Where I Come From, July 7 revisions

Where I Come From, July 7, 2013
Lisa Goodman, Tuesday night

Good thing I grabbed the Klondike mitts. Snow crunching beneath studded treads. Nostril hairs trying to freeze. Faint, smell of burning brake pads in the air. Almost full light. Good cadence. Auto pilot.

Then, slippery road ahead. Ease up on horsepower. Body centered and loose. Studs bite into the ice, rolling through unscathed onto solid footing again.

On impulse I skip Chagrin Blvd, the usual route.
Today, Clover Road.  

[Have to get out more. Try something new.]

Traffic lights all in my favor. Auto pilot.

Faint rumble in stomach. The good kind, hunger. I’m OK. Didn’t get to Woodmans over the weekend. Haphazard breakfast, whatever I could find foraging in the half-empty kitchen. Two forgotten fortune cookies in slightly-dusty wrappers. When did Pat order that Chinese take-out? Years ago.

Feels like it anyhow.

One of us would randomly choose a fortune cookie. If our fortunes didn’t seem quite right then, “I must have gotten your fortune.”

We’d trade, “That’s better.”

Today, both fortunes are mine. The first one, “Things are not always what they seem.” Crunch. “Down the pie-hole,” Pat would say.

Crunch, the second one is gone, “Some one is speaking well of you right now.”

Not my old boss, that’s for sure, “’Don’t think it’s because you didn’t work hard enough.’”
Great. Damning with faint praise. I’ll never work in this town again.

Two lifetimes ago.

            ***        ***        ***
Brakes groan gently, bringing me back. Turn into the alley, roll up to the bike rack. Remove pannier from rack, jog up two flights.

“Good morning, Andy.” Jen smiles
“Hey, Jen. Enjoying the cool weather?” Jen is new to these parts. Snow is still a novelty for her.
“You bet, ever since I learned about wool long johns,” She returns.
The daily greeting. Tweeks, perhaps a bit of sparring. Beginning to belong.

To the desk. It’s only week three at the new job, but there’s plenty to do. So far so good. A friendly enough bunch, welcoming, respectful. But curious.

Booting up. Stay on task today. Auto pilot.

            ***        ***        ***
 “Andy, join us for lunch?” It’s Ben. “We’re going to run across the street to Bill’s.”

Why not? Need to get out more. There’s a New Year resolution I can handle.

“You bet. Thanks, Ben.”
The peanut butter sandwich in the pannier will still be there tomorrow. Yep, have to get out more.

As the newest addition to the small outfit, I’m still getting acquainted. Might as well throw on the biking shell, join the crowd.

We cross the snowy street to Bill’s, a small, grubby-but-cozy, hole in the wall.  Our orders placed at the bar, we settle into a dimly-lit wooden booth.  Haven’t been here in ages.

Sam describes a challenging weekend visit with the in-laws. Sympathetic nods from the group. Me, still feeling out the group, quietly listening in fly-on-the-wall mode. From around the table, various weekend stories. Interesting crew.  

Then, out of the blue, “Hey, Little Mack! How the heck have you been?” There’s Tony. Wool cap, insulated bibs, stomping snow off his work boots. Kind, likeable guy. Must be five years ago now. I have only run into him a few times since then. He was one of the good ones.

“Great, Tony!  Are you working?”

“Yeah, with Al and his crew at the Bridgewater.” He peers at me, “Haven’t seen you in a dog’s age. You doing OK?”

“You bet. I’ll have to stop by and say hello after work sometime.” Thinking that may not be my best move, now that I’m shifting gears. But what else to say?

“Yeah, do that!” He waves, turns, picks up a carry-out bag from the bar, and he’s gone.

All eyes are on me. Heart thudding loudly in my chest. The old, familiar wave of shame rises…

Mustn’t let it. That wave used to Maytag me on a regular basis. Can’t go there.

            ***        ***        ***

Tony and a few others knew I’d spent some time in college. But grad school was too much. Best kept to myself.

It had been easy to slip into the dress code, jeans and comfy work boots. No need for formalities, directness was the norm. Salty language. (That wouldn’t fly where I come from.) Wonder Bread in every lunchbox (save my own), washed down with chips and Mountain Dew. Lingering smell of cigarettes when guys returned from the Bucky.

And no emails to keep up with. No overflowing voice mail box. Relatively low expectations. Not too many ways to screw up. Great, just where I belong.

