I was listening to a radio news program reporting the country’s staggering number of positive Covid-19 cases. The positive cases are on the rise with record numbers of infections; numbers that are shattered by higher numbers on a daily basis. With the holiday season approaching, the public is urged to avoid travel and gatherings—including Thanksgiving dinners—that assemblage of family and friends where political opinions are spilled like gravy on that uncle’s tie, rarely ending up in a food or fistfight where wisdom is spewed in double and triple helpings. The radio report included information on the numbers of positive Covid-19 cases among workers in a meat processing plant in South Dakota. The infection rate in the plant was so high that it became the epicenter of the Covid-19 crisis in the state. The report indicated that the plant manager took bets on how many workers would test positive for Covid-19. Many workers have fallen ill, died. The family of a worker who lost his life has filed suit against the plant. I never gave much thought to meat processing plants outside of movies such as Rocky where the protagonist slugs away at sides of beef as part of his training regimen; not to mention the great heavyweight champion Joe Frazier who, in reality, worked in the slaughterhouses before achieving the ultimate in boxing laurels. But there is a divide between where something comes from and how it is presented to the world—IE: marketed. The great poet Jorge Argueta wrote of this disconnect in his children’s book, A movie in my pillow, in the way mangoes and chickens were different in the US as opposed to his native El Salvador.
Come in cans
In El Salvador
They grew on trees
Here chickens come
In plastic bags
They slept beside me
President Trump signed an executive order months ago to keep the plants open during the crisis impacting thousands of what are now deemed essential workers on the frontlines with no options and no place to hide.
I live in North Carolina in an area known for apples and mountains. The poet Carl Sandburg called this part of North Carolina home in his later years. His home is a stone’s toss away from mine in Flat Rock. A committee entrusted to preserving his legacy selects an annual writer in residence at the Carl Sandburg Home Historic site. The home sits atop green green slopes and overlooks a serene body of water where visitors take meditative walks in what is known as Connemara, the place that Carl Sandburg produced poetry, along with the biography of Abraham Lincoln. During guided tours of the home, one is taken by the fact that the home has been maintained closely to the way Sandburg left it, inhabited by his library of books, desk, typewriter and household items–brick-a-brac–that would be considered treasures by those who scour thrift stores in search of such things. I applied for the residency and was selected. I was flattered. Next to being a saintly looking white-haired old man, Sandburg was a socialist who wrote about workers, the slaughterhouses, prostitution, unfulfilled dreams—centered in Chicago—the city that he described as the “City of the big shoulders.” Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, I did not live in the Sandburg Home farmhouse as is the norm for Sandburg Writers in Residence. I envisioned sleeping in the wood framed farmhouse with the aroma of coffee in the morning and the odor of goat shit wafting from the nearby goat farm that was lovingly started by Sandburg’s beloved wife Paula. My writing residence commenced remotely, minus the smell of goat droppings, morning coffee and native plants. I conducted 3 writing workshops for the community and conducted myself as a community poet, involving myself in the life of the community as best I could during the pandemic.
Carl Sandburg is referred to as the poet of the people. In researching his life, I found his poetry to speak to the workers, the forgotten—those left out of the capitalist equation or at the bottom rung. I have, in the last few years, begun to refer to myself as The People’s Poet, but for different reasons than Carl Sandburg. I assert I am The People’s Poet because I write for and about people. This would be different had the focus of my poetry and writing been dogs or cats; then I would have assumed the title of the canine or feline poet. Had my writing been focused on apes, I would be the primate poet; marsupials, the marsupial poet and so on.
My month’s long writer’s residence at the Carl Sandburg home came to an end. Truth be told, I thought, for a brief moment that I was hot shit. However, my shit temperature dropped when I was stopped by a local cop for looking suspicious during an evening walk—that ambiguous description phoned in by a vigilant and concerned community member no doubt. I soon needed to get a real job. Writing is fine but I needed to invest in new underwear—among other things–as the elastic on my present pairs were sagging. I found employment at a thrift store, forgoing an opportunity to work at a supermarket deli. I didn’t want to smell like potato salad and fried chicken and instead opted to smell like musty old clothes, second hand knick-knacks and occasional treasures. I became a cashier, something I’d always dreaded given my ineptitude with numbers. Thank the gods of modern day cashiering that the register calculates change. I assumed my duties with a smile concealed by facial covering.
I observe that the clothes on racks appear to want to escape, slipping off hangers, slithering and falling to the floor. Some falls are not so graceful, such as a pair of pants—size 50 waist—that fall with a thud reminiscent of the legendary wrestler Haystacks Calhoun, who, donning overalls, landed on the mat, all 601 pounds of him, shaking not only the ring but our small black and white TV sets at home. As I preside over my thrift store fiefdom, I see a woman. I recognize here as one of the staff members of the Carl Sandburg home that selected me as Writer in Residence. I somehow feel shame; shame that I am working as a thrift store cashier. I’m a writer, shouldn’t I be writing my stories behind a mahogany desk wearing a silk robe and snacking on bits of Melba toast? The woman wore a facial covering but I recognized the auburn locks falling from her head flecked with silver as well as her green eyes. It was her minus the Park Service attire.
I need to hide, I think. I can’t let her see me at the register. I am a writer. I could avoid her by ducking into the clothes rack, underneath the pants and jackets that would provide cover. I slide underneath a cluster of jackets.
“What do you want?” a voice asks.
It is a middle aged man with an ample middle. He is playing some sort of game on his cell phone.
“What are you doing here?” I ask
“What do you think? The man replies, his voice muffled under a mask. “I’m hiding from my wife.”
“You ever been married?”
“Get the hell outta here.”
I leave the man in the oasis of his used clothes bunker.
I look to my right towards the bedroom domestics section; lots of comforters, sheets and blankets; a good hiding place. I approach but there is a kindly white haired man reading the tag on a blanket. He holds the tag close to his eyes, so close that if it was any closer he’d be able to inhale the small print through his nose. I’m tempted to bring him a used magnifying glass as he is taking forever. Move old man, I think. He finally walks away, leaving the blanket behind. He turns to me, winks and disappears into the household aisle. A dead ringer for Carl Sandburg, I think.
I slide between 2 thick quilts. I could lie low here for a while unnoticed. It feels warm and fuzzy, like back in the womb. Then I ask myself, how do I know what the womb feels like? I breathe and smell the pungent stench of my breath beneath the mask. I stand there for several minutes. Suddenly I feel something moving towards me–a hand. It gropes closer towards my crotch. I flinch. The quilts part and the florescent lights hit my eyes. I see a pair of green eyes.
“Tony, is that you?” the voice says.
“Yes it is” I reply, a writer, an essential worker with nowhere to hide.
© 2020 Tony Robles