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Men at Work

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By Cornelius Fufalajczyk

A city job. I twitched, remembering my mother's nagging. "Get a job, any job, but go out and find some work!" I saw her dark face with its almond-shaped eyes and prominent nose, saw the papers. "Come on, sign these!"

It didn't really happen like that, of course, things just get pushed all together in dreams, and I was already starting to come to. There was the rusty wood-burning stove in front of me, propped up as I was on a cruddy folding chair between Otis and Bambam, who were still asleep. It was starting to get cold, and someone would have to get up and bust up some more firewood. It was my turn, but I didn't want to get out of line again. When I first started, with the good hourly rate they were paying, I thought I would actually have to work for it. I busted ass and blistered my hands shoveling dirt and garbage out of the eight-foot-deep hole the cracked concrete of the old vaulted sidewalk had concealed.

Boy, did I get it for that one. "That should have been a whole week's work, you asshole! Now what the fuck do you think you'll do until Friday?" I could see Oh!Henry's red, scowling face and the strange smirks, frowns, and thousand-yard stares on the rest of the crew. How was I supposed to know that being on the sidewalk crew wasn't really a job? That I really earned my money on election day?

Even down in a hole and almost out of sight I just didn't feel right standing around and warming myself by the glowing coals of scrap lumber in our steel drum. The hostile stares of the housewives and the unemployed men bothered me. We five guys were being paid a lot of their tax money.

It's not like we didn't suffer for that money. Besides the occasional nasty remark it was winter, and it got really cold for guys who couldn't do something to warm up. We'd dug a trench at the bottom of the hole for the footing of what would be a massive concrete retaining wall. This wall was supposed to keep 60 cubic yards of gravel fill from crushing in the front of the building next to the hole. I thought I could at least clean debris out of the trench, but I got teased mercilessly and had to stop. For our foreman, who we called Oh!Henry, it was a matter of pride that his crew could get away with doing the least amount of work, and he would brag about it all every evening over at Stanley's tavern. He was Oh!Henry, and he got paid better to do less than anyone else in the tavern, Ireland, and possibly the whole planet.

Sometimes we would get a "superintendent" paying us a visit, one of those old retired construction guys who haven't got anything else to do but come over and bullshit with anyone who'd listen. One guy, a real sourpuss everyone called "Smiley," used to be a plumber. One day he picked me out for the weekly lecture.

"Hey you! Hey Curley! Ain't that what they call you?"

I was taught to be respectful to old people, so I went over to see what he had to say today.

"Ya know what? You're standing on the original ground level of Chicago down there. That used to be a plank sidewalk. Look behind you. That was the front of the building before they raised the streets up eight feet."

"Why did they raise the streets? When was that?" I asked.

"That was over a hundred years ago, kid, and they had to raise the streets because where you're standing is about level with the lake. Every time it rained the mud would get so bad that they'd lose the cat, the dog, and a couple of the kids. So they laid big sewer lines down the middle of them dirt streets to drain off the water and then covered the pipes up with dirt and sand and whatever they could find, and they built them limestone block walls up along the sides of the old street about ten feet from the building fronts to hold it all in. Then they laid a cobblestone street right on top of it.

"The last thing they did was to put slabs of limestone or concrete from that new street closer to the front of the buildings to make the sidewalk. That open part where you're standing was under the sidewalk, and they called it the vault."

I felt playful. "Were you on the crew that worked on them?" I asked.

"Nah, I was too old. How about you, did you ever do any work?" He grimaced, which was as close as his face could get to a recognizable smile. Then he tottered off, poking steadily into the ground with his cane, and I never saw him again. Later on I heard from one of the other "superintendents" that he had passed away. Maybe trying to smile killed him.

That old man was right though, because we got lucky and came onto a place whose basement wall still had the windows and the front doors that had once opened onto the muddy streets of what was then Chicago. The basement also had an old wood-burning stove and an endless supply of filthy scrap lumber some madman had piled up in there. Even better, the doors still worked. So we could keep warm and take naps where no one could see us, then run out waving our tools if somebody came around to get a great picture of the loafers on the city crews.

That's where we were, sitting around the woodstove, having a nice nap. I got to my feet, waking up Bambam. "Hey, whatta'ya doin' Eager Beaver?" Everybody had to have a nickname or two on the city crews. Fortunately that one didn't stick.

