Labor

This essay appears in our second print issue, Anti-Sisyphus.
by Maximillian Alvarez
Illustrations by Corey Brickley

“Someday, perhaps, it will be a joy to remember even these things.”

Virgil, The Aeneid

I. Who Are You Working For?

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I’d been handed a tremendous amount of power in that moment. An unbearably singular moment. The VP of the company was from Boston. He was bald and had a sweaty hot-dog accent that sounded like someone doing a shitty impression of a Bostonian. His baseball cap had a “B” on it. He loved playing up his Bostonness because it made him seem less like a suit and more like us, the workers. There was something brashly disarming about it. Folksy, even. But there sure as hell wasn’t anything folksy about the way he looked at me now.

“What?”
“You heard me.”
“I … What?”
“Who are you working for?” he demanded.
“I’m, uh, working for you. For [company name redacted].”
“No, you’re not.”
“Well, yeah, technically I work for the temp agency.”
“That’s not what I mean, damnit.” He seemed to be playing both roles: the “no-time-for-your-bullshit-sonny” interrogator and the “oh-god-how-much-do-they-know?” interrogatee.
“I … I don’t get the question.”
“Listen. I’m not stupid. And I know you’re naht either.” (People from Boston say “not” funny).“I got your info from the temp agency. You have a B.A. from one of the best universities in the world and a Master’s slapped on top of that.”

I finally flinched. Squirmed, rather.
“Yes.”
“So why the hell are you working twelve-hour days as a temp in this … place?” I think he wanted to say, “this shithole,” but he stopped himself. “Unless you’re working for someone and reporting back to them. Spying on us, or something.”
“That’s pretty … elaborate.” I wanted to say “paranoid.”
“So, who is it?”
“I swear I’m not ‘working’ for anyone.”
“Then … why are you here?”
“Well, I mean, we’re in a recession. This was all I could find.”
“But you have two degrees.” This was true. I had two degrees from two top universities.
“My degrees are in Russian literature.” He blinked.
“Russian … literature?”
“Da.”

 

II. Bleak House

A few years have gone by since then. Since the long days starting at 5:00 a.m. Since working as a temp at a company that filled roughly 85% of its workforce with temps. I’d say about 90% of us were ex-cons. 100% of us were poor and desperate. No one working there had any better options.

The recession had hit Southern California hard. We were floundering. I had come home riding high from the insular experience of working on my Master’s, thousands of miles from here. The bookish world where I did my intellectual labor was just as far away as the worlds described by the 19th-century Russian authors I studied. Authors like Nikolai Gogol, whom I still love exhaustingly. They were all gone now. All that was left was the one world, the “real world.” It had been waiting for me, picking its teeth.

I applied to just about every job I could find. Nothing. Months started piling up. Eventually I started scrubbing details from my applications. The Master’s was the first thing to go. Then the B.A. When food was on the line, I ultimately found myself standing in a strip mall parking lot at three in the morning, waiting for the temp agency to open. I latched onto a small, quiet group of middle-aged compas, huddled in the dull light, pasting the dark above our heads with white, choppy breaths.

A menthol cigarette was stapled to my lip. In one hand, gas station coffee; in the other, Bleak House by Dickens. I could pretend there was something significant or even romantic in bringing the book with me. I could try to recuperate that memory into a larger story of my literary development. It would probably make the cut in the movie version.

I’m a graduate student now. For so many years I wanted desperately to be a literature professor. All the pieces are there to put together, a nice cliché. There’s plenty of room for me to inject more meaning into this memory than there actually was. Truth is, I needed the book for other reasons. I needed to read it to stay awake—in that sense it was no different from the shitty coffee in my other hand. I needed to read it to chill my nerves, to keep from meditating too long on how sulfurously depressed I was—in that sense it was no different from the cigarettes. It labored quietly for me, in a lifesaving way. I couldn’t bear to have it “mean” anything more than that.

