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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

Work

By Angela Tung

Rants

Il faut travailler. – Louis Pasteur.

I want a job.

It’s been six and a half months since I quit my job to write full-time. It’s mostly been a dream. Who wouldn’t want to be able to do what they love most in the world, all day, every day, with a significant other’s financial and emotional support? Mostly I love it, but you know what? Just between you and me –

I’m starting to get bored.

Not bored of writing. Being really into a piece is the best feeling. Struggling with one doesn’t feel great but it’s not boredom. Struggle is good. But everyone needs a break, even from what they love. So I run, do a bit of yoga (though perhaps for not much longer, you’ll see later), tickle the ivories on our electric keyboard, talk to my friends, and read. But do I, dare say it, want something more? Some other kind of work? Do I want a job to take a break from my writing?

Writing is all I’ve ever wanted, since I was twelve and decided, according to my diary, “I think I know what I want to be when I grow up. A novelist or something like that.” I’ve been struggling my entire working life to get to a point where I can write all day. Ten years, a nest egg, and a generous boyfriend later, here I am.

So what if my mother doesn’t think of writing as real work? “I worked all afternoon,” I told her recently, and she perked up.

“Work?” she asked.

I knew what she was picturing: a tall shiny building and her daughter, possibly wearing a big-ribboned blouse, typing away in one of the tiny windows. “I mean,” I said, “I wrote.”

“Oh.” I could hear the hiss of her deflating fantasy.

Six months later, I’m the one fantasizing about being in that tall shiny building. In an office. Possibly wearing a big ribboned blouse.

Yes, an office, with desks and cubicles, and people saying, “I wanted to give you a heads up,” and “Keep me in the loop.” An office where I’ll wear something besides jeans and Gap T-shirts every day, where I’ll talk to other people besides my boyfriend, the baristas at my favorite cafe, and the other regulars at the gym. Where I’ll get paid to do something completely stupid like add up columns in an Excel spreadsheet or make something in PowerPoint, or file papers, or stamp invoices PAID. From where, after a long trying day, I’ll come home and in great relief sink into my couch and turn on the TV.

Right now there is no relief because every day is a relief, and I’m starting to feel like I’m sink sink sinking to the bottom of my couch.

I know: I’m a big fat whiner. If only everyone had it this good. But would the weekend be as great without the work week? Would you want to eat your favorite food every day? The best massages are equal parts pain and relaxation. Pleasure is the absence of pain. What if there is no pain? Is pleasure possible? What if your life is one long, never ending weekend? What would happen?

Messed up ear crystals, that’s what. You heard me. Messed. Up. Ear. Crystals.

Let me explain.

In addition to constant casual Friday and near isolation, I have no health insurance. I could have health insurance. I could have opted into COBRA, but plopping down almost $700 a month for coverage I may or may not use, especially when I have no income, wasn’t too appealing to me. At least when it was coming directly out of my paycheck, I didn’t really notice, and therefore completely took for granted that I could get my teeth cleaned, my eyes checked, and a physical every year. Any unexpected problems, check. The cough that wouldn’t go away (allergies), hives (allergies again), and a UTI over Fourth of July weekend (a surprisingly quick E/R visit which cost me $200 out of pocket, with coverage, but at least my meds were free).

I thought I’d be fine without insurance, at least for a little while, though I did wonder, as I crossed the street, what if I got hit by a bus? But why would I? I never got hit by a bus in New York, jay walking like it was going out of style, the whole time I had insurance. Why would I the moment I had none?

Case in point. Patient X works at home, and has a lot of free time on her – or his – hands. Or at least a lot of flexible time. He – or she – can work whenever and wherever he wants. So this leaves a lot of opportunity to go to the gym, take yoga classes, and, what the hey, do even more yoga at home.

Yoga’s good for you, right? It stretches and strengthens. It increases flexibility and calms you down.

What they never tell you is that if you do it a lot, and, let’s say, do the bridge for the first time since you were 12, and then do a lot of sun saluting and downward dog and all that jazz, and if unbeknownst to you, you have a sinus infection brewing, and you’re getting older (goddammit!), maybe, just maybe, the otoconia, those tiny crystals in your ear that control balance, may slip into the wrong canal, so then when you, say, get up in the morning, your head starts spinning like your house is a giant merry go around, and you have to lie back down. You think it’s dehydration, but then it happens again when you’re doing yoga (damn you yoga to hell!).

From sleuthing on the internet, you’re pretty sure it’s the otoconia thing, and not a brain tumor (fingers crossed!), but you don’t know for sure because you don’t have insurance and therefore you don’t have a doctor, and so you try the “therapy” at home by yourself, you follow the diagram closely, and then you throw up.

You throw up several times.

This is supposed to happen, according to random people on the internet, you do the therapy and then you feel dizzy and sick, and sometimes you throw up. So you feel better for about two seconds before you remember that you don’t know for sure. These people have been to their doctors (“Luckily, my doctor. . .” “I found a great physical therapist. . .” “My doctor fixed me right up!”), lucky shits, so they do know for sure, unlike you.

So then what do you do? Do you pay out of pocket at that vertigo clinic (yes, a clinic solely for vertigo) that’s two blocks from your apartment? Do you apply for insurance and hope for the best, hope they will accept you, because applying for insurance should be just like applying for a job. Of course they can only accept the best, read: healthiest, candidates, although, um hello, don’t the sick need insurance the most?

The next day you feel much better, and wonder if maybe you fixed yourself (but of course you don’t know for sure), but still you think, I wouldn’t have this problem if I had insurance. I wouldn’t not have insurance if I had a job. I wouldn’t have all this free time on my hands to do crazy amounts of yoga, which dislodged those fucking ear crystals into the wrong tube, if I had a job.

Makes total sense.

Seriously, I know it was dumb luck and not joblessness that lead Patient X from downward dog to throwing up in a shopping bag, but it still might be time to join the working world again. I miss the contrast – work week and weekend, office and home, doing work I have to do and work I love, socializing and solitude, pain and pleasure.

And, oh yeah, health insurance.

Forced Fun

By Angela Tung

Essay

For ten years I worked for a giant New York corporation. It doesn’t matter which one, at least not for the purposes of this essay. But I will say that it made enough money for its employees to hold expensive and often questionable team building events.