(Published in the December edition of “Orion headless)
Sometimes you can’t swim at the beach. Tens of thousands of them have died, their bodies bobbing and floating on the surface of the water. Alewives, little fish in the herring family, all washed up on the sandy beach and rocks along the shore, piled up at the high water line. Great heaping mounds of them form iridescent dunes. Their stinking, desiccated bodies covered with flies, brittle, crackly, and rotting in the sun. The only place to swim is the lagoon where Shivering Sands Creek flows into Lake Michigan. The placid water feels warm as a bath. The smooth, sandy bottom feels soothing underfoot. But there are random patches of quicksand, and if you step into that stuff you’ll plunge straight up to your waist in sticky silt that is crawling with leeches. When that happens, you claw your way out as fast as you can move, scrambling out of the creek, squirming from the thought of it, crying for Mom to help pull the slimy bloodsuckers off your legs. Then you go right back into the water. It seems worth the risk just to be able to go swimming.
I stand frozen on the wall, with 40 pounds of tarpaulin slung over my shoulder. A late winter chinook wind howls off the front range. Stevie says we’ve been assigned to move a stack of tarps to another spot. This involves navigating a traverse of about 50 feet across a narrow wall, with spikes of steel rebar sticking up like corn stalks every couple of feet. The wall is plastered with rime and dusted with powdery snow. It is icy and treacherous. If you fall there is a thirty-foot vertical drop on either side ending with a hard landing onto piles of concrete blocks and steel rebar. I am scared shitless. All I can envision is falling. I try straddling the wall and inching across on my crotch. I see there’s no way this will work and retreat backwards. My shoulder is already starting to cramp up from the strain. I throw the tarpaulin down.
“What are you doing?” Stevie asks. “I told you we gotta move these tarps across to the other side.”
“I know,” I say, “I’m trying to figure out how to do it. This is really dangerous. All it takes is one slip and you’re done. It’s slippery as hell and the wind is enough to blow my ass right off this wall.” I think this asshole is gonna get somebody killed.
Stevie’s been working here longer than most of the other laborers, and he’s trying to assert himself in the pecking order. He’s few years older than I am, but he’s just a regular laborer like the rest of us and doesn’t have any real authority. He’s stalled on writing his doctoral dissertation and works this gig to make some money. Stevie is physically smaller than almost everyone else on the job site and is cultivating one hell of a Napoleon complex. He can be an arrogant little bully and a real pain in the ass.
This is the same guy who sent me all over the site looking for the bull prick my first day on the job. Apparently sending the new guy on a fool’s errand to find some nonexistent esoteric tool is standard hazing procedure and a rite of passage. It took me a while to realize there’s not an actual tool called a bull prick, but it didn’t dawn on me until I’d been all over the site on a wild goose chase. Stevie sent me down to the electricians who sent me up to the top of a tower of scaffolding to ask the carpenters who were setting forms. The carpenters sent me to over to the crane operator and the oil mechanic, who in turn, sent me back up to the ironworkers. I was starting to understand that these guys were just messing with me, and I didn’t relish asking the ironworkers if they had a bull prick. The ironworkers are scary, although they are definitely the most interesting characters on site. They’re hardcore, wild-ass, bikers and iconoclasts. They ride chopped Harleys to work and they’re wired on speed, which is the main drug of choice on site. They deal Black Mollies from their lunch boxes during breaks. A lot of the guys on site are tweaked. Everyone says that even Pete, the carpenters’ foreman, is a tweaker. I find this hard to believe because he seems like such a straight edge, flag waving redneck. The iron crew has a huge ghetto blaster that pounds out heavy metal and hip hop with such force it that even overpowers the roar of the jackhammers. They sing along at the top of their lungs as they work. Anyway, I’d been sent over to the ironworkers to ask them for the elusive bull prick. They think this is hilarious and send me to my boss, Carl, the laborers’ foreman. I think they knew he would ream my ass, which is exactly what happened. Carl’s face turns red and he explodes, “You’re goin’ right back down the road if you don’t get your ass back on the job and stop wasting everyone’s time with this bullshit!”
The sound of Stevie’s voice yelling over the wind snaps me back to the present. “Where’s Dave?” I lie, “Dave went to the bathroom.” Actually Dave vanished like a ghost after taking one look at the situation.
“Isn’t there another way to get these across?” I ask Stevie.
“Nah- this is the only way to get ‘em across. So let’s get it done! Stevie’s voice is rising in pitch and volume.
I snap, “Go fuck yourself Stevie! You do it. You’re not anybody’s boss.” He yells back, “It’s Stephen. My name is Stephen.”
I shoot back, “Yeah…sure…whatever … Stevie!”
“What’s going on here? You guys sound like a couple of old women,” someone says in a deep, still voice. We turn to see Billy. There’s a moment of embarrassed silence. William Redbird is a full-blooded Arapaho who goes by the name of “Billy.” He served four deployments in Iraq dismantling IEDs, and is one very serious dude to contend with. Nobody messes with him and everybody, including the ironworkers, crane operators, and all the other cowboys on site treat him with respect, deference and a kind of quiet awe. He never talks about Iraq and everybody understands, you do not ask. That is, everybody except Stevie. Like an idiot, Stevie tried to start that conversation, but Billy’s only response was a stone cold stare. There are some things you just don’t ask about.
