The Porter by Leslie Woods
Here are three parts or, depending on you, only one.
At eleven I was too old for the airline’s kid price, too old for Gram to drive me
from Jim Crow Virginia to Boston, too young to not be handed to the Porter.
Late for my first train ride on giant tanks, clang plus whoosh of steam and rumble of rails.
Late to the dark, unfamiliar station, the Porter’s reassurances cradled me.
Through the gushing maw, shouts and ringing bells, the iron boom of his voice,
my book lost, his huge hands hoisted my bag and me upward, installed me in his seat.
He brought me someone’s comic pages.
At lunchtime following the Porter’s careful explanations, I found the dining car
of gleaming white cloths, napkins, dishes, curtains, white gloves disguising dark skin.
Whiter white, tighty whities, guests white, cross your lily-white hands,
White is cleanliness is godliness.
Arriving last I chose, I ate, I placed Mom’s ten-dollar bill on the small white plate.
White-gloved hands cleared below a smile. I waited for my change.
The final white men left their table, their waiter whisking until all gone.
I waited for my change. I waited in the silence.
This second part may be the story you tell, robbed by the thief beyond the locked door, laughing at you. Silent behind the door, a gang holding white gloves
over the dark hollows of their mouths. Your face flushed, white shirt marred by sweat.
Virtue blackened. Trust darkened.
But here is the third part. The child an easy mark, soft-voiced, female taught to fear found
her seat, encased in doubt and worry. In Boston, the Porter escorted me toward my escape,
but I stopped, evaluated Mom’s instructions. “Sir, I have no tip for you because the waiter never brought my change and five dollars of it was for you.”
The Porter’s dark face sped from a ritual white-toothed smile, features shifting and recoupling through hiss to a halt, finally resolved into a deep reckoning retribution.
The Porter would get his money. The engineer runs the engine, the Conductor rules the train, but even kids see who gets things done.
A Note From the Author:
History and a Poem
For one year I was a college English major until I realized that I was required to study poetry. Yet my husband wrote poetry and some works I read to the grandkids. My graduate work was through the NYU School of Journalism and I’ve belonged to various writing groups. Occasionally I’ve explained to disappointed writers why an anecdote is not a story. Anecdotes are fun, however, and make up most of conversation and they are great for the word play of poetry. Below I have turned an anecdote of my childhood into my version of a poem.
For the historical background of my poem click here.
Porters worked under the supervision of a Pullman conductor (distinct from the railroad’s own conductor in overall charge of the train), who was invariably white.
The porters had tried to organize since the beginning of the century because their wages and working conditions were below average for decades. Porters depended on the passengers’ tips in order to earn a decent level of pay. Typically, the porters’ tips were more than their monthly salary from the Pullman Company. After many years of suffering these types of conditions, the porters united with A. Philip Randolph as their leader.
Today’s value of $5 from the 1950s is over $50.