I was in a diner in a nearby town recently, the kind of place where The Beatles on my t-shirt were a band of suspicious foreigners. The dry-rotting building had multiple levels filled with Naugahyde booths and tables with mismatched chairs. It’s known for pie.
The engineers were there. I suspect there are only a dozen civil engineers in the world, and here eight of them were. They stood in line to order, deeply tanned, all-American guys wearing dusty calfskin work boots, dark blue jeans with belts, collared shirts and baseball caps over baseball haircuts. They all had cells and PDAs and used them while they waited. It was clear who was in charge—he and his second-hand man were the most voluble. The ones in the middle spoke deferentially to their bosses but freely with one another, and the kid at the bottom watched silently. They were working on a project for the university.
They sat at the long table next to mine with plastic baskets of sandwiches, chips and garlic pickle slices, and munched purposefully. After a while their elder said something about Iraq, and they discussed the crazy amount of money to be made there. Their voices drawled sleepily like airline pilots’, and they paused to wipe mustard off the corners of their mouths with paper napkins and to sip Coca-Cola. Two women sat down nearby. The engineers went quiet, for the same reason they’d have held the door open for them. Then another man joined the women and they looked at each other and turned back to their conversation.
They had a job to do, but they weren’t going to rush it. There was pleasure in the food, companionship, and the pause, but they intended to get back to it. The work they described took neither nature nor the human into account. You were either with them or against them, and they’d be astonished if you were against them.
I dawdled over my sandwich, reading a volume of poetry, and they looked my way a few times. They were too polite to say anything while I was still there, of course, even to each other, but the kid registered their glances and took an extra-large bite. He put it in his cheek and worked at it like a squirrel, smacking his lips a little in my general direction.
I thought of James Dickey describing working in a business and how
…every day I used to take a book of poems with me just to touch, every now and then, or as a reminder of the world where I lived most as I wished to. And I remember also the very distinct sense of danger I felt when carrying the book…the distinct and delicious sense of subversiveness and danger in carrying a book…as if it were a bomb, here in this place that had no need of it, that would be embarrassed and nonplussed by it, that would finally destroy it by its enormous weight of organized indifference….
The engineers got up to leave, and as they ambled out, each loomed for just a second in my light while he tried to read what I was reading. It was a collection by William Carlos Williams.
I looked up, and their faces were puzzled, curious, suspicious. They might have caught just a title or two—“The Flower,” “For A Low Voice,”—but no more. These things lacked utility and a guy probably shouldn’t think about them, but they did.