What marvelous imagination of irony caused someone to think We can take a stone, cut it in thin pieces, and put it on a roof? I love a slate roof, though I guess they’re becoming more rare. I probably love many things that are becoming rare.
In the last couple of weeks, I’ve spent time monitoring a job in which men removed slate roof tiles. Watching the workers holds a certain amount of interest because (a) it’s disturbing in a terrifying way to imagine what it’s like up there, and (b) occasionally a tile slips loose and comes hurling down three stories like a guillotine blade to land standing up in the mud.
The reason I had this enviable situation is because beneath the tiles is a layer of roofing paper that has asbestos, and I monitor the asbestos removal. From my brief time in the asbestos abatement industry, I conclude that if there is any way to physically put asbestos in a product, it has been done. I’ve seen a number of something like 3,000 different products that contain asbestos. If there is none in Cool Whip, it’s only because asbestos doesn’t contribute to creamy deliciousness. I’m sure there’s asbestos in cheap hot dogs, though.
So I’ve been watching that roof. Even here in Georgia, even with global warming, December is not the month when you want to stand outdoors all day long. Some people of course are accustomed to a rigorous outdoor life—policemen in Boston, Arctic explorers, Siberian hunting guides. But I was a wimpy college professor previously, with, you know, doors and windows and stuff. Inside a building.
Sometimes growing chilled from watching the roof, I would go sit in the truck for a few minutes and run the heater, but even that is a soft luxury compared to the asbestos workers up on the roof. They ain’t getting in no truck to get warm. One morning one of the regular construction workers (not a roof worker), a guy probably in his 60s, who also looked like he had done his share of deconstructing cans of beer, came up to me and said, “It’s too fucking cold to be fooling around out here.” Well, yeah.
One day I felt inspired from staring up at the roof, hoping to God nobody fell off, and I wrote a poem about the guys who stood up there against the sky.
Falling Toward America
In Guatemala it must be warm today.
In Honduras mango trees could be shining in the sun.
In Atlanta, even on this blue sky day,
the wind snarls like a northern dog.
Scraps of black roofing paper—
coated with asbestos—
whip off in the wind
like frantic carcinogenic birds.
In Guatemala chuchitos are cooking.
In Honduras people stroll on the beach.
While in Atlanta, men in white paper suits,
wearing face masks with purple filters,
stand on a steep wooden slope three stories high.
Each man is held by a rope.
In this land of opportunity, the roof must be cleaned of black paper.
In Guatemala the radio is playing Ricardo Arjona.
In Honduras mama is sweeping the house.
And in Atlanta, men who speak Spanish
leave their cheap apartments on Buford Highway.
In darkness they drive into the city.
In darkness, they put on a disposable suit, protective mask, hard hat, and hopeful harness.
As the sun breaks past city towers, they climb to a dormitory roof
at the university
their own children will become students.