I hear Sam talking to himself, who stocks shelves at the A & P in the evenings, changing out the shelf sliders that mark the weekly store specials, Sam who sometimes bags groceries when the store gets busy, a middle-aged man who never looks anyone directly in the eye, of medium build, tow-headed and red-faced, whose white shirt is always clean and pressed, but whose pants won't stay up, living now in a tiny efficiency in that old apartment complex squeezed between the highway and the Conrail tracks, Sam who used to be a regional manager for a major retailer that went out of business, audibly talking to himself in aisle eight, amid the jars and cans, boxes and bags, unloved and unlovable, someone you'd avoid in the parking lot, or out on the street, Sam whose fortunes went south, who bought a losing ticket in that big effin lottery called The American Economy, unhappy Sam swearing to himself, obscene plosives in aisle eight, I can hear him but thankfully I can't make out the words.
He is working like an angry machine, twisting this way and that between hand truck and shelf, punching the air with his pricing gun, when a girl's voice comes over the store speaker system: "Sam. Breakage at register seven. Need a mop."
In the old days I might've thought, he oughta be grateful he's got a job. I knew men like that. Ephraim the custodian who took pride in cleaning up our bookstore the morning after a busy day, polishing the mezzanine rails to a high sheen, vacuuming the stairs twice, refilling the soap dispensers, making sure to wipe away any messy drippings, Ephraim who left his apartment in the Bronx way before dawn, whose English was confined to a few dozen essential phrases, mostly having to do with cleaning, who worked all day, legally and not, to raise a family, who wore an immaculate blue uniform and clip-on bow-tie, and lent them dignity while he had them on, Ephraim who took pride that "his" sidewalk was scrubbed clean, or shoveled out, before any other on Fifth Avenue, who smiled at everyone, and said hello to everyone, and even tried to help customers, because that was his way. Ephraim was no machine. He was a man glad to have a job, one that he made noble by doing it well, with joy. It's hard to resist the urge to gush over that kind of immigrant gumption, to cite it as a shining example of making something of yourself.
Quist would take a couple of sips of Jameson's and tell me, "A man rich in spirit can find his calling in any kind of work." I believed him back then. But I also understood Merton when he pointed out how easy it was to discuss the crucifixion over a martini.
Then there was Byron, with his jaunty mustache and thick glasses, his marked-up Bible with its kraft-paper cover, a fresh one every couple of weeks, Byron who also audibly spoke to himself, not curses, but prayers and psalms, who worked at the Quick Chek in Rutherford, up until the point the store started carrying Penthouse and Hustler, magazines whose content offended him, so he quit, and immediately landed a job at the Arnold Bakery Outlet in Clifton, stocking shelves, unloading trucks, and finally working his way up to the cash register, grateful for each step on the way. Byron, who wasn't daft, who wasn't a zealot, who never pestered anyone uninterested in his faith, who was simply a man trying to take Christ at His Word -- how many of those do you find? -- Byron who prayed with fervor, yet with no ostentation, who visited the sick and gave what he could to the poor, who had no car, and so would be forced to take a bus into Jersey City to retrieve his brother who'd been jailed on a drunk-and-disorderly, Byron who came to our choir rehearsals only to listen, who knew he couldn't carry a tune, who lived in an efficiency above a candy store on Main Street in Passaic Park, whose last name I forget now because I confuse it with Byron Bunch, the Holy Fool in Faulkner's great novel Light in August. Go ahead and sentimentalize that kind of humility and piety, or wish it out of existence behind a veil of sophistry. A man rich in spirit, blah blah blah.
Ephraim was shot and killed on a Bronx street-corner. Byron got terribly sick, it was left undiagnosed, and he disappeared from view. And Sam? Sam dutifully goes to register seven to clean up a broken jar of spaghetti sauce. The will to live only takes you so far.