D.F. Work

July 27, 2017

Pyramid of the Sun

 

My purpose for traveling and touring is to revive my sense of being uncomfortably located in the world and mix it with pleasure and some proximity to risk. Each of us has our own equation to determine distance, novelty and danger. More than merely traveling without an umbrella, it’s an attraction to experience places where I don’t feel at home, or even altogether safe. This spring that’s D.F., Distrito Federal, the capitol city of Mexico. Mexico City, has always seemed monstrous to me. There are over 21.2 million people in approximately the same space my current hometown, Houston, uses to house 2.3 million people. To me they all appear to exist in and out of locked spaces jammed and piled on top of one another. The streets and traffic twist on relentless, broken and crowded, and at the same time it feels ephemeral, like being in someone else’s dream, because it is.
For eight centuries, it has endured invasion, all manner of human sacrifice, colonization, political intrigue, corruption, competing cosmologies, calendars, and assassinations. Originally it was built by the Mexica people on the site where an eagle landed on a nopal cactus with a snake in its beak as Tenochitilan in the 1300s, it has been invaded by Aztecs, destroyed by the Spanish, then rebuilt by the Spanish expending the lives of generations of “drafted” laborers, it was invaded by the US in 1847, and shelled during the Mexican Revolution. At the beginning of the 20th Century the population of Mexico City was merely 500,000. When the 1985 earthquake struck, nearly half of all industrial jobs were in Mexico City. By then D.F. colonias had spread down the valley nearly to Teotihaucan, and the abandoned pyramids the Aztecs found in amazement. The results of the earthquake collapsed the government and sent the largest spike of immigration to the United States, as well as autocratic internal disbursement of part of its population to other Mexican municipalities. Throughout all of this, D.F. has continued to grow and rebuild the dream of itself out of prior dreams of itself. When I ask directions, I know I’m lost walking through at least five worlds at once with only fragmentary maps of any of them.
The first Sunday I wake up in D.F. I look for coffee. My hotel room is juxtaposed between two radically different neighborhoods. Derecho is the Krystal Hotel on the corner of a tree lined section of La Reforma avenue. Surrounding it are flat glass and marble business towers (I think it is the news and media district), guarded apartments with night managers and nearby work out facilities. Esquierda is a littered street with periodic tarp awning tents set up in front of shops selling bundled newspapers to men who will sell them to cars stopped in traffic. Others sell hot etole, and sugary café con leche to accompany yesterday’s pan dulce. There are rows of men in hooded sweatshirts and cheap down vests eating pan and sipping coffee waiting for the next bundle of papers. A man in a ball cap gives me a choice, café con leche or café Americano, one size, no foam. Veinte pesos. I walk on. I skirt past a man sleeping soundly on the sidewalk next to the subway entrance. Half a block over in the middle is the door to Convento San Ignacio. As I cross the street I notice private guards in black suits holding unslung machine guns scanning the street I’m crossing. There are eight of them and they have the sidewalk blocked in front of the door. There are two black GMCs idling at the curb, the chauffeurs are thick men wearing sunglasses. Laughing precedes three women in formal gowns and their escorts in tuxedoes leaving the Convento. I try to determine if they’re leaving last night’s soiree, or heading to a morning reception. I think the evening wear means the former, but the guards aren’t pleased with me contemplating the details. The aggressive focus of their attention moves me along, down the block where I find the panaderia responsible for the day-olds.
I pick up a tray and tongs and go about selecting my breakfast. There are two women behind an empty glass counter stacked with baked goods. The shop is filled with the sound of the women steadily, rapidly wrapping each pastry in waxed paper. Skillfully they flip and twist the four corners bringing enough pressure to keep the twist, but not damage the conchas, horns, oreas, the ojos. Rip. Twist. Flip. Slide. Rip. Twist. Flip. Slide. Its own music. A knuckle of cookie covered in dark chocolate is what I bring to the clerk. “Veinte.” is all she says. Anything is veinte here. It’s still too early for coffee at the hotel. The twenty-four hour store doesn’t open until seven. The derecho side is dark, gated, and guarded. I return to the calle de periodicos, pay for a café con leche, skip over a pile of opened pharmaceutical samples and head into the hotel lobby.
That’s my level of pleasure wandering between worlds and landing on the cheap. Too sweet coffee and stale baked goods. I wouldn’t do this at home. There my breakfast is healthy, green tea, toast, oatmeal, each item specific, and predictable. I don’t even have to put on shoes until I leave for work. On my sidewalk people take their dogs for morning walks carrying plastic bags for doggie doo. Little dogs, rescue dogs, ill-mannered dogs yanking their owners along. In DF dogs leashed or unleashed don’t bother anyone unless they appear to have food. They seem composed, at ease in their territories. If they don’t have a leash, they have fleas. Tienes pulgas, is an invective that seems to apply only to idioms. No one seems to cares; no one seems angry.

