The Lord God hath given me the tongue of the learned, That I should know how to speak a word in season to him that is weary. Isaiah 50:4
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The Little Wretches: VIDEOS


(The Little Wretches)
January 7, 2018
Robert Andrew Wagner




For a good ten, fifteen years, this lady I used to work with in the tailor shop, Marie,  rented a little room from a family, what do you call that, a studio apartment? It was right around the corner from the trolley stop. When the family’s kids grew up, they sold the house. So Marie got herself a new apartment a little further down the trolley line, a little closer to town. 


You’d think living closer to town would be a good thing, but no, at morning rush hour, she couldn’t get a seat on the trolley anymore. No seats. You have to stand. Hold onto a pole or a strap, try not to fall over when the trolley stops and starts, people pressed together like sardines. When you get old, that—not being able to sit down on the trolley—that’s no good. 


People are supposed to give up their seats for old people, but then again, old people are supposed to retire. You’re young enough to work? Then you’re young enough to stand on the trolley. This is MY seat. 


People today don’t know, but the retirement age used to be 55. But who can afford to retire anymore?


So standing on the trolley at her age, that was no good. So she took her savings and bought a little house in Duquesne. Tiny little place, far enough out so she can get a seat on the bus. Forty-five minute ride instead of a fifteen minute ride, but at least she can sit down.


She thought she knew Duquesne, a good old hunky town, but this wasn’t the Duquesne she used to know. Instead of blocks and blocks of Hunkies walking down the hill to work, it was all old people and people on assistance. And kids with no supervision. House after house got boarded up because old people would die and nobody would want to waste their money buying it and nobody would want to risk their lives by living there. 


Eventually, there were entire streets inhabited only by transients, and in this case, transient is the polite word for crack head. I’m being polite, how about that? It finally got so bad that Marie’s kids forced her to sell the house and move in with them, but the house never sold. It was on the market for four-thousand dollars. Then two-thousand dollars. Then they just gave it back to the town, and it sat there, empty. And now, it’s an empty lot. 


One time, Marie told me she had to call the police, not because she was being robbed, she called the police because there was a rat in her toilet bowl. She didn’t know what else to do, so she called the police. And when the cops got there, they didn’t even do anything. They said, “Lady, we have real crimes to attend to,” and they left. 


Marie was freaked. So she somehow managed to get the rat to go from the toilet bowl to a trash basket, the kind with a lid that opens and closes when you step on the pedal. And she got a can of hair spray, you know little old ladies always have hairspray on hand, and she emptied that entire bottle of hairspray into the trash basket. So the rat either died of brain damage through the abuse of inhalants or it suffocated because its lungs were lined with lacquer. 


Either way, Marie felt bad for the rat. And then she agonized over how to dispose of the dead body. Luckily, it was on the small size, kind of a baby rat. It creeped her out to think of having a dead rat in her trash can, so she flushed it down the toilet. She said it went down with one flush. Imagine having to use a plunger because your toilet’s been clogged by a rat. 




DUQUESNE (words and music: Robert A. Wagner)


She’s out the door before the dawn.

She walks six blocks for breakfast.

She don’t like to eat alone.

God bless the waitress.

Leave a fifty cent tip.

But the small talk ends with Hello.

Collects her purse, her scarf and her coat.

Joins the crowd at the bus for the morning commute.

It’s a forty-minute ride to the place downtown.

That’s where she worked for twenty years, 

It’s a Wendy’s now.

It used to sell men’s suits, 

A tailor shop downstairs.

The best friends she ever had worked with her down there.

Marella, Maria, Hungarian Mary 

Speaking Portuguese, Greek, Slovak and Italian

I wonder where they are now?  

They weren’t young like me

And I’m seventy-eight.  

They might not even be alive anymore.


Up one block and over two, there’s a church where I like to sit.

I never learned to read English but I open a Bible.  

It’s like holding the hand of a friend.

I could stay at home, sure, but I’d go out of my mind

In all these long years, I’ve never wasted my time

The candles, the statues, the echo of prayers

There’s a service at noon…  And then where?

Say hello to Father Frank and catch the bus home 

Turn on the radio and wait by the phone 

Pictures of grandchildren taped to the wall.  

Is it Tuesday or Wednesday?  

Maybe my Patsy will call.


In Duquesne, you can’t afford to retire

In Duquesne, you work till your time is expired

We came halfway around the world to be here.

For this? For what? Somebody’s bright idea.

We never really believed it would be paved with gold.

I guess there’s no place on earth that it’s good to be old 

Like me.

Just wait.  You’ll see. 

Just wait.  You’ll see.


Up one block and over two, 

there’s what’s left of the five-and-ten store

In its heyday, it used to have a little lunch counter 

That only served breakfast, of course.

It’s a pharmacy now, 

And a nice nice man makes sure that you take the right pills.

And that’s important, you know, 

Sometimes these old people like me forget.


These Americans, let me tell you,

And I’m one of them, you understand,

They live in homes they didn’t build,  

Eating food they didn’t grow,

Traveling roads they didn’t clear, 

Work for bosses they don’t know.

Somebody picks up your garbage, 

Get your water through pipes

And your power through cables 

Like a God-given right

These Americans, let me tell you

And I’m one of them you understand

They want to kill you if you try to tell them 

That this isn’t really God’s plan.



In Duquesne, you can’t afford to retire

In Duquesne,  you work till your time is expired

We came halfway around the world to be here.

For this For what Somebody’s bright idea.

We never really believed it would be paved with gold.

I guess there’s no place on earth that it’s good to be old 

Like me.

Just wait.  You’ll see. 

Just wait.  You’ll see.