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At 6:15 in the morning I turn off my alarm, crawl out of my bed (literally – it’s on the floor), and clad myself in already-dirty Carhartt. I make the first coffee I will have of the day and drink it while reading the news online, then leave my apartment to walk to the bus stop, carrying my toolbelt in one hand and the first cigarette of the day in the other.

At 7:30 I get to the site and punch in. For the next 8.5 hours I will swing a hammer, read a tape measurer, run a circular saw, push a drill, manipulate wood, persuade concrete, make sing steel, bathe in dirt, breathe in dust, and battle with despondency.

At 4:00pm I punch out and catch a ride back to the bus stop. The rest of the afternoon will be spent eating, playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 on Xbox Live, and staring at the internet until I crawl literally back into bed and try to get through even 10 more pages of Infinite Jest before my eyes close in spite of themselves.

Come weekend time I forget the promise I made to myself to never do to myself again what I did the previous weekend and ‘go partying,’ getting wasted from Friday evening until Sunday morning.

I’m a construction worker with a university degree in English.

The few sad, sober, energy-abundant hours I may find myself ‘enjoying’ spread haphazardly throughout the week are spent feeling guilty, knowing that I should be writing something, and writing nothing at all.

Since having being asked to contribute to The Nervous Breakdown a few weeks ago I’ve taken handwritten note of a couple essay ideas – something about my friend who’s the singer in a band who’s dedicated three songs and roughly nine minutes of music to the subject of Me, how the short stories in Richard Brautigan’s “Revenge of the Lawn” are the perfect length to read while sitting on the can, etc. – but after a couple false starts I’ve decided to leave those for later. The almost-all-encompassing issue at the centre of my existence right now is this: how do I reconcile/explain/justify the dichotomy of the current state of my life, and for how much longer can it go on like this? And, ultimately, how the sweet fuck do I get out of it?

I’m going to put this in a few parts. I don’t know how many, but let’s say ‘three.’

Part 1b

I got into the construction game with what I would like to imagine were the purest and most naïve of intentions. For a young man of modest-ish means, swinging a hammer seemed like a good, honest way to pay for a university English education; outside in the summer sun between semesters, having some laughs with the friends who I worked with, getting strong and tan and doing man shit – respectable man shit – man shit that I could feel kind of proud of and tough about when I told somebody what I did. And it was cool to learn how to, you know, build things; tap into that primal sort of survivalist, master and creator instinct whereby the hands once so many years ago found stuffed into a toothless infantile mouth prove themselves so supremely now evolved, commander of inanimate earth, able to fashion from sand, rock, and sticks a domicile of floor, roof, and four solid walls. Or whatever.

Working with a small company I was able to skip the year or two or dozen of menial grunt work that most people getting into ‘the game’ are forced to suffer through, and instead went pretty much straight into ‘framing.’

Framing is building shit out of wood.

I got good at it.

Skipping ahead five years and several hundred potentially boring words, I can tell you that I find myself still calling myself framer – even though these days I do anything from finish carpentry to grinding fucking concrete – making more-but-not-so-much-more-I-feel-like-I’ve-‘gotten somewhere’-money, and beginning to lose faith in the belief that this is just some stop-gap holiday from my never-ending quest to be a broke artist.

As I have come to learn, any satisfaction I find in the fabrication of a house some rich bastard will end up calling his ‘castle’ is offset by a constant unease with the almost complete murder of the artistic instinct I feel taking place every day on site. As far as I can tell, the reason construction work is suitable for the people that it’s suitable for is because those people, while perhaps maybe holding some desire to ‘create,’ also hold absolutely no interest for, talent in, or appreciation of ‘art.’ And it’s good that construction workers are generally philistines, because after 8 or 9 hours spent banging nails the last thing anyone needs to be doing is trying to explore any level of the psyche beyond dinner+beer+couch=sleep, bro.

I think a thousand wiser men before me have iterated whatever I have said or will come to say here. However there’s really no way to understand the drain of the drudgery of it all until you’ve experienced it yourself in all the disorienting glory of grayscale. Working a 7:30 to 4:00 (or later) construction shift seems to mean you are no longer afforded the luxury of finding joy in the world; getting out from bed every morning is a sad triumph of will-to-duty over will-to-happiness, the work day is lived counting the minutes to coffee breaks and punch out, and the evenings are spent living in dread of the morning to come.

And any dreams you might still harbor become a sort of sick mockery manufactured by your brain, flashing into the forefront once or twice a day to remind you that you’re far enough away from where you thought you would be at this point in your life that it might not be a bad idea to give up the ghost, take some business courses, and start trying to figure out how to maybe make some power moves in the construction game.

And even if it’s hopefully not hopeless, it’s definitely getting me down.

