I keep a stock of envelopes in the corner of my bedroom for sending out zines, clothes, or other small items.
For years, I’ve been drawing on packaging -- first started the practice when I was seventeen/eighteen and moved to Boston. My Uncle Fish got me a job at a package store where we’d sell handles of Rubinoff and 30-racks of Coors or Genessee to all the college kids on Huntington Avenue. It was a busy store and in the early days, I was often banished to the cash register for the frat guys would do the fun jobs, the heavy lifting. I was separated from the people by a tall, dirty counter framed by lukewarm dollar nips of Smirnoff Root Beer, the counter that hummed a little extra when we helped a stranger count out change.
As the only art student there, I’d often go to work straight from class with pencils or paint in my backpack. Eventually, during down time, I started drawing on the endless stacks of brown paper bags. The customers, it turned out, loved it.
Whether a Canadian hockey goalie at Northeastern on scholarship in a post-game suit and slicked back hair; or a red-nosed gent named John staying in the halfway house nextdoor; or a lifelong South Ender stopping in with a blue felt hat and four dogs in tow, the paper bags became something they each discovered with surprise and later, familiarity. Conversation at the register became easier, less painful, simply because it diverted people’s attention to something other than, well, me.
In the months prior, the young and old men that frequented the store had often scrawled their phone numbers on receipt paper, looking up glossy-eyed as they handed the folded white slips back to me across the counter, or there were comments on my clothes, my body, during the moments that I turned around to grab a bottle off a shelf. It’s a strange space to exist in, behind a counter. To face outward in a space made for consumption demands something impossible of a person. It’s like weilding a soft, open face to a raging hailstorm. I see it now too, as I work behind other counters, behind marble-top bars, as I sling drinks in tins and garnish Old Fashioneds with a thick, angled peel. If I’ve learned one thing in this life, it’s that people who come to counters want things, but they don’t necessarily want what you have for sale. Usually it’s something else gurgling underneath. That’s the thing about desire -- it’s often a mist the mind can’t quite catch, so here, we cover it up with small paper rectangles. Here, money is what we paper maché overtop desire, covering it til it becomes a hardened, chalky shell; breathless and utterly unrecognizable.
I cut off my long, brown hair during a particularly rough year at college, when my aunt died from breast cancer and my own body felt far away. As someone who has always found immense discomfort in pictures and mirrors, I figured perhaps an outward shift would finally snap my insides into their rightful place. It didn’t work. I was still drinking too much, still spending long hours in the darkroom breathing fixer fumes, and still walking the long stretch up and down Hungtington Avenue. Just, without hair.
At the package store, in my typical spot behind the counter, I noticed the men’s eyes stopped searching for mine. It was a relief at first, to go unseen, having been on the receiving end of actions that were constantly making me uncomfortable. But even with my regular customers, I noticed the hello’s, smiles, and thank you’s quickly dissolved. It was somehow an unexpected and painful realization, for I had not understood prior that humans, maybe, don’t see past bodies/into souls in daily interactions. At nineteen, I had no understanding of transactionality, of my imaginary school loans, or of the utter meaninglessness of my existence. Perhaps that’s evidence of growing up in a five-thousand-person farm town, or evidence of my naivete that still persists, or the ways then, that I existed within a shell of my whiteness, a shell of my semi-marketable semi-femininity.
This is all to say: I only started drawing on paper bags once I cut off all my hair. It was, at first, a distraction, just something to keep my eyes, my brain, and my hands busy between register clicks. Something that allowed me to acknowledge myself when those men stopped acknowledging my existence the moment I no longer fit their role of counter girl. The bags, though, began to have a life.
The bags were carried out the door and onto the street. The people crumpled their hands around the paper, twisted around a bottle’s neck. From out to in: hand, paper, glass, liquid. Four fragile things in a row. Some college guys told me they hung them on the walls of their dorms. One neighbor would come in and ask for ‘any design with purple’.
The smiles slowly returned. People started to say hello again. It was as if because I could do something, then I was worthy of acknowledgement.
I could talk about labor, about ableism, about sexism, about my gender identity. I could tell you about what gin would be good for a Martini and why this one is better for a Negroni. I could quickly count out your change on the counter if you’re too drunk, maybe take a wet towel to the pennies with blood on them before placing them in the register. I could tell you about the time my boss whistled to me like a dog, and the time I walked out the door and never came back. But instead, I’d like to tell you more about paper bags.
The paper bags not only softened the tiny blows of existing in public -- they softened the tiny blows of existing as an object in public. I don’t work at a place with paper bags anymore, so I draw on cocktail napkins now. Sometimes, a dollar bill. But I spend often as much time behind a bar, or a counter, or at any job, as I do at home. So in my bedroom, I keep a stack of envelopes.
There’s something amazing about a package with a voice. I have a lifelong friend that, as long as I’ve known her, has been a lover of bright colors, confetti, rainbow sprinkles. I always know her birthday cards as soon as I see them in my mailbox. There’s big and small joy in that, in people being recognizable solely by marks made from their hands. In people packaging themselves up within arbitrary parameters and still being able to communicate their whole being. That sounds like art to me. That sounds like a book or a song or a painting, to me, like fashion, and expression, and the pitch of a frustrated scream. It sounds like life, too. The way we’re forced to reckon with the jarring experience of having a body.
These days, I draw on envelopes for my friends to find surprise on their doorstep, but also, the practice leads to sweet interactions at The Post Office. Often it’s a conversation, a quick glance at the objects, a quicker glance at my brow, which leads to a question of consent: “Where should I place the address sticker?”
And every time, I pass the thought back to the teller behind the counter: “Well, where do you think?”
That quickly, the interaction shifts from an exchange to a small collaboration. The counter dissolves, and some other gateway opens.
~ ~ ~
m. iamartino (they/them) is an artist, writer, and tender bartender living in Brooklyn, NY. Their work lives as explorations of identity, belonging, desire, & play. m. is a graduate of the Massachusetts College of Art and Design and the experimental MFA program, Image Text Ithaca. They love sun and citrus.