RWB Workshop Poem of the Week—June 11

Arthur Russell
More On Cash

If you take a nickel from every person you meet,
you will soon be rich, and if you give a nickel to every person you meet,
and if you give a nickel to every person you meet,
you will soon be poor.
—A rich guy

We were a mercantile people, not honest per se,
not even significantly honest, 
but not completely lacking in honesty.
We were honest as plunderers,
fair as pirates, transparent as three-card monte dealers.

We stole from our employees. We stole from our customers.
We stole from the city, state and federal tax man,
from the water company, the electric utility, 
the telephone company, from our vendors, 
from our banks, from passersby, from the future, and from the past.  
We saw ourselves as street-smart operators.
We saw ourselves as even-handed merchants, buyers and sellers, 
but there was no one from whom we did not take.

We took stuff from people’s garbage.
We took stuff from their cars.
We saw the dishonesty of the world
and we wanted to be successful in it.
We did not strive to better ourselves 
or to better our neighbors.  
We only wanted the world to go on 
as it always had, with all of its beauty
and injustice and to leave us to our business.
We didn’t see what we did as evil.
We simply saw it as business, business, business,
and the rule of our business was simple and monolithic:
Everything is ok, as long as at the end 
of the day, we go home with all of the money.

All of the indignities we suffered—
the dirt, the cold, the working when sick,
the men who cursed you, the customers
who rode you, the arrogant cops 
and the filth in the pit, the patience
that was required and required and required—
were tolerable as long as we got the money.

The “everything” that was OK as long
as we went home with all of the money 
included the injustices of the world, 
the callous way we became with it,
the upside down and inside out,
the hopeless, the useless, and the bleak.
All of that, according to us, according to our creed, was OK, 
as long as we got the money, as long as we went home with it,

and when we got home with it, we would lay it out on the table,
folded, marked with pencil in the open spaces,
wrapped in rubber bands, packages 
of $450, $900, $800, $600, 
packages we made when we cleaned out the cashier,
tucked inside our tucked-in shirts
and carried to the office, and put in the safe 
and at the end of the day, after closing,
in the same way — tucked inside our shirts
or in supermarket bags folded to look like a newspaper 
you might carry under your arm.  

Cash and cash and more cash,
night after night, that we would take out
and examine at home, behind the curtained windows,
in the formal dining room with Early American furniture,
with blue on white tree-design wallpaper 
that was copied onto the curtain fabric;
we would empty out our shirts and inside pockets 
onto the dining room table, our fingers still dirty, 
our fingernails still dirty, our pants and faces set from work, 
and look at and count and flip the bills
so they all faced up (my dad) or down (my brother)
and count them down (my dad) or up (my brother)
and pick a clean bill for the top of the pile
and write on it with a pencil (my dad) 
or a pen (my brother) in the blank space how much,
and then stack it and separate it,
and stack it and pile it and pass some out 
and put the rest into hiding places in the ceilings and the floors and the walls 
and the floors and the walls 
and the pockets of coats in the attic
and in the cookie tin 
that was under several inches of dirt 
in the crawlspace under the front porch, 

or actually, sometimes, we put it 
in the safe in the closet in the master bedroom,
though not that often, because the safe
was more or less reserved for my mother’s jewelry 
and my father’s gold coins and little packages of diamonds,
one each, folded into doubled paper,
folded the same way cocaine used to come folded, 
each folded package with writing on the outside, 
saying the exact weight in hundredths of carats 
and the color and the clarity with letters like VS and VSS.

And, until they were outlawed, there were bearer bonds 
you’d keep in a safe deposit box where you also kept a pair of scissors,
go upstairs and cash in coupons with the teller.

Money was the family business. 
This fixation on making and keeping money,
in small amounts of cash, cash, cash, 
had been our family heritage for a hundred years.  
We were people who got into a thing and stayed with it for a long time.
We didn’t borrow money except from ourselves
and bought things from which we could make more money,
whether it be adding machines or real estate.

We ridiculed people who spent money on leisure and luxury:
watches, cars, vacation homes or trips abroad.  
We didn’t ridicule the fine things themselves, 
but we ridiculed the people who strove 
to have lobster 
because lobster 
was vanity.

We bought our cars standing on a street corner
or in some guy’s dirty little office just like ours
with the cash in our pockets.
We sent our kids to college with tuition money
from the cash register.  We took mortgages to buy houses,
but only to avoid the suspicion of the IRS,
then we paid the mortgages off as soon as caution allowed.


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