SLAVE LABOR Chapter 8

30 03 2011

 

 

SLAVE LABOR

 

I’m finally allowed to go to work at Dr. Herman’s Design Studio. Out of 80 patients he picks 3 or 4 at a time – the ones who are not outright crazy and can be trusted to take the train and subway and find his place. The ones who don’t talk too loudly to themselves and know how to put their clothes on outside out.

His studio is a state-sponsored and -financed work-rehabilitation program and we get about 40 dollars a week, for 40 hors of work. My father says that prisoners get more, but I’m excited. I’m bored at the hospital. Random sex and killer food binges are driving me to be willing to do just about anything. At this point, I’d be happy to clean Elephant shit at the zoo for 10 cents a week.

On my first day, I wake up at 5am and together with the four other chosen patients, we catch a train and then two buses to get to the studio at 7am. It is winter in Austria. Cold I’m not used to anymore after three years in California. I’m shivering on the train, surrounded by the tiredness and resignation of people who have to be at work at 7 am.

The studio is a tiny room with sewing machines and an extra, much larger room with mirrors. In the corner, next to the bathroom, is a coffee maker that gurgles and spouts burnt poison.

Veronica and Petra are pretty, but exhausted looking women in their thirties, burdened by their responsibilities to not only teach us patients how to sew, but also to make Dr. Herman’s samples look like they came from a Couture Salon in Paris.

That’s what his brochure says: Peter Herman, Paris – Vienna. On the cover of this is an emaciated and very pale model wearing a leather corset. I don’t notice this right away, but something about this picture feels unsettling and wrong. I look closer. The ghost-like model presses a very newborn, very tiny baby to her bony chest. It is quite jarring. I am used to seeing healthy and round babies on healthy and round breasts, not this. But I have to admit, that it looks fascinating and I always admired strange advertising.

When we finally settle in, our snow covered coats spread out in the overheated kitchenette, Veronica approaches me. “Hi. Good morning. Let me show you how to sew a single straight seam on this piece of paper”

“On paper? I know how to sew. I went to Fashion School in America!” I laugh.

“Ya, whatever. But now you are here and for now you’re gonna do this my way, ok?” she sighs.

“Fine” I snap “Gimme that paper and lets get started”

After a few minutes, she walks over from the pattern table she cuts fabrics on and inspects my perfectly straight seams.

“You’re right. You know a little bit. Lets get on to fabrics” she admits and hands me a strip of muslin. I smile and sew straight lines again.

“Look, I really want to learn how to do the real thing. I can do it.” I plead.

The other patients – three guys I know vaguely from the clubs I used to hang out at and a drab, depressed and tired women in her forties with acne scars and a lazy flab-belly glare at me.

“Cut it out, princess”, the gray skinned junkie whispers at me “Don’t raise the bar, I’m not gonna work harder cause you make it look like it’s easy”

“That’s right”, the coked out former DJ hisses. “We have a good deal here, they don’t expect much from us and you better not fuck it up for us” He pushes his red plastic glasses up on his head and leans back.

“Fuck yourself. If I have to be here for 40 hours, I might as well do something. I don’t know about you, but my time goes by way faster that way.”

He gets up with a cigarette between his lips. “Suit yourself, ass kisser bitch. It’s smoke break for me”

They all file out and I’m left with Veronica and Petra.

“I don’t take it personally any more. It’s ok”, Petra says into my direction. “He pays me well enough to put up with people like you. I mean, not you so much, but them.”

 

While everybody else is outside smoking in the snow, I

watch Petra as she fits a black leather jacket that looks like a Thierry Mugler piece from his last collection. I really want to be able to do something like this myself.

For the first time in weeks, I don’t think about heroin, food, sex or speed.

After a few more test-seams, Veronica almost smiles at me. She hands me an expensive looking piece of cut silk fabric. “Sew those side seams together and let me check it”.

A few minutes later, I hand her the garment. I act all humble and as if I’m surprised myself that I was able to do it, flawlessly and in record time.

It’s not exactly respect, but she definitely changes her opinion of me as a hopeless drug-addict lazy and incompetent jackass patient. She allows me to cut the sleeve of a jacket and shows me how to set it into the armhole.

I’ve done all this before, for my bunny rabbit so this is easy compared to the miniature creations I’ve spent my speed-fueled nights in Los Angeles with. I know better not to mention this.

“You really are good” she wonders. “We never get anybody to work here who can do this”

“I said I was in Fashion School” I reply.

“So, what happened? Why are you here?”

“Drugs. I got strung out. Arrested. That’s why I’m here. But I’m planning to go back as soon as they let me back in” She looks at me with suspicion, no doubt expecting me to crack and show my real crazy self. That’s what she’s used to. But I’m not giving up. By the time lunch break comes around, I’ve sewn the whole lining of a jacket.

 

Dr. Herman steps in dressed in another stylish leather outfit and a white shirt that looks so cool, that I want to steal it. Veronica pulls him into the fitting-room and when they come back out, he stops by my sewing machine and inspects my work.

“Good going, Monah. You seem to have a talent for this. If you keep it up, I might even let you assist me on Fashion Week.” He pats my shoulder and moves on.

I feel kind of happy. Not about his patronizing praise, but because I know that he is right.

On the way home, in the crowded train, my fellow patients ignore me. I don’t care. This is for me. They can hate me all they want. I’m going to survive and succeed. I’m going to catch up and learn everything that I should and could have learned in Fashion School – if I had managed to show up. The grandiose doctor and his slave camp (that I’m sure is not quite legal), Veronica and Petra are going to be my ticket out of this mess. I can’t wait for the next day.


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One response

30 03 2011
Mary Ann Cherry

Fan-tastic. Keep going.

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