Images by Robert Burch
Artist Robert Burch moves to a new city and finds work after calling a number on a bulletin board.
He shared the photos from the story below. More are available on his website.TRANSCRIPT
Robert: There are these two worlds. You go to a headshop, you see these really intricate pipes. Bongs, dildos, butt plugs, that’s the money. Those people are working over a torch with a glass called borosilicate. That glass can handle heat shock. What we’re really talking about is a lighter. There’s a line in the sand and on the other side of that line is soft glass workers, like furnace workers. They call them softies. They’re like goblet jocks, people that make giant stuff, yard art, that’s a whole thing that people crush at yard art. I’m talking just big leaves and things like that. There’s kind of different factions too. There they’re just people that are solely hired guns, the industrial factory boys. They couldn’t give a shit what color it is. They couldn’t give a shit what they’re even making. And then you got a lot of these kids that leave college. They have the aspirations of being the next Chihuly or whoever. A lot of them just wind up as hired guns.
Nick: From Luminary, you’re listening to Love and Radio. I’m Nick van der Kolk. Today’s episode, Death Dust, featuring Robert Burch.
Robert: I packed my backpack and I was like, dad, I’m moving to Seattle to be an artist. I’m not going back to college. And he goes, he was reading the paper, and he goes, don’t ever ask me for money. Can you turn the page?
Robert: Okay. And then I left.
Nick: And what is it about Seattle? Why is that the Mecca?
Robert: Because in the seventies, Ben Moore, an American artist went to Murano.
Robert: You say you’ve learned a lot from your stay here?
Robert: Very much. There’s really no other place in the world, besides Venice, where you can learn what they do with glass.
Robert: Murano was an Island outside of Venice that produced the best glass for centuries
Robert: Glass has been one of the greatest exports from Venice for the last 750 years.
Robert: Murano’s where they really harbored all the secrets, kind of, for centuries and convinced a couple of Italians to come to the U S to show us how to work with glass. This guy Italo Scanga.
Robert: This is one of the top five glass blowers in Venice, which means he’s one of the top five glass blowers in the world.
Robert: Venetians were the first ones to figure out how to make mirrors. And that totally changed the direction of art. You had self portraits all of a sudden. The reason that the glass workers were put on this island is they burned down the city, not once, but twice. They burned down Venice twice. And so at a certain point, the King said, “Yeah, forget about that.” And through the mall on this islands, but by doing so soup harbored their secrets really well.
Robert: The Venetians haven’t always encouraged foreigners to learn their craft.
Robert: The surrounding countries would say, if you can make it off Murano and get to England or France or whatever, we’ll give you your own factory, we’ll Knight you, we’ll give you anything you want. We want those secrets so bad.
Robert: The early glass blowers were not allowed to leave Venice in case they sold the secrets of their skill abroad.
Robert: But they would catch a lot of these guys and they would cut their hands off and throw them back on the island, live out the rest of their life, no hands.
Robert: The ones who tried to, were chased across the lagoon and if caught were dropped quietly in a deep channel reserve for this purpose.
Robert: There’s still mysterious boating accidents that happen when a color formula seems to hop from one studio to another. The reason that so many studios popped up is because they were all off shoots from these original Italians that came to the U.S. Seattle was the Mecca in the U.S. and that’s why I moved there.
Robert: After watching all this YouTube videos of the Seattle glass blowers, I was super intimidated. I went to the glass shop or the glass color store, which is like a separate warehouse where they have different bags of color that you buy and a bulletin board. And so on the bulletin board was a add that said, “hot shop assistant needed,” “call this number,” or whatever. So I was like, okay, sick. This is going to be it. So I called this phone number and this super spooky voice picked up.
Robert: What are you calling about?
Robert: The glassblowing add.
Robert: Oh, great, yeah. We got big show in Vegas in two months and I need help immediately and we’ll pay you 10 bucks an hour to do anything. Just get up to North Bend. And I was like, dude.
