I got back to town on the last day of August. Thomas called wanting me on one of his jobs. “It’ll be so fun.The time line is tight. I realize you’ll be leaving again in November. We just need to get the roof on before the snow starts to hit.” It was tempting but I’d made a commitment to my family’s used bookshop and the door was still open on the previous carpentry job that I sort of bailed on at the start of 2014. To take up Thomas’s offer, I think, would be irresponsible to that previous obligation.
I ran into Thomas at the farmers market last weekend and asked how the job was going. Standing there with two bags of vegetables; a paper bag of Hedy’s zongzi and steam buns; hood up; sun in my eyes, I listened as he recounted what went well and what went wrong with the foundation pour. Maybe it was a nostalgic effect of the brisk sunny morning but I felt a strong desire to pull my belt and steel shank boots back on.
*The rest of this I’d started to write at the farm back in August. Trying to make sense of what I’m doing. I get asked at least a few times a week if I’ve quit carpentry or am I just taking a break.*
Six years ago after leaving the city I took up carpentry in my hometown, filling gaps between shows in the theatre’s season. I would have liked to continue working in the arts full time but didn’t want to live in the city’s fury, noise and grime. I figured the skills I’d pick up in the trade would help me in the scene shop, undoubtedly it did.
I leave town half the year, divided between summer, fall and winter to stage manage and build -paint, props, set- for one outdoor theatre company. The day after each show closed I’d hit the ground running as a carpenter till the next contract.The small construction company I worked for stayed busy through the worst of the recession. Foundation to finish work. New construction, renovations. My experience as a theatre scenic made me the fastest at applying stains and lacquers. I spent a lot of time wearing my respirator when I really should have been in a fully air controlled booth. Asbestos and vermiculite; fine particulate dust; sexual harassment; super close calls, I was hit by the chute of a concrete truck and almost impaled by re-bar. Fell off ladders. Fell into forming walls. Over exposed to chemicals too many times. Played teeter totter with scaffold planks. Power tools; blood, scars, muscle injuries that never seemed to heal. Drove a three inch nail into my thumb. Emergency rooms; physio.
There’s also the glory of a job completed no matter how big, or small. Success over adversity. Finding smooth rhythm in repetitious motion. Camaraderie. Like outdoor theatre, we worked through extreme heat and rainstorms or minus 25 and wind howling off the lake. Our fifteen minute breaks huddled around an industrial heater in the tool sea-can. Frostbite; deep fatigue but also the satisfaction that comes with physical labor, of pushing beyond perceived limits and strength.
I never thought I had to “prove myself” or work harder like I’ve heard other women in trades say but I recognized I had to keep up and I am as independent and stubborn as Capricorns come. Female carpenters still only make up two percent of the trade. Outside my crew there were constant stares, jeers, insinuations or outright confusion why a woman was on the job site. My boss defended me every step of the way. He pulled me from a job when a project manager got predatory and filed a complaint to the head office. He would check in with me how things were going, if I was having any issues. He confronted anyone who stepped out of line. He was the kind of contractor I wish a lot of other women in the trades could have.
Despite that I’d look around the construction site all the time and think, “What am I doing here?” I made money, made friends and had weird and wild experiences but a depression slowly seeped deep in my psyche. I pulled away from my self. Life felt heavy and every single guy I worked with talked about how long he’d been ‘quitting’ the trade. Moral generally sucked. It was distant from the pride, drive and passion my theatre family expressed.
When I returned from the winter show last January I was expected back at the job I was working before I’d left town. A full interior gut and modernization of an old stone house on the lake. The amount of money being spent baffled me. It was a nauseating glimpse into what people who own multiple homes around the world do with their money.
Instead circumstance found me at my family’s bookstore. It was only meant to be for a week or two, help out with the short staffing then I could head out to the stone house but I just fell into the rhythm of it like I had never left. Despite only being away six years from the shop, long time customers who had watched me grow up, confused me with my sisters. I felt a little forgotten and realized how being out on the remote job sites opened me up to one world and shut me off from another. Too tired, or crippled at the end of each work day to go out. My life became insular. All I started to know in town were other trades and what interested them. A small few had any leaning towards the arts and those shone to me like water in a desert.Thomas was a goddamn oasis.The only thing I really had in common with the crew was the job and snowboarding- though they were all skiers and sledders- they embraced me nonetheless. Good guys. I adored them all.
A couple years back Cole and I were fixing deficiency’s on a winery we’d built. Cole -my water filled cactus- and I had spent a day cutting out the concrete floor in one of the storage rooms. The plumbers came in and corrected the pipes. We set to work laying down vapor barrier, cutting, drilling, epoxying and tying a new grid of rebar for the fresh cement to connect with the old concrete. It was a Friday afternoon in late spring. Cement pours are ideally planned for Fridays so it can be left to cure undisturbed over the weekend. When the driver showed up we recognized him as one of us. There was something softer about him than most cement truck drivers and he looked like he’d just walked out of band practice with Graveyard. Long brown hair under his hard hat, full groomed beard, aviators, everything about his work clothes was subtly deliberate and considered. We paused while the truck drum spun to re-mix the cement. Cole in his tight, dusty black jeans, hard hat backwards over his toque, Punisher skull t-shirt; who goes to his studio every night and paints huge frenzied canvases; chatted casually to the driver about the trade, “How long.. I use to… work for …you know?” Over the loud hum of the rotating machine I caught trails but the words that rang out clear were “It’s honest work”. The driver looked him in the eye, nodded earnestly and cement started pouring down the chute into our wheel barrow. It is honest work.
I saw two middle age men hobbling across the street and immediately recognized them as tradesmen. Bodies wrecked; knees gone; backs herniated; wrists arthritic and more than likely, still showing up on the job. It’s rough.There is a degree of self care and preservation one can choose. Many of the guys I worked with could have lived healthier day to day lives but when the job starts moving fast, safety protocol is the first to fall aside. Driving home, absolutely physically exhausted from the day, doing it all over again at sun rise, stretching, eating well and going to bed early might not be priority. A lot of the trades I know head straight to the pub after work.
I left Thomas at the market and headed for the shop to, as my co-worker puts it, “find new homes for old books”. After talking about the trials and tribulations of an always stressful, no matter how prepared you are cement pour, I found myself in a state of I still don’t know, maybe I will go back. It’s been almost a year since I left the last carpentry job. I’m still processing it. Nothing is absolute.
For now the book shop is busy. I’m there six days -sometimes more- a week. There’s not a lot of time to think about what I’m doing and the thoughts I have –if this is any indication– are disjointed. Mid-November I leave town for the theatre’s winter show and continue working six days a week. When I get back in January… who knows. Maybe the call of roaring air compressors and screaming skill saws will lure me back… or maybe just the sense of adventure it brings.