LaborArts


 
CITY UNIVERSITY OF NEW YORK / LABORARTS
MAKING WORK VISIBLE
2015–2016 CONTEST
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2015–2016 Contest Winners

Ordinary People, Extraordinary Lives—floated as an alternative title for this “Making Work Visible” contest—captures the spirit of most of the work done by the young authors and artists who won prizes in the sixth year of this CUNY/LaborArts contest. The poems, fiction, non-fiction and visual art display imagination, thoughtfulness, and an ability to make links between individual lived experience and larger social issues.


Open to all CUNY undergraduates, contest entries are judged according to originality, content and style. Student writers and artists both draw upon history, upon close observation of the world around them, and upon a wealth of first hand experiences to link their work to the spirit of labor arts.  Every year professors judging the contest reflect on the value of providing opportunities for the students to seriously interrogate their life experiences and that of those around them.


From Brian Alarcon’s poem “Work Pants”:

Ah! What a dreary thing it is to sit on the train while everyone else

Stands and towers above you. Crotchlevel, all I can think about are those

Work pants with their dry grays and navys and how perpetual this repetition is.

Laying my head on the shoulder of some jeanhead halfdead Edward Lopez,

The nylon legs look like cities with their belt roofs and button down skies!

Oh how I don't want to work a full time job then die!

Frank Gattie’s non fiction narrative “The Art of the Speedup” begins:

The forty-hour week is dead. Management has killed it. I can only speak from my own experiences working in the New York City restaurant industry over the past ten years. Maybe it is different in other cities or restaurants that I have not labored in, but I doubt it. It died when management learned how to manipulate in times, breaks, and on-call shifts to avoid overtime. It means many workers must spend entire days in or around their workplaces without a reward for overtime pay. While the forty hour week withers away, an older American value is being revived: the speedup.

Read them all—you will be moved, surprised, impressed.

We sincerely hope that these young authors and artists continue on with their work—their voices demand to be heard.

Photographs of students and from awards ceremony are by Gary Schoichet



Frank Gattie

First Prize, Nonfiction
Frank Gattie  History, Queens College

The Art of the Speedup

Sit-Down Strikers, 1937, LaborArts

The forty-hour week is dead. Management has killed it. I can only speak from my own experiences working in the New York City restaurant industry over the past ten years. Maybe it is different in other cities or restaurants that I have not labored in, but I doubt it. It died when management learned how to manipulate in times, breaks, and on- call shifts to avoid overtime. It means many workers must spend entire days in or around their workplaces without a reward for overtime pay. While the forty hour week withers away, an older American value is being revived: the speedup. A speedup is when management gets more production with less labor, and restaurant managers have turned it into an art form. It may not be what you imagine. It does not involve managers hollering at workers to go faster. It is not as physical as it is emotional. The modern speedup involves corporate brainwashing. Managers slyly perfect their craft while convincing employees to work off the clock for “their own benefit,” and manipulating the staff into doing work outside their job description in the name of “teamwork.” There are many ways restaurant managers create speedups, and some include cutting staff, creating disdain among coworkers, and encouraging employees to work off the clock.

The most obvious way the managers create speedups is through cutting staff on individual shifts in the restaurant. The restaurant I work in gets very busy, and I do not mind assisting my coworkers when they need help. This can mean clearing plates off a table if they are too heavy for one person to carry or helping a food runner deliver dishes to a large party, but the idea of “helping out” in a speedup is a more sinister form of teamwork. I know a speedup shift is coming when I hear the hosts wonder out loud about how they will pay their bills and complain about their hours being cut. The shift will begin with a speech by one of the mangers about how we are all a “family” and need to be “team players.” It becomes obvious when I see that there are only two or three hosts working when there used to be four or five. I try to avoid the host stand where they ask me to seat the tables, and the managers wander around the restaurant asking everyone to seat customers once the rush begins. With hosts being the only front-of- house position that does not qualify for the tip credit (a rule that allows restaurants to pay tipped employees less than the minimum wage), management must get a nice savings by cutting shifts from the hosts and having tipped employees seat most of the tables. While this is the most common shift-cutting speedup, it is not the only one. Management will cut bussers, food runners, bartenders, and many other positions and with the expectation that everyone else who is working will pick up the slack. It does not always work out. Customers get poor service when the restaurant is not properly staffed, but the management is never to blame and we are often encouraged to believe it is our coworkers who are the real problem.

A friend I waited tables with for many years would always say “servers and bussers are natural enemies.” It was funny, not only because it seemed so true, but because “busser” was interchangeable with any other position in the restaurant. Servers have many enemies including hosts, rood runners, bartenders, or any other position you can think of. It took me a while to realize management’s role in this train of thought. An example of this can be seen in something as simple as bringing bread to a table. It is the bussers’ job to bring each table bread in the restaurant I currently work in, but there are certain periods of time where this never happens. I will sometimes have four or five table asking for bread, but the busser is nowhere to be found. This usually results in me telling a manager I need bread for all my tables, and the manager’s response is generally one of contempt for the bussers. The manager will apologize and tell me how the bussers are lazy or need to be kept on top of like kindergarteners, but laziness is not the problem. The problem is management forcing all the bussers except one to go on extended breaks in order to save labor. The one busser left working is often told to do work in the back of the restaurant and is not available to bus tables in the dining room or bring customers bread. I once complained about this policy and about the shift being short staffed in general to one of the managers. My complaint prompted a call in to the office with the general manager, and he told me that I was wrong. He informed that the restaurant was not understaffed, but overstaffed. It was not the quantity of workers, he said, but the “quality of workers.” He then went on to give examples of how each busser was personally incompetent. I saw right through his manipulation, but unfortunately, most of my coworkers do not. My fellow servers blame the bussers for management’s speedup policies, but their anger is in the wrong place. It is management’s fault that customers do not get the service they deserve. This can mean lower tips and less money for the servers and bussers, but the servers and bussers are too busy arguing with each other to see who is really to blame. Management helps create a culture of disdain among coworkers, and management also leads the way for employees to work without proper compensation.

A great way for management to cut costs is by creating a culture in the restaurant where working off the clock is perfectly acceptable. The managers are quick to point out that it is not the wage that tipped employees are working for, but the tips. They let the workers know that they would love to let them pick up more shifts, but they just cannot afford the overtime. Then again, “going over” is up to the worker, the managers love to point out that you can always just clock in a few hours late or a few hours early. It is not management’s fault that New York State has “silly” labor laws, and the managers have no problem turning a blind eye to a worker who needs a little more money to pay their bills and is willing to work off the clock. Even the workers who do not spend shifts cheating themselves out of overtime pay are encouraged to work off the clock. Each shift we are required to take a thirty-minute break after we are done setting up the restaurant, but sometimes management does not schedule enough servers to get everything done in time. These are the days when the general manager decides to tell everyone his stories about people who refused to do things because they were clocked out. He points out that they were not “team players,” and that they did not last very long in our restaurant. He barely has to say anything though, because he has an army of employees who attribute their work ethic to getting things done whether they are on the clock or not. They chime in with things like “if you start something you need to finish it” and “sure I am not clocked in, but that does not help the team very much.” It is even worse for other positions in the restaurant who have had their start times cut back in order to save on labor cost. For example, the baristas comes in at 12pm instead of 11:30am like they used to, but are always encouraged to come in early, before clocking in, to set things up. Working off the clock has not nothing to do with work ethic or a worker’s willingness to be a team player, it is simply another way for managers to speedup their employees.

The speedup is alive and well in New York’s restaurant industry. As an art form, it is constantly being perfected by managers all over the city and too many workers are following along. I try to do everything I can to stop speedups when I am at work. I avoid doing other workers’ jobs, I point out management’s careful manipulations, and encourage my coworkers to never work off the clock. I have made some progress, but I fear it is not enough. Many of my coworkers listen to me and see through the artful speedups that the managers have crafted, but I am only one server in one restaurant. We need to start a movement. We need to unionize the service industry in New York, and I want to be on the front lines of the battle for organization. If we band together workers in the service industry can end these ridiculous speedups and truly get compensated for the hard work we do every day serving the people of New York.


