February 6, 2023

Reading Invisible Man

She said, “You have a nice collection of music—
                  not bad for a white boy.”

Curled up on a box in the back
of the warehouse, I read the master’s book.
He took everything, or tried to,
and put it in. Around me
were stoves and televisions,
refrigerators and long stereos,
and under me a washing machine,
the unclean place I’d go to hide.
Sheathed in the beige cardboard,
labeled with numbers in red and blue,
these were things, once paid for,
that opened to the good life,
if it were only true. Just shy of 20
and the world around me, I kept the job,
loading and unloading tractor-trailer trucks
and railroad cars, filling orders
when the office called, fork lift
to the loading dock. He was sometimes
there, down from Farrow Road,
fedora on his head, like Ellison
in that photo on a street in Harlem.
He had a solemn air and a strong
young man with him in the truck,
a challenge to the core of the place
I worked, because he owned a store
and was a black man, too visible
and yet how like an iceberg,
his cool presence hiding much,
including me, emerged to fill
his order. Warehouse boy, I had loved
his daughter—he didn’t know—and cried
with her in ’68. Girls and boys
must face the hate as they mature
and know how much is built upon it.
I never said I knew her then
nor asked, “How is that lovely girl?”
I filled his orders and returned to read,
and killed our chances to be seen.