RWB Workshop Poem of the Week – October 31

Poem of the Week 10/31/17

Arthur Russell

How To Replace A Toilet

First, have a father, one who owns a car wash
where he employs poor black men,
preferably those who have come North in the Great Migration,
but any poor black men will do,
as long as they have historical disadvantages
that have translated into self-destructive behaviors
that make them the target of disdain and predatory labor practices.

Grow up at his kitchen table,
hear his precise mimicry of their accents,
mockery of their foibles,
his weirdly intimate knowledge of their weaknesses
and hopes bordering on, and even bleeding over into,
affection that never reaches all the way to respect.

Go to work for your father.
Start off drying the cars at the exit end,
and gradually learn all of the jobs
while imbibing his attitudes
towards the men you work beside, although you,
made differently, or is it just youth and naïve sympathy,
appreciate their struggle.

See them come to work still drunk from the night before
while you are spending your summers at summer camp
learning to smoke pot behind the bunkhouse.
Get paid the same net $1.25/hour the men get,
with the difference that they are living on it
and you are saving up to buy a Sony stereo music system
so you can play Carole King’s Tapestry.

Take out Pete Watson’s oozing head stitches
at the lunch table with a fresh razor blade and tweezers
so he doesn’t have to leave early to go to the ER and miss work.
Learn to send men home with no work on slow days,
how to absorb their abuse, their special hatred
of your father, blooming when drunk,
transferred to you, and how to resist their requests
for new uniforms to replace the worn ones
that you send to the local dry cleaner for patching.

Lean over their shoulders as they vacuum the cars
to stop them from sucking up the change in the ashtrays.

Follow them around the corner to stop them from buying beer
on their 45-minute lunch for which your father charges them an hour.

On a Saturday morning at 7 AM, when Jerry Howard has used his one call from jail
to call your father, go to the Brooklyn Mens’ House of Detention on Boerum Place
to bail him out after he got arrested during a fight with his wife,
because Jerry is the best entrance driver and it’s Saturday,
two days after a messy snow, and you may wash 1000 cars.

Another time, find Irving Hyde hiding inside his locker after closing
hoping to burglarize the place if you locked him in.

And listen, always listen, even when you argue against him,
to the embattled logic your father uses
to justify stealing from the men’s tip box,
withholding pay they’ll never get back in taxes
because he pays them off the books,
and giving them alarm clocks for Christmas,
but only if they come to work that day.

So you are ready one morning
when someone tells you that the men’s toilet
is broken, and you go into that cubicle to see
that it’s not the flush valve or the toilet seat,
but the commode itself, the vitreous bowl,
that has cracked with an obvious fissure from base to rim
where someone has jammed a liquor bottle
upside down in the drain and evidently stepped on the base of it
hoping that the bottle, not the commode, would break apart and flush away
so that the bottle would not be found in the trash
and raise suspicions that he had been drinking on the job.

Go to your father where he sits behind his grey steel desk
making tea, and tell him what has happened.
Wait while he squeezes the teabag against the spoon
and swings it deftly by the string into the wastepaper basket
before he looks up at you over his half-moon reading glasses,
and says, “Well, fix it, Sonny.”

Admit you don’t know how to change a toilet.
Watch your father take a stubby pencil from his back pocket
and draw a schematic diagram of a toilet on a writing tablet.
Listen to him explain, with the same patience and easygoing charm
he used to talk to your teachers on Parents’ Day,
the two bolts, the wax ring, the pipe wrenches, the Teflon tape,
then make up a list of parts for you, and send you in his Lincoln
to Davis & Warshow to get what you will need,

then call you back at the door to remind you
to put a board across the toilet before you go,
or they’ll use it while you’re gone
and you’ll have to clean out their shit by hand.

Keep the schematic diagram for future reference.

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