“Carl told me these tarps gotta be moved to the other side.” Stevie says. His voice is squeaky and wavering. I’m not sure which way this is going to go. “Looks pretty Goddamn slippery to me, Stevie,” Billy says. “I’m not sure any of us should be up here in these conditions. Is this Carl’s idea or yours?” Stevie vainly tries to hold his ground. “Carl gave the order to move these across the wall,” he insists. Billy’s only reply is a baleful gaze. There’s an awkward silence broken only by whistling wind. “Carl gave no such order to you, him or anyone else. He already asked me if I’d mind doing it. This is a bunch of crap and you know it Stevie! It ain’t worth anybody getting hurt. If this dude doesn’t want to do it, he doesn’t have to. What the Hell you doin’ here anyway? You guys need to go make yourselves useful somewhere else. I’ve got this.” Billy hoists a tarp over his shoulder and begins to pick his way across the wall with slow, sure-footed steps. I take a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Bless you Billy,” I think, “I really owe you one.”
“I gotta use the can,” I tell Stevie. I head toward the outhouse, uphill from there. I need to put as much distance between the two of us as possible, before I lose it completely and really go off on him. I’m also about to have a problem of an altogether different sort if I don’t get up there in a hurry. I slog uphill, slipping and sliding through the mud, looking forward to a brief refuge in one of the portable outhouses. I latch the door, take off my tool belt, drop my jeans and sit down on the ice-cold toilet seat. It’s so cold it feels like my ass is freezing right to the seat. I hear the sound of footsteps wading through the mud as someone trudges toward the outhouse I am using. “Damn it,” I think, “Someone’s coming right for this one.” Ten minutes ago I was scared shitless, and now I can’t get off the can to save my own life.
The footsteps stop right outside the door. Before I can even say a word, somebody grabs the door handle and yanks on it. With one mighty heave, he wrenches it right off its hinges. I sit there with my pants down, face to face with Pete, the carpenters’ foreman. Pete is a burly, ruddy-cheeked roughneck. He looks shocked to be holding the door in his hand, confronted by a bare-assed laborer looking back at him in surprise. We both stare at each other for a moment. “Whoa! Sorry amigo,” Pete says, I didn’t know you were in there.” He gently leans the door against the side of the structure, and walks away. I sit there on the toilet with the door completely ripped off its hinges, trying to ignore the curious glances of other workers passing by. I finish up as quickly as I can and head back down the hill. So far, it’s not been a very good morning.
Carl is coming out of the engineering trailer and beckons me towards him. He’s a gruff and wiry career laborer. Carl may be the oldest guy on site, but he is a tough and competent job foreman and stands up there on the high walls every day with his arms wrapped around the concrete hose, guiding wet slurry in between the wall forms. He’s been around. He’s done it all and seen it all.
“Good, it’s you”, Carl says, “I was just about to go looking for you and Dave. Did Billy get those tarpaulins moved?”
“Yeah, Billy’s on it. He sent us back,” I reply.
“Good. I’m glad that nimrod Stevie didn’t get involved” Carl says, “Billy’s really the only one with the balls to handle that job. Anyone else would end up gettin’ hurt.”
Carl points at a bulldozer pushing red dirt against a foundation wall. “I need you and Dave over there on that back fill. I want you on that tamper. Don’t let Dave near that thing. He’s an idiot and he’ll hurt himself. He’s your shovel man.” I look around and see Dave magically appear out of nowhere. He’s an acquaintance of mine from Boulder, and we’ve been riding together in his car down to the job site. He’s a nice enough guy, but he’s a chatterbox who can talk your ear off. Dave’s studying to be a filmmaker, but he’s out of money and works construction to get by. I can’t see him lasting long on this job though. He’s already on Carl’s shit list for moving too slowly, standing around jabbering about his film, and just plain disappearing. I try to distance myself from Dave as soon as we’re on the job.
I pull the starting cord on the tamper. The thing shudders to life like some ancient mythical beast and starts vibrating the ground. Dave’s job is to shovel loose dirt in front of the tamper. My job is to guide this vibrating, jaw-chattering monstrosity over the loose earth and tamp it down. The ironworkers are off to the left, wiring a steel rebar latticework together. Their ghetto blaster booms away over the din. I think about the way Pete ripped that door right off its hinges, and realize he must be one of their lunch pail customers after all.
Dave falls into to his usual pattern of leaning on his shovel as he expounds on the film he is making. I see Carl eyeing us from a distance and I keep my eyes on the ground in front of the tamper. Dave drifts along, occasionally shoveling loose dirt, but mainly leans on his shovel handle for support as he prattles on about the film. Carl is making the rounds with paychecks. I see him hand Dave a piece of pink paper with his check. Carl has a short, stern talk with him, and Dave looks dumbfounded. Dave’s just been canned.
“Oh shit,” I think, “We’re both finished.” Carl hands me my paycheck. He pulls me aside, tells me he just sent Dave down the road, but I’m doing a good job, and moves on. I am relieved, but I know I’m not really in this for the long haul anyway. Dave is my ride, and he has just been fired. I was hoping to make it at least another month, maybe until spring, when I thought I’d make up some respectable excuse for leaving. I don’t fit in at all with this whole scene. As I look around the site, I realize we’re all really just a bunch of misfits. I am also a card-carrying coward when it comes to heights. Looking towards the future, the walls and towers on this job are only getting further and further off the ground.
“There’s gotta be a better way to make a living,” I think. The tamper vibrates and rumbles over crumbly red soil. Concrete trucks and jackhammers clamor in pandemonium, the ironworkers sing, “One toke over the line sweet Jesus,” as they climb the latticework, and Dave holds the pink slip in his hand, staring at it in disbelief.
I’ve come to the conclusion that it is actually beneficial to have people think you’re a little crazy. Then you can be certain that the people that hang in there with you are either true friends, or really crazy themselves. It takes away a lot of the guess work.