"Fire's almost out, man, and my feet are getting cold. Gotta get more wood for the stove." I gently moved Otis's snoring body onto Oh!Henry's equally inert form. Neither of them woke up, so I could walk to the back of the basement without a hassle. Piled to the ceiling were all kinds of rotted furniture, broken crates covered with dust, and blackened lumber of every useless size and shape. I gathered up an armload of this crap, mostly drawer fronts unglued by the floods of filthy water that periodically backed in from the main sewer after a heavy rain. I opened the lid on the top of the stove, staring in at the glowing coals at the bottom for a while, then threw the armload in, hypnotized by the ancient allure of the fire, thinking about how primitive men must have stared into the flames. And FOOM! The flammable dust from the powder-post beetles and the black, ancient sawdust ignited at once in an orange fireball, singeing my eyebrows and propelling me back into Oh!Henry's ample belly. We fell backward, my fall cushioned by the foreman's corpulence, the rusty folding chair strained beyond its meager powers to resist.

The commotion actually woke up Otis. "What the fuck!" he shouted, jumping instantly and agilely to his feet. Oh!Henry never really knew what hit him, but he was good at guessing. By the time he woke up from that bump on the head, I had straightened out the story so it wasn't anybody's fault except for that damn stove that blew up for no reason. Hadn't it been puffing smoke every so often? It was just a matter of time.

It was just a matter of time for me too. Oh!Henry rubbed the back of his head for the rest of the day and couldn't take his eyes off my missing eyebrows and the noticeable lack of the curls that used to protrude past the sweatband of my hard hat.

"Damn! That was quite a goddamn knock on the head. I swear I don't hardly recognize this asshole here. What was your name?" He kept asking until someone actually gave him my real one, then he carefully wrote it down, sucking noisily through his teeth.

Oh!Henry had a reason for getting my name just right, as I was going to get transferred out to another crew, Whizzy's crew, the cr�me de la cr�me of the fuckups. No one could scare the shit out of tough old construction workers or keep lawyers and insurance adjusters busy like Whizzy. Even the cops would get some action whenever one of the old lady eagle eyes caught him pissing in her backyard or under her windowsill.

He'd get away with it, of course, by telling the cops who he was "connected" with, and then plead his case.

"What the hell can a guy do? You're cold, you can't get nothing hot to drink but coffee, and then where in the hell are you going to go and piss every 15 minutes?"

He told us about how he tried using a big, open mouth pickle jar like some of the other guys but got lazy about dumping it, and then managed to spill the whole stinking thing on himself while trying to "top it off" while half asleep in the truck. This truck was one of the two-and-a-half-ton dumps leased from one of the mayor's buddies for a fortune, its huge engine burning up lakes of fuel just to run the little heater that kept the cab warm all day.

Then he got to go home because he stunk so bad the driver wouldn't let him stay in the truck. Once outside, his pant legs got so stiff from the frozen piss that he had to do the Frankenstein strut back to his Cadillac. He tried to get some sympathy from Ruby, the only woman on the crew, but she stared at him as if to say, "Try pissing the way I have to sometime, jagoff!"

He was one of those old guys too proud or cheap to get new glasses, so he never minded the look on your face, just what you said. You had to watch your mouth around him. Whizzy had real clout and he was the only one I ever heard of that could leave work before sign-out time.

Ever since that incident, clout or no clout, he had to pee outside, and that's how he got his nickname. He always had to let everyone in on the event, saying "I got to take a whiz" and disappearing for various lengths of time. The nickname made him think he was popular, and we wasted time getting him to tell us all the "whiz" stories again and again, mostly about getting caught in the act by some big shot or another and never getting in trouble because of all his "friends."

The good thing was that we could find something to kid about with the boss. Being friendly with someone who had real clout couldn't hurt you.

Anyone who wanted a new sidewalk had to sign a waiver stating that the city was not responsible for whatever catch basins or sewers might get damaged or buried. Bambam would always locate the sewer, as we were supposed to be careful and make a passage for it through the new concrete wall or the footing below it. At first he had a probe, a T-shaped thing with a stem about five feet long that he would push into the ground until he felt the sewer tile, but he left it out one night and somebody stole it. Then he found this big, heavy hexagonal bar, which wouldn't even go into the ground unless you plunged it in with all your might, and most of the time he would crash right through the brittle old ceramic pipe into the void of its interior. Bambam doomed a lot of good sewers that way, creating a hole that would allow dirt and stones to wash in until the pipe was plugged solid. A lot of sewer outfits profited big-time from his industrious bam-bam thrusting into the ground--but that's another story.

