I set the pneumatic nail gun on the ground next to the trestle I was working on, removed my ear plugs and followed the yellow air hoses back to the two sided plywood barrier I had constructed to mask some of the noise from the compressor. There were two men standing behind the barrier.
One of them was dressed in duct brown colored Carhart carpenter jeans and a worn wool sweater with a lot of holes in it. The other guy was wearing Leviís and a flannel shirt, and he was sipping out of a paper cup full of coffee.
"I hope you donít mind us unplugging your compressor kid, but itís against union rules to work through lunch break," Flannel Shirt said, pouring a little of the coffee out on the dust-covered concrete.
I glanced down at my watch and tried to act surprised. "I must have lost track of the time."
The two looked at each other. "Letís see it lad," Sweater said, his Irish accent tinged with impatience.
"See what?" I asked.
Flannel shirt looked at me with a patience that I knew was feigned. "Youíre a little young so Iím giving your ignorance the benefit of the doubt. You donít work on this site without a union card. Period. Now Iíd like you to reach into your wallet and produce one or turn around and walk out of here."
Phil had warned me that something like this might happen and he had instructed me what to do.
"I just started this week, and my card didnít come through yet. Why donít you come back in a few minutes when my foreman Phil comes back from lunch? Heíll straighten everything out."
"Your foremanís at lunch lad? How would you know that, being that you lost track of time and all that," Sweater said. He stepped so close to me that I could smell the Guinness that had comprised his lunch on his breath.
Flannel placed his coffee on the generator, pulled a knife from his back right pocket, unfolded it, and grabbed a length of hose in his hand, slicing through it with an ease that implied the knife had Ginsu written on the blade somewhere. "Listen up scab, do you know anything about the history of the American labor movement?"
"Not really," I said, trying to maintain eye contact with Sweater.
"Neither do we. We donít care much about history as a matter of fact. And if you and your crew donít get off this job site youíre not going to have a history." Flannel folded his knife and put it back in his pocket.
They started to leave right as Logan turned the corner with our lunch in two paper bags he had picked up from the deli. He looked from me to them, an expression somewhere between fear and surprise on his face.
"I have two questions for you errand boy," Flannel said. "Are you Phil? And do you have your Union Card?"
Phil must have been right behind him because he walked into the light thrown out by the halogen lamps a few seconds after Logan. "Iím Phil," he said, "and if you have a problem you can file a grievance."
Phil Groendyke had blond hair that kinked out at odd angles and blue eyes that looked like current was flowing though them. I always thought he looked like he had his finger permanently inserted into a 120 volt electrical outlet. He was sipping from a steaming cup of coffee he had purchased around the corner at Starbucks.
"Weíre not the type to file a grievance," Flannel said
"I guess the paperwork involved would be a little difficult for you two, with your brains being in the atrophied condition that theyíre in," Phil said.
Flannel and Sweater looked at each other uncertainly, no doubt wondering at the linguist roots of the word atrophy.
Flannel shook his head before he steeped into Philís face. "You guyís donít seem to understand. This is a Union job. No card, no work." He placed his finger on Philís chest, big mistake. Phil threw the coffee in his face and kicked him in the stomach, only getting in a glancing blow as Flannel reeled back clutching his scalded skin.
Sweater started towards Phil, but I tripped him up before he took two steps. Phil smiled at me as he was kicking Sweaterís prone form repeatedly. I kept an eye on Flannel as he sat on a spakle bucket, pouring ice water from our cooler onto his burned face.
Phil stopped kicking Sweater the moment he started to break a sweat, hauled him off his feet and dragged him towards the entrance to the construction site. I grabbed Flannel gently by the elbow and followed them. Phil put his arm around me as we walked back to the compressor. "You did good kid, real good." He picked the empty Starbucks cup off the ground and looked at it in mourning. "That damned cup of coffee cost me five bucks."
