April 22, 2010
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.’
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.