Day Labor (creative nonfiction)


A friend suggested that I go down to the job pool, which pays daily, even if only minimum wage. I arrive at a rundown warehouse on the wrong side of town at about 4:30 this morning where the black of night still prevails because of burnt out street lights and potholes. The large structure reflects the gray in these days. It bustles with activity. You would never know it’s this early in the morning. I have to register along with my fellow laborers looking for work today at a wooden counter which appears taller than necessary. The man behind the counter has a bald head and also appears taller than usual. I wouldn’t usually notice except I don’t have to look down at him, which is the norm for someone our height. His voice booms over the intercom as he calls out the names of the individuals who registered before I arrived. I fill out the application and take a seat.

Work comes in and the workers shuffle their way out. Have I come too late? Yet, the room still crawls with new arrivals entering through the thick, shabby, metal door. The news, which I find too peppy for mornings, bounces in the background on a TV that hangs in a rusty cage. Wooden and metal chairs riddle the vast space inside the dim, dingy warehouse. I sit watching the news. I’m a first-timer here and it took all the humility I could muster to show up. The longer I sit and wait the more my humility simply turns into pure humiliation.

I once thought, I am better than this. I am better than people who have to find work this way. I am not anymore. I have no one to blame but myself for where I am. As I try to reclaim some small scope of dignity the tall, bald man calls out my name. I am one of the lucky ones because I got on a job today.

Six of us are called to the same job site, but not everybody has a car. Fortunately, I do. Unfortunately, that makes me the designated driver. I pack the rest of my new crew into my red, beat-up car. We head off to the subdivision to work new construction. I feel the stark contrast between the haves and the have-nots in this particular moment of life. Of my five passengers, by far the most vocal is a woman by the name of Gina in the front seat. She’s a heavyset black woman with braided hair and full of bubbly personality. I can’t help but wonder where that bubbly personality comes from this day. I resist the urge to ask her how she keeps herself together. Perhaps joy fills her life. Perhaps she finds satisfaction in her daily work. Perhaps the morning news isn’t too peppy for her. She doesn’t even bother hitting on me. This is one of the worst days of my life and I have one of the happiest people I’ve ever met sitting next to me giving me directions to the job site. This day feels long already.

Upon arrival we receive our instructions from the foreman running the subdivision construction site. He issues us each a wheelbarrow, broom and shovel. They represent the tools of my trade now. If I stay with it, I might get to trade in my broom for a hammer. Being on a skilled crew pays more, but I don’t know a thing about carpentry.

I just want to keep my head down and stay silent. I don’t want to share the normal niceties that accompany polite conversation with the individuals I’ve just met. I don’t want to be rude, but some days it takes all the energy I have just to remain focused on the task in front of me. Some days it takes all I have just to remain sane. Worlds away I reminisce on the life that could have been mine. It evaporated into the aether, permanently. The best I can hope for is a short-term memory of that life, that life that must’ve been only a dream. How I wish I could go back to sleep. How I wish I could be satisfied going back to sleep and never waking up. I’m not many steps away from that kind of sleep. It’s all I can do to hold onto this waking reality, this new reality that I find myself within today. What have I done to myself? These futile thoughts certainly won’t get any of my work finished so I lay them to rest in the back of my mind, locked far and deep away so that I can live this day without the overwhelming desire to kill myself off.

The sun cannot penetrate the gray of my day. Finished homes are for the upper-class built with only the finest materials for multiple stories. Plastic sheets still cover the newly installed imported tile kitchen floors and marble counter-tops. Each bedroom has a private seating bay window, walk-in closet and bathroom. Cedar floors throughout make it smell of fresh spice. Working within this neighborhood I see all that I have never attained for myself, comfort being the most apparent. Coming off a nervous breakdown isn’t the most comforting of experiences. Today I want to keep my head down, shovel debris and sweep the unfinished floors. I don’t want to talk to anybody, but Gina is quite the chatterbox. When I speak I fear all my shame will fall out in between my teeth, my tongue incapable of preventing it.

The hardened concrete sends out echoes from under the broom bristles in a disagreeing, repetitive, scratching noise. Plywood, electrical wiring, exposed framing and insulation speckle the subdivision. Sweeping up the debris after the new construction can be a daunting task. This dust is the gray, fine remnants of drywall that manage to escape my best attempts to rally it. I make pass after pass and still I am unsatisfied. Then, Gina gently informs me to slow down and ease up on the perfectionism. After all, if we get all of our work done today then there will be no reason for the foreman to request our crew tomorrow. I didn’t know he could do that. She has a point and I don’t argue.

As we take a break in the back corner of an unfinished home to smoke a cigarette and waste some time Gina gathers all the crew together and reiterates the importance of our work pace. “We all got selected in the order we showed up today. But now that we’re here, the crew chief can request us specifically for tomorrow so we won’t have to wait in the pool again. This job, if we time it right, could take all week.”

And so it did.

I never thought I’d find myself malingering here today, but I have to eat. Pride can empty any stomach. I’ve starved before and have no intention of trying it again. I imagine the feeling remains the same. The agony of it stays with me to this day.

Am I so different from Gina? I fear I may become her; I’ve never been a masculine man. I don’t want her experience. I don’t want this minimum wage life cleaning up before the privileged move into their new gated community. I must have too much pride, still, and this my penance realized.

