I’ve been working construction since I was 15 years old. Back then it was cleaning up after the carpenters and the masons, gathering and setting fire to whatever flammable debris they left behind.
When I was not in college, I worked for a mason contractor. That’s how I fell those 27 feet to my death, and why I was reborn as a Marxist who became a professor of History.
By the time I made it to graduate school, I knew my way around construction sites. I could mix mortar, I could carry tons of brick and cinder block, I could hold my own—when Stony said, “get you a plumb stick,” I knew what he meant.
I got the job with Mike Long because my friend Bob Graham recommended me. Bob was a grad student at NIU like me, but, having written an MA thesis on Henry Clay, he had decided to settle out in DeKalb, work the six months for Mike and collect unemployment the rest of the year, see what happened. He came from Providence—he might as well have been a Martian from my parochial Midwestern perspective. He took basketball way too seriously.
My life was breaking up in 1977. My mother had died of cancer at the age of 52, my sister was about to die of cancer at the age of 30, and my wife had left me to become a movie star in LA. The construction job saved my life. It paid $9.33 an hour, and it introduced me to the netherworld of country-ass bars in DeKalb, where you could cash your check on Fridays and dance with fat ladies to the tune of Patsy Cline.
Bill and Rog’s was the center of this world. There was a cash register, but the real money was in a drawer behind the bar, where old Roger also kept a loaded gun, just in case. You’d endorse your check, he’d pay you to the penny—my weekly take home was $291.25—and then you’d buy a round because, well, because there was this pile of bills with nothing better to do. Rog died like his dear friend, Bob Graham’s older brother Jack did, of cirrhosis of the liver. Jack taught chemistry at NIU. He was a patent holder on nuclear magnetic resonance imaging.
Saturday nights at Bill and Rog’s were an idyll, langorous evenings that always ended peacefully. You didn’t pick up girls there. You danced with fat ladies, and you said your goodbyes at 1:00 AM. I’d meet Bob there around 7:00, buy a couple rounds, pour the quarters into the jukebox, and wait for nothing because nothing was going to happen. The hardwood floor had turned white long before I arrived. The only honey-colored traces of oak were the narrow perimeters of the jukebox.
I think of my career in construction because today I served as the super on Mel’s masonry job. A square of sidewalk in front of the halfway house had turned to rubble, so he had to repair it. He used a miniature jackhammer to clear the broken concrete. We bagged the stones, if that’s what you can call the remainder.
Looking at the new, still fluid concrete, and eyeing the trowels he hadn’t yet handled, I said, “Mel, I can float this if you want.” He laughed and said, “What do you know about this, Jim?”
“I spent at least two years of my life doing this, I can bullfloat it if you want.”
Technically speaking, I was bullshitting. A bullfloat is a device you can extend up to 20 feet. It’s more or less a big trowel attached to a long handle. Think of a Swifter, only a lot larger. You hang the handle on your shoulder and push the trowel out to smooth the concrete, make the water rise, burnish the surface.
Mel and Lee, his second in command, floated the square nicely. But I got to do my part because, sure enough, in loading those stones, I stepped on a corner of the setting concrete. The wooden trowel I used to smooth this small surface felt like a musical instrument I hadn’t played in 30 years.
Still, I wasn’t just clumsy. The sidewalk will look better tomorrow. So will I.