Joseph S. Pete, 8/21/2017
Current occupation: Reporter
Former occupations: Soldier, janitor
Contact Information:Joseph S. Pete is an award-winning journalist, an Iraq War veteran, an Indiana University graduate, a book reviewer, and a frequent guest on Lakeshore Public Radio. He was named the poet laureate of Chicago BaconFest 2016, a feat that Geoffrey Chaucer chump never accomplished. His literary work and photography have appeared in As You Were, O-Dark-Thirty, The Grief Diaries, Gravel, Synesthesia Literary Journal, Chicago Literati, Dogzplot, shufPoetry, The Roaring Muse, Prairie Winds, Blue Collar Review, Lumpen, Stoneboat, The Tipton Poetry Journal, Euphemism, and elsewhere. He’s okay at hyperbole, he guesses.
You Can Dance If You Want To
Donny drifted from job to job, aspiring to little more than keeping up with his electric bill so they wouldn't cut off the power.
He cleaned carpets, hauled around furniture, dredged canals, manned the admission booth at a state park, dunked French Fries into scalding oil, cashiered at a fireworks store, used a pressure hose to rinse the inside of oil tanks at a refinery and painted sheds.
He went one cold February day into a tax preparation business trying to file his taxes, but got up and stormed out the door when he was told it would cost $60.
“I don’t have that kind of money,” he said as he angrily cut a path to the door. “I’ll just go to the library and take those free forms. Or the internet, it’s supposed to be free to file on the internet now.”
A guy in a loose suit with boxy shoulders followed him and tapped him shoulder.
“Hey friend, look…”
Donny whipped around, fists clenched, scowling.
“Don’t touch me.”
“Hey look, if you need a job, I can hire you.”
“Bad enough you want to rip me off. Don't touch me. Don't patronize me.”
“Look I got a job for you if you want it. For $9 an hour. I need some help attracting customers, bringing more people in the door.”
Donny was indignant. Why did this man assume he needed a job? Was he judging him because he reasonably thought $60 was a lot of money? Or was he making assumptions because of his paint-splattered clothes, the holes in his jeans, the ink stain by his pocket, his five-day shadow or his untrammeled bed head? Who the hell did this man think he was?
Still, $9 an hour was pretty good pay, about $1.25 an hour more than he was making now.
“Sold,” he said, slapping his hand into the man’s palm for an unsolicited handshake, squeezing forcefully in a display of aggression that was mostly unconscious—mostly.
“Great,” the man in the suit said with forced cheer. “When can you start?”
“I can start right now.”
Donny donned the Statue of Liberty costume, slipping the robe over his head in a moment that almost seemed transformative. He quizzically stared at the torch. The flame on the plastic torch looked too molded, too much like an action figure’s crew cut.
“This would be cooler, way cooler with real fire, like one of those eternal flames or maybe even fake fire like in an Amish furnace or whatever.”
“Not sure if that’s in the budget,” the man in the suit said. “But I can, um, look into that for you.”
Donny frowned at the tiara. His eyes narrowed with suspicion.
“Hey wait, isn’t the Statue of Liberty a woman?”
The man in the suit considered this.
“Well, it’s, um… not really a boy or a girl,” he said. “The Statue of Liberty is, uh… a symbol… for, um, liberty. It’s not really a gender thing. It's like, um… you know, a symbol.”
The man in the suit explained he had a Benjamin Franklin costume too, complete with a kite and a key, but no one really picked up on the reference or got the connection between one of the Founding Fathers and filing your taxes.
Kids today knew nothing, he ranted. Blame the schools and their lax standards, or maybe parents just didn’t care anymore. At any rate, he needed Donny to wave at passing cars and get their attention. No one ever notices a tax preparation service storefront in yet another cookie-cutter strip mall, but maybe they would if you got directly up in their face.
It was tax season and the deadline to file loomed, closer than anyone realized. All that was necessary was to prod them to remember, to alert them that a tax preparer was tucked back there, deep in the bowels of the nondescript strip mall they passed by and ignored every single day, the man in the suit reasoned. Sure, they might not slam their brakes to make a quick, squealing turn into the parking lot, but it would plant the idea to come back in their heads. They might return later when they have time or it occurs to them they can’t procrastinate and put off their taxes much longer.
He almost sounded like he was trying more to convince himself than explain what the job entailed.
Donny went out there to the curb, flailing his arms and waving a sign about how April 15 was right around the corner. At first, he really tried to get every passing car to notice, motioning with vigor. He was the Statue of Liberty, hear him roar goddamn it. He figured he'd give notice at his old job later, or they'd take the hint when he didn't show up to work.
Some drivers flipped him off. Others yelled obscenities. One guy tried to throw an empty pop bottle at him, but was going 40 mph so the wind velocity pushed it back right away, to where it almost flew back inside the window and clattered down harmlessly on the pavement. One woman called out, “hey boy,” and as he looked up expectantly, pointed and laughed while rolling up the passenger window.