Jenifer Vivar

Second Prize, Nonfiction
Jenifer Vivar  Liberal Arts, Hostos Community College

The Invisibles

The Invisibles, Jenifer Vivar, February 2016

They worked
they were always on time they were never late
they never spoke back when they were insulted
they worked
they never took days off
that were not on the calendar they never went on strike without permission
they worked
ten days a week
and were only paid for five

Pedro Pietri, “Puerto Rican Obituary” (1973)
 

They are there but nobody notices them. They get up very early in the morning right before everyone else and go to bed so late at night when there is almost nobody on the streets. They look hopeless, exhausted; they work fifteen hours a day leaving them with no time to dream, to progress. Who are they? Those who make coffee this morning at the local cafeteria, those who prepare that delicious breakfast sandwich before work, those who serve food at a restaurant, those who clean houses. Open your eyes and look carefully, they are there camouflaged among the crowd. They work hard to live “the better life” known as the American dream although it feels pretty close to a nightmare.

A small paycheck is coming every week but at least something is better than nothing. Some others have the misfortune of being unemployed. “I’m looking for a job,” one said to a business owner one day taking his cap down as sign of reverence. “I can do anything and I learn fast,” he said looking down, as if he was almost kneeling down to get the job. “Not right now,” the owner answered in a cold tone and turned around while making a phone call and giving orders to another employee. The man’s eyes look hopeless but he recovers fast (perhaps he doesn’t want anybody to notice his despair) then walks away. More will come back later asking for the same. They will say, “do you need a dishwasher? A delivery guy? A cook? Server? Cashier? One that can do all of them? I can do it all, give me a job.” The same scene will be repeated all over again. They will continue to look for a job in other places where, perchance, the answer will be more favorable. Some others are working at their jobs and doing anything they can to keep it, even tolerating the screams of a clumsy man who believes he is better than everybody. That picture, an image of a slave being mistreated by his owner, is just so disgusting that no one wants to see it. There is an old man washing dishes. His age makes him work slowly and as result the manager is angry. “Hey stupid you better move your ass or I’ll fire you” the manager says. Suddenly the old man starts to shake and says “ye-es, yes ya mero.” People look at him with pity though they can’t do anything. There is another young boy washing dishes, he cannot be older than thirteen years old but please keep the secret because he needs the money and has promised his little sister to pay for her school and to buy her a big beautiful doll and to his mother to help her with the house’s expenses.

This happens all the time every day, right behind that elegant door of that beautiful restaurant, right next to that convenience store, right there in that super market. Everything happens indoors, nobody needs nor wants to know about this “dilemma.” People possibly think “why should I get involved?” or “that isn’t my business” or “that is the role they get to play” and countless more. Is there any solution? Mistreatment has become so usual and at the same time so undetectable to the eyes of the world. What can people do if they are “illegals”? What kind of rights do they posses? They have no options if they want to keep their jobs. They must tolerate humiliations in order to give their families bread to eat. For them, family is worth that and much more. The working class of my city is being abused, the working class of my city is being hurt, the working class of my city is being repressed. They are not bad people, they did not come here to steal, all they ask for is a job and to work with dignity. They will not take anything that is given, they will earn it with the sweat of their brows.


Third Prize, Nonfiction
Michelle Ramirez  Human Services, NYC College of Technology

Drained

Drained, Michelle Ramirez, March 2016

I am currently eighteen years old, working as a bartender and a waitress in Greenpoint, a small Polish neighborhood in Brooklyn. It’s called The Place and is a short fifteen minute walk from the train station, through a quiet neighborhood filled with houses and apartments. As you continue walking, these homes turn into warehouses lined with large wire gates with moving equipment stored behind them. At the corner stands a small three-story building with a bar and Pizzeria on the first floor and apartments on the other floors. I enjoy my job, but it’s a love hate relationship. On the one hand, the financial benefits are great! Typically I make at least a hundred and fifty dollars from just one shift (eleven in the morning to four in the afternoon), my coworkers are friendly, and I have a flexible schedule. On the other hand, despite these benefits, I constantly engage in awkward conversations that usually turn into uncomfortable situations.

My morning routine consist of opening each of the blinds on the four windows covering the side and the front of the bar to let the natural light settle in, then turning on every ‘Pizza’ and ‘Open’ signs in the front two windows, and cleaning up leftover messes from the last shift. Restocking is key to having a successful day. Everything that is commonly used must be restocked before the rush of people from the local film crew companies pour in, such as bottles or beer, bottles of wine, and most importantly plastic cups. The lunch rush is the only time the bar is really busy besides when we host parties on the weekend. With all the crews coming in to have a quick bite, we do well with tips in a short amount of time.

As the bar stools fill along the counter of the bar, conversations begin. Most of the customers are males in their late twenties to early fifties. Small talk isn’t mandatory, but the more the customer likes you the better tip he’ll leave. I try to engage in casual conversation with everyone, asking how their day is going and so far and so forth. Men usually ask about my age. Although I may be eighteen, I appear older to almost everyone. You would think these men would have different angles to start hitting on someone, but it’s usually always the same, something regarding my age or appearance, or even my nationality.

“What’s your nationality? Oooh, that’s exotic. I like that. It’s different.”

“I could tell you were Asian but knew you had to be something else by your body. You have too much body to just be Asian.”

The worse conversations are when you’re trying to do your job and take someone’s order and they hit you with bullshit.

“Hello, how are you? Could I get you anything?” I begin.

“A burger with you on top would be great,” replied the man with a smirk on his face.

After a few beers, they become frisky and flirt. Their comments about me make me cringe, but instead of making a remark, I laugh it off and walk away or replay with a blank state that gives them a taste of their own medicine.

When I have a moment to myself, I wonder why these men think it’s okay to talk to women as if they were objects of enjoyment. Stepping foot in a bar should not mean you throw your manners and respect for others out the window. For instance, one man asked me what I was planning to do with my future and I told him my plans, he stops me mid-sentence and goes on about how I should focus on my looks. “That’s something that could make you famous.” I fume. There’s so much more to me than money and fame. Although I have my own ambitions, these men will see nothing but a pretty face and ignore what I say even though they asked. I am drained because I have to serve these men and let them talk down to me, but it’s something I have to shrug off.

As the end of my shift comes closer the bar empties out with only my coworkers and me. We have friendly conversations and tell jokes, and I’m at ease again. One of coworkers nudges me.

“That man was so rude and difficult. At least he left a good tip for us.” We chuckle at the man. Although serving him was a pain, it still paid off. The conversation flows with my coworkers the negativity and pointless repetitive conversation with my customers are replaced with a meaningful exchange of words.


Elijah Lugo

Honorable Mention, Nonfiction
Elijah Lugo  Communication Design, NYC College of Technology

The Customer Is Always Right

Untitled, March 2016

A friend referred me to the Modell’s sporting goods store located at 89-59 Bay Parkway in Brooklyn. After deciding that working there could be a great opportunity for me to gain experience in the retail field, I applied. After being interviewed, I received a call about a week later and was told I got the job.

Before starting to work I was required to attend a long and boring eight-hour orientation. I had to read, fill out, and sign tons of paper work. During orientation one of the mottos employees were told to follow was “the customer is always right.” In other words, the managers wanted us to always have respect for the customers. Then I went through training. Training was unpleasant because I felt I was always under pressure to learn within a week the tasks and responsibilities of a cashier. There was also a written test that I had to pass. If I failed, I would no longer been able to work as a cashier but would be put in a different position such as apparel or footwear.

The Modell’s store I worked in had a giant parking lot around it with other superstores such as Toys “R” Us, Kohl’s, and Best Buy. Modell’s only had one floor but was nevertheless very big because of its length. It had a supermarket and warehouse look to it. Once you entered the store, you could see that most of the store had sections. A few of the clothing brands Modell’s carried were Nike, Adidas, and Under Armour. Behind

the long aisles of men and women’s clothing, which practically ran down the whole store, were sports gear and equipment and then came the footwear section. Next to the entrance on the left was a long aisle of registers where you would see me ringing up customers, along with other employees standing side by side.

Being a cashier was one of the most important jobs in the store. This was because the cashiers were most likely the last employees the customers would speak to, and sometimes the only employees they would speak to, before leaving. What was fun about working at the register was that most of the time I was never alone. I would always have a co-worker next to me ringing up customers. I would also interact with the customers. I remember one customer who happened to be a mother. She came with her daughter, who looked like she was my age, and was very attractive, in my opinion. After the basic “hey, how are you?” which was “the famous line” that indicated the customer knew English and seemed pleasant, the mother asked, “Are you single?”

