Theft of the Clean Heads

Afaa Michael Weaver


       In the closet under the stairway to the manager's offices, I kept the tools of my trade, my yellow, plastic water buggy and its detachable wringer, my rags of assorted sizes and colors, most of them some shades of gray, my bottles of liquid cleanser, boxes of paper towels and toilet paper, and my mops.  My mops were my stout soldiers.  In lighter times like the ritual mopping of our recreation lunch room, they swept gracefully under my hand.  I used slight wrist motions at the tops of the handles to twist the strands of the heads and make them twirl like the spinning edges of lotus blossoms turned by wind in their ponds.  The dirty water of a lotus pond was like the dirty floor of the lunch and recreation room.  Once cleaned, it yielded to men laughing out loud while playing pitch and teasing each other, stuffing down the sandwiches they bought around the corner or made at home, all of what work becomes in a place where life is most of what is made, despite the way we turned the wheels of America's economy. 
        At the time I had shifted from being a truck loader and won the bid to be a janitor, a job that gave me space for meditations on my poetry, like a seeker after some kind of zen.  We travel in the geography of dreams and wishes that fly us away from the complexity to the simplicities of life.  At times the cleaning was a simple thing.  When I was doing it I was sometimes absolutely there, and now that I think back on it from a distance of thirty years, I see it through the layers of complexity that come when memories themselves become collectors of what we remember and imagine.
       It was a warehouse, and a warehouse is supposed to be impersonal by definition, but we were as much in the business of defining life while making it, and we did all of that while we stored and shipped millions and millions of boxes of product that were worth billions and billions of dollars.  One day a coworker stole something from me, and in the stealing he thought he was giving me a gift.
       I was on the afternoon shift that week, punching the clock at 4:00 and punching out at 12:30.  I liked to get there twenty minutes early whenever possible.  The chance to sit and relax was important.  It was a chance to change headsets.  By this time in my fifteen year life in factory work, I was publishing poetry consistently, moving up the register little by little to more prestigious magazines.  I was writing opinion editorial and feature articles for the Baltimore Sun.  My reputation as a black, working class hero poet was being established in Baltimore.  It was the early eighties, the time of my early thirties and the time of Baltimore's singularly odd and precious literary renaissance, led by local luminaries.  They were in the wider world beyond the factory, and I alone was inside that world of machines and production, working with people as gifted and human as any other person, including Reverend J.
        Reverend J was famous, not for publishing, but for having beat Procter & Gamble's corporate legal might.  He had been fired three times for breaking company rules for absences and various indiscretions.  When he was fired the third time, he came back with a vengeance.  Not only was the company forced to compensate him, as he had filed a discrimination case, but he also came with a whole new space that was his very own.  In one hand he had a bible and his ordination papers as a preacher, and in the other hand he had a large, portable radio.  He was a janitor as well and worked the day shift, as that was our agreement.  I liked to be able to take my son to school in the mornings and have time to write.  He liked to be able to perform his daily afternoon ritual in the warehouse.  Each day at 3:00 he retired to the recreation room, or break area as we called if, plugged in his radio and propped his feet on the table to read his bible and listen to Unshackled, a Christian radio program.  From that place he was not movable except by the edict of God.  The managers of one of the world's largest corporations were afraid of tampering with the preacher, and the preacher feared God but gave no quarter to human beings.  In fact. He decided he was the angel who had taken the scales from the eyes of St. Paul and was determined to do that for those of us who were blind.  He had decided I could not see.
       Every worker has a dream, and the thoughts of our dreams keep us alive in the mind numbing repetition of industrial work, the work of being a small part of making things.  The time of the craftspeople who made products by themselves is gone.
        In the beginning of a perfect afternoon shift, I had my time to settle, and as the clock struck 4:00 pm like the sounding of the horn on plantations, I went out to my electric sweeper, stashed a book behind the seat, and set out to ride through the warehouse.  When the weather was welcoming along the length of the eighteen truck loading doors in the main warehouse, I drove by them slowly, stopping to clear larger pieces of cardboard out of the way of loaders.  It was a new sweeper, and it rode along silently, unless I turned on the sweeper.  Still the noise of sweeping was a gentle whir under the constant turning of tens of thousands of ball bearings, the sucking sound of vacuum packing machines, the banging and clanging of the tow motors crossing the metal plates leading into the trucks, and the sounds of people, mostly men, working.