It’s not unbar the front door time, but the few spaces usually occupied by waiting cabs are still given over to parked cars. Taxis don’t go down street unless they’re taking a shortcut to the Marriot. “Proximo” is what our pesos got and we hauled equipaje. This morning the clerk recognizes me. We nod Buenas Dias. In traveling I pay for familiarity. There are fees understood. The bellman is carrying a carton of groceries to the kitchen. Someone seems to be carrying, dragging, pushing, wheeling something constantly. If a restaurant is empty, the meseros stand outside talking the customers in. Unknown items wrapped in blue plastic tarp keep moving through the city like a type of mitochondria. Earlier I watched a man force eight of them into a taxi so filled the driver could only see ahead. I doubt they look behind anyway. People carry groceries in small plastic bolsas. Workman carry lunches in knapsacks. Women carry shoes in large purses. Schoolkids carry their worlds in mochillas. Things are sucio. Everyone’s clothes get sucio. The buildings are sucio. The air is sucio. Someone always appears to be washing something.
These are obvious. The extraneous. What I discover in the safety of early dawn, or from taxi windows. I have no idea what goes on inside the four million kitchens surrounding me. That’s my failure to discover, also part of the price I pay at the hotel for breakfast included. A forced morning smile from a person in a starched uniform disguising the labor that has already gone on to produce the coffee I instantly require.

She will produce a puzzled lenguaje to soften my brutish Spanish. It’s the real communication we both use to discuss our common existence. I can’t ask her about her trip to work, like me she has traversed the pre-dawn streets, but I imagine hers to the opposite kind of travel. I have traveled around as an outsider; she has traveled inside a tunnel. It’s the path workers make from our home to work. We develop a private galaxy of landmarks and habits that allow us to be blind, to ignore what surrounds us and what it may mean other than how it effects our travel. That there is a car wreck means little to us other than prurient distraction and how it changes our route. We ride the freeway or subway of assumption all moving things are either in our way or traveling on our path.

On my commute I care no more about that fellow human being in the Toyota going 64mph when we could all be going 70 than I care about the disposition of the conglomeration of asteroids that used to be called the planet Pluto. We all have to go somewhere we don’t want to go. As much as by some hypnotic sense as anything else we go to our jobs. Perhaps we turn off a car radio, or leave in our earbuds for a few moments as we clock in, we regard our last moments of private freedom before we become that other. The sold one, the rented one, the one in a starched blouse, a uniform, a dress code, a hierarchy of fashion that identifies our value as capital. Our common limited language won’t allow me to share with the woman earnestly presenting me huevos La Revolucion that she’s serving me in my escape from serving someone else, or that her task is linked to a series of pictures of this hotel on Expedia that met my budget and aesthetic to forget where I arrive during the working week. Or that we are in similar routines. Regardless of how mangled my pronunciation, or mumbled my suffixes we manage enough commonality to get the task done.
That’s the language most of us speak, most of our conscious hours. A creole of idioms, slang, stylish slogans, business-speak, and lies that allow us to get a pay envelope. It’s a servile style of speech, no one speaks in their home. A language that says nothing of love, or beauty, or suffering, or poetry, or prayer. It’s the sounds we have to make to survive when we are less than human. Every morning for thirty years I’ve tied a tie around my neck and tethered myself to work. I’ve signed public decency clauses, and more recently public disclosure clauses in my contracts. Once I felt secure seeking tenure, hoping I could have that job for the rest of my life, as my father did his, now I work at the pleasure of an administrator, and accept other duties as assigned. The words have changed, but the meaning remains. Wage slave. It’s what I came to Mexico to forget, to have moments of vacancy, a vacation. What I find instead is a panorama of labor.

