A man's toil, a boy's ambiguity

Published September 17, 2006

We sit in the predawn limbo of the day labor office in Tampa, a poor man's mass seated on plastic school chairs, waiting for the salvation of a day's pay. Those of us blessed with work boots and identification have the chance to redeem ourselves through sober sweat and toil; those turned away are faced with another day of idleness, their orbits arcing that much closer toward oblivion.

My brethren are like me - in the slough of life. The office is a showcase of the sordid denizens of N Nebraska Avenue: winos, drifters, parolees, violators . . . the indigent, the abject, the slow, the dim, the out-of-luck, the unlucky, the reprobates and the just plain malcontent.

The clerk behind the glass window calls my name and asks if I'll take a job. Of course I will. He asks if I have a car. Again, yes. I am paid another 50 cents per hour to bring part of the crew.

They assemble in the parking lot and I point them toward my old tangerine Buick. The men are older, larger, tougher and more alert than I am. As we drive to the work site they are silent and polite, and ask only to have one last smoke before we arrive.

We're hired to lay sod on the embankment of Memorial Highway. I see the contractor's truck and pull off the road. We're instructed to wait for the sod to arrive. Some of the men lean against the car or squat on the ground as the dawn emerges from the horizon.

A flatbed truck rolls in, laden with pallets of grass.

The job is simple: Take the sod from the flatbed and place it on the bare ground. We form a line and march like ants to and from the truck, throwing down sod in patchwork squares on the dusty earth. People drive by, oblivious to us, inside their air-conditioned cars, shielded from the August heat. The carpet of turf is a yard long and weighs nearly 20 pounds; the other men haul four at a time as casually as piles of folded laundry as I struggle with four, then three, and later only two. All the while the roots underneath scratch and crosscut my arms and flies drink from my blackened, sweating pores.

If this is the kind of work underprivileged men sneak into our country for, then I say let them have it.

The foreman, ensconced in the truck cab, missed his calling as a chain gang leader. He watches, yells and scoffs at us, threatening termination or the withholding of pay. The distance between trips becomes greater as we work our way out from the truck. There is no incentive for efficiency - the only reward is the cold water from the cooler on the flatbed that I gulp on every return.

I must kill the thoughts that inhabit my mind: my self-recrimination for being young, poor and without prospects, and the torture of looking at my watch, which never seems to move.

Give a mule a feedbag and it'll plow a field all day. Our carrots at the end of the stick are a couple of quarts of beer and some fast food. Many of the men will drink their $30 away inside some nameless blockhouse bar along the avenue, inevitably next to a pawnshop or self-storage warehouse. No matter what, the eight hours of minimum wages, minus taxes, minus check cashing fees, can't last long. The only ones who make out on the job are the contractor, who bills the state, and the labor pool, which bills the contractor. Someone always skims the equivalent of what the laborer is ultimately paid. A man's sweat is one of a job's highest costs, but it also wields the highest profit margin.

We're given a half-hour lunch break, and at the Circle K across the highway I try not to spend more than an hour's pay. I'd skip lunch altogether, but my body needs the energy. I eat a couple of hot dogs and a soda on the curb, ignoring the grit from my hands that comes with each bite. With a few minutes left before work resumes, I open the doors of the Buick and sit inside, eyes closed.

I'm told that even purgatory can end, and, at 3 p.m., so does our workday. The crew prefers the open air of the contractor's truck, so I ride back with a lone journeyman for a passenger. The carpenter is tanned and weathered, with brown hair to his shoulders and piercing blue eyes. He is the icon of prayer candles and velvet paintings, and as my co-pilot he shows me where to cash my check.

At the Winn-Dixie on Fowler Avenue, we get our money and part ways. The heat sinks into a low-pressure calm. I go to my apartment a few blocks away and sit in my bedroom, barren except for a mattress on the floor and a telephone. Too tired to think, too tired of thinking, I stare out onto the street for minutes, for an hour.

The sunshine dilutes into a mass of dingy gray clouds and a thunderclap sends down a rainstorm that sounds off the rooftops like snare drum beats. I am excited at first by the prospect of washing myself clean in the summer rains, but underneath those soiled and sooty clothes sits a boy unconvinced that a better destiny awaits.

Brian Christian is a frequent contributor to Sunday Journal.