I'll write a short story about work as a hod carrier. When I turned 16 I started working for my uncle, a bricklayer. I'm not sure if this is a good place to post this, but here we go.
There is history between my uncle, the black sheep of the family, and my dad, the know-it-all leader.
Carrying hod is hard, some say the hardest job in construction. It is hot or freezing, unforgiving, precise, responsibility-laden, and organizationally challenging. A hod-carrier, hodie, sets up the scaffold, cuts brick or block, distributes the brick or block, sets up the worksite, creates trails for the wheelbarrow, mixes and delivers mortar, keeps mortar fresh on the boards, and handles anything else that keeps a bricklayer from laying brick.
At a strip bar the bricklayers like, someone wrote on the mirror, "hoddies are people too." The bricklayers think that's funny in a cruel way.
The bricks and mud are often delivered tens of feet above the ground, relayed by throwing heavy things far above the hodie's head. A shovel full of mortar is swung the full shovel length above the hodie's head.
When a bricklayer is waiting, they yell and throw things. When a bricklayer is splashed they yell and throw things.
They played rock music from the 70s and liked to tell racial and sexual jokes.
There is a pecking order amongst bricklayers. It is important that they are seen as above most other trades. Any other worker that is on the site that is lazy or loud or that inconveniences the bricklayers is an asshole and words will be exchanged. The lead bricklayer is careful to protect the dignity of the group. Talking to the company owner, my uncle, about any issues is serious business and is expected to be treated with urgency and directness.
Everyone hurts in the mornings. Everyone is exhausted at night.
During the summer, I couldn't drink enough water.
I once shit in a hole near a house and buried it before anyone came to the site. There was a portapotty there that I didn't see. It stank that afternoon and the main bricklayer accused me of doing it. I denied it. He knew it was me. He threw lime in the hole and put an additional foot of dirt over it, swearing at me and daring me to challenge him. He worked me twice as hard that day.
I once wore another hod carrier out in a single day.
I often was the only hod carrier, serving 3-4 bricklayers. Many crews have 2 hod carriers for each bricklayer.
I remember all the houses we built and I'm proud of them 30 years later.
I used to psych myself up every morning before work.
Sometimes my mom had to drop me off in the family van. When I was lucky I would drive my dad's old Mazda B2200 pickup.
I developed sores from the lime in the mortar between my fingers and on my forearms. I still have scars from those sores 30 years later.
I felt strong by the end of the summer, ready for wrestling season.
Toughness and directness were expected physically and mentally.
When I quit I cried a little in front of my uncle and others, breaking from the pressure of a very bad day. I mixed two hot batches of mud, meaning it was a cold morning and there was a chemical reaction and the mortar needed to mix longer. A hot batch hardens almost immediately and must be thrown away.
I lasted most of two summers at that job. I went into landscape installation after that, working on sprinkler pipes, sod, and topsoil. Although that job was hard enough we scared of a semi-pro football player after just a half a day, it was much easier than carrying hod.
I felt like a failure after that job.
I felt like I had to create a different personality to do that work. I was a gentle person doing cruel work.
I never fit in, always anticipated what I would say next before every conversation, even small talk.
I once fell off a plank ramp and didn't tip the wheelbarrow.
I once lost control of a wheelbarrow going down a steep driveway and lost a load of mortar, scraping myself up.
The highest I ever went with scaffolding was three stories.
Some brick has to be watered before it can be laid, or it soaks up all the moisture in the mortar and the brock doesn't adhere. It is a delicate and difficult balance.
Some cuts required my hand was within a quarter inch of the diamond-bladed saw. Cuts had to be accurate to 1/16th of an inch. Some cuts were angle cuts and difficult to do well. Bricklayers would yell measurements or throw a board with measurements written on them. Sometimes a brick would catch in the blade and throw the brick back.
I was to have everything ready and start the mixer at exactly 7:00, the soonest I could.
Suppliers came around and gave my uncle Diet Coke, his favorite, and took him golfing at Mountain Dell.
My cousin worked with me the second year. He would be taught to lay brick and inherit the business. We got along well.
How did I feel when carrying hod? Scared, like I was out of place. I had to think and move at the same time. I was always second guessing myself. I was proud when I told other people of my work, people my age that worked in retail stores or less-demanding construction jobs. Working harder than anyone else was a point of pride.
