Recent Work By Chad R. Buchholz

I got fired for the first time in my life sometime in the past two weeks. I say ‘sometime’ because my boss never actually picked up my phone calls or let me know what was going on beyond a single text that said, “no work,” sent at 6:15 on the Tuesday morning after I returned home from a week being out of town. I finally got a letter of dismissal in the mail the other day. Classy.

Preceding the text and nicely worded letter, what happened was this:

I was offered a last-minute opportunity to go to Calgary for a week in early May to do some writing/photography/filmography with a notable group of Canadian athletes, and I jumped at it.

At the job site I had been working on, me and the other dudes were basically being rented out by another project manager and were working under his supervision; my ‘real boss’ had nothing to do with the site besides showing up every few weeks to collect the absurd amount of money he was getting paid to do absolutely nothing.*

So, because I had only seen my ‘real boss’ like twice in the last month and a half of working – and because he’s an impossible-to-talk-to, bi-polar, hyper-aggressive heart attack candidate whose mental development arrested at the exact moment of a playground shoving match that took place when he was 12 – I wasn’t in a huge hurry to get him on the phone.  I got around to calling him some 18 hours before I was to get on the plane and left a message saying I would be leaving.

I know that seems like a pretty obvious move of insubordination on my part, but to be fair when I called him it was only like 18 hours after I had found out I was to be getting on the plane in the first place. I had immediately let the project manager –- the guy whom I saw at work every day and who was responsible for what was going on on site –- know what I was up to though, and he had no problems with me leaving. And that to me seemed ‘good enough.’

So (again), the short notice to my ‘real boss,’ by itself…I mean, company protocol states an employee is supposed to ask at least 24 hours in advance before taking time off, and I failed to do that. But if we’re going to get into ‘company protocol’ here, how about this; on my last day on the job two dudes weren’t wearing steel-toed boots, three of us were working with our shirts off, no one wore ear or eye protection the entire day, and there wasn’t even one hard hat on the whole site. Fuck company protocol; that shit is illegal, and I don’t think I’m splitting hairs to point out that there might be some incongruities in enforcing co. stipulations going on at K___ Construction.

Anyhow. I went on my trip, did some good stuff, perhaps furthered the ‘career’ I ostensibly went to school for, got paid, and came back home to radio silence.

And, financial uncertainties aside, it’s been a sweet couple of weeks.

But I guess I hurt boss man’s feelings. Or undermined his authority. Or maybe I was doing a shitty job…although, if that was the case, I don’t really see how it could have gotten me canned, seeing as how he was never around long enough to check up on anything we were actually doing.

So (once more), I got fired sometime in the last two weeks for some vaguely justifiable reason (I guess), but I didn’t find out until yesterday. Two separate dudes who I worked with called to sort of gently let me know that they had heard through the grapevine that I was ‘done.’ With both of them I chatted for a few minutes, planned to meet up for a beer sometime soon, and said, “Thanks for calling. Take it easy, bro.” One of them offered to go pick my last paycheck up for me on Friday and drop it off at my place.

After I got off the phone and left the diner and got back on my bike and got home I reread the previously posted ‘Jobsite Survival Guide’ and felt that I wasn’t sure if I should have published it. I didn’t think it was as funny as I thought it was when I was writing it – actually, I felt like it was maybe kind of mean-spirited, and a simultaneous oversimplification/exaggeration of my blue-collar life for the sake of entertainment. I had written it after a shitty day of work in some kind of snickering rage, and re-reading it now I wonder if it doesn’t sort of stink of that.

But those rules I outlined aren’t all bullshit. In fact, from the perspective I (and my non-philistine hammer-swinging friends) most often look from, they’re all true almost all of the time. But – and this ‘But’ might just be the two weeks of unemployed hedonistic joy mellowing my roll here – BUT, from the ‘noble’ side of this Savage Nobel (yeah yeah, sic) exploration, it is kind of bullshit that I wrote the piece.

See, I like ‘The Bros.’ I like hanging out with ‘The Bros.’ I like being one of ‘The Bros.’ ‘The Bros’ are solid and predictable and when I’m around them all the hyper-self-conscious, future-fearing, narcissi-nihilist paralytic paranoia in my life sort of sometimes disappears. Sometimes I even enjoy myself, being on site, hamming nails and shooting the shit with ‘The Bros.’ And I’ve realized that if any of ‘The Bros’ were to read the stuff I’ve written (not likely) and got bummed about it/me, I’d be bummed too.

And on top of/in conjunction with all this I’ve realized despite the fact I hated what I was doing for work, I kind of liked it, too.

Now I know there’s all sorts of shit that could read into this, the seeming incongruities between the things I’ve written about construction in this miserable little series vs. the reality of me actually enjoying the act of building stuff out of wood. I think someone could probably make a pretty strong case that my white, upper-middleclass sense of entitlement is the real root of the problems I have working on a jobsite, and that I’d be a subversive, anti-authoritative, malaise-mongering little shit in any job scenario I could conceivably be found in (besides like a respected-author-avec-movie-deal-happily-enjoying-creative-control type of situation).

And I wouldn’t really argue with them. The only real habits I have are my vices and a militant dedication to being non-committal. If I can’t conceive of myself being able to bail out around the six-month mark, I don’t want to be part of anything. And as soon as whatever responsibilities I find myself, uh, responsible for start closing in like the walls I start looking for a way to smash out. Or at least throw a wrench in the gears.

(Yes, I’m single.)

