Grey Days

It was cold and raining in early January when I started this post, but something held me back from finishing it. Thoughts swirled around in my head, one leading to another, and another, and then one or two more after that. The subject matter before me ran the gamut from working in foul weather to teamwork, morality, privilege, Martin Luther King, Jr., Black History Month, and the Winter Olympics.

Author Tim O’Brien describes the act of remembering, and writing about it, like this: “…the thing about remembering is that you don’t forget. You take your material where you find it, which is in your life, at the intersection of past and present. The memory-traffic feeds into a rotary up on your head, where it goes in circles for a while, then pretty soon imagination flows in and the traffic merges and shoots off down a thousand different streets. As a writer, all you can do is pick a street and go for the ride, putting things down as they come at you. That’s the real obsession. All those stories.”

My rotary is definitely full of memory-traffic and the centrifugal force is taking us on a ride down a street that will ultimately weave the aforementioned subjects together into a personal tale of experience and hope.

One morning, after the first of this year, I awoke to sound of rain outside our bedroom window. I did not feel guilty that I didn’t have to go to work that day; however I did feel sorry for my former co-workers who had to man-up and go into the Electric Shop for who-knows-what in the wet weather.

I am grateful that there are people like that in society; people who go to work in all kinds of weather, 24/7/365, so that the rest of us can carry on our lives.

I have been rained on at work from coast to coast. From Fort Lauderdale to San Francisco and in the Rocky Mountains, in between. If there is one fact that I’m certain of it is that if you work outside in the rain you will get wet at some point, no matter what precautions you take to stay dry.

My theory is that it is a time vs. volume predicament. A person in rain-gear can stay out in a light rain for a long period of time before the inevitable trickles of water start to work their way under the protective clothing and begin to dampen the clothes and skin below. Likewise, someone properly geared up can be in a pouring rain for a short period of time before the water breeches the flaps, snaps, zippers, and seams of the best rain-gear. At that point, one again, water starts soaking through layers of clothing all the way down to the socks and boots.

To sum it up, if you work outside in the rain you WILL get wet at some point.

Acceptance is the key.

That, and patience.

Lots and lots of patience.

The intersection of this recent weather and memories of my experience working in similar conditions has stirred up a long lost memory from the mid-‘90s. I worked on the 5-acre Yerba Buena Children’s Garden project in San Francisco when it was coming out of the ground. To say that The YBCG “came out of the ground” is a bit misleading. It was built on top of the roof of the Moscone Center South Exhibit Hall.

Located between 3rd & 4th Streets and bordered by Howard Street to the North and Folsom Street to the South, the project encompassed a Children’s Creativity Museum, Learning Garden, and Play Circle. There is also a bowling alley, ice-skating rink, labyrinth, outdoor amphitheater, and a 100-year-old carousel on the site.

It was the start of the rainy season—back when we had rainy seasons—and on my first day at work I felt like I had entered an arctic wasteland. Styrofoam sheets and blocks stacked 8 to10 feet high were banded to wooden palettes and laid out across the job site. Mountains of towering white mini-icebergs formed an ever-changing maze to navigate. More material arrived as fast as the existing stock was installed.

Some of the styrofoam blocks were three-feet thick and would form a vibration/sound-deadening layer between the existing exhibit hall and the new project. Perfectly rectangular gaps in the styrofoam blocks formed a network of footers for the steel rebar of what would soon be structural beams.

The ironworkers were able to do their work first and then the carpenters would come in and block out around the steel. We either ran our conduit on racks bolted to the roof—below the styrofoam—or on top of the first of two layers of rebar in the new floor slab that was on top of the styrofoam base.

My second week on the job coincided with the first significant rain of the year. My foreman, Paul, started my day with an apology of sorts. “I hate to ask you this, but I need to know how you feel about working in the rain?”

“I think that given enough time, or enough rain, I will eventually get wet. How wet I get will depend on how much longer I’m out there after I reach the point of initial contact with the moisture.”

Paul looked puzzled. He was after facts, not theory. “What I mean is, will you work in the rain if that’s what it takes to get the job done?”

“Shit, son, I spent 22 years in South Florida. I know rain. You get some boots and rain gear that fit and I’ll be out there in it doing what needs to get done.”

Yes, I know that it sounds good and manly and all kinds of rah-rah, but sometimes you have to get out in the weather to get things done. There are times that the weather wins and the work stops, but we had not reached that point.