Disparaging remarks about ex-wives. And current ones. Phobic jokes and comments spoken under breath. Or not. Filthy graffiti in the Buckys.  

Wait, what was I thinking?!

I grew up believing boys could learn how to cook and do laundry, girls should know how to change a tire. Dad made sure of that. Every one took shop class and home-ec. We would all have careers, and every thing was open to us. I would make the world a better place, work for what I believed in.  

            ***        ***        ***

Denial saw me through most of the first year. There was a little voice that seemed to know better.  But I silenced it every time.

Wiry and energetic, Tony had showed me the ropes.  At first I’d felt him watching, making sure things were OK as I wrestled the big reels into position. Once he’d realized I was fine, he’d remarked, bemusedly, that most of the crew had at least 20 pounds on him. And they probably had closer to 40 pounds on me. Somewhere in there, “Andy” gave way to “Little Mack.”        

He’d been the one who encouraged, “Don’t worry, you’ll get the hang of bending one inch pipe. Just keep using your weight, it’ll go.”  And he’d taught me how to rig and run the winch for big pulls. “There’ll always be plenty of gorillas to muscle the big wire. Better to have some brains and know-how and run the tugger.”

The new vocabulary was intriguing. A curlicue in a piece of wire is an asshole. (Pulling smaller stuff, sometimes there were brief interruptions, “Whoa! Stop, there’s a foreman in the wire!”) Endless names to learn for all the hardware and fittings, only some of which were intuitive. “Four square boxes” were four inch by four inch junction boxes, OK. But those handy brackets used for securing pipe to studs? “Florida Bobs.” Then there was the equally puzzling “Colorado Jim” for securing armored cable to studs. Occasionally, somebody would try to pull a fast one, “Hey, could you hand me the pipe stretcher?” And while I was pretty good with my b.s. detector, some things were too odd to be made up. The trick was knowing the difference.

I’d learned a lot on that crew. Most of it useful. Occasionally, I learned things I didn’t need to know, and could have done without. Case in point, the names and descriptions of some bizarre sexual practices. One never knew what to expect during break time conversations. Sometimes fly-on-the-wall mode was tricky that way.

Once I’d mastered the names of all the parts, I found that many had more than one name. And those names varied from shop to shop, and even from crew to crew. “Have you seen the Arlington bushings?”
Blank look from my toolie. (Tool mate, work partner.)
“You know, the pound-ons?”

Or, even five years into it, new names for old, familiar things:

“Got any conduit support brackets?”
“Huh?” Blank look.
“You know, those antler things?”
“Oh, you mean Morgan bars.”
“Oh.”

            ***        ***        ***

Unlike everything else I’d ever done, the culture shock never wore off. Just when it seemed I’d finally beaten the beast, somebody would say or do something that threw me for a loop all over again.

Dad was a product of our school district, and went on to teach there himself. At home, everything was a teachable moment, 24/7. He quickly caught and corrected every grammatical misstep, “You mean “lay” not “lie.” When I wrote an essay, “That’s passive voice. Can you make it more active?” Every road trip had its lessons, “Now we’re in Canada. The sign says 100 kilometers per hour, so how fast can we go in miles per hour?” The year I graduated, a magazine ranked our high school among the top ten public schools in the country. My brother and I had been fairly typical students and gotten into good colleges. That’s the way it was. It had never dawned on me just how far that was from the predominant culture here. My construction counterparts were educated in smaller, rural school districts, with less emphasis on college prep. This gleaned from the daily super quiz Jay read aloud from the newspaper at lunch break. One day the topic had been Characters From Fiction. Another good time to post myself quietly on the wall, wings at rest. But a couple of the guys who had worked with me called me out on the tougher questions, “Salinger’s Catcher Caulfield?” Jay looked quizzically at the group. Silence. Pete looked at me, “Andy, we need you!”

Once, on our way back to work, I’d asked Mark, “Didn’t you guys have to read Catcher In the Rye in english class?” I never asked that question again.

Occasionally some one had attended a year of college. Once in a great while, some one had a four-year degree, often a woman.

            ***        ***        ***

I look up into my colleagues’ curious eyes. “’Little Mack’”? Sam asked.

Trying not to sweat, “Tony and I used to play on the same softball team. Once in a while, I’d hit the ball farther than they expected from some one my size. Hence the nickname,” I fib.