I responded, “Yeah.”

She smiled and said, “Well, my daughter is single.” She looked me in the eye, expecting a response. Before I had a chance to answer, she asked, “How old are you?”

I told her I was 18, which I was, and after I nervously finished up her transaction, I handed her a large Modell’s plastic bag packed with the clothing items she purchased. “Thank you, have a great day.” As she and her daughter walked towards the exit, they smiled at me and they both said, “You too.”

Another transaction I had was with an FDNY (fire dept. of New York) worker. He was wearing a shirt with the FDNY logo on it. While he was purchasing his items, he asked, “Do you guys do discounts for city workers?” and I replied “Yes, we do.” Although it was only 10%, it was still something. Towards the end of the transaction, I asked the firefighter, “Is it hard to become a firefighter?”

“No, but the best way to become one is if you take as many civil service exams as you can, or, better yet, become a paramedic and be promoted to a firefighter.”

I was confused, so I asked, “Is that the way you did it?”

“No, but I wish I had.”

I enjoyed working with the customers, and because I did, I would always treat them with as much respect as possible. But sometimes customers, usually the ones that didn’t understand or speak English, would give me, and sometimes the managers, a hard time. Once a Chinese woman who didn’t speak or understand English placed her items at my register. I scanned them and told her the price. She stood there nodding her head yes while smiling. I repeatedly told her the price and even wrote it down for her. All the while the other customers waited “patiently” on the line. I called a manager through the intercom. Once my manager showed up, so did the Asian lady’s partner, who was male and happened to know some English. He chuckled once he understood the situation, and then he eventually gave me cash for her items.

I really didn’t like customers who looked like they had had a bad day and were ready to bring their negative energy over to me. One time, a customer asked me a question about her items, “Is this on sale?” and I replied, “No, sorry, it is not on sale.”

“Well, on the rack where I got this from there is a sign saying that it is on sale.” This was a common question asked very often by customers. Eventually this exchange would lead to them asking if there was a way I could give them a discount. If I didn’t give them one (because I wasn’t allowed to unless they had a coupon or were a city worker), the customer would give me attitude.

As a cashier working up front, I had many responsibilities. I picked up hangers, which were on the floor next to my register from clothes that were purchased, and then I placed them in a bin, which every cashier had under their register. I organized items on the shelves behind the registers to make everything behind me look presentable, and I also returned items that were brought to the register by the customer but not purchased or were not wanted by the customer because he or she changed their mind. The shifts were usually six to eight hours, and I was standing the whole time. During these long shifts I would feel like I was going to collapse. The hardest days were when things were on sale or a sports team made it to the playoffs or was in the championship game at the end of its season.

Last year, for example, when the Mets made it to the World Series, Modell’s was flooded with die-hard Met fans that were so eager to get exactly what they wanted in order to be considered a fan that they would spend whatever they thought was necessary. There were customers on the floor asking for a specific baseball cap or shirt and I would receive calls from customers asking the same questions about the same items (which were usually out of stock). Things were hectic in the store. Kids would come in and once their parents left them for a second, the kids would take advantage of their freedom. They would throw balls and run around the store while their parents yelled at the managers about how stupid they thought the return policy was for the swag-way hover board. I thought the policy was fair and made sense.

Customers were always being watched, not only by the cameras in the store but by managers, employees, and of course our security guard, who would stand by the door most of the time. Some customers looked suspicious coming in carrying empty bags waiting to be filled and or even pushing empty strollers and no kids in the strollers or with them either. But my main concern as a cashier was to look out for credit card scammers. As a cashier I knew there were three method of payments: cash, credit, or debit. When a customer paid in cash, I was to mark bills larger than $10.00 with a special marker to check for counterfeit money.

During my time working at Modell’s I only came across one person who tried to do a credit card scam. He looked suspicious from the beginning. He was so nervous his hand was shaking as he tried repeatedly to swipe his “credit card” over and over again. And we rarely received customers who would buy three $400.00 swag way hover boards during one transaction, which he was trying to do.

As an employee at Modell’s I learned you should always assist the customers to the full extent. No matter how wrong or weird the customers may be or may seem to be, arguing with customers or treating them with disrespect should never be considered a solution. Just remember the customer is just as human as you are, and in some cases you are a customer as well, which is, in my opinion, why the customer is always right.


Margaret Douglas

First Prize, Poetry
Margaret Douglas  Creative Writing, Brooklyn College

Tangelo

Painters on the Brooklyn Bridge, Eugene de Salignac, 1914, LaborArts

Tangelo shape poem


Brian Alarcon

Second Prize, Poetry
Brian Alarcon  Creative Writing, Brooklyn College

Work Pants

Untitled, Roy Lichtenstein, January 1963

Work Pants
Ah! What a dreary thing it is to sit on the train while everyone else
Stands and towers above you. Crotchlevel, all I can think about are those
Work pants with their dry grays and navys and how perpetual this repetition is.
Laying my head on the shoulder of some jeanhead halfdead Edward Lopez,
The nylon legs look like cities with their belt roofs and button down skies!
Oh how I don't want to work a full time job then die! I thought, biting the zipper
Of his jacket and holding back tears.
The rows of pants continued to glisten with authority its dronethread,
Everybody began to look like everybody and I was a tiger with a shoulder
All crossing their streets and counting their bills
Refusing to die above all else and hopelessly alone.
I closed my eyes and bent the zipper with a numb sidetooth,
Drylipped, I burned the images of men with their slicked hair and work pants
And grew claws on my elbows because I felt like it and they couldn't own me.
A second after I opened my eyes to the empty car and it's sunray figure,
A cheerless man in the corner, wild and comforted.
Ed, Ed wake up. We made it to the Rockaways.


Third Prize, Poetry
Alia Khoury  English Literature, Lehman College

Marred Hands

Interior Demolition, Sam Hollenshead, 2001, LaborArts

The first things I noticed were his hands
His nails were a rough yellow
With a wasteland of dirt beneath where there should have been white
His palms were hardened like hammered rock
And covered in as many scars as though it had been hammered
Those were the first things I noticed
He spoke in an eager way
Like he knew how sour things could become
And just wanted everything over with
Before it got angry and grew teeth

If I am a precious person,
I am only precious because of my hands
Pale and dainty,
Structured and bony,
With fat, soft palms
To better hold a paint brush
To better glide color
Over a pale, unexplored land of canvas
I wonder who I would be
If I lost the softness of my untanned hands
And forfeited the strokes of a paintbrush soft enough to spread
A rainbow where there once was nothing

I think he lived in that place
That place where there once was nothing
And I think that’s why his hands are hard and dark
And graffitied with the angry scars of a snarling past
He forfeited his hands, his once soft hands,
So my pale ones could remain soft and unmarred
And could spread color into this difficult world.

I think he lived in that place
So I didn’t have to


Angela Degen

Honorable Mention, Poetry
Angela Degen  English and Criminology, John Jay College

My Father's Keeper

Arkansas Prison Labor, Bruce Jackson, circa 1970s, LaborArts

Papa says,
he works in a different world
where hot rays beat on backs
pressing those in the chain closer to atonement

Hands like iron
serpentine around ankles
tight
tighter
until sun-faded uniforms
gag up remnants of adolescent dreams

Papa says,
he works for a phantom fault
flimsy as memory

The sun melts
behind a barren field
and he folds his flesh into thin sheets,
over the corns and calluses—
blisters itching to burst like berries

Papa says,
the Keeper watches them
gnaw at marrow
desperate to fill bellies
swollen with silent screams

The metallic melody
bleeds black
reminding him of the infantile wails
he missed
the checks that bounced
his almost-life

Papa says,
the lady is blind
but a silver dollar will open an eye

You dig hands
through scratchy fabric
sift through lint like soil
furiously searching pockets
that have only seen pennies

You ask,
over the quiet static
afraid the dial-tone will suddenly
click
why he lives in such an alien place,
where there are no green monsters
with white saucer eyes

Papa says,
there are often no monsters at all
it's the sin of the flesh
wringing out the remainder of youth
reflecting back a muddy image

Papa says,
he works in a different world
where the Keeper
steals shadows off men's backs—
the leftovers

You tug
a cotton blanket
over your head,
covering eyes like your father,
afraid the Keeper
living under the bed will grab hold
and pull you under
too.


