September 11, 2003
There is a place, far from here, where a man is walking into a cafe to order a cup of tea. The hot tea comes to him in a sun-baked, unfired clay cup. He adds two cubes of sugar. He sips and talks to the other men in the cafe.
The men sit on low stools and busy their hands with backgammon and hand-rolled cigarettes.
As the caffeine and the sugar settles in their systems, their talk becomes livelier.
There is no work, they say. There is only tea and cigarettes and endless moving of game pieces. The man decides that it is time to leave the cafe.
He throws his cup into the street. Unfired, the clay still has the texture of earth. It is as disposable as a Dixie cup.
It lies in the street under the wheels of passing vehicles, turning to sand. Dust to dust. It washes away with the next rain.
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I was imagining this clay cycle of life late Tuesday night in the front gallery of the Depot. More than 100 of us held empty clay bowls in our hands. A heavy iron gate kept us corralled in that room, pressing up against each other like rush-hour subway riders as more people poured into the front door.
Tuesday night’s Soup Bowl Supper benefit for LIFT-UP sold out almost as soon as tickets went on sale. For $17, we were given a handmade bowl and a ladle of soup.
I stared down at my bowl. It had been fired and glazed and decorated. It had the texture of thick, muddy glass. If I threw it into the street, it would shatter and the shards would tear at the wheels that passed over it. It was not a Dixie cup.
In that town with that tea shop, far away from here, there is a potter whose fingers make countless teacups. His knuckles are white and cracking as the clay pulls moisture from his hands daily.
Back in the land of paper cups and Tupperware bowls I do not know who made my soup bowl.
I imagine his or her hands were somewhere in that room, lotioned, and used for something else during the day. Artisans have become the thing of craft fairs, novelty stores and high-end home furnishings. Hobbyists keep a cultural memory alive of time before disposable Wal-Mart and dollar stores.
Fiber artists and potters argue for their place in “art” but often find themselves relegated to exhibits of “crafts.”
Handmade goods have become a luxury, and there really are fewer and fewer places for those people keeping old arts alive.
Plastic is cheap, but it doesn’t give you the same feeling as a bowl beveled with the fingerprints of the hands that made it.
I think that’s why the Depot was so crowded Tuesday night.
People wanted to hold something real.
We finished our dinner rolls and chocolate cake and walked out into the weather, warmed by chili and clam chowder.
We carried pottery in our hands like a beggar’s bowl, catching the falling rain.