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Legwork: Section of a Long Poem About Greenbelt, Maryland

Updated on April 15, 2015

The escalator shaft at the Bethesda Metro station

rose almost bolt upright for a dizzying height like

the one that bore me down to the platform

at Dupont Circle. Both times I relied on

the old saw of staring straight ahead

to prevent slipping off of the solid and tumbling

unanchored through space as in too many dreams.

Above ground, the station crouched in the

overhang of an office building, open only

forward like a baseball dugout. Todd’s directions proved on target:

the station’s bay poured into Old Georgetown Road,

I turned right and walked to the first traffic light,

turned right again and followed Wisconsin Avenue

beside towers of concrete white and smooth as cream

whose plate-glass windows glinted, and arced

leftward up the foot of a hill

on the next crossing street to the address Todd gave.

In the heart of Bethesda

“This is the closest Washington has

to a real city,” Todd had sniped while spinning his car

late that morning around Dupont Circle’s

sleeping nightclubs and restaurants; he found a place to park,

and we trotted by boutiques and designer eyeglass stores.

A block from the Metro, the man Todd would shadow

the rest of the day stood from his sidewalk seat,

a bicycle lying on its side in front of him,

and called Todd’s name. “Alec Armbrister,”

Todd introduced, “this is Robert Levine—

he’ll be hanging out in the office,

getting a feel for the atmosphere.”

“Awesome to meet you Rob!” Alec rasped

as he lifted a palm inviting a high-five

I returned instantly. Strawberry-blond hair abounded

from under his bandana, and his T-shirt of Pollock’s whimsical swirls

and black Spandex breeches clung to taut muscles:

Axl Rose a bohemian jock.

I left them to their urban odyssey, and continued

alone into the subway’s open mouth.

Dupont Circle and Environs

I had pounced on the chance to help

Todd with a story on bicycle couriers

after telling him I needed a summer job,

devoting whole mornings at the dinner table

to distilling a ream of photocopied articles onto

index cards classified in piles: nuts and bolts,

supporting detail, background color, odds and ends

(those squirrely points we want to fit in

but won’t know where until we start writing).

The couriers allured me, my company when

I shut myself inside to work—

hated and maybe envied by drivers

crawling through the clogged streets of Foggy Bottom

or L’Enfant Plaza for weaving among them at

mercurial speed and playing chicken at intersections.

In Reagan’s time, the Justice Department

banished one messenger from its building

for wearing a shirt reading “Meese Is A Pig”;

another recently flew twenty feet in the air

when his bike struck an opening curbside

car door, and hobbled that day out of the hospital

since, a contractor, he worked uninsured.

When Todd said he wanted me to visit

a courier firm’s Bethesda headquarters,

though, I blanched at venturing fifteen miles

from Greenbelt unguided to somewhere

I had never been. “You’re going to have to do this

if you want to be a journalist,” Todd admonished.

I agreed, consigned to unease in thrusting myself

into strange domains as the cost of pride

in molding what I find into printed prose.


“You must be Robert! Come in, have a seat,”

Mark the owner welcomed when I arrived

through the office’s tied-wide entrance

toting notepad and pen. He sat at the near end

of a row of workstations with Dave

his English-accented assistant and two or three others

dispatching deliveries over radios,

to whom he joshed, “Robert’ll make us famous.”

“Hundredman?” Dave probed into the bandwidth,

provoking in a familiar croak, “Ten-four.”

“Hey, Alec.” “How you doin’, Rob buddy?”

“I got a run burning up all over the desk,”

Mark hollered: “Pick up at the National Archives

and beeline it to Bob Woodward”—before

he could rattle off the address

the incredulous messenger interjected,

“Bob Woodward, the author?” “Author,

husband, father, citizen, taxpayer …”

I jotted dialogue like this all afternoon,

asking for translation at times, usually

grasping their vernacular through hearing it repeated.

Late in the day, a friend of Mark’s

stopped in and, nodding to me, wisecracked,

“Who’s this, your son?” “Yes, Dan,”

the owner deadpanned, “this is my son.”

I poker-faced. The friend’s smile froze. “What,

are you bullshitting me?” Mark laughed,

“Well, there’s me and there’s the assistant,

but once in a while it gets so berserk

we need an assistant to the assistant.”

I loved the odd blend of belonging and independence

in learning my way into this world only

to illustrate it to mine; I almost convinced myself,

when the article was finished and Todd

paid me thirty dollars for days of effort,

that what I achieved there recompensed me enough.


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