plates: an experimental journal of art and culture


Well we got no choice All the girls and boys Makin all that noise Cause they found new toys Well we can’t salute ya Can’t find a flag If that don’t suit ya That’s a drag School’s out for summer School’s out forever School’s been blown to pieces No more pencils No more books No more teacher’s dirty looks Well we got no class And we got no principles And we got no innocence We can’t even think of a word that rhymes School’s out for summer School’s out forever My school’s been blown to pieces No more pencils No more books No more teacher’s dirty looks Out for summer Out ‘til fall We might not come back at all School’s out forever School’s out for summer School’s out with fever School’s out completely 

About

respect for hands

ree sherwood

There were no mirrors in the McDonald’s on Forbes and Atwood in Pittsburgh. I never knew how I looked in my uniform, always getting dressed in the barely-morning. The smallest pants they had still tightened around my ribcage like a draw-string bag. I’d wait for the last possible moment to lower the visor over my French braid and put on the customer service smile I was still learning.

That summer, just after my freshman year at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), I took a poetry workshop and read nothing but sad, cheeky memoirs by gay men (Augusten Burroughs, David Sedaris). I read Running with Scissors for the sixteenth time just to get to the chapter where Augusten’s best friend, Natalie, becomes a McDonald’s counter kid too. Connected by the polyester swaddling, I admired her. She strolled around Cape Cod in that uniform, watching for whales but only finding plastic bags.

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I was one of the lucky kids who had the chance to leave our town of working hands for a new-Ivy tech school just seventy miles south of my childhood bedroom.

On move-in day, after I said goodbye to my parents in the parking garage off Forbes and Meyran, I stood to watch the president speak. Look around you, he said. Everyone here was the best in high school. But now you’re all the same.

A level playing field, I’d soon learn, was too kind a sentiment. Not quite the traditionally prestigious institution, the school loved pointing to its own chest and claiming innovation. It was soon clear who, exactly, the school herded through its hallways to show off at the end of a long few years. Under Carnegie Mellon’s watch, the computer science majors were always sleeping on benches near computer clusters; the architecture majors slept only one day each month, and they’d sleep straight through it; the engineers ran the school, boasting guaranteed jobs; the opera singers and actors glided beautifully into their marble-lined College of Fine Arts; and the writing kids, we began to learn the art of self-deprecation.

In the beginning—before Carnegie Tech knew the Mellon Institute—the school was meant to educate for the steel industry. It was intended for what Carnegie’s grandfather, Thomas Morrison, cutely called “Handication.” Rather than filling the young heads with knowledge you can’t touch, students were meant to learn how to use their hands and join the higher-ranking employees of industry. Pittsburgh in the 1900s, so heavy with steel that the entirety of its land was covered in constant soot and smoke. White-collar men had to change their shirts every time they went outside. The city was made for labourers, and Carnegie made the school for them.
   
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“CMU doesn’t imagine the future,” its website boasts, “we create it.”

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That summer, I couldn’t stop writing. For no one. For me. I couldn’t understand it: the body-tired; the wasted food; the way no one could look at me; the construction workers from down the street who spent every night sleeping in their trucks; 4:00am, the fact of it, how we would all continue to get out of bed and come in through those doors off Forbes and stand around while someone on the radio kept singing Happy, I’m happy, happy.

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My being hired at McDonald’s, I’m pretty sure, was their mistake. Every job post I found asked for experience, but to find experience you need a job. This impossible cycle led me to the McDonald’s ketchup-and-mustard branded online form. I didn’t read the application instructions for their sliding scale questionnaire and there was no way back; I still don’t know if they hired me or my exact opposite.

I have to tell you, I only lasted for two months as a counter kid. I quit quickly, over the phone, in my dorm-room bed at 3:00am. When it was over, I sat in the dark living room, slowly peeling the skin from an orange, letting its light breath hiss onto my thumb.

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In eighth grade, we had the terror and joy of being in Mrs. R.’s history class. She was a badass legend in our junior/senior high school. Sitting in the seventh-grade history teacher’s class next door, you could hear her yelling. Egyptians mummies lost their interest, and everyone wanted to know who was the recipient of one of her famous beratings.

I wouldn’t say she ever mocked us. It was always a care-filled jeering that, I’m sure, shielded her own mental well-being as an eighth-grade history teacher in a school with only a dozen outdated textbooks for 150 kids. The cruelest thing she ever did was make all eight of us in her first-period class stay standing after the pledge of allegiance to sing a Groundhog Day song. Twice. Despite the mocking and berating—or maybe because of it—Mrs. R. was largely the favourite.

Towards the beginning of the year, one kid made a joke that someone would end up serving fries at McDonald’s. It was an insult. And Mrs. R., with an urgency I had not heard before, yelled across the room, Don’t say that. Her cheeks blared. Her father, she told us, raised their whole family delivering milk crates. All work is to be respected. There’s no shame in whatever work supports you.

