By Jody Diperna
Pittsburgh Current Lit Writer
Anybody who has ever waited tables or worked in a busy restaurant kitchen knows how bone-wearying that work can be. But there is a pull to it, too. And it’s not just pay. Something about working in public spaces and feeding people sates a need for community and connection, as well as pay; the network that sustains friendships and families is a business that is both demanding and invigorating.
These immersive experiences are the focus of many of the poems in Fred Shaw’s collection, ‘Scraping Away,’ just released by CavanKerry Press.
“My goal is to write in a specific way, to be open and vulnerable, with the idea that other people can make some sense of that world. And it won’t seem too far away from their own experiences — they can relate to it,” Shaw told the Current via telephone.
Shaw has worked in restaurants his entire adult life, giving this appropriately titled collection a lived-in, intimate feel. His poems open up whole little worlds to us: these are places with their own language and life and rituals. We get to listen in on conversations and catch fleeting glimpses of a unique ecosystem.
“I’m not the first person to write about working in a restaurant,” Shaw said. “Heck, Jan Beatty has done it really well. But it seemed like my voice fit and I think all the stories that restaurant workers tell made it come alive. I didn’t want to specifically get political, but I thought it was important for people to understand who is making their food.”
There is power in writing about the everyday with precision, and Shaw’s poems do just that. They are contemplative and decidedly modern, full of the beauty of his own particular familiar — a blistering wok tended by an undocumented immigrant, tattooed line cooks talking shit, long-gone generations of women elbow deep in flower to roll out kluski at a kitchen table, and a Mr. Yuk sticker clinging to some old metal shelves in the corner.
The collection is about more than work. It is often about grief and loss and music; and about our less than perfect relationships with our less than perfect parents. And yet work, not just paid work, but the work that makes a life, is always close by. The work is the raw material and the poems point to the kitchen sink, the bookcase, the lost screwdriver, the symphony playing on the old radio, and the unsaid sentiments. This is who we are.
In ‘Easy to Use as Modeling Clay’, Shaw writes, “of Grandpa’s workbench / into a cardboard box — mismatched // nuts and screw by the pound, a stray / doorknob from a Pittsburgh house, …”
You can smell the basement workroom, the mixture of dust and hinge oil, old iron and wood shavings, turpentine and wood polish. You know the feel of the pipefitter’s hands which collected and used these little bits that hold a house, and a story, together.
“These little moments, these places are really important. Writing can take place anywhere,” he said.
It’s hard not to draw lines from Shaw’s work to our present day reality. Though he now teaches as an adjunct at both Carlow and Point Park, he also keeps his hands in the restaurant life, working some holiday and weekend shifts at Revival on Lincoln in Bellevue. That work is on hold because of COVID.
“Out of all of this, maybe we’re starting to re-think what is essential work,” Shaw said. “Maybe some good can come out of this. Maybe this gives us a little time to step back and appreciate those people who oftentimes go unappreciated.”