Making Work Visible
City University of New York / Labor Arts
2023 Contest Winners
Amras awoke from an eight-hour sleep feeling tired.
He walked to the bathroom and stood before the open toilet bowl. It was best to wait, he’d learned, for no matter how OK he felt at the moment, the time would come. A price had to be paid for last night’s consumption. It was a nasty transaction. But worth it, probably. He knelt as if about to pray.
The scent of artificial berries flooded his nostrils, signaling him to bend his neck and confront the clear, calm water inside the bowl. He closed his eyes to remember. What came to him were fragments, pieces of memories that made no sense. Whether they can even be called memories was unknown to him, but the distinction made him curious enough to only ponder rather than look up. One by one, these fragments fleeted from consciousness. The harder he held onto them, the faster they sank into the depths of his brain. Like a dog, he’d soon forget and move on. This fruitless endeavor he did every morning as he faced the toilet water. It was always the same. Transient recollections and nonsense. Berries that did not taste like berries.
He threw up. The water turned the color of amethyst.
The peppermint flavor of Amras’s toothpaste tainted his coffee. His new morning routine was filled with obnoxious tastes, but he liked it better this way. Up until three weeks ago, that coffee constituted breakfast, as he’d a habit of running late for work. Being early was out of the question. But whether he was on time was left to the erratic New York City transit system. Now he had time for a real breakfast, not just cereal or a toasted bagel. He could make eggs and bacon, or pancakes, French toast, grilled cheese, greasy delicious hash browns. He could take his time eating and read the newspaper (though he wasn’t subscribed to any). He no longer had to worry about packed trains and giving up his seat for some white lady’s child because she asked nicely. His time was his again. No more reprimands for being two minutes late, when it took two minutes to walk the store floor and punch in at the back. He recalled reading somewhere an argument for employers to consider the morning commute paid time, and it made sense. It’s an arbitrary thing, being on the clock. Never had that been more apparent to Amras than when he got his new job.
He’d learned about it on the subway. There was an ad that said Get Paid To Sleep! He took a picture of the poster and forgot about it for months. When finally he remembered and googled the company, he assumed it was a scam. One of those predatory for-profit places. The consequence of that brief interest would be months of phone calls with the voice of a lifeless woman explaining registration. Amras shuddered when he thought back to the endless emails from Full Sail University. He’d decided then it was best to leave subway ads alone. But he was curious.
It took weeks of screenings and interviews. The thing Amras found most strange was the company’s reticence to discuss particulars of the job. He still knew very little about what it entailed, except that they monitored his sleep. All he had to do was drink a purple concoction before bed, made of chemicals with ugly names and melatonin, one of the few ingredients he recognized. He was assured that the product was FDA approved. It tasted horrible. Like fake berries. And once consumed, he’d hook himself up to a machine and quickly fall into a deep eight-hour sleep, during which time he’d earn a livable wage. A side effect of the drink was the feeling of a terrible hangover in the morning. The tradeoff was that he could enjoy breakfast.
Amras made a grilled cheese sandwich filled with turkey bacon and sliced tomatoes.
Sitting with a second cup of coffee, he opened the news app on his phone. The mayor had proposed another round of budget cuts to city agencies. His all-purpose solution. The Vicks VapoRub for an ailing metropolis. Following that headline was the response from residents: protests around Manhattan and Brooklyn. Hundreds already gathered at Grand Army Plaza in front of the Brooklyn Public Library. Throughout the day there would be chants and song and dance—grief expressed through celebration, an approach New Yorkers thought to be uniquely theirs. Even gentrifiers will show up and shake their asses a little. Police will stand there stoically, resisting the urge to tap their boots off-beat. Sure, they got hit with cuts this time, too, but they had plenty room for it, unlike the library who had to limit its services. So they will stand and wait. Some activists had promised to occupy the library after its new closing time. By then most gentrifiers will have gone home, and the police will do what they were made to do: protect property.
Amras read another headline. A dead journalist in Eastern Europe. He kept scrolling. Coney Island amusement park repairs on schedule. New photos of distant galaxies. Rich video game CEO lays off twenty percent of staff. Middle schoolers in Queens sent home after anonymous threat.