Part II: An Abridged Job Site Survival Guide

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CHAD R BUCHHOLZ is a freelance journalist and writer of fiction born, raised, and somehow back living in Vancouver, British Columbia. Most of the places his work has appeared over the past few years are of the internet variety can't be found because the sites are either defunct or on hiatus. Physical examples of his writing can be torn out of the pages of ION Magazine in Canada or mailed to loved ones via the micro-magazine/serial postcard fiction publication Abe's Penny out of Brooklyn, NY. Chad graduated from Simon Fraser University in 2008. He blogs here.

19 responses to “The Savage Nobel Part I: My Life as a Well-Read Meathead”

  1. Anon says:

    If it helps at all, you are not alone. Not by a long shot. I have spent my working years swinging between being a diamond in the rough (I actually once had my sexuality questioned when I was a dispatcher for a glass company because I had nice handwriting and listened to Mozart) and being a unwashed bull in a china shop ([redacted due to unexpired statutes]). I am a man of great energy, intensity and enthusiasm who now sits pecking idly at a keyboard or slouching over a conference room table through an endless parade of corporate meetings (I start my first one in nine minutes and have five hours’ worth to doze through). And wait until you have kids, who dictate your sleep patterns and thrive on your love and attention which, of course, is fueled by whatever free time you have, post-drudgery. (;

    There is always hope, though. That is the human curse.

  2. Joe Daly says:

    Chad-

    Welcome aboard, and great inaugural piece! As someone who’s post-law school and post-college jobs have included bouncer, roadie, doorman, and unemployed guy, I sympathize with the eerie sensation of your paycheck not seeming to relate to the papers hanging on your wall. But as you’ve shown us today, you are accumulating a pretty colorful set of experiences for your true craft.

    Plus I’m super jealous that you know all that shit about houses. I know nothing about how houses or cars work.

    “Infinite Jest” is one of my fave books ever. The payoff for getting to the end is huge. Well, once you get past the depression, betrayal, hopelessness, and awe.

  3. Matt says:

    Been there, man. I’ve got an MFA, and I’ve been at various times a bouncer, nightclub manager, composition teacher, martial arts instructor, police dispatcher and investigator. None of which have had anything to do with my education. But I do think they’re good avenues for gathering the material for my art, a resource to develop the memories and knowledge to draw on when I sit down to write a story. Material by writers who’ve never had an existence outside of the university or library seems to be a bit…limited in scope and range.

    And how many writers can say they know how to build a house? I sure can’t.

    Welcome.

    Can’t wait to read more.

  4. JB says:

    You might enjoy Lummox by Mike Magnuson.

  5. […] pretty apt Jump to Comments I’m now writing for the fine literary web mag The Nervous Breakdown. You can find my first post here. […]

  6. Simon Smithson says:

    Welcome aboard, Chad! Nice to have you with us.

    I’m like Joe. I too am super jealous that you know shit about houses. You son of a bi-

    I mean… yeah. The goddamn grind. Stay strong, brother.

  7. Don Mitchell says:

    I’m with Matt, Chad, both in welcoming you and in what he says.

    Dialogue – you want speech patterns. So listen (I know, the nail gun makes that hard) to the guys talking, their rhythms, the language they use. It’ll come in handy. Social interactions, boss/laborers/puffed up shits/good guys — that’s all good material.

    And then just the working stuff. You’re learning some important things. Those little framing tricks you know. I wrote once about “. . . a beautiful sound, the sound of a small thing perfectly done.” I’m sure you have such a feeling. It stays with you, and it can translate, eventually, to writing.

    And some other things (I’ve renovated houses, sometimes with and sometimes without guys from the trades). Consider the multiple ways of solving problems you know, of getting tasks done. There’s almost never just one. Learning to choose the right one (quick/dirty, or elegant, or just good enough . . .) is something I’m sure you already know. So is solving a writing problem any different? I don’t think so.

    The beat-to-shit part is rough. It’s hard to write when you’re tired. Some people get up early, write, and then go to work.

    Probably you know most of this shit. At TNB you’ll find a lot of people who know about it too.

    Finally, have you ever looked at Tracy Kidder’s “House?” It’s a nice piece of work.

  8. Jordan Ancel says:

    What a wealth of material you must have from doing construction— the characters you work with, the houses you’ve built, the internal struggle! All the makings of a great memoir piece.

    As long as the dream is still alive, it is achievable.

  9. I pretty much agree with what everyone has said here. The being-able-to-build-a-house thing is a point of pride. The actual creative process, when it’s going good, has that ‘better than sex’ feeling that a good bout of writing has. Characters, speech patterns, scenes and situations thicker than a tube of PL. And you know, the damn job pays. It’s just the shitty ambivalence towards it all that’s sinking the ship.

