Nov 20 — Jamaal May “Shift”

Monday, November 20   “I don’t know
if it’s better to be good at a bad job or bad at a good job”

What’s sweet about Thanksgiving, at least one of the sweet things, is a 3 day work week followed by a 4 day weekend.  It’s a reminder that an ordinary 5 day week teaches people to be strong, develop staying power, especially when one 5 day adds onto another, something to be proud of, our work rhythms.  Interrupting them now and then, like this week, puts a light on their ordinary strength and beauty.

I hadn’t posted a poem from Detroit poet Jamaal May in a while.  He writes “Shift” with the same subtle density of language that characterizes his poetry.   “Shift” asks a reader to read two or three times to find a way into a world of growing up into an adult’s awareness while learning the honor of showing up and doing a job.   It’s worth the 2nd and 3rd read, better out loud with pauses.

Have a blest week.


john sj


Acting on an anonymous tip, a shift supervisor

at a runaway shelter strip-searched six teenagers.

Mrs. Haver was taping shut the mouths

of talkative students by the time she neared retirement,

and Mr. Vickers, a skilled electrician in his day,

didn’t adapt when fuses became circuit breakers,

a fact that didn’t stop him from tinkering

in our basement until the house was consumed by flame.


I used to want to be this bad at a job.

I wanted to show up pissy drunk to staff meetings

when the power point slides were already dissolving

one into another, but I had this bad habit

of showing up on time

and more sober than any man should be

when working audio/visual hospitality

in a three star hotel that was a four star hotel

before he started working there.


When the entire North Atlantic blacked out,

every soul in the Hyatt Regency Dearborn flooded

the parking lot panicked about terrorists and rapture,

while I plugged in microphones and taped down cables

by flashlight—you know, in case whatever cataclysm

unfolded didn’t preempt the meetings. Meetings,

before which I’d convince a children’s hospital

to pay fifteen dollars to rent a nine dollar laser pointer.

Thirty-five bucks for a flip chart,

extra paper on the house. Is it good to be good at a job

if that job involves pretending to be a secret service agent

for Phizer’s George Bush impersonator? I don’t know


if it’s better to be good at a bad job or bad at a good job,

but there must be some kind of satisfaction

in doing a job so poorly, you’re never asked to do it again.

I’m not saying he’s a hero, but there’s a guy out there

who overloaded a transformer and made a difference,

because in a moment, sweating through my suit,

groping in the dark when my boss was already home,


I learned that I’d work any job this hard, ache

like this to know that I could always ache for something.

There’s a hell for people like me where we shovel

the coal we have mined ourselves into furnaces

that burn the flesh from our bones nightly,

and we never miss a shift.



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