Simple labor carrying or dragging bundles, unlocking the doors to the 24 hour store, walking into a service entrance, carrying a uniform home from a night shift, peering out a partially opened door with a machine gun and cigarette, whistling to traffic, tasks flowing like blood in an old man, maids pushing a cart of towels and small soaps, men in drab jackets chiseling paving stones, bored waitresses staring at an empty dining room two hours before closing…the ever present curved broom. This is what makes the world, what made the world.

The next morning, my friends and I travel to Teotihuacan. We’ve hired a driver to get us to the pyramides before the tour buses and package groups. He does. As tourists, we’re as immune to the lost language of the architecture, as we are to the hieroglyphs that surround us. We recognize images of divine Jaguares, or perhaps a were-jaguar, north/south orientation, and guess the rest with the pleasure of puzzling a mystery novel. We join the eons of travelers who began up the ceremonial stairs to summit the Pyramid of the Sun. But we climb with growing ignorance of its purpose, of it’s past. The stair steps weren’t made for climbing, but standing. In its day it would have been a living hierarchy of their world. Splendidly blending all of their knowledge of the worlds of life and death into a ceremony of detailed perfection. Their holy days should have kept their civilization in balance forever; but they didn’t. This “Calazada de los Muertos” was rediscovered by the Aztecs, who named it Teotihuican, Valley of Gods. They arrived understanding perhaps more about the symbology or meaning, but must have been, like us, in awe of the labor. The work.

The hauling, digging, stone shaping man hours to raise an edifice that would slowly blot out a mountain as you approached it. Or move 40 million cubic feet of stone over the legendary cave of the origin of life and then reach to hold the flooding sun twice a year. It was the beginning and end of the time, and on some unconscious level we recognize some of this…maybe even more than the bilingual explanatory plaques. But soon we don’t care. What matters is the act of climbing. The knee aching labor of gasping and looking only ahead to the next stair, and the next. Whether we are climbing or descending is meaningless, if we wear sunscreen or feathers, we’re simply in motion, and in that action in communion with the disappeared people who built the world we are traipsing through. We travel irreverently, at different paces, some of us limping, or laughing if we have breath for it, and periodically most of us facing a crisis of exhaustion.

All that matters is the next step. We are immersed in what Kant called “das Ding an sic”, the Thing in itself. We push our muscles and lungs as much as our bodies will allow to climb the dawn painted stairs. We leave one another behind now pointlessly competing to be the first of the day to reach the pinnacle. Our traveling companionship dissipates. I left my wife below. I look for the safety of my friends for an instant, try to breath deep, then climb towards the sun. As Rilke described the Archaic Torso, I turn my gaze downward, breathing the fiery breath of the cosmos into my legs feeling like marble. If the originators of these pyramids, made sacrifices, cut off human heads, or tore out hearts, I don’t care. My task has no morality, only the tunnel vision of labor. When I arrive, I share that single emotion, a momentary glow, private triumph over time and for being part of the rare line of others who preceded me in uncounted yesterdays.
What I find are workmen.
Their morning ascent started an hour before ours. They carried bundles of rebar and tools on their backs. Their tool bags are already open, steel chisels and sinks spread out near them on stones. As the sun rises they are using five pound sledge hammers to drive long rods of rebar into rock. Plain work, steady effort and focused skill. My father was a foundryman, he called his sledge hammer the idiot stick. His hope was that I would be spared using it to earn a living. He wanted me to wear a shirt and tie like the managers and supervisors who divided his labor into dollars and half cents per hour, who measured his lifetime with a time clock. As the sun rises the Avenue of the Dead echoes with the solid sound of a well struck hammer on stone. I may never know why, but I believe I understand how we climb the pyramid one step at a time.

