I hoped the day would remain overcast. A winter day with a clear blue sky set my teeth on edge and built a peculiar tension that only abated with the return of night or of clouds and freezing rain and snow. If the sky cleared and I began to get down, work would help. The adrenalin and repetitive, hard labor always soothed the agitated soul and quieted the fitful mind. With a clear head and steady heart, however, labor’s balms get right to the spiritual mark. Best not to have to cut through the silly irritations of maladjustment.
The wind was bearing down from the north. The previous days’ melt had turned the construction site into a gumpy mess. Now the night’s cold had frozen the deep, ribbed tracks of the backhoes and lifts into rock-hard ditches and troughs. My truck jerked across them to the parking area, a plot of dirt barren but for the yellow and orange machines and stacks of cinder block and brick. After bouncing to a stop, I turned off the engine, taking in a moment the sudden stillness and quiet. Deeply scored bare dirt spread out past the site to the edge of pasture land, which met the dark sky. I asked the first man I could find, an electrician, where the ironworkers were.
“Why, where they’re supposed to be,” he said.
“Point me,” I said with something of a smile. Ironworkers could be anywhere on a job, placing and tying rebar for concrete, installing fencing, interiors, and handrails, or on the ground, in the air, or in between, erecting steel. I only knew that the union hall had sent me to join a structural crew.
“Up there,” he said with a smile, jerking a finger over his shoulder. “On the roof.”
This was my first job on the structural side of the trade. I was nervous, as I was every time I ventured into unfamiliar territory. A few months earlier, I had started with the ironworkers union on a bridge deck carrying and tying tons and tons of rebar. At 45, I was one of the oldest men on that job, and certainly the oldest apprentice. The work was the toughest I’ve ever done in a life of labor, of working for other people.
I heaved and carried bar with twenty years olds. I bent over and tied, albeit slowly, when I wasn’t schlepping piles of forty and sixty foot rebar with other men. The morning break was too short, as was lunch.
At the end of the day, I couldn’t walk. My arms, legs, shoulders, and hands felt like jabs of electricity and, more disturbing, the small of my back was numb to the touch. I decided I would be back, despite the pain—or because of it. It took a week before I felt like a regular, but sore, human being. Two weeks later my legs and arms stopped feeling like Reddy Killowatt’s lightning-bolt appendages. The feeling in my back returned after a month.
That first job introduced me to work I liked. After the pain subsided, I found the work liked me. The day was much like an eight- to ten-hour workout that ripped me with fatigue. But sleep was good. In a short time, it became restorative. I woke mornings fresh and ready to get back to the job. The other ironworkers were interesting and friendly. The company was black-owned and many of the workers were urban men—black, Hispanic, immigrant, and white. They were, overall, a rough-cut lot, more intimate with the workings of steel than their insides or polite society. They spoke a familiar language I understood in all its nuances. Its cadences were comfortable and its meanings open and accessible. Most of the men were friendly, even jovial. The banter on the deck, the kinds of taunts and jokes, were impersonal, funny, and often hilarious. It more often had to do with the work and the way people adapted to it than who was fucking whom, who was weaker than someone else, and who was unworthy of respect.
I was on the deck for a week, listening to the banter, learning to tie wire. We were working in a group, moving slowly down the deck, the sea of green-epoxied rebar turning from a rough grid in front of us into solid symmetry behind after we passed over it. The afternoon was warm but with a wind. Everyone was feeling good, even if they were wearing down.
“Man, I want to win that lottery,” said Miguel, a man who had joined the union after working for cash for many years. He was bent over next to me. “If I win that lottery, I will by my wife a house and bring my family from Mexico.”
Jesse worked next to him. He impressed me. He was a nice guy who labored like a beast, seemingly immune to the pain the rest of us felt.
“Lottery, man,” he said. “I’d buy an island, or a piece of land on an island, you know. Buy a good skiff, you know what a skiff looks like?”
“What’s a skiff?” Miguel said.
The foreman, Barry, who had been overseeing work farther down the bridge joined us.
“It’s a boat, you know,” said Jesse, “like a row boat, only a little bigger.”
“You would fish?”
“Yah, fish. But nothing like work. Just fish to be fishing. I’d sit in a chair every night and watch the sun set. In the quiet. Just sit there.”
Some of the other workers stood and chattered about their lottery winnings. I could see Barry looking at them from underneath his hard hat.
“You guys are nuts,” said Dexter, a man from the city who was glad to be an ironworker after a life of drug dealing and prison. His arms were huge, his skin the color of dark bronze. He, too, was a good man. “Families. Sitting. Shit. I’d buy a fine car, a big house, and a big screen TV. Have a swimming pool, sauna, and hot tub.”
Another man, Jerry, who was even newer than me on the job, piped up. He was as slow as I was, loud, and good humored. “I’d carry a wad in my pocket,” he said. ‘And if anyone ever told me to do anything, anything at all, I’d pullout my roll, look at it, and tell them to fuck off. Fuck-you money. That’s what the lottery’d be for me. Fuck-you money.”
Barry stood up, all six and a half feet of him. “Man fuck all ya all,” he said, his baritone voice rolling down the bridge. “If any of you losers won the lottery, you’d smoke it up in crack.”
A roar of laughter rose from the group. “Now get your asses back to work and make the money you’re gonna drink up this weekend.”