Robert: I don’t have a car. That’s two hours driving.
Robert: I don’t care what you got to do. Get on a bus. I’ll pick you up.
Robert: Okay. Weird. So, sick. I think I’m going to be a glass blower. I felt like going for it. Took the bus two hours out to North Bend. I called the
number again. And this guy goes…
Robert: Okay. I’ll be coming around the corner in a white box truck.
Robert: So I hopped in this van and this big fat curly hair dude…
Robert: Yeah like…
Robert: With this super intense voice.
Robert: I’m making all these glass art…
Robert: He’s mumbling. Kind of rambling the whole time.
Robert: So we’re going to this house, Steve is the investor, I got a shop there.
Robert: And so we cruise to this property and it’s a decrepit five to six story house with cars parked everywhere, pitbulls everywhere. And we meet this guy called Steve. He’s like a washed up Hugh Hefner, has a robe on, he’s smoking a pipe. So what do you guys need me to do?
Robert: Here’s the van.
Robert: Here’s the keys.
Robert: Go home.
Robert: Grab your shit.
Robert: You’re going to work one week on, a couple of days off.
Robert: Pay you 10 bucks an hour and do anything.
Robert: But you’re on.
Robert: They take me into the back and it’s this glass shop this dude has built from scratch. That had to be the sketchiest glass shop I’d ever seen. Aluminum foil on the furnace. No doors on the equipment. And there’s a pitbull stuck in the side of this thing. Just about the sketchiest thing you could do. All right, well 10 bucks an hour sounds good to me. 10 bucks an hour, I’m rolling in it.
Robert: We found this workflow. He would light up some of the equipment and I would have to sit there and watch it because the flames would blow out sometimes. And then when that would happen, the room would just fill with propane. So someone had to run over with the torch and stick it back in there to light it, otherwise you would explode the whole house. And we made these terrible donkey-dick bongs.
Robert: These are my dream bongs.
Robert: So we make five or six in a day. 12 to 14 inches long. They had these wings on the side and sort of donkey-dick shape. It’s just kind of a long frumpy shaft. Sad deflated donkey-dick. It’s kind of how they look and from every weird pastel color. We’d make crates for these donkey-dick bongs, but he would line them in velvet, so more or less, they looked like long cat coffins.
Robert: These are what comes to me in my dreams.
Robert: West was just this fast-talking kind of schmuck where he was…
Robert: Okay, yeah, stick with me kid, we’re going to be making so much money and all this stuff.
Robert: And I always knew this guy is full of fucking shit. I can tell he’s buttering me up, but I don’t buy any of it. The way that the business shut down was, all these buildings are going to a trade show in Las Vegas. And it’s just like a culmination of every pot-smoking thing in one giant convention center. Steve had the bankroll and he had a bunch of dispensaries. He had been essentially conned by West to build this shit shop, make all these bongs, and then they were going to go down there together as partners to this bong show, get the orders and then take them back, and then together make a business.
Robert: Well, what, Steve didn’t really know is he was just dealing with a grade-A huckster. So once all the Blake bongs were in their coffins, they put them in this white box truck that I was initially picked up in. And three days before they were tweaker dudes, they’re being paid in weed to tune it up. This comes to an important detail later, but I was like, what are these methy dudes hanging out with the hood open? What are they doing? So, none of my business and I’m wandering through the kitchen and eating some Triscuits. West goes, what the fuck are you still doing here?
Robert: Eating a snack.
Robert: Here’s a credit card and the keys to the box truck. I’ll see you in Vegas in three days.
Robert: And I was like, I have never driven a check that big. And he’s like…
Robert: Well I figure it out.
Robert: Okay. I just got in the car with a box of Triscuits and a backpack and a credit card. I just literally typed in Google maps to Vegas. And so I was certain cruise. So probably two hours into it and I get this phone call and they’re like…
Robert: You need to pull off on exit 350 or something. You’re going to have a pilot vehicle. Make sure you don’t do any funny business. Don’t run of these bongs, try and sell them.
