Home » ARTSY FARTSY » JEAN SHEPHERD Kid Stories & (139) ARTSY E. E. Cummings Part 2 of 2

JEAN SHEPHERD Kid Stories & (139) ARTSY E. E. Cummings Part 2 of 2


Rot Gut With Beer Chaser

I’m about sixteen years old.  I’m eating Tasty Yeast to keep my complexion in line.  I’m deep in that period and I have a summer job working in the steel mill.  This is my first experience outside of the family where the idea of a big drinking night is my father and Uncle Carl having a clandestine “shot.”  That was their idea of a fantastically bad night.

So I am assigned one afternoon to what they call a “bull gang.”  A bull gang is a group of roving laborers, a team.  Whenever they have to load seventeen thousand pounds of sheet metal now, they call for bull gang number one or bull gang number two or bull gang number three.

It is now three o’clock in the afternoon on my first day in the bull gang and we are working in the forty inch soaking pits.  The forty inch soaking pits are really an off-shoot of Hell, where Dante got his original ideas.  The heat is incredible.  Dirty, heat, crud, and that smoke is rising constantly, and they lower these ingots down on a platform that’s covered with oil.  The oil burns as it’s lowered down.  Shushoooooo, cooooo, boooooauggh chingaaaaaah chuuumb cahunnnnng!  Blablablablablablabla chucchu chuchuchuchuchuchuchuchu owoooooooo!  Kabooooom!  They’re loading these things in and out.

I’m in a bull gang that is assigned to cleaning out the scale and the crud out of the bottom of a soaking pit.  They don’t allow the soaking pits to cool off—they keep the heat on while you work because it takes so much money to reheat them so they leave them on all the time.

So they lower us down there and we’re wearing asbestos suits.  We’ve got big long metal bars with big scoops on the end and you run around real fast and you chip away at the scale that forms on the metal.

You have thick wooden shoes.  The minute you touch the ground the shoes start burning.  You are allowed two and a half minutes in the soaking pit and then you jump back up on this little lift, up you go.  And they’re lowering the other guys down and you run over and sit down on the bench Ahhhhhaaaaaaaaaaoh boy, oh, Charlie, what am I doing here?  We work all day at this and it is now ten minutes to four.  The shift is out at four o’clock.

They take all of us out, they put all of us in our little bus and they’re taking us back to the dressing room.  A dressing room way at the end of the forty-inch mill where all our clothes are hanging in wicker baskets from the ceiling.  They hang them from the ceiling so the rats won’t get ‘em.




Regarding a happy, Cummings-related matter, even I wrote a poem. My father’s uncle had given him a small pistol from the 1920s that might have still worked if one could have still found bullets for it. My father gave it to me. It was unregistered and thus illegal in New York, when the police offered $50 for turning in any firearm, no questions asked. (I’d tried to sell it to an antique dealer, but he said it was illegal for him even to look at it.) I took it to the local police precinct and got my $50. I knew just how to spend it and made a poem/one-of-a-kind artists’ book about the experience:

In addition to his original signature on his handwritten postcard, my Cummings collection includes: 1 bibliography of his works; 3 biographies of him; 2 books of critiques of his work; 1 book describing and illustrating his numerous paintings; 1 book lauding his innovative typographic layouts (edited by author, critic, and visual poet, Richard Kostelanetz); 1 book of selected letters; 2 non-fiction books he wrote—The Enormous Room, a description of his life in a French prison during World War I,  and Eimi, about his negative experience during a trip to the Soviet Union in 1931; 1 exhibit catalog of his memorabilia (NYC Public Library); 2 books with his introductions (one is of an early compilation of “Krazy Kat” comics); 3 videos about him and 6 audio cassettes of his reading of his works; 2 books of a play each by him; 1 book of his lectures (i: six nonlectures); various periodical essays about his work; 3 books of typewriter facsimiles of his poems; 10 first editions of his poetry books; 1 U.S. Forever postage stamp.

Also: 2 eb poems about him I made into artists’ books. (One shown above.) The other artists’ book is based on the text of a delightful and easily understood Cummings poem, “In Just–.” (As he did not title his poems, they are usually referenced by the poems’ first lines. I gave my book its own unconventional title) I especially like Cummings’ line: “when the world is puddle-wonderful.” My book, held together by two brass, round paper fasteners, consists of a front and a back cover, three translucent sheets each with parts of the poem, then the complete poem:

Cummings, in 1938, wrote a smug introduction to his Collected Poems (now superseded). He frequentlycombined withoutspaces, wordsandpunctuation. The intro begins:

The poems to come are for you and for me and are not for mostpeople.

-it’s no use trying to pretend that mostpeople and ourselves are alike. Mostpeople have less in common with ourselves than the squarerootofminusone. You and I are human beings:mostpeople are snobs.

Take the matter of being born. What does being born mean to mostpeople? Catastrophe unmitigated. Social revolution. The cultured aristocrat yanked out of his hyperexclusively ultra voluptuous superpalazzo,and dumped into an incredibly vulgar detentioncamp swarming with every conceivable species of undesirable organism. Mostpeople fancy a guaranteed birthproof safetysuit of nondestructible selflessness. If mostpeople were to be born twice they’d improbably call it dying-

you and I are not snobs. We can never be born enough. We are human beings;for whom birth is a supremely welcome mystery,the mystery of growing:the mystery which happens only and whenever we are faithful to ourselves. You and I wear the dangerous looseness of doom and find it becoming. Life,for eternal us,is now;and now is much too busy being a little more than everything to seem anything,catastrophic included.

(Gravemarker photo: Tony Fischer. Forever portrait photo: Edward Weston.)

    E. E. CummingsForever(stamp).



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