Day labor is the absolute bottom of the barrel in terms of over-the-table employment. At the first agency I tried, breathalyzers were being administered to a line of would-be recyclable sorters. And yes, some were failing. I got the fuck out there. I tried another agency and found it to be slightly more palatable. The application included a brief computerized test which consisted mostly of different formulations of the question “how often do you use physical violence to settle workplace disputes?” I had good luck getting assignments with this agency because I had my own running vehicle and a naive willingness to bring other day laborers along with me. We were issued our paychecks at the end of the day, which was obviously convenient for those who had habits to sustain, be it “tater juice,” OxyContin (this was before the anti-abuse formulation), or good old Bud Light, as was still my wont at the time.
I had a variety of interesting assignments and coworkers during my tenure. I do recall quite well the one who said to me “I never expected to be homeless,” for who does at that? Another was a retired Navy submariner who only needed to supplement his pension to accommodate the pill habit he and his wife had developed. The one who drank tater juice had recently come from a two-decade bit in state prison and was literally sleeping on the tracks, I shit you not. He asked me to drop him off there once on the way home from a job. He said to me on the ride home, “It’s funny how your life can change in an instant.” Yes, I thought, it does not take long to pull that trigger but what a mess to sort out.
One “assignment” saw me arrive at a small farm only ten or so miles outside of town. I was set, by a cycling cap-wearing young faux hipster and a more conventionally rebellious long-haired man, immediately to the task of a digging a hole in the shade of a large oak tree a hundred yards from the main house, both sitting on a good-sized hill overlooking the kind of countryside that inspires one to lust after a more pastoral life. I was instructed to carefully remove the sod layer of the hole and go about three feet down. A good-sized cardboard box sat innocuously some distance away. When I’d dug deep enough, the long-haired man drug the box to the edge of the hole and together we lowered it in. It was of such a size that the once-considerable hole now began to seem insufficient. The man jumped down on the box, crushing it to reduce its height, and revealing in the process the corpse of the matron’s beloved canine companion. He turned conspiratorially around.
“Gotta make sure she doesn’t see this shit.” He stomped a few more times, collapsing the edges of the box and coming uncomfortably close to some sort of necro-oriented animal abuse.
“Yeah, she’d shit if she saw that,” the younger man agreed.
Having created a space allowing an acceptable level of the Earth to intercede between the husk of this dear companion and the fragile delusions of his keepers, he signaled to me to finish the job and I filled the hole in well. I paused every six inches or so to tamp down the dirt and carefully placed the squares of grass I’d created over the burial mound. The matron later reflected that the dog was overlooking still, his farm, his place. Standing watch and projecting a vigilance he could no longer manifest.
On day two of my agronomic assignment, I began the day cleaning horse stables and, after an obvious mutual inclination, negotiated with the matron’s daughter to abandon connection with the day labor agency and report for work the next day on an indefinite contract to do the mowing, stable cleaning, and whatever else for eight dollars an hour cash.
After a few days of groundskeeping and odd jobs, the matron spoke to me of a project. On another property some few miles down the road, there stood a shed-sized greenhouse. She wanted me to dismantle it, bring it to the top of the main house hill, and put it back together. She allowed me the use of an old, mean looking Ford pickup for travel between the properties and transport of the building. Over the next week and a half, I removed all the glass panels, took the aluminum frame apart, and brought all the pieces to the new location. The matron had already contracted for a concrete foundation to be poured. She gave me a credit card to purchase the necessary tools and hardware to attach the main beams of the greenhouse frame to the new foundation and stitch the skeleton together. I spent about a week puzzling through the scores of frame pieces and painstakingly bolting them in place.
When I’d finally finished the job, I took a lunch break and sat on the tailgate of the truck eating a Speedway sub and drinking a Full Throttle blue agave “energy drink.” A car I did not recognize crunched up the winding gravel driveway and an older woman climbed out. She surveyed my handiwork.
“You put that thing together?”
“Shit, I gotta give it to ya. I woulda thrown that tangle of metal down there in the ditch.”
I laughed. It was indeed, at one point, a tangle of metal, but I had resurrected it. In all my years of living and working and studying, I had, to that time, never been so proud of anything I’d finished. I don’t think I knew then I would never be so proud again.
It’s not that being skilled and employing those skills in the building of a thing isn’t fulfilling, because it is. To step back and see what you’ve made when you finish offers a special satisfaction. A satisfaction we no doubt feel more intuitively than our contribution to a branding campaign or a debugging project. People will use what you made today. The pride in knowing that comes easily to us.
But this idea that gets circulated that there’s some special nobility in manual labor is ridiculous. Once, on one of my temp assignments at a factory that made car headliners, I asked a coworker I’d become somewhat friendly with whether one of the other departments was any better to work in than ours. “They all suck equally in their own way,” he said.
And that is the essential truth of physical work. At its core, it is suffering. And there is a very real toll this kind of work exacts which is not to be overlooked in an objective analysis of the pros n cons of the varieties of living-earning available to humans. I suppose the vast majority of those involved in physical labor have learned to shrug the bruises and bangs off, but that does not make the elemental sacrifice any less or, really, any less devastating. It’s you, after all. Every sore wrist from repetitive motion, every sunburned chest from the rays of a TIG beam bathing your chest at the gap between shirt and welding helmet, every cut on your shin when a dropped pallet swings back around and knocks into you, every ring in your ears as you lay down to sleep from the noise seepage of a hundred thousand hours spent two feet away from a three story stamping press that slams so heavily into sheets of steel they stretch into oil pans as a fist kneads dough, every cut on a finger you wrap with duct tape because it works so much better than a band-aid, every knee you flex like a soccer player stretching a quad before a match to try and ease the stiffness from hours of kneeling on a concrete floor while you change the fixtures on a machine, every blurry eye in the morning after a shift went long, every aching foot from the bite of your steel-toes, every chafed inseam, every charred lung lobe, every time you watch your skin melt and slide like butter when a hot part slips from a hand and scrapes down your forearm, every time you leave what you love to do something you hate and are struck by the knowledge, by the certainty that if you return, you will be less whole. Not your body, your being. You give yourself away every day in tiny little pieces praying and hoping desperately there will be enough of you left to give a piece away to something you love when you find respite from the struggle.