At the Ear, Nose, and Throat Clinic

By Gail Mazur b. 1937 Gail Mazur
One of those appointments you postpone   
until anxiety propels you to the phone,   
then have to wait too long for, to take   
an inconvenient time . . . Late in the day,   
an old man and I watch the minute hand

on the waiting room wall. I’ve papers
to grade, but he wants someone to talk to,   
and his attendant’s rude, so he turns   
his whiskery face to me: “Y’ know, I lived   
my whole life in Waltham, worked 40 years

at the watch factory—oh, that city used to be
so beautiful, now it’s a mess, those Cubans   
and Puerto Ricans, they ruined it.”   
Coiled in his wheelchair, he’s mad   
for company, probably scared he’s dying,

                            *

and so am I. I don’t remember Watch City   
as beautiful the year I was eleven,
when Merle and I rode the Grove Street bus   
to Moody Street to shoplift haircurlers   
and Pond’s Vanishing Cream, nickel items

at the Waltham Woolworth’s. It was
an old factory town, wooden triple-deckers,   
water rats swimming in the oily river.   
Merle and I didn’t risk a furtive life
of crime in our well-kempt Auburndale

where we thought we were well-known,   
and canoers paddled the same Charles River   
past our homes. And I still wonder
what could have vanished when we rubbed   
the mystery elixir on our silky cheeks?

                            *

His cheeks sucked in, this geezer could be   
my grandfather forty years ago, so
I ignore his racist overture and agree   
Waltham was beautiful, as the attendant   
takes his Social Security card,

and whistles: “Boy, are you old!”
then mutters something else in Spanish.   
The number must be low. . . . “1936—
that was the first year of Social Security!”
the old guy brags. The kid forsakes

our ancient history, flexes his muscles.   
He’s probably been listening
to insults for an hour in the Elder Van,   
he’s bored and angry—why should he be   
nice? Yet hungry for a distracting

fact or story, I encourage the grandfather,   
I want to be treated well myself some day,   
when I’ll need it even more than I do now. . . .
My little bids for attention, my birds, fragile
fluttering words, desire to be visible and seen. . . .

“FDR was okay, wasn’t he?” I’m playing   
90, it’s what I do to make us both   
less lonely, reminisce as if we’d shared   
the ’30s, as if I’d been there, come   
from Sicily or Limerick, a seamstress

earning her hard living one town over.   
I always sat this way with Doc, years   
after he’d retired, his best treasure   
(besides my golden mother) a gold
pocket watch, a Handsome Waltham watch—

                            *

a different time, when the things
a person held or owned weren’t many
but were permanent, a part of who you were.   
So his elegant watch confused me toward   
the idea my little dentist grandfather

had some connection to the company,
as if he’d labored there, a master craftsman,   
had been rewarded by a grateful boss.   
His bit of luxury, the swirling monogram   
on the back (which opened with a click),

IR, for Isaac Rosenberg, timepiece
connected by a chain to a safety pin
at his frayed striped trouser pocket;
another pin secured his Shawmut bankbook,   
deposits he’d made decades before

                            *

that I’d inherit, $214, Shawmut branch   
nearby the long-gone Waldorf Cafeteria   
where he idled weekday mornings   
with his cronies, also reminiscing,   
I suppose (although then I didn’t think

of it), the Good Old Days before
the motorcar, before their children
moved away. Dexterity and skill gone, too,   
from his arthritic hands. He relished   
those mornings! The black-and-white

tiled floor, the nearly empty tables,   
the Perfection Salad, Welsh rarebit,
the “bloomberry pie.” The counterman.   
They serve an elegant porridge there,
he told me, gourmet of the ordinary,

State-of-Maine-ah grandfather, my Mainiac.
The soon-to-be-widowed wives elsewhere,   
polishing mahogany veneer, or playing   
bridge, or shopping Coolidge Corner   
from butcher to baker in prescient

black dresses. Old men and women   
so relieved to be rid of the burden
of one another for a whole morning,   
of the tired bickering sentences
of long American marriages, of pain

and disappointment. What memories
they’d had of courtships long since passed on   
to grandchildren, and half-false anyway,
like studio photographs, mythic stories   
they could live with; now forgotten,

the mistakes they’d been too fearful   
or devout to rectify. I miss that   
cafeteria, the whole idea of cafeterias,   
although Doc never took me, just pointed   
to it on our Sunday drive, repeating

paeans to gray porridge, something no   
description’s glow could make me want.   
Waltham had them, too, free-fire zones   
a kid alone could enter with five cents   
for huge iced cookies, black-and-whites,

                            *

half chocolate, half vanilla, all Crisco   
and white sugar, chewed in gluttonous   
companionable half-light, wonderful—
But who’d know that now? Who cares?   
Merle and I did everything subversive

we could imagine—which wasn’t much.   
I’m sure I cruised Sin City in my mind,   
decayed old town—nowhere—but to me   
forbidden fruit: the 5 & 10, eyelash   
curlers, odd metal torture instruments

I smuggled home that pinched my lids   
and made my lashes angle wildly up,   
delinquent startled in the bathroom   
mirror; Tangee lipsticks the size   
of my little finger, unflattering coral;

pink girdles I’d eye furtively, wondering   
that I’d have to wriggle into one someday,   
or wear the bony corset my grandmother   
assured me was my fate. Oh, esoteric glamorous   
puzzle of the vanished vanishing cream . . .   

                            *

Later, not so much later, the first day
of my driver’s license, I drove the family   
station wagon down Moody Street and banged   
the traffic policeman’s rubber perch.   
He jumped down before it bounced the street,

and yelled me over in a rage. Or maybe,   
he was kindly, it’s only my criminal terror   
I remember, of punishment fine-tuned,   
my ruined life, my new rights vanishing.   
Hardly a threat, I know now, the feckless cop.

I gripped the steering wheel so hard
to stop the huge recalcitrant Ford, doomed   
to lose my brand-new temporary license—
How could I think, my budding power stripped,   
I’d ever get the chance to live or drive?

Gail Mazur, “At the Ear, Nose, and Throat Clinic” from Zeppo's First Wife: New & Selected Poems (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005). Copyright © 2001 by Gail Mazur. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

Source: They Can't Take That Away from Me (The University of Chicago Press, 2001)

Discover this poem’s context and related poetry, articles, and media.

Poet Gail Mazur b. 1937

POET’S REGION U.S., New England

Subjects Living, History & Politics, Cities & Urban Life, Social Commentaries, Youth, Time & Brevity, Growing Old, Coming of Age

 Gail  Mazur

Biography

After nearly 13 years of apprenticing herself to poetry, during which she studied with Robert Lowell and immersed herself in the Boston/Cambridge literary scene, Mazur published her first collection, Nightfire (1978), at age 40. Other books include The Pose of Happiness (1986); They Can’t Take That Away from Me (2001); and Zeppo’s First Wife: New & Selected Poems (2006). Tess Taylor, interviewing Mazur for the Atlantic Monthly . . .

Continue reading this biography

Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Living, History & Politics, Cities & Urban Life, Social Commentaries, Youth, Time & Brevity, Growing Old, Coming of Age

POET’S REGION U.S., New England

Report a problem with this poem

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.