Alina Shen

First Prize, Fiction
Alina Shen  Critical Social Change, The City College of New York

Labor Movements 101

Members of ILGWU Local 23-25 on strike, Robert Gumpert, June 1982

In June 1982, immigrant Chinese women workers struck
for a good contract, marching through Chinatown New York.

I comb through the black and white
cropped hair and smiling faces,
beige hose and flowered blouses,
looking for a relative, my grandmother,
even my own face reflected mother,
a small girl solemnly snipping threads
playing in heavy draperies of fabric.

Fine toothed, I casually ask her in the car. We wait
for my father to return with plastic cartons of duck and chicken.
Do you remember working in the factory?
Mom turns to dad in the front seat. He thinks,
My first job was snipping threads and making the rice

The rice? Pull out my notepad and pen click

Yes, we brought our own sides and the foreman served us rice

I unclick and persist. Was it unsanitary, to eat in the factory?
No one got sick, mom points out,
It was okay, dad agrees. He pulls out of parking into drive.

That semester I sail through labor studies on
gilded waves of hot-headed justice, 1930s for
the compensation of workers, the fire still
named for product production and not
for the worker women who died
making them in 1911.

The strongest stench in
the way our professor lectured Five Points
without mentioning Chinatown Columbus Park.
I grabbed my comb and unleashed the
nuggets in the fine tooth.

1982 ILGWU Strike in New York Chinatown.

When labor conflates Chinese,
busy squabbling lines of division,
we do not notice them smearing us into blurry faces
wearing army green jumpsuits,
my arm and leg a lever
in the equation for optimal productivity.

1910 Taylorism.

The hand is not a lever,
And the joint is not a bolt.
I watch the aftermath of Rana Plaza 2013,
infamous pictures plastered on screens,
dust turning the whole collapse into
some freak sandstorm, turning workers
into an exhibition of matyrs.
It is easy to pretend they have always been there,
easy to bury and tuck away.

In solidarity and celebration of workplace and strike,
of combing through history and finding small
Gold Mountain nuggets in our 1882 Exclusion,
blinded in the dust of history which remains
settled long before we can tie them
together with thread snipped among heavy draperies of fabric
but we cast our nets wide and chase
secretly and imperceptibly,
like a compass vibrating left of north,
a comb running through the smooth and untangled.

The hand that shifts park into drive
is the hand that cheers the picket
is the hand that Taylor broke into a lever and a bolt
is the hand that embraces a loved one
in a factory doomed to become static in history.

On June 1982, Chinese American women workers struck
for a good contract, the least of all they had to accomplish that day.


Jaroslav Eliah Sykora

Second Prize, Fiction
Jaroslav Eliah Sykora  Math, NYC College of Technology

Cheechmoonda

Cheechmoonda, Jaroslav Eliah Sykora, February 2016

“That’s the house!” Jerry parked his yellow Mercedes with his firm logo of Bernezie’s Glass in front of 12677 Stuyvesant Avenue, switched off the radio, and opened his notebook. It was a thick diary in a black cover with a strap and a buckle. The corners of the diary, unprotected with any metal shields, suffered damage as Jerry wore it on his back tucked in his weight lifting belt. Bent in a shape of a bread roll the diary looks like the pages might fall apart the moment he opens it. But they held firm in the binding although Jerry stuck his nose into it at least thirty times a day. Jerry put the notebook on the wheel and licked his thumb and index finger before he opened it in the middle. He browsed to the last two pages, leaned his elbows upon the wheel and bent over. Both pages, the left and the right, were densely filled with dates, names, and addressees of customers whom he had arranged to come to and do the job they requested. He drew his brows together, and a brief moment of concentration filled the space in the cabin of the truck. After some twenty seconds, satisfied with what he found, he closed the notebook again. “So much to do!” he sighed. “John, I can’t stay longer than one hour here. I got more work to finish this afternoon. I really have to hurry up.” He did not move his head when he was talking.

Whomever Jerry had in his truck, may it be Timmy, Gene, Kien, Oozie, or me, he never used the plural form in his verbs. It was only he who did the work, not us. Although we were his helpers whom he was dependent on, his collaborators and team members, he never included us into his diction. In his verbalism it was he who did the work, from the start till the end, from the initial call of the customer till the last minute when the work was done and we were leaving the working place. In his business vocabulary we didn’t exist, we were him.

Jerry headed out of the truck not bothering to tell me a word either about the work we came to do or what tools he wanted me to take out from the truck. He somehow expected that I would figure it out by myself. But I usually didn’t, and then he got mad. I learned I had to squeeze it out of him. “What do you want me to make ready for you, adoni?” I asked. He turned his head to me, bewildered.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” He never heard me address him that way before. His Hebrew that he’d learned more than thirty years ago at the Solomon Schechter Institute was rusty.

“It means ‘my master’”. His bewilderment faded.

“Take the usual stuff—my pouch, garbage bin, two drill guns—the second for you, the bag with the insulation, the four-foot ladder, the caulk gun, two bronze caulks, the paper roll, the compressor and the baby-nailer. Leave it in the hallway on the first floor. You’ll work on the second screwing the window brackets to the frame and installing the blinds.” He jumped out, locked the car door on his side and rushed to the house to ring the doorbell.

After some two minutes a heavy African-American woman in her early sixties opened the door. She had a round face and her curly, bushy hair was slicked backwards. The upper part of her face was covered with a pair of big square glasses sitting on her broad nasal bridge which made her look sophisticated and learned. She was dressed in a dark blue cotton T-shirt and yoga pants with a silver contour waistband.

“Hello, Mother,” Jerry greeted her loudly. “How are you today? Ready for me?”

“Hi, Bernezie,” she answered. “Of course, I’m ready for you, of course. I’ve been awaiting you like a doe longing for water streams. You’ve not showed up for ten days, bro. Come in. Hopefully you finish the work today, do you? I can’t wait any longer for you to have it done—am losing money on the rent every day, Bernezie. You hear me? Every single day!” She fought to control her voice and sound casual, but she was too upset to hide her emotions.

“Calm down, Mother. I’ll finish everything today. Promise. I’ve been so busy and tired all the time, couldn’t come earlier, just couldn’t. Tell you later. I’m really sorry about that!” Jerry whispered apologetically. His voice was humble and weak.

“If you finish it today, that’s fine,” said the woman forgivingly. “Come in.” Jerry and the homeowner disappeared inside of the house leaving me outdoors. I unlocked the side door of the truck, took the tools out and one by one lay them behind the fencing. Then I closed the side door, locked it, went around the truck and checked whether the other two doors were locked. I didn’t hurry after Jerry, instead, I let my eyes feast on the nicely structured design of the brown façade of the house. It was a four-apartment residence set into a row of historic brownstone buildings. It had all the classical features that characterize that architectonical style—rusticated pilasters, lintel stones above the windows, the three-part entablature, and the cornice sitting on the walls like a royal crown on the head of Queen Victoria. More than a hundred years ago Bed-Stuy was a neighborhood of middle and upper class inhabitants. Despite the major change of homeowners in the thirties of the past century, when the white rich people left and the poor blacks from Harlem moved in, many houses, including 12677 Stuyvesant Avenue, retained the memory of the time when those residences had been built.

Jerry appeared in the door again. “Why are you wasting my time, John? How long should I have been waiting in the hallway for the tools? Why haven’t you made them ready yet?” He wasn’t angry, just impatient as he often was when he was under stress and pressure. Then he saw the pouch with the tools at his feet, grabbed it and vanished into the house again. I followed him.

The interior bore recognizable traces of the opulent style of the Victorian gothic which the new occupants didn’t manage to preserve in its original shape. The ornate dark woodwork of the wall with the trefoil ornaments was scratched, and the molding with hand carved roses was twisted as a result of excessive humidity. The craftsmanship of the décor suffered a hard blow of time which made me feel sorry for the house as if it was a decaying living organism.

I brought the tools inside, placed them in the hallway, took my drill gun with one hand and the ladder with the other, and went up into the apartment on the second floor remembering Jerry to have said that the brackets and the blinds had to be installed in the living room only. I got up and felt the deteriorated lumber under my feet squeaking with my every step. The mahogany door was open. The homeowner claimed that the apartment wasn’t rented out yet but somebody obviously occupied it. There was a sofa- bed in the living room, a coffee table, a Samsung 65” plasma TV, a DVD-player, and a letter-format picture of Jesus Christ framed in gold on the top shelf above the fireplace.

