Nov. 20, 2007

Man in a Parking Lot

by Catherine Jagoe

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "Man in a Parking Lot" by Catherine Jagoe, from Casting Off. © Parallel Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission.

Man in a Parking Lot

When you have a son
you start seeing men
backwards, intuiting their childhood
selves beneath the years of accretions—
the bags and jowls, paunches,
thickened, crumpled skin,
the whole weight of the individual
personality, its freight of filters,
opinions, prejudices, habits,
likes, congealed—as if you knew them
before they even knew themselves.

So when a man stumbles toward you,
mumbling, across the Cubb's Foods parking lot,
unkempt and coatless in the snow,
and your discriminating mind says
"madman," "danger," though he never
once looks up, locked in an altered world,
fixed, unfixable, you lock your car door and then
sit there wondering how it happened,
when things started going wrong.
Knowing he was once a toddler—
for pity's sake—you find it
strange, unreal, this mane of wild
grey hair, grey beard. Somehow
you know it doesn't belong on him,
all that hair, and you don't know
how he got to be so lost, so sick, so old.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the novelist Don DeLillo, (books by this author) born in New York City (1936), who worked at an advertising agency for three years after college, and then one day decided to quit. He later said, "I didn't quit my job to write fiction. I just didn't want to work anymore... what I wanted was... [to] look at the world.... I became a writer by living in New York and seeing and hearing and feeling all the great, amazing and dangerous things the city endlessly assembles." He developed a cult following for his early books, his novel White Noise (1984) won the National Book Award and he got great reviews for his novels Libra (1988) and Mao II (1991), but by the 1990s he still hadn't had any best-sellers.

And then he read a 40th anniversary description of a famous 1951 baseball game between the Giants and the Dodgers, which ended with a game-winning three-run home run hit by the Giants' Bobby Thompson that became known as "the shot heard round the world." DeLillo realized that on the very same day as that baseball game, Americans found out that Russia had exploded its first nuclear device. He was intrigued by the coincidence and decided he had to write something about it.

The result was his novel Underworld (1997), which starts with a description of that baseball game and then follows the baseball that Bobby Thompson hit into the stands that day, and a garbage disposal specialist named Nick Shay who buys what he believes to be that baseball 40 years later, and everything that happens to him and the people in his life over the course of those 40 years. Critics saw the novel as a summation of the Cold War era, which had just come to an end. The book became a best-seller even though it was more than 800 pages long.

Don DeLillo said, "My own personal preference is for fiction that is steeped in history, that takes account of ways in which our perceptions are being changed by events around us. Global events that may alter how we live in the smallest ways." His most recent novel is Falling Man (2007), about the September 11th attacks.

It's the birthday of the novelist Nadine Gordimer, (books by this author) born in Springs, South Africa (1923), who grew up in a middle-class white community near a gold mine where all the black workers were forced to live in a windowless barracks, guarded by police. She never thought about who those miners were or what their lives were like until the day she read Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle, and she began to see the similarities between the meat packers in the book and the miners in her town.

Gordimer eventually moved to the racially mixed bohemian community in Johannesburg and began writing short stories, published in collections such as Face to Face (1949) and The Soft Voice of the Serpent (1952). She watched as many of her black friends were put under surveillance and arrested for treason. She was one of the few white novelists of her generation who did not go into exile. Instead, she began to write about the South African political resistance in a series of novels, including The Late Bourgeois World (1966), The Guest of Honor (1970), and The Conservationist (1974), which won the Booker Prize. She was attacked by South Africa's government, and her books were banned for years at time. And then in 1991, a year after Nelson Mandela was released from his 28 years of imprisonment, Gordimer won the Nobel Prize in literature.

In 1994, South Africa finally came under black majority rule. After that, Gordimer said, "[Critics kept asking me] what are you going to write about now, as if life stopped because apartheid stopped. On the contrary. We've got plenty of problems." Her most recent book is the collection, Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black: and Other Stories, which comes out next week (2007). She said, "The ideal way to write is as if oneself and one's readers were already dead."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
The Writer's Almanac on Facebook

The Writer's Almanac on Twitter

Subscribe to our daily newsletter for poems, prose and literary history every morning
An interview with Jeffrey Harrison at The Writer's Almanac Bookshelf
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show
O, What a Luxury

Although he has edited several anthologies of his favorite poems, O, What a Luxury: Verses Lyrical, Vulgar, Pathetic & Profound forges a new path for Garrison Keillor, as a poet of light verse. Purchase O, What a Luxury »