“Work Is What It Is” by Nic Custer

Nic Custer


for Philip Levine

Work is when and if you can get it.
When the petitioner slinging 4 clipboards
for a dollar a signature
can articulate why I should let the voters 
decide better than its author and 
when the party store hustler vends 
a Venn Diagram of fevers and chills for 
sweaty $20 bills through car windows,
what work is 
is non-existent.

When the wealthy land developer
wants you to work under the table
for less than minimum wage and expects you to be grateful
(because you don’t have to pay taxes) 
but also expects you to purchase your own dust masks…
Or when you put the key into the ignition and
pray the lucky lemon that lets you deliver pizzas Xmas eve 
will get you to your destination but also 
pray gangster wannabes don’t get trigger-happy 
when they rob you for initiation, 

what it is is 
a form of resistance and a revelation.
Captive audience forced to pay for the privilege, 
maxed out on tax mileages,
the bills still said to instill discipline.
Work is wearing sweaters from October to April, keeping the thermostat
just high enough so the pipes don’t freeze. 
Short showers to save dollars,
knowing when to leave on porch lights 
to keep away window peekers.
Some might call it an art to eke by
but it takes work to master.

Parking lot BBQ stands under popup tents
employ entrepreneur chefs
lounging with pockets full of ones and fives—
confident in the work they invested in their secret sauce 
and the neighborhood bull market that 
spends evenings buying stock in rib tips, 
white bread, aluminum foil and extra BBQ sauce to top it off.
Invisible billboards adorn nondescript houses
where dealers buy gold and liberated bicycles,
copper pipes, aluminum siding and weed whackers.
Summer heat lines dance seductively in the street,
a flash of mystery, distortion,
sweat beading across the sun.
High school graduates work 
hard as hunter-gatherers 
foraging for a future in shop floor ruins.

A car drove through the front of the Red Ribbon Bar,
a southside dive famous for
cheap domestics and a metal ring tied to a long string
that patrons sent hurling toward a hook on the wall 
next to the entrance. The same spot that the car 
detoured through and beat the game for good. 
Working on a gamble to snatch the ATM and
winning early retirement for long-time owners. 
Work can involve sticking it out until the lottery tickets pay out 
or the sports injuries throw a retirement party. 
Work is finally having the time to finish your degree at 53.
Work is adults shoveling snow door to door
or dragging a lawnmower down a State Street, cigarette dangling from
pale lips, the wind writing determination in smoke.

It is work to harvest what shouldn’t be left to rot on the vine.
A lack of work is what it is, which is hard to improve.
A dollar here, a few there, a cardboard sign’s 
elevator pitch speaking luminous volumes
at highway exits as battalions of blistered fingers
dig through ashen walls,
working hard for a handout—
finding only newspaper clippings
warning of a Great Depression. 

from Rattle #57, Fall 2017
Tribute to Rust Belt Poets

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Nic Custer: “My hometown, Flint, Michigan, is verdant and brownfield, a city of ghosts, bars and church folk. It’s a tough place that built unions using stubborn Southern pride, a town disowned and turned into a punch line. My poetry aims to make sense of the simultaneous push and pull of living in a place that defined the blue collar American Dream but now could be mistaken for a nightmare. Although it has fallen from national headlines, Flint is still experiencing a water disaster. One hundred thousand residents negotiate daily challenges using bottled water for nearly everything from baby formula to brushing their teeth while paying the highest water rates in the country to avoid shut-off notices and Child Protective Services. The multi-generational effects of this unsolved crisis coupled with a continued lack of political autonomy and decades of unemployment, arson, and violence are central themes in my writing. As a poet, I often explore balancing frustration at bleak futures with a resistant call to action. I experiment with deconstructing official government and media narratives to better reflect how it feels to live in a city forced to poison itself by a revolving series of state-appointed Emergency Managers. My work at times personifies the physical environment to explore how it informs residents’ self-image. Although my experience is one out of many, it attempts to empower residents by giving voice to our hopes and trials.” (twitter)

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