       "Who the hell is supposed to be loading in Door 12.  Goddamn it!
        We had a trucker's helper who sang the blues.  "Take me to the station, show me the train. Take me to the station, show me the train, My baby got the ticket, and its gonna rain..."
        There were the short conversations, words dropped by folks driving tow motors and taking soap to the inventory stacks.
       "Hey Sugar, you the sweetest man I know," Lily would say to me as she swung into a curve driving one of the one ton two motors with as much confidence as any of the men.
       There were the sounds we could see but only imagine, like wind under the wings of gulls coasting down to crumbs left from lunches and trash.
        I would drive back to the mechanics' shop and have coffee with Andy, the mechanic, and George, his helper, two white men from the poor working class.  George grew up and worked in the coal mining communities in Pennsylvania as a coal miner.  They were both in their late fifties by then, and George had the greatest stories from World War II.
        On a hot day I would say, "George, it sure is hot."
        "Not as hot as it was in the War when we were chasing Rommel across the desert in North Africa.  We had to take showers in gasoline."
       "George, are you sure.  Gasoline?"
       "You want the coffee or what, Mike?"
        Of course, I wouldn't let my disbelief ruin my chance at coffee or my chance to hear another one of George's war stories.  After all, I was just a weekend warrior who served in the Army reserves in the last few years of the War in Vietnam.
        Reverend J ruined what would have been a perfect day.  He was working overtime and was sitting in the break area.  There was a spill near the lines marking the inventory of soap products. Someone had broken open cases of fabric softener, and the spill was not so large that it would weaken the cases.  The danger was to tow motor drivers who might spin and mistakenly plough into rows of soap, weakening the cardboard containers.  If too many weakened a row could collapse.  A few thousand dollars might be lost.  As much as I hated the drudgery of the job, I took a certain pride in my work, the work of controlling appearances.
       I went to the closet under the stairs where I had securely chained two new mops, each of them with heads that had not touched anything and which I assumed had not been touched by no one but me.   I was wrong.
        As the Enlightening Angel he thought himself to be, Reverend J thought he would turn his shaming tactics for awakening onto me.  He had cut the chains to the mops, unleashing them their bondage to what he thought was my subservient nature, unleashing them but then shaming the mops and perhaps himself by using them to sweep through a puddle of dirty oil.  After the deed was done, he threw them carelessly back into the closet.   When I discovered the undone mops, he was sitting at the table with his legs propped up, reading his bible.  "Unshackled," his cherished Christian radio program, had already segued into something less engaging, and so he was reading the word of God with the devices of his unaided interpretations.
       "What the hell did you do to my mops?"  I knew it was him, and I was affirmed by his smirk.
        "I had to clean up a spill."
        "I was saving those mops.  What the fuck is wrong with you anyway?"
       "Anger is not of The Lord," Reverend J said calmly.
        "Never mind The Lord.  You fucked up my mops."
        My buddy Sonny was close by.  Sonny has served in Vietnam.  A black man as big as myself, Sonny had a zen coolness that never broke.  He spoke in quick sentences, a smile punctuating most of them, no matter what was happening.
       "Let it go, Mike.  You know how the preacher is.  Let it go."
       Sonny walked me to the door and out into the broad space of the warehouse.  I walked outside for a few minutes to get some air, and then I came back to the dirtied mops and took both of them to the spill where I made them dirtier and contained the danger to the drivers.  I did my job, and our preacher continued with his, delighting in having put me into an embarrassing moment as his way of shifting me away from caring.  It was just a then veil over his envy and his own disappointments with life.
       It was a better factory job than many in Baltimore.  Although it had its dangers, it was safer than the Bethlehem steel mills in Sparrows Point.  We did not have to brave the weather the way the stevedores did.  Most importantly, Procter & Gamble paid well and had a good benefits.  There was something like academic tenure that they called "guaranteed employment," available after seven years of continuous employment.  I had not only guaranteed employment, but had been given my twelve year service award, a silver tie pin.  There was profit sharing as well as a stock purchase plan.  Big Julius, an enormous man who worked in the laundry detergent production department, was rumored to have retired with a million dollars in stock.  A good life was accessible to us, and we were, in our own ways, the best and the brightest.  We were college educated to some extent in many cases, and some had degrees.  We had businesses outside the plant.  We had poultry farms and were rare collectors.  We had these things as a result of the job and in spite of it.  There was not much to hold onto in the way of pride in the work we did, but we could buy into the idea of belonging to a company that told us it was more benign than others.  What harm could a company do when it made diapers?
