Friday, June 12, 2009

Beginning to Think About Work

My wife and I are renovating our house. These days in America that appears to mean contracting with a white man who oversees the work of Hispanic men. That is what we’ve done. Our contractor oversees the work of Hispanic men but, he has distinguished himself in that he works alongside them. He does not oversee the work of several crews on multiple projects breezing between them in a spotless, scratchless Chevy Silverado. Since we have been in Georgia he is the very first white man – or any man for that matter – that I have seen working directly alongside Hispanic men, swinging the hammer shoulder to shoulder in the blazing sun. His truck is scratched up and dusty and they ride together to and from Lowes hauling materials. His love of the work and of craftsmanship is laudable, but his sense of humanity and equality among men is remarkable. Watching these men work has made me think deeply about the dignity of work and our attitude towards the so-called Hispanic laborers.

This experience has brought me closer to hard physical labor than I have ever been. It has reminded me that I work in a profession of the mind. The heaviest thing I might pick up in a day is my full cup of hot chocolate. Even that is lighter after the first sip. These men put out extraordinary physical effort each day in the searing heat and then come back and do it again.

Our plan is to knock off the roof and attic of the house, raise it and rebuild it with two bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs. One day an enormous flatbed truck pulled up with all of the materials necessary to rebuild the floor system, all of the 2x4’s necessary to frame the entire upstairs structure and all of the rafters to hold up the roof. The flooring system is a set of nearly 50 I-joists each of which is approximately 30 feet long. The rafters to hold up the roof are solid pieces of 2x10” wood each of which is approximately 20 feet long. There were 118 rafters. Then there were hundreds of 12’ long 2x4’s. The guys from the truck used a mechanical lift and dropped all of this material on the street in front of our house.

While our contractor is righteous, he is also much older than his Hispanic crew so he left the lifting to them. These three men carried every scrap of that material to the back of the house by hand. It was thousands of pounds of wood. Each 20 foot long rafter weighs nearly 100lbs. They used cut up pieces of carpet as cushions for their shoulders. They had to pick up each piece from the middle in order to balance it on their shoulders. They had to walk through a muddy garden, navigate between two houses with only 7 feet between them, go up an ivy-covered embankment and then walk all the way across the back yard. Each man had to do this about forty times. I don’t know how many hundreds of 2x4’s there were, but two of them would carry 12 at a time up the same difficult path and the third man would carry six at a time by himself. Then there were the floor joists.

They began this work at 8:30 in the morning and continued until it was done at nearly 5 in the evening.

After they had gone I went to try to pick up one of the rafters which were stacked in three waist-high piles. I consider myself fairly strong, but it was a strain to pick it up. Once I got it on my shoulder I felt my lower back and stomach muscles trembling with each other trying to balance the weight. I didn’t even attempt to carry it from the street.

The following morning I saw one of the guys promptly at 8:30 as usual. He smiled as he always does.

“Hola amigo. Buenos dias.”

kamau

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