I worked at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts when I was in college back in the 90s. I was on a work study program, and I actually started in the work shop, in the basement.
This may sound like a mismatch, and it was, but not for the obvious reasons. I took shop in Jr. High school and, all things considered, I did pretty well. The class was one year long but divided into three sections: wood shop, technology, and metal shop. My wood shop teacher loved me. He gave me 150% on one assignment because I carved a 3D design when everyone else had done a 2D cutout. I rarely saw the tech teacher but his student teacher told me flat out (and in front of the entire class) not to come to him with any questions because he had no intention of helping me. “I know you are only here to meet boys.”
I was thirteen and I would not have known what to do with a boy if I managed to get one’s positive attention. And anyway, I spent each day of class just trying to stay out of the path of those trolls. I don’t know if there were particularly nasty personalities in that group or if it was the result of getting too many thirteen year old boys in one room with power tools, but those boys were the worst! They were both mean and dangerous and they made every day torture. They were constantly trying to humiliate me into quitting, or at least crying. If I said anything in class – right or wrong – I was teased for it for the rest of the period. One day they would roll the spot welder into place behind me and set it off to burn my arms and singe my clothes with the flying sparks. The next, they would wait for me to walk into class and then they would strip the skinny nerdy kid of his pants and push him toward me. It was an exercise in tolerance, and I survived it, one day at a time. I hope that skinny nerdy kid did, too.
The metal shop instructor in the final section of class was helpful but stern. I never got a sense that he knew I was in any way different from the 29 other male students. Then one day I got called down to the office and learned he had nominated me for student of the month. Maybe he wanted to reward my fortitude? Or maybe he felt bad about putting the spot welder on wheeled castors to begin with. I’ll never know.
Fast forward a few years, and I was looking for a work study job at the University of Utah. I saw a post at the art museum and thought it would be fun to work there. I think I listed two things on my job application: 1.) my year of shop training in 8th grade and 2.) the fact that I got the highest possible score on my AP art history exam. I got the job. I may have been the only person who applied.
My boss in the museum’s shop was what we would now call a “hot mess,” though by the time I met him he was cold and lumpy. On my first day, he told me to “earthquake proof the Pre-Columbian exhibit.” Then he went back into his office where he sat at his desk and stared at a corner in the ceiling while medium priced scotch directly from the bottle. We never spoke again.
I had no idea what to do or where to start. Maybe if this weren’t the year 1995 it would have occurred to me to look up “how to earthquake proof old ceramics” on the internet, but it wasn’t and I was screwed. I walked around the exhibit trying to get some ideas. I looked for ways to suspend the smaller objects from the ceiling so that if there were a quake they would swing around but never hit the ground. Or each other? But still be out of reach of thieves or handsy children? I decided it wouldn’t work but I was feeling like I had made some progress by having a bad idea and eliminating it and that seemed positive. Then I noticed a large mask under filtered light. It had a strangely familiar texture. I leaned in and read the card next to the plexiglass box which read, “made of animal skin.” It was the generality that made it come together for me. Human. It was definitely human skin. I was convinced. I still am. If I had ever found a way to secure that collection I might have left that particular object to fend for itself.
I still had a work ethic back then and I couldn’t just not work. Having no clue what I was supposed to do and a distinct fear of trying and failing, I was stuck. Then I noticed a shop-vac in the corner. It was one of those trash-can sized deals on wheels with a suction tube like an elephant’s trunk coming off the side. I named it R2 and it was my only co-worker for a while. I showed up to work three afternoons a week and I vacuumed every nook and crevice whether it needed it or not. And it didn’t. Not at all. At the end of each shift I emptied R2 and then I went home. Until one day I showed up and was informed (not by my boss, but someone else) that I had been transferred to the gift shop. For a few seconds before the relief set in, I felt that I had let all of womankind down. I had a shop job, and I failed. Then I headed upstairs to the lobby and the sunlight and I left R2 behind without so much as a backward glance.
My new boss was a man named Brad who rarely came in to work, but when he did he was over dressed and wearing too much foundation. On the days that he didn’t come in, I was told he suffered from migraines. I interpreted this as code for a penchant for late nights and hangovers, but I don’t really know. I just know that I was again left alone, but this time with post cards, a cash register, and some clear expectations.