It took me two minutes to set up my tools.

I was working alone there and I enjoyed it. I felt I did something creative, a piece of work that had a beginning and an end. For a moment I stopped being a cheechmoonda, Jerry’s unskilled helper, required only to pay attention to his commands and be ready to hold, pass, take away, bring, put, lay down, press, fill, close, open, pitch, and turn around whenever he commanded. He worked in the living room downstairs, and I was free, out of his reach, and with a task to accomplish. And to make myself even happier, I put headphones on my ears and listened to the BBC news to learn the latest about the presidential debate between Donald Trump and Ben Carson. My happiness, though, didn’t last too long. An intruder broke into it and the bubble of freedom burst. The daughter of the homeowner came in. I took notice of her not earlier than when she was already standing in the doorway.

“Hi, what are ya doing here?” she asked. Her voice was deep and strident.

“Hello, Miss. I’m Bernezie’s helper, finishing the windows. They didn’t tell you?”

“Nope, mom hasn’t told me ya’d come today. What’s your name?”

“John. And yours?” There was a pause before she answered.

“Alice.”

“Hi, Alice. Nice to meet you.”

“Ya too,” she said. “I’ll stay here and watch ya.” She plunked herself down onto the soft cushions of the sofa-bed and breathing heavily she folded her arms. She was much bigger than her mother. And shorter. She wore the same outfit as her mom, only the contour waistband wasn’t silver but gold. She had a girlish face but she certainly was in her late thirties. A set of meticulously braided ponytails with ladybug-clips made her look younger but the effect of it was weird. It looked as if she refused to become a grown- up and was suppressing her biological growth and maturity masking it with her hairstyle. She had a strong bull-neck and stiff curly hairs on her chin—the indication of a higher baseline level of testosterone in her ovaries. It gave her girlish face a masculine appearance and an unattractive look. I wondered if she ever had sexual intercourse.

I picked up the first bracket and two screws from the floor, tucked the drill gun in my belt, climbed up on the ladder, and attached the bracket to the frame. There was a massive chunk of caulk in the corner making it impossible to pin the bracket squared. I fought with my balance a bit too; the wobbling ladder made my stand dangerous, and the drill-bit was sliding off the screw-head. Alice watched me ardently wheezing as she breathed. My fight excited her so much that she began to sweat. I searched for a razor blade in my front pockets and accidentally touched my testicles. Alice’s aroused breath grew stronger. The sour odor of her sweating body filled the front of the room and hit my nose. It made me nervous. I didn’t find the razor blade so I quickly pinned the bracket askew and climbed down the ladder.

“Hallelujah!” Alice seeing that as a success exclaimed so loud that she scared me. I turned to her with reproach. Tiny silver drops popped out on her forehead and her dark eyes covered shiny foil of moisture. With one of her hands she was pressing her breasts and with the other she was rubbing her lap. She pulled her hand quickly away seeing my disconcerted face. I quickly pinned the second bracket to the frame and in the corners of the room I searched for the blind. Alice noticed my helpless effort.

“What are ya looking for, Johnny?” She changed the position of the laryngeal cartilage which raised her voice pitch a fourth. She sounded much softer and warmer than when she came in.

“Sweetheart, do you happen to know where they put the window blind?”

“There it is, honey!” She pointed at the blind thrown behind the sofa-bed. Buried in cushions she struggled to turn her body around. The blind was wrapped up in a bundle. I picked it up. “Thank ya, Jesus,” I heard her whisper. The blind was a piece of junk. Jerry called it shit, fake, garbage, and proof of American superficiality. It looked nice but worked bad. The unpainted wood shades were kept in their natural hue and made people feel comfortable but because they lay untied on the threads only, they tended to slip free no matter how cautiously they were treated. I unfolded the bundle and rolled it up. At that moment the rows of shades tore apart.

“Damn!” I cursed loudly. The shades collapsed like a tower built of cards, and rattling, fell on the wooden floor.

“Grrr,” Alice grunted from the sofa-bed. I raised the relic of the blind and climbed up on the ladder. Alice’s growl gave me a kick. I put the ends into the brackets and locked the blind. Done! Then I picked up the shades and placed them on the ladder to have them ready for drawing them back through the threads. I drew the first shade on the bottom of the blind. It was slow and patient work to put the shades back in their place. I did the second, third, and fourth. With each returned shade, Alice’s breath grew louder. I didn’t dare to turn my head. I cared only for the shades. I did the fifth, sixth, and seventh. Alice’s nasal wheeze vibrated in slow intervals. I did the eights, ninth, and tenth. Alice opened her mouth and moaned. I did the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth. Alice screamed with a suppressed voice breathing heavily. I did the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth. There was but one shade left on the ladder. I took it with hesitation and drew it slowly through the threads. The intervals of Alice’s screaming voice increasingly intensified. I waited some ten seconds longer until I heard Alice’s joyful cry-out: “God is good, yes, he is, all the time! Yes, he is, all the time, all the time, all the time!”

I was staring through the open shades of the window at the row of old oaks running along the sidewalk. The street was empty, only some teenage boy dressed in PUMA hoodie and black saggy pants stood at the intersection intensely examining cars approaching his spot from left and right. The afternoon sun was still strong and cut into my eyes with sharp beams. Instantly a set of rainbow-colored blotches blinded me, and the solid contours of the trees, buildings, cars, and the teenage boy turned into a blurred canvas of a Homer Winslow-like water-color. Suddenly a new sixty-five thousand silver Ferrari appeared on the road and stopped at the boy. The window-glass rolled down and a dark hand with gold bracelet slid out. The boy put several hundred-dollar bills in the opened palm and took from it two glassine envelopes of heroin. The boy pulled the hood over his head and rushed away from the scene. The Ferrari, in a flash of a light, accelerated and continued in its ride down the street. The whole trade didn’t last longer than fifteen seconds. I felt like I was cast in some creepy movie. A woman masturbating behind my back while I was installing window blinds, and a drug-dealer distributing heroin freely on the street in the day-light. I wondered what comes next.

I packed all my tools, took the ladder and the drill into my other hand, left the room, and went down the stairs. “I’m done!” I shouted at Jerry who worked in the living room.

“Me too,” he shouted back. “Take the compressor and the baby-nailer and get your stuff back into the truck and wait for me. I’ll be there in a minute.”

In ten minutes he appeared in the car. He sat heavily on the seat and threw his notebook on the dashboard. His eyes gleamed with relief, happiness, and satisfaction. “Do you want to hear how much cabbage I made for this job I’ve just done?” I shrugged my shoulders. ”Eighty five hundred bucks.”

“Good for you!” You deserve it,” I said with a light tone of irony emphasizing the pronouns. “You toiled for that woman like a beast!“ He noticed the ironic color in my voice but wasn’t sure if the emphasis was just the result of my Slavic accent stressing the first syllables of any word, so he preferred to just change the subject.

“And with you, everything all right?” I told him about Alice. He looked at me sternly examining my expression for a while before he asked, “Did you screw her?”

I shook my head. “She wasn’t exactly my cup of coffee.”

“Good. Never do that. Remember: Don’t shit where you eat. Never mix up sex and business. You came to her to satisfy her needs with work and get her money. If you screw your customer, she may give you less or nothing. Got it, Professor?” I nodded. “Of course, you did. You have a PhD.” He grinned cheerfully at me, pulled his car onto the road, and off he drove his Bernezie’s Glass truck to finish another job.


Danielle James

Third Prize, Fiction
Danielle James  English, Baruch College

Drown

Drown, Alisha Vernon, November 2014

Five hours. That’s how long Noa carried dirty plates and took orders. Until her red sneakers walked her out into the narrow hallway of the Comedy Cellar. Her curly hair has flattened on top, the lids under her eyes feel heavy, and her voice has become husky. Damn these tough soles, she mutters, her words drowned out by the muffled sounds coming from the main room. She brushes her forehead with the back of her hand, breathes out deeply. Her feet pulsate. She pushes her entire weight, heavy with the brick nestled deeply inside of her, on the wooden railing. A baby roach catches her eye and she follows it into a crack in a wall. When it disappears, she scampers down the stairs and pushes against the heavy wooden door, back into the main room.

