So I’m an old guy now, but when I was younger, I used to walk around with the thought that my late father gave me nothing, or next to nothing. I didn’t inherit any of his talents; My sister can weaponize a joke like him, my brother’s scalp, my Dad’s sad, eroding shoreline.
Then, one day, who knows why, maybe I was gazing at a sea gull, I remembered the boots.
My father worked for the water dept. in my home town of Rochester, NY. It was politely called the Water Works, which meant he was actually Ed Norton, or Barney Rubble, a gutter-pipe dancer, a sewer ace.
When a pipe burst beneath the street, down he and his crew went. It was a job of mud and pipes, bruises, and drills. Most kids don’t care what’s under their feet. I never considered the ways he knew to break the pavement, how someone had to mind what gushed between pipe to pipe, how his fix could boil coffee and fill tubs.
And with the job came the boots. Huge, orange or yellow waders that only a firefighter could top. He always had a pair for me, at the wind-up of fall, never tied to a birthday, or Christmas. Were they surplus from the job, or something one slipped in a bag to puff up a paycheck?
No other boy in Rochester had boots bigger than those barges. Slip them over whatever you had laced your feet around, and laugh at the slush puddles of the great, grey, snow-fucked streets.
This went on until he was promoted. He rose, fair and square, to the rank of a driver, which thanks to the Union meant no more digging, no more drilling, no more fixing what time and wear brings to the things we bury. He drove his crew to the hole, and sat in the cab. He had risen above the clank and sweat, and the boots couldn’t follow. He had arrived to the Land called A Little Something More.
But for a while, I knew how envy could dart from a boy’s eye like lightning, from their sad boots to mine, that damp anger.
Poet and playwright Cornelius Eady, the Miller Family Endowed Chair in Literature & Writing at the University of Missouri, is the author of eight books, including Hardhearted Weather: New and Selected Poems. In 1996 he and writer Toi Derricotte founded the black poets’ organization Cave Canem.
image: Larry Potter, The Edge, c. 1962 (Swann Auction Galleries)