Did I want to be a hod carrier longer or a bricklayer someday? No, I wanted to go to college, which I did, and work with computers, which I do.
Did I respect the bricklayers? I did, to a point, but I judged them too. I thought they had made a mistake in their late teens and they were stuck doing something that was ruining their bodies. They were moving too quickly to retirement when their bodies could no longer do the work, and they didn't have enough money saved. Scott had to fuse vertebra to keep working. Terry had problems in his elbows and knees. Lyle was always stoned to stop thinking about his life.
What's the funny part of hod carrying? Telling stories of Lyle walking off the scaffold so stoned he faceplanted 10 feet lower and didn't move. Scott just sent him home dryly and he had to get sober and beg for his job back. Telling jokes generally meant the bricklayers weren't pissed at me any longer.
I once shit in a hole near a house we were building. My mom drove me to the site that day, a nice place in the Mill Hollow area. This wasn’t just a neighborhood for lawyers and doctors, but partners of their companies. In neighborhoods like these the women are always skinny and beautiful, the men are tall and serious.
But I was sitting there, and I really needed to go. People could see me if I was unlucky. I walked around the house and found where I would do it, keeping my eyes on the house and the drivers. Squatting down there, it came out easy. I buried it with about six inches of sand.
Once the bricklayers showed up, things were as hectic as usual. Yelling and demands were followed by huffs and ungrateful flow of the day. The scaffold was ready and the brick ahead of the bricklayers. I thought I had just calmed the monster.
“Who shit here?” Terry asked.
I tried to look shocked.
“What?” I stammered, “someone shit at our worksite?”
I wasn’t convincing.
“You shit here.”
“No I didn’t.”
“Yes you did. God, who has so little self respect they would shit at their own worksite. There’s a Goddamn shitter right there.”
I was shocked to see there was a port-a-potty on the site. I was so intent to not be caught I didn’t notice.
“Use your head,” Terry said as he got off the scaffold.
“I didn’t do it.”
“Move.” Terry grabbed a bucket, threw lime in it, and covered the area, then threw sand and dirt over everything.
“Get me some fresh mud,” Terry poured some water over the mud on his board and started to fold it with his trowel.
I filled my wheelbarrow and brought him some fresh mortar.
“Go setup scaffold around the corner.”
Terry wasn’t letting me run my own work. He was treating me like a child. I didn’t need to do that, didn’t want to do that. Around the corner I cursed him out under my breath. Son of a bitch was about all I would say about anyone, and boy was he. I denied that he had any case, that it was even me that shit in the hole. I worked myself up in righteous indignation, began to imagine what I’d do as a ninja, or a Vietnam vet who snuck his machine gun home, somehow putting it in my pack in such a way, disassembling it so the screeners wouldn’t notice I stole a machine gun, and then walked onto the site with it and let him have it, shooting around him first so he would shit himself, then bloodying the whole wall with it in gruesome and satisfying ways. I imagined his over-tanned muscles relaxing for the last time, his tight yellow shorts red and stained, his cigarette falling after his body does.
After a while I really believed someone else had done it and I was unfairly blamed. It shocked me when I realized I was lying to myself.
“So what if I did?” I continued to myself under my breath. “It’s not like he’s never done anything.” I knocked myself in the forehead with the scaffold, not paying attention to it. I scraped myself a few more times and the scrapes stung with my sweat.
Soon my uncle showed up.
“Someone shit on our job and won’t admit to it,” Terry said. He nods my way, as if Scott didn’t know who he meant. Scott just shook his head, like he can’t believe he has to be my babysitter.
“Do you have the scaffold set?”
“Yes, all the way around the corner.”
“Get these guys some mud, you’ve got to keep up with them. And come unload this plank. Why don’t you have the brick laid out?”
I rushed to do everything, my lungs burned from moving around too quickly. Scott leaves after I get his truck unloaded.
At lunchtime I avoided everyone’s eyes. We sat in the garage like we always did, enjoying some shade and the buzz when things start to slow down for a minute. The trick is to relax my body and my mind without getting drowsy. I eat my sandwich and chips quickly, drinking only water. It’s way too hot for soda, the syrup feels like it would slow me down to nothing. I’m afraid I won’t be able to start work again, resting feels so good. I want to dose off. I close my eyes for a minute, reciting that I’m still an OK person, even if I shit at the worksite. I say a little prayer, asking God’s forgiveness for being so awkward and stinky. I ask that He’ll fix things for me with Terry, Lyle, and Scott. I never say a word to these guys.
