By Abby Walsh
Sitting on a bus, watching the sun rise over Manhattan, I got distracted by the graceful, meticulous movements of the steering wheel, and shifted my focus to the bus driver. Dark, lean frame, he only moved as much as he needed, just as there was no excesses in his figure, in his expression, in his words. Every 5 dollar bill he folded perfectly, matching corner to corner, tucked into its one special place on the vast dashboard. He was master of that little tiny universe. People got on and got off, his spine stayed straight, his execution unbroken, he was the same. A rock. A perfect human machine. Practically invisible.
While walking my dog before work last week, a shockingly beautiful toddler stumbled over to interact with her, and the two regarded each other tensely for a second. Her mother watched from nearby, a mother that was so young and pretty it rooted my feet to that place, and when she started to talk, bursting pride of her smart, strong little girl, I felt compelled to witness her strength and clarity of vision for what she had created. From the hood, with her ghetto accent, she explained to me her search for the kind of day care that would feed her little girl’s mind, her efforts to provide as much information about colors and letters and numbers, to give that little girl the building blocks to have a mind as strong as she was pretty. I didn’t ask if there was a boyfriend, or a parent helping her, but I listened, just in case there wasn’t anyone to tell her that she was doing so good. That what she was providing was powerful. That for how lonely being a parent must feel sometimes, her priorities were directed so fiercely and positively for this little girl’s future, all chubby cheeks, exploding curls, long eyelashes, chatting in gibberish to my dog beside me, and up at me with complete, unbroken trust. Because of her serious respect for the task of motherhood, in the face of economic and personal limitations, this little girl was going to be ok.
I was fabricating for a steel shop a few years ago, and we would go on regular runs to drop off our product to get coated with an industrial finish (powder coated). The factory was just over the bridge, almost exclusively manned by latin American women who managed to make it through the day in that non air conditioned and dirty space with full makeup and clean, brightly colored, feminine clothing, while I left black with the steel grease of the products I was handling. I watched all sorts of things roll past us to be coated – dvd player parts, xmas tree stands, household supplies, car parts… and these women would hang these various things up in a carousel shaped assembly line to rotate through a spraying machine, covering the handmade, raw material with a machine made finish, effectively erasing the history underneath each metal piece, masking the subtle differences in construction, the sputter of blown out gas from someone’s welder that caught a draft, the muttering of hurt or anger or fear or frustration from a person who was screamed at by their boss, who wasn’t given the raise they needed to support their family, the fight they just got in with one of their offensive co-workers, of laziness, of learning how to weld for the first time, of burning sweat rolling down into eyes… to the delicate tinkling sound of a real carousel. That sound still haunts me, an actual circus carousel song echoing through that massive, dirty factory, that we assume everything is made by a machine, that we consume blindly without any real awareness of where products come from, and that a human body may have constructed the things you have no respect for. I have been that steelworker that overheard someone write of something that I had fought for respect in a shop to be left alone from harassment to just do my job and valiantly create what he blew off as made by a fucking machine like I didn’t bleed and cry to make that thing.
Waiting for the dryer to complete its cycle, I watched the woman folding clean laundry – in NYC many people drop their clothes off to be washed and folded, because we aren’t usually gifted with washer/dryer set ups inside of our apartments – and I thought about the intimacy associated with folding laundry. There was a mountain of laundry in constant rotation in my house growing up, and it was often the chore I had received, and it has been a task I completed for a lover, once upon a time, with very specific opinions about how their things were washed and folded. My dog would come with me while I laundered, right after we rescued her, and I would carry her shy little body home in the hot laundry, so now, whenever I do laundry, she buries herself in the bag and refuses to move until its gone cold, to relive being rescued/finding safety over and over again. I wondered how many other mother’s children this woman folded clothes for, if she had children, if anyone of those people whose clothes she folded ever looked her in the eyes, or thought of her when they filled their drawers with meticulously folded underwear and pants, or caught the smell of a clean shirt while they were moving through their lives and thought of the person who made it that way. Is she an extension of a machine, or is she an overlooked artist, a protector of our personas? I watch her unfold a shirt and refold it, because it was not up to her standards the first time, and am almost jealous that someone is taking such care of those clothes, those personal belongings that we will drape our bodies and souls in. She is shaped somewhat like the Venus of Willendorf, and I realize suddenly that I had been unaware of the powerful service she provides, that she is no different than a priestess performing a ritual, of household magic, washing away the dirt and history that clung to those things – and none of the people whose clothes she has folded, so perfectly, will even feel they have a reason to look her in the eyes.
Exhausted from a week of doing construction during the day, and painting a set during the nights, I walked into a coffee shop at dawn to feed my broken body. The ladies behind the counter started cooing and gushing at me, asking if I was an artist, because I had paint all over me. I was suddenly filled with rage, that the hard ways in which I use my body, often to make the things that hold us up, whether in schools or at events are nothing in the public eye, compared to the romantic notion that I may have made some vague, un-useful ‘art’, that making something motivated by ego, that may never affect anyone was considered so romantic in people’s eyes… that the hard effort of my body was insignificant compared to things they can’t approach, things that merely sit on a wall… and then she made me a beautiful, well crafted cup of espresso and steamed milk. Art couldn’t smell or taste as beautiful as the cup as I brought it to my lips and tried not to cry in relief, that after a week of making for others, someone made something, just for me. I cannot reconcile this cultural distinction, that we revere the things we don’t need, but ignore the people that craft every particle of our day’s existence, that human labor could mean so little, because we are taught that it is not romantic, but common. I have never had a more intimate relationship with my body and the world around me, and I think it is a huge disservice that more of us aren’t required to do labor as part of our education, that the kids who go to college think they have some say in the economy when they know nothing about those of us creating as well as consuming it. People react with confusion bordering on disdain when they talk about how I’m wasting my talent, like I’m too good for menial work, but why do we glorify the things that inherently mean and affect us the least? Did machines build the roads that connect us? the sidewalks we walk on as we rush through our so-important lives? The buildings we live our lives in?
Just as culturally there is such conflict in priorities and our concept of valuable and desirable in relation to jobs and the work we do, I find myself in a strange place as a woman who falls outside of gender norms and cultural expectation – i’m too strong and too smart, my conversations too intense, my hair too short, my build too thick and solid to be what men learn is valuable in a female partner. The things I am proudest of and consider to be most valuable in myself negate most of the things a man is expected to provide or be proud of in a female counterpart, I don’t naturally inspire tenderness or protectiveness in my coworkers and potential mates. I have come to terms with the fact that I will not experience love in my youth, that frivolous and lighthearted courting, the vigorousness of being wanted passionately are not things that I will have the firm elasticity of flesh to give to. At this point, I’ve witnessed so many embarrassed attempts from men who have no capacity to fathom my needs, that I would rather embrace the parts of self that are strong, and let go of the things that make me feel inadequate, less than, a failure, like all these aborted sexual encounters. I experience such a deep intimacy with coworkers, myself, building structures, trusting each other and our bodies, I would rather know that strength and relish in it, and build things that hold others up, whether they see it or not, and come home to just me and my dog for the rest of my life, than be boxed into culturally misguided notions of what is ‘romantic’, and be forced to give up the things I value the most about myself to fit inside of it. To be proud of what I am rather than ashamed for what I am not.
Abby build things, primarily with steel or metaphor. Find more of her here: http://abbywalsh.blogspot.com/