- On a Personal Level, 1981
In 1926, shaken by a gang of white men in the Ku Klux Klan, Louis's family moved to Detroit, Michigan, forming part of the post-World War I great migration. Joe's brother worked for Ford Motor Company (where Joe would himself work for a time at the River Rouge Plant), and the family settled into a home . . . in Detroit's Black Bottom neighborhood.—Faces of Black History
A memorial to Louis was dedicated in Detroit on October 16, 1986. The sculpture . . . is a 24-foot-long arm with a fisted hand suspended by a 24-foot-high pyramidal framework. It represents the power of his punch both inside and outside the ring.—Wikipedia
I tossed massive truck axles from rotating hooksonto pallets at the end of the assembly linein the Ford Sterling Axle Plant, seven milesdown Mound Road from the Motor City borderat Eight Mile Road. Huh (lift) / Ugh (toss)alternating with another guy to allowa few seconds of human recovery time.At the end of my first shifts, my armstingled and ached with numb stringsof sweat as I wobbled towardthe time clock. What I want to say isI lived in a little house, grungy greensiding with aluminum awnings [End Page 29] that'd never be white again due tothe nature of the air from factories like mine.Why bother scrubbing? What I want to say isI have been broke with nowhere to goand tossing those axles built me musclesfrom nothing except expired prayersand the smoky acrid breath of mornings afterexceptionally good whiskey I could not afford.What I want to say is the guy I alternated withwas a tall black kid named Chris from the otherside of Eight Mile Road who never played basketballas well as his two scheming uncles imagined, or justdidn't study school like he needed to— he alternated versionsof that story like pushing buttons on a jukebox, generouswith his pocketful of unchanging change. Both versionswere true, of course. What I want to say iswhen I first started, he sometimes took two axlesin a row to give me more time to recover. I am alwaysin recovery, they tell me. Back then, my life was in the ICUand a pallet looked as good to me as a bedand a place to stack axles six rows high, alternatingdirections, to be carried off by a hi-lo driverwho would die from smoking and the disproportional sizeof his belly and the bottom-shelf fortified wine he turnedinto water every break on afternoons, the alki shift, 3–11.Not good for me, but Chris warned me regularonce he knew—straight home, brother—kept me in lineon the line. He was also a minority in that he toodid not drink. Once I caught up, he taught meto slow down. What I want to say iswe were not friends. Eight Mile Road hitwith the rough authority of burned-out housesand a Joe Louis punch. Joe. A Las Vegas greeter then,who died in 1981 in Paradise, Nevada,not Paradise, Michigan. [End Page 30]
JIM DANIELS's recent poetry books include Rowing Inland and Street Calligraphy (2017) and The Middle Ages (2018). In 2017, he also edited Challenges to the Dream: The Best of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Writing Awards. His next collection of short fiction, The Perp Walk, is forthcoming (2019). He is the Thomas S. Baker University Professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University.