She worms her way through thrusting arms and streams of laughter. The comedian on stage is complaining about his ex wives and the mouths in the room hang open with amusement. A speck of spittle lands on Noa’s forearm and she looks at it. Fingers curl into waves and tug at her. C’mere hun, a stubby patron with bleached hair and stew colored lipstick calls before she accidentally scratches her wrist. Noa stops and gazes at the mark left behind by the acrylic nail. The lady apologizes and tries to order another dirty martini, but Noa doesn’t listen. Instead, she walks in a straight line to the little room next to the stage and throws the door shut.

A scratched up bar stool supports her weight. One of the comedians stubs out his cigarette. His cheeks form two large knobs as his mouth pushes into a smile. He sees her bulge and cries out with pleasure. Teeth chattering as he asks her the usual questions in between sips of beer.

Is it—

Girl.

When—

November.

First?

Yes. She gives him the usual responses.

She is tired. Her shift started an hour ago but already she feels the urge to return home and make sure the money is still there. She’s hidden the red bandana pregnant with bills twice already today. Not good enough, she thinks, I should’ve brought it with me. She pictures her husband pulling cracked tiles loose and checking under the soles of her shoes, with hands that tremble with want. Looking. He’s always looking, and he always finds it. Today, she woke up extra early, thankful for the nausea that has

accompanied her these past months. Her husband lay stiffly on the floor. She checked his pulse and checked for her bandana. It was still there, taped underneath the drawer that holds the cutlery. When he woke up, he carried out a conversation from the other room. He tried to make his voice sound casual, but she could hear him going through her clothes, shifting furniture, lifting up plates. Whenever he went to relieve himself. She quietly moved her bandana to a new hiding place. Eventually, his glassy-eyed and slow- moving friends called for him, and he was gone. But now he could be back, and the money could be gone.

She notices the comedian just as he steps closer and places his hand on her swelling. He insists he must bless this child. Too tired to wave him away, she responds by pursing her lips. May this child be blessed with a sense of humor, he begins. His voice quavers dramatically, like a preacher’s, and she snickers. He leans closer to her belly and whispers, Never pick a fight with an ugly person, they've got nothing to lose. Assuming a tone of solidarity, he winks and tells the belly, Sometimes, in life, you'll have to specifically go out of your way to get into trouble. It's called having fun.

He says more things. Things that make her smile, then laugh. Together, they sit in the dark room, his face next to her stomach, whispering jokes to the child that is to be. Her insides warm as she laughs, and for a moment she forgets. Until her belly makes her the coins in her apron shake. And she remembers the bandana she should’ve taken from the empty video case in her living room.

She thinks of her apartment, naked except for the mattress on the floor. Colored only by the shadow left by the TV, dragged out and sold by her husband while she was at work. When she came home and saw the empty space and her husband lying besides it, she knew that the proceeds had long been absorbed by his body. Inhaled through a foggy glass pipe. Her kitchen cabinets, taken over by a family of roaches. They breed there, crawl over cans of beans, and nest into packets of rice. They fall out of the bag of dirty

clothes she can’t afford to wash. She likes to watch them crash to the floor, relieved that they’re no longer burrowing in her underwear.

She remembers her husband’s cheeks, how sunken they are. His eyes that no longer speak to her. His animated voice that used to make her feel calm, but now makes her stomach curl with nervousness. When she peed on the stick and saw two stripes, she knew she couldn’t keep the child. There wasn’t enough money, she had no green card. She couldn’t ask her mother for help.

Is he Jewish? Noa’s mother asked her when she called to announce her marriage.

No.

Oh, her mother said. And he’s-

Jamaican, remember?

Yes, yes. Her mother paused. When are you coming home?

I don’t know. We’ll visit soon.

But if it becomes difficult, you can always—

I’m staying here, Noa said, I’ll be fine.

She hung up and didn’t tell her about the work that only paid for a small room in an apartment shared with six other people. Boarding a plane to New York and falling in love had been the easy part. He held her tight by the small of her back. She inhaled his always-clean scent. They ignored the stares of people who didn’t know them. They tacked pictures on their bedroom wall and put notes in their jean pockets. They chose each other. Then she got pregnant.

She had hesitated, worried about work and money. He had convinced her to keep the child. Said he wished for nothing more than a little baby girl who looked just like her. That was before he became a shriveled up version of her husband. Before he allowed his tongue to touch the white powder that he would come to love so hard that he wanted to be close to it at all times. Being near to it wasn’t enough, he needed it on him, in him. She tried to fix it by purging the apartment. All of their packets of weed and bottles of wine were donated to friends. Except for that one line she snorted before she knew, she’d been clean. She waited for him to do the same.

She waited patiently while he stayed out later each night. She tried to unlock his jaw and feed him. When he came home high, she sometimes yelled at him. Other times she pushed the black and white picture of their unborn baby against his forehead, tapping it each time his eyes rolled back. She threatened to leave and begged him to stop. He could not escape his urge.

Now, when people spit at the sight of them holding hands together—him, dark with long dreadlocks, and her, blonde coils framing her pale face—he turns around viciously. Fuck you asshole, yeah this is my wife! he screams before his fingers unwrap from hers and he scans the sidewalk for stones to smash into skulls. She wonders what the child will go through. Will store clerks sneer at the child as they do at her and her husband? Will she know her grandparents? The first time Noa met her mother-in-law, she was walking with her husband in the Lower East Side. A woman with neatly pressed hair stopped and looked at him with eyes that were moist around the rims. I thought you were dead, she hissed. He left the apartment that night and didn’t come back until three days later. Pale, thin, and hungry.

A father must be strong and stern, Noa thinks, not gaunt and weak. Her own father taught her that. She had been an obedient child. When she wasn’t, the leather belt would wrap around his knuckles and flail at her skin. He was strict, but she loved him still. When she couldn't sleep at night, she listened quietly for his deep cough. The sound of rising phlegm assuring her that he was just next door. He caught the cough when he was a teenager, hiding from the Schutzstaffel during the war in Germany. He hid in a hospital and later in a morgue. The cold made him sick, but he had to stay and act dead to prevent being discovered. Raids happened frequently, and when he heard the sound of leather boots slapping the floor and sharp voices yelling orders, he breathed in and out as slow as possible. As if he had to preserve the little bit of oxygen in the room that was left. After inhaling the cold morgue air for a long time, his chest scratched and he started to cough. A deep, gargling cough that would stay with him for the rest of his life, until he died from it. There was a time when he had been weak, and thin and hungry too, but he wasn't needy like her husband.

Consumed by his want, Noa’s husband has given up. When she comes home after work, their apartment no longer smells like saltfish and sautéed vegetables. Roach droppings line the countertop. I’m gonna get my shit together, her husband keeps promising. The cracked kisses on her forehead almost feel the same as before, but the rest is all wrong. The addicts nodding off in her living room, the money that keeps disappearing, the man who is no longer a husband and can’t be a father.

What's right is just what's left after you do everything else wrong, the comedian shares with Noa’s curve. Noa grips her stomach. Making sure that her child is all right has been the only constant in her life, the only thing she is sure of. It’s what’s left after everything else went wrong. She studies the comedian’s eyes. Kind blue irises surrounded by sharply creased skin. He’s nice, she thinks, but he’s also on his fourth beer since they’ve been sitting together. He looks out to the main stage. It’s packed out there, he says, hope you’ll have a good night. Noa rubs her money through her apron. She must think of a new place to hide the bandana tonight. How useless, she thinks, her husband will find it anyway. This makes her laugh out loud. The comedian laughs back. He winks at her and waves at her belly, before he licks at his beer and walks on stage.


Olivia Cieri

Honorable Mention, Fiction
Olivia Cieri  Liberal Arts, Borough of Manhattan CC

“The Mirror”

Dole pineapple cannery, ca. 1958, LaborArts

“No, I asked him already and he said he couldn’t do it. I know it’s his job. You don’t—excuse me—you don’t have to tell me. Excuse me, sir? I know already. Can I get a mocha frappucino? I think we should just start working with someone else. He’s obviously a liability. Hello? Sir? No, not you, the barista,”

The barista line is made up of two separate workstations; one where the orders are taken, and one where they’re made. The barista at the register can’t separate the woman’s order from her phone conversation and stands dumbly at the counter, shrinking under her glare. The barista at the coffee machine, who serves as the store manager, leans over him and taps the order onto his screen. Her plastic gloves leave smears.

