Take this quiet woman, she has been standing before a polishing wheel for over three hours, and she lacks twenty minutes before she can take a lunch break. Is she a woman? Consider the arms as they press the long brass tube against the buffer, they are striated along the triceps, the three heads of which clearly show. Consider the fine dusting of dark down above the upper lip, and the beads of sweat that run from under the red kerchief across the brow and are wiped away with a blackening wrist band in one odd motion a child might make to say No! No! You must come closer to find out, you must hang your tie and jacket in one of the lockers in favor of a black smock, you must be prepared to spend shift after shift hauling off the metal trays of stock, bowing first, knees bent for a purchase, then lifting with a gasp, the first word of tenderness between the two of you, then you must bring new trays of dull unpolished tubes. You must feed her, as they say in the language of the place. Make no mistake, the place has a language, and if by some luck the power were cut, the wheel slowed to a stop so that you suddenly saw it was not a solid object but so many separate bristles forming in motion a perfect circle, she would turn to you and say, "Why?" Not the old why of why must I spend five nights a week? Just, "Why?" Even if by some magic you knew, you wouldn't dare speak for fear of her laughter, which now you have anyway as she places the five tapering fingers of her filthy hand on the arm of your white shirt to mark you for your own, now and forever.
Philip Levine - 1928-2015
On 52nd Street
Down sat Bud, raised his hands, the Deuces silenced, the lights lowered, and breath gathered for the coming storm. Then nothing, not a single note. Outside starlight from heaven fell unseen, a quarter- moon, promised, was no show, ditto the rain. Late August of '50, NYC, the long summer of abundance and our new war. In the mirror behind the bar, the spirits—imitating you— stared at themselves. At the bar the tenor player up from Philly, shut his eyes and whispered to no one, "Same thing last night." Everyone been coming all week long to hear this. The big brown bass sighed and slumped against the piano, the cymbals held their dry cheeks and stopped chicking and chucking. You went back to drinking and ignored the unignorable. When the door swung open it was Pettiford in work clothes, midnight suit, starched shirt, narrow black tie, spit shined shoes, as ready as he'd ever be. Eyebrows raised, the Irish bartender shook his head, so Pettiford eased himself down at an empty table, closed up his Herald Tribune, and shook his head. Did the TV come on, did the jukebox bring us Dinah Washington, did the stars keep their appointments, did the moon show, quartered or full, sprinkling its soft light down? The night's still there, just where it was, just where it'll always be without its music. You're still there too holding your breath. Bud walked out.