Poet's Notebook: It's a living

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click to enlarge Poet's Notebook: It's a living - jeanne meinke
jeanne meinke
Poet's Notebook: It's a living

All night at the ice plant he had fed
the chute its silvery blocks, and then I
stacked cases of orange soda for the children
of Kentucky, one gray boxcar at a time...

Danny Lawless, editor of the online poetry journal Plume, had the idea of asking poets to briefly describe the oddest or most memorable job they ever had. He got a lot of fascinating replies. It’s delightful to think of Jane Hirschfield driving a truck.

As a closet pacifist, I suppose being a soldier was my strangest. The Korean War had just ended — I was drafted right after graduation, in 1955 — and most Americans thought the draft was fair. America wasn’t much involved in Vietnam yet, so the closest I came to shooting anyone was in 1956, when Russian tanks rolled into Budapest, crushing the Hungarian freedom fighters. I was with an infantry division in Würzburg, Germany, about 400 miles away; our sergeant was jumping-up-and-down happy as we cleaned our M1s.

The 1950s were patriotic days: despite an occasional doubt (Hiroshima?), we felt, in general, that America did the right things. The Vietnam War changed all that, but that’s another subject. So, leaving out the grand topics of war and peace, I held my most memorably odd job during a long summer four years before I was drafted.

I worked at the Boonton Molding Company, in Boonton, NJ, making plastic dishes and earning money for college. The molding room was a scene out of Dante’s Inferno. Gleaming, breathing machines hissed up and down, workers hunched in front of them transferring compressed-powder disks like hockey pucks from a small oven to the molding machine, and then punching the button to bring the forms together to mold the plate, saucer, or cup. When the mold opened, you had to pluck out the red-hot piece with a suction cup, drop it in a tray, pick up the disk, put it in its oven, smooth the rough edges of the plate or cup, and start the whole process again. We were paid by the piece, and the men worked very fast.

The heat was fierce, no doubt illegal today, and all of us were soaked within minutes. This was before air-conditioning, and the windows had to be closed because floating dust might get into the machine and stain the finished products: pale-colored plates, saucers, and cups, thick but unbreakable and charmingly shaped — they’re collectors’ items today.

There were eight machines, and once an hour I’d slow down mine and run out and get eight Cokes. (The men were so fast they could reach over and keep my machine going, at a slower pace.) I was the only boy — an executive at the company, a golfer I caddied for, got me the job — and the men treated me well, like a pet. They kidded me because I worked the swing shift (8-4, 4-12, 12-8) and I’d arrive in everything from pajamas to evening clothes. Their guesses as to how I spent my days and nights were delightfully obscene and, alas, far off-base.

After my stint, I’d change near the loading dock (there was no shower). Occasionally a police car would slide by. A policeman who had watched our high school games would get out and wave, and I’d toss him a cup or scale a plate, and then duck back inside, feeling very grown up. At the time, the men seemed old to me, but at least one of them, as well as the man I caddied for, died in Vietnam.

...We were twenty
for such a short time and always in
the wrong clothes, crusted with dirt
and sweat. I think now we were never twenty.
—Both quotes from “You Can Have It,” by Philip Levine (1928-2015), in New Selected Poems, Random House, 1991 

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