After lunch I’m slow and they’re demanding. They don’t want to get started either, but they do. They yell at me while they rest a few more moments until I have fresh mortar on their boards.
That afternoon my mom comes to pick me up. Terry and Lyle are getting in their trucks. Terry nods at mom and gives me a stern look. I sit down in the passenger seat, trying not to get any of the dirt onto the fabric of my mom’s nice seats.
The truth of Terry the person is he was raised a Mormon, got his girlfriend pregnant, they got married, had the baby, and through a lot of pressure they eventually were married in a religious setting. All of that felt like a lie. He eventually divorced that wife, learned to let his hair down, enjoy drugs and alcohol in moderation, enjoy a good concert, and a good fuck, as he would say it. He has an honest relationship with his wife, they grow old together gracefully, and they accept each other for who they are.
He’s ever on the lookout for lies and hypocrisy. He is tired of people looking down on him because he’s dirty most of the time. He cleans up real nice. He’s absolutely aware when people look at him funny—his radar is on high alert for any judgement from others.
He’s proud of his truck, its power and durability and mileage. He’s proud he can fix his truck, tells the story of changing the transmission, changing the heads on his pistons, all the things he does to maintain it.
Terry the character is a hero in his own eyes. He is the one that makes the trains run on time. He is the one that’s really running the business. His sense of order is the only sense that matters. This is timing, space, and project completion. If something is off, Terry is proud to bring it up directly. He doesn’t care if you think he’s mean. He doesn’t care if you cry about it. If you do, it just means you’re not cut out for the job.
The trade of bricklaying is a long-held tradition. It is a proud tradition. Terry is good at bricklaying. He knows what weather does to the brick. He knows how far he can push things. He knows whether something matters. If something needs to be done again, he has no problem doing that.
As an antagonist, Terry is not just mean or nice, calm or upset. He stands for order. He stands for dignity. Even though it’s his own dignity he cares about, it is also the dignity of people that stand with him. So, a hero for dignity, oblivious of the humiliation and terror he creates along the way. There is nobody that shows up on the worksite that can compete with Terry’s will. There is nothing he will do if he’s not sure about it. This is why he quits Scott from time to time—not enough dignity. This is why he is clear with Scott, “Do you want me to be nice to this guy because he’s your nephew?” “Hold him to your highest standard, Terry,” Scott replies. Terry takes this literally, as a duty, as clear as if it were his level line.
Character: David (let’s give the narrator a new name--how embarrassing)
David is a weasel. He’s literally shitting on the work and not owning up to it. He wants people to like him because he’s nice, because he works hard. He is not the hero of this story, though he thinks he is. He is not the hero in anyone’s story, though he wishes he could be.
David does not have a firm grasp of reality. Honesty is a concept, not a practice. David considers other people’s feelings before speaking, saying what he thinks they want to hear.
David can’t keep up. He hasn’t handled his life. He doesn’t have his own truck. He doesn’t have his own dignity. He doesn’t keep in mind whatever it will take to stay ahead of the bricklayers. He knows two speeds for work: hard and harder, and wishes people would congratulate him more about that.
This guy is not fun to be around. He can’t hold a comfortable conversation. He doesn’t know any good jokes and he couldn’t deliver them if he had them. He judges everybody and everything and thinks that nobody else notices.
He is squirrelly with skinny little calves and an impossibly lean body, though he thinks he’s tough because he’s bigger than he used to be. He burns easily. He is afraid to wear shorts. He wears them one time and is teased relentlessly for having chicken legs. He has no come back for that. Tears fill his eyes at night when he thinks about the chicken legs comments.
David is always trying to make up things, like drawing loans from a bank account he can never pay back. He was slow then, so he’ll work extra hard next time, so now he’s got to work triple the pace. Everything in David’s life is an exchange, a balance, what’s owed for work, for dignity, for coolness—and it never delivers.
David is too proud to admit he can’t handle this job, he’s not grown yet, he isn’t engaging his mind enough—if he even has the smarts to do this job. Real leaders take on a hod carrying job, and David is a follower.
