“Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”- Thomas Edison
“Want to learn how to use a dangerous tool?” she asked.
“Sure,” I squeaked.
Rebecca pulled a tool-laden cart out from inside the shop and showed me the plasma cutter.
I learned that a plasma cutter is a torch used to cut steel, by turning inert gas into plasma. The
machine operates when an electric arc is passed through compressed air, creating heat so intense it
can melt steel. After a quick tutorial of how to actually use the thing, she fitted me with a facemask,
gloves, a respirator, goggles, and welding sleeves. The mirror on the wall reflected back at me a
stranger from a sci-fi movie.
She dragged out another cart piled high with steel pipes. Yellow hand-drawn lines on them
marked where the cuts needed to be made. She asked me once more if I knew what I was doing. My
answer was yes and I was left to my own devices. “Trial by fire,” she said with a smile and was off.
My nerves prevented me from getting the pun right away.
After connecting the grounding clamp onto the first piece of steel, I pressed the trigger to the
plasma cutter. It kicked back on me for a second and then settled into my tight grip. A glowing
torch lit and I hunched down close to the first piece of metal laid out on the table. Shakily, I
brought the torch to the pipe and began ripping into the steel following the thin yellow paint line. It
took my eyes a bit to adjust to the bright light, even through the shaded goggles.
Sweat clung to my welding sleeves and frosted the inside of my goggles; my body ached from
being hunched over so long. Hours went by, but I was so wrapped up in the cutting that I barely
noticed. I loved every minute of the work. And I wasn’t just cutting through quarter inch mild steel
tubing; I was cutting through the numbness, I was cutting through layers of stagnant sludge clogging
the pores of new creative growth. I was cutting away everything holding me back from who I wanted
to be. I was possessed with a determination I’d never known.
I put the torch down and looked over the work with a critical eye, I noticed rough edges.
That’s embarrassing. Would she need me to redo the job? I wheeled the cart to Rebecca to get an
appraisal. She slapped my arm. “You’re a natural.” My sore body felt a moment of joy. “Now it’s
time to grind!” Uh oh.
She clamped one of my cuts to a nearby workbench, and took a hand grinder to it. Orange
sparks flew as she smoothed out the rough edges of the bent steel. She turned off the grinder, and
ran her hand over the smooth surface. “Nothing to it,” she said. “Now you try. By the way, this is a
lot of work so don’t feel like you have to do it all.”
I held the grinder in my hand and flipped the on switch. It kicked back in my hand as I
brought it closer to the coarse steel. I dug the spinning disk into the pipe watching the coarse edges
of my plasma cutting turn into bits of metal dust and smoke. My upper body vibrated with the
machine in my hands as sweat trickled from my brow and underneath my breathing mask. I pushed
my earplugs in deeper down my ear canal to block the deafening shriek of the grinder. I dug into the
pile with every intention of finishing it all. I’m a finisher.
Pipe by pipe, I pulled the hand grinder back and forth over the rough curves of steel,
sending sparks into the air, determined to refine what I had cut. I attacked the bits of slag with the
same passion I had cut the pipe with. Through my breathing mask I could smell metal dust. I turned
off the grinder and readjusted the mask. In the mirror and noticed my face was blackened except for
the skin colored diamond over my nose and mouth. I smiled, flipped the mask down and re-entered
another trance-like state. My entire world was a hand-grinder.
Hours went by and I noticed that all the steel had been ground. I wheeled the cart out to Rebecca.
She beamed at the completed job and gave me a giant hug. “You rock, Hassan!”
“What's next?” I asked.
The next few days were similar, just with different jobs. I painted, cut, cleaned,
ground, sawed, wrenched, taped, pasted, organized, and didn't even contemplate complaining about
the long hours. It was crunch time for them, and they were happy to have some extra help. I was
happy they needed it. I was happy to feel needed. The Fishbug crew made me feel more respected
and appreciated than I had felt in a long time. Maybe ever. In return, I worked as hard as I could for
as long as I could each day. I was determined to make myself a valuable crewmember. I felt
responsible for the Fishbug as if it were my own. Pulling fourteen-hour shifts almost every day was
becoming my norm.
So much of my life up to that moment had been spent worrying about my own problems.
Fishbug gave me respite from that. I was a part of something bigger than myself but not as a cog in a
machine. We were making art. After seven full days of working on the piece, I asked if I could just
stay at the Shipyard to avoid wasting gas and paying the four-dollar Bay Bridge toll. Rebecca said it
was the least they could do for me. My new home was on the upstairs couch at the Berkeley metal
The project of the day for me the following day was building projector boxes out of plywood
for the light show inside the Fishbug’s brain. I worked for hours trying to get it fitted perfectly. At
the scrap woodpile Jess, the Fishbug’s Co-lead, approached me in a pair of knee high pink work
boots. Jess spent more of her time working on the business side of making big art. A job that
required her to be in the office for long hours at the Shipyard. In her hand was an envelope. The
word Fishbug was written on the front. She smiled. “Open it.”
As I opened the letter I felt my heart beating faster with a strange fear that this letter meant
I’d lose my new community. Inside I found a rectangle of heavy decorated paper. I pulled it out and
watched the sunlight catch the holograms etched across its rectangular surface. The graphics filled
the tiny space with as much artistic meaning and attention to detail as I thought humanly possible.
The word “Evolution” sprawled across the top along with “Burning Man 2009.” A picture
resembled the elderly Charles Darwin with his brain exposed. A landscape of mystical creatures
stretched far behind his portrait. On the back of the stub was the word “gift” in black glossy
lettering. I rubbed my thumb on the word gift to make sure it wouldn’t rub off. It stayed intact: my
ticket to Burning Man.
A few of the crew had seen the exchange and started singing, You got the golden ticket, you got
the golden ticket! Smiling like a cartoon character, I turned my face to hide my embarrassment. I
wanted to hug every last one of these beautiful people I hardly knew. I started with Jess.
“Why are you guys giving me this ticket?” I questioned Jess, feeling my cheeks getting bright
red. “Isn’t there someone more deserving? I just showed up and you guys have been working for
Jess regarded me thoughtfully as she put her hand on my shoulder. “Rebecca and I have this
philosophy that if someone feels like they own part of the piece, they account for its success. Look at
the legs you cut out on the Fishbug, Hassan. We wouldn’t have had time to make them for this
showing if you hadn’t come in. You’re our last minute angel.”
I hesitated before responding still almost breathless. “Thanks so much for giving me a chance
Jess.” I took a look at the legs I had plasma cut welded to the frame of the legs. Up close all I could
see were rough edges, but standing from a distance it fit in nicely with the rest of the art.
“Thanks for stepping through the door.” She smiled. We paused a second and she gave me a
hug. “What do you say? Do you want to come to Burning Man with us?”
Woozy from kindness intoxication, I got back to my task. I applied myself to the work twice
as hard. Calling it work seems like the wrong word. Work doesn’t usually feel that good. And it
wasn’t charity, as I was getting back as much and even more than I was putting in. I’m not sure what
it was, but it gave me tingles through my whole body. I’m going out on a limb and making up a
word… philabouring. A mix of love, friendship, and labor perhaps? If you buy my word or not, I
felt a deep gratitude towards these artists. They had been so kind to this random traveler at a time
when he needed it most. I was about to enter a dream within a dream. I was going to Burning Man