New York literary tourists now have a new place to locate and visit following the perceptive exploration of the elaborate world of the Dead End Diner by Rebecca Schumejda in her great page-turner of a poetry book, Waiting At The Dead End Diner (Bottom Dog Press, 2014). The woman narrator explains that this Diner was named possibly because ‘once inside / you reach a point where / movement and progress is impossible’ and you become trapped in a black hole.
Schumejda’s narrator allows the reader wide access to the world and the language of the Diner where chefs, busboys, waiters and waitresses work double and triple shifts to make financial ends meet and serve their counter congregation. The waitresses range from women committed to working all their life at the Diner to College educated newbies that either sink or swim in the fast food industry.
To the Lifer waitress The Dead End Diner, open 24 hours a day, is not the last resort, it is an art form with calculated movements, simple gestures and a huge heart. This 200 page book leaves an overwhelming sense of the Diner as home and a supportive community of multiethnic workers attempting to earn as money as possible from seemingly dead end employment. Schumejda has produced a collection of such narrative force and characterization that she deserves to be compared to Raymond Carver and Lori Jakiela. Like them, Schumejda unravels a complicated world of local and immigrant labour, social stratification, gender, race, love and religious difference, is acutely aware of the importance of small details and, at times, very funny.
While marrying ketchup
with Jolene, she tells me
about her sex life,
including how she loves when
her boyfriend, who works at
the bowling alley, brings home
rental shoes for her to sniff
while he fucks her up the ass.
She pulls a crusty ring of ketchup
from the rim of a bottle,
slides it on her fat pinky finger
and asks, Do you think this is why
they call it marrying ketchup?
Schumejda’s Long Island narrator emerges from waitressing a much stronger woman than when entered, having encountered more than life’s vagaries, friendship and hope, within this tough community, moves to Alaska to leave behind ‘the geography of fate’, and finally returns for a degree of independence, a ‘landscape of regulars’ and ‘the friendly banter between family’.
American working class female labour has rarely been given such social insight as these poems offer. Working lives are laid bare and the minutiae of that work given significance. By the second half of the book the poems concern sequential events and roll out a serial narrative of hourly and daily life at the Diner during an autumnal and early winter season. The narrative flows naturally, gracefully, and creates a wide picture of street hard characters, with little time to question apart from on the nightshift, finding solidarity and connection through adversity. Schumejda handles the serial form with panache, finding and developing memorable lines from conversations, some of which are used to preface each section.
During a lull, while vacuuming the carpets
in this empty diner, I cringe thinking
about what Jolene told me earlier tonight:
I went bowling right after the free clinic
sucked the misfortune from my womb
and actually beat my record with a 210.
This collection is eminently enjoyable, acutely perceptive, and deserves to be widely read.
David Caddy 10th February 2014