Spring 2023, Volume 34

Nonfiction by Henry Stimpson

Faking It in the War on Poverty

Mom drives me to City Hall to apply for a summer job under a new program for teenagers from low-income families, funded by President Johnson’s war on poverty. I’ll soon turn 16, and Dad isn’t working. “It’s your turn to pitch in,” Mom says. She, after all, left school at 15 during the Depression to work in a zipper factory to help support her big Italian family. I’m indifferent. I don’t need the money.

The City of Warwick, Rhode Island, hires me. I’ll make $1.25 an hour working for the parks and recreation department.


“I’m in charge. You do what I tell you to,” Billy says, looking tough and serious. Billy is just one of the kids, but no one challenges him.

Our real boss is Johnny, a short guy in his 40s who’s probably worked forever as a driver and maintenance man for the city. “Get in,” he says to us, and we pile into the back of his dump truck.

There are six of us. I’m glad to see Loran, a slim, witty kid who’s been with me in a couple of the academically talented classes. The other four go to the other high school in town, which abuts some of the poorer neighborhoods. They’re “mondos”—called greasers everyplace but Rhode Island. Billy is wiry, with a dirty-blond ducktail, white T-shirt, tight jeans and muscles. Tom is solid, with a squarish head and short curly black hair, and wears engineer boots. Al is skinny with a point of blond hair curling over his forehead, and like Billy, wears pointy-toed low mondo boots. Ford, a runt, has grayish-blond stubble that makes him look older.

We sit in the warm, smooth rust-brown steel bed, heading to our first job site. I watch the trees and telephone poles whiz by. The wind swirls. The guys yak. I mostly listen.

At the big ball field near City Hall, the grass is already dying in yellowish patches in late June. We rake up weeds, Dixie cups, soda cans and other bits of trash left by visitors or tossed by people in cars over the low chain-link fence. By 10, the sun is burning.

We break for lunch under a tree. There’s a faint breeze. It’s good to get out of the sun. I eat a baloney-with-mayo sandwich Mom packed. The guys talk a little; we’re all parched and sweaty.

We go back to raking up the ballfield. An old man in chinos walks by. “That’s terrible, sending you out in that field without any water,” he says. “They’d never do that to regular city workers.”

Eventually, we’ve raked up enough to fill the dump truck with dead grass, weeds, branches and junk. Johnny gathers us around. “I’m going to the dump. Billy, you’re in charge till I get back. Don’t let these guys goof off.” Billy tries to look cool, but I can see that he’s swelling with pride.

At 5, we pile into the dump truck and Johnny drives us back to the public works lot where the trucks live. I’m sweaty and dirty; my shirt feels too tight. I spot our two-tone Plymouth Fury’s big tailfins. Dad is waiting for me.


It’s a dim drizzly July morning. After a couple of hours, we go for a coffee break at a diner. Everyone has coffee, but I have tea. “Ooh, look, he’s drinking tea! He must think he’s English!” Al says. Ford dumps coffee into my tea and sticks a donut in it. They all laugh.

While we drink and eat, Johnny holds court in the booth. He says he never gets upset when one of his kids farts at the dinner table. “It’s only natural,” he says. He once parked his truck, with us in the back, in the driveway of his bungalow for a few minutes while he ran inside, so I can visualize the scene.

“I never use a rubber. It’s like taking a bath with your socks on,” Johnny adds, wrinkling his face. The mondos nod: yeah, never do it. I’ve never heard an adult talk about sex before. I’ve never thought about having sex. I’d be thrilled if I could hold hands with Sue Miller and maybe steal a tender kiss.

In the parking lot, I twist Ford’s arm behind his back. It feels like a tough-guy act, but I can’t let the runt get away with it. Pain creases his face; I let him go.


I see regular city workers lazily shoveling asphalt into potholes, taking their sweet time. Nobody else notices this. Why do we have to work so hard? I’ll take my sweet time. I give Billy some lip that he’s not the boss. Unlike him, I’ll be going to college in a couple of years.

We’re raking up an old cemetery dotted with crabapples. “Get him!” Billy says. Suddenly, all the guys are pelting me hard with crabapples and taunting me about being lazy—even Loran, the only one who’s laughing. I can’t believe it. It’s hellish. But they get tired of it after a few minutes.

“Stimpson! Come over here,” Walter, head of the parks department, says the next morning, Startled, I hop from the back of the truck and scoot over. A squat bug-eyed fat guy with ruddy jowls, Walter is Johnny’s boss. We call him the Frog. Billy does a funny imitation of him.

“I hear you don’t want to work,” he croaks.

“I want to work,” I say.

“I don’t wanna hear any more complaints about you. If I do, I’ll fire you. Got it?”

 I nod. “Okay, get back on the truck.”

I’ll have to work harder, and, even more important, make a better show of it.


A new guy joins us. Arlen has black hair and a white face speckled with red acne, a problem we share. He wears dark pants and short-sleeved white dress shirts. He has a small black prayer book or Bible he sometimes reads during breaks.

