Construction Instead of College, and Ways to Live in the World
Kevin Canty on Working His Way to Stories He Can't Forget
Start on a spring day, drowsy with pollen, watching the sun shine on the new leaves outside the window while a class of some description droned on. This was the eleventh grade. I hadn’t read the book. I was maybe stoned from lunch.
I don’t remember the exact class or the exact day but I do remember the longing inside. On the other side of the window was a wide and various world, full of possibility, and I just needed the nerve to seize it. I was an ocean of restlessness, a volcano. What did I want? Where did I want to go? Anywhere but here. Anything but this.
No dramatic moments: I just tapered off, quit doing any of the homework, quit showing up after lunch, or if I did show I had Mateus rosé and hashish on my breath. By the last of the school year, the ending was obvious. I spent a regular summer, drove to California, slept on the beach, and when everybody else went back to school in the fall I went to a construction site in the suburbs and tried to get hired on.
Why construction? I had heard the money was good, which turned out to be semi-true: for a skilled carpenter or bricklayer, yes, but for a pick-and-shovel guy, not so much. More than that, I wanted to prove myself. My father made his living with a typewriter; I had grown up among white soft privileged children. There were parts of the world I didn’t know, and I was curious about them. I was listening to Muddy Waters and The Band and Mississippi Fred MacDowell and I wanted to get down to something real, something I could touch. Something romantic about this quest, maybe even something ridiculous, I think I knew this at the time. But school had already started without me.
So I found myself one rainy fall day looking for Big Jim. I found him on the plywood floor of a half-finished house, drinking coffee out of thermos cup and eating a raw onion as if it were an apple in big crunching bites. What do you want? he asked.
I told him I wanted a job.
He looked me up and down and laughed. No mystery why: I had hair halfway down my back and a George Armstrong Custer mustache. I looked more like a member of the Byrds than a working man.
He laughed again and said, Go find Mr. Baker and tell him to get you some gloves.
I stood there trying to understand what he meant.
Well, go on, he said, and went back to his onion.
I went back out into the damp afternoon, asked about Mr. Baker.
I think they’re pouring a sidewalk today. Over there.
“The people I knew who were going to college were no smarter or funnier or better with language than these people.”
I wandered down through houses and building sites. They were putting in a whole new neighborhood, several houses at a time, a hundred or more in all. Some of the houses looked finished, others were just framed, others were simply holes in the ground. Down near the end of the subdivision, where most of the houses looked nearly complete, I found a group of black men leaning on their shovels, waiting for something.
Mr. Baker? I asked.
The oldest of the group stepped forward, looking at me.
Jim put you on? he asked.
Oh, well, he said, and sighed. Let’s get you some gloves.
I followed him over to a clapped-out Ford pickup truck. The company had about a dozen of these, all identical, and I would log many hours in them in the next year.
Are you even eighteen? he asked.
Yes, sir. Nineteen in January.
He seemed amused but I didn’t know why. His eyes were kind, though, and tired-looking.
Waiting on the cement truck, he said. All set to pour if it don’t rain.
This was as much of an introduction to the labor crew as I ever got.
Two days later, I wanted to quit. I had blisters on my hands, a tweaked shoulder, assorted cuts and bruises. I had wrecked my nice hiking boots working around wet concrete. Also, the site was not a particularly nice place to work. It was organized around strict racial and hierarchical lines: the stonemasons and bricklayers at the top, mostly Italian, mostly from Maryland; the carpenters in the next rung, Scots-Irish from Virginia and West Virginia; and at the bottom, the labor crew, all black except for me and one other hippy kid, mostly fresh up from the country of North Carolina and Tidewater Virginia. Nobody talked to anybody else except for occasional yelling. Big Jim would drive by in his pickup truck, wherever we were working, and roll the window down and yell “Assholes and elbows! I don’t want to see nothing but assholes and elbows!”
Sometimes he’d stop and get out and demonstrate what he meant with a 30-second burst of activity with the shovel, flinging dirt furiously all around. Then a glare as he drove away.
A pretty unpleasant place to do pretty unpleasant work. I stuck it out anyway. As I said, I started out trying to prove myself, which is a game with weird rules. Essentially it meant that I had to do the same dumb thing for as long as it took to get good at the dumb thing and for the dumb thing to stop killing me.