The woman on the phone nods to the manager. “Thank you,”

“You’re welcome,” The barista answers. She gives the kid at the register a tired look. “It’s under the mixed drinks page,”

“I know,” He says. She turns back to her station and layers the chocolate syrup under scoops of ice and milk with quick, precise movements. The woman on the phone turns her back to finish her conversation, leaving the kid at the counter as alone as he can be in the store.

He uses this opportunity to take one, illicit little break. He doesn’t leave the counter or sit down, but instead of looking for busywork, he relaxes. The cups are full. He cleaned the milk station before this last order. The display is faced out. He’ll check up on the bathroom in one second, after he takes a breath…

As he stares out into space, his eyes travel over the woman’s shoulder, past the chairs and tables and out through the glass doors at the Starbucks across the street. There's a woman on her phone at the front and two employees behind the counter. One mixes drinks. The other stares straight back at him.

He looks down nervously. When the woman has her drink, she takes a sip, licks foam off her lip, and leaves. The counter feels exposed without her there to lean on it, and the kid suddenly feels vulnerable. He leaves the counter to check on the bathroom, flushes loose tissue floating in the bowl, and sweeps up some paper on the floor, then returns to the counter. He sneaks a peek out the window and sees the other man sliding back behind the counter.

"Where were you?" The manager demands.

"I was checking up on the bathroom,"

"Never leave your station unmanned," She snaps. He doesn’t ask her how the toilet paper is supposed to get restocked without leaving his station. He’ll wait until someone makes a complaint. The time ticks into the last hour of his shift, and in between customers he makes himself as busy as he can, adjusting the displays and cleaning the front, without leaving his station unmanned. He does not look across the street to see what is happening inside, but the curiosity makes the hairs on the back of his neck prickle.

When he comes back behind the counter, the manager’s expression is puckered with disappointment. “The sugar dispenser is empty,”

“Should I refill it?” He asks. She gives him a short nod, so he leaves his station unmanned long enough to refill the sugar. As he passes by the window, he catches sight of the other man, in the other Starbucks, walking around the counter to reach the sugar dispenser. He can see the barista behind the counter shooting dirty looks at his back.

He counts the customers in his Starbucks, and the one across the street. There’s the same number of laptops, stacks of books on the same tables. Someone walks through the door, and across the street, a customer walks in. His manager pushes past him when the female barista brushes past the young man at the counter.

He takes the next order, grabs the broom and sweeps towards the door. He pushes open the door the same time his double does, holding his broom and dustpan in his opposite hand. He sees the manager across the street give his double a sour look and closes the door behind him.

"Where were you going?" She demands. He squeezes back behind the counter and says nothing. She continues; "You were blocking the door,"

I’m not allowed near the door? He wonders. "Sorry,"

"We don't dump trash outside,"

"I know,"

"If a health inspector saw you doing that, we could get a fine,"

"Ok,"

She raises her eyebrows at him. "’Okay’?"

"Yes. I mean, sorry,"

She sighs and rubs her forehead with the back of her wrist, a habit from scratching itches without contaminating gloves. "Can you hang back for a few minutes until Rudy gets here? She called to say she was running late,"

He glances at the clock. It is the end of his shift, and all he wants to do is get his bag and head home with the satisfaction of putting another day of work behind him. But he can’t refuse a manager’s request on his first day, so he hangs back, and ten minutes later, a girl skips into Starbucks. Across the street, a girl skips into the Starbucks.

"You're late!" The manager teases.

"No, I'm not!" She chirps, shucking off her coat. When the barista sneaks a look out the door, he sees his double watching him watch him.

"Scuse me," Rudy says as she squeezes in. The girl across the street slides between the kid at the register. He steps aside to give her space, then back to get his coat. He buttons up slowly, thinking. He forgets what he’s doing and curls his fingers into the top of his backpack.

"What took you so long?" The manager asks over her next coffee order. He looks across the street, where his double stands, holding his backpack by the straps.

"…nothing," He says. "You ever been to that Starbucks across the street?

She looks confused. “No, why?”

“No reason,” He says, shooting another glance at the door.

Each young man exits their respective Starbucks and pauses at the door. Each one asks himself if he should confront his copy. Each one is frightened of the answer they’ll receive. They each decide that they never need to see each other if they turn away, so they face opposite directions and walk home.


Hope Linton

First Prize, Visual Arts
Hope Linton  Multimedia and Arts, Borough of Manhattan CC

 

Barbershop, Acrylic on canvas.

My acrylic painting on canvas of the barbershop scene depicts a traditional barbershop in Bronx, New York where the workers provide a very essential service to the community. The barbershop is a place where people of all professions; from the doctors to the construction workers not only come to be groomed, but they also have a place to vent their frustrations releasing tension.

Being the wife of a barber I have the front seat view of the struggles and fears they face on a daily basis, as they work lengthy hours on their feet trying hard to provide for their families in a disturbing economy, and not being able to celebrate holidays in order to please their customers and to pay the bills. My aim is to help make the work of the barbers visible. I believe this painting portrays the Labor Arts spirit, as barbers who for a better part of the time go unappreciated; and are one of the most creative and extremely hard working class of people beautifying the city one person at a time.


Pascale Duvalsaint

Second Prize, Visual Arts
Pascale Duvalsaint  Biomedical Education, The City College of New York

 

(Tie)rless

My painting represents the personal plight of someone very important in my life: my late grandmother. After arriving in this country, she found a factory job where she sewed ties for hours upon hours each day. My grandmother worked unreasonably long days, yet was allowed only one bathroom break per shift. Even when she took this 'break,' the personnel in charge closely monitored her and the other factory workers. Consequently, workers were forced to concentrate on the same task without a mental or physical recess. I attempted to capture the tired, yet focused face that I imagined my grandmother to bear. I placed her within a monotone, dark environment; an environment where the most important entity is the product that you produce. I hope this work begins to shed a light on the unrealistic expectations, extensive work hours, and unsafe conditions that men, women, and even children have been faced with while laboring. Placing most details in the face highlights that the human behind the fancy tie has a story too. Such people, including my grandmother, worked so tirelessly, and made grand sacrifices for the betterment of our families and society. I hope that this painting begins to show my gratitude.


Donauta Watson-Starcevic

Third Prize, Visual Arts
Donauta Watson-Starcevic  English, John Jay College

 

This American Life (Take 7)

Work a while 10–9
Summer smoothies, Splatter
Cries the dirty flies

Living in America undocumented for twenty-two years have left me with many goals, and dreams unfulfilled. Ineligible for many opportunities, often overworked and underpaid obtaining legal status and more importantly documentation has been a fixation since childhood. Documents for me have mutated. Taking on lives of their own these documents became fantasies of what could have and should have been. Success, identity, life's basic necessities like this print has merge into one.

This American Life Take Seven, is one of six collections of objects, and documents including journal entries, pay stubs, rent receipts, w-2's, WIC vouchers, Social Security cards, hammers and a banana which I have Xeroxed and enlarged. These every day tools symbolize an identity and a life deferred.

Although no longer undocumented, a fragmented American dream still plays a supporting role in my identity and overall role in society. As a member of a nation filled with dreamers, workers, immigrants, and visionaries my hope is that this document serves a testament of one who was once nameless.


Keka Marzagao

Honorable Mention, Visual Arts
Keka Marzagao  Photography and Cultural Anthropology, Hunter College

 

Nancy

Prompted by a photography class assignment entitled "My Neighborhood" and another professor's remark about Hunter's lack of a sense of community (derived from its commuting student body), I embarked on a search to discover, and at the same time, create my own community at Hunter College through photography. I was initially inspired by the work of August Sander, a photographer who in the beginning of the 20th century created a series of portraits entitled "People of the 20th Century." His goal was to essentially "catalog" all the people he encountered but his portraits not only captured the uniqueness of all these individuals, they also gave a sense of dignity to everyone he portrayed, from the baker to the homeless. My goal was not to catalog but to create a connection and honor each individual I encountered in my new "neighborhood"—Hunter College. This assignment gave me an excuse to approach everyone, from custodial staff to fellow students and professors, and allowed me to create my own small community within a sea of new faces. As a result, I feel very much connected to Hunter College and especially to the few people I approached and with whom I shared this experience.