The loading dock door opened up a few minutes later, and Mike, the owner of whatever our company was named that week, backed a twenty-four foot rental box truck into the loading dock. I had been working for him for nearly three months and his company had gone through two name changes in that time. I was a little surprised that Mike had rented a truck today. We used them occasionally when we had a large amount of junk to get rid of and he had spotted an empty, unsupervised dumpster not too far from the job site we were working on; but the job we were doing --assembling trestles that would be hauled up by crane to the top of some apartment buildings-- didnít produce that much wasted material. I thought he could handle it with one load in his company van.
It was just after our lunch break and I walked over to the compressor and was about to fire it up. Phil paused by me as he and Logan made their way towards Mike, who was unloading some tools out of the back of the truck. "Why donít you take an extended break kid, itís been a tough day."
Logan looked like he was about to throw up when he passed me.
I took a seat on a spakle bucket and pretended like I was reading my newspaper as I watched Phil and Logan talk to Mike at the back of the truck. At one point they all looked over at me. I didnít even bother to act like I was reading at that point.
Logan walked towards me, picked his tool belt off the ground and placed it around his shoulder. "Mike wants to talk to you kid. Iíd think about getting another job if I was you. I think this one just fell out of OSHAís jurisdiction." He walked out of the entrance.
"Phil tells me you did good with those Union goons," Mike said, appraising me.
"I guess so," I said.
"Theyíre going to be back you know."
"Are you scared?" Mike asked.
"A little," I said.
"Good. I donít think theyíll be back before tomorrow, we should be done by then."
I looked around at the pile of greenish tinged pressure treated lumber and the rolls of nails coiled and ready for the gun. "We have to build what, nearly fifty of those trestles? I donít think weíre going to be done in a week."
"Those goons scared Logan off and we need a third guy. Howíd you like to work a little overtime tonight? I can guarantee youíll make more than time and half," Mike said. I had a feeling they werenít talking about the construction job.
They must have seen my eyes turn into dollar signs because they both laughed before I could accept their offer. "Greedy and just a little scared. I think youíre going to do well working with us," Mike said. "Take the rest of these jackhammers off the truck and carry them over to the compressor. Me and Phil have a couple of things to discuss." I carted the jackhammers one by one, wondering at their necessity in the construction of wooden framed trestles.
We were working a rush job for a huge developer. They generally used union contractors, but there were some jobs that fell through the cracks, or were not clearly under the jurisdiction of one union, such as the punch list. After each apartment was completed a representative from the developers would walk through and make a list of anything that had been forgotten. They would give us the list and we would go over it, fixing anything that was left undone or didnít meet the developerís standards. The Unions didnít mind letting us do such small projects. In fact it saved them some work. Technically they were responsible for the finished job, and they could move onto the next big job without messing with the small stuff. The developers wanted the apartments occupied as quickly as possible, so they hired Mike to make this happen.
Occasionally a rush job came up, and the developers --instead of taking months to draw up a contract and work out details with the union contractors-- would call my boss and heíd get things done quickly, and discretely.
Van sized air conditioning and heating units lined the roofs of the apartment buildings, generating noise and heat. An overzealous and idealistic young building inspector had refused a bribe and threatened to close the job site down if the required trestles were not installed around the units in two weeks. The Union Contractor spent the first week negotiating a price. Mike pulled us off the punch list the first day of the second week and set us up in the cavernous first floor of one of the apartment buildings.
The apartments were almost complete, but construction had been halted on the first floor of the building we were working in. It was supposed to have been a post office, but they had budget problems and the hammers had stopped swinging right after the eagle logo had been installed over the entrance on 66íth Street on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. There was a trendy new shoe store about to open up next to the Post Office, and most of the rest of the storefronts were occupied or leased out and under construction.
The developer thought he could hide us here, and planned to call the crane in to boost the trestles up on the roof after we had assembled all fifty of them.
I wouldnít have heard the union guys return if I hadnít removed one of the ear-plugs so I could scratch an itch. I was just about to put it back in when I heard a sound like someone dropping a cement bag on the floor followed by a grunt of pain.
