Marvin Lurie

What Went Right

Old wooden Chicago "L" cars on the Ravenswood line
had open platforms at each end
that I rode to my after school job.
In the clang and crash of slamming side to side,
shrieking rail curves,
rattling clatter of joints and switches -- 
one hand for the black iron railings
one for a cigarette -- 
I practiced belonging to the community of men 
who worked the second shift. 
It's where I learned to wear denim jackets, 
plaid flannel shirts and jeans 
bought from pushcarts on Maxwell Street.
I studied apartment windows and porches flashing
by to spy on the lives of people who lived with their backs
to the "L" tracks,
their kitchen tables,
shirts and underwear hung out to dry,
geranium pots on railings and stairs,
old women watching the trains.
I showed off my one-handed trick
of lighting "strike anywhere" Diamond matches
for my unfiltered Pall Malls,
scraping my thumbnail across their sulfur tips.

I learned that from Abe,
a rough old teamster, squat and thick-armed,
who drove a horse-drawn milk wagon when he was fifteen
and grew up on the west side with guys who became made men.
He had a furniture store,
liked to ride his trucks, stay out of the office.
He'd sleep in the corner of the cab
with a dead Dutch Masters cigar clamped in his teeth
and let me, "the kid," drive the Studebaker.
He'd wake up, tell me stories,
he rode the rails during the depression,
his wife was in an asylum,
the mobster in the headlines was a nasty punk
who stole milk from his wagon.
He'd do that trick with a match,
take a few puffs
and fall asleep again.
When I drove fast and rough over the tracks
through the mills and refineries in Gary
with a load of mirrors, he didn't say anything.
Gave me his "you know you were an asshole" look.
He taught me to carry heavy dressers and mattresses
up three flights of stairs,
to load every bit of space in a truck, saying, "Don't do this, kid.
Get an education. Wear a suit and tie."
He made me his helper to open a new store,
to tear down walls, build new ones, run power and plumbing, lay floors.
He taught me to keep at it until a job was done,
and that a good way to end a day's work
was to have a cigar,
a mug of black coffee with a shot of Old Grandad bourbon stirred in
and to talk about what went right.

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