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,
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,
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,
laughing at ourselves.
We knew each other well by then.
He had a son my age, you see,
and I, a father his.