Excerpt from Hatteras: A novel
Seems apropos, somehow: a little tid-bit from the novel I have been studiously avoiding the last 6 months:
It’s odd how you can look back at the stream of your life and see clearly what was ahead, but I really had no clue that I was devolving into a less savory version of myself than I had been in my hot-headed and excessive teens and twenties. I held a professional job that paid well, had summers off, made a pretty decent buck with music and tile work on the side, and could party at will. It was the heady days when the internet was new, stocks were on a roll and wealth was being created out of thin air. Clinton played the populist tide like a violin, glad-handing all over the world while thousands of Muslim Croatians were murdered by the Serbs, the World Trade Center was bombed and the US Cole was attacked by terrorists.
I can look back now and say that at least my own self-satisfied personal myopia fit right into the national glee some economics wonk had warned was “excessively exuberant.”
Little did any of us know.
What do I remember now of that decade of the 90’s? If this screed every reaches anyone’s hands, better call it fiction, because I am surprised now at how few actual, factual details I remember of that time, except that it seemed so good, a cornucopia of delight, just the thing for a devotee of Sybaris and Epicurius.
But I know that is just me looking back. The decade began with conflict at work. Everyone around me had always and only wanted to be a teacher, and maybe there was some part of me that agreed with them. But I had also always wanted to be a carpenter, a builder, a musician, a scientist, all in the same day. And because I had spent so many of my (I guess) formative years on the job site, there was a decided blue-collar cast to everything I did.
On the job site, all the contractors worked together, sometimes against the general contractor, often against the home-owner, always against the vagaries of fate and disorder. We were also in competition of a sort with each other, as to who got to do their work in a particular spot first, at what time, and how quickly. But I had a knack for that, after all those hours of hanging with my dad at diners, working in the steaming hot kitchens of Mount Airy with the profane language of the cooks and wait-staffs, or in the bathrooms of some new home with plumbers, electricians, spackelers and painters interrupting every so often. It was give to get, in that world. And if someone didn’t play nice, well, the tile man would find somebody had walked on his floor and completely screwed up a hard day’s work, actually created three days of free work, or worse, work that would wind up costing time and materials. If the plumber was a bigger horse’s ass than plumbers usually are (Sorry, Emmitt—you were different, weren’t you?), why then he would be plagued by pin-holes in his pipes or mud down the waste drains.
That was my mind-set when I started teaching at the grand old age of 29, after most of the teachers (many my age, some older) had entrenched themselves in their classrooms and had their suspicions (rightfully so!) about new teachers in general.
And they did not necessarily play nice with each other. So the first few times I got the cold shoulder or somebody flat out refused to share what appeared to me to be pastures of plenty, I did what any good contractor would do: I fought back. True, there were no pin-holes in pipes equivalent in that world, but a good tongue-lashing felt great and put them in what I thought was their place.
There was only one problem with that. In the contracting world, when the house is done, the little community of drinkers, tinkerers, nail-bangers and mud-puppies, brush-slingers and wire-pullers disbanded, like a school of fish that scatters into the deep blue sea. At the next job, many of them would be there again.
Some contractors hang on to their subs for decades, but in the 80’s and 90’s, everybody that swung a hammer or could carry mud on a trowel called themselves contractors, so there was a good deal of turn-over. Consequently, if you just couldn’t stomach a particular person, you asked who was doing the electrical, or whatever. If it was Joe Butthead, you either passed on the job or let the super know your stance. There just weren’t that many tile men in the Poconos then; there still aren’t, not ones that came up in the trade from the time they were 10, so as often as not, the GC would say I’ll take care of that and when you got on the job site, that guy was gone.
He was gone, not so much because I bitched about it, but because everybody else had been, too, and the GC was probably glad to have a reason to get him gone. The trouble with taking that approach to teaching, I began to realize, along about my third year, was that none of us was going anywhere. And if you think woman hold grudges (I still do, so, sorry, ladies!), then you never saw how teachers are.