Since before the war there was always work.
In '38, Papa sweating all day
for the WPA, Mrs. Wright
hiring Mama and her sisters to mind
the children and the wash—plenty to watch
after in white folks' homes, too much to name.
Took my diploma when they called my name.
Droughton's Business College trained us for work
that spun our rough hands to silk. My wristwatch
wound mornings to keep time with the workday,
shorthand scrawl etched and sprawling in my mind.
I learned to type and file and smile and write
a message in clear script, to get it right
the first time, not forget the fancy names
of men in suits, to keep it all in mind.
Guarantee Shoe Company, where I worked
first, had me stamping bills, but busy days
I made sales, rang the register and watched
ladies with delicate feet and watches
sparkling with jewel-light from their thin wrists write
checks in their husband's names. But come Friday
I thought only of the check with my name
on it. Treated myself after work
to a Joske's fountain soda, my mind's
burdens lifting like bubbles, wallet mined
for jukebox dimes. I'd sit a while to watch
the shoppers and the clerks on break from work
bent over pie at the counter, a rite
shared by the weary no matter their names,
Formica hewn like a pew on Sunday.
Joske's was a fancy store in its day.
Perfumed aisles and Persian rugs—had to mind
your manners, not give our folks a bad name—
fourth-floor Fantasyland's Santa on watch.
St. Joseph's Church next store keeping folks right
with God, refused to sell when Joske's worked
up its expansion plans. Still came the day
they worked their dozers, dollar signs in mind.
We watched that store exert its divine right.