Middle Years

(I would like to say, quickly, that this is a poem I started at a little cafe in Kenosha called “Common Grounds.” It had a great location on Lake Michigan, and was perfect to sit and write. It recently closed and has quickly changed hands. This poem was prompted by what I saw there on a fairly regular basis. From then to now, this piece has gone through many drafts but the spirit remains the same.)

by Joe Engel

I drink decaf

at a diner dizzy

with the young,

some who’s

pimples set a precedent

for their thoughts, 

explorers starving and humbled

in a passage 

of volcanic peaks

and some so old

that “soup” is target


From the axis

of this carousel, I watch

the youth ride their horses 

up and down

as the seniors ride

the outer benches, smiling.

If there’s a God, he’s a draft

that blows on 

every cup here, 

and takes no action

to save the young

from what they choose-

DUI’s on a county road,

pines blurring past,

or undergrad expulsion.

The elders know

too much to say

life is easy

but sweet onions 

navy beans, 

and garlic

bring levity to twilight

and a weight to what

gets lived, 

the understanding 

that there are one or two

who wander in touched

like white flags in wind,

gazing down

as berated children would.

“Don’t become them”

they would say  

and I might say “take the risk.”

But sunshine is strengthened

by the spirit here

and since I am somewhere 

it cuts time like lines

of crushed Adderall,

shines clear focus 

through a room

where it feels safe

to leave my laptop at the table;

a room 

white with eyes

like stars come down.

So I would like to ask them

about their schedule

for sleep 

if their moments

of waking always 

trump their dreams

like warm air 

on a beach, where

they bury their toes and nod 

to the open water

where they weathered

the surging cold

and notice the young run 

to the water

like it is the dream,


before a shift

of clearing tables.

They sprint from towels 

that hold their forms

in sand

and I stand

in a prairie

of parking lot weeds.

A barista’s laugh

brings me back 

to my table

in time to find

a tip hidden

in my wallet’s throat

beside small pictures

and cards I keep

like tokens 

to a fair 

submerged beneath 

the wave’s white foam.

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