by Z.S. Roe
Since I was sixteen, I’ve lived a life in glass — a life of clean cuts and sharp edges; of broken windows and shattered mirror; of blood spatter and stitches. Glassworkers like me do many things — we cut glass, hang mirror, fix windows, install all-glass showers, not to mention erect towering walls of glass in office buildings and skyscrapers.
I started at a local glass shop as a part-time floor sweeper before working my way up to junior glass cutter. I was saving up for university, cushioned by the high expectations of youth. Flashforward nearly seventeen years and several unexpected life hiccups, and now you can find me working for a different glass company as the lead cutter and Health and Safety Coordinator. Some days, I look back and am boggled by the amount of time that has gone by. Seventeen years. How did I get here? This was not what I had planned.
I’ve written a poetry chapbook about this life, a thin volume titled Broken Reflections, which has been published by Plan B Press. This twenty-two-poem collection serves as a thematic pondering of my time in the trade. This job isn’t for everyone; hell, most days I’m certain it’s not for me. Yet I’ve spent too many years in it to deny that it’s a part of who I am. The scars on my hands are a testament to this.
Despite this, I rarely talk about this part of my life. And so, as a companion piece to my chapbook, I’ve written a blog post about those parts of my job I think readers will find interesting.
THE MOVIES GET IT WRONG
For most people, the only time they see someone using a glass cutter is in the movies when a thief cuts a circle in a pane of glass and then pops the circle out with a suction cup. Having been in this trade for some time, you’d think I could do the same. But I can’t. And neither can that thief. Sorry, pal. You’ve been lied to this whole time.
Here’s the deal: the tool known as a “glass cutter” doesn’t actually cut glass; it scores it. Then you break the glass along the score line (or “open the cut”) by applying pressure to the opposite side of the glass — or from inside the person’s house you’re breaking into if you’re trying the old circle trick. Trouble is, even if you could open the scored circle from inside the house, it still wouldn’t just pop out; there’s too much pressure keeping that circle in place. To get that circle out, you must break away the glass around the circle … which kind of defeats the purpose of that circle in the first place.
In other words, it’s quicker to simply throw a brick through that window. It’s more fun, too.
The first glass shop I worked at had red-painted floors — I used to tell people that this was to hide the blood us glassworkers would inevitably spill. It wasn’t true, but there’s an element of truth in this lie — glass is sharp, and all glassworkers will cut themselves on occasion. But glass is not the only thing in a glass shop that can hurt you.
I vividly remember when my former employer was being audited by the Ontario Ministry of Labour regarding several health and safety complaints. While the inspector was getting started in the office, I was scrambling in the shop trying to find the safety guard for the table saw . . . and scrubbing dried blood spatter off that saw’s fence.
No, that was not my blood on the saw. I rarely hurt myself so dramatically, and have needed stitches only once. But before I pat myself too hard on the back, I should mention that sometimes there is simply nothing left to stitch. Glass doesn’t only cut; it can also shave. A number of the scars on my hands are from when I took a chunk of skin clean off.
Luckily, I don’t cut myself as often as I used to. When I was first learning how to repair broken windows and cut glass for cabinets and picture frames and table tops, my fingers were constantly decorated in a ragged assortment of bandages. I’ve learned since then; I had to.
THE GROSS AND DIRTY
Perhaps I should also mention that not all the blood seen in a glass shop is from the people who work there. Sometimes it’s from the customers — they bring us their broken windows they’ve fallen through, or even just a sharp and mishandled piece of their own glass they want cut. Not too long ago, I cut a piece of glass for someone that had one, perfect bloody thumbprint on it. It’s cool, though — it’s not like blood-born pathogens are a thing.
Speaking of prints, it’s not uncommon to fix a broken window covered in fingerprint powder left over from a police investigation. And when it’s not powder or blood, it’s mud and mold and what might or might not be poop.
What bothers me most, though, is the greasy, yellow nicotine residue left on window screens. Imagine it — screens that reek of years of cigarette smoke; whose white rails are nicotine-stained and now a sickly shade of spoiled cream; whose screen mesh is heavy with cloying tar-like residue that leaves your fingers sticky like you just stuck them in tree sap and then right into some dirt bag’s armpit.
Suffice it to say, I’m an obsessive hand washer.
But bloody or not, gross or not, what makes a glass shop an interesting place to work are the people. Over the years I’ve worked with fully ticketed glaziers (the official word for a trained glassworker) and people who’ve never worked with a piece of glass in their life, with high school dropouts and university graduates, with drug addicts and health nuts, with religious zealots and raging atheists, and with hard-line conservatives and far-left liberals.
We give each other nicknames, some kind and some cruel. Mostly it’s just light teasing. Looking back over the past seventeen years, I remember many of them — Five-by-Five, Johnny Homo, Brother Jesus, Sleepy Steve, Wee Billy, ReTodd, Sly, and Zig (among many others). I won’t try and defend the more insensitive choices, though I will add that their colourfulness imbues a clarity to these memories that might otherwise be lost.
If any of you read Broken Reflections, you’ll notice that my chapbook is dedicated to the last of these names, a man I knew as Zig. His real name was Helm and he taught me nearly everything I know in the trade. I was lucky to have him. He was a demanding but also endlessly encouraging teacher. Working with my hands has never come naturally to me, and he met my shortcomings on this front with constant patience.
While Zig taught me many things over the years, not all of them were about glass. Perhaps the hardest lesson he taught came with his sudden death six years ago. It’s a lesson I’ll never forget, that life, like glass, is fragile and sometimes breaks when you least expect it to.
I wasn’t alone in this loss or this lesson. And this experience wasn’t unique to the few who knew Zig. As glassworkers, like many people, we do our best to move on despite our losses. We don’t always like each other, and sometimes we’d rather be anywhere else, but we patch each other up, stitch by stitch, and push through until the next job, working together through the sweat and the blood.
In fairness, there’s a lot more to this job than what I’ve described above. Some glassworkers might take issue with how I’ve described the trade. Perhaps I’ve been too fanciful, or perhaps I’ve not been fanciful enough.
Let me close, then, by saying just a few words more. Working with glass is a fine job for many people, a job full of diverse challenges, both mental and physical, and a job full of fresh opportunities for eager workers. It is a trade often passed down from one generation to the next, and a job that leaves its mark on you whether you came willingly or with reservation.
I never expected to be here. In fact, I told many people this was the last place I’d ever end up. Yet here I am.
There’s a story in that, and I’m still trying to piece that story together. Broken Reflections is my attempt to capture the spirit of that story, or at least its fragmented first chapter. A poetry book about the glass trade is unusual, I admit. But it feels right. Simply put, I believe there’s poetry in glass, even if only in its broken pieces.
Sadly, Broken Reflections is now out of print. I still have a few copies, though, and they can be purchased directly through me. If you’re interested, send me a message via the “Contact” page.