Feb. 9, 2006

It's a Living

by Richard Vargas

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Poem: "It's a Living" by Richard Vargas from McLife: Selected Poems 1978-2004. © Main Street Rag Publishing Company. Reprinted with permission.

It's a Living

it's called customer service
trying to help my fellow man
make sense of the medical insurance
some slick carpetbagging agent
talked him into buying

there are no easy answers
like today
the guy on the phone
was speaking with restraint
holding on to his dignity
but i know begging when i hear it
his voice cracked as he told me
the doctor tending to his dying wife
was getting phone calls from one
of our case managers
being pressured to get her
released from the hospital

please he said
please ask them to stop
she's in so much pain
my wife my best friend
she's in a lot of pain and
there's nothing they can do
please stop the phone calls

i tell him he's got us mixed up
with someone else
there is no record
of any phone calls
in his wife's file
but i know better

i want to put him on hold
go find the sterile room with
white walls where faceless people
hold jelly donuts gripped
tight in their pudgy hands
as they put dollar signs
on the way we die

i want to stick my head inside
remind them that
sooner or later we all
finish the race
sometimes it ain't too pretty
but in the end
if we're lucky
we'll have the love
of a precious few
maybe the ability to stare
death in the eye
so let this one go
just leave her be

but instead i assure
the guy i'll do my best
to find out what's going on
wait for him to hang up
decide to take my break
10 minutes early

times like this i wish
i'd taken up smoking

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of writer George Ade, born near Kentland, Indiana (1866). He went to Purdue University and then became a newspaperman in Chicago. Then, in 1897, Ade got the idea to write a series of fables about modern characters using modern American vernacular. The first of these fables was "The Fable of Sister Mae Who Did As Well As Could Be Expected" and it was so popular that he wrote many more collected in his books Fables in Slang (1899) and More Fables (1900). Ade later said, "It was a great lark to write in slang—just like gorging on forbidden fruit."

George Ade also wrote, "A friend who is near and dear may in time become as useless as a relative."

It's the birthday of the playwright and memoirist Brendan Behan, born in Dublin (1923). He grew up in a house fiercely opposed to British rule. His mother was fond of saying, "Burn all things British—except their coal." He got involved with the IRA and as a result spent most of his early life in and out of prison. It was while he was in prison that he wrote his play The Quare Fellow (1954) about a day in the life of group of inmates as they wait for one of their fellow prisoners to be hanged. "Quare fellow" is Irish slang for a condemned man.

Even though The Quare Fellow was successful at the tiny theater where it first came out, none of the major theaters in Dublin would pick it up for fear of controversy. So Behan sent a copy of the play to a theater producer in London and it became big success there.

Behan's autobiography, Borstal Boy (1958) and his play The Hostage (1958) were also big successes, but after that his health declined and he died in 1964, his career having lasted only ten years.

It's the birthday of the novelist Alice Walker, born in Eatonton, Georgia (1944). She grew up the youngest of eight children. She went to Sarah Lawrence College and then took a trip to Africa. When she got back to college she was pregnant and seriously considering suicide. She began writing dozens of poems over the course of a week, barely eating or sleeping, and she shoved all the poems under the door of her poetry teacher, Muriel Rukeyser. Rukeyser showed the poems to her agent and they were eventually published as Alice Walker's first book, Once (1968).

Her first big success was The Color Purple (1982), which spent more than twenty-five weeks on The New York Times best-seller list and went on to win both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Walker was the first black woman ever to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

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




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