He shut his phone and ate fast.
Later on, Amras visited his mother, something he promised to do more often once he had the time.
They sat and talked, fresh chamomile tea warming their bodies. They spoke of themselves and of relatives with which they kept in touch. Neither knew what happened to an uncle down in Texas. Neither cared, either, though they’d never admit. Each wished him well and that was well enough. He left in a hurry, chasing some good-paying job. Amras heard from him only once since then, two or three Christmases ago, and forgot what they talked about.
Amras had not yet told his mother of his current employment.
“It’s fine,” he replied.
“Do you need any money for food?” She always offered money she didn’t have.
“I’ll be OK, mom. I won’t stay there much longer.”
“Good.” She set her cup down. “Why don’t you look at more jobs in film?”
Amras had studied Screenwriting at Brooklyn College.
“I’m trying,” he lied. “Hopefully I get another interview soon.”
To Amras’s relief, the conversation topic shifted to his love life, which somehow was less awkward than talking about work. Eventually, though, his eyelids refused to stay open. He lay on the couch, pretending to listen. His mother was saying something about a woman from church. Amras fell asleep.
It was dark outside when he awoke. There was money left for him on the coffee table. His mother must have gone to work. She had an evening shift cleaning a nearby school. Amras washed his face and went home, leaving the money.
Amras thought he was dead.
First there was nothingness, the tenebrosity of sleep. Then he was awash in radiant white. He couldn’t discern his surroundings, his eyes not yet adjusted. But it was clear that he was not where he should be: lying in bed. The last thing he remembered was being unable to sleep, regretting the overlong nap he’d taken earlier. He drank his melatonin cocktail from the company at his usual time, then lay down to let it take effect. But his body fought against it. He stayed in bed for hours with no luck. He tried counting sheep, deep breathing, masturbating; none of his usual tricks worked. Instead, he had what felt like a waking fever dream. His brain had been on fire. And that damn machine made it difficult to lie comfortably.
After a couple hours, Amras decided to sip more of the gross purple liquid. What harm could there be in a little extra? he thought. But that conjecture, it seemed, got him killed.
Amras pictured Heaven being less dull. What a shame it resembled a mundane office space. Gradually he became able to see with little discomfort.
He was, in fact, in an office building. He even had his own cubicle. A single colorless photo on the desk claimed the space as his: It was of him and his mother and grandparents. Amras could not recall the last time he saw this picture. Not only had the original been stored in a binder collecting dust, but it was also taken in color. He’d never seen it in black and white.
He wanted to inspect his desk further, but the sound of someone typing nearby grabbed his attention. He peeked into the adjacent cubicle. A brunette woman in a white nightgown sat staring at her computer. Amras said “excuse me,” but she didn’t budge. Her hands moved as if separate from the rest of her body, the incessant clicking of keys a familiar and congenial sound to Amras.
He noticed a man pop up from a distant cubicle. The man raised an eyebrow when he locked eyes with Amras. They watched each other until the man gave a nod and walked off. Amras took this as a sign to follow. He left his cubicle, the woman in white still typing into oblivion.
Amras was led to a balcony. Neither spoke as the man climbed onto the railing. Amras could not see below him but knew they were high up. They were somewhere in Midtown. He didn’t know whether he should step closer. He opened his mouth to speak, to plead with the man to step down, but no words came out. The man turned around and looked down. Without hesitation, he bent his knees, squeezed his nose with his right hand, as if about to embrace the ocean, and leapt.
The world stood silent. Would the man make a sound when he hit the bottom? Amras was not sure. This was something he never once had to contend with. He stepped toward the rail, afraid to look. The glass building across the street reflected his image. He realized that he, too, wore a white nightgown, like the woman from before, and so did the man who jumped. Clouds hid the blue sky, coating the world with the same lame shade that made up the office.
Something caught in Amras’s throat. His chest tightened. He coughed and swallowed saliva, trying to regain composure. It didn’t help. He was overcome with the scent of impure berries. Instinctively, he tilted his head down. There was no sign of the man.
Amras woke up to his sheets covered in puke.
That morning, Amras toasted a bagel for breakfast.