Anyway, one day before I got kicked off their crew, Bambam and Otis went down into a vault that had been cleaned out a few days before by a big Gradeall excavating machine. Otis found the water service pipe and pulled a loop of the soft lead out of the ground, and Bambam was trying to find the sewer with his big iron bar, thrusting it into the soft clay with all the strength in his beefy arms. No one knew that the end of the sewer, where it passed under the limestone retaining wall holding the street together, had been crushed flat by the Gradeall. Everyone up in the second and third floors of the old Victorian building (it had a vacant storefront on the first floor) had continued to shit away oblivious to the fact that their grunts and extrusions were creating a two-story column of semisolids in the main drainpipe, or soil stack, which then turned underground into the well-filled house sewer, which ran slightly downhill about 50 feet to where we were working, passing right under the muddy boots of Bambam.

He stepped over to this new spot and raised his bar there, his brown jacket riding up above his big round belly, and bam! He busted in the top of that sewer right in the joint between two of its sections and the column of shit inside the building released its downward pressure with a geyser of diarrhea that went mostly up the front of Bambam but all over Otis too.

"Jesus! Keep your eyes and mouths shut!" Oh!Henry shouted from above. He looked like a madman at me; I was standing there with a bag of doughnuts and coffee I'd just got back with. Down in the vault, Bambam was blowing and spitting and trying to talk, tears clearing trails on his shit-covered cheeks. "Shut the fuck up!" yelled the foreman. He grabbed a mattock out of the trailer and got down the chicken ladder into the pit, took the lead pipe out of Otis's shitty gloves, laid it down on a piece of crumbly limestone, and struck it with the mattock's straight, hoelike edge, neatly severing the soft metal. By now the geyser of crap (later we would christen it "Old Fartful") had lost most of its pressure, but they were already ankle-deep in the light brown, curdled mess. Water had immediately started roaring out of the severed lead pipe in a powerful spray and the boss easily bent the pipe around to hose down the two unfortunates, the pressure and the shock of the icy water nearly knocking them down.

When they managed to find their feet and climb out of the excavation, Bambam's first words through his sobs were, "It don't taste so bad." Their clothes started to stiffen up fast in the bitter cold. It dawned on us that they were in real trouble, so we called an ambulance.

Good thing it was a big ambulance, as those guys were so stiff we had to pick them up like logs and load them headfirst. Fortunately the crap on their clothes and boots was frozen good and solid too, and the ambulance attendants didn't notice anything as they were handling the nice clean top halves of our coworkers. Things probably got ripe on the way to the hospital though.

Otis never did come back to work on the crews, and Bambam took all his sick time.

Oh!Henry had bravely gone back down into the pit to try and shut off the water, but in his hurry he had severed the pipe on the wrong side of the shutoff. He tried to crimp the pipe but that only slowed the water down some, so he had to leave it for the plumbers, who showed up the next day with all the wrong fittings. By the time they got the water hooked back into the building, the excavation and unheated basement looked like a skating rink.

We wanted to get the hell out of there, as all the tenants who'd already been complaining about their toilets not working right were now cursing us for cutting off their water. What could we do shorthanded, and with the ground frozen as hard as iron? So we did the usual, and just stood around the fire in the steel drum and tried to keep from freezing. Finally a private contractor showed up with jackhammers and dug out the sewer and fixed it, while we passed the buck every way we could. Later the landlord told us he had to pay over $3,000 to get the sewer work done.

When Bambam finally came back, he denied saying that thing about the "taste," trying to tell us he really said "It ain't so bad," or something brave like that, but it was too late. Every time I went out for doughnuts after that I would make sure he ended up with a chocolate one, which he would try to turn down. Then some wiseass would always say, "Come on, Bambam, it don't taste so bad."

Really, some of those guys that ran the Gradeall excavator could put a glass of beer to their lips with it, but most of them smashed everything around them, including the occasional parked car. The thing is a kind of huge tractor with a big long telescoping arm with a great powerful steel cat's-paw on the end. Lots of times they would rip out the old sidewalk, loading it on the waiting dump trucks, and smash not only the sewers and water lines but the gas pipes too. Sometimes the gas company had already shut off the line and sometimes not, and a lot of gas got lost that way. I haven't heard of the crews blowing up any buildings, but it's got to happen someday.

The other thing that I saw happen all the time is where a torn-up water supply pipe sits in a pool of sewage for a while. "Be sure and run the water a lot before you use it," we'd tell people. I bet quite a few got sick. I sure hope nobody died.

