Keep Closed When Not In Use; A Tribute to My Mother

In the 1980’s, when I was a kid, my mother worked for the Carr Lowrey Glass Company in Baltimore, Maryland.  Carr Lowery was a staple of Baltimore industry and was the birthplace for many famous mass-produced glass items such as the collectible AVON bottles of the 1970’s which were shaped like cars, antiques, people, animals, etc.

I have memories from when I was very young of my mother returning home from work late at night with massive bruises spanning her whole back and frequent talk of 110-degree summer heat within the factory.  Sometimes I would go to the factory with her to collect her paycheck.  The rundown property was protected from the crime of the outlying tenements of Cherry Hill by twisted and mangled barbed wire fencing.  This apparently didn’t stop locals from vandalizing employees’ cars and robbing them at gunpoint when the guard booth wasn’t occupied.  Looking back, it seems hard to imagine that there were people in poorer and more desperate situations than many of those who worked alongside my mother, that employees of this Hell might be viewed as any more successful, or more worthy of theft and threat than the poverty stricken residents encircling the factory.

As a young boy, in 1988, I thought it was so neat when my mother showed me a photo of her and her coworkers in the Baltimore Sun newspaper.  She was one of the 400 employees who were on strike against Carr Lowrey that May.  It had apparently been the first time that the factory had stopped running in over two decades.  When researching this article, I read that in 1977 another strike had been assembled to address the fact that the company would not allow assembly line workers to stop for a bathroom break or to get a drink of water.  As I heard it, things didn’t seem to be much better a decade later when my mother lugged massive “Big Gulp” drinks from Seven Eleven to work with her to keep handy through her shift.

Yet my mother always seemed proud to turn peoples’ glassware upside down, revealing the manufacturer’s logo, and let them know that she made this.  A shabby severance package as Carr Lowery began to succumb to modern competition was her final escape.  And in 2003 when the factory was finally shut down after 114 years of operation, the local press touted the value of Carr Lowrey to the city of Baltimore.  They cited the valiant struggle between local glass and foreign plastic.  And while I am an avid supporter of local, biodegradable/recyclable packaging, I don’t think my mother shed a tear when the first wrecking ball ripped through the century-old brick building.

In 2002,  I was attending college for film & video, pursuing dreams of becoming an artist.  Apparently, my mother’s near-literal back breaking work had paid off and I was on my way.  I was hired to do some video work for Patrick Turner, owner of Turner Development Group.  It was the first time I’d been commissioned to make art.  The project called for me to heavily filter and edit demolition footage of the Locust Point Grain Elevator.  My videos were to be shown during a gala for Turner’s wealthy investors who would turn the old elevator into high-end condominiums and rename the site Silo Point.

Little did I know that my first paycheck for art was signed by the guy who would in 2004, buy the property on which my mother toiled to provide a good life for me.  And I doubt that Patrick Turner remembered my name when, in 2008, a Baltimore City Police officer phoned him to find out if he wanted to press charges against me for entering the ruins of the Carr Lowery factory to take photos without permission.

Mr. Turner did not press charges.

This was my favorite photo from my shoot, which I feel, by itself, is worth the write-up around it, to explain its gravity and relevance to my family.


“Keep Closed When Not In Use” © 2008 Johnny Martyr | Yashica 12 | Agfa Optima 100

Most people work hard to provide good lives for their children.  Some people work much harder than others to provide not just a good life, but a better life.  Daily, for years, my mother labored hard under what were probably ultimately arbitrary rules that were as arbitrary as this stubborn sign.  KEEP CLOSED WHEN NOT IN USE  And just as this sign, on this door, on this thick, strong steel beam was unbreakable against the weight of the entire building falling down around it, I’m sure that the rules, the iron-clad tyranny, persisted through the inhumane conditions of the Carr Lowery factory with equally brutal staying power.  Until the money finally ran out.  As my mother must feel, I am grateful yet resentful of that place.  And I am comforted by the knowledge that my mother’s struggle paid off; that I did become an artist.  And that a small portion of my own work can be tied to the destruction of this furnace that melted and forged glass, twisted peoples’ bodies and crystallized our humble hopes and dreams.  Thank you, Mom, for all that you’ve done for me.

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