The first job I was assigned to was hell on earth. I don’t think I’ll ever be “ready” to talk about it. Partly because I can’t communicate in words how haunting the smell was. Partly because I just kind of shut down and the memory of the experience is … crackly, like a bad VHS. In self-defense, my olfactory nerve committed suicide to deaden the blow of the stench. The rest of my body and brain followed suit, leaving just enough juice to keep the engine running. Every day, just enough. The other guys on the line and I got through each shift, went home, and forgot about it. That was it. We couldn’t bear to ask if our work “meant” anything to us. We didn’t want it to. We were just there, just doing a job that needed doing, laboring quietly in the rancid gut of modernity.

Here’s all I’ll say about it: our job was to stand amidst the steam and froth in full Hazmat gear, like humdrum astronauts, sorting and cleaning the soiled laundry of L.A. and Orange County hospitals. The conveyor belt in front of us never stopped, not once. It rumbled monotonously, shepherding endless piles of sheets and towels and smocks and blankets, all stained, dripping, bubbling with the insides of our fellow human beings. Blood, shit … tears, dying words … piss, bile … the effluence of broken bodies, the residual pudding new life leaves behind—it all ended up here. I once found a syringe in one of the piles.

Besides the smell, there’s only one thing that stands out. One image I can still make out through the thick steam that’s taken over that part of my memory. A Black man, fifty-something. He’d worked there for years. I never actually saw his face, just his eyes—we all wore masks. The smell, he said, didn’t bother him none. There was a superhuman tenderness and care in the labor he did to sift through an entire civilization’s worth of human-stained laundry, without being bothered by any of it. To make it all clean again. He was Atlas, holding the world up.

 

III. Remember Like You Mean It

At some point the temp agency reassigned me to warehouse duty at [redacted]. This company supplied most of the pillows, sheets, shower curtains, and whatnot to big-box stores like Sears and Wal-Mart. It sounds softer than it was. Trust me. The finished products that sit in McMansions like tacky soul rot are fluffy and comfortable, but pallets full of the raw materials that go into them are brutally heavy and unforgiving. (I pinched a nerve in my shoulder trying to haul a full pallet of feather pillows up a steep ramp). This kind of deadening work makes consumer comforts possible. Even now I can walk around a Bed, Bath & Beyond and spot a pillow that was stuffed, stitched, and packed by the sweaty, sad people back there, in the underworld.

There’s a reason companies like this turned towards hiring more temps after the Recession hit. It’s as transparent as it is disgusting: they knew how desperate people were. Desperate enough to take more shit. Desperate enough to bust our asses for 12, 13, 14 hours with barely any breaks, no recourse to basic benefits, rights, collective bargaining. Desperate enough to train ourselves to fear and hate the masses of fellow workers who, as managers constantly reminded us, were waiting to take our place if we made any fuckups, no matter how small. We were forced to cannibalize those with whom we should have had solidarity.

The labor in that place wasn’t great, but it wasn’t as bad as the laundry. We worked at breakneck speeds in a 100-degree hotbox, but it could almost be enjoyable sometimes. Your mind and body could sync up in a state of flow and, before you knew it, you were covered in sweat, smiling, and realizing that you and your crew had just stacked and wrapped ten pallets in a row.

It was everything else that tore you apart. It was the fearful indignity of having dozens of temps line up at the end of each day so that managers could walk down the line and point at those of us they wanted to come back the next morning. Everyone else would have to go home, back to worrying about how to feed their families.

This was the place where, after a few months, the Bostonian VP grew suspicious of me. I was a hard worker, I kept my head down. Most of all, I didn’t say shit about my education. What would be the point? But when I was given my own group of guys to lead—we were all still getting paid the minimum, obviously, but I was supposed to be intangibly proud of having more responsibilities—I started arranging tasks and order sheets in ways that deviated from how we normally did things, because the system management used was stupid and inefficient. That caught the VP’s attention. That’s when he called me into his office.

I’ve often found myself trying to find meaning in the experience. To reconcile everything that happened then with everything that’s happened since. Reconcile: re– (“again”) + conciliare (“bring together, unite in feelings”). To bring back and put together discordant, seemingly unconnected things, make them consistent; to order chaotic particles in such a way as to give them shape and purpose; to never let a shitty memory go to waste; to believe that “everything happens for a reason.” There’s comfort in looking back and, at the very least, ascribing significance to the little trials along the way that have “made you who you are.” Even if you don’t like who you are.