        It was not enough for some of us, those who left after finishing college, and it was not enough for me.  I was trying to write myself out of a life that did not understand the life of a poet but which gave me the space in which to perform my poet's apprenticeship.  In that making of my foundation, I had to distinguish myself from the people I knew best, the people in that world, and the community of relatives and friends who made lives from jobs like mine.  In distinguishing myself I inevitably severed the bonds of familiarity and trust when the people around you perceive you as being one of them.
       After I started doing feature articles in the Sun, complete with a byline, the blues singer began to avoid me, and when I announced having applied to the writing program at Brown University one evening in the break area, I had no collegial support.  They all laughed, and one began to choke as he laughed and walked away holding his stomach.
       "Now we know you're crazy," another one said.
        As much as I wanted to leave, it was difficult once my manumission did come in the form of a National Endowment for Arts fellowship in January, 1985, fifteen years to the year after I dropped out of the University of Maryland in College Park to take a job in the Bethlehem steel mills and volunteer for the Army reserves.  I came into the warehouse for one day so I could collect my four weeks of vacation.  When I walked away from the noise and busyness of work for the last time, I cried.
       My acceptance into Brown's creative writing program came that spring, along with my first published collection of poetry, Water Song, as part of the distinguished Callaloo list under Charles Rowell.  In the fall of 1985, I entered the highly competitive program at Brown with all the  credentials needed to teach in such a program, except the MFA degree.  The solitary and lonely fact of my iconoclasm was with me.  I was as much a problem at Brown as a prize, and I was rescued from a definite factor of discomfort in poetry when the late George H. Bass and Paula Vogel coaxed me into playwriting, where I fell I love with writing in another genre.  As a playwright I could make something that would be whole once complete, wholly my design if not wholly my production.
        The sound of making is in theatre, too, the sound of building sets, the worker's stance in the eyes of stage managers chasing props.  It is a making that feeds the lyric of the poet and tests the poet's gaze into his innermost being, inside the soul's seed to our beginning, a place the world of industry has hidden from all of us as it feeds our desire for the things we make, a desire that is sometimes created by a marketing image.
        Procter & Gamble closed the Baltimore plant in September, 1995, ten years after I left.  Shortly after I quit, the company had offered early retirement to everyone with a cash bonus of $20,000, exactly the amount of my NEA fellowship.  I wondered what conversations must have taken place once I had accomplished the impossible.  I wondered if management felt they had to reassert their egos.  The upshot was that a few were able to leave as I did, before the terrible disappointment when the job was taken away a decade later, a job they thought would be there as long as there was a Baltimore.  Those who were caught by the shutdown included folks who were without immediate plans for the future.  That plant was most of what they knew of life.
        We all had dreams.  Reverend J, a black man from my neighborhood in East Baltimore, used to say we were all stars in the ghetto, but the ghetto was the circumscribed and diverse world of blue collar working class Americans, designed as it was by what the companies decided we needed to live and what it would take to give us that without challenging the expectations of shareholders, some of whom were us.   We built worlds inside that world and, in some cases, hoped for worlds beyond.  I have not seen Reverend J since he was full of plans for enlightening those he deemed in need of the same, as if he was God's personal assistant and privy to our destinies.  I suppose he had to finally confront the canopy of light that figured his dreams, his own aspirations and how they tugged at the borders of his inner landscape.
       As for me, I was always a poet born and a poet made, a poet who knows the feel of his hands on the work of moving and making things, the heavy lifting of learning how to be.

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Afaa Michael Weaver's twelfth and new book of poetry is The Government of Nature (U Pitt Press March 2013).  His previous book was Like the Wind, a translation of his poems into Arabic by Wissal Al- Allaq for the Kalima Project in the U.A.E.  Afaa holds the Alumnae Chair in English at Simmons College.