I walked to the other side of the job site, where Phil and Mike had been going over some blueprints. Two tough looking union guys held Mike between them, a third one was punching him in the stomach. Phil sat on a spakle bucket, looking unconcerned as he waited his turn, two guys looking down at him sternly.
I returned to the compressor and waited for itís natural cycle to kick back in as the pressure died down in the nail gun. As soon as it started on again, I turned it to itís highest setting. I opened up the gun and replaced the half empty clip with a full one and placed two additional clips in the tool pouch attached to my waist.
I snuck back to the area where the guys had Phil and Mike and hid behind a pile of sheet rock. I removed my hammer from itís loop at my belt and hurled it overhead, into the darkness across from me. The union guys looked over at the metallic sound of the hammer hitting a beam in the darkness.
I targeted the guy who had been punching Mike and squeezed off about ten rounds as fast as I could. I aimed for his body, and the impact of the nails sent him off balance. He fell into the blueprint table, scattering papers and nails onto the floor.
I swung the gun to one of the guys looking down at Phil and squeezed off a couple rounds at him. The impact threw him back several feet, and I saw blood on his hands when he examined his wounds. I ducked back behind the sheet rock and threw my crow bar over their heads in the general direction where I had thrown the hammer and heard it land on the concrete.
By the time I looked back at the scene the union guys were running towards the entrance, one of them supporting the first guy I had hit with the nail gun.
Phil smiled at me. "Iím glad those guys have good benefits. It looks like theyíre going to need them."
Mike was on his knees, throwing up on the floor. Phil and I stood over him until he had recovered. He stood up and looked at his watch. "I wanted to do this later but we canít risk those guys coming back. Grab all of our tools and put them into the gang box kid. Then wheel it onto the loading dock, weíll put it on last. When youíre done grab a jackhammer and give me and Phil a hand."
The jackhammers kept up a steady racket as I did as instructed.
Although the insurance investigator was a young man, probably just a couple of years older than me, he had been on the job long enough to look at me incredulously after I had confirmed my bosses list of the tools we had stored in the gang box that had been stolen out of the Post Office.
"Laser levels, diamond tipped drill bits, titanium reinforced saw blades, generators; what were you guys building in there, a Space Shuttle?" he said. He looked closer at the list. "Every person in your company has their own lap tap computer, and they were all stored in the gang box?"
"We used to have them before they were stolen from us. You have to go modern to stay competitive these days," I said.
I could see Phil holding back a smile sitting in the chair next to me. We were both dressed in worn suits that we probably only wore once a year or so to weddings and funerals and we had both been a little nervous, neither of us having spent much time in an office during the course of our work lives.
The investigator looked down at my feet. "Those are nice shoes you got there. I priced a pair just like them a couple of weeks ago. They cost something like five hundred dollars, a little expensive on my salary, but I guess construction is paying pretty good these days."
I looked over at Philís shoes; a different model but equally expensive. I had to agree with him, construction did pay pretty well, even without the prevailing wage provided by an active union.
After we were through cutting a hole in the shoe store wall with the jackhammers, we used handcarts to move the entire inventory into the rental truck. I followed Phil in our company van. We dropped the gang box off at one of our other job sites in the East Village; then we drove through the Holland tunnel to a dark street in Jersey City. Phil parked the truck in the street in front of an abandoned warehouse and joined me in the van, placing a pair of shoeboxes on the bench seat between us.
"I had to estimate your size, but Iím pretty good." He chuckled to himself. "If they donít fit you can always buy a pair with your cut. You did good, real good. You earned your Union Card today kid. Iím going to enjoy working with you on a regular basis."
Pat Lambe tells us: "The first time I heard my native state called New Joisey was by some guy who didn't know the difference between the Dome at Rahway and the Dome of the Rock. I tried to explain it to him, but realized I didn't know the difference myself. The ten people who can handle their r's in the state call it New Jersey. I've lived here most of my life; busted my hump as a restaurant worker, lumber yard dog, truck driver, dispatcher, college scam artist, construction drone etc. I'm currently working as a telephone technician while writing crime stories."
copyright 2004 Patrick J. Lambe