A big part of me wants to believe that what I went through then, the labor I performed, played a role in what I do now. There’s comfort, I guess, in corralling this stuff, as much as you can, and holding onto it as a marker of selfhood (“the man I am today,” or whatever). But most of it dissolves into meaninglessness, with no indication of the role it once served. Like all of us, it labors and is forgotten.

IV. Labored Reading

The same is true of reading. So much of what we’re taught about literature focuses exclusively on what it means, or is supposed to mean. There’s a kind of alchemy to it. By way of Old English, mænan is “to signify, to intend.” So, the premise here is pretty simple: for something to mean, in this sense, requires a combination of signification and intent.

Signification: sign, signing, the act of making something a representative marker for something else. The word “hand” stands in as a sign for the five-fingered thing at the end of my arm; clenching a fist while poking out my index and middle finger is a sign for a general state of non-violence. Peace. Intent: purpose, plan, design. To intend is to invest in a desired outcome, to have something deliberate in mind as you move through and build in time and space.

So, what are we implying—what is our intent—when we wonder what a work of literature “means”? We’re taking as a given that it means something at all. Like a single word, or a traffic signal, or a hand gesture, we presume the thing itself is pointing us toward something else (“tree,” “STOP,” “fuck off”). A message within a message. A metaphor. (From Latin, metaphora, “carrying over”).

We operate on the pretense that what’s presented up front in words, characters, plot, and tone is serving as a kind of vessel, and that that vessel is pregnant with some larger “lesson” or “truth.” Like a soul exceeding the bounds of textual flesh. A hidden meaning, the relevance of which extends beyond the particular circumstances of, say, one man murdering one miserly moneylender in St. Petersburg, or one Prince of Denmark going nuts and stabbing people with a poisoned blade.

We read (and write), then, to reconcile. We pull together the unfolding, sputtering, spewing bits of thoughts, actions, characteristics, and speech retroactively. When we’ve seen how things begin and end, when we know what happens, we can, in sober hindsight, see the totality: how disparate things relate to each other in some kind of harmony. We can literally make sense: build it up, construct out of raw materials a familiarly shaped and meaningful thing. There’s comfort, it seems, in the wholeness that this kind of reconciled reading gives, in finding signs and intent and purpose in the stuff in front of us, inside us.

But literature labors too. It toils. It works relentlessly, even absent the intent to signify, all the while working upon us. It punches the clock, sweats, lifts, and performs meaning. It goes home, like my copy of Bleak House did, back to a slum of a living room, nestled between other hard workers on the shelves, ready to hit the sack until it’s time to clock in again. Until the sickly dawn of a new workday.

To just be, and be done: this, too, is the answer in the eyes of temp workers in the tenth hour, who don’t particularly understand or care what you’re getting at when you ask, stupidly, if they find any “meaning” in their work.

V. The Work (of) Disappearing

So much escapes, blows away like dust. Think of a book that really, truly means something to you. It’s probably difficult to remember more than one or two representative passages that demonstrate what you like about the “style.” (Unless you have, like, eidetic memory or something. Then you’re excused). You’re not “supposed” to be able to remember every action and detail. That’s not how it works.

The labor of reading disappears, leaving something polished in its place. The hours, days, months spent on the crunching work of reading produce the staying image of a book completed. A memory of reading, which is decidedly not the same thing as the reading itself. The uncomfortable hours I spend shifting my legs, getting up, coming back, feeling the pages, staring into the distance, internalizing the text, failing, trying to keep a tenuous grasp on the sentence I already read three times, thinking, experiencing the growing pains of having one’s world expanded—this is boiled down to a sanitized memory of sitting comfortably with a book, a snapshot of permanent and unreal peacefulness.

