Saturday, April 2, 2016


The way I see a job is you just go do it. That's probably why I managed as a brick-layer. You come to the site on the first day and you see ten or twenty tons of bricks, all bailed up in one-ton cubes, and maybe there's a nice footing with lines tied up to corner posts, and maybe even some masonry nails driven into the footing plumb down from the X the lines make up there in the air somewhere (who am I kidding—I always did the plumbing down, and the pinning of the corners on the footing). If they've done the footing well, it's smooth enough that you can pop chalk lines off those pins. Then you have two references you can actually sight, lining up the string in the air with the chalk on the footing, which tells you if your layout is basically accurate. There's also the very good idea to measure up at various points, footing to lines, to see if the footing is fairly level, or where “hogging” has to happen (getting that first course level by splitting bricks here and there, or adding extra masonry if there are low spots). This is a nice beginning meditation. Nothing is yet set in stone. I have memories of quiet spring or fall mornings, no one around, just walking around the site, figuring this stuff out at my own pace.

Then there's the getting the bricks within reach, humping around with a barrow, making piles of bricks at the corners and so forth. On some sites they'd drop the cubes inside the perimeter of the building, which was normally quite the handy idea as long as there weren't going to be some cubes ending up on the wrong side of the building, marooned inside and ultimately underneath, which would never do. After a couple or three hours it'd be time to turn on the mixer and make some mortar, then start building those corners carefully, one at a time, with a lot of attention paid to the level and the lines, and be sure to count the bricks corner to corner so you know which way to turn the first one down, nothing much worse that meeting in the middle a couple of days hence and finding yourself with two halves, that definitely sucks, and almost as much as discovering that on one end you're on course 1, but on the other you're on course 0. (My very first solo job that happened and I had to tear out quite a few otherwise nicely laid bricks and start again, how embarrassing, but a fine lesson from reality.)

Anyways, that's what a job is to me. It's immersing and goes best if you don't be looking too far down the road except in the specific necessary ways I've just exampled above. And so as yesterday was my very last day at work, and the very last day the company was going to be operating as a retail business, I came to work as I always did and do, a tiny bit late because I had to stop to get an apple fritter from the Hess station that sells doughnuts as a sideline, because I was a little late leaving, because... Anyways I got there at five after or so, and started right in to my usual first task of the day, logging in the customers of the previous day, and after a while the first customer of the last day rolled onto the scale, and the day was commenced. When I got to lunch I found this in my lunch bag from Libby, who's made me great lunches nearly every day for the last eight years, and told me she had really enjoyed that connection, usually started after I was already asleep, and completed when I opened the lunch twelve hours later (unless we got a late customer, which happened now and again) and read the note she'd written in the deep night on the napkin. I saved this last one, it's so great:

I figured preserving it here on the blog is the best plan. It's really pretty hard to preserve a napkin for posterity. She'd put a thermos of Brunswick stew for the main course yesterday, her mom's great recipe of course. One of my employers, Joe, had also put a nice BoJangles sausage buscuit on my desk before I got in that five minutes late, so the whole fritter thing was quite unnecessary. I didn't starve my last day.

It got busier in the afternoon. The whole last week was much busier than it had been for months, which was why we were closing, and I wondered if we should have just done one of those “Going Out of Business” things a few months back, when scrap prices had fallen so low that people stopped bringing their steel to us, meaning we were in the red, the big scrap handing machines still burning diesel, the guys still getting paid. I think neither of the owners could stand to be tacky that way, but the past couple of weeks the place probably did get into the black again, week-to-week. It was still a big hole to climb out of, and particularly for two owners in their 70s.

The day marched on, weight after weight, scrap receipt after scrap receipt. The money still had to be counted carefully, each customer had to be treated with friendliness. A couple of days back, one customer, who was perpetually at odds with everyone who waited on him and seemed to view the world as a consistent, uniformly hostile place, was finally banned from using our services when I found him circling an employee, both men with fists up and at the ready. We'd already told this guy, a few months back, any more smoke from his direction and he would own the fire, no further discussion required. I ran outside and yelled, pointing at him, “You're banned NOW.” How exciting for a last week. One owner said at the end of the day, “we should have called the law on him years ago.” Probably so. We had a lot of sympathy for him, truth be known. He spent his days rifling dumpsters and finding bits of metal that sometimes would be worth next to nothing, and seldom yielded him more that $20. That's a grim life in my book. Urban prospector, and with that job description comes "badges, we don't need no stinking badges." He drove an old heap that had once long ago been a sports car, it's back window now lost to some shaft of pipe that had poked it out hitting a bump. He could have had little daylight time for anything else beyond his rounds, and came nearly daily and sometimes more than once. Sad he couldn't make it through the last week, to the end of the show. As usual his problem on banning day was his own obvious misunderstanding, plus a tendency he had to dislike people on the basis of race and ethnicity, in other words a man weighted down with prejudice and stewing in his own bile, living an existence you could find in a book of 12th Century Norse curses, or Dante's wheel. If he's not a Trump voter no one is, but he's probably not registered, or his chariot won't start come November.

At about 4:20 a guy showed up with a big trailer full of gutted appliances. He used to come a whole lot, but we hadn't seen him in months and months, probably because of the metal prices. He was our last customer. Last year he'd brought in magnetic NASCAR calendars for our refrigerators, and I asked him if he had brought new ones. “They've not come in yet,” he said, “but I got regular calendars with my phone number on 'em. I'll bring you one in.” He was obviously pretty exhausted from the loading of the appliances, and had parked outside the gate because he knew we wanted to block it with a big I-beam to mark the end of things. I walked out to his truck with him to get the calendar so's he wouldn't have to trudge back to the office, and we talked a bit about the cranes and who might get them, and why we were closing. He said he really liked working with us. “Other places make you unload yourself, your cranes make it easy.” He also felt we were very honest.

So when I got back to the office a number of the guys were already gone, and I didn't get the chance to shake all the hands of some excellent guys I'd been working with for a long time, day in, day out. A lot of it made me think of that great Hunter-Garcia song, Black Peter:

See here how everything lead us to this day,
And it's just like any other day that, ever been.
Sun comin' up and then, the sun it goin' down.
Shine through my window, and my friends they come around.

That's how it is. You lay the last brick, and if you're lucky and it's not quite dark you can sit down on a sheet-rock pail and drink a Pepsi and look at all of it for a few minutes. Then it's time to go.

That's the office, with the scale.

And this is Andy, who worked in the non-ferrous section. I did get to shake his hand.

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