Robert: I was like, good luck selling these things, man. But whatever you say friendo. So I pull off on this exit and then this white van pulls up and this other big fat guy comes out and he’s like…
Robert: Hey, I’m Ogre.
Robert: What’s up dude
Robert: Yeah. Yeah. I’m here to keep an eye on you for this drive.
Robert: All right. Whatever. But there’s some shady things going on there too, because in the front seat was a mountain of comforters. Yeah, let’s see what’s going on there. So we get back, we’re cruising South. And we stopped at this waffle house or something. And then I see this chick get out of the comforter of pile in a tiger onesy. I tried to say hi. And she kind of didn’t shit. And then just went back into the comforter, or a nest. And I was like, hey Ogre, what’s the deal? And he’s like…
Robert: I don’t really know man. Just not feeling too good. So you and I are going to go get some waffle.
Robert: I was like, all right man.
Robert: So turns out Ogre is really intelligent.
Robert: The technical skill that…
Robert: He’s got actually really good opinions about glass and he’s a kind of a weird savant, kind of like, learn to like, even though he was ordering extra butter and stuff like that. And just kind of not healthy looking dude, always kind of sweating, but I liked him. He was able to talk sense in all this madness.
Robert: And so we get to this hotel two or three hours later, and then this girl in the tiger thing runs in and just gets in her own room, slams the door. I was like, man, it’s a weird chick. Whatever. We go inside, Ogre goes..
Robert: Hey, do you care about the smell of weed?
Robert: No, I’m good. I don’t really care. He’s like…
Robert: And pours a pound of weed out on the table. Four or five big mason jars.
Robert: So you’re the grower. So I put it together. He was the grower for one of the dispensers or whatever. So he was going down to Vegas for the show
and he knows what was really going on there.
Robert: So I wake up in the morning to the sound of this chick just throwing up. Okay. What’s going on Ogre?
Robert: I guess she’s sick.
Robert: All right, man.
Robert: Well, I don’t want her throwing up in my van. So she’s going with you.
Robert: Ah, sick.
Dickface: Did you even know her name by this point?
Robert: No, we haven’t spoken yet. So she steals a comforter from the hotel.
Dickface: Of course.
Robert: Makes a nest next to me. So we’re driving. An hour later she pops up.
Robert: Hey, I’m Kaitlin.
Robert: I was like, yo, what’s up? I’m Robert. How’s it going? She was like…
Robert: Where are we?
Robert: Nevada. She’s like…
Robert: Okay, cool.
Robert: So what’s your deal?
Robert: My sister works for Steve and I’m coming down for the show with you guys.
Robert: Well, cool. We’re about halfway there. She’s like..
Robert: [inaudible 00:12:23]
Robert: And then the hotel calls and they say, “Hey, we’re missing a comforter from this room that was a assigned to this credit card.”
Robert: Yeah. You should just bill that to the room, man.
Robert: Cool. No sweat.
Robert: All right. Sweet. The rest of the drive’s uneventful and we get to Vegas. The Hooters Hotel, classy joint, but it gets worse because the power
has gone out for the Hooters Hotel. Some then got busted and it sucks.
Robert: The bong guy, West, and the investor, they’re all kind of blowing smoke up my ass.
Robert: Oh, you did so good with this drive.
Robert: Here, we’re going to buy you a bunch of beer.
Robert: He totally came through for us.
Robert: So here I am. They give me a hundred bucks and bought me some beer.
Robert: Enjoy Vegas kid.
Robert: Trying to figure out how to gamble. Wait, I had a hundred dollars and 30 minutes later, I don’t. Gambling’s stupid.
Robert: All the pieces are falling into place. The trade show starts, the bongs are set up. The big boss, Steve, shows up. They have a woman of the night, stripper girl who is essentially supposed to butter up the clients. And then we have the con man bong maker, West. Who’s calling himself the artist and running around with a turtleneck. And he’s a total schmuck just an idiot.
