Saturday, April 29, 2006

Just Visiting

Believe it or not, I went to graduate school in Miami—to study poetry. Miami might seem like the worst place for a brooding poet, but applications were due in February and I mailed all of mine from the apparent tundra of Pittsburgh. Yet even when the Surinam cherries were ripe and the rains had quelled, I found a way.

After I finished my MFA, I stuck around Miami for about two months, searching for some sort of work. Every day that summer, I walked the mile and a half down 77th along the Palmetto Expressway to North Kendall, bought a paper, and sat down outside at the Starbucks with a single cup of coffee. Most days, I nursed that coffee through the morning, and then walked under the Palmetto Expressway to find a bite to eat in the food court at the Daedland mall. Slowly, my money was running out, and my job search was going nowhere.

Then, my step-mother had a dream. She dreamed that her and my father drove all the way from Fort Worth to Miami and brought me back to a home I’d never seen. And they followed her dream through a string of Days Inns to load all of my belongings into the bed of their Ford F-150. That’s how I ended up in living in a three bedroom mobile home with sheetrock walls and working the night shift at a convenience store in Forest Hill. I made $7 an hour.

While I was there, I sometimes felt like a bit of an interloper. I was a tourist, just passing through. My background, after all, was nothing like any of the other clerks. One man had worked as a barber, but had failed to adapt when the industry developed chains where you rented your chair. One woman, a single mother who was actually much younger than me, still saw the baby’s father—even though he’d bitten her during a fight, leaving her left forearm scarred. One woman, who was raising her infant child with a girlfriend, was caught lifting money from the till.

While I worked there, I was "robbed" twice. No one ever held a gun on me or took any money from the register. Instead, both times, they stole cigarettes.

While I worked there, a group of three Mexicans would come in regularly to buy beer in 40-ounce bottles, often arriving at the very moment when it became legal to sell alcohol. They, slowly, were teaching me Spanish. By the time I left, I could count out their change.

While I worked there, I often fended off the advances of one particular girl. She was 18, and had somehow gotten a job as a waitress at a local strip club. In Texas, though, it’s illegal to serve alcohol if you’re not 21, so by the time I left, she was a "dancer." It was either that, or her father would lose their house.

While I worked there, I once saw a woman, seemingly high, stumble out of an old green pickup truck and into the store just to buy condoms. A slightly older woman in a pink dress and hat, smiled at her, and asked if she thought the Lord wanted her to treat herself that way. The younger woman, on the verge of tears, got back in line and returned the condoms.

I long to write poems for those people, but I seldom can. I don’t want to write about them—as I have here—by taking moments from their lives and transforming them into details of tragedy. Instead, I want to write poems that, like a hymnal on Sunday, can make the following Monday slightly easier. I want to believe that a poem can remind you to look at a child, or your own life, and remind you why you lace up steel-toed boots in the morning or put on a uniform you hate in the morning. I want to know that a poem can nudge you toward your dreams—even if that means driving half-way across the country to pick up your son.


Blogger Les said...

This is a Surinam cherry:

They’re tasty and I’ve always known them as “pumpkin cherries” for some reason.

5:38 AM  

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