But I’m pretty aware of all this. I’m pretty aware of most of my flaws. And for right now I don’t work a construction job anymore and I’m happy about that. And yeah, I’m writing more. And I’m even getting paid for some of it. No, it’s not fiction, but it is storytelling of some recognizable form and I feel positively about that. But no, I’m not writing as much as I would have led you to believe I might, back in Part I when I was all indignant and repressed and ready to really start banging it out like a fucking hellion. Maybe I’ll start tomorrow.

If anyone wants me, I’ll be down at the bar.

*For those who don’t know, construction workers are generally charged out at double the rate they get paid, with the rest going into the boss man’s pocket. My boss, I think, was charging his own fees on top of that.  The dollar figure he was pulling down per day to not be anywhere near site and not have anything to do with what was going on was disgusting.

The Savage Nobel Part I: My Life as a Well-Read Meathead

The Savage Nobel Part II: An Abridged Jobsite Survival Guide

If you’re an elitist, classist, pseudo-intellectual like myself, you’ll find that maintaining any semblance of sanity while stooping yourself and short-selling your ideals to toil away on a construction site takes a certain brand of self-preservation instinct. Not only is it important that those you are working with don’t really know who you are, it’s also critical that they are somehow led to believe that you are like them. You don’t want to be the ‘faggot’ on site who no one talks to, or the ‘greener’ who gets delegated the shittiest jobs via back-lot work site conspiracies, or the victimized shmuck who finds his boots full of line chalk and his tool belt in the outhouse every couple of days. Because more important than even surviving your co-workers is surviving your boss, and the only way to do that is to toe the line and become part of the team. You have to be Construction Bro.

If you’ve played sports at any competitive level for any significant length of time without being beaten up by your teammates, this should be no problem; the rules are pretty much the same. If not, better bone up on your sociopathology and start smiling through the lie that is your life. Here’s one man’s method for making it through another day.

RULE # 1:

Use the word “Fuck” incessantly. This is the most important rule on the job site. If you aren’t prepared to use the word “Fuck” for approximately 1/5th of every sentence spoken you’re not going to fit in. You’re encouraged to use other swearwords as wantonly as possible, but make sure their usage is at least doubled by your use of the word “Fuck.”

RULE # 2 (a, b, c, d):

On site you’re allowed to talk about sports, chicks, getting shitfaced, and how good you are at your job compared to how bad everyone else is at their job. Never actually talk about work, unless it’s to discuss the work of one of the other trades and how shitty it is/they are. When discussing sports it’s important to engage in endless debate on predicted outcomes regardless of the unfathomable pointlessness of it all (and do prepare yourself to get skewered for days afterward when ‘your’ team doesn’t win/’your’ player shits the bed/etc). When discussing ‘pussy’ it’s important to frame the opposite sex through the most misogynistic, boorish lens you ever feared your mind was capable of. When discussing getting shitfaced just act like yourself, because you do love getting shitfaced. Remember to adhere to Rule # 1 in all situations.

RULE # 3 (a, b):

If you have a girlfriend, don’t talk about her. Don’t even mention her name. If your crew is especially tasteless, make that ditto for Mom. These two female figures are the best, most effective, and most consistently summoned subjects for worker-to-worker job site harassment. It’s best to pretend they don’t exist. Further, if you do anything after work besides play/watch (regional team sport of choice), lift weights, or get drunk, don’t talk about it either. You may be proud of the volunteer work you do down at the local Sally Ann or your collection of vintage Pyrex, but to the average construction bro that shit is weird. Mention something out of the ordinary and the conversation will drop, unease will start creeping into the back of your mind, and come next week your little hobby will have undergone enough mental processing to come back at you as something worthy of mockery.

RULE # 4:

Whenever necessary, go to work hungover. A ‘necessary’ time to go to work hungover is whenever somebody who you predict you’ll be working closely with the next day announces that they are going out that night to (verb) party. The only alternative to going out and manufacturing a hangover for yourself is to not get drunk, go to work the next day sober, and face a day of dealing with your work bro dragging his ass around, hiding from the boss, fucking up any task he does attempt, and BBM-ing the chick he banged the night before like every 5 minutes. If however you’re both getting dragged behind the shit wagon you can at least laugh along with the dude and watch each others’ backs for an eight hour game of ‘Let’s Make Work Noises In The Basement’ or ‘How Long Can We Make The Easy Job Last?’

RULE # 5:

Avoid spending non-work hours with ‘The Bros’ at all costs. All non-work related activity engaged in will entail nothing more than embarrassment at how disgusting work-bro interaction becomes off of the job site, the suffering of ridicule regarding how tight your pants are, and the spending of way more money than you could ever justify in a bar you fucking hate.

RULE # 6:

Do an ok job. Don’t blow anybody away, but don’t make yourself a liability. As long as you’re not terrible at the work you do and you show up closer to 7:30am than you do to noon every day chances are you’ll be able to get away with things like taking a ‘mental health’ day here or there, fucking things up once in a while, or asking for that raise you were promised. Yeah, sure, you were supposed to get it at three months, and it’s a $2/hour less than what you think you’re worth, but it’s still almost double what your friend is making rolling burritos.

RULE # 7:

Etc., etc., etc., etc.,

RULE # 8:

Never stop believing that one day it has to be over and that ‘real life’ will start for you sometime soon. Once you lose this…

Wait. Maybe losing this is the one torch under your ass you need to get The Fear so bad you actually go out and make something happen for yourself. Because pretending this gig was gonna be ‘mellow’ and ‘temporary’ is what landed you back here in the first place, chief.

(In Part III: The Days After Savage Nobel)

Part I: My Life As A Well-Read Meathead

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