Robert: These are my dream bongs.
Robert: I mean, these things are pretty ugly. There are a lot of issues I have with them. They haven’t been cooled down properly, so they’re apt to break at any point. He cuts them on a tile saw and then dips them in the water, which we call death dust, which is this fine glass powder. So they’re coated on the inside with death dust,
Phil Dmo: Death dust?
Robert: Yeah, that made me really uncomfortable. So when you’re cutting glass it creates this flower fine silica dust that is inside, like it’s in water. So you have a kind of bath of just white kind of murky water. And to quicken your cleanup time, you would just dip it in the water and let it go and then let it dry out. But when you do that, silica dust is on the inside of that pipe. And it’s not like you’re getting in there with a pipe cleaner. It’s not like you’re, even if you pour alcohol in there and swirled around, there’s still that dust in there, that dust is so hard to get off of anything. So I saw this happening and I’ll never smoke out one of those. Cause it’s…yeah, right.
Nick: How much was he trying to sell them for?
Robert: I think they’re like eight or 900 bucks each or something.
Speaker 2: Wow!
Robert: Yeah. I mean, they’re in that ballpark. So anyway, the days go on. I think it’s a three-day show. Meanwhile, the food supply cuts out. They had
gone to Costco and gotten bunch of Luna bars and espresso coffee drinks for three days or something. And it was a $50 Costco run. And I hadn’t been paid
at this point. Dude, I need money. But no one was coughing up the dough.
Robert: I just basically was like, all right, I’m going to drink this Starbucks drink. It tastes like sugar and milk. Well, I didn’t really, at that
age, have the concept of espresso down fully. And so I would slam one of these Starbucks drinks and my heart would just start beating crazy.
Robert: And then everyone would be like…
Robert: Well, what does it feel like when you take a hit from this bong?
Robert: I don’t smoke weed at all. And I would just be cranked up on coffee. And then they’d be like…
Robert: Get out of here dude. You’re not selling this stuff.
Robert: Okay. I’ll get out of here. And then I would just slump over because of no food and just coffee. And I’d call my mom like, mom, I’m in Vegas, my
heart’s beating really funny, I don’t know what’s going on.
Robert: Sounds like you’ve been experimenting with drugs lately.
Robert: No, I promise I haven’t.
Robert: Well, good luck out there.
Robert: Okay, sweet. Years later, it turns out I do have a faulty heart. And so I shouldn’t have been drinking that much espresso.
Robert: We’re getting all these orders, right? And the com man, West, is just jamming all these orders in his pocket. I’m talking just yellow slips of
paper. So it starts to get to the to the investor, Steve, bankroll. And he’s like…
Robert: You need to give me those orders, man. I got a computer, I got a girl here. We’re going to enter them. We’re going to keep trying everything.
Robert: No man. I’m going to keep these in my pocket. I don’t really trust too many people.
Robert: So it goes on a bit longer. And then…
Robert: Give me those orders of dude.
Robert: I know man. I just going to keep them close to the chest.
Robert: Until finally Steve goes…
Robert: I’m going to break your fucking knees if you don’t give me those orders or take you out somewhere in the dessert.
Robert: And so West goes…
Robert: Yeah, hold that thought.
Robert: Runs out of the convention center, dives into a Mini Cooper with some chick that had cruised in from LA and leaves me there with a really pissed
off dude. And a bunch of donkey-dick bongs in a convention center where my heart’s beating funny and have no money.
Robert: Steve just walks up to me, he goes…
Robert: You work for me now kid.
Robert: You got it boss.
Robert: You’re packing these bongs up. And you’re taking them back to Seattle for me.
Robert: And so I pack all these things up, throw them in the back of this truck. And I still had this pilot car situation going on with Ogre and
Caitlyn. And Caitlyn, at this point, is my friend now. I actually have someone to talk to. Day one, nothing interesting. Day two, Nevada. Driving one
point perspective road, nothing interesting.