 

Background & Credits for 2015–2016

The CUNY/Labor Arts contest aims to expand student’s thinking about labor history—broadly defined—at CUNY, and is open to any undergraduate attending a CUNY college. Begun in 2010, it encourages students to write creatively and analytically about work and workers, to make art about work and workers, and to link their efforts to the spirit of LaborArts.

We were honored to have Laurel Rubin and Gloria Calhoun from the Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation, and Brooklyn College Associate Provost Stuart MacLelland join the contest organizers and judges at the awards ceremony in April.

We would like to thank all of the students who submitted work for the 2015–16 contest, and to congratulate the authors of the prize-winning essays and poems and the creators of the visual art featured in this exhibit. All CUNY students are encouraged to begin considering possible themes for entries in next year’s contest. Guidelines for the 2016–17 contest will be available in fall 2016; the guidelines used for this contest are here.

The contest is funded by The Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation, and was made possible this year through the efforts of Professor Joe Entin, Director of Graduate Studies Patrick Kavanagh and Associate Provost Stuart MacLelland from Brooklyn College/CUNY; and Rachel Bernstein and Evelyn Jones Rich from LaborArts.

Special thanks go to our judges: Professor Julie Agoos of the Brooklyn College English Department (Poetry); Professor Michael Rawson of the Brooklyn College History Department (Non-Fiction); Sujatha Fernandes of the Queens College Sociology Separtment (Fiction); and Professor Becca Albee of the City College Art Department (Visual Art). Many thanks to Graduate Center for Worker Education’s director Lucas Rubin and his extraordinary staff, including Asif Qureshi and Anselma Rodriguez, and to LaborArts intern Veronica Garcia.

The photographs of students and event speakers were taken by photographer Gary Schoichet at the Awards Ceremony, held at the Brooklyn College Graduate Center for Worker Education in Lower Manhattan on April 19, 2016.


 

Making Work Visible—A Labor Arts Contest
2015–2016 Contest Rules

Nina Talbot Open to CUNY undergraduates, this contest offers cash prizes up to $1,000 in four categories: fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and visual art. Click here to read the winning entries from previous contests.

Entries should relate to labor arts—to portrayals of work and workers, as well as art by working people. Paid work and labor unions are only a part of the story — entries about unpaid work, immigration, family and community are also encouraged. Funded by the Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation, the contest aims to expand student engagement with the under-appreciated history of work and workers in this country, and to re-vitalize the study of labor history at CUNY.


Undergraduates in good standing enrolled at any CUNY institution are eligible to compete. Entries must be submitted by March 2, 2016 online at this link.

Prizes in each category: First Place: $1,000 // Second Place: $500 // Third Place: $250 // Honorable Mention $100.

 

Garment Worker

Here’s what makes this contest unusual —

Students submitting written work
must include an image that is related to the themes in their writing. You may include a link to: a) one of the images below; b) one of the images from this gallery; c) an image from any Labor Arts exhibit or collection; or d) an image from another source. Sample images from the LaborArts.org web museum:

  • Sample 1
  • Sample 2
  • Sample 3
  • Sample 4
  • Sample 5
  • Sample 6
  • Sample 7

Students submitting visual artwork must include a paragraph (100-250 words) explaining how their work shares, and is a part of, the Labor Arts spirit. The statement must address the medium and the artistic tradition in which you are working.

Successful entries show thoughtful, original work on subjects relevant to work, to working people, and to the labor movement. Topics might include, but are not limited to: economic and social problems; issues of immigration; conflicts based on race, class, and ethnic identity; environmental concerns; child labor; women in the labor force; economic justice; globalization and international labor markets; organizing campaigns; crime and corruption; anti-labor campaigns; cultural and artistic visions; ideals and ideologies.

Entries are judged according to originality, content and style, by professors who teach undergraduates at CUNY. Prizes will be awarded at a ceremony in Spring 2016.

For more information, contact Professor Joseph Entin and Acting Director of Graduate Studies Patrick Kavanagh at mwv@brooklyn.cuny.edu.

Click on this link for the entry form you need to submit with your work.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

Making Work Visible—A Labor Arts Contest
2015–2016 Contest Rules

Bao Lin Zhang Open to CUNY undergraduates, this contest offers cash prizes up to $1,000 in four categories: fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and visual art. Click here to read the winning entries from previous contests.

Entries should relate to labor arts—to portrayals of work and workers. Keep in mind that paid work and labor unions are only part of the story—entries about unpaid work, immigration, family and community are also encouraged. The contest aims to expand student engagement with the under-appreciated history of work and workers in this country, and to re-vitalize the study of labor history at CUNY.


Undergraduates in good standing enrolled at any CUNY institution are eligible to compete. Entries must be submitted by March 7, 2016 online at this link.

Prizes in each category: First Place: $1,000 // Second Place: $500 // Third Place: $250 // Honorable Mention $100.

 

Fasanella - Subway Rider #2

Here’s what makes this contest unusual —

Students submitting written work must include an image that is related to the themes in their writing. You may include a link to: a) one of the images below; b) one of the images from this gallery; c) an image from any Labor Arts exhibit or collection; or d) an image from another source. Sample images from the LaborArts.org web museum:

  • Sample 1
  • Sample 2
  • Sample 3
  • Sample 4
  • Sample 5
  • Sample 6
  • Sample 7
  • Sample 8

Students submitting visual artwork must include a paragraph (100-250 words) explaining how their work shares the Labor Arts spirit. The statement must address the medium and the artistic tradition in which you are working.

Successful entries show thoughtful, original work on subjects relevant to work, to working people, and to the labor movement. Topics might include, but are not limited to: economic and social problems; issues of immigration; conflicts based on race, class, and ethnic identity; environmental concerns; child labor; women in the labor force; economic justice; globalization and international labor markets; organizing campaigns; crime and corruption; anti-labor campaigns; cultural and artistic visions; ideals and ideologies.

Entries are judged according to originality, content and style, by professors who teach undergraduates at CUNY. Prizes will be awarded at a ceremony in Spring 2016.

For more information, contact Brooklyn College Professor Joseph Entin and Director of Graduate Studies Patrick Kavanagh at mwv@brooklyn.cuny.edu.

Entries must be submitted by March 7, 2016 at this link.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

Making Work Visible—A Labor Arts Contest
2016–2017 Contest Rules

Bao Lin Zhang Open to CUNY undergraduates, this contest offers cash prizes up to $1,000 in four categories: fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and visual art. Click here to read the winning entries from previous contests.

Entries should relate to labor arts—to portrayals of work and workers. Keep in mind that paid work and labor unions are only part of the story—entries about unpaid work, immigration, family and community are also encouraged. The contest aims to expand student engagement with the under-appreciated history of work and workers in this country, and to re-vitalize the study of labor history at CUNY.


Undergraduates in good standing enrolled at any CUNY institution are eligible to compete. Entries must be submitted by March 6, 2017 online at this link.

Prizes in each category: First Place: $1,000 // Second Place: $500 // Third Place: $250 // Honorable Mention $100.

 

Fasanella - Subway Rider #2

Here’s what makes this contest unusual —

Students submitting written work must include an image that is related to the themes in their writing. You may include a link to: a) one of the images below; b) one of the images from this gallery; c) an image from any Labor Arts exhibit or collection; or d) an image from another source. Sample images from the LaborArts.org web museum:

  • Sample 1
  • Sample 2
  • Sample 3
  • Sample 4
  • Sample 5
  • Sample 6
  • Sample 7
  • Sample 8

Students submitting visual artwork must include a paragraph (100-250 words) explaining how their work shares the Labor Arts spirit. The statement must address the medium and the artistic tradition in which you are working.

Successful entries show thoughtful, original work on subjects relevant to work, to working people, and to the labor movement. Topics might include, but are not limited to: economic and social problems; issues of immigration; conflicts based on race, class, and ethnic identity; environmental concerns; child labor; women in the labor force; economic justice; globalization and international labor markets; organizing campaigns; crime and corruption; anti-labor campaigns; cultural and artistic visions; ideals and ideologies.

Entries are judged according to originality, content and style, by professors who teach undergraduates at CUNY. Prizes will be awarded at a ceremony in Spring 2017.

For more information, contact Brooklyn College Professor Joseph Entin and Director of Graduate Studies Patrick Kavanagh at mwv@brooklyn.cuny.edu.

Entries must be submitted by March 6, 2017 at this link.