“Oh,” Jen chuckled. She looks as though she’s about to say something else, but stops short.

Before any one else can speak, I ask a question about one of the projects we are working on. Close call.

            ***        ***        ***

Riding home, reflecting on the day, I wince thinking about the near miss. Why are things so difficult sometimes? Stopping and filling the pannier with groceries. Onward, still feeling odd when I reach home. Whip up some “functional food” as Pat and I used to call our more mundane dishes. Wolf it down while reading the day’s mail. One or two bites left on the plate. The phone. Steve.

Feigning light heartedness, “Yo bro!”
“Andy, how are things going out there?”
“So far, so good.”
“Seriously, you’ve been through a lot. I worry about you sometimes.”
“Thanks. You’re too good to me sometimes.”
“How’s the new job? How are things in the office world?” He asks. The sixty-four dollar question.

Slowly, thoughtfully, I level with him, “Funny. It’s as though I have been through the looking glass, and then back.”

“Do you think your detour made this job hunt harder?” He asked.

A page from my resume flashes through my head. “Not your typical path,” the H.R. person had remarked, almost to herself.

I knew what she was thinking. Not exactly an inspiring trajectory.

“Hard to say. More than five years since my last job interview, so that was hard.  But I am also a different person now. And how can I request a reference for some one I haven’t worked for in more than five years?”

Fortunately, the conversation drifted to a bicycle he’d spotted on Craigslist. “If Rose finds out I’ve gotten another bike, she’ll have a bird.”

“Better another bike than a drinking habit, don’t you think?” I asked pointedly.

“Of course.” Then, quietly, “Sorry, pal.”

Nothing ever seems to resolve itself. Everything just creates more questions.

            ***        ***        ***

My last construction job was in a hospital. The building, decades old, needed much more help than the small remodels we were doing throughout the sprawling structure.

Long ago, in a previous life, I had worked in a research lab in that same hospital. My first real job out of college. Benefits and everything. I was working there when Dad got sick. And less than a year later, when he died. Fortunately, the grant money ran out soon afterward, and the job ended. I was offered opportunities in other labs, but I just wanted to get out of there. For a long time after that, I couldn’t go near a hospital without torturous thoughts of him.

In this life, all of the construction contractors were based on the top floor. We rode the big elevators up and down several times a day, to and from breaks, or going upstairs for more material. Sometimes there was an almost palpable barrier on the elevator, between the tidy, lab-coated and scrub-clad medical staff and the grubby bunch of yellow-shirted construction workers standing alongside them. Occasionally, as a dirty, sweaty bunch of us rode down at the end of the day, lunchboxes in hand, the elevator would stop before the ground floor, and the medical staffer(s) would look in at us and hesitate, unsure about boarding the same elevator. Sometimes they didn’t, “That’s OK, well catch the next one.”

Most uncomfortable were the handful of times I recognized docs from my old department. I’d keep my head down, hoping not to be recognized. What would I say if one of them noticed and said, “Last time I saw you, weren’t you working in Brown’s Lab? And now you’re what, a carpenter??” What would I say? My face burned just thinking about it. Of course, I had been just a lab worker. Although I knew who they all were, they didn’t necessarily know me. But a couple of the docs were acquaintances. After all, I’d worked in the same department with them for three years. We’d chat in the halls. One doc used to park near me at the bike rack. Sometimes we’d talk about bikes, our commutes, the weather. The couple times I spotted him, I pulled down my hard hat, reminded myself that was long ago, and he probably wouldn’t know me if I walked up and shook his hand. Still it was odd. I didn’t know what to do with the strange juxtaposition of old and new lives. Most days, I couldn’t explain to myself what I was doing there.

So how could I ever talk about any of this with my new office work mates? They wouldn’t understand. I don’t understand it all myself. I just want to get off on the right foot. Make good this time. That’s what matters most. The hard part is done. Now I just have to convince myself I can get back on the horse.

            ***        ***        ***\
[Resolution of the old life:]

“Hey Tony, how have you been?” The Bridgewater crew looks up at me from their beers. Some one had been telling a joke. A clean one. I sit down. After several more rounds of jokes, and another beer, I feel myself loosening up. Perhaps too much, “So Florida Bob and Colorado Jim walk into a bar…”

            ***        ***        ***

…MORE…
[Resolution of the new life.]

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