Men

In those days when each moment

brought a fresh impression,

a new opportunity to exercise

analysis and judgment,

there was an era

when I served my apprenticeship

in the craft of manhood.

The strong and ancient compulsions

of lust and desire,

appetites and arousal,

were easy to know

though difficult to control.

Instincts are the stuff

that religion fights.

With a creed, you can subdue any sin.

Some lessons must be learned

from example, however,

and a young man must carefully

observe the older, wiser ones,

mimicking those actions

that he finds appealing,

building himself upon a foundation

of misfits and malcontents,

philosophers and saints,

and any other of the mentors

that he might stumble across.

Fathers are fine if you have one,

but their influence must dwindle

when you search for better ways,

other opinions.

I worked in a garage one winter after school,

washing trucks and running parts,

sweeping trailers and scrubbing toilets,

shoveling snow and smoking cigars.

I was a free man,

free to curse and spit

in front of men who didn’t mind,

free to watch and gauge a score of men

who wore blue shirts and worked in shifts

and put parentheses around their days

with the punches of a time clock.

They looked like me,

had gone to school in schools I knew,

and spoke with slang I recognized.

They were experts on women and jobs,

baseball and beer,

fishing and cars.

They had small children and young wives

and recent memories of being just like me.

They taught me all they knew.

An older man worked on the loading dock,

a place nearby but where I rarely went.

I’d see him there from time to time,

swinging a broom from side to side

in rhythm to some private song.

He always worked alone.

One snowy, silent night,

while waiting for a ride,

I took shelter on the dock.

The old man was there.

He greeted me in English

curled in European r’s and vowels.

He offered me a cigarette.

His hand was thick and rough,

the nails broken and cracked,

stained yellow with nicotine.

We smoked and he asked me questions.

He looked in my eyes and stood close to me.

His breath was rich

with tobacco smoke and onions,

his beard was two days after a razor.

His eyes were small and squinting,

as if a light were shining in them,

though it was dark where we stood.

He put his hand on my shoulder,

pulling me closer to him as he spoke.

He frightened me and intrigued me;

He was comical and tragic.

His language was as strong as his breath.

We talked about work, then war,

then Vietnam.

He told me not to go,

to run away instead.

Never had a man told me to do such a thing.

He had friends in Canada, he said,

and he would give me their names.

They would help me find a place to stay.

“Tell dem to fuck demselves,” he said,

referring to the Government.

He stared passionately into my eyes

and I knew he was an honest man.

He let go of my shoulder.

He smoked his cigarette some more,

long after I had thrown mine down.

His was now a small piece of paper

and tobacco, clenched between

his thumb and finger.

He sucked the last bit of smoke from it

and snapped it into the air.

It floated gently to the floor.

“Remember what I said,” he said,

pointing his finger at me.

I nodded solemnly.

He went back to work,

swinging his broom from side to side

in rhythm to his private song.

We spoke later many times,

sometimes sitting in his car,

drinking beer from cans and smoking,

cursing at the bosses,

trading philosophies,

laughing at ourselves.

We knew each other well by then.

He had a son my age, you see,

and I, a father his.

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