Punchin the Bar
The clang of the mall on the spikes rings
in your ears. The staccato rhythms echo
across the steppes. .
Lay'n track aint for boys. Those will be
Gandy dancers earn their pay. But swinging
the spiking mall ain't nothin compared to
punchin the bar.
Those big iron wheels on those steam
train pushed the tracks apart. The worst is
around the bends. If you don't push them
back into place, the engine comes off the
You dig your lever bar into the soil between
the ties and you slam the bar with all you've
got. It looks as if the track didn't move, so
you do it a hundred times..
Each blast on the bar takes your breath.
Sweat drips into your eyes and your shirt
is soaking wet. It ain't much fun movin
those tracks back into place.
The foreman drops the measurin bar
between the tracks. He nods, that's
good enough. You move to the next rail
and start over again.
When the Sun goes down, you're too damn
tired to take go to town and hit the pub. You
collapse on your bunk, and you're dead
to the world.
Fire has been burning for three years.
It's made its way under our town. There
is a danger the mine might collapse.
Put your hand on the ground, it's hot.
Many people have moved away.
The sirens blue at 2 AM. I got dressed
and ran to the mine. In the full moon,
you could see the mine entrance belching
During the day we hit a pocket of solid
rock. The new air hammers shuddered
and scattered sparks. We hit that solid
rock at the end of the shift. We quit,
deciding we would tackle it on the next day.
There ain't enough water to fight a coal
mine fire. All you can do is seal the
entrance and hope it will burn out, but
mine fires obey their own laws.
It serves the company right. They got
greedy and thought they could double
production with those damned air
hammers; look what it got them.
Towering steel beams jut into the
azure sky; air hammers pround.
The crane creeks and groans at
its heavy load as beams asend.
Welders arcs light the way in
this land where sweat reigns.
Burly men, oblivious to the dangers
below prance about on narrow
Eating their tuna sandwiches a
hundred feet in the air; feet dangling.
They laugh and joke as they shake
hands with the sky.
The steel skeleton arises from the
concrete foundation; a new tier is added
each day. A few more levels and they
can talk with the gods face-to-face.
A Second Marriage
Living in a dying world; everything is black.
Washing on the line is speckled gray.
Coal dust clings to the floors impervious to the
broom. Oatmeal in the morning is black,
and milk and sugar are gray.
Explosions at the mine billows clouds of black.
It never stops. Moving away would be the
answer, but my husband has a second
marriage to the mine. That black dust can't
be good for anyone especially the kids.
Reconciled to the fact that my husband
will die young like the rest of the miners, I cry
myself to sleep. There is no bright light on the
horizon. Company thugs beat the hell out of the
guys who were trying to form a union. I wish I
could crawl in bed, curl up in a ball and pulled
the covers over my head.
Burglar by Trade
Hate and rage festered below
his calm exterior. No bad mouth,
just dark eyes that dripped venom.
His absolute obedience at home was
coerced. He hated his dad's belt and
he hated his dad. He was nine before
he learned not to cry.
School was an ugly prison. He lashed
out at those who taunted him. By twelve
he was in the behavioral unit, where he
began his apprenticeship. He learned the
trade of being a thief. At fifteen he found
his niche. None of that petty purse snatching
or mugging. He became a burglar of
His job paid well; he got his own apartment
and the money kept him in meth. By
seventeen he was a journeyman with all
the tools of his trade. He never wanted for
money. He cruised the streets looking for
runaway girls who would trade a bang for
a bed. Life was good.
For several weeks he staked out a local
pawn shop. He waited for the long weekend
to brake in. The noise of breaking glass
awoke the owner sleeping in the back.
He leveled down with his thirty-eight special
and a single shot rang out.
Not everyone can do his job;
it takes a special breed. The
work isn't difficult, but it is hard.
Sitting in the midst of stacks
of newspapers, he reads the
obituary columns. He enters
each name and birth date into
He matches the list of the
deceased with the list of
patients insured by his
company. By the end of the
day he has half a dozen
On company letterhead, he
sends the deceased a letter.