There weren’t many options in my hometown. We were raised by public school teachers, firefighters, house painters, hairdressers, cashiers, caretakers. We are the kind of people who get by with our hands.

I’ve found that institutions don’t have much respect for hands. University is a place where you could forget your body completely, if you wanted to.


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That summer I took my first poetry class, with non-slip shoes packed tight in my bag and whipped cream still crusted under my nails. I was not yet used to the slippage between work and school or who I was in either place. Our professor led us upstairs and crammed all seven of our bodies into her windowless office. She turned the lights out. We were whistling lungs and fingertips a touch uncomfortable in their own bones. Darkness and breath and the tricks played by the mind. The lights turned back on, only sixty seconds. Everything I know about poetry will always come back to this—the strange closeness of strangers in the dark, when you can feel the heat from a summerskin shoulder without ever touching.

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Each hand has a total of twenty-seven bones: three in each finger, two in each thumb, lined with the five bones in the middle of the hand (metacarpal), down to the eight-bone wrist structure (carpal). Sometimes, now, when passing a beer to a customer, our fingers will meet around the cold glass.

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That summer, it wasn’t uncommon for someone to not show up for work. Memorial Day left me alone at the registers with the manager—a kind, soccer-mom sort of woman. She brought in Twizzlers for us. 6:00am and we passed the bag between us and the kitchen crew. They were the kind that twisted every colour of the rainbow. One of the coffee regulars came up to me, waving his Styrofoam cup. You really gonna charge me? he said. I held out my hand for his quarters. He took the cigarette from behind his ear, let it hang between his teeth as he walked out the double doors. He leaned against the front window with his coffee and cigarette. I stayed at the counter with my stolen bites of Twizzlers. We watched Pittsburgh wake up.

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I found so little quiet in school. Even the library, all those books and work, it can be so loud. I can’t think unless I’m cleaning the stove or walking up steady hills. I can’t think until I can feel my toes, how firmly I fit inside of them.

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That summer, I learned to not fear the dark hours of Pittsburgh. All the monsters show themselves in the daylight. The city between dusk and dawn was always kind. The streetlamps flickered like candles in a cool home. I would wrap my cardigan around my polo until I reached the flickering golden arches.

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Upon a cursory Google search of “working through college” I find that I am either ahead of the game or irrevocably fucked.

Please excuse a moment of bitterness: the desire to leave my hometown for good led to fifty-hour work weeks through school led to no time for internships led to this sinking feeling that my degree has qualified me for nothing without those extra hours of free labour. Graduation comes and the question keeps popping up, “What do you want to do with that?” I’ve learned to walk away.

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I want resources for full-time students working long hours off-campus: special nap benches; support groups that meet at odd hours, say, 3:00am for the bakers and bartenders; free snack bins; a communal fridge where the restaurant workers bring back leftovers to share with the group. Something to keep us around, to acknowledge how easy it becomes to dream of dropping out.

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Every one of my cover letters, now, read like lonely love notes To Whom It May Concern.

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An undergrad fiction workshop instructor who was prone to pounding on the table in heated rants told us to never list all the jobs we’ve worked in our bios. We all do whatever we can to get by, she said. I was twenty and saving up to study abroad. By that point I had had gigs as a house cleaner, chapel cleaner, tutor, McDonald’s counter kid, bill collector, restaurant host and (eventually) server, and office assistant/professional cart-pusher. I was proud of this list. All the odd titles I got to carry for a little while.

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Please excuse a moment of frankness: if you’ve never had to ask with a straight face, Would you like fries with that, some days I can’t even talk to you.

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I’m growing tired of apologising for studying writing. I’m certainly tired of apologising for working service positions. It’s temporary, I’ve learned to say. Here until the next thing. But that thought remains: because I spent money on this education, shouldn’t I be reaching higher? Trying to peek onto the next shelf: university teaching positions, journalism, the vague but well-dressed field of “publishing.”

I am so grateful for the work I’ve done. This work has taught me kindness—something rarely found in universities. The passing faces of tables. We often spend only an hour exchanging pleasantries and practiced jokes, if that. Strangers retaining their strangeness.

I’ve learned the strength of these hands. How to feel you can no longer carry any weight but do it anyways.

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I want to go back in time and take care of my feet, so they know how special they are, how necessary and strong.

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Please excuse a moment of gratitude: fifty-hour work weeks led to independence led to a solid savings account before turning twenty-­two led to Chicago where sometimes, now, I just walk toward that sliver of a prairie sunset in the middle of downtown, a chill stirring in the bones of my fingers.
︎ ︎ ©Plates 2020
︎ ︎ ©Plates 2020