All night I lifted them through seven stories
or I brought them down – the bums and winos,
wistful bachelors, commercial travelers,
and the odd young men without professions —
fifty residents in fifty rooms.
They came and went at every hour
at the damp-eyed, dismal Scranton Y
that smelled of wax andClorox, bad cigars.
The elevator shaft was my small home
that summer of my sixteenth year in Scranton
when I worked a night shift on the weekends.
I had a cane chair in one corner, but I often
stood, out of respect for these sad men.
I felt their misery, though one old guy
(who’d lost a leg to diabetes)
always had a joke or two for me.
“You’ve heard the one about the lazy horse?”
he’d ask. I never would admit to having
heard it as he cackled up and down the shaft.
“You’re funny,” he would say because I laughed.
One time he kissed me on the ear and wept.
“Nobody has a sense of humor now,”
he muttered as I drew the door behind him.
I began my shift in total darkness, summoned
by the loud and thumb-sized buzzer, wondering
why some went out at crazy hours on the town
but soon came home with agitated grins.
I took it as my job to ask no questions,
just to hold the door and maybe listen
if they had a thing or two to say.
Most of them had lived into a silence
rarely broken, though sometimes one could hear
a shriek, a strangulated sob, a rueful laugh
behind closed doors. I didn’t like to think
what prompted these articulations,
leaving work at seven when my shift was over,
walking through the little city with its yawns
in feverish red light that bathed the valley.