    Anyhow, thanks for the comments, ya’ll. I’m going to check out all the rec’s as soon as I get through the next…270 pages of The Jest.

  10. Cynthia Ovenrack says:

    Hi,
    Wow, while I liked your article, sort of, I have to say that I was totally surprised that virtually no one commented on the inherent classism of your article or your condescending attitude. Take the following example:

    “As far as I can tell, the reason construction work is suitable for the people that it’s suitable for is because those people, while perhaps maybe holding some desire to ‘create,’ also hold absolutely no interest for, talent in, or appreciation of ‘art.’ And it’s good that construction workers are generally philistines, because after 8 or 9 hours spent banging nails the last thing anyone needs to be doing is trying to explore any level of the psyche beyond dinner+beer+couch=sleep, bro.”

    Why do you generalize about the general intelligence of construction workers aka – “”those people”? What is this, the Bell Curve Redux? Are you seriously going to use the word “philistine” or suggest that construction workers could never appreciate “art” or “writing” in the same way that you can, simply because they don’t have a B.A. or because they don’t have other career aspirations? I understand the somewhat jokey stone of your piece, but the particular section quoted above is offensive and patronizing. Please. Why can’t you write about them without having to dominate them by assuming you have a superior ability to create or appreciate art?

    • I definitely expected a comment like this when I wrote that paragraph.

      The reason I feel entitled to say something such as the above is because – as I’m pretty sure I explained in the piece – I’ve worked as a hammerswinger for the past five some-odd years (off and on). In that time, the only people I’ve encountered who have shown any interested in ‘art’ as I’m tempted to define it – relativism be damned – are people ‘like me’ who, finding it difficult to make money making ‘art,’ got into trades as a way to both create something and make some money (and do it in a field where a padded resume is completely unnecessary). And all those dudes were my friends before we started working construction, have read this, and agree with it. And if I showed this piece to some of the other dudes I work with – the ‘philistines’ – they would probably laugh at it and/or me for writing it, argue with me briefly about about being into ‘art,’ and then wander off with a grunt, a shrug, and a ‘whogivesafuck?’

      Classism? Dominating them? As of right now, I am them, and I respect the hell out of what these guys do, because I do it too. It’s tough goddamn work. But I challenge you to walk on to a site and talk to anybody there about anything besides sports, ‘pussy,’ getting wasted, or non-Top 40/non-country/non-‘house’ music.

      Anyhow, all I was really trying to say was that it’s a career trajectory incompatible with what I want to do with my life, and I’m getting out of it.

  11. tony says:

    Clearly Miss Ovenrack, you havent spent too much time on jobsites.

    Swing by my site anytime to have your mind blown.

  12. Hey Chad, I really like this piece. No BS romanticism about the glory of the trades. I worked for a remodeling/construction company for a year and a half during the dot-com bust and you pretty much captured my mindset exactly. Get through mon-fri and then down as many beers as possible to blot out the truth that soon I’d have to do it all over again. No energy for writing or reading or really even thinking. I went from ignored day laborer to promising carpenter’s apprentice and was just starting to be given better jobs than straight demo or humping the heavy shit the carpenters didn’t feel like carrying. There was a real creative pleasure in the small framing jobs I was starting to pick up. I was right on the precipice of staying (as you did), learning a lot and making good money, but also trapping myself like some of the bitter journeyman I could see myself becoming. I mention all this to establish my bona fides before responding to Cynthia Ovenrack (a name so great it can’t possibly be real) as well as her comments: All I can say is that I’m positive every single one of the dozens of guys I worked with would laugh their asses off at the notion of your protecting their delicate class sensibilities. Most of them would proudly wear their philistine badges while declining the opportunity to learn the meaning of the word. Too boring. Working a 5 day construction job does not allow much brain reserve for art and faux-intellectualism. And even if it did, the peer pressure against showing that you care about anything so pussified would soon dissuade you. There may have been a whiff of patronization in Chad’s comments, but he’s bending rebar everyday, so he’s earned the right to make the observation. I’m not sure if your brand of Diane Fosse condescension has the same deep background that you should feel inclined to rescue gorillas. Hey, the bottom line is, if you haven’t done it yourself, it’s hard to understand the gleeful anti-intellectualism that pervades job sites. Pointing out the truth of that experience is not offensive. More construction posts, Chad! And if you haven’t checked out Dagoberto Gilb’s short stories, they’re great and right up the Quickcrete alley.

  13. Erika Rae says:

    Hey Chad – Sorry I missed this when it went up. You’ve got a fantastic way with words. Really. You’ll find a way to pull out of this. Thanks for posting this.

  14. charlie ivanhoe says:

    [new title] imitator, or just a wannabe creator.

  15. […] Part I: My Life As A Well-Read Meathead […]

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