March 31, 2009
I worked as a laborer for a construction company every summer during semester breaks in college. I still hold that it was the most important job I’ve ever had. Not in terms of impact on the outside world or monetary gain, but rather in significance to my development and maturation. Each summer I got a big shot glass filled to the brim with steaming hot rite-of-passage-juice. I went into that job a boy: dopey, naïve, and lacking in common sense. I came out of that job a man-boy, slightly more aware and appreciative of the world around me.
My Dad set the job up for me because he had worked in the construction business his entire life. He saw some characteristics that I lacked (practicality, toughness, facial hair) and decided that a construction job might kick start the long overdue growth of these things.
I now think that hard manual labor should be part of every boy’s journey into manhood. I say “boy” even though I was 18 at the time. I was (like many in my generation) slightly underdeveloped in terms of maturity. Only the threat of being completely ostracized from society was great enough to quell my burning desire to play with X-Men action figures at the dinner table.
The construction company’s headquarters was located in Homestead, PA. Homestead has a lot of gritty history imbedded in every corner. It was the home to some of the largest steel plants in the nation and was also the site of the most famous and violent Union strike in history. Now, the steel plants have left and Homestead is a beaten down satellite city of Pittsburgh.
I was used as a floater; anytime a foreman needed an extra body on the job site, I would make myself available. One day, I was given an assignment near the home office. I was told to meet another worker in one of the back alleyways off of Main Street in Homestead. We would be temporarily patching up a roof of a building with plywood. The other, older worker needed help getting the plywood to the roof and I was young and had legs, so I was a top-candidate.
It was early in the morning, probably 6:30, still dark outside, when I parked my car to meet the my fellow employee. “Meet Mike in one of those back alleyways. I’m not sure what the address is, but Mike should be up on the roof, so look for that,” my boss instructed me. So I was looking for a guy on a roof; that seemed easy enough, a bit vague on the general vicinity though. 7:00 rolled around and I was still in my Chevy Blazer hunched over the steering wheel eyes directed upward, scanning the rooftops for someone, anyone really.
Finally I saw a group of workers on top of a 5 story roof throwing rubble into a dumpster. It looked like an old business building that had grown obsolete and been long forgotten. No, it wasn’t a Beanie Baby distribution center.
There are some guys up there, but I thought Mike was alone?
Oh well, there was no one else on the roofs. That must be the right place. But how did they get up there?
I pulled around the back to a small entrance of the building. The windows were boarded shut and looked like one of those “crack-houses” I had heard so much about on COPS. The sun was just peeking out to face the day, but it was still dark. The shadowy doorway was ominous, frightening even. If I entered through that door I would surely be walking into nearly pitch black, waiting for a junkie, or more likely, a vampire, to attack me as soon as I entered. I would do as the Wu-Tang had instructed me and protect my neck.
I fearfully entered the building and searched for the stairs, a few slats of light snuck through the dilapidated windows, casting barely enough light for me to see. I walked up a set of stairs and another. This building had to be old; the floorboards were soft, lumpy and uneven. But the soft floor cracked stiffly with each step of my work boot. No wonder this place is condemned, I thought.
I made my way up several more flights of stairs, criss-crossing the second, third and fourth floors to get to their respective stairwells. I came to the roof and I heard voices. When I reached the top, the sun unleashed itself and it became bright and hot.
“Are you guys with Mike?” I yelled up to the workers. They stopped briefly and stared at me bewildered, obviously surprised at my emergence from the dark haunted house below.
“MBM Construction? You guys with MBM Construction?” I added, hoping that someone would answer me.
“No man. I think you got the wrong place,” one replied.
Flustered, I left to descend the way I had come up, back to the darkness. I was now officially late to the job site. I walked back down across the floors and still noticed the clumsy, spongy cracking of the floorboards. There was more sunshine peeping through the boarded windows now, enough to cast some light on what was causing this structural phenomenon happening underneath my Caterpillar boots.
Dead pigeons. Hundreds of them.
I had been walking on a literal shag carpet of dead pigeons. That lumpy spongy crackling had been my boots inadvertently crushing bird carcasses. Only now with a bit more light coming through was I able to see what I had been doing.
Even the shrillest high-pitched Wilhelm-scream would have never sufficed to express the horror I felt at that moment. No amount of vomit could have flowed from my mouth could alleviate the revulsion. I just stayed silent, shuddered violently and trudged on, this time tiptoeing on the bare spots.
I left that house and squirmed in the alleyway by my car for probably 3 minutes, trying to shake-off the bird flu and the diseased feather particles from my body. After scuffing my shoes off nearly to the sock, I got back into my car, and eventually found the guy I was looking for originally.
Everyday of construction work after that one seemed like a gift. No matter how bad it got, I could always think back to worse times.
When you have a bad day, use my mantra:
“Well at least I’m not ankle-deep in dead birds.”