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True Stories: Constructive Summer
When I worked construction, I learned more than a trade.
by Jillian Capewell
They say you always remember your twenty-first birthday. I spent mine sitting at a bar stool at noon, ordering a Long Island iced tea and surrounded by middle-aged (or nearly there) construction workers, who nodded appreciatively ("You know how to party!") as the tall, murky drink was slid my way. I checked the clock. We had about twenty minutes before going back to work.
Work was the sprawling apartment-building-in-progress on the Williamsburg waterfront a few blocks down, would-be homes for Brooklynites making ten times what my hourly wage was that summer. Still, it was enough to drag me from the suburbs into New York City at five in the morning every day, watching the sun rise over the LIRR tracks alongside the commuters in suits as I clutched an iced coffee like a life raft. The only reason I was allowed to don a hard hat and boots with the rest of them was the fact that I was in college and I had a family hookup in the trades that allowed me to work on a construction site for twice what I would have made waiting tables at home. I was in.
On my first day, I learned that my main responsibility was bringing the real workers coffee. I carried back breakfast orders for the guys around nine, and after a few weeks I started to arrange my delivery rounds just so I could end up with the guys I was most curious about: Danny, an almost painfully attractive late-twentysomething who had clearly missed his calling as a firefighter calendar model; Artie, who had his kid's baby footprints tattooed on his arm; and Cooper, himself tattooed from the wrists up, who wore the same short-brimmed cap and self-satisfied smirk as all the skater boys I had crushes on in high school, and a single subway token on a chain that ice-skated across his chest when he moved.
In a bar, on the train, in line at the supermarket, we would have ignored each other, but construction world was different. They let me sit on a spool of BX cable during our 9 a.m. break while they shot the shit and watched the boats go by on the East River, and I never left. I had so many questions, but I usually threw out the same one: "All you got was a coffee, right?" Strictly business, I was. Danny had given me the big-brotherly "if anyone tries to fuck with you, send 'em to me" talk, and I wasn't looking to fuck with anyone — although the idea that people would want to bother me gave me a perverse kind of thrill, the same I got from strange cars that honked at me and my friends on our walks around town in high school. It wasn't the attention you wanted, but it was attention. I distracted myself from the menial hours of my job trying to figure out a way in — inside all the jokes that cracked the guys up during break, inside the whispered conversations they'd have with other tradesmen in the building, in enough to ask Cooper what the hell that subway token was for.
The trick, it turned out, was my birthday. "It's my birthday tomorrow!" I reminded the guys one morning in mid-July. We were on the roof, jackhammering a wall to make space for outdoor lighting. "The big twenty-one."
"Oh yeah," Cooper spoke up. "I was going to say, you can come with us to the bar tomorrow."
The next day, I waited by the opening in the chain-link fence that led to the outside world at 12:01 p.m., feigning cool detachment. "Me? Yeah? Headed to the bar, no big deal."
The Long Island was ordered. I held up my glasses with the rest of the guys, ushering me into my twenty-first year. The bartender read us our horoscopes from that day's amNewYork. I was headed up to my binge-drinking-friendly college town that weekend — as I kept reminding the guys, lest they think I was uncool — but here, at least, I knew this was as wild as the celebrations would get. My biggest plan after work was trading in my embarrassing driver's license photo at the DMV for one of me now, in a Hanes T-shirt, sweaty, smiling. Cooper handed me a stick of gum for the walk back. "Can't have you getting us in trouble." I nodded.
A few hours later, I was sent to the same floor the object of my infatuation happened to be working on. I tried, and failed, to unlock the material locker stationed just around the corner from the apartment where Cooper was threading telephone wire. None of the walls were up yet. I waved through the metal studs.
"Could I ask you something?" I asked as he was fishing for the key. The drink named for my homeland still had a pretty good hold on my confidence. "What's up with that subway token? It's cool." The answer: he grew up on Long Island too, and back in high school, he'd kept a whole stack of them around his neck so he could skip class and go to the city. Small, but there it was: this thing that I hoped the other guys hadn't bothered to ask about.
"Check it out," he said, pulling the chain up from where it hung. "I've had it so long, all the edges are worn away in the middle." I inched in. The token's original pentagon cutout had smoothed out into a rounded memory of itself. I giggled, like an idiot.
"You're so damn cute when you giggle," he admitted quietly. My heart bloomed. I'm sure he said that to all the twenty-something temporary coworker ladies who came around for the summer, but to me it might as well have been a sonnet.