Thursday, November 16, 2023

Boot Straps

As day was breaking, men stood around the coffee cart in a muddy lot before the work day began.  I took my coffee with cream and three sugars.  I would get a sausage biscuit, too.  This was breakfast.  For lunch, I had a bag with three baloney, cheese, and mayonnaise on white bread sandwiches and an apple.  I would eat one sandwich at the mid-morning break and the rest at lunch.  I sat alone and after eating would lie back and close my eyes.  Each morning, I got up at four, showered, and drove an hour to be to work on time.  It was my first full-time job after high school.  I was part of the "adult" world now.  It was a union job, the first in the state, and was difficult to get.  You had to be sponsored to get into the union.  There were dues to be paid at the union office where men would sit in folding chairs waiting to be called for a job.  I was lucky.  My friend's father was a foreman and had gotten us hired on building a giant resort hotel.  But construction was behind schedule and the days were long.  We worked ten hour days and were paid time and a half for hours beyond the required eight.  We worked every weekend as well and were paid double.  We made more money working overtime than we did for the forty hour workweek, so of course we worked them.  But there was no life outside the job with the long commute.  I was perpetually exhausted.  Those brief minutes I lay there alone leaning against a pile of construction material were bliss.  I had no friends on my crew.  I worked with a bunch of crackers and rednecks and was the only one with long hair on the site.  They would write messages on bare walls or planks of wood: "On Friday We Kill The Hippie."  

This was not how I wanted to spend the rest of my life, smack dab in the middle of social and mental retards.  After three months, and after I had been injured, I somehow enrolled in college.  

* * *

Yesterday, I felt the prior night,  I went to the gym, however, hoping to work it out of my system.  I saw Tennessee when I got there, but he was in a mood.  His construction projects in his home state were going south.  He could not get the inspector to pass his work.  

"I've been on the phone for forty minutes," he said.  "I haven't even started to work out yet."

I got on a the stationary bike.  The Shock Jock came in, and then the Car Guy.  They came over to talk to me as I pedaled.  The Shock Jock wandered off, but the Car Guy stayed to tell me about his upcoming trip to Barcelona.  While he was talking, a woman approached us.  

"I just want to say thank you to you two for being so kind to my husband.  He can't carry on a conversation.  That is the kind of dementia he has.  But I watch you and you are always so nice to him.  He likes you very much and likes coming to the gym to see you."

Her husband is a handsome man in his early nineties.  He is thin, straight and upright with a full head of wavy white hair.  He always smiles and says hello and we fist bump.  He is a bit roguish, I have always believed, and has an eye for the women.  I've been talking to him for years now.  

I looked at her and smiled. "He's a great guy.  We really enjoy him.  It is a pleasure."

When she left, the Car Guy looked at me and asked, "Who's her husband?"  

When I got off the bike, I headed for a stretching platform to do my knee therapy stuff.  The flight attendant walked in, then Tennessee.  In a few minutes, the Shock Jock and the Car Guy came over, too.  Nobody was working out.  The day had become a gabfest.  As we kibitzed, the Stewardess asked, "Why is everybody in this town so rich?  Where does all the money come from?"

Good question.  The Car Guy sure wasn't going to tell the whole story.  

"Tennessee, Car Guy, and I get along," I said, "because we all came from shitty neighborhoods.  Whatever we have, we got on our own."

"That's why I haven't joined the Racket Club or the Country Club.  I don't like hanging around with those people.  Too many of them were privileged.  They are snooty," the car guy opined.

"Yea, we're not snooty.  We're gymroids," I laughed knowing I was the poorest hillbilly of the lot.  But like the lady said. . . I'm a pretty sweet guy.  

Rain for days.  Tennessee wants to go somewhere tonight, but I am thinking not.  I have a busy schedule this morning.  I have a nine o'clock therapy session.  I will go to the gym right after.  At noon, I have an appointment to get my driver's license.  Maybe I will pick up some lunch and eat it with my mother, then go home and shower and nap.  I don't know.  Maybe I WILL get up and go to dinner with T.  But goodness, that seems a full day to me now.  

* * *

My first day on the construction job, I was assigned to work on the fourth floor mezzanine.  From there, I could see everything above me for ten floors, the rooms and walkways all wrapping around the giant, open center.  There was not yet a roof.  I had been there about an hour or so pushing a broom to clean up the sawdust that lay all about.  There were great open holes in the floor that looked straight down to the floors below.  I'd never been on a construction site let alone one that was a high rise, and I felt very disoriented by it all.  

I heard someone yell, "Look out!!!"  A crane was lifting giant steel girders that were slipping out of the straps that were meant to hold them in place.  Below, men were on their hands and knees, carpenters framing out some flooring.  I saw the girders slip and fall in what seemed slow motion.  I could count them as they almost fluttered down.  I saw the carpenters jump up and run for safety.  One fellow, an older man, was just getting to his feet when the girders buried him.  Everyone ran over and began to pull the girders off.  Below them lay the mangled, dead man, eyes open and bulging.  

It was still early morning.  The construction site was cleared.  We were all told to go home.  

I came back to work the next day.  Everyone stood around the coffee cart, what they called "the roach coach."  In low tones, men in hard hats and steel toed work boots talked about the accident.  The girders had not been secured.  There should have been more straps.  Somebody was at fault.  It was because we were hurrying. We were behind schedule.  It wasn't safe.

Then the whistle blew and we all marched into the high rise to hear a message from the head engineer.  It was about safety.  There was a moment of silence to honor the dead man.  

When that was over, we all headed back to our work stations.  Construction had fallen another day behind schedule.  Within the week, they had hired a new engineer to head the project.  He was a big German with a large belly.  He was famous, they said.  He would get us back on track.  

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