It proudly announces that the
request for preauthorized life
saving medication has been
Traffic was fierce. running late;
the Bell hop gave me a wink as I
took the elevator. I had the usual
room, paid by the company.
The john was a squatty aerospace
engineer. He was a negotiator on
a multimillion dollar contract.
He was shy even embarrassed. He
was unconscious of his wedding ring.
He twisted it a dozen times; he wasn't
much of a lover. Out of the room I put
on my wedding band.
This was my Thursday ritual; leaving
the kids with my husband and heading
out to my "art class". For an hour's work
the pay was off the scale. .
I stopped in the bar for a drink. I needed
to unwind. Then I was hit on by a good
looking guy. What is this world coming to;
he could easily see I was wearing a
The Mining Life
I started working in the mine when I turned
ten. I worked twelve hours a day, six days a
week. My job was to carry water to thirsty
miners. I'd make the rounds and refill the
buckets and make the rounds again.
Most of the miners look forward to my coming.
They reeked of sweat, and the cold water
slaked their thirst. For the miners the water was
more than a welcome relief. They paid me two
dollars a week. I gave the money to my mother.
After my dad and brother were killed in mine,
she needed the money to put food on the table.
At thirteen I got promoted. I now was the powder
Monkey’s roustabout. I carried the boxes of
black powder to the drill site. While the monkey
was tamping the hole, I went after the fuse.
They paid me three dollars a week.
I was big for my age so at sixteen they let me
hold the drill bar. The clanging of hammer
made me deaf for several hours after I got home.
They paid me six dollars a week. I couldn't believe
it. I was making a dollar a day.
When I was eighteen I started swinging the sledge.
The union boys were trying to organize us. They
said that we had dug a million dollars out of that
hole. They said we deserved our fair share.
The strike was nasty as we battle the cops, scabs
and company thugs. The strike lasted three months.
We won three major concessions. The minimum
wage jumped to four dollars a day. We ask for
and got over time for anything over eight hours.
Perhaps the best of the concessions was the
provision, no more kids working in the mines.
You had to be at least fourteen. The younger kids
would stay home and go to school where they
would learn to read and write.
Life has been cruel to the champ.
He came apart when the cheering
stopped. He's now a roustabout
wearing a hard hat.
He bears the marks of his fights;
cauliflower ears and a flattened
nose; bulging eyebrows where was
scar tissue formed. There is a
tremor in his hands.
Too unsteady to work steel above,
he's earthbound, hooking up steel
beams to the crane. The champ is
punchy. A hammer strikes steel,
he'll box a full round before he can
shut it all down. You hate to see him
on coffee breaks; he spill more coffee
than he drinks. Eating only a packaged
fruit pie for lunch. It take him ten minutes
to tear open the wrapper.
He doesn't talk of his glory days,
when he stood toe to toe with the best.
They say he won a million dollars, but
boozed and partied it away. .
He is a lonely man without wife or kids.
He hides the loneliness with the sauce,
and taking some comfort with the ladies
of the night.
I've been a loner for as long as
I can remember. I had one or two
friends in school. I'm too insecure
to be around people, that's why I
hate the nine to five world; filled
with surly colleagues and a giant
Struggling to get out of bed in the
morning and face that crazy dog
eat dog world, I became a robot
going through the motions.
Then I took this job on the second
shift. I'm just coming to work as the
others are leaving. The office is empty
except for me.
There is no hustle and bustle or ringing
telephones. Incoming calls are taken by
the answering machine. I can stop anytime
and savor the silence.
Getting a lot of work done comes easy
without interruptions. The boss is pleased
with my work. I get an hour's nap at lunch.
Around eight o'clock Bob comes waltzing in.
He's a custodian and has been for 20 years.
