In my late sixties, I’ve recently concluded that I’ve never worked a day in my entire life. I’ve certainly had employment. In my so-called “youth”, I bartended, bused tables and taught tennis and squash but though it paid the rent, did it count as work? No, not really. Busing and bartending seemed like a party – and often was follow by one – and as for tennis and squash, that was playing games with beginners for money, and I happened to be good at acting the part. I’ve been fortunate enough to follow all that with a forty year career slinging words at walls if see if anything sticks. Due to luck, fate, and a modicum of talent I’ve had some success doing it but still, I’m not sure it really counts as work. By work, you see, I’m not talking about something you love to do, I’m talking about labor. Grit, repetition and sweat. I’ve been seeing a lot of it in the past two months and there’s nothing like really seeing it to make you realize you’ve never done it.
We recently had a major plumbing leak that took out the kitchen and floors throughout the house and almost immediately the parade began. Garbage disposal and water filter were removed from under the sink. I’m not sure I knew they were even there. Counters and lower cabinets were demolished, flooring was pulled, and the dishwasher, oven and gas stove were taken to the garage. How do you move a gas stove without blowing up the house? How do you even begin to disconnect and then pull a double oven out of the wall? How many people does it take to carry a dishwasher down a flight of steps? I had no idea and still don’t. Because all the wooden floors in the house had to be redone, a moving company then came in, packed up every item of furniture and trucked it off to storage. Six to eight men at a time, expertly wrapping and boxing, lifting and carting. We’re talking beds, chairs, tables, bureaus, rugs, desks, lamps, couches, not to mention books, linens, kitchenware and clothes. It took three days and I was exhausted just watching. So cordial, these men, so in the moment. A young Hispanic man expertly playing Christmas carols on the piano before it was carried to a truck. A stout African American man telling me as he emptied cabinets in the kitchen that he liked to think of every plate, dish and glass in a house as belonging to his grandmother, that’s how careful he wanted to be with other people’s possessions. I mean, do you tip these guys? People tipped me when I was bartending and believe me, it wasn’t half as strenuous.
When people are working (aka busting butt) in your house, you become more aware of the people who are working, really working, outside the house. You suddenly take note of the fact that two thirds of the vehicles on the early morning roads are dilapidated pick-up trucks coming from somewhere else bringing people in to work. You see men doing yard maintenance. Road repair. House construction. Bull dozing, hammering, shoveling, and raking. You see women stepping off the bus to go clean houses. You see delivering, delivering, delivering – everything from bricks and mortar to Amazon Essentials. Is it a life’s calling to stand in the middle of the road with a yellow, hard hat on your head holding a sign that says Stop on one side, Slow on the other?
Take a road out of town. What’s it like to be doing I-don’t-know-what on top of the cranes that hover over the rising skeletons of what will be buildings at the local university? Buildings need bathrooms. Bathrooms need plumbing. Plumbing needs pipes. How do you lay twenty stories of pipe? Where does the water come from? Where does it go? You got me. How do you do the wiring that will eventually turn on all the lights? I have no idea. Take the road in the opposite direction. What’s it like to change tires all day long at Tire Discount or do engine maintenance at the Toyota dealership? When I need a tire change, I call AAA and the only thing I know about car engines is you open the hood to look at them. What’s it like to spend hours at the register in the local supermarket (especially these days) moving the customers and groceries through, bagging and boxing and making change? When I mentioned to the checkout girl – is that the appropriate label for an intelligent looking woman in her late forties? – that she looked tired, she sighed and said she was exhausted, that they were short of help and that she and most of the other employees were on twelve-hour shifts. Talk about guilty. I was just in there buying wine. They were working.
As were the floor guys. They came into our empty house, took a quick look around and got right to it. First they plugged their heavy sanders into the downstairs circuit box – I don’t know why or how they did it – so as not to blow a fuse and burn down the house? – and then they sanded the kitchen, the dining room and the living room. They sanded the hallways, the bedrooms and the stairs. They sanded inside the closets. Repetitive, exacting, loud work that took three days. During that time they also showed us “stain samples” – half a dozen basic stain colors that they painted on a wood floor. A hybrid – a cross between shades of brown – was requested by she-who-is-in-charge. No problem. Oh, but it would have been for me. Where does wood stain come from? How do you make it different colors? Do you boil it in cauldrons? How do you apply it? With witches’ brooms? Once the floors were stained, which they were in the next two days, they were shined. But how? With paper towels? With floor mops? No, obviously you have to use machinery. Oh, but what kind of machinery? They looked like reverse vacuum cleaners which is a machine I’m allergic to. Who invents things like this? It must have been a worker, a man who works, because it couldn’t have been me. As a friend in finance recently pointed out – “I can sell it, just don’t ask me how it’s done.” Yeah, me too, boss. The floors are beautiful. How can we ever thank you, we asked the floor men as they vacated the premises. Put a recommendation on Yelp, they said. Boy, did I have to work to find Yelp floor services on the internet, but I did, finally – four stars to you, Bernie, Hank and Jose. I wish you could put them in the bank.
The inside of the house is now being painted and – surprise! – I have now learned that painting is more than sticking a brush into a pail of goop and attacking the wall which is something I could possibly do. No, first they covered every inch of the new floors with thick paper. I couldn’t do that; I don’t have the patience. They then wrapped doorknobs and light switches in heavy tape. I could do that, but it might take me a month. They sprayed all surfaces; walls and ceilings, with a “primer” – noxious stuff; you need a gas mask to breathe while you’re doing it. Yuck, not for me. And now they’re painting. Impeccable. Fastidious. Professional. And guess what? They do all this every working day of the week. As do the women doing maid service at the hotel where we’re staying except some of them also work weekends. As do the nurses and medical assistants at the city’s ERs. As do the ambulance drivers and the firemen and the policemen. As do the machine operators and carpenters. As do the farmers and the harvesters and the shelf stockers. As do the schoolteachers and the postal workers. As do the men walking next to the slow-moving garbage trucks, lifting and emptying the bins along the street, one after another. The list goes on and on and on.
All the work on the house will soon be finished. Our furniture will be taken out of storage and moved back in again. We will return and all will be as it once was only better. And the only thing I’ll have done was worry about it. Like I said, I’ve never really worked a day in my life.
Thankfully there are people who do.
Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work. –Thomas Edison