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
When he gets off work at Packard, they meet outside a diner on Grand Boulevard. He's tired, a bit depressed, and smelling the exhaustion on his own breath, he kisses her carefully on her left cheek. Early April, and the weather has not decided if this is spring, winter, or what. The two gaze upwards at the sky which gives nothing away: the low clouds break here and there and let in tiny slices of a pure blue heaven. The day is like us, she thinks; it hasn't decided what to become. The traffic light at Linwood goes from red to green and the trucks start up, so that when he says, "Would you like to eat?" she hears a jumble of words that mean nothing, though spiced with things she cannot believe, "wooden Jew" and "lucky meat." He's been up late, she thinks, he's tired of the job, perhaps tired of their morning meetings, but when he bows from the waist and holds the door open for her to enter the diner, and the thick odor of bacon frying and new potatoes greets them both, and taking heart she enters to peer through the thick cloud of tobacco smoke to the see if "their booth" is available. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that there were no second acts in America, but he knew neither this man nor this woman and no one else like them unless he stayed late at the office to test his famous one liner, "We keep you clean Muscatine," on the woman emptying his waste basket. Fitzgerald never wrote with someone present, except for this woman in a gray uniform whose comings and goings went unnoticed even on those December evenings she worked late while the snow fell silently on the window sills and the new fluorescent lights blinked on and off. Get back to the two, you say. Not who ordered poached eggs, who ordered only toast and coffee, who shared the bacon with the other, but what became of the two when this poem ended, whose arms held whom, who first said "I love you" and truly meant it, and who misunderstood the words, so longed for, and yet still so unexpected, and began suddenly to scream and curse until the waitress asked them both to leave. The Packard plant closed years before I left Detroit, the diner was burned to the ground in '67, two years before my oldest son fled to Sweden to escape the American dream. "And the lovers?" you ask. I wrote nothing about lovers. Take a look. Clouds, trucks, traffic lights, a diner, work, a wooden shoe, East Moline, poached eggs, the perfume of frying bacon, the chaos of language, the spices of spent breath after eight hours of night work. Can you hear all I feared and never dared to write? Why the two are more real than either you or me, why I never returned to keep them in my life, how little I now mean to myself or anyone else, what any of this could mean, where you found the patience to endure these truths and confessions?