Be it enacted by the Legislature of Alabama, That any person wandering or strolling about in idleness, who is able to work, and has no property to support him; or any person leading an idle, immoral, profligate life, having no property to support him, and who is able to work and does not work; or any person able to work, having no property to support him, and who has no visible or known means of a fair, honest, and reputable livelihood: (the term ‘visible and known means of a fair, honest, and reputable livelihood’ above used shall be construed to mean reasonable, continuous employment, at some lawful occupation, for reason able compensation, or a fixed and regular income from property or other investment, which income is sufficient for the support and maintenance of such vagrant); or any person having a fixed abode, who has no property to support him, and who lives by stealing, trading or bartering stolen property; or any person who is a common drunkard, or a professional gambler, living in idleness; or any able bodied person who is found begging for a living, or who quits his house and leaves his wife and children without means of substance; or any person who is able to work, and who does not work but hires out his minor children and lives upon their wages; or any person over sixteen and under twenty-one years of age, able to work and who does not work, and has no property to support him and has not some known or visible means of a fair, honest, and reputable livelihood, and whose parents are unable to support him, and who is not in attendance upon some educational institute; or any person who is a prostitute or a keeper of a house of prostitution and who has no honest employment whereby to maintain herself, is hereby declared to be a vagrant and must on conviction be fined not more than five hundred ($500.00) dollars and may also be imprisoned in the county jail or sentenced to hard labor for the county for not more than six months. Provided, that it shall be a sufficient defense to the charge of vagrancy under any of the provisions of this act that the defendant has made bona fide efforts to obtain employment at reasonable prices for his labor, and has failed to obtain the same. The provisions of this act shall not apply to persons who are idle under strike orders or lockouts.1
I always keep my new work ID above my state
ID in my wallet because my family has been work
in this state longer than we’ve been citizens
in this state. My body was work, was wealth; what is
my body doing if it isn’t breaking
earth or breaking itself for the state? What is my body doing outside
of a school or inside
of a parked car or passing
time in a park? If my body is not on
the clock, then my body is idle,
and idle hands are the devil,
and the devil must be chained
and sentenced to a lake of fire.
And the fire can be United
Steel. The fire can be Red
Mountain ore. The fire can be a River
Falls lumber camp. The fire can be a Belle
Ellen slope. But the fire always comes
after the chain. Black bodies can’t be free
in Alabama because black bodies
were never free in Alabama. Somebody has to pay
for me, and my new work ID says I can pay. And I’m happy to
say that I can pay for my mother
when she orders pizza on Thanksgiving eve.
The new job lets me pay. I interviewed for the job
on a Thursday, the fourth day of the work week.
Four is my lucky number.
I was born on the fourth
of the month, and I’m the fourth kid when god
knows my parents didn’t need a fourth kid. But
I interviewed for the new job on a Thursday
because Thursday was always my mother’s
day off, the day she didn’t belong to J.C. Penney.
She was with me, and we had outings,
and I didn’t have to wake up early to work the coal
out of my eye and get ready to go
to grandma’s house. I was free
to sit in the front seat of the Chevy Celebrity
and ask my mom dumb kid questions
like if she ever dreamed
of being anything when she grew up.
And, really, this new job, this new ID, and this
poem won’t stop one siren
or sentencing guideline. It’s all about me
buying my independence back from an Alabama
that swore I could afford to live
a free life if I was willing to
sweat enough. It’s all about me still trying
to pay off the debt I took on
to buy into that lie.
1 Text taken from 1903 Alabama Vagrancy Law
Jason McCall holds an MFA from the University of Miami. His collections include Two-Face God; Dear Hero, (winner of the 2012 Marsh Hawk Press Poetry Prize); Silver; I Can Explain; and Mother, Less Child (co-winner of the 2013 Paper Nautilus Vella Chapbook Prize). He and P.J. Williams are the editors of It Was Written: Poetry Inspired by Hip-Hop. He is an Alabama native, and he currently teaches at the University of North Alabama.