 

What you see

 

Time Enough At Last

Part Two

In the last hour I’ve reached for my glasses five times. They’re not there. I’m feeling nervous as a racehorse that has to wear blinders. Spooked is the equine parlance for that sense of needing to pull back from something in your periphery that isn’t there. My vision seems clearer if I keep moving my focus, chair to cabinet to wall to my arm then hand then around the room again. Sustaining that initial clarity demands a conscious effort, an effort I can maintain about long enough to identify letters on a Snellen chart during an eye exam. But currently without my glasses I’m at a higher state of subconscious alert. Even though I’m in my favorite chair, alone in a sunny morning in a familiar house, I’m vaguely alarmed, called to vigilance by something near-visible. Sometimes you can see a similar expression exaggerated on men who wait by the freeway exit.

In photographs and in general my expression appears solemn or severe. People often think I’m more serious than I feel. What they regard as deep thought is my struggle to keep things clear. Binocularity and depth perception have always provided a questionable quality to my vision life. I’m astigmatic in one eye and myopic in the other. I perceive detail probably better than motion and distance.  That anomaly made it easier for me to draw things than judge fly balls. Drawing is the illusion of deciding where a line should travel, catching is calculating a fixed point. I became better at anticipating than sustaining. Measured in those diopters was the frustration that shaped my early education. It’s in those minute levels of perception that we effect the habituation of our mental processes.

We construct reality because of what we expect to we see, not what we actually see. Our sensorium is wondrously flexible. We can feel terrified by a wasp buzzing on the other side of a window, yet delight to a lion’s roar on the other side of a glass barrier. We make our own sense. We transform the light reflecting off objects into what we expect to see. Consider the last time you were looking for someone in a crowd. You are going to meet a friend on the mezzanine.

You search faces, scanning for the features you identify as theirs. The other faces constantly disappear; their bodies don’t register as immediate motion. Nearly every object quickly goes out of focus except for the object that isn’t there, your friend. That kind of perception requires conscious, trained effort. When people meet in these situations they generally respond in one of two ways, glee (You’re here!) or dismay (Where have you been?). It’s the response we learned as infants waiting for our mothers. We recognize our mothers first by smell, then develop vision to add meaningful detail to the relationship. We teach ourselves to see.

Over time vision becomes our dominant source of information. Homo Sapiens are constantly attending information in front of them (as opposed to horse’s lateral vision). Without a specific task our other senses tend to diminish in the same way the crowd on the mezzanine diminished. They are present, but we disregard the information they present. Learning to accomplish that is a primary lesson of school, to concentrate on visual focus. A child must first be taught to ignore their instinctive impulses to wander and explore, and then taught to sit in close proximity to other children and focus on symbols. It’s the technological miracle and operatic tragedy of our educational system.

Books and economics were the machines that brought us to this perceptual form.  Public Education as a trope was essentially a construct to socialize children into workers as traditional economies gave way to urban industrialization. As Huckleberry Finn reminds us the disciplines demanded of a schoolboy are fundamentally different from those of a school aged boy. In prior centuries children physically followed their parents around and learned how to survive in the world, parents had to be respected not because of any moral dictum, but because they were the fountainhead of knowledge and survival. Life made immediate sense.

If I ask an Econ student at a community college to define the world. She may describe it in a language of terms beginning with capital, Industrialization, mention choices at the margin, express a curve model, game theory, or any of a number of meaningful perceptual tools. For approximately 80% of families in the world, their economic definition of the world is a little under $10, a few days of food, shelter and tentative safety. For most of that world, siblings are day care and the relationship with your daughter-in-law is your long term care insurance. Family traditions were crucial to survival before religion, culture, or politics. Religion follows food; economic culture follows abundance. The more fundamental difference is some are allowed to consider what they’ll eat for dinner, and others if they can have dinner.

Anyone reading this blog functions in a physically removed yet subtly interdependent world. Collectively we can be effected by the stock market in China, an erratic router, the price of a barrel of oil, the last cell phone message of a deranged murderer, or in my case, if I can negotiate a replacement for my glasses between my doctor 1,000 miles away and a stranger following the policies of an invisible bureaucracy. And all of strands of this web are credited to an unseen economy no one can explain, but everyone believes exists. This symbolic world is a world of perceived abundance and physical disengagement.

