Once with effort

The rafters of the factory are open steel beams that support electrical cords for lighting and duct work for air conditioning. In Juarez the summer’s heat is oppressive, and I admire the size of the ventilation.

In a factory in Jinshan years ago, my dress clothes sticking to me in Shanghai’s miserable July, I worried about the workers spending most of their lives in a huge room cooled only by a half dozen refrigerator-sized units. During quality inspections our group would take turns standing in front of their whirring fans, visitors and managers alike. The sewers made no such moves, their bodies grown used to the weather.

The duct work in Juarez is a sign of care for employees, and an acknowledgment of the city’s position in the high desert. It is windy and cold in the winter and still and hot in the summer. Ventilation is a sign of corporate compassion. This factory’s concrete shell, handed down from company to company for decades, has been modified by each successive inhabitant to cope with the challenge of keeping many hands in motion regardless of season. In one corner of the ceiling, by the offices, colored fabric has been hung, green and blue nylon stretched between beams to create a false roof of bold shades. Years earlier, by the look of the fabric, bright but dusty. Dirt has settled around the holes where the edges are lashed to the rafters. These bold lengths of nylon were the start of a grand project never advanced, too expensive or otherwise unsuccessful.

“Didn’t insulate well,” is the answer, when I ask. An idea now abandoned. A Saturday’s work still hanging there, no more and no less.

The feeling of nostalgia, of loss, and of having missed the moment of energy strikes me repeatedly in factories. So many of the places I see are not at their peak, will never again be. Buildings that once were new and well-maintained, filled with workers and a sense of energy, now have dirty floors and piles of discarded machinery and material along the sides. The detritus of daily operational demands so often overwhelms anyone’s ability to plan and to improve.

Sitting in an office above a different factory the sense of time passed is all around me. In one corner there’s a small bar custom-built for this space and used to entertain customers. It is covered with books and samples, and the wall paper on its front is peeling and dusty. In another corner a shirt and tie hang, the sign of a true workaholic, someone who slept at the office and needed a spare for the next day. Neither have been used in months, but hang anyway, a memory of hours no longer required. The memory of a younger man. I wish I’d seen that entertainer, that host. I wish I could see this office used in the way it was built to be.

All around us are reminders of projects done with purpose, accomplished by an effort no longer easy to imagine. In San Francisco the Sutro Baths are one such, ruined by fire and weather on the edge of the Pacific. Now the moss-covered foundation serves as a monument to what people were able to build at the turn of the last century.

In the rock gym hang pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge, or more specifically photos of men walking the clusters of cables that would become the bridge. They stand without safety gear, working high above the mouth of the bay in what must have been an incredibly cold and windy position. Outside the gym’s huge windows the bridge dominates the view, a structure of too large a scope to have been built by individual hands.

Our own houses have these remnants too, fixtures installed, cabinets built, labor invested. On moving out we realize these projects were done in the early days, before we became too busy and too tired, while we still had energy and hope for the new place. Sometimes they represent the work of inhabitants before us whose energies remain unknown. Who built this shelf, we ask, or why did they wall off the Murphy bed, the kitchen door? Likewise the gym’s carefully manufactured rock walls cling to the interior of a space built for the military a hundred years before. The repurposing of old structures built with effort long forgotten is easily visible in the Presidio, and yet continues everywhere.

Indoors at the back of another factory there is a cafe awning where workers were once served food. Long closed it is covered in dust and machinery blocks the entrance. On my visit the cafe is hard to spot. Workers avoid that end of the building, a sad reminder that the business is not what it was and that no one can return it to glory. Ducking through the plastic strips that line shop floor’s entrance I wonder what this factory sounded like when the cafe was filled at lunch hour, when the dedicated cook served one and all.

This is the way of every life, I think, pulling away in my rental car. We build and hope, we give up, we create, and we abandon. It is the story of growing old, and a reminder that our actions are temporary, our energy finite, and our time brief.

On my next visit to Juarez the colored fabric is gone, and new white panelling reaches half way across the vast space. In my absence someone has restarted the project, has put new energy in to the old building. There is a future here, and room for growth. Here people are not yet abandoning, not yet growing old.

I smile as the owner shows me the new lunch room, built by hand off the back of the main floor from cinder block and concrete. Complete with its own AC and bright colored paint it is a sign to the workers that things are improving, that the future still shines. After so long seeing factories in gradual decline I am excited to be supporting this growth. The owner is loud and cheerful as he leads the tour. We are both happy to invest in these people, this place. We can build something here, we can make this small piece of the world better than before.

We have energy and time.