Gina is quick to share her amusement about the Mexicans working. She calls them ‘scatterbugs’. Whenever immigration service shows up to the site they disappear like magicians. Gina so amuses herself that she can’t keep her chuckles concealed. She tells stories about watching grown men dive into bushes or into the back of flatbed pickup trucks to cover themselves with tarps and two by fours. Others just run. And while I smile along as she tells her stories I can’t help but relate to them on some level.

These are everyday men and women who are just trying to feed their families. Their goal here today is no different than mine. If my family appears on the job site I might find myself in some obscure nook trying to prevent discovery. I know this shame is not justified. I know that I should be proud of the fact that I take care of my responsibilities and feed myself. I can’t see the shame in that, yet I can’t help but feel the shame in that. At least I’m not running from immigration services, too. I wonder if the stock broker moving in next month feels the same way? After all, all this work is for him. We eat today because he decided to buy a sparkling new home. That’s opportunity cost and that’s capitalism. That’s the system. It’s as simple as that.

I tried and the system ate me up. Now look at me. Stupid enough to try again. It takes more than hunger to make it in this life. While others strive, some skate on by. It’s a bullshit system rigged for the rich, yet dumbed downed so the “educated” can waste their energies pursuing their pop culture civil agendas. They don’t see the prize is a dollar sign, not a protest sign. The honest workers carry the burdens of the rich floating heads because they fall for it. Does that make it their fault? I was an economist and I’d rather push this broom than try to weasel through any more of their secret funckin’ handshakes. The blackmarket isn’t any better. My fingers don’t bend in enough intricate designs to get my beat in for gang money either. One hand greases the other and I’m sick of the sludge. I’d rather breathe in this gray dust. Maybe I shouldn’t even bother with that anymore since I cannot catch mesothelioma. Pity. I would go that way. I’m not picky. I fantasize about cement trucks with their rolling bellies running me down at high speeds. That would do it.

Upon returning to the warehouse we receive our checks. I am, again, designated to take the majority of our crew to the check cashing establishment literally across a set of railroad tracks. It’s not too far from where the job pool headquarters is located. Even in this microcosm almost everyone gets their cut. No one chips in for gas.

Gina has taken a liking to me and tells everyone in the car to look out for me. Sometimes people are robbed as they exit the building with their cash. It’s emasculating, but I haven’t the energy left for a fight anyhow. I have my reservations about trusting her intentions, but what choice do I have? I am in the same boat as my new found day labor buddies. But they did keep an eye out for me, the only white boy in sight without tracks or tats to cover them. Once we all have our cash, two of my passengers say their goodbyes and head across the street to the liquor store. Gina offers to hook me up with some weed to take her home. I have a feeling the quality will be less than I’m accustomed to, but we smoke a pinner on the way and I drop her off at her place. My body slumps in the worn driver’s seat on the ride back to my trailer. I had it all and then I lost it. I lost my mind. I lost my friends. I lost hope and hate the word.

All I know for sure is that I can’t show up for another week of day labor. I think there’s only one true solution to my problems: I have to join the Army. I’m half crazy but they won’t even notice at the recruiting station. There are two wars on and they need another warm body for now. People are coming home every day in body bags or wooden coffins covered by American flags, still concealed from the lenses of an inquiring press corps. I cannot bring myself to kill this body, but I can certainly live just long enough to earn my plywood and flag. At least there is a ring of Honor in that. I tried to join the day after dropping Gina off.

I thought I would show up and then ship out. To my dismay, it’s quite the process. There’s aptitude testing, medical testing and fitness testing. I had to choose a job. I could have been an officer with my advanced degree, but that would leave me insulated. What is the most likely job to get me killed? The answer is easy. I am a male and want to be at the frontline. I join the infantry and after basic training I get assigned to a special operations unit. I ship out in May.

I don’t expect anyone will ever understand. I am too ashamed to work at the day labor pool. Who do I think I am? I am too cowardly to end my life on my own so I decide to attempt suicide by enemy fire. I am no hero. I can’t even call myself a mercenary. I am completely selfish. I don’t believe in anything.

I guess all I can hope for is a rouge grenade to pounce upon. Otherwise, I will stick it out. As twisted as my reasons are for joining the Army, the structure actually brings me some unexpected peace. Not the most inspiring story I realize, but the longer I stay in the Army the more I realize that stable and balanced are rare characteristics, particularly among Soldiers. After all, we’re trained killers or willing, able, locked and loaded.

Maybe it’s best to just keep the truth to myself. I’ve never claimed to be a patriot. This realization is my most striking, yet not the most grotesque. Unlike day labor, I finally made it onto a skilled crew.

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Jenn Whittaker

I am an author dedicated to fiction, creative nonfiction, screenwriting, and reviews.

2 thoughts on “Day Labor (creative nonfiction)”

  1. Sorry to dump on you, but your (well written) story hit home. I’m recently unemployed after a breakdown of my own. I’m working part time at a good wage but not enough to support my family… living on savings. Currently I’m reading the book my brother published 18 months ago but I haven’t read yet because the subject matter–depression and hitting bottom–were bound to upset me. Now as I read his book, I’m left feeling agitated (and upset). Your story reminds me that I have much farther to fall which is comforting and cautionary at the same time. I’m surprised you have so few followers. WordPress is filled with so much garbage about the minutia of people’s lives. Careful writing is rare here. Glad I found your blog.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for sharing a piece of yourself with me regarding the underlying issues of the story. It’s brave to talk about it and that in itself may help you from sinking. All I know is that you have to keep your chin up and keep on fighting for your life. Best wishes! You’ll be in my thoughts.

      Liked by 1 person

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