My father and grandfathers lived their lives in a small industrial city where nearly everyone still labored to produce products. Their work was physically demanding and required skill and experience they delivered through their bodies. At the end of their work days they could look out on a flat car of steel bars, a two ton milled part, or a rack filled with baked goods. They came home worn, and I don’t recall any of them having difficulty falling asleep watching television. Grampa Hetner could fall asleep standing up “like a horse” he said. I loved and admired their lives, but I can’t live that life, except in a romanticized fantasy.

The city we shared disappeared. The children of the steelworkers who used to go to Waterford Park bet on  futures in Texas and Florida. The next generation of family members suddenly saw themselves as visitors. We became economic migrants, nowhere as tragic as the nomadic existence facing millions of our fellow human beings, but genuinely distressing. In the shift of the economy from manufacture to information we fell into the category of unintended consequence. Capital was redirected, labor became superfluous. But my vision of myself never included a life in a steel mill. The world my astigmatism envisioned was going to be filled with formal language and poetic transformations, and include level of predictable quiet. We perceive what we desire.

Now I’m an at will worker for a second chance charter high school. The tools I carry to work are a pen, a magnetized photo ID, and sometimes a jump-drive which I carry in a company branded briefcase with a book or some poems to read after lunch. I read at two computer screens, go to meetings, answer my cell phone, occasionally use the land line intercom, walk through classrooms, compile reports, plan out details for educational programs and once a month participate in an Internet conference.  Any complaints I have are minor or broadly existential. I’m treated well, my work is engaging and useful, and I enjoy the people I share my days with. The reports I conscientiously compile are randomly audited, otherwise seldom read, in three years they’re archived, and then in five destroyed. My year’s records of meeting notes and observations will be shredded, the dividers will be saved, and the notebook will be refilled. At the end of my day I try to make my office space to look as exactly as it did at the beginning of the day.

My tasks get completed, if I have to come in early or stay late, but I still have a time clock. Many days after work I’d like to go out to drink, but I’m too old for that, so I go to the gym or run (where I may be too old as well). There was only one person older than me who set foot on my campus, mostly I work advising smart, younger teachers and students with hanging thin thread stories. The skills I possess and sell are invisible and conceptual. I’m useful because I can manipulate landscape visions of information into complicated action. When I do it right, I believe the world is a better place. My success has been in part because I am like a racehorse in  one other way, I’ve been over-engineered to one task.

I admire racehorses. That I type badly is a tribute to that affection. As a youth I cut Intro to Typing in night school to sneak off to Waterford Park in time to make the Daily Double. After a brief luckless career as a tout, I abandoned the betting windows, but never the rail. Thoroughbreds are aptly named. They’re born to do very little else than eat well and run on a racetrack. The accumulation of their physical characteristics and hard training that make them a race horse, also makes them worthless in nearly any other equine endeavor. Injuries, falls, collisions, the long term effects of being forced to run dangerously close to other horses, and factor in the now common extension of racing careers, long term side effects of drugs and travel, when they’re through at the track, if they’re lucky, they’re pasture ready. Every May before I sign next my year’s contract I run a slow, serious lap around Memorial Park and ask myself how close I am to being pasture ready.

Having my lenses ruined reminded me how I have been delicately constructed by an extended dialectic that includes the genetics of my birth, refracted light, the class values of a disappearing city, the corporate policies of businesses I do my best to avoid, my learned capacity for enduring sitting still, vague skills in making discrete adjustments to a changing real and symbolic landscapes, my ability to remember and manipulate language…and that my body is on its downward trajectory.

It’s not uncommon for me to wake up on the couch wondering what the outcome of whatever I was watching was. Physical tasks are harder, my joints and ligaments are giving way; HIPA prohibits me from listing all of my nagging ailments. The metrics might be less organized than The Daily Racing Form, but my obituary wouldn’t read much differently from that of a midlevel race horse. Game.

Happily, my optometrist friend sent contact lenses through the mail. I found a place on the Internet that will make me a pair of glasses for $65,no questions asked. In the meantime, I bought a pair of pristine readers at Family Dollar that my wife said make me look European. “What you see” sang The Dramatics “is what you get.”

