Sunday, November 4, 2012

# 22 For Ray

   I'm about 20, hair to my shoulders, a gold ear ring, driving a rusty '68 green mini cooper (I loved that car!), I'm unemployed, and hunting for a job. I've already discovered that high school doesn't really offer you many marketable skills for the world of work. It's the old story, being denied a job because of lack of experience and yet you can't get the experience without the job. However, I have luck working in my favour.

   So, I walk up to a house renovation site and ask for the foreman.  He comes to the front of the building: about 40, red hair, pasty skin, green eyes, wire rimmed glasses, slight build, and well groomed with Van Gogh beard. He doesn't look like a carpenter to me, looks like he should be in an office somewhere. I say, "Do you have any work?"  His eyes narrow and he comes back with, "What do you know how to do?"  I lie, "A little of everything."  He says, "Sorry, I don't need anyone like that." So, I counter with, "I'll work for a day and if you don't like my work; you don't have to pay me. OK?"  He looks at me and says, "Alright, you start tomorrow at 8, don't be late and bring some steel toed boots."

   It turns out, my new boss' name is Ray and he has a couple of house renovations on the go. His story is that he pays his way through an economics degree in Arizona as a plumbers apprentice. Then he gets a government desk job as an economist, does that for a few years, and quits. He pronounces that he, "Hated the confinement!" So, he goes back to his trade and then branches into house renovation. For this job I will be his 'grunt', a helper while he replaces the complete plumbing for the house. 

    I'm keen, I want to learn how to do something. I have figured out that everything has a system and if I can learn the system, I can make some money. Some days Ray is cranky, but usually pretty patient with me, only tells me I 'fucked' up a few times. On most days he doesn't drive his truck like the other tradesmen, favouring his black Jaguar sedan instead. He likes talking about money and one day he tells me that he is 'into it with the banks for close to a million." I am stunned that someone could speak so calmly about such a debt. I ask him if he is worried and he tells me, "If you are into for a little, that's your problem, but if you are into for a lot, that's their problem."  I never thought about it that way before! However, the way he says it makes me think that he's a little more nervous than he is letting on.

   He pays me 'under the table" like a lot of trades get paid, especially the grunts. Ray is in charge of all of the sub-trades on 'his' site. He always maintains calm, knows what is going on at all times. On this site the Italians do all the drywall, they sing and talk all day and eat massive lunches. The French guys are the carpenters, they smoke and swear a lot. The Portuguese guys are the bricklayers, I hardly see them. All of them have grunts to do the shit jobs. I admire the fact that they take so much pride in their work, they're craftsmen. Of course they also know that everyone will be looking at their work and an excellent product gets rewarded with more work. They also want to be left alone to practise their craft, and then will get hostile when micromanaged. Ray never gets in anyone's face unless they are 'fucking up'. Everyone seems to respect him because he knows how to do all the jobs and he is a diplomate.

   On the first Friday, I am standing in the basement with the concrete floor completely removed and the old cast iron drain to the street in pieces. We are both tired, and dirty and mentally winding down from the day. I am looking forward to going home and cleaning up before I head out for an evening of bar hopping on Rideau Street. (In those days I would be up at 6, work all day, clean up and party 'till 4 in the morning.) So, I'm putting the tools away and having a smoke with Ray, engaged in small talk. With sincerity I say, 'So, is there any single thing about plumbing I should remember?"  Ray takes a long haul on his smoke, looks at me and with a smirk he says, "Yea, shit runs down hill and payday is on Friday." He hands me an envelope with my weeks pay, cash. Then he says, "You did well this week. Have a good weekend." And with that I was out the door.

   My grunt job grows into a three month gig, drywall, electrical, framing, finishing and plumbing, most of it physically demanding and dirty. I'm working with noisy, dangerous machines everyday and minimal safety gear and I love it! Over the three months I make about $3500 under the table (cash on the dash) an excellent arrangement. I have all the important stuff a 20 year old could possibly want, freedom, steady money, an apartment, car, a stereo, a girlfriend, and not always in that order. Life is good!

   We take our smoke breaks on the front steps and I listen to men talk about trucks, boats, money and women. Everyone has a truck except me and they like to make fun of my Mini Cooper. For several days one of the bricklayer grunts is noticeably pissed at his boss and then, on a Friday, payday, he doesn't get his cash. An argument breaks out between the grunt and his boss. The boss is telling him that he will "pay you on Monday."  The grunt, says, "You told me that last week, where is my money?" This goes on for about five minutes and the anger is escalating. We all look away and pretend not to be listening so closely.  Finally, the grunt throws down his tools and yells , "Money talks bullshit walks, so put the cash on the dash NOW, or I walk!"  The boss turns away like he's trying to escape. The grunt grabs his lunch pail, jacket and walks. He goes to his truck, gets in, rolls down the window and yells, "Fuck You Jose!", "I'll be back for my money! Don't fuck with me!", and he leaves. I never see him again. His boss has a new grunt by the next Tuesday.

   I work for Ray sporadically on three house renovations over the next couple of years and then I never see him again. About fifteen years later I'm reading the Saturday paper and discover he is dead, murdered. Apparently, he's in a parking lot in Toronto and someone shoots him in the chest with a shotgun. According to the paper there are no leads; I never hear anything more about the case. I remember what he told me about owing money though and conclude that he obviously didn't owe enough to someone. Ray was a good guy, he taught me a lot about working for a living and I liked him.

   The construction industry is a blue collar world, and similar to all jobs it has it's own language and philosophy about working. In contrast, teaching is very white collar, it has a more heavily regulated set of protocols in place. This fact doesn't surprise me, school boards are huge organizations who employ armies of bureaucrats to snake through the maze of policies.

   Believe it or not, everything in teaching is regulated, down to what we can and cannot say.For example, if you're owed money, you'll get it. No one works under the table, although I think there is a bit of skill bartering that goes on, but not much.  However, teachers remind me a lot of people in the trades, they are practising a craft, they usually work alone and they don't like to be micromanaged.

   Also, teachers accept a lot more verbal abuse from parents, students, the public, and even administration. Most of it is veiled threats or innuendo, but it is there for sure. In teaching, there seems to be more of an effort to suppress workers confidence in doing their job. In the trades, unless you really "fuck up" people are always looking at your work and complimenting it because they want you to do a good job. In contrast, people outside the classroom almost never see a teacher perform their job, so, performance is based on statistics in the form of marks or second hand observation.

   I have had several jobs outside of teaching and I know that most of the world is just trying to make a living. Every job comes with its pecking order, grunts, assholes, shitty jobs as well as a list of perks. Teaching is just a job, but it's a good job for me. I'm good at it and I like. Over time, I've learned to keep my eyes and ears alert. When the shit comes down the pipe, I do my best to get out of the way.

   It's partly out of a sense of duty to the craft of teaching that I have taken in fifty or more student teachers over the years. Also, it's a good place to start if you would like to influence some kind of maintenance or change in the system. Anyway, I had one a few years back who was keen to learn. We just finish a week filled with frustrating twists and turns that only a job like teaching can afford. It's the end of the day and the two of us are standing at the front of the classroom. We are both tired, I have my jacket on, the bell rings, and I am ready to go, but he wants to pick my brain. With sincerity, he asks me if there was one key thing to remember about teaching. I smile and say, "Yea, shit runs down hill and payday's on Friday. Have a smooth weekend! See ya Monday." And with that said, I am out the door.