My First Day
I didn’t need the alarm clock to get me up that morning. I was shivering in bed with anxiety and expectation at 5:45am. When I finally pulled on a pair of blue jeans, wolfed down a bowl of cereal and jumped in my car, it was 6:20am. I reckoned to my dismay that I’d be late by a minute or two provided the roads were empty, as they probably would be so early in the morning. At 6:32am I arrived at the brick house and parked my car on the side lawn next to the family minivan.
To my surprise there was no sign of life in the driveway besides a boxcar and a pickup truck, which told me, at least, that I had got the house right. At last, the side door swung open and Joshua, the contractor, a veritable bear of a man, emerged a comfortable pouch swaying out in front of him as he descended a couple of steps and walked towards me with his handout. “You’re early” he boomed good naturedly giving me a firm handshake, “Eric always comes 10 minutes late. . .Oh! Hold on a sec.” Lumbering back into the house for a moment, he came out again with a yellow slip of paper and a pen. He began to explain how I would record my hours and get a 1099 at the end of year and I began to feel a little drowsy. Suddenly a black truck pulled up, and a youngish looking man with a pointy, unshaven face climbed out. He was wearing denim shirts and tennis shoes. A shiny Red Sox cap was on his head, perfectly kept in mint condition. Joshua introduced the young man as Eric. As we shook hands, I noticed he was taller than me and at least as skinny. I couldn’t quite make out his small eyes under the ball cap, but there was something friendly about the slightly self-conscious way he kept shifting his weight—it reminded me of my older neighbor across the street. Looking at his iced coffee and small paper bag, I felt rather clunky with my backpack which had enough food in it to feed an army.
Some playful insults were thrown back and forth between Eric and Joshua over Eric’s general tardiness and the fact that he had forgotten the key to the box truck. “Makes me look like a retard, forgetting the key like that” Eric exclaimed with a slight Boston accent. “You always look like a retard with that cap” Joshua jibed. “Hey! The ladies love it.” I stood by nervously laughing. This boss-employee relationship so far seemed pretty familiar and pretty safe.
“Do we need the 2x4s?” Eric asked getting down to business. “Yes and you might as well take the ladder. Paul, why don’t you give him a hand?” It wasn’t a command but there was no question of my corporation. Each of the 2x4s was about as long as a canoe and seemed to weigh about 40lbs. I was panting by the third one, and I nearly dropped the fifth because we had to stack it so high on the pickup.
At last we hopped into the pickup and drove off towards the city. Eric took off his cap and smoothed his thinning hair. There were small beads of sweat around his hairline. “How long have you been doing construction?” I asked trying to start a polite conversation. “Did my first demo when I was thirteen, and I have been working ever since.” I self-consciously inquired what he meant by “demo.” He responded that it was short for “demolition,” and we lapsed into silence for awhile. “You don’t mind about secondhand smoke, do you?” He inquired at last, pulling out a pack of Marlboro cigarettes. I responded that I’d gotten used to it at college. He laughed knowingly and reached for the radio, “mind a little music?” As Sublime played in the background softly, I asked a few questions about his college days and discovered he had gone to the only college in the state that offered a degree in construction but had dropped out after three semesters. “I was earning a degree in drugs and alcohol” he grinned, genially admitting his youthful irresponsibility as a matter of course. I told him a little about my liberal arts education. It was clear that our areas of expertise were worlds apart. My love of literature was probably as mysterious to him as carpentry was to me.
Traffic slowed us down a little as we got closer towards the city, and Eric complained that people didn’t know how to merge. He even made sure to make it a little harder for them to simply sneak around. It was all done, however, in a gentlemanly way as if he just wanted everyone to get along. “So that’s pretty much what it’s like every morning” Eric offered as we neared our exit, “we wait in traffic and watch for pretty girls.” The words were spoken not so much as a young man but as an older man who still liked to make gentle cracks about his virility.
Caroline Park Drive was a beautiful neighborhood outside of Boston populated by old brick houses from the twenties and the well-to-do gentry who could not only afford living in them but also had the money for renovations, “rich folk,” as Eric said. An older man with a pale mustache and ears that seemed to go out at right angles from his bald pate met us at the door. I was introduced as “the new guy.” After setting his cap discretely on the bookcase, Eric told the homeowner that he would make some holes in the basement for the plumper. The long eared gentleman retained a slightly condescending, slightly skeptical air as he listened to the plan. Finally, we strode upstairs. With a touch of pride, Eric pointed out the tiled floor of the hall bathroom. “I did that” he said almost to himself. We passed through the master bedroom, unzipped a plastic curtain and came into the master bathroom.
