Smoke & Mirrors

I work construction. I’ve worked construction most of my adult life.

My current job involves putting the finishing touches on the newest Big Box in a nearby Missouri suburb. I’ve been on the job two months. I’m a hired gun. I remember joking with other coworkers—decades ago—while working on a remodel for a different Big Box, “We’re mercenaries in the late 20th Century Store Wars!” and that got a big laugh, mostly for the pun. We were contingent workers, skilled labor working through temp agencies to fill gaps in a contractor’s workforce. I still am. They always complain we’re too expensive. We’re not as expensive as hiring some kid off the street and training him on the job.

The General Contractor just turned over possession of the building to the franchise’s corporate overlords. Their proxies, actually, and the new manager’s team is working fist in glove with district and regional representatives to assemble and stock all the gondolas full of merchandise. We sparkies are still dealing with the piddly-ass stage of the job. Loose ends. As a contingent workers, I am normally not on a job at this point. An electrical contractor typically sends me down the road and uses his own people. Which is fine by me.

Big Box, Incorporated, uses local temp labor to unpack and assemble the shelves and gondolas and display cabinets. They are a symbiotic organism, an ant colony, scurrying backwards and forth to unpack crates containing pieces, assemble them, and place them according to some grid. In the morning they sign in, take a midmorning cigarette break, then sign out at lunch, staying busy in between. They quickly become facile at their tasks. It’s pretty rote.

If anyone would know about myriad reasons for choosing work through temp agencies it would be me. I scan the crew’s gothic Midwestern faces, chiseled like Rushmore from years of wind whipping on the plains and hail hitting on the hills and sun beating down over what Icarus considers fly-over country. I wonder who among the group is a struggling writer or rapper or painter or sculptor or experimental digital artist.

If any. These appear pretty much what you’d expect to find working as day laborers: high school dropouts, felons, single-parents, white-chip collectors. There’s lots of ink and dental problems. Maybe a few young guys are working their first job; maybe they’re making an impression.

I have worked temp labor, unloading boxcars of produce. I still work temp labor, the only difference being they call me skilled and pay me more. It’s a hell of a way to make a living. I thought it was a good idea at the time.

A face among the crew stops me short. Through a glass darkly. It’s like looking at myself in the mirror, not because he bears me any resemblance but he looks like me, demographically. Beaten face. Weary eyes. Middle-aged white guy.

What leaves a man my age schlepping boxes for minimum wage on a catch-as-catch-can basis? That question is one of empathy, not judgment. There are a million paths to that destination. All of them are lined with stories.

I was well along that path, myself, wandering from dead-end, low-wage position to dead-end, low-wage position. But I was blessed. I was privileged. I had a younger brother who had shouldered his grindstone into crew with a Virginia Beach electrical contractor, and Mike was willing to teach me, tolerate me, and mentor me into the trade. It opened a different set of doors.

Seems electricity runs in our blood. I have two brothers who are electricians. Our maternal grandfather was IBEW back in the Depression, working at a hydroelectric plant in southeast Kansas at a job considered so vital to American infrastructure that it kept him out of the draft during WWII.

It’s a skill set which has proved valuable to me over the last quarter century. It kept me working most of the time. And most of those times I focused on the forest and not the trees.

At this point in this job it’s all about trees.

As I hauled a stepladder and my hand tools from one task to the next I noticed someone had purchased a batch of shiny new cordless drills for the installation. As shiny as plastic can be. Battery drills are faster than manual assembly. Labor is always the most expensive part of a job. One battery drill replaces a known quantity of human workers. It’s a trade-off. Sucks to be the worker.

It was a Craftsman™ drill. I’m not endorsing any product, and only mention it because it’s germane to the story. My experience is Craftsman makes an excellent around-the-house product but it doesn’t hold up for commercial use.

My father bought me one for Christmas one year. It was a long time ago. He knew I needed one for work, so he gave me one. My father used to reach out to me a lot and I was too stubborn to know it. He had definite ideas about gifts. Once, as I agonized about an appropriate gift for someone—my mother, perhaps, or whichever wife I was married to at the time—Dad told me, “Give her something nice she wants, but wouldn’t buy for herself.” He understood people on a tight budget prioritize their own desires last. The memory trickled to the back of my mind.

There’s a passage in Poe’s Rue Morgue where Dupin divines his companion’s thoughts by following his gaze and deducing the associations flowing through his consciousness. Such is the nature of memory: bubbling up from long buried reservoirs sensory experience. Altering each time we access it. Ricocheting off random bursts of recall. Ripping off scabs. Assuaging pangs of remorse. Summoning some childhood comfort.

So it was memories of my cordless drill soon scraped away the memory of another gift from dad. It was a camera. A Nikon. 35mm. It was not commercial grade, but it was more than a step up from the instamatics that flooded the markets so we could capture instants from our lives in fuzzy, out-of-focus freeze-frames that forever anchored the lability of their essence to the vantage of the family shutterbug.

I had used one of those cheap instamatics one afternoon, wandering in the woods down the street from the family home one snowy afternoon, exploring the chiaroscuro contrasts of virgin snow on the deep earthy hues of fenceposts and fallen trees, carefully composing the shots to highlight strong lines and textures.

I don’t even remember how old I was. Eighteen or nineteen. I was studying Theatre at Christopher Newport. I thought I wanted to make movies. I thought I wanted to be a combat photographer. Those were analog days and the medium was celluloid and the cost of both buying and processing film hamstrung many a hobby photographer.

After I developed the roll of film I showed the photographs to my parents.

In truth, Mom and Dad probably asked me to show them the pictures. As a youth I was unenthusiastic about interacting with my parents, even less so about them knowing anything about my activities. I never talked about what I thought I wanted to do with them. Maybe if I had they could have dissuaded me. Or directed me.

I doubt it. They never wanted to push me into anything.

I promptly put the encounter out of my mind. I know it happened. I can reconstruct a scene based on snippets from other incidents: Mom and Dad complimented me on the shots. I shrugged off the compliments. Compliments make me uncomfortable. It’s a parent’s job to praise their children. With a perfunctory shrug I slipped away and sequestered myself in my room.

Fast forward. Some Christmas morning. My parents’ house. I opened a medium, oblong box with a bit of heft and gift tag printed in my father’s neat, distinctive hand. I was bowled over to find this single-lens reflex Nikon. “When I saw those photographs you took,” Dad told me, “I wanted you to have a decent camera to work with.”

My father used to reach out to me a lot and I was too obtuse to realize it.

I went on to study photography. When I’m puffing I’ll say, “I went to film school.” Actually I went to a private liberal arts college and studied Journalism, Broadcasting and Film. I never made movies. I never became a photojournalist. But over the years I’ve found some level of satisfaction as a hobbyist. I grudgingly made the shift to digital and still enjoy composing shots to accent a line or a texture or a contrast that catches my eye.

I sigh at the realization of his confidence in me.

The thought is bittersweet.

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About Mark Matzeder

By education a filmmaker, by trade an electrician, by avocation a writer and sometime scholar. Occasionally I wring an essay out of some observation I have made or experience I've had and share them here. Sometimes I'll share short fiction. Sometimes a poem. But mostly it's just my spin on this strange trip.
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