One recent evening, late, I was quietly tired and on my way home from work. The subway car in which I was riding was about one-third full of equally quiet and tired passengers. We all, however, were unwillingly drawn into the cellphone call of an increasingly agitated woman in her late 20s.
It was a contentious conversation that escalated quickly and perdured through several stops. Newly intrigued, I reluctantly left the train at my stop, with the contest still unresolved and my mind awhirl.
From our half of the conversation, it was clear that Caller was arguing with a peer (friend? relative?) about a male relative in Caller’s family (son? brother? father?). Peer, it was apparent, either had not been treating Son/Brother/Father well or had been at a loss exactly about how to handle him. Caller had measured the situation and her prescriptions were explicit:
Ain’t no need to treat him like sh*t. You hear what I’m sayin? You have to treat him like a human being and not like sh*t. You don’t do that and I’m gonna f*ck you up. You hear me? F*ck you up.
Rules. Everybody’s got rules. Do this this way; do this that way. Don’t do that. If everyone listened to me, the world would be better off. You hear what I’m sayin? Who’s in charge here? We are consumed by the gluttony of micromanagers everywhere.
But what about traffic lights? Velvet-roped queues? Product safety standards. Surely some rules, at least, are needed and necessary? Some provide useful ways to measure and make distinctions. Lauren Shapiro rattles off about twenty in a brisk romp, Rule Book, which begins:
At the age of ten you will be allowed
in the deep end. 52 inches will get you
on Thunder Mountain. You must be thirteen
with perfect vision to ride all-terrain vehicles. …
As in real life, though, not all the rules here are tied to age, but they all offer ways of measuring and thereby distinguishing, separating some of us from others of us. There are rules mentioned in the poem that derive their meaning from physical size or (good) looks, from kinship and association, from cognitive capacity and emotional stability. This poem contains lines that we never want to hear (“Please understand that / we cannot make exceptions.”) and lines that we, perhaps unfortunately, have uttered ourselves.
And yet, there is a briefly tender bit in the middle:
… I sympathize
but just came out of surgery myself.
My kid is also sick. …
I wondered if those two sentences represent an exchange between both parties — a brief and balancing conversation during a one-sided business transaction, a moment of equation rather than division. In some ways, we are the same and hold similar things in common.
The poem begins (“At the age of ten…”) with words that could be spoken from parent to child, and ends with the mechanical assurance we’ve all come to distrust (“… you should receive your results in the mail.”) From care to coolness, warm summer beach to flat pre-recorded soundbite.
Rules. We can’t live with them (it seems sometimes), but we can’t live without them. Are we caught in the middle? Oh yes, but not without ways to move forward. I think there is measured wisdom in this week’s subway rant:
Ain’t no need to treat [anyone] like sh*t. You hear what I’m sayin?
Easy Math was chosen by the poet Marie Howe as the winner of the 2011 Kathryn A. Morton Prize in Poetry and published last month by Sarabande Books. Lauren Shapiro is also the author of Yo-Yo Logic, a chapbook published by New Michigan Press. She is currently Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Trinity College (CT).