Our Work and Why We Do It
by Donald Barthelme

     As admirable volume after admirable volume tumbled from the sweating presses ...

     The pressmen wiped their black hands on their pants and adjusted the web, giving it just a little more impression on the right side, where Vittle specks of white had started to appear in the crisp, carefully justified black prose.

     I picked up the hammer and said into the telephone, "Well, if he comes around here he's going to get a face full of hammer"

     "A four-pound hammer can mess up a boy's face pretty bad"

     "A four-pound hammer can make a bloody rubbish of a boy's face. "

     I hung up and went into the ink room to see if we had enough ink for the rest of the night's runs.

     "Yes, those were weary days," the old printer said with a sigh. "Follow copy even if it flies out the window, we used to say, and oft-"

     Just then the Wells Fargo man came in, holding a. 38 loosely in his left hand as the manual instructs

     It was pointed at the floor, as if he wished to

     But then our treasurer, old Claiborne McManus

     The knobs of the safe

     Sweet were the visions inside,

     He handed over the bundle of Alice Cooper T-shirts we had just printed up, and the Wells Fargo man grabbed them with his free hand, gray with experience, and saluted loosely with his elbow, and hurried the precious product out -to the glittering fans.

     And coming to work today I saw a brown Mercedes with a weeping woman inside, her head was in her hands, a pretty blond back-of-the-neck, the man driving the Mercedes was paying no attention and

     But today we are running the Moxxon Travel Guide in six colors

     The problems of makeready, registration, show-through, and feed

     Will the grippers grip the sheet correctly?

     And I saw the figure 5 writ in gold

     "Down time" was a big factor in the recent negotiations, just as "wash-up time" is expected to complicate the negotiations to come. Percy handed the two-pound can of yellow ink to William.

     William was sitting naked in the bed wearing the black hat. Rowena was in the bed too, wearing the red blanket. We have to let them do everything they want to do, because they own the business. Often they scandalize the proofreaders, and then errors don't get corrected and things have to be reset, or additional errors are inserted by a proofreader with his mind on the shining thing he has just seen. Atlases are William's special field of interest. There are many places he has never been.

     "Yesterday," William began

     You have your way of life and we ours

     A rush order for matchbook covers for Le Foie de Veau restaurant

     The tiny matchbook-cover press is readied, the packing applied, the "Le Foie de Veau" form locked into place. We all stand around a small table watching the matchbook press at work. It is exactly like a toy steam engine. Everyone is very fond of it, although we also have a press big as a destroyer escort-that one has a crew of thirty-five, its own galley, its own sick bay, its own

     band. We print the currency of Colombia, and the Acts of the Apostles, and the laws of the land, and the fingerprints

     "My dancing shoes have rusted, " said Rowena, "because I have remained for so long in this bed."

     Of criminals, and Grand Canyon calendars, and gummed labels, some things that don't make any sense, but that isn't our job, to make sense of things-out job is to kiss the paper with the form or plate, as the case may be, and make sure if 's not getting too much ink, and worry about the dot structure of the engravings, or whether a tiny shim is going to work up during the run and split a fountain.

     William began slambanging Rowena's dancing shoes with steel wool. "Yesterday," he said

     Salesmen were bursting into the room with new orders, each salesman's person bulging with new orders

     And old Lucien Frank was pushing great rolls of Luxus SemiFine No. 2 through the room with a donkey engine

     "Yesterday, " William said, I saw six Sabrett hot-dog stands on wheels marching in single file down the middle of Jane Street followed at a slow trot by a police cruiser. They had yellow-and-blue umbrellas and each hot-dog stand was powered by an elderly man who looked ill. The elderly men not only looked ill but were physically small-not more than five-six, any of them. They were heading I judged for the Sixth Precinct. Had I had the black hat with me, and sufficient men and horses and lariats and .30-30s, and popular support from the masses and a workable revolutionary ideology and/or a viable myth pattern, I would have rescued them, Removed them to the hills where we would have feasted all night around the fires on tasty Sabrett hot dogs and maybe steaming butts of Ballantine ale, and had bunsplitting contests, sauerkraut-hurling"

     He opened the two-pound can of yellow ink with his teeth.

