Sunday, May 05, 2013

Working Like a Man

When I finished grad school in the spring of 2004, I took a job on a framing crew for the summer. My first reason was practical: the teaching job I’d applied for didn’t start until fall, and I needed money. My second reason was psychological: I needed to prove to myself that I could handle a construction job.

As far back as I could remember I’d held a grudging respect for the world of hard labor. My childhood was dotted with images of men who seemed to have an essential gene I missed, whether it was my dad working on the family car, my uncle building us a shed in our backyard, or the thousand stories I heard about my pioneer ancestors who built up the Salt Lake Valley with their bare hands. Their long hours and difficult feats were badges of honor, and felt like the epitome of manliness. I’d dabble in these tasks here and there—on Christmas morning in the 8th grade I proudly presented my parents with a set of cast iron hot dog cookers I welded in metal shop—but ultimately I’d bury my inferiority complex in academic success.

So as my last semester wound to a close, I felt like I had something to prove. I got in touch with a friend of a friend, and two days after receiving an MS in American Studies, I was standing next to a concrete-lined hole in the ground above the Eaglewood Golf Course in North Salt Lake City, Utah. For the next three months I would help frame a 1.2 million dollar mansion at the bargain-basement rate of $8 an hour.

In two days I had traded a group of colleagues who prided themselves for their vast vocabularies for a crew who had reduced their vocabularies to variations of the same three words. Mike was tall and lanky with long, stringy blonde hair and baggy jeans that were always being pulled down by his tool bags. Robbie was shorter with dark hair, usually wore shorts, and acted as the crew’s unofficial conspiracy theorist and partier. Arash was the closest I came to a kindred spirit, if only because he was also a rookie. He’d moved to Utah to go to school after paying a man to smuggle him into Turkey from his home country of Iran.

“Iran, not Iraq,” he said the morning we met.

Our foreman was Dave, taller, lankier, and older than Mike, but with less hair. When I first met him I made the mistake of assuming his thin frame translated into an easygoing work ethic. My error was corrected quickly. Every day a lumber truck would dump a load of 12-foot 2X4s in a pile in front of the construction site, and Arash and I were tasked with hauling them up to a more accessible spot. To make the task more manageable, I started grabbing two 2X4s at a time and walking them over to the foundation. But Dave would have none of that. Without a word he stomped over to the pile, wrapped his wiry arms around a stack of eight or nine of the same 2X4s, and hauled them up the hill.

Message received. Framing wasn’t about making the job manageable. It was about getting the job done.

Inspired by that blunt lesson, I took to my new responsibilities quickly, and before long we settled into a routine: as carpenters, Dave, Mike and Robbie did most of the actual framing, while Arash and I carried stuff around and tried to cut boards to size without chopping our fingers off. Then every couple of weeks we would drive out to some work site in Salt Lake where we would meet up with several other crews to get our paychecks, eat free pizza, and hear a lecture on safety standards.

The new routine was tough, but doable, and it quickly forced me into some good habits. Being dressed and on site at 7am was a challenge for a career night owl. And I’d never been a breakfast guy, but the physical nature of the job demanded I eat something before work. It also saved me money, forcing me to pack lunches instead of meet up with a friend for an hour at some restaurant downtown.

But all the good habits in the world couldn’t disguise the moonlighting college professor who lathered up in sun block every morning to protect his pasty skin while his co-workers were draped in deep tans that testified to long years in the sun. I never really knew if my crew resented me for leaving the white collar world to sweat it out on a construction site for a few months. If they did they didn’t show it. One afternoon in July I was sitting around on a break with the other guys when I mentioned something about grad school. Mike shook his head and asked:

“What are you doing here, man?”

I thought about everything I could say in response. That I needed to prove I was man enough to work long hours with my hands in the summer sun, that I was more than a schoolteacher with a red pen. That I remembered working at a grocery store as a teenager when former classmates would come in to cash construction paychecks that were three or four times the totals I was pulling down, and that even though I knew they’d sacrificed their futures by dropping out of school to take their jobs, that somehow standing there in their grime and their grease, they intimidated me.

“I just wanted to learn something new,” I finally said.

Bit by bit, the million-dollar house took shape over the summer weeks, and along the way I scored a 50-cent raise. The cement hole became a framed basement, then a really big rambler, then a crane came by and a sweeping roof capped off the structure. As the pieces fell into place I realized that even if I’d only been cutting 2X4s, I could look at that obnoxious house and know I’d helped to bring it up out of the ground. My sweat was in that thing, and after jabbing my hand on a nail one afternoon, so was my DNA. Maybe the future owner wouldn’t let me in the door, and maybe it was insulting to be making $8.50 an hour with two college degrees, but as long as that house stood, I knew I owned a piece of it.

At the same time, I wasn’t working any harder on the house than I did when I lingered on campus long into the night researching my paper on Chicano Nationalism, or when I graded all my students’ freshman argument papers, or when I sacrificed my Spring Break to marathon my way through five days of sunrise-to-sunset work on my Master’s Thesis. Grad school never gave me a sunburn, but hard work was hard work.

As July neared August, plumbers and electricians started to come by and take measurements as they prepared the house for its next phase of construction. Soon it would be time for the framers to move on to a new project.

One afternoon Dave took me aside to give me the news. “Our next project is going to be down in Payson,” he said. Payson was about 100 miles away. 200 miles of daily commute at $8.50 an hour didn’t carry much appeal, and Dave knew it.

“I could probably bump you up to $9.00, but that’s the best I could do until we trained you as a carpenter,” he continued. “But that’s not going happen anytime soon.”

I don’t think he meant it as an insult, but the last comment still stung. Even if I didn’t want the promotion, I wanted to think I was good enough to do it. Sometimes you don’t want to go to the party, but you still want to be invited.

About three weeks earlier the teaching job I was counting on had fallen through. Quitting framing would leave me with no income and no prospects, since it was too late in the year to go back to school and get into a PhD program. But I knew the Payson job wasn’t an option. I also knew that I didn’t have anything left to prove.

I called the boss two or three times, figuring I owed him a verbal resignation, but eventually I just had to leave a voice mail. A month later I picked up a part-time job teaching for the local community college. It took another year and a half before the house in Eaglewood sold. I’ll still drive by it once in a while, but I’ve never stopped to meet the owner, and I’ll still see pickups hauling tool trailers on the freeway from time to time, but I’ve never second-guessed my decision to leave the crew.

Two weeks after I quit I went to my 10-year high school reunion. I was single, unemployed, and living with my parents. But it didn’t bother me. I knew something about myself that I didn’t know before. Plus I knew that when you go after a stack of 2X4s, you grab eight, not two.