Acting on an anonymous tip, a shift supervisor
at a runaway shelter strip-searched six teenagers.
Mrs. Haver was taping shut the mouths
of talkative students by the time she neared retirement,
and Mr. Vickers, a skilled electrician in his day,
didn’t adapt when fuses became circuit breakers,
a fact that didn’t stop him from tinkering
in our basement until the house was consumed by flame.
I used to want to be this bad at a job.
I wanted to show up pissy drunk to staff meetings
when the power point slides were already dissolving
one into another, but I had this bad habit
of showing up on time
and more sober than any man should be
when working audio/visual hospitality
in a three star hotel that was a four star hotel
before he started working there.
When the entire North Atlantic blacked out,
every soul in the Hyatt Regency Dearborn flooded
the parking lot panicked about terrorists and rapture,
while I plugged in microphones and taped down cables
by flashlight—you know, in case whatever cataclysm
unfolded didn’t preempt the meetings. Meetings,
before which I’d convince a children’s hospital
to pay fifteen dollars to rent a nine dollar laser pointer.
Thirty-five bucks for a flip chart,
extra paper on the house. Is it good to be good at a job
if that job involves pretending to be a secret service agent
for Phizer’s George Bush impersonator? I don’t know
if it’s better to be good at a bad job or bad at a good job,
but there must be some kind of satisfaction
in doing a job so poorly, you’re never asked to do it again.
I’m not saying he’s a hero, but there’s a guy out there
who overloaded a transformer and made a difference,
because in a moment, sweating through my suit,
groping in the dark when my boss was already home,
I learned that I’d work any job this hard, ache
like this to know that I could always ache for something.
There’s a hell for people like me where we shovel
the coal we have mined ourselves into furnaces
that burn the flesh from our bones nightly,
and we never miss a shift.

Jamaal May, "Shift." Copyright © 2015 by Jamaal May. Used by permission of the author for PoetryNow, a partnership between the Poetry Foundation and the WFMT Radio Network.
Source: PoetryNow (PoetryNow, 2015)
More Poems by Jamaal May