Construction Work as a Female Laborer

:: by Alexandra Carbone ::

Alexandra with her hand on the mic at Peter D's.
Alexandra with her hand on the mic, at Peter D’s karaoke stage, Clairemont Mesa.

Ninety days in to my construction job I’ve learned a lot about the guys I work with. I learned why I sometimes get the feeling I overwhelm them. For one thing, they don’t talk much. It’s loud. Communication usually means calling someone’s name and making a hand motion for the tool you need. Even if it’s not loud, words are difficult when what you’re trying to explain is an angle or a problem or a technique. Some key words may be necessary but what really needs to happen is, some spatial reasoning or knack of doing needs to click.

My hands have changed. My hands changed when I was a baker. The tendons on my wrists became more prominent and my palms became meatier. I lost some fine motor skills. I went straight from that into painting posters, and watched my hands transform again. They got thinner, more wiry, precision became paramount so they adapted. My hands ache most days now. My knuckles are puffy, and so are theirs.

Their arms are muscular but not in the way a weightlifter’s or rock climber’s are. They’re burly. Muscular, but not defined except for little muscles that pop out near your elbow when you’re fastening a screw. Most jobs require brute strength and they’re used to using brute strength. “If brute strength doesn’t work, you’re not using enough of it.” They often break stuff because of that. But sometimes I make the mistake of being too careful and they come along and knock something around to fix it for me, and I feel inadequate and weak.

You can’t have fine motor skills and brute strength. You kind of have to specialize. It’s like that hockey game on the Nintendo 2 with the fat, medium, and small players. I’ll never be the big burly guy, but I can get stronger, and once in a while it’s an asset to be lighter. I’m proud when I do something that surprises them. Like when we were boring into the ceiling with a big drill to put masonry pins in.

It’s tough to handle and dust rains down on you. Then you have to slam the pin in with a sledgehammer. If you don’t do a good job, it won’t hold the beam up securely. When you start screwing the nut on, if it has a good grip the bolt won’t spin and you’ll see the top of the beam move closer to the ceiling. When this happens they cheer. They don’t know what to make of me. “Do you like this work, Alex?” I give them a thumbs up. They’re fun. They work as a team. They’re so aware of surroundings, they know what people need, and they’re helpful.

They’re smartasses and they bust each others’ balls. They even have feminine sides, they’ll go with it when I call a tool bag a purse. They talk about their kids. Many of the older ones have kids they don’t know very well because it didn’t work out with the mom and they moved away, and it’s kind of heartbreaking. Mostly these guys live in the real world to a degree I find alarming.

I didn’t realize how very much time I spend in my head. I don’t like to do things till I understand how they fit together. So, I spend a lot of time looking at the plans. I often catch mistakes that way, but they don’t like to listen to me. I want to understand things before I do them, but they are kinesthetic learners who must do things to understand them. “Let’s just try it”. It’s usually faster that way, but they waste materials and occasionally don’t catch something until it’s a giant fuck up. I rarely fuck up and I’m loath to waste materials, but I work slowly.

They’re not stupid. Their spatial intelligence is off the charts and I can’t keep up adding fractions. They work hard. If they can’t stand back and see their work at the end of the day, they didn’t work. There’s a lot of class shit that devalues their work, and it’s bullshit. Many of them didn’t go to college and feel insecure about that — they’ve told me as much.

They got the message their way of being intelligent is inferior. But they have just as much right to be proud of the cathedral as the architect or the bishop or the city planner. They actually made it happen.Their knowledge of it is intimate. They know all the flaws that got tucked under so you can’t notice them.They make me think most people aren’t lazy, and wouldn’t just sit around if they didn’t have to work.

They get a lot of self-esteem out of working and using their bodies and making things happen and knowing how to make things happen and overseeing other people and teaching them how to make things happen right. I trust them to be in the world and do things safely. They know nothing would happen without them, and they have no problem standing up for themselves. They feel tired at the end of the day and know they deserve to be paid. In their in-the-world way, they know their work is sacred. They give their bodies to it; they have messed up backs and sinus problems from all the dust, and missing fingers.

They all have some story from when they fell, or saw someone fall spectacularly, or some machine malfunctioned and suddenly there was blood everywhere. Those experiences made them more careful and they often warn me of potential dangers.

The high degree of being in the worldness also gives them a certain crassness. Because they are moving and hammering and running headlong into all the problems the architects didn’t think of, this also translates to shitting and fucking and fighting not being something you do discreetly or hide behind veneers of respectability. They know all that’s bullshit. I don’t forgive them for hooting at me when I used to walk by in a dress, but I understand it better now and I don’t think they meant it to be intimidating. They rarely even see women.

I’ve seen only two or three other women in three months on the worksites and dozens upon dozens of men. Anyway, on this side of things they’ve been pretty great to me. I’ve learned a lot because they’ve freely offered their knowledge and included me. It made me understand my dad better, too. How his hands seemed so strong and he seemed so capable when I was little. Why he sometimes used too much force when he was in a different mode, like trying to fix an electronic. Why no handyman could ever do a good enough job because on top of being handy, my dad is an artist. A sculptor and stonecarver who worked construction with my grandfather when he was young, he is a slightly different breed. I’m more like him so I get irritated by shoddy work and doing shoddy work is almost physically painful because it feels so wrong, both morally and emotionally. I don’t want to compromise that. I understand there’s a balance between getting things done and getting things right, but I’d rather
they just put me on the things that need to be right.

The best days are the days I plug in my headphones and paint some wall art stencil all by myself on a scissor lift. Then when my foreman checks in, I get to lecture about how you need to paint IN towards the stencil to get a clean line and wait till the paint is still a bit tacky to take off the stencil, otherwise chunks of paint will come off and ruin the line. And you have to pull the stencil off close to 180 degrees to the wall in the direction of the line. “So don’t just let anyone do it if I’m not in tomorrow, because it’ll look like shit.”

53 Replies to “Building”

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    1. Most informative description of work and work force interaction and comradery I’ve ever read ! Outstanding observation. Grazie molto figlia mia, Babbo .

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