     "You are totally wired," Rowena said tenderly

     "A boy likes to be"

     We turned away from this scene, because of what they were about to do, and had some more vodka. Because although we, too, are wired most of the time, it is not the vodka. It is, rather . . . What I mean is, if you have ink in your blood it's hard to get it out of your hands, or to keep your hands off the beautiful typefaces carefully distributed in the huge typecases

     Annonce Grotesque Compacta Cooper Black helvetica" Light Melior Microgramma Bold Profil Ringlet

     And one of our volumes has just received a scathing notice in Le Figaro, which we also print . . . Should we smash the form? But it's our form . . .

     Old Kermit Dash has just hurt his finger in the papercutter. "It's not so bad, Kermit, " I said, binding up the wound. "I'm scared of the papercutter myself. Always have been. Don't worry about it. Th ink instead of the extra pay you will be drawing, for that first joint, for the rest of your life. Now get back in there and cut paper. I whacked him on the rump, although he is eighty, almost rumpless

     We do the Oxford Book of American Grub

     Rowena handed Bill another joint - I myself could be interested in her, if she were not part of Management and thus "off limits" to us fiercely loyal artisans. And now, the problem of where to hide the damning statistics in the Doe Airframe Annual Report.. Hank Witteborn, our chief designer, suggests that they just be "accidentally left out." The idea has merit, but

     Crash! Someone has just thrown something through our biggest window. It is a note with a brick wrapped around it:

If you continue to live and breathe
If You Persist in walking the path of
Coating the facade of exploitation with
the stucco of good Printing


     What are they talking about? Was it not we who had the contract for the entire Tanberian Revolution, from the original manifestos hand-set in specially nicked and scarred Blood Gothic -to the letterheads of the Office of Permanent Change & Price Control (18 pt. Ultima on a 20-lb. laid stock)? But William held up a hand, and because he was the boss, we let him speak.

     "it is good to be a member of the bourgeoisie, " he said. "A boy likes being a member of the bourgeoisie. Being a member of the bourgeoisie is good for a boy. It makes him feel warm and happy. He can worry about his plants. His green plants. His plants and his quiches. His property taxes. The productivity of his workers. His plants/quiches/property taxes/workers/Land Rover. His sword hilt. His"

     William is sometimes filled with self-hatred, but we are not. We have our exhilarating work, and our motto, "Grow or Die," and our fringe benefits, and our love for William (if only he would take his hands off Rowena's hip bones during business hours, if only he would take off the black hat and put on a pair of pants, a vest, a shirt, socks, and)

     I was watching over the imposition of the Detroit telephone book. Someone had just dropped all the H's a thing that happens sometimes.

     "Don't anybody move! Now, everybody bend over and pick up the five slugs nearest him. Now, the next five. Easy does it. Somebody call Damage Control and have them send up extra vodka, lean meat, and bandages. Now, the next five. Anybody that steps on a slug gets the hammer in the mouth. Now, the next"

     If only we could confine ourselves to matchbook covers!

     But matchbook covers are not our destiny. Our destiny is to accomplish 1. 5 million impressions per day. In the next quarter, that figure will be upped by twelve percent, unless

     "Leather," William says.


     "Leather," he says with added emphasis. "Like they cover cows with. "

     William's next great idea will be in the area of leather. I am glad to know this. His other great ideas have made the company great. The new machine for printing underground telephone poles The new machine for printing smoke on smoked hams The new machine for writing the figure 5 in gold All of this weakens the heart. I have the hammer, I will smash - anybody who threatens, however remotely, the company way of life. We know what we're doing. The vodka ration is generous. Our reputation for excellence is unexcelled, in every part of the world. And will be maintained until the destruction of our art by some other art which is just as good but which, I am happy to say, has not yet been invented.

"Our Work and Why We Do It"
is from Amateurs. New York: Farrar, 1976.

Copyright (c) 1996-2004 The Estate of Donald Barthelme, reprinted with permission