Toiling over the text results in punchy, representative mementos. It is and isn’t the thing I remember it to be. As with a fossil pulled from the ground, millions of years of sedimentary dust brushed away, there remains, after such a time, little to nothing of the original organism. It’s all ossified mineral deposits. The labor of living and dying and decaying leaves only an impression. Then it too will be reconciled into the larger story of an Earth whose history is constantly rearranged and redrawn, defined and informed by the things we pull from the ground and how we can relate them to each other.

To reconcile is to simplify, to work with the aggregate. To move stuff around until a meaningful shape starts to appear, and then taking that shape as the whole. What doesn’t “fit” blows away, or fades, the better to put into relief the thing in the foreground. It works as a kind of means to an end. An end that, in turn, erases the sweaty reality of the means. (The ghost of Marx is everywhere).

The things that stay with you when you put the book back on your shelf are reconciled shapes that have floated to the surface. Impressions made. Mineral deposits filling in the space that the labor of reading cleared away, leaving something calcified that you can carry with you. Something to hang on your wall, something to decorate your interior with. Like a delicately embroidered tapestry stitched together and shipped from some faraway place.

Our brains can only handle so much, after all. We have to economize. Whether it’s a text, or a walk through an airport, or a four-year relationship, or those childhood summers that seemed dry and positively endless: the things that rise to the surface in recognizable form are deposited there only after the judicious work of forgetting. Airbrushing out what isn’t “necessary.” In many ways we wash out what made the “necessary” possible in the first place. We don’t always get to choose what stays, but once it’s there, we work to pull it all together, to reconcile it. Then those things are reconciled into the larger shape of a life. If you’re lucky, some part of that life will be reconciled into the larger shape of history. Whatever remains fills in a story that is legible only at the end, when you can finally perceive, with hindsight, how the disparate threads were stitched into a harmonious pattern. It is musical, melodic—a sequence of notes that exists only as the sum of its parts. Broken apart, it stops being itself, stops being meaningful.

Characters and actions (fictional or real) in isolation do not resonate. But once they are plucked out and arranged into a plot, the tendrils of meaning start to coil around them, arranging them in broader context. They are embedded in a melody whose meaning comes not from the things themselves, but from their relational arrangement in a closed system. Not from the labor of their being but from their situatedness within a finite world of signification and intent. Not from the labor of writing but from the perception of the finished product. Not from the labor of reading but from the memories of a reading experience. Meaning needs a container, with limits, just like we need skin. We depend on those boundaries to make story out of experience. A puzzle can’t be solved if it has no edges.

My first high school girlfriend—the girl I lost my virginity to—died a year after graduation. Overdose. We hadn’t spoken in a while. The last time I saw her alive, she was stumbling around at a house party—she’d dropped her phone in some bushes, and I helped her find it. When I try to remember her, I only get a few shapes in the foreground; everything else is more or less watercolor, blotchy. But that’s what I try to go back to, try to touch, if only I could. It’s all edgeless moments whose colors bleed out of the closed shapes that have colonized my memory. I can’t recall what her room looked like, but I remember the walls were purple. There is a dim, warm light in the center of everything. My mind tries to fill in composite forms on the perimeter—a blurry dresser, maybe, half a bed—but even these ooze color and light, no edges to contain them.

I can’t remember what she was wearing, but I remember her smell. A peculiar, manufactured kind of vanilla that, to this day, will make me cry like a goddamn child who can’t find his way back home. It’s hard to even remember what her face looked like. Or mine, for that matter. I get flashes. In that deep moment in my mind, we have blank mannequin heads that crackle and flash like old TV screens, occasionally bringing to the surface, from a sea of static, faces with adoring expressions. Then they’re gone.

The labor of moments is lost. The labor of smelling that wonderful artificial vanilla that felt like home. That was, in that moment, a home in itself. The memory means more now than the experience did at the time. Meaning is solid yet malleable. But the labor of making it is a vaporous, hot, engulfing thing. It persists in the background of a shapeless present, pointing nowhere. It’s what past memories and future dreams are built on, built by. It runs thin and fast, like blood.

VI. Saintliness

“Max, come over here.” I went over there.
“Yeah, boss?”
“I want to tell you something.”
“Okay.”
“I think you have what it takes to be a manager.”
“Okay.”