I did get good at it, more or less. I got to the point where I could do it with a pretty major hangover, which happened. My hands got harder, my back got stronger, I got some regular boots and some really good gloves. Also, I learned the art of just working enough. Mr. B—as Mr. Baker was universally known—was very good at calculating this. There were times, when we were pouring concrete for instance, when everybody had to show up and work their asses off. Other times we would try to get as far as possible from Big Jim and do pretty close to nothing. Fridays were paydays and everybody ran to the bank and cashed their checks at lunchtime and quite a few of us went to the liquor store, too. Drinking flavored vodka in a half-built house while the rain poured down outside: not bad.
After a time, too, I got to know the men I was working with, at least a little. Once the novelty had worn off of having a ponytail in their midst, they quit noticing I was around. My first name changed from Kevin to Calvin, and I acquired the nickname Coolbreeze, which I have always liked. I overheard about their lives, kept my trap shut and listened. Some of them were my age, most were older, a couple of them—Pops and Mr. B—easily in their fifties. Some of them had wives, some of them had girlfriends, some of them had both, or at least they said that did. The talk was loose, funny bullshit. But slowly it came into focus for me: some of them had wives, children, apartments to keep going on the same crap money I was making. This wasn’t some kind of adventure for these men. This was their life.
That was the thing I learned: the scope of these lives, the way so much of it seemed to have already happened. These were poor, mostly uneducated men who had grown up in the rural South. Nothing was going to happen that was going to turn their lives into something else. Even Mr. B, who was as funny and kind and smart a man as I have ever met, was still working for the company, and was going to do so until he couldn’t anymore. There was nothing tragic about this, at least they didn’t seem to think so. Everybody had a good time on Friday night, everybody played the numbers—Pops hit it one time and disappeared for a week. But then he was right back at it on Monday morning.
So I’d come in search of possibility and found limitation instead. I might be going to California in the spring but these men weren’t. I might be going to college sometime. The people I knew who were going to college were no smarter or funnier or better with language than these people. They just had more money, more of a sense that they belonged in a world where people wore neckties and read the newspapers every morning. And I could have stayed inside that world and never known this. Like a fish who doesn’t know there’s such a thing as water.
So there were new worlds here after all. Another thing I learned was the pleasure of working with my body. To go to bed tired, to sleep soundly, get out of bed and swing a pick or a hammer, stand on my feet, get strong—this wasn’t sport, wasn’t recreation. It was living. That first beer at the end of the day was an intense pleasure. That pride that I felt in my body, using my body for work, having it be strong enough, this was a thing I hadn’t felt before. The sense of accomplishment when I nailed the last sheet of plywood to the rafters for a new roof. Some part of this made sense to me, added up to a whole.
I stayed the winter, went to California. I went back and forth between this kind of work and college for a few years, never really at home in either. I picked apples, ran a chainsaw for the Forest Service, built a seed dryer in the Midwest. I quit a few jobs and got fired from one. And one summer I got hired on for an extra gang on the Milwaukee Railroad in Avery, Idaho. It was a tie gang, replacing old rotten ties with new ones, and most of the work was done by machines. But the machines always missed a few, and that was my job most of the summer, walking along behind the machines, swinging a nine-pound spike maul. We lived in passenger cars that had been converted to dormitories, on a siding at the edge of the biggest wilderness in the lower 48. Two years before, a hopper car of wheat had gone over the cliff in a derail, and the wheat had fermented over time. At night the bears would come and eat the fermented wheat and get drunk.
And this is where I heard about the Sunshine disaster. A year before, 91 miners had died in a fire in a small town not far from Avery. I didn’t know anybody who was directly involved but everybody seemed to know somebody—a miner, a widow, a mother, a son. Everybody had a story about the crazy things that happened in the aftermath, fights and flings and drunk accidents. Forty years later, I found myself looking back at that lost world, and thinking that—just by accident—I might know enough to imagine my way into it. That’s what writing is, I think, half imagining and half remembering: the smell of Gojo hand cleaner, the breadth and variety of the cursing, the feel of emerging from the shower clean and new, born again.
A sense that I might know enough to write about this corner of the universe, and then a curiosity: what was it like? How did I end up belonging to this? You can only write about what you’re deeply interested in; it’s just too much work otherwise. And this was interesting to me, this lost world. The mine is closed now, the Milwaukee sold for scrap. The town is trying to recreate itself around skiing and mountain biking. Even the hillsides above town, once barren from smelter fumes, are growing back green. So the only place that old world lives is in the place I make up. The only place the 20-year-old version of me still wanders through strange worlds, looking for new things, looking for new versions of himself. This seemed to be worth investigating. This felt like work worth doing.
Kevin Canty is the author of THE UNDERWORLD, published by W.W. Norton.