W o r k a n d I d e n t i t y : T h e A r t o f C l i f t o n R u gg l e s
These poems were inspired by events and situations which have had a profound influence upon my life. To me poetry is an inner experience which requires a certain understanding of yourself, of the situation and the conditions which give birth to creative expression. My father worked as a porter for many years. After his accidental death, I became interested in learning about the kind of work he did and how it had affected him. So I decided to take employment as a porter for the C.P.R. Soon after I became acquainted with many of the people with whom he had worked as well as some of his closest friends. It was them who shared their deepest and most cherished memories with me. I was deeply touched by the stories of the men who had worked the trains for many years and one day I decided to write about them. These poems are a result of that experience.Greying Hair
Some maybe toothless
Yet strong are their backs
So designed after making a million beds.
Many just waiting to retire
Ageless as they may seem
Yet quick of wit
And well developed personalities
Still do not cover up the scars of age.
Remember the runs to Vancouver
Windsor and Detroit
Remember 20-30 beds per car
The only time you looked up,
Was to see nights early stars.
"Come on Boys!
Time to swing them sections.
Son of a bitch
Not nearly as rough as the old days
We were younger then."
"Them Bitishers sure were cheap
They got good services just the same.
The only time you complained,
is when the tips weren't worth our aching back".
Yes, remember the old days
Things will never be the same
Let us not forget the C.P.R. porters...
Though their service might have gone unnoticed,
By many who travelled the Trains
Their efforts will not have been in vain
People will still
When I first started, all porters where Black...and every white person on the train had the authority to act as your boss. Any passenger could get us fired. The conductors, our immediate bosses were told to 'ride the porters'...make them tow the line, make them submissive. The tourist cars were just like cattle cars...soldier, low-life types...poor people who had no business on the train, got on with all their prejudices. They would insult us...humiliate us, and no matter what insult was hurled at us, the conductors were always reprimanding us...apologizing to them, promising them we would be disciplined accordingly. Consequently, a lot of porters were fired for hitting people in the mouth. But how much can a man take? Anybody...any bum could come up to you and tell you that he's going to get your job just because he didn't like your face. It gave them pleasure to act superior to Black people.
Porter interviewed 1975
Most porters did their work simply because they were afraid of getting fired. Most of these men had families and they wanted their kids to get a good education and they tried to do their work and stay out of trouble. They would have died if someone had taken their jobs away from them for no reason. I was there...I felt these men...you can feel things like that. I've seen men cry like babies and shake. I've had to hold them back from getting at an inspector or a conductor. Every time I think about it I get so full of rage. All the resentment just errupts in me all over again. I've had to control this anger...this hatred for thirty years.
Porter interviewed 1971To be nothing more than a figure head a shadow
Of something concrete...
But the shadow is concrete too
Existing in the background
Its hopes, fears, aspirations
Emotionally swallowed up in the foreground
Opaque but striving to be noticed
By whom for what?
The moon grows smaller
But the shadow grows taller
Reaching for the moon
Slowly the moon disintegrates
The shadow is no more
until the Sun rises
If it rises?
The shadow's plight remains the same
bent and twisted on the walls of shame
A shadow will always be a shadow
From: Visions of Colour, 1989, Montreal, with permission of the author
We were treated like five year olds. we couldn't even talk back. If you did, they'd punish you...they'd put you out in the streets and make your wife come down and beg for your job. This is the reason I never got married. I never wanted my children to be ashamed of me. The porters that survived the best were the Uncle Toms...but I've seen these so called Uncle-Toms ashamed of the things they had to do...knowing that their children were ashamed of them. When they'd get home they'd break mirrors and break windows. The company never know about this, or cared about it for that matter.
The story of my life is that I have closed this job out of my life. I go through the motions of doing my work to keep these people off my back. If have no respect for this job. As a matter of fact. I do not allow my friends to refer to this "nigger" job when I'm off it.
Porter interviewed 1976Sleeping Car Duties
beds, towels, soap, cups
Transferral of passengers from cars
put luggage in vestibule
Then transfer at Winnepeg
Make sure passengersget off at stops
getting luggage ready before hand
Kenora walf up at least three cars
if on second to last car
Reread curtain makeup
In sections leave 2 pillows out and covers
In roomettes clean toilets, ashtrays
Mop floor at eight a.m.
Keep washrooms clean...
Porters used to have to shine shoes. One inspector used to actually smell them to see if they were freshly shined. I remember one porter got some really smelly cheese and put it in a shoe..this inspector took a whiff...I think that cured him...for a while. Another disgusting thing were the cuspidors or spitoons in the smoke room. These were cups in which people would spit. There was nothing more degrading than emptying these things out. Can anything be more disgusting than cleaning out somebody's spit?
Porter interviewed 1976
Ode to C.P.R.
Low distant thunder
Streaking across forest covered hills
With the naturalness of a centipede.
Oblivious to its progression
Are the suns early rays
and as colourless as Montreal citizens
When time comes to lend a helping hand.
Ambling like a duck
But more graceful in its steady movement
Than soldiers on parade.
Its glamour now forgotten
Lost in a brilliant past
Fond memories of men who served it
During its building days
Many years of faithful service
Not like the good old days.
Cars old and rickety
With lack of care and old age
Becoming obsolete in man's new technological stage
"Cars 159-160 can I help you with your
"This trip may be our last".
In the old days the porters were hired if they were "good boys". Yes Sir Mr. Charlie. It was just a mask that they wore. That has all changed, as far as the younger porters are concerned. The older one still do it. It becomes habit forming after a while, they've been doing it a long time. You don't teach an old dog new tricks, anything that the management says, they'd accept. They're not willing to fight for their right. There's no fire in them anymore. There's no zest. The younger porters have more spunk. They won't take as much. They won't hop when an inspector gets on the train. You should see the old timers kill themselves when an inspector gets on the train. They overwork themselves. We don't care. We're a new generation, we don't say "yes Sir Mr. Charlie, No Sir Mr. Charlie". That's dead, and we want it to die, but the old guys are letting it live.
Porter interviewed 1974
CLIFTON RUGGLES (B.Ed., McGill University, Certificate Special Education, McGill University, M.A. candidate, Art Education, Concordia University) has been teaching for 11 years for the Protestant School Board of Greater Montreal. Along with Olivia, he has co-authored "Expressions of Montreal's Youth," "Exploring the World of Work," and "Words on Work." Clifton teaches art and math at Options High School and is himself an exhibited artist and photographer. Clifton is also the co-editor of The Sentinel, a magazine published by the Provincial Association of Protestant Teachers.
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