Mostly though, the cars just passed. Cars, SUVs, pickup trucks, hybrids, electrics all flowed by, ceaselessly. Sometimes they had interesting bumper sticks like “Imagine whirled peas” or “My dog is smarter than your honor student.” But mostly, they were unadorned, plain as that endless ribbon of asphalt. It was an endless procession of cars—rusty, new, glistening, rattling, with bashed-in bumpers, in need of a car wash. Few paid him any mind as they puttered about on errands, commuted to work or zoomed past to points unknown.
Donny was bored. It was boring. He was nowhere near a stoplight or stop sign so the cars never stopped. They just whizzed by in an unending, hazy blur of motion.
But some people noticed and cared enough to honk or chuck crumpled bags of greasy fast food at him. He realized he had a stage. Not everyone had a platform like this. He knew he could get their attention. He could make them all take notice.
That night after work, he called his friend Elaine.
“You still got that boombox?”
“Yeah, I think so, why?”
“I’ll be right over.”
Elaine switched over to the call on hold.
“Hey mom, I’ll call you back. I gotta dig something out from the crawl space.”
Now there was music, sweet music, and dancing on the curb.
Donny boogied on the side of the street, putting on a show for one and all. He pushed and rolled, turned and dropped, and raised the roof. He bended, twisted and gyrated. He dabbed, did the Whip and of course then did the Nae Nae. His dance moves elicited quite a response. Drivers honked and hollered. They slowed down to watch, even snapped pictures with their phones. A woman catcalled, giggled and sped off.
His inner, long-dormant hamminess was fed and nourished. Donny was resolute. He would entertain drivers with a dance spectacle like they’d never seen before. He did cartwheels and tried to learn how to do flips, with intermittent success. He moonwalked, though maybe not with the most graceful, effortless slide.
Whenever he got tired, he’d just cross his arms over his chest and nod his head theatrically to the beat. Even when he just bounced his head up and down like a beat boy in the background of a music video, cars rolled their windows down to hear what song he was moving to.
For the first time he could remember, Donny was actually excited about his work. He was lost in the moment out there and, when he wasn't, he constantly thought about new routines and ways he could get better. He would go home after a shift and look up hip hop dance crazes on YouTube, practicing all the movements in the mirror so he could expand his repertoire. The man in the suit was thrilled because walk-in traffic was way up. Elaine excitedly told him she heard people talking about him during her shift at the coffee house, that he was a local celebrity and that she was glad to have played her part.
“Just don't forget us little people,” she joked.
People gave Donny positive affirmation, actually yelling encouragement like “bust a move bro.”
Still, the harassment didn’t completely cease. He wasn’t sure what it was about a man standing on the side of the road wearing a Statue of Liberty costume—whether waving a sign, dancing to retro hip hop on an old boombox, or even doing nothing at all—that provoked such fiery anger in people. Some people were just irrepressible cauldrons of rage, looking for anything to vent it on. Some kept hurling epithets and trying to pelt him with garbage. The driver of one vehicle—a big, black SUV—was smart enough or brave enough to slow down first.
“Here, buy some dignity for yourself,” a bald middle-aged man yelled, tossing a handful of cash out. A gust of wind caught the bills, and they blew all over. A bloom of currency billowed everywhere.
In spite of the man's vitriol and hostility, Donny wasn't going to pass this opportunity up. It was free money. He rushed around, scooping up as many bills as he could. He snatched them off the curb, out of the sewer grate. He ventured into the street, chasing after a few stray ones.
A speeding car swerved, and the driver honked. He really laid on the horn, holding it for more than a few beats.
“Watch it loser!” he screamed “Watch where you’re going.”
At the bar after his shift, Donny counted through the cash. It seemed like a huge amount as it whipped around in the wind, but it was all singles. There was only $57 total. It was a decent haul, but the man was taunting him, probably just to sadistically force him to prostate himself, and he was nearly killed trying to grab a buck from the street. That was it, Donny decided as he set down his empty beer with a clink, he’d had enough. He had to do something bigger, pursue something more sustainable and long-term. He needed a better-paying job, an actual career plan. He couldn’t just bounce around from gig to gig, chasing a buck just to keep the rent paid. There was more to life than just bumming around and avoiding eviction.
He had no idea what to do, or what he even wanted to do, but as Donny walked home he spotted the library. He walked by the branch everyday, but suddenly it felt like an epiphany, a revelation, a shining beacon of hope. Donny ran in, found the bulletin board and located what he hoped was there—a career guide from the local community college. He grabbed the pamphlet, which was crammed with a boggling listing of night classes, each the first step down a potential new path.
His heart swelled with hope. After studying it for a minute, Donny folded the pamphlet and stuffed it in his pocket. He did a little dance as he left the library, moonwalking backwards out of the automatic sliding doors. To hell with it all, he would quit tomorrow.