Manufacturing

Up in the billboard, over old South Station,
the Captain, all wide grin and ruddy cheek,
held up a golden shot of Cutty Sark
high as the skyline where the sunset spread
a gold fan from the twig-like spars and rigging
of a departing clipper ship. Above
the picture the dull haze of a real sun rose,
dragging the day up with it. Seven o’clock.
The agitated horns, brakes, fingers, and catcalls
down below me were already merging
and channeling everybody on to warehouse,
factory, department store and office.

My father and uncle talking over all the goods
to be received that day, the goods delivered,
their two reflections in the window floating
like blurry ghosts within the Captain’s grin,
their voices raised a little above the soft
erratic humming of the big machines,
the riveters and pressers, warming, rousing:
The Century order, did it get out last night?
And had the buckles come from Personal?
Who’d go do Jaffey? Who’d diddle Abramowitz
and Saperstein? Those cocksucking sons of bitches,
cut their balls off if they fuck with us . . .

How automatically at any provocation
I can aim the words at anybody now,
woman or man, the reverberating
angry this, not that, in ‘pussy’, ‘cocksucker’,
‘fuckhead’, hammered down so far inside me
it’s almost too securely there to feel.
But I was thirteen then, and for the first
time old enough to have my father say
these things in front of me, which must have meant
I was a man now too, I listened (blushing,
ashamed of blushing) for clues of what it was
I had become, or was supposed to be:

It did and didn’t have to do with bodies,
being a man, it wasn’t fixed in bodies,
but somehow passed between them, going to
by being taken from, ever departing,
ever arriving, unstoppable as money,
and moving in a limited supply
it seemed to follow where the money went.
Being a man was something that you did
to other men, which meant a woman
was what other men became when you would do them.
Either you gave a fucking, or you took one,
did or were done to, it was simple as that.

Somebody shouted from beyond the office
that Tony had passed out in the can again.
‘The lush, the no good lush,’ my uncle said,
‘get him the fuck out of here for good, will ya.’
The stall door swung back, scrawled with giant cocks,
tits, asses and cunts, beyond which in the shadows
my father was gently wrestling with the man,
trying to hold him steady while his free hand
shimmied the tangled shorts and trousers up
over the knees and hips, and even got
the shirt tucked in, the pants zipped deftly enough
for Tony not to notice, though he did.

Even then I knew they’d fire him,
and that it wasn’t gratitude at all
that made the man weep inconsolably,
his head bowed, nodding, as my father led him
to the elevator, still with his arm around him,
patting his shoulder, easing him through the door.
I knew the tenderness that somewhere else
could possibly have been a lover’s or a father’s
could here be only an efficient way
to minimize the trouble. And yet it seemed
somehow my father was too adept at it,
too skillful, not to feel it in some way.

And feeling it not to need to pull back,
to separate himself from what the rest
of him was doing, which was why, I think,
his face throughout was blank, expressionless
like the faces of the presidents on the bills
he handed Tony as the door slid shut.
The men fast at the riveters and pressers
and the long row of women at the Singers
were oil now even more than men or women,
mute oil in the loud revving of the place,
a blur of hands on automatic pilot,
slipping leather through the pumping needles,

under the thrusting rods, the furious hammers,
the nearly invisible whirring of the blades.
‘Come on now, Al, it’s time,’ my father said,
and the Captain seemed to grin a little wider,
as if his pleasure there at the end of his
unending day grew freer, more disencumbered,
because he saw me at the start of mine,
under my father’s arm, his soft voice broken
against the noise into an unfollowable tune
of favors and petty cash, and how much ass
he had to kiss to get me this, and I
should be a man now and not disappoint him.

Alan Shapiro, “Manufacturing” from Mixed Company (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996). Copyright © 1996 by Alan Shapiro. Reprinted with the permission of the author.
Source: Selected Poems 1974-1996 (The University of Chicago Press, 2000)
More Poems by Alan R. Shapiro