Now that I’m disabled, I think back often to the kinds of jobs I used to have. Not working makes you appreciate when you were of some use … to someone, somehow. At least worthwhile enough to collect a paycheck.
If that sounds morose, it is. Sorry.
For some people, when they are working, there’s a palpable allure to the government dole. The fantasy floats in your brain somewhere between fear of losing your job and calculating out-of-pocket expenses in your health insurance plan. Collecting a check for, basically, being sick seems like a good idea.
In a very short time, you can start feeling pretty much useless.
Of course, I have some healthy distractions: moving with my wife through her travel nursing jobs, visiting our grown kids, doing my best to help get us different places to live and arranging moves — while still messing around with words as a would-be writer. All can reinvigorate to a degree.
Yet, I actually found myself fantasizing the other day about when I did construction work. Could have had something to do with the constant buzz of saws and nailguns outside our apartment in Denver. The complex has been building a new pool and barbecue area, as well as remodeling lots of apartments, ever since we’ve moved in.
I watched the progress with some jealousy. But, I’m not starry-eyed here.
The old days of carrying drywall — we did it on our heads, two sheets at a time, sometimes ⅝ inch thick and 10 feet long — took their toll. As did mixing mortar on break from college for two crazy Italian brothers who loved to do hallucinogens while building brick walls, and laboring for a master carpenter who spit tobacco on the boards he wanted us to retrieve.
But, man, there’s something fulfilling about a full day, sometimes in the sun, working your muscles, ogling the female neighbors and talkin’ smack with blue-collar tradesmen. I did that for some time before getting into journalism, which ended up being my career of 30-plus years.
Although reporting, writing and editing was my day job, I could get my hammer-and-saw fix by working on my house — often with kids roped into helping — during the evenings and weekends.
I still feel most comfortable in ripped, paint-spattered clothes, old tennis shoes and a baseball cap that has caught its share of cloying joint compound. I’m so used to going out like that, usually without much of a look in the mirror, that my wife literally stops me these days and refuses to tag along — unless I reassess my attire.
But, she’s gone at work a lot.
So I do little grooming before heading out to brush shoulders with actual repairmen or women, say at Home Depot or Habitat for Humanity Restore. Those old work clothes help me fit in. I’m usually only in the market for picture hangers, polyurethane or packing tape. But, I still browse the discount lumber, look for “oops” paint that’s on sale and fantasize about buying new tools.
Then, I sidle on over to the register, make chitchat with the clerk and haul away my teeny-tiny plastic bag of, usually, some hooks or screws or the superdooper no-shrink spackle of the week. Nobody gives me much mind. I just observe and go on my disabled way.
The other day, though, I found myself getting more than the typical share of attention. I had headed out to Ace Hardware after a failed attempt at restacking some light boxes in our garage. One actually slipped off the stack, forcing me to hold it against the others with my forehead while trying to find somewhere to drop a broken lamp I was trying to fix. It ended up falling anyway. I hoped nothing broke.
At Ace, some folks gave me grim looks, refusing to make eye contact. Others smiled deeply, looking like they felt sorry for me. I guess it was my limp. But, this was weird. The odd looks continued.
I smelled my armpits, checked for ill-placed tears in my pants. Nope, all clear.
In the paint aisle, as I eyed Minwax products that combine polyurethane with the actual color that creates the wood stain. A stranger interrupted.
“Hey, do you know if this would be good for a screen door?” He held a cheap can of spray paint. At first glance, I knew he was only a home-repair dilettante; his clothes were so neat they looked pressed.
“No, I’d actually get the more expensive spray. When it comes to coverage, you’re better off.”
He pressed on. “Well, yeah, see I’m doing this door. It has marks, I guess it’s rust but I thought those doors were aluminum. Do you think I need to clean it first?”
“Maybe just take it off and scrape it with a wire brush and …”
“A paint brush?”
Oh boy, I thought. I gotta move on. I tried to point toward the small wire brushes and sandpaper and walk away but he followed me.
“Why don’t you just do it for me,” he said. Taken aback, I looked for a smile, not thinking he was serious. But he came back with an offer of $9 an hour.
Wow, I was being solicited right there under the Daily Specials sign in the Ace paint department. “Naw, I gotta run. I’m …”
“Ok. $10. Figure you could use the cash. It’d only be a couple hours.”
Oh, I get it. I guess I outdid myself in the clothing department today. I actually succeeded in the down-and-out-homeless look instead of busy handyman.
I pretended someone texted me and had to get away, limping quickly toward the checkout.
Later, at home, after checking to make sure nothing was leaking from that box that slipped off the stack in the garage, I made a quick sandwich, relaxed in my recliner and wondered just what about my attire had triggered the Ace guy’s offer.
Weird, I thought. But then I went to medicine cabinet for my afternoon pills.
This is what I saw.
I guess using my head to try to hold up that sliding box wasn’t such a great idea. I told myself I owed my wife a giant apology for getting pissy about her warnings about going out without checking out my clothes — and, apparently my face.
I wondered just how many people saw me as a poor sap of a hobo, wandering the aisles, looking like I just got whacked for trying to steal another vagrant’s shopping cart.
I wonder what would have happened if I took that guy up on his screen-painting job. I’ll bet he would have given me a tip — or at least offered to let me use his shower.