He spent the day reading on and off. In the evening he opened a bottle of cheap red wine. It tasted horrible. But at least the berries were real. As he poured another glass, he watched his reflection turn purple. And, for no reason at all, he conjured a memory. The urge to reminisce commanded him. He took the full glass to the bedroom, where he searched boxes that contained evidence of his life. Eventually he came across an old photo, the impetus for this scavenger hunt. It was of him and his mother and grandparents.
There was nothing remarkable about this photo. It was taken on an ordinary day, and Amras had several just like it. But this was the one that came to mind. Amras couldn’t recall when it was taken. It just wasn’t very special.
Still, he sat in his bedroom scrutinizing the photo, drinking wine. As the glass emptied, Amras’s reflection reverted to its usual color.
Suddenly, it all came back to him: the achromatic office, the busy woman, the man on the balcony. He thought he had died.
But it was just a dream.
Amras had to know more. He decided to recreate the conditions of last night, which meant he had to be wide awake.
He crept into the kitchen to pour himself another glass.
One empty bottle and two chapters of his book later, he drifted into a long nap.
It worked. He struggled to fall back asleep that night until, finally, he found himself back in the white room.
Again there was that man from before. He didn’t seem surprised to see Amras out of his seat this time. They walked to the balcony.
“Where are we?” Amras asked.
“At work,” the man replied.
“I don’t get it.” Amras pinched himself. He felt silly for doing so. “What do we do here?”
The man stepped onto the railing like last time. “We feed the machine.”
Amras stepped closer. “Machine?” He pictured the device hooked up to him as he lay in bed. “What are we feeding it?”
“Ideas,” said the man. “It steals our ideas while we sleep. Ideas that we haven’t even had yet. It takes raw, subconscious thoughts from us when our brains are most active and turns everything into data.”
“Why?” Amras didn’t fully understand but wanted the man to continue. “What does it do with our ideas?”
“The company sells them. They become ads, turn into graphic art, new TV pilots, songs—whatever use they can find. We’re feeding them our creativity, and they make a ridiculous profit while giving us almost nothing. Come look.”
The man leapt.
Amras climbed onto the rail next. Same as before, the man was not at the bottom. Amras jumped after him.
The feeling was not so unusual. Most people experience the sensation of falling in their sleep. Amras half-expected to wake up before hitting the ground. He closed his eyes.
It was like flying and swimming at once. That was the best way he could describe it. The water felt so thin it could hardly be perceived, but he knew, though his eyes remained shut, that he was submerged.
The feeling came and went. Amras opened his eyes. He was on the street, but not where he presumed. There were no tall buildings. This place looked more like Brooklyn, probably somewhere in Williamsburg. Everything remained colorless. Everything except for a warehouse in the distance. From here it was like a beacon, calling to it anyone fortunate enough to witness its splendor. Amras stepped forward.
“Hold up.” It was the man he’d followed down here. “That’s where everything is stored.”
“Okay,” Amras said, “so what are we supposed to do about it?”
“If I could sneak inside and figure out how they transmit our data, maybe I could find a way to expose them.”
“Let’s go inside then.” Amras had already come this far.
“It’s surrounded by cops.”
Cops? This place wasn’t even real! What were the police doing here?
Amras and the man set off for the warehouse, moving carefully through vacant streets. It grew noisy as they approached. Then, in a flash, Amras found himself amidst a crowd of hundreds, chanting, singing, dancing. Each moment passed by like a flashback. And the police were there, watching, watching, watching. Amras lost track of time and purpose. He stood before the warehouse, captivated by its glow, the facade covered everywhere in vibrant graffiti. The clamor around him evaporated into silent tranquility. That ended when someone grabbed Amras’s arm. It was an officer.
Amras regained himself. He turned around, desperate to locate the man in the nightgown, but there was no one. Even the crowd had vanished; it was as if they’d never been there. Amras struggled to remember the preceding moments. The warehouse radiated a warmth that blanketed his skin. He shook himself loose from the officer’s grip, but he didn’t know what to do next. Should he flee? Dream or not, this guy scared the shit out of him. His hesitation resulted in a taser to his neck.
Amras jolted awake.
Sunlight flooded his bedroom. He lay awhile in the warm glow, then made for the toilet.