Counting Tips

My mother came home from work,
sat down at the kitchen table
and counted her tips, nickel by nickel,
quarter by quarter, dime by dime.
I sat across from her reading Yeats.
No moonlight graced our window
and it wasn't Pre-Raphaelite pallor
that bleached my mother's cheeks.
I've never been able to forget
the moment she said--
interrupting The Lake Isle of Innisfree—
"I told him to go to hell."
A Back Bay businessman
had held back the tip, asking,
"How much do you think you're worth?"
And she'd said, "You can go to hell!"
All evening at the Winthrop Room she fed
stockbrokers, politicians, mafioso capos.
I was eighteen, a commuter student at BU,
riding the MTA to classes every day
and she was forty-one in her frilly cap,
pink uniform, and white waitress shoes.
"He just laughed but his wife was there
and she complained and the boss fired me."
Later, after a highball, she cried
and asked me not to tell my father
(at least not yet) and Ben Franklin
stared up from his quarter,
looking as if he thought she deserved it,
and Roosevelt, from his dime, reminded her
that she was twenty years shy of Social Security.
But the buffalo on the nickel, he—
he seemed to understand.

:: John Gilgun, in Still Blue: More Writing by (for or about) Working-Class Queers


Friends, 1956

We were pure energy without wisdom.
We were the embarrassment of short pants
and short hair. We were dust
creased in the neck, fingers around a baseball bat.
We were the lovers of lost time,
and we spent much of it ourselves.
We were smokers in hiding,
stalled cars miles from home.
We were white socks with a brown suit.
We were all sweat in our coats,
always a nickel short,
ten steps ahead.
We could have swum in clear rivers.
We could have swum in deep lakes.
We could have sung songs to the trees.
We had green knees forever.
We sulked ten steps behind.
We ran our dogs to the bone.

:: Ken Fontenot, in Prairie Schooner (Fall 2009)



A single man's on the corner
waiting for the express bus
to come. It's cold out. He
dips down deeper into
his coat, the huge green
overcoat he bought used for
$10 from a Polish bouncer
down on his luck. I called
him a man, but he's 17,
working evenings and weekends
in a surplus store on Linwood
watching the tough guys stealing
whatever they want and giving him
the stare that says, Open your
mouth and you will be sorry.
What's he care if they get
a couple pairs of rusted pliers,
socket wrenches in metric
sizes? Boss drives a pre-war
Packard Twelve and has three
different businesses all making
money faster than he can
spend it buying drive shafts stolen
from the old Hudson assembly plant
on East Grand. Our man is on
his way to his mother's
for an overdone roast with
his two older brothers, both in
college, both aiming at bigger
things, both married to the wrong
women, as they won't discover
for twenty more years when
it's almost too late. Twenty years
from now he'll remember
none of this. Not because
he smokes too much or drinks
too much or because he'll step
out in the path of a semi.
No, because he doesn't see how
important the day is, not even
when the bus comes and he climbs
on, his glasses fogging over,
and drops his dime in the box,
not even when the hazel-eyed
girl from Sacred Heart smiles
up at him and slides over
closer to her sister to make
room for him, and he sits
beside her, tucking the skirts
of the green coat under his
suddenly sweating legs as he
turns to the girl to thank her
and feels something like lightning
strike between the hurried beats
of his heart as he studies
the two wide-opened eyes studying
him, the delicate nose, the perfect
mouth which in her entire lifetime
has never uttered a single sentence
you or I or he would ever care to hear.
When she rises at last to leave
he doesn't stop her or even try,
though she waits. Instead he waits
for his own stop and walks
the familiar blocks to where
people expect him. At last
the snow that's held itself
inside the gray clouds begins to
fall, a curtain separating every
living thing between the Seven
Mile Road and the Outer Drive
from every other living thing.

:: Philip Levine, in Five Points 3:2, Winter 1999


School Nurse's Journal

Outside the school the kids swat about;
their swings jabber with them.
Just off the morning yellow bus,
being back to the books of no import,
hatted, coated, their bright-colored
wings see-sawing now on the sunlight.
Be prepared for anything
reads the motto on my office wall,
for scrapes, nosebleeds,
poison ivy, geenstick
fractures, chipped front teeth,
torn britches, wet clothes,
have something for those
who forget their lunch,
be watchful of bruises and sprains.
I check my cabinets again--
ice bags, bandages, sanitary pads,
peanut butter, and bread--
and draw up lists:
TD shots for tots at 10,
sports physicals at two,
dental hygiene, grade four,
conference with special ed.
Wheezing, chickenpox, name it,
get it. I don't mind the head lice
anymore, not since the mouse
last year, found fast asleep
and nesting in the upsweep
of Megan's hair, a cute farm critter,
just cut loose; Lord, so alive
and breathing. Let things drone,
this first school autumn day,
just a few larky flies coming in,
lured perhaps out of dung by
a whiff from the teachers' room.
As I listen for the first school bell
kids outdoors still buzz the yard,
their swings whirring with them:
higher and higher to pump at dreams,
airy as fifty snowflakes.

:: Celia Brown, in American Journal of Nursing (2000)


Small Talk at an Academic Conference on the Working Class

I've been cornered by another conference
attendee who wants to tell me about his working
class experience: how he once wrote twelve pages
deconstructing the binary oppositions

within the Greatest Hits of Bruce Springsteen.
I let indifference register on my face
as I read him like a bad poem.
A collar the color of photocopy paper.

Metaphors as obvious as dead-end streets.
His language is always in Word Perfect.
No spelling errors or fragments
or Final Notice stamps. We shake hands

and I note how clean his fingernails are.
No dirt in the ridges of his fingerprints.
Nothing that could leave a stain
on our handshake or a smudge on his resume.

:: Andrew Rihn, The Rust Belt MRI (Pudding House, 2010)