She waited for me to acknowledge the compliment.
“… Thank you.”
She continued. “You’re a hard worker and you’re smart. Smarter than the rest of these guys.”
I shifted uncomfortably. “Thanks.”
“But,” she let the pause hang for an extra, meaningful second, “there’s more to it. Being a manager means making tough decisions.”
“Sure.”
“Keeping costs down.”
“Yup.”
“Trimming the fat.” I blinked.

She took out her order sheet and pointed to a number. “That’s where we should be right now.”
“Yeah.”
“But we’re behind.”
“Yeah.”
“Do you know why?”
“Well, we brought in a new batch of temps this morning. They slowed us down.”
“They made a lot of mistakes.”
“They didn’t really get any training.”
“Too many mistakes.”
“Okay.”
“We need to get back on track.”
“Sure.”
“I want you to tell me which one of the new people to fire.” My mouth went dry.
“What?”
“Which one of the new temps would you say slowed us down the most?” I looked over at the workers, stuffing pillows and chatting loudly in Spanish. They could have been relatives for all I knew. “I don’t think I can do that.”
“Yes, you can.”

I tried to think of the noble thing to do—but there was no room for nobility in this place. I told the manager I’d work overtime to pick up the slack.

“No.”

I thought for a split second about martyring myself, telling her to take me instead, something like that. But it wouldn’t have done any good. She would have fired one of the new temps anyway. She just wanted to “teach” me something while she was at it. Worst of all, I was painfully aware of how much I needed the job … and so was she. Like the VP from Boston, she knew I wouldn’t be here if I had better options.

I can’t remember the temp’s name—she was one of the youngest. She was short and had a red shirt on. Some desperate thought convinced me she might suffer the least. The other temps looked like they might have had kids.But honestly, she could have had them too. I try not to think about it now.

“The one in red,” I said after a long pause.

The manager didn’t say another word. She walked over to the group and called everyone, over forty workers, together in a circle. My guts immediately started to rot. I assumed she would just pull the woman aside. But she didn’t. The group looked on. Alternating between Spanish and English, the manager told them all that we were behind because people had been making too many mistakes. That this was a business and we had deadlines. That we had to meet them. That we couldn’t afford mistakes. Then, abruptly, she pointed to the woman in red, calling her to the middle of the circle: “¡Ven!” She told her, in front of everyone, to go home.

I watched the woman’s head sink with shame. It sank in a way that, even now, to this day, is painful to think about. I’m a snotty kid, hurting, a coward, hoping some adult will come and save me and tell me this wasn’t my fault. The woman trudged out of the warehouse. She didn’t deserve this. What did her parents say when she came home? Did she have a kid to look at when she came through the door? I think about her often. Did she turn out okay? Does anyone?

I’ve never told anyone about this until now.

My parents named me after St. Maximilian Kolbe, a priest who sacrificed himself to save a Jewish stranger from the showers in Auschwitz. He was a brave and beautiful man. I’m nothing like him.

 

VII. Homesick

Now, there’s the question of unintended meaning. Deriving something different from signs than what might have been intended by their author. Interpretive claim-staking. I can look at an advertisement for a product on offer by some towering corporation and not find it informative, intriguing, or hopeful, like I’m “supposed to.” Instead, I find it amusing at first, then deeply depressing. Is consumption a kind of labor? Not really. It’s more like bringing ready-made products into your sphere and arranging them to signify a central “self.” That process of making identity out of consumption is powered by capital, built on dead labor—labor that has been obscured and forgotten. Its continued utility depends on our forgetting.

My point is that our minds have a peculiar and innate tendency to erase the things and people and work that make meaning happen. Writ large, capitalism does the same. The vast majority of life—the labor of living and work that drives the world—is forgotten. Because meaning can be made, because it’s a product, its uses can be set out before us by capital, pre-packaged and predestined. It can be absorbed into a narrative we didn’t write. It can point us towards something else—perhaps something we don’t want, or, more maddeningly, something we want but don’t need. Something we want but can’t ever get. That we will chase until we die.

