I got a job out east so I could live at our beach house in Hampton Bays. An audiovisual contractor hired me. Who knew if there would be work after the busy season, but whatever. I would have all summer at the beach house.
I came on as a helper with no experience. I wanted to learn the job. Learning a trade! I romanticized it. I’d be working with my hands, installing flat screens and sound systems and other expensive electronics in beautiful new homes. I grew up with technology, so I’d be a natural, I thought. I’ve been plugging in TVs and hooking up PlayStations since before my generation even had a title.
The work would be more than that, I knew, but still I underestimated it. I saw all the tools my new coworkers had: reciprocating saws and various drill extensions and other things I couldn’t put names to, and got nervous because it meant there would be situations that required them, situations that I was overwhelmingly unprepared for.
I was prepared to do beach things. I dreamt about paddle boarding: peacefully gliding on the bay, no worries, heading to nowhere in particular. In an interesting parallel to my new job, though, paddle boarding would not be so effortless. I had never done it before and on my first go, I had all the grace of a little girl trying on her mother’s stilettos. I did a lot of wobbling and fell off a few times. This was no big deal because I could just get up and try again. But mistakes at work had consequences. Tasked with cutting a hole in someone’s drywall, I knew that one mistake could be disastrous. It seemed a crime if I were to “learn by failure” on bayfront properties in Sag Harbor.
I can barely hang a picture on the wall, let alone a seventy-inch television. I expected to catch on right away, but I didn’t. My fatal assumption was that my aptitude for booklearning would lead to success with hand tools. In other words, I was delusional. Later, I wondered if Einstein could handle a hammer. Probably not. I imagine he would tell you its falling velocity as he flings it over his shoulder to go do something he’s good at.
I relegated myself primarily to handing tools to my coworkers and asking questions about what they were doing. Observation—now this I can do! Their skills always impressed me, but the workday was long and I was easily distracted by my affluent surroundings. I worked on properties from Westhampton Beach to Amagansett. They all had hedges, of course. And every backyard had a pool, and every pool had an inflatable swan. Modern art hung on the walls and there were lots of books, aesthetically ordered on the bookshelf or stacked from largest to smallest like a step pyramid. I deduced that the homeowners didn’t read these books, but instead flipped through Dan’s Papers or other magazines I found strewn on the coffee table or kitchen counter.
I lacked skills but I liked the people. One time, one of the technicians pulled his back out and could barely move. It was silly of me to offer to carry his toolbag, though. He’s got it. Another guy suggested that he take fish oil because it’s “good for everything.” The injured guy, in an inspired wheezing effort (talking too much worsened the pain), replied that “it’s good for your vagina, too.”
In the morning I would go to Dunkin Donuts for my iced coffee, where a few dozen workers hung around the parking lot and waited to get hired for the day. Despite the uncertainty, the group always seemed in high spirits. Painters, carpenters, landscapers—they talked and drank their coffees and read their papers. Not Dan’s Papers. If there was a Periodico de Dan, they might read that.
For lunch I would go get another coffee, this time at a nearby 7-Eleven. Even at midday I saw workers sitting on the sidewalk, waiting. Maybe they hadn’t been hired that day. Perhaps they did a half-day’s work and were looking to get hired again. The rest of the day, while I handed tools to my coworkers, I thought about it, and concluded that I was happy to have direct deposit.
At the unfinished construction sites, the people were very understanding towards a “greenie” like me. If not for their instructions, I probably would have walked in the wrong direction and gotten flattened by a pavement roller. The bosses were alright, too. One day, the general contractor ordered a stack of pizzas for everyone. There we all were, audiovisual technician next to swimming pool guy next to asphalt and paving guy, sitting on a ledge eating pizza together. Free lunch! It was a jovial thirty minutes. I remember having a good laugh with Jose that day.
A food truck drove around to all the job sites, selling hot dogs and water and coffee. It was a smart idea and I imagine whoever’s business it was made good money. One time I had an encounter with a guy who had a similar thought. I had gone back to the truck to gather some materials when a red Nissan Integra swung into the driveway. A man hopped out and began auctioning off workman’s apparel. For a pair of gloves, five dollah! five dollah! Seeing that I didn’t look the part of a worker, he pulled out a pair of boots and, pointing at my crummy old Asics, exclaimed Boots! Boots! This man did not read Dan’s Papers, I was sure. Is there a Chan’s Papers? He was so enthusiastic that I barely had the heart to turn him away.
As for me, my enthusiasm waned. I quit after two months. Maybe it was the commute, the “trade parade” they called it, that got to me—irrigation guys, heating and refrigeration guys, pest control guys—all headed east on 27 to work on nice houses.
I still get my iced coffee in the morning and see the guys in the parking lot. There is work to be done. As for the off-season, I don’t know. I’m staying at the beach house until Labor Day and then going back to school. I hope the east end needs a lot of snow removal this winter.