We spend half an hour together solving the
problems of the world before returning to our
Two things make this job the best. There is
no boss looking over your shoulder telling
you what to do. Second, they pay me a little
extra for working nights.
Riding the Rails
Catching an SP freight, I
hopped into an open box car.
Settling in, the dark was
perfect for a little sleep. I
became aware, I wasn't alone.
Propped up in a corner was a
scruffy old man. He has a
shaggy white beard and a
full head of white hair. He looked
much too old to be riding the rails.
He spoke to me telling me that
I was welcome, and that it was
good to have some company. He
added that a boxcar could get
He said that being free wasn't
like it used to be. In days gone
gone by there would be a half-dozen
guys in a boxcar. He added that
the younger generation had no
stomach for the vagabond life.
He said that he was going to Salt
Lake to collect his welfare check.
A snaggle toothed grin filled his face
as he observed that he would find
a cheap room and take a bath. He
would eat a square meal at a
greasy spoon. Then he would buy a
bottle of wine and entertain a whore.
He laughed a little, saying that those
welfare guys would try to find him a job.
He would explain to them that it was
against his philosophy of life. "When
the urge to work strikes you, lay down
till it passes."
His old chassis had seen better days.
He could hardly climb the stairs to
the stage. It took a full minute for him
to sit on the stool.
He wore an old Cubs ball cap and his
bushy beard hid a snaggel toothed
grin. His nose was bright red; all that
sauce had painted it that way.
The crowd grew restless as he tuned;
it seemed like half an hour. He wasn't
bothered in the least by a heckle from
His gnarled hands caressed those
strings; he strummed those strings
softly and a hush fell over the crowd.
A soft melody hung in the air.
Suddenly, his hand turned to fire.
Those strings were ablaze. He bowed
his head, chin on his chest. His hand
became a blur. Rancorous melodies
resounded around the room.
The crowd jumped to their feet and
cheered; Oh how that ancient pelican
Ice crystals dance in the muted sun;
flickering rainbows sparkle. The sun is
impotent in the bitter cold. A nasty
breeze stabs through my coat.
Nose dripping, but I am too proud to
wipe it on my sleeve. The cold stings
my eyes and I curse being in a hurry
and forgetting my hat.
Grungy snow is piled along the road.
An occasional car speeds by. There
isn't much traffic this late in the day..
I am alone in the cold; accompanied
by chattering teeth and of my ruminations.
There are no construction jobs tis time
Images of better times flood my mind.
Our little house was cozy and warm.
My wife and kids wept bitterly when the
bank foreclosed. We live in the basement
of the in-laws house.
I thrust my hands deep into my pockets.
I hope the bus is on time or I will be
late for my job at the hamburger joint.
Bad news hung in the air; everyone
new the layouts were coming. The
company joke was, an optimist was
someone who brought their lunch.
We went through daily routines like
robots; no smiles, no jokes. Greetings
where perfunctory. Talking to a fellow
worker was like talking to a post.
Minor accidents happen to pre-occupied
workers. The production floor was a
sea of long faces. An industrial sized
fist of melancholy squeeze them in its
The work went on but there was no
sense of accomplishment in a well
made product. Life gets mean and
bitter when there's no light at the
end of the tunnel. Why prolong the
agony just give me my pink slip.
The gray Atlantic was in turmoil.
Breakers twenty feet tall crashed
on the shore. Spray flew.
A kaleidoscope of instantaneous
rainbows flashed in the afternoon sun.
The wind whistled through the rocks.
It rattled shutters and windows. The flag
stood straight out, flapping noisily.
A defiant old fisherman refused to yield.
He sat repairing his nets. He ignored
the wind. This was a struggle of wills.
The old man refused to give in. His wool
coat flapped erratically. His feet were planted
firmly on the nets to keep them from blowing
away. He seemed oblivious to the wind's rude
attempts to chase him away.
Rain came but the old man didn't move he
was as stoic as a piece of rock. He was the
personification of the struggle between man
and nature; nature wasn't going to win.