As a kid, the week before Christmas was exciting and warm and smelled like cinnamon and sounded like a crackling fire. The loving anticipation of and preparation for the actual day was a labor that was singularly enjoyable. I’ve often wondered why and how it comes to be that you start enjoying the holidays less as you get older, as you eke into your twenties. It’s not because you don’t believe in Santa anymore or because you don’t get as many presents.

The culprit is your changing conception of meaning. (Its power also happens to make nostalgia a highly profitable marketing tool). In the adult world of reconciled meaning, the memory of Christmas is artificially enhanced, colored in with stuff that wasn’t there at the time in order to come up with a picture that serves a different emotional function. The memory becomes a sign that points towards something else. Childhood innocence, maybe. Simplicity, togetherness, carefree wonder, an open future, a much bigger happiness than is or ever was humanly attainable. Things that I never really had but will always want to retrieve. In fact, it’s come to represent a lot of things I didn’t want it to, which is why it now disappoints me so. Every year, I hope the labor of experience will bring me back to a home I can never stop missing and longing for childishly, a home I’ll never find again. But I know this much: I’d probably pay whatever it cost to get back there.


VIII. Yes, We’re Finished.

Someday, perhaps, it will be a joy to remember even these things. Aeneas offers these words to his weary shipmates when things seem to be at their lowest. It’s not a promise. Nothing is guaranteed. Someday, perhaps. It may be a joy to remember. It may be a trauma. It depends. There’s no promise that the memory will be useful. No promise that it will mean anything. We will take joy in even those things that lack edges, that do not find room in the containers of our memory. That resist such shapes. That bleed out, rebelliously, watercolors muddying up the lines that define every closed-off signifier.

Someday, perhaps, it will be a joy to remember even these things. To understand labor—not in the trite terms of “working to live,” or “living to work,” but solely and singularly as the work of living. The light and blood of being. Always home, in an everlasting present. Someday, perhaps, the labor that got me here, that gets me through, will be liberated from my need to make it mean something. Someday, perhaps, I’ll no longer strive to reconcile the labor of my experience into something it’s not, that it never was. Maybe then I’ll no longer be homesick. Someday, perhaps, it will be a joy to remember that I’ve been home the whole time.

 



“Can I clear those plates away for you, ladies?
“Yes, thank you. It was delicious!”
“Great! I’m so glad you enjoyed it.” I was glad they enjoyed it. Why? I didn’t cook it. I’m just a waiter. I shouldn’t give a shit.
“Did you ladies save any room for dessert?”
“Oh, God, I wish,” said the older one. She rubbed her belly. “I think we already made and filled room we didn’t know we had.” She laughed. She was lying. They knew they had it.

I smile. Because I have to, and because it’s my job—but when I’m on the clock, the smile can at times feel genuine. I feel so falsely close to these middle-aged city people, the kind of people that come to an expensive Persian restaurant in Lincoln Park. I half-expect to see them later when I get home. It’s only after we close and I walk away that I seem unable to smile, and I feel soul-gnashingly sad.

“So,” the other lady chimed in, “your manager tells us you’re leaving.”
“Oh?”
“Well, we were telling him how great of a waiter you are …” She waited for me to acknowledge the compliment. “And he agreed, of course. But he also said he was sad to see you go.”
“Ah, yup. I am moving on, sadly.” Why sadly? I shouldn’t be sad. This job was hellish.
“Where are you moving on to?”
“To Michigan, actually. I’m going to grad school.”
“Oooh,” they clucked in unison. “Congratulations!”
“Thank you.”
“How exciting,” the grey one said.
“It is.”
“And you’re going for what?”
“To get my Ph.D.”
“Oooh—a Ph.D. in what?”
“Comparative literature.”
“Ah!” she giggled. “So, we can expect to see you working here again when you’re all finished?” ♦



 

 

 

 


Maximillian Alvarez is a writer and editor based in Baltimore and the host of Working People, “a podcast by, for, and about the working class today” (in partnership with In These Times). His writing and political commentary has been featured on The Hill’s Rising, NPR, VICE News Tonight, The David Pakman Show, and publications including The Nation, The Baffler, Current Affairs, and The New Republic.