Eric picked up a flat-edge and a hammer lying in the corner and briefly showed me how to take nails out of the wood. I noticed now that he still had his tennis shoes on and wasn’t wearing any gloves or goggles. I spent the next hour removing nails and sweeping up chunks of plaster and concrete. Joshua showed up briefly just to check in. He gave me a few suggestions about how to get the job done more efficiently. Eric didn’t seem to mind this.
After Joshua left, the plumber arrived in flip-flops and a checkered cap. Humming to himself, he began setting out his cooper pipes and torches in the master bathroom. Eric came up shortly to check in on him and take some measurements. The plumper asked if either of us owned a VW Jetta. Neither of us did; we weren’t the type—we at least had that in common. “Take a look at this though” there was a touch of excitement in the plumper’s smooth voice—so smooth that I found myself wondering whether he practiced it each morning. He rushed out for a moment to his sedan and came back with a glossy brochure, “I picked this up at the dealership.” Eric seemed to be just as appreciative of the car as the plumber was, and for awhile the two discussed cylinders and the like with great enthusiasm, swearing now and then as if their sheer wonder and appreciation required it. I didn’t think I could add anything to the conversation, although I could admire the red velvet interior as much as the plumper did—“so niiice” he purred.
Finally, Eric went back downstairs, and I tried my best not to get in the plumber’s way as I began to vacuum up smaller debris. I couldn’t believe how many times his phone rang, and I wondered how he could hear over all my noise. Not all of the calls seemed work related. After a while, Eric came back. “We’re going for a ride” he announced to me as if it were a treat. “How’d you like it . . . pretty boring, huh?” he inquired as we drove over. “I don’t know,” I responded, “it’s all so new.” “Yeah, yeah” he half sighed, “it is a lot to learn, especially coming to it for the first time; I mean I started with my old man when I was just a baby.” (Old man? The last person I knew to say that was Huckleberry Finn). After backing into the tiny driveway at the other house we were working on, he began hurling 80lb trash bags of cement into a dumpster as the homeowner and her young daughter watched. I attempted to imitate him by scooping up a bag and tangling it in the air for a second with a sheepish expression. “You’ll never make it” Eric laughed as he took the bag from me.
Feeling a little ashamed, I joked on the way back that it’d probably take me a few weeks before I could casually throw around 80lb bags. Eric explained how he’d begun doing it at fifteen when his dad re-shingled the roof. “Don’t worry” he added “you’ll get it soon enough, and I’ll tell you it’ll age you real fast; I feel [he swore lightly] forty not 24.” He lifted his cap and massaged his nearly hairless crown as if to add emphasis. It suddenly hit me why the baseball cap was so important. He did seem forty, maybe older. With his slightly old fashioned expressions, it felt as if his youth might have been a good long while ago. “But it’s alright” Eric said breaking through my daydream “I figure after fifteen years or so I’ll retire at 40.” “Then you’ll start feeling 24 again?” I inquired. He chuckled grimly.
After a couple minutes, we arrived back at Caroline Park Drive and took a short break. Eric sipped his coffee, polished off a Chocolate éclair, and tugged at a cigarette all during the time it took me to hungrily eat my two Ezekiel bread sandwiches and drink some water—I couldn’t quite bring myself to peel one of my eggs. We went back inside and I held up a vacuum for him as he did some drilling in the plaster. I sorely wished I had goggles on. Then we spent the next 45 minutes (until 3:05pm) cleaning up. I was just scrubbing the last basement step, when Eric checked in and good naturedly remarked that I just needed to get a bit of dust at the top and then I’d be done. Despite his cheerfulness, I worried that maybe I’d even fail at these most rudimentary tasks.
The way home was uneventful. Eric seemed perfectly content with an amicable silence most of the ride. I tried not to worry too much that it was awkward. However, we did talk a little about drinking days. A little to my chagrin I found myself inquiring a little further than I would have liked into a comment he let fall about partying. “Oh, I’m kinda past those days” replied the 24 year old. “I like to have friends over, but I don’t like it to get too out of hand; there are so many lousy people in this world, you know?” I agreed. Sweet Eric hardly was one of those “lousy” chaps, but I wasn’t exactly sure who he was all the same or where his seemingly inexhaustible well of patience and amiability came from.