If there is one redeeming character, it’s that David hasn’t quit—yet. Maybe he should. Maybe he would finally have an honest moment if he were forced to walk off the construction site in disgrace. Maybe Terry walking in his shit, going one step too far, and the problems of this day are really a culmination of the thousands of things David is screwing up and won’t handle directly. Maybe David can learn to stand up for himself if he’s finally forced to face up to the truth.
Show Don't Tell
Walking into the sun, Terry asks, "Why is Christmas day just like a day at a construction site?"
I shake my head. Terry climbs onto his side of the scaffolding.
"You end up doing all the work and some fat guy in a suit takes all the credit."
Terry laughs at his own joke until he starts coughing. He coughs up and spits phlegm, then lights another cigarette, cupping the end against the wind, "get me some more of those bricks, will ya?"
I startle to attention. I usually have at least four or five tongs of bricks ready about every 10 feet, but Terry's working in a corner and had pulled almost all of his brick from this stack. He bangs his trowel on the planks, taking another puff from a cigarette and grabbing his level. He doesn't want to start working either, but if it's my fault, he can ease into a hot afternoon.
I grab my gloves out of my pocket and pull them on. They're still wet from this morning's sweat. I've worn holes in these ones already, I'll need another pair this week. The dry mortar is sandpaper inside the gloves. I grab the tongs. They burn through the black dots in my cotton gloves. I ignore that and grab two stacks. A stack of bricks is 7 or 8 bricks pinched together by metal tongs. The weight of the bricks usually keeps them together, but I have to be careful or the stack will fall apart and break, usually scraping up my shins and knees on the way down.
By the time I get four stacks of bricks in front of Terry, he's staring me down. "You do know you're supposed to bring the mud AND the bricks, don't you?"
"Just about there," I said. I make sure he doesn't see me grit my teeth.
"I'm growing dandelions in my toes over here."
I quickly uncover the wheelbarrow I left in the shade and start folding a little water in to make sure it's about right. I wheel the mortar over to the scaffold. Terry pours some water from a coffee can over his dry board. I set my feet, and get a scoop of mortar in my shovel. Terry flicks away his cigarette and picks up a hardened piece of mud with the tip of his trowel. As I swing the mortar up to his board he flips the dry mud, aiming to get it in my sleeve. He misses but it stings when it hits my chest. I don't say anything. Terry folds the mud a few times to make sure it's about right, then takes a large trowel full and drags it across the top course of bricks against the wall. I keep up with him as he quickly empties the board with more full trowels. He's making a bed of mortar for the new bricks to sit on. He drags his trowel through the mud, making a V, while I rush around the corner to get Lyle started with mud.
Lyle has enough brick and doesn't mind extending his lunch break a few minutes while I catch up with Terry.
Desire and Obstacle
What David wants is to be recognized for his hard work. What Terry wants are order and respect. These are already well opposed. David uses precise language to be right theoretically while Terry is right practically by laying the actual brick. Terry has laid more brick in 25 years than David can imagine, yet David wants the recognition. Terry has worked through winters, sat home during rainstorms with bills stacked on the kitchen table, while David gets a ride from his mom to the construction site. If the work is done well, done on time, the things Terry cares about are handled. Terry doesn't care if he breaks yet another hodie that can't get with the program. These two are naturally matched as desire and obstacle, as it is with many bricklayers and their hod carriers, only the narrator can't see past his own exhaustion and need for approval.
Beginning: the narrator wants to be recognized for his hard work. The reality is the narrator isn't cut out for this kind of work. He's too small, too sensitive, too nervous, and he has no idea how little bricklayers care whether he has anything to show for his summer or not. This matters to the narrator because on his first day at this site a good looking girl taking a walk with her mom smiled at him while passing the construction site. He's getting tan, filling out in the chest and shoulders a little, and just might have enough confidence to ask the girl for her number.
Middle: here it all goes wrong. For the second day, he's being yelled at. On the third day, his mom comes back to bring him the lunch he forgot in her van. On the fourth day he arrives early, he's going to make it work this time, but in all his rush to get there early he's got to take a bowel movement, so he hurries and handles that, covering up his gross lack of judgment.
End: Terry holds the narrator to account, publicly shaming him when the girl walks by. It's over. The narrator now sees how superficial and impossible he's been. Although still hated by the bricklayers, the narrator can forget about those things and begin again.