Robert: Hood blows. Smoke. Truck explodes.
Robert: Maybe it’s just a little something in the line. I’m jamming on the gas. And just smoke is going. And I was like, oh, let’s just kick out the
pipes. No, no it didn’t pan out. Pulled over. Watch the pilot card go. No service. By myself. Sick.
Robert: Those tweakers that were fooling with car didn’t really know what they were doing turns out.
Robert: Yeah. So I’m just waiting. And then finally, like an hour later, the pilot thing comes back. Man. Truck’s done. I pulled the plates off. Let’s
Robert: No, that’s not a good idea.
Robert: Yeah, we got this.
Robert: No dude.
Robert: And so we go back like an hour to get a U-Haul. I guess they only called it tow truck or something. Anyway, it really set us back. So then,
there I am driving an U-Haul now. Caitlin on the front. I get a call from Ogre. Who’s in the car in front of me.
Robert: Pull over.
Robert: Okay. I pull over. He goes…
Robert: The power, just went out in my greenhouse, my crop is in jeopardy.
Robert: He was like…
Robert: Here’s Kaitlin’s shit.
Robert: Threw it in the U-Haul. He’s like…
Robert: Hey, peace.
Robert: And just rips away in his van. So, get our act together and just keep going. I dropped Caitlin off South of Seattle somewhere. Never saw her
Nick: She still had her comforters with her?
Robert: She had it. The whole time we were driving she’s in a tiger Wednesday. And I have pictures of this whole thing. So I’m happy for anyone to try
and call bullshit on this, because I have documentation of this whole charade.
Robert: So I get to North Seattle and I drive this truck to Steve’s house. And I’m like, hey I told them my hours, you owe me $700. And he just turns to
me. And he goes…
Robert: I have a safe full of guns behind me. West, ripped me off. You should get that money from him.
Robert: I think he split to LA.
Robert: No, you’re going to get off my property right now.
Robert: Yeah. Yeah. You got that boss. So I to do. Throw my stuff in the white van that they initially gave me and just stole that. I just drove back to
Seattle with the van and I decided this is going to be my collateral. And he doesn’t even notice for a week and I get this call…
Robert: Where’s my van?
Robert: I was like, where’s my $700?
Robert: I’m going to send someone for you if you don’t bring me that fucking van.
Robert: And I was like, where’s my $700? I think about it. And I’m like, man, I probably shouldn’t keep this going. I take the van back to the property.
And I guess I had my roommate at the time run shuttle. So I throw the van right across the property line, left the keys in it, just dove in my friend’s
car and we just peeled away and I went back to Seattle. I was like, I should get another job.
Robert: What’d you calling about?
Robert: Hey, I’m Kaitlin.
Robert: Hey, do you care about the smell of weed?
Robert: What does it feel like when you take a hit from this bong?
Robert: Dream bong.
Robert: Sounds like you’ve been experimentally with drugs. No, I promise I haven’t.
Nick: That’s it for Love and Radio. This episode was produced by Phil Dmochowski and Steven Jackson, who both did the sound design as well. It featured the voice of Robert Birch who shared some photos of his story with us. You can find them on our website, loveandradio.org. Love and Radio’s producer is Phil Dmochowski. Steven Jackson is our contributing editor. We are brought to you by Luminary and made possible thanks to the subscribers. Thank you. Don’t forget if you haven’t already be sure to check out our brand new Secrets Hotline podcast online at secretshotline.org on Instagram, at The Secrets Hotline, on the Luminary app and for free, wherever you find your podcasts.
Robert: The power just went out in my greenhouse. My crop is in jeopardy. I was like, I’ll never see you again. Pretty much. It’s like, Hey, yeah, peace.
Nick van der Kolk, Host and Director
Phil Dmochowski, Producer
Steven Jackson, Producer
Sound design by Steven Jackson and Phil Dmochowski