Early Work History:
Sold sugary fruit-flavored shaved ice piraguas
on busy South Bronx streets for chump change.
Opened laundromat mornings to sweep mop
roll down lock steely cocoon face at night.
Loaded outdoor lumberyard truck with plywood
sheet-rock sandbags cement—Delivered.
Worked unlicensed plumbing in basement
crotch-high stagnant water setting pumps,
breaking walls for sewer lines leading nowhere.
Sat atop towering ladder over dime-store field
of plastic electric terry-cloth trash as security;
in Christmas rush didn’t care who stole what.
Shelved books at green Hudson Valley C.C. library;
set up embalming cadaver film strips for pale Jr. morticians.
Painted plastered removed generations of paint
from Victorian moldings doorways crafted doors.
Cleaned up broken glass salsa & pickles on aisle eight;
stacked Coco Puffs above Raisin Bran above Cheerios.
Cornered soft retired old lady over my quick-dial phone
into buying TV Guide and Time—10% for cop widows!
Lifted back-breaking boxes off rattling conveyer belts
overnight to load UPS trucks for morning deliveries.
Wore shirt and tie and lied about assets and mortgages
to bankers in Bed Stuy Forest Hills on Fifth Avenue;
mystery shopping reminded racism’s still green.
Did Saturday nights in a creaking Jamaica Queens house
to room-check ten teenage lost boys—kept knives
dispensed meds—labeled a counselor but not.
Switched roles to help state-fostered delusionals
leave psych wards for apartments—but stuck
in office writing weekly billable fiction—
counting Prozac, Haldol, Prolixin on home visits.
There’s more but I should get to the point:
the application had three spaces for work history.
The interviewer smirked & told me to sit.
Twenty years is a long time teaching tennis…
ever done anything else?
“A few jobs here and there but look
my tennis resume is solid is pretty solid
& all the references are easy to check.”
I was selling TVs and Camcorders that winter
for base salary & commissions—said
thirty-nine was too old to keep teaching tennis.
What I wanted to do was write poems.
(A version of this poem first appeared in Longshot.)
Old School Sweating
I was trained to watch the ball— the (back in the day) white tennis ball— Watch the ball’s spin— the ball’s bounce— Watch the ball leap into my gut-strung racquet face. I was trained to run and watch— to sweat and watch— the ball’s flight over a torn public-park net— See a straight line drive— See a spinning arcing parabola— See a mountainous flight reaching for the clouds— Follow its descent. I was trained to keep precisely fixed—no matter what—on the ball— forget the South Bronx burning all around me— and only love it.
Notes for the younger generation: tennis balls were, indeed, once white; racquets were made out of wood and they were strung with “cat gut”—not actually made from cat guts, but from (less disturbing?) cow intestines. Also, back in the day, black and brown people were excluded from tennis clubs and banned from the United States Tennis Association’s local and national tournaments; the racial barrier didn’t start to come down until the 1950s. And still discouraged from playing at white-owned tennis clubs and in USTA-sanctioned events into the 1970s, many black players continued to participate in their own American Tennis Association, which was founded in 1917 and still exists to this day.
(First appeared on the author’s blog)