This was not the MET or MOMA. Sometimes I would go days without a customer. There was plenty of time to do homework, but in the summers I read entire Steven King novels while sitting behind the register. Once in a while I had a customer, and they would want to pay with a credit card. On those occasions I had to run through the museum and ask everyone in their offices to hang up their phones. “We made a sale! I need to use the phone line to run a charge!”
The 90s were an adorable time to be alive. I’m sorry if you missed them.
One day I was sitting at my station, writing in my journal or something, when the security guard stopped by to ask if I needed a bathroom break. Her name was Debbie and I just adored her. She was sweet and worldly and she had one deformed tiny hand, not unlike the Kristen Wiig “Dooneese” sketches on Saturday Night Live. At least, that is what it made me think of, many years later, when I saw them. Debbie told me that when she was growing up, her mother always made her use her tiny had to clean out the garbage disposal and she was always frightened it might turn on spontaneously.
“Yes!” I shouted, hopping off my too tall stool. “Thank you!” But as I landed, the stool fell back and hit this weird waist high block thing that we used to push in front of the cash register area when no one was on duty in the gift shop. (It was very secure, obviously.) The block made a thunk and tipped on its side in the direction of the glass wall that was the only thing separating the gift shop area from the ten foot tall Tiffany crystal doors. I was told that they were a gift from Louis Comfort Tiffany to the LDS church in the late 1800s, but church leaders didn’t want them because they featured winged angels. Mormon angels don’t have wings (because Joseph Smith saw some angels and he said they didn’t have wings, and man who sees angels and talks to them in the woods and then reads secret books by putting his head in a hat and using magic stones to translate them into English is not weird. Angels with wings? That’s silly. Amazing what bunk some folks believe in. We don’t want those. Give them to the university in case they ever get an art museum.).
I leapt between the falling block and the glass and stopped the impending crash with my body, the right angle edge of the block crushing into my full bladder. Luckily I was 19 and I didn’t piss myself so that was the end of the drama.
“Woah,” I said. I looked back at the Tiffany angels, which are not the classic blue and green of the classic Tiffany lamp shades that you are probably picturing. They are long elegant slices of crystal with frosted angel designs carved into them. They could be the doors leading to Superman’s Fortress of Solitude. For a moment I imagined them shattered and skittering in icy pieces across the floor. At the time, the museum’s director was a diminutive octogenarian and man shaped ball of rage named Frank Sanguinetti. I had witnessed a few of his milder temper tantrums by then and I was imagining my new life as his forced butler or maid as I tried to work off the debt of the priceless art I had destroyed. I would have been buried in his garden beneath the irises within the week.
“Don’t worry,” Debbie said, helping to unpin me with her little hand. “I always get clutzy on my period, too.”
That is when my head exploded. Yes, but how did she…? And was it true that…? Now that I think about it… Oh my goodness, yes! Why had no one told me before! This should be common knowledge! There should be a PSA or a warning label on forklifts, at the very least!
There have been a few occasions since that day nearly 20 years ago where I have watched a woman struggle with a task or gravity and, if I felt I knew her well enough, I repeated Debbie’s phrase. “Don’t worry, Sweetpea. I get like that when my red sea is parting, too.” (Side note, I just googled euphemisms for menstruation to find a funny one and was reminded that there aren’t any, so I just made that up. I did learn that in Japan they call it the “Arrival of Mathew Perry” which is the best thing I ever heard but I failed at finding a way to make it work here.) And each time I have witnessed a similar series of responses. Incredulousness, recognition, connection, amazement, horror, and finally amusement and laughter. Maybe not in that order exactly, but the moment usually ends with laughter. But there is always that moment of recognition. That moment of “Damn, she’s right! Why didn’t I put that together myself? And why don’t they mention that in those fifth grade maturation videos?”
I don’t know the answer. It would have been nice. But as far as I can tell, it is still a well-kept secret.
I’ve been thinking about all of this the last few days, ever since I got the devastating alert on my phone that read the Cathedral of Notre Dame was on fire. It hurts to think about the loss of history and human accomplishment. The last I heard, they still didn’t know how the fire began. It seems they have out-ruled arson, but I read that there was some reconstruction work going on somewhere in the cathedral. Which isn’t a surprise. 800 year old buildings have a lot of maintenance required.
I just hope whatever stared the fire was some faulty piece of equipment being operated by some man. Women have suffered enough to build our cred with power tools. That is one disaster we simply do not need.