Once the city plumbers and the gas company guys had put in the new pipes, they would put in shutoffs that were supposed to be accessible with these big long "street key" wrenches. We managed to fuck these up all the time on Whizzy's crew by using the shutoffs as steps in and out of the excavations, cocking them over to one side or the other so the wrenches couldn't get to them when the sidewalk was finally in place. Whizzy managed to do this even on the gas valves, which were mounted on much stronger iron pipe. Usually one shot with a cement block from street level would do the trick. Not that Whizzy really knew he was doing anything wrong--or how to do anything right, for that matter. Whizzy never claimed to know anything about the work he was supposed to be supervising. He wasn't like those other guys who really knew their trade but preferred to cultivate the reputation of not giving a shit. He really was honestly ignorant. He got his job through his political connections, so what did you expect? Go elect somebody else if you want your gas turned off, like when your house is on fire.

Whizzy was quite the hustler, "working" two city jobs. At night he was a foreman on the Deep Tunnel project. It was the kind of job where he really didn't have to be there, and good thing, because he believed most structures were held up by levitation and it really didn't matter if you took all the support out from under them.

Some buildings had stone sills or porches or whatever that connected the front doors to the sidewalks. All the buildings in this old southwest-side neighborhood had been built before anyone knew where the level of the street would end up, so some entries were way up in the air and others were almost level with the sidewalk. Some had two entrances, one above the street and the other below it, so the sidewalk had to stop short a few feet from the building to allow for a stairway going down, then a sort of bridge had to connect the sidewalk to the upper entrance. All these stoops and steps and porches stayed up just fine until Whizzy came along.

One day I showed up for work on Whizzy's sidewalk crew and I was astonished. There, jutting out about five feet from the front of a Victorian graystone, over the void where the old sidewalk had been, was a thick six-by-five-foot limestone slab. One side of it was stuck into the front of the building, under the entry doors, and the other side apparently had been supported by the old sidewalk. Some Gradeall operator who must not have found his career as a magician challenging enough had managed to pull the sidewalk out from under the slab without it collapsing.

I had to speak out. "Jeez, boss, don't you think that might fall?" Whizzy looked up from his newspaper, his glasses halfway down his nose. "It ain't going nowhere," he said. I looked around. The rest of the crew was lounging around, trying not to look, with the exception of Ruby, who was draped backward onto a concrete stairway, fast asleep.

Even though Whizzy was sure the slab wouldn't fall, no one else trusted it, and we built the temporary bridge from the street to the door sill over it, taking care that nothing and no one so much as touched its stone surface. When we dug out dirt for the footing of the retaining wall we were right under the slab, sweating every second. The concrete truck came, and the driver's eyes bugged out when he saw the slab. He was careful not to get near it. Two days into the job we already had the footing poured, record time for a city crew working so many months from election time.

The plumbers came, saw that they would have to do their work right under that thing, and turned white with fear. One of them said to Whizzy, "Say, I'm a little nervous about getting under that. Don't you think we should either shore it up or knock it down?" Whizzy narrowed his squinty eyes. "You telling me my business? It ain't going no place!" Then those plumbers had to get down into the pit and move the water service. One of them trembled like a leaf the whole time.

The scariest part for me was when we set up the concrete forms for the retaining wall and I had to work under the slab too. I looked at how it was attached to the building and saw that it was wedged between a lip of built-out bricks on the bottom, and on the top the door's stone still, which clamped down on a few inches of its width. It sure looked like it was ready to fall, but now that Whizzy had made it into the symbol of his authority and judgment there was nothing to be done but work under it as fast as possible.

The concrete wall was poured on the fourth day of the job, and though the slab seemed to have shifted slightly, at least now we had the massive concrete retaining wall a foot or so under it when we stripped off the plywood form on the fifth day. Now all we had to do was fill in the space between our new wall and the old retaining wall of the street and pour a new sidewalk. Maybe Whizzy was right after all.

On the sixth day, when the first batch of gravel fill was being dumped, Whizzy ordered me into the excavation with a shovel to spread out the crushed stone where the slab was. That's when I accidentally struck it with my shovel.

With a sound like a shot the slab suddenly sagged, and the front few inches of the door sill holding it popped into the air. The huge slab stopped moving as it rested on the retaining wall, teetering there for a few horrifying seconds as I clambered up the loose gravel feeling like a gerbil on a wheel. Then it started sliding again, into the excavation, bending the gas service pipe, crushing the water line, swiveling just enough to miss me as a corner flattened the exposed sewer.

