
Listen to me, college boy, you can
keep your museums and poetry and string quartets
'cause there's nothing more beautiful than
line work. Clamp your jaws together
It's a windy night, you're freezing the teeth out
of your zipper in ten below, working stiff
jointed and dreaming of Acapulco, the truck cab.
Can't keep your footing for the ice, and
even the geese who died to fill your vest
are sorry you answered the call-out tonight.
You drop a connector and curses
take to the air like sparrows who freeze
and fall back dead at your feet.
Finally you slam the SMD fuse home.
Bang! The whole valley lights up below you
where before was unbreathing darkness.
In one of those houses a little girl
stops shivering. Now that's beautiful,
and it's all because of you.
When I was a boy desiring the title of man
And toiling to earn it
In the inferno of the foundry knockout,
I watched and admired you working by my side,
As, goggled, with mask on your mouth and shoulders
bright with sweat,
You mastered the monstrous, lumpish cylinder blocks,
And when they clotted the line and plunged to the floor
With force enough to tear your foot in two,
You calmly stepped aside.
One day when the line broke down and the blocks reared up
Groaning, grinding, and mounted like an ocean wave
And then rushed thundering down like an avalanche,
And we frantically dodged, then braced our heads together
To form an arch to life and stack them,
You gave me your highest accolade:
You said: "You not afraid of sweat. You strong as a mule."
Now, here, in the hospital,
In a ward where old men wait to die.
You sit, and watch time go by.
You cannot read the books I bring, not even
Those that are only picture books
As you sit among the senile wrecks,
The psychopaths, the incontinent.
One day when you fell from your chair and stared at the air
With the look of fright which sight of death inspires,
I lifted you like a cylinder block, and said,
"Don't be afraid
Of a little fall, for you'll be here
A long time yet, because you're strong as a mule."
Write a poem about someone you worked with who you admired. Or write some other poem about "desiring the title of man/And toiling to earn it."
For one reason or another we have worked with older people, sometimes our parents, sometimes other people. Make a poem out of an experience you have had working with mature people. Try to get in what you learned from them. Include details about the person which will tell us what the person is like and what the older person has learned from working.
Then read Eric Tretheway’s poem “Garbage.”
We hauled trash that summer, the three of us
an old man, a hard young man, and a boy.
Morning by afternoon there were runs
to Whitzman Bros. scrap-metal yard
and to the dump on the outskirts of town.
The job was at Poole's Garage, cleaning out
a junkyard in the vacant lot next door.
The junk had to be sorted piece by piece,
salvage to one corner, the rest on the truck.
Mornings were for the metal, heavy stuff first.
We winched up motors, bulldogged transmissions
and rear axles, bowled rims from across the lot.
When the truck was half full of iron and steel,
we would top off the load with rusty tin--
doors, trunk-covers, stove-in hoods and fenders--
and haul it all away to the scales.
Afternoons we loaded up with garbage
the boss knew no one would ever pay to have:
rotten furniture, old bones, clutch-plates, rags.
Then smeared with dirt, three-deep in the cab,
we would drive it away to the water's edge
where roaring dozers butted the mounded trash
and rancid smoke coiled out of the debris.
After the first few times it was no surprise
to see him, a skinny black man in a peaked cap,
waiting to back us around to the edge
and watch with care our careless tossing off.
He and his partners sifted each load
for something of value we had missed.
They set aside mud-filled bottles for refunds,
and wire that promised copper under the grease.
Broken boards they saved for winter fires
in windy shacks at the edge of the dump.
Their field-office crowned a hill of junk.
Two-by-fours and a door-frame held it up,
a rotten canvas canopy sagging above
old car seats and a disemboweled chair
where they dogged it when business was slow.
An ancient ice-box squatted to one side,
and from the door-frame hung a cowbell, clapperless.
Their look-out beat it with a tire-iron
when the police cruiser nosed into view.
The man sold bootleg liquor on the side.
On the day's last trip, and sometimes its first,
Grandad and Stu would buy a pint from him,
offer him a swallow and stand round his lean-to
drinking and yarning in the sunny stench.
They'd forget about Poole, his ninety cents an hour,
the black wind drifting low over the burning,
and I, just a kid then, would watch them,
listen carefully, begin to learn how it was
a man could live like this, if he had to.
Make a poem out of an experience you have had working with older people. Try to get in what you learned from them. Include details about the person which will tell us what the person is like and what it is like to do his (her) job.
WAYMAN IN THE WORKFORCE; ACTIVELY SEEKING EMPLOYMENT
Everybody was very nice. Each place Wayman went
the receptionist said: "Certainly we are hiring.
Just fill out one of these forms." Then, silence.
Wayman would call back each plant and corporation
and his telephone would explain: "Well, you see,
we do our hiring pretty much at random. Our interviewers
draw someone out of the stack of applications we have on file.
There's no telling when you might be notified: could be next week
or the week after that. Or, you might never hear from us at all."
One Thursday afternoon, Wayman's luck ran out.
He had just completed a form for a motor truck
manufacturing establishment, handed it in to the switchboard operator
and was headed happily out. "Just a minute, sir," the girl said.
"Please take a seat over there. Someone will see you about this."
Wayman's heart sank. He heard her dialing Personnel.
"There's a guy here willing to work full time
and he says he'll do anything," she said excitedly.
Around the corner strode a man in a suit. "Want a job, eh?" he said.
He initialed one corner of the application and left.
Then a man in a white coat appeared. "I'm Gerry," the newcomer said.
"This way." And he was gone through a doorway into the plant.
"We make seven trucks a day," Gerry shouted
standing sure-footedly amid a clanking, howling, bustling din.
"Over here is the cab shop, where you'll work. I'll be your foreman.
And here is the chassis assembly . . ." a speeding forklift narrowly missed them
". . . and this is where we make the parts."
"Wait a minute," Wayman protested, his voice barely audible
above the roar of hammers, drills, and the rivet guns. "I'm pretty green
at this sort of thing."
"Nothing to worry about," Gerry said.
"Can you start tomorrow? Monday? Okay,
you enter through this door. I'll meet you here."
They were standing near an office marked First Aid.
"We have to do a minor physical on you now," Gerry said.
"Just step inside. I'll see you Monday."
Wayman went shakily in through the First Aid office doors.
"I need your medical history," the attendant said
as Wayman explained who he was. "Stand over here.
Thank you. Now drop your pants."
Wayman did as he was told. "You seem sort of nervous to me,"
the aid man said, as he wrote down notes to himself.
"Me, I'm a bit of an amateur psychologist. There are five hundred men
in this plant, and I know 'em all.
Got to, in my job. You shouldn't be nervous.
Remember when you apply for work you're really selling yourself.
Be bold. Where are you placed? Cab shop?
Nothing to worry about working there: monkey see, monkey do."
Then Wayman was pronounced fit, and the aid man escorted him
back through the roaring maze into the calm offices of Personnel.
There Wayman had to sign for time cards, employee number, health scheme
and only just managed to decline
company credit union, company insurance plan, and a company social club.
At last he was released, and found himself back on the street
clutching his new company parking lot sticker in a light rain.
Even in his slightly dazed condition,
a weekend away from actually starting work, Wayman could tell
he had just been hired.
Write a poem about getting hired. Find ways of getting in how you felt about what was happening to you.