June 9, 2016

 

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The Night Cassius Clay Sent Me to Bed

 

The Old Man was working 12:00 to 8:00 at United Engineering & Foundry. It was a school night. We were living on Glenhaven upstairs in a duplex. My father and I were going to listen to the championship fight on the radio in the kitchen before he got picked up. Fighting was one of the my father’s ways of holding on to the world, like showing up for work for fifteen years without missing a day. His was a creed of a body alone at war with the world. Absorb your beating and take your turn, your brief, brutal chance at being even. We try to teach our children the lessons that cost us the most pain to learn. Slip the jab and throw a short right hook to the body. In the Old Man’s bargain, five or six jabs for a liver shot, or breaking a couple knuckles on a heart punch was a fair deal.

Under a bare bulb in the basement is where the Old Man demonstrated the trigonometry of boxing, the family physics of self-defense. On my better days I was a remedial student. We both recognized when the fight came, I was inevitably going to take a beating, the only question was how bad. In its way he thought of a beating as a representative good…being taught a lesson. Bruises build character. His knuckles were misshapen from fitting steel and his nose was broken. I was a cream puff who talked too much, wandered around the public library, and didn’t understand what work was. The first time I tried to pull my head back to avoid a punch he looked at me as if I had deliberately broken a window. It was not going to be like bestowing a Biblical blessing.

Sonny Liston wasn’t liked, but he was understood. He taped and gloved heavy hands with pure violence. He possessed a prisoner’s patience and moved with the bored gait of a mob enforcer. He was inevitable. Dependable as silence.

Cassius Clay disturbed the simplicity of the boxing dialectic. Punching was the tool and taking a punch was the test. Avoiding a punch was weakness. Cowards were revealed in the ring. He believed in “you can run, but you can’t hide.” I don’t think my father ever actually used the word cowardice, but boasting, slipping punches and winning on points he considered legal cheating. Cassius Clay was merely a constantly annoying jab. He was the loudmouth at the end of the bar you wanted to shut up. He was the company man in a short sleeved white shirt who looked through you and laughed as he did time/motion card studies on your job. He was the three card monte guy.

When you feel the punches start to slide off…  (He demonstrated the difference between hammering and peening on my shoulder.)  …then you set your feet. This was his illustration of recognizing your moment of opportunity. It seemed easy at eleven to dismiss this terrible wisdom as real.

When we turned it on, the radio broadcast could have been prattling about Liston’s two one round KOs of Floyd Patterson, or a commercial.  We both stood in the kitchen listening. No beer, no potato chips. The bell rang, the crowd screamed over the exaggerated tone of Les Keiter. He called Clay’s eyes “big as door knobs”. He criticized him for pulling his head straight back. At the end of the first round the Old Man nodded, vindicated. The rounds proceeded, on the radio it was less clear what was happening, except Liston hadn’t killed Clay. I was giddy. By the sixth round Liston was plodding, lunging, and bleeding; Clay was still circling and jabbing, delivering sharper combinations, and taunting the ringside press. His moment of opportunity had arrived.

Sonny Liston lost the heavyweight championship sitting on a stool; my father sat down in his usual chair in the corner of the kitchen. I wanted to hear more about the fight. Cassius Clay, wild with relief, proclaimed himself “King of the World” over and over, screamed “Greatest” as Howard Cosell asked chuckling questions. I wanted the beautiful chaos to continue, it felt like being allowed into an amusement park. Cassius Clay had jabbed and danced the inevitable world into surrender. Maybe I wouldn’t need to take the beating after all.

“Turn off the radio.”

My father said it as if I had done something wrong, as if I had something to do with the outcome of the fight. He was a good parent and I was a difficult child. He never hit me in anger, or complained about my continual problems at school, or made fun of my eccentricity. He took me places; we did things together. I thought of our six rounds as fun in the kitchen listening to a boxing match; we didn’t know we had been fighting. Father and son we listened to a bout of heavyweight boxing and left as mysteriously injured as Sonny Liston’s shoulder.

In my room I turned on the transistor radio I got for Christmas and listened to it under my pillow. It was jabber. Dad left for work.