Our series on sleep continues with a piece by Gayge Operaista discussing divisions and oppression within the working class.
I wake up with a start, and do my usual “where the hell am I?” look around. When you’ve been couch and guest room surfing for months, because you moved back across the country and still haven’t found steady work, it’s a reasonable “why am I awake?” question, especially when there’s no urgency to get up out of bed. That lack of urgency leads to the second question, which is “why did I dream about that again?” It was, of course, another work dream. There are dreams about all the past jobs I’ve had, particularly the more recent ones. Some of these aren’t so bad; when I was working as a BLS (Basic Life Support) instructor, I dreamt a few times that the infant mannequins came alive and it was something out of a horror movie. That’s the type of dream you can tell your coworkers during setup, all have a laugh, shake your heads about how you’ve been doing this too long, and then talk about your big plans: putting in enough hours on near-minimum wage EMT shifts to go to paramedic school; finishing up preparatory courses and starting nursing school; or the younger ones talking about how they’re going to go to medical school someday. Or, talking about the usual pastimes of EMS folks – fast motorcycles, fast cars, sports, and drinking, with the latter hopefully separated from the rest.
The thought of school reminds me that I don’t work with that crew any more, and what my dream was about. See, I’m the one who has been preparing myself for nursing school, after having left school years ago. And because of California’s habit of gutting its schools, I had to move across the continent to finish up my last couple of courses in time. That’s why I’m out of work and helping my family out and taking care of my niece a lot, but traveling around enough and staying on friends’ couches and in their guest rooms, that I’m confused when I wake up a lot of the time. Especially when the work dream is a school dream.
I dream about not being allowed to use a bathroom in the building I taught and did research in. That was a few months, because a grad student or two in another department in the building decided that the way I looked made them uncomfortable. See, when you’re genderqueer (or any sort of trans, or visibly gender non-conforming in anyway), random people’s comfort matters a hell of a lot more than your ability to carry out the basic functions of life. So, for three months, in a building I spent 16 hours a day in during the week, and 8 hours a day on the weekends, I would head down a few flights of stairs, leave the building, walk a bit down the road, and go into the library, and use their bathrooms.
Being a grad student might, to the uninitiated, sound like the cushy academic life, but, you live on bare survival wages (or “stipends” where I went, so we weren’t technically employed and thus had another barrier to organizing), and everyone works 80-100 hours a week. Even my best year – where I had the biggest summer research grant – I probably worked for less than four dollars an hour. For that, I was expected to teach three labs, grade papers, do all the grunt work of churning out research that someone else would take the credit for, maybe get mentioned if I was lucky, and because I’m not a man, not ever get listened to and have the male graduate students get credit for probably ninety-five percent of my ideas. Never mind that office humor from the other graduate students was a steady stream of sexist, homophobic, and racist jokes. And we wondered why in physics we had trouble recruiting anyone but straight men, or that people who weren’t tended to drop out at much higher rates.
I don’t dream as much about being talked over, my ideas stolen, being marginalized, I dream about the most basic indignity – not being allowed to use a bathroom (any bathroom) in my building while they tried to come up with a “fair” solution. That basic violation of dignity – and all the dreams about it – have given me more of an inferiority complex than anything that has happened in the five and a half years since I left. I’ve been turned down for multiple jobs for being queer, sometimes completely blatantly, other times, by the vibe you pick up, or the fact they say they couldn’t get a hold of your references, and knowing they never called. I’ve had consistently full-time, paid work for all of four months total in the last five and a half years. I’ve always struggled to be able to have healthy food or to keep a roof over my head; a few times I’ve failed at the roof part, and I’ve eaten more food of questionable nutritional value or from questionable sources than I want to think about. I’ve had more odd jobs, occasional gigs, and other stuff I don’t want to get into and that I’m not particularly proud of. But I keep returning to the bathroom.
I went to a fancy university, once, because they gave me enough money that it was cheaper than State U, and getting over 1500 miles away from where you grew up sounds pretty damn good to a queer kid who had a horrible time in high school, and who is from an old mill town turned into a Greater Boston commuter suburb. I went into mathematics and physics because those seemed like sure bets as jobs went; I stayed for three years of graduate work in physics because the house won those sure bets. I stayed through all the indignities because it was too terrifying to leave with no resources and little hope of employment, until it was too soul-crushing to stay. So I left, and I traded a predictable, steady stream of indignities for the unpredictable ones of precarious employment and bouncing around the country looking for work. Along the way, I found out I had a knack for taking care of people, whether it was as a street medic in clouds of tear gas or as a lay herbalist in a volunteer clinic, so, I decided that I could provide primary care to people like me – queers and trans people who have been thrown out of everywhere else.
Stealing our labor is not the only way that Capital sucks the blood out of us – it has taken over and structured every single part of our lives, including our dreams. And it doesn’t just steal from us, it excludes us, divides us, tells us who we can be, and makes us do its dirty work of setting up hierarchies of how valuable different groups are, and what labor they may do to serve it. It tells us what our bodies are, what they mean, how they are to be interpreted, and punishes us when we do that wrong. It teaches us to hate ourselves. It is appropriate that we have dreams, no, nightmares about work – because Capital is the very stuff of nightmares, the destruction of everything that is human.
I’m finishing this at one in the morning, not wanting to go to sleep because my dreams have changed. I’m going to start at a nursing school at an even fancier, more prestigious university, getting the opportunity to promise more of my life to Capital than I can ever pay back, so I can become a nurse practitioner, and provide primary care. I have a lot of nightmares about that, and they’re generally not the horror stories of carelessness my anatomy professor told me about or that I’ve seen the results of on the streets or in an ambulance. They’re nightmares about still not finding work, not being allowed to do the thing I’m selling a big chunk of my future for. Worse, there are nightmares about bathrooms. Despite the fact that, for once, who I am and who I want to give care to, probably helped me get in, I keep dreaming some faceless student complains about me. And I don’t think – no matter how tough a front I put on – I can put up with many more walks down the road to use another building’s bathroom.
Originally posted: April 21, 2012 at Recomposition