“The best dust is the kind we make ourselves.”
I don’t really examine things too closely. Everything is not a work of art. I’m not like those academics, those writers that go along looking for the meaning of the world in everything that they find on the street. Some of them even post signs around the city, in front of construction sites, in clean black letters, talking about dirt and dust. Here are the things that are worth looking at in New York: the building on West Broadway with every key of the relief on the top colored in, by an artist, in white paint; the stencil my friend did on thirteenth street, of a skull holding a cell phone to its ear; recently someone scraped off the cell phone, but it’s still cool; the REV tag painted over the jungle mural on this fancy café, that the restaurant owner kept so now the giraffes are jumping through graffiti.
So I was surprised the afternoon that I became a display. Really, Taylor and I, two seventeen year old white boys picking cotton, were nothing to look at. I met Taylor at the corner of Houston and LaGuardia, and just as we said hi, tapping each other’s shoulders, this guy, in a white cotton suit, approached us.
“You guys wanna make some money?” he asked, gesturing towards a field of cotton in the fenced off patio of a restaurant behind him, with a sign above it: Pima Cotton, spelled in blue yarn. When the man is close to us, with his arms stretched out, I can make out the top of a rastafarri’s head, stenciled on his t-shirt, peeking out from under his jacket.
“Sure,” Taylor and I said.
“I’ll pay you twenty dollars an hour to disassemble this,” he said, again gesturing back at the field with a manicured hand.
“You just want us to take apart that cotton?” Taylor asked.
“Cool,” I said. The guy nodded his head three times, like he was having trouble stopping it from bobbing after the first nod, and handed us each a white garbage bag, after some difficulty separating the plastic edges from each other, running his thumbs repeatedly against them. He motioned towards the restaurant’s entrance with his chin. As we walked towards the patio, I smiled at a waiter tossing up a white cloth, and settling it, again, on the table. Before we started, I had the crazy idea in my head that it would be exactly like the way I imagined picking cotton; I thought that I would just snap the plant, from its roots, right from the ground. Instead, I pulled hard at the twiggy base of a plant and my fingers came out sticky with paste. Taylor looked surprised too, turning a goopy, prickly bur around in his hand, but he shrugged and threw it in the bag. The plants were fastened to wooden boards and covered with dirt; they came up around our knees and barely fit in the bags. We worked in silence; this was serious; we only stopped to laugh occasionally, like when my hands got so covered in glue that I could not shake off the plant I was picking. The guy left for awhile without saying anything, but we didn’t slow down; he came back with a soda and a long, red candy, which he ate leaning against the pole of a walk sign. Some people turned their heads and walked past us slowly: a mother with her teenage daughter said “look at that…”; a toddler slapped the fence while his mother said “stop it, stop it, stop it,” and finally picked him up, while he kept looking at us, hands in his mouth.
“What are you boys doing?” the bravest in a group of pretty, preppy girls asked.
“Harvesting cotton,” Taylor said. They waited until they were halfway across the street to break into one, brutal laugh. Our friend Haru came by and helped us for a while. He did not want to be paid. Haru is a communist. He has a lot of money from a lawsuit he won while he was in Japan. It was the first hot day of the time right before summer, and I think my face was sweating because I was hot and my nose began to itch with moisture.
A black man with a southern drawl stuck his head through the fence and said:
“I haven’t seen a cotton field since I left Alabama.” He laughed for a long time, between the bars. “What are you boys doing here, pickin’ cotton?”
“We’re being paid,” I said.
“Not me,” said Haru.
“It’s an advertisement,” said Taylor, picking dry glue off of his hands.
“You know, you boys,” the man said, sticking his neck through the bars, “you are lucky not to be doing this under the hot sun, and without burs sticking to your hands,” Taylor clapped his gluey hands together, to see if they would stick. “You’re lucky you’re not being paid by the barrel. You know how light cotton is? You know how much it takes to get any weight?”
“We’re being paid by the hour,” Taylor said.
“Not me,” said Haru.
“I have never seen anything like this,” the man said, lowering his head a little between the bars; it looked like it might be stuck. “You know, you all here are sweeping dust. You are here standing in the middle of some fake dirt with gunk all over yourselves. You know, the best dust is the kind we make ourselves.” Taylor shrugged, trying to pull his glued hands apart, and the man laughed; his head shook so much between the metal I thought that he was going to choke. He finally disengaged his head from the bar and almost collided with the guy in the white suit, who had just come back from another break; the southerner’s laugh boomed down the street.
“We’re almost finished,” Taylor yelled to our employer.
“When you’re finished with this,” the guy in white said, his bleary eyes cut between the bars, “I’ll pay you fifty dollars an hour to sweep the dust.”
“Ok,” Taylor and I said, shoving the rest of the cotton into the bag.
Even Haru got too tired shoveling the dirt; he left early because, he said, he was getting dirty, dust was all over his white tee, and, after all, he wasn’t getting paid. When we finished, Taylor and I were covered in dust; we looked like we had been sweeping chimneys; you couldn’t even see Taylor’s freckles.
“Hold on here a minute,” the man said, “I have to go get the cash; I’ll be right back.” He walked, hands in the pockets of his clean white suit, down the block, and down the subway stairs; we watched until long after his white cap had disappeared down the tunnel and we knew, though we waited an hour, that he was never coming back.
“Love/evoL. Everything evolves into its opposite.”
There is a picture of me twenty-six years ago: I am standing in the middle of a wheat field in a blue, high-waisted skirt and a white collared shirt that is unbuttoned until right above my chest and rolled up above my elbows; I am holding a wooden cane; my hair is blowing in the wind; the World Trade Center is behind me, surrounded by a crane, office buildings, and a parking garage. I am standing in the Battery Park Landfill. Sixty volunteers and I removed all of the trash, sending it away in big, blue trucks, and replacing it with 225 truckloads of topsoil. We planted 1.8 acres of wheat that grew until, in the middle of November, it was up to my thighs. I posed for a picture for a magazine, holding a cane they gave me out against the wind and the hum of traffic.
They harvested the wheat the next day. They mowed the fields with large yellow combines; they ran over the grain and turned it into a product; the combine drove over the field, burning gas; inside the machine, the grain was separated from the chaff and the stems; it was taken apart inside the large, yellow body; exhaust came out of the machine, like the pollution coming out of a large truck; the wheat emerged, ready for sale, out of a long, green tube; the cut wheat fell into a red truck; the truck drove the thousand pounds of grain down the West Side Highway; it was given to the New York City Police Department, where it was put into troughs and eaten by their horses.
The field was left covered with broken, stubby roots of grain; people passing curled up their noses and looked away; the next day, it was taken away, and all that was left was a pit; now, it is the mall and the pedestrian bridge in back of ground zero; it does not smell like nature, but like something is burning; people don’t usually turn their heads as they go on and off the escalators; there are advertisements that try to catch their eyes: one with utensils and shopping bags that says meat/team, meat/team; one with soldiers and oysters that says war/raw, war/raw; one with a woman dressed as Marilyn Monroe and a mousetrap that says star/rats, star/rats; one with a bitten scone and a steamy teacup that says eat/tea, eat/tea; one with a bride and a child that says love/evolve, love/evolve. Everything evolves into its opposite. These days, art is pasted, not planted all over the city. There are posters with lines of poetry next to construction sites. These days, everything is something else.