Whizzy got up, carefully folding his newspaper. "Well," he said, "it sure ain't going no place now." The next gravel truck was already backing up, its load rising into the dump position. Whizzy put his paper under his arm, turned, and walked toward the alley. "I got to take a whiz," he said.

I stood there, having somehow gotten out of the hole, hypnotized by the awful sight of the gas pipe slowly buckling into an ever tighter crimp and the crunched water meter in its busted black plastic housing squirting a thin stream toward me from under the massive limestone. I watched as the whole load of fill got dumped right onto the wreckage.

I was almost grateful to see it disappear. The driver lowered his truck as he was taking off, the rear gate banging as he hit the bumps. Whizzy came back, acting as if nothing had happened. He looked at the mound of gravel as if everything had gone perfectly. "Grade that gravel out, then take a break," he mumbled. "We'll pour the sidewalk tomorrow." And we did.

When the complaints started coming, which was soon, I found out that the landlord of the building had some clout too. He even knew what buttons to punch and who to talk to, and he wasn't the kind of guy to give up. The city sent out three guys in fancy clothes and a $40,000 car to talk to the landlord. The rest of the crew had been dispersed, but that day I was told to stay and take down the temporary bridge, which took about 15 minutes, especially the way Whizzy liked to have them built. Then I busied myself taking out the nails and moving the lumber around and trying to look efficient and professional with nothing to do. The suits introduced themselves as a claims manager, a safety engineer, and a city lawyer, and they assured the property owner that the Department of Transportation would take care of everything. The only thing they didn't have an answer for was, "What happened to my beautiful limestone slab? They said they could save it."

"You there!" yelled the landlord, a skinny, middle-aged man with a bald head and a fancy suit. "What happened to my slab?" The four of them stared at me, looking so official and important. They looked so hard and expectantly into my face that I felt real fear, feeling their power, their combined and measureless clout.

Now I know I should have known better. I should have played dumb. I should have mumbled the standard "I dunno" thing. But instead I committed a grave error. I told the truth.

"What! It's under my new sidewalk? What kind of bullshit is that? Wait until I tell that to--!" I recognized the name. It was the first name of the alderman. The landlord had spoken his name like a priest would pronounce the name of God in a time of war or pestilence. I slowly realized, looking at the growing concern on the faces of the suits, that I was in some kind of trouble.

That night I received a phone call telling me I was suspended pending an investigation of what had happened at so-and-so's address on such and such a date. The voice was that of a youngish man, perhaps my own age. "Who was that on the phone, son?" asked my father.

"That was some guy from the city who said I was suspended." My father burst into the room. "What! Fire my son? What for? They can't do that! We'll go see the ward committeeman tonight! We grew up together! He knows me!" My father got on the phone and started talking animatedly, then the conversation dwindled into a "how's so-and-so" kind of talk.

My father put his hand on my shoulder. "Let's go, son. I'll introduce you to my old pal John. He really has some clout." We got into the car and drove to the other side of the neighborhood.

"Lots of memories on this street, son. There's where Joe lived, and there..." I stopped paying much attention, thinking instead about how great it would be if I never, ever, had to face dishonor and possibly death on the sidewalk crew again. "Here's the place, son. Now just let me do the talking." We went up the stairs and knocked on the door. A woman about my dad's age answered. "Pete!" she said. "Long time no see. Johnny's been waiting for you." We followed her through the parlor into a living room, where a man was sitting on a Barcalounger facing his TV set. The back of his head looked strangely familiar. "John, look, it's Pete and his son. Look how big he's grown!"

The man straightened out the chair, then got up and turned toward us.

It was Whizzy.

He scowled at me. "Wait a minute, what's going on here?" Whizzy said. I tried to say something, but my father wouldn't let me. "Let me do the talking, son," he said. He directed me back into the parlor and closed the glass-paneled door. After talking to Whizzy for a while in the next room, my father came into the parlor.

"Well, it's all set, son. John told me you ain't going no place."

All the way home my father chattered away about what great pals him and John had been and would always be, and what a good guy he was, and how he knew all the important people in City Hall. I just kept quiet, answering yes and no only when I absolutely had to, trying to sound enthusiastic.

All I could think about was the guy I knew as Whizzy, fancy guys in suits and me in a hole, broken water pipes and crushed sewers and flooded basements. Up in the dark clouds I thought I saw a strange rectangular shape, maybe the biggest slab of all, waiting to fall.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Stacy Curtis.

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