Arlen doesn’t swear or talk about girls, so the mondos swear and talk about girls and sex as much as possible around him. “What’s wrong with drinking beer and making out?” Billy asks with mock indignation.

“It’s against the Bible,” he says, looking nervous.

Loran grabs a rake and draws the head lovingly across his pants to scratch his privates. “Oh, that feels great...like a jock,” he moans. Arlen blushes and looks away. Everyone laughs at him but me, but I don’t defend him. I’m glad he’s here; he’s their new entertainment.

Eventually, Tom gets fed up with Billy, who’s gotten too bossy. They square off under some trees. “Battle of the fucking giants!” Loran says. I silently root for stolid Tom. They grapple and push, grabbing heads, arms, and shoulders as hard as they can. They kick up a cloud of dirt. Neither can get an advantage; they stay upright. It’s a draw. After the fight, Billy seems a little less cocky.

“I’m getting calluses on my hands from all this raking,” Al complains one day. “Broads like soft hands.” I know the kind of girl he likes—a mondo with lots of dark eye makeup, whitish lipstick and a beehive hairdo.

“I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” blares on a car radio near the ball field at the end of the day. “That song’s about sex!” Loran says. It’s the big hit of the summer, and the song’s pounding beat, throbbing guitar, cynical lyrics and Mick’s raw voice sound like my dissatisfaction.


We’re clearing brush and weeds from a small, little-used playground that slopes under the trees to an untamed, scrubby area. Soon, our hands and forearms are blotched from poison ivy. We complain to Johnny, who alerts Walter.

Walter visits. He gathers us around. “I hear you’re worried about poison ivy,” he says. “There’s no poison ivy here.” He reaches up, grabs a low-hanging oak branch, pulls off a leaf, crumples it and with a big show rubs it on his fat red cheek. “See, I’m not afraid.”

Someone should have led the Frog to the poison patch, grabbed a cluster of ivy and told him to rub that on his cheek.

My forearms bubble with blisters; my skin becomes yellow-brown alligator leather. I call in sick. Mom is furious with the city. She takes me to the doctor, who gives me a cortisone shot that shrinks the blisters and relieves the terrible itching.
A few days later a woman from the city calls. Our group has been transferred to the Sanitation Department for the last few weeks of the summer, she says. Me, an honors student with a phobia about snarling dogs, on a garbage truck? I refuse. My parents can’t picture me as one of those low-IQ guys who empty our trashcans, either.


The antipoverty program sends over a social worker to talk sense into me. He’s a young teacher from my high school, a tall sandy redhead. We stand on the flagstone walkway in front of our little red house that overlooks the vast fields and runways of the state airport.

How come I don’t want to take the job, he asks.  “I don’t want to be a garbage man,” I say, feeling awkward. I don’t tell him about fearing dogs. He’s appalled. He knows that my dad isn’t working. What will my family do for money if I don’t go back to work?  “Do they have a pile of money under the mattress?” he scoffs.

I tell him that my grandfather supports us. I don’t tell him that Grampa recently retired and sold his half of the small textile engraving plant where Dad worked before his multiple nervous breakdowns and stays in the mental hospital where he got shock treatments. These days, Dad goes fishing, shoots his bow-and-arrow in the backyard and watches soap operas. Grampa has enough money to cover our family’s modest expenses without a problem. We’re hardly rich, but we’re not poor. More like fake-poor.

The social worker looks dubious, as if the rich grandfather is a fantasy. I must take the job, he says. I don’t budge. Finally, he shakes his head in disgust, walks away, gets in his car and drives off.


I made $205 at my job. I gave Mom $10 a week for room and board and saved most of the rest at The Old Stone Bank. For the last few weeks of summer, we spend more time at my grandparents’ summer house near the ocean, my favorite place.


Back in school, I run into Loran. “Man, how come you didn’t work on the garbage truck?” he says. “It was a lot easier! If you got done early, they sent you home and you still got paid for a full day.” 

Playing touch football during gym class a few weeks later, I throw a touchdown pass to Loran.


At my 45th high school reunion, I hope to run into Loran and reminisce, but the booklet lists him as deceased. At home, I try Google, but there’s nothing on him. Years later, I search findagrave.com and learn he died at 53 and is buried in Johnston, R.I., near Providence. There’s no obituary.




BIO: Henry Stimpson’s poems, essays, humor, fiction and articles have appeared in Poet Lore, Cream City Review, Lighten Up Online, Rolling Stone, Verdad, California Quarterly, Muddy River Poetry Review, Aethlon, The MacGuffin, The Aurorean, Common Ground Review, Vol1Brooklyn, Poets & Writers, The Boston Globe, Yankee, Bostonia, Boston Phoenix, Embodied Effigies, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Ovunque Siamo. He’s been a public relations consultant and freelance writer for decades. Before that, he was a reference librarian, the librarian of a maximum-security prison, and a cabdriver. He lives in Massachusetts.