Charlotte Street Foundation identifies the needs and fuels the evolution of an ever-changing multidisciplinary arts ecosystem, acting as its primary provocateur. We cultivate the contemporary, the exceptional, and the unexpected in the practice of artists working in and engaging with the Kansas City Art Community

Reminded of Labors Past

Taster’s Choice, my grandmother’s preferred coffee. She used to sew graduation gowns and shrouds at Peterson’s Factory.

Helena could smell the sweat. Around her were male dancers, all wearing safety goggles on top of their overgrown haircuts. Some of them had three-day old beards. One had a pot belly, and a tattoo of a Budweiser sign that peeked out from under a rolled-up blue sleeve.

Back and forth, they sallied down aisles lined with plastic blue bins of various sizes and holding all varieties of bus parts. They made room for each other on rolling carts, two barrel-chested men hoisting an agile mechanic in a Monster Truck T-shirt to the cart where he cartwheeled himself onto the floor with Gene Kelly precision to take a pen, being passed like a baton from a fellow dancer, and sign a clipboard extended by a woman dressed in pleated blue jeans and a Best Grandma in the World sweatshirt.

From her aisle, by the torques and filters and rubber rings, Helena felt how inessential she was. Even in the chorus of counters, all wearing plastic gloves and small surgical masks, coated in dust from the contents of the bright bins, their spoken numbers after a bus part – “torques, 22, cases” – countered each other’s tallies, and all punctuated by an exploding bus exhaust in the adjoining garage. Every item, no matter how drab, was useful and contained a myriad of configurations in Helena’s mind for how it might be used in some other, practical way.

This production would take some losses. One chorus counter skulked back from a restroom break, tucking her cell phone into her back pocket. The producer, a tall, assless man with a graying pony tail coiled into braided pigtails, sort of like Penn Jillette with a clipboard, would cross her name off the list of people asked back for the second day of counting.

Helena rolled her shoulders and looked around. She’d been in the zone, the mental space where she could perform utilitarian, mindless labor and keep herself entertained. Now, she was again conscious of the dust that enveloped her, bedded its way into every thread of her jeans and pullover.

Around her the dancing bus mechanics looked less golden. Where was the pot-bellied inventory manager who had just performed an acrobat on top of the folding table that had been cleared of donuts and coffee urns? Helena looked around for him, but only invited a wall of incurious gazes by men who, just moments ago, had haloes of gauzy light.

Helena sighed. A whistle blew. From the end of her aisle, the assless man proclaimed it. “Ten-minute break, ladies.”


The other day I stopped in at La Esquina to catch the exhibit FULL TIME: A LABORIOUS ART EXHIBITION. Walking by a table laden with donuts and coffee urns, the artists Rena Detriixhe and Eli Gold were at their respective stations. It was almost time for their  2-3 p.m. break and they had already switched from their brick-building – an impressive row of which meets the visitor at the entrance – to pillowmaking. Rena filled the plastic inserts – a grant for actual pillow filling hadn’t been accepted -and Eli was seated at the sewing machine working on the pillow cases.

There was a difficulty with the threader.

Work stoppage. The two answered my questions as Rena assisted Eli in the needle issue. Fortunately, there was no supervisor or sweatshop manager to harangue them while they fixed the machine. No time docked. Though, they are filling out slips of paper for every item completed; a wall of slips records their days’ labors.

I asked if the routine became stultifying. They found a way to focus on the work, sometimes conversing as they worked. they didn’t play music.

The set-up reminded me of all the similar jobs I have had where productivity and routine were the structure of the day. I didn’t ask the two if they entertained any vivid daydreams to pass the eight-hour days. The only way to make the day pass and be able to keep one’s hands moving is to have something playing in your head, something entirely removed from your physical confinement. Maybe it’s not a prison, but in a work environment where breaks to eat or go to the restroom are timed by others and given only at strictly enforced parts of the day, it can feel like a prison.

Why would any sane person not fantasize through such dreariness?

The opening is a segment of a novel I’m writing about a woman who re-imagines her staid workplace as a musical. Anyone who can attend this evening’s sale of their week’s inventory at La Esquina should; there will also be a panel discussion as FULL TIME closes, 6-9 p.m.

About melneet

What we keep at a safe distance from ourselves doesn't make us any more secure. I'm slowly realizing that I've not really lived. Even this morning, I experienced another epiphany that I probably didn't need as I've been feeling gutted by what I didn't - and still don't - know. Being remote, or reserved, keeps people out, and blogging invites them in. From a safer distance, true, but feel free to stand "too close" by sharing your comments.

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This entry was posted on February 20, 2015 by in Uncategorized.

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