“We have to stop working in the Ice Rink and install conduit in a new section of the Museum. They’re pouring concrete the day after tomorrow, and I have an inspection scheduled for tomorrow afternoon. Can I count on you to see this through with the rest of us?”

“Masochism is a valuable job skill.”
—Chuck Palahnuik

I was flattered. “You betcha, boss.”

“Thanks. That’s what I hoped to hear.”

There were 5 men on the job, including Paul, when I got there. It was a tight group of guys who had worked together in the past and knew each other’s moves. I felt like I had just passed a test and gained  acceptance into the inner circle.

Paul started a list and we all recorded our sizes for boots, rain jackets, and pants. He called it in to the shop and by the time the first rain drops were falling our delivery of rain-gear arrived.

Al’s #1 tip for sizing rain-gear is to get boots that fit, wet or dry. You don’t need to be slogging around in boots that are too big or too tight. If they are too big, socks slide down and blisters will form. Boots that are too tight never loosen up and aching feet are the gift that keeps on giving—not in a good way—long after leaving the job for the day.

Al’s #2 tip for sizing rain-gear is to have a skosh-bit of room in the jackets and pants. Activities such as bending over, kneeling down, and reaching forward require some extra clothing allowance as pants can ride down and jackets and sleeves can bind and shorten up.

Al’s #3 tip for sizing rain-gear is to adjust the aforementioned “skosh-bit of room” to allow for additional layers of warm clothing as Winter progresses. The Jacket that fits in November may be too tight in January when a sweater or vest is layered underneath to combat the cold.

Al’s Corollary to #3 is to take care not to have too much room for movement and layers of clothes. When you don’t layer up, the wind and cold air will rush into the void and fill up the space reserved for additional clothing.

There is something about working in adverse conditions that can be an agent for bringing people together and forming a bond. The 6 of us on the job came together as a team in the weeks that followed and we hit our stride installing pipe and getting inspections.

The economy wasn’t in the best shape at that point and, rain or shine, I was happy to have a job.

A few weeks later rain was once again falling and the work day was less than a half-hour old when one of my fellow workers walked over to me and said, “The boss needs to see you in the shack. Right now.”

“A problem?”

“I dunno. I’m just passing the word to you.”

Dammit! I started weaving a path between styrofoam icebergs, homing in on the location of our job shack. A lady with a clipboard walked out of the shack as I approached. I didn’t know who she was but I had seen her around the job site before, usually going in or out of the General Contractor’s office trailer.

“Pete said that you wanted to see me, boss.”

Paul looked up from the prints spread out on his desk top. “I have a problem.” There was no indication on his face of where this conversation was headed. “I need you to either get a sex change or switch ethnicities.”


“My Minority Ratio is off. I’ve got too many white males for the number of people on the job. The lady that just left here is with the City. She makes the rounds of the contractors and does a head count of everyone on the job. We have to have a certain percentage of minorities, including genders, to stay within the Project’s hiring guidelines with the City and County of San Francisco.”

“Am I getting laid off, boss?”

“No, no, nothing like that. We are going to move you to another job—a nice, dry inside job—and bring someone else here to take your spot.”

I looked at my fearless leader and listened to the sound of the rain as it increased in volume. “I’m the last guy hired and I understand the way the cookie crumbles, but would one of the other guys who have been here longer like to take this opportunity to have a dry spot for the winter?”

“I asked them first and they all want to stick it out here. It’s such a unique job and they’re hoping to make it all the way through to the end.”

“I can’t blame them for that. Thanks for keeping me on and please say, “I’m sorry,” to whoever takes my place.”

“For what it’s worth, you’re a good worker and everybody likes you. Thanks for understanding, I hate to see you go.”

My immediate reaction to this turn of events was one of embarrassment. All that I could see was that a white guy was getting favorable treatment. No, I didn’t ask to be moved. No, I didn’t call in a favor to get out of the crummy weather and into a dry building. Was it White Guilt that was gnawing at me? Could it be the appearance of White Privilege?

It was probably more of the latter, along with a healthy dose of the former.

The only reason that I had a chance to get into the Electrical Trade in 1968 was that the local apprenticeship committee had run out of applicants from the FBI. In this case those initials stand for Fathers, Brothers, In-laws.

Back in the day, Union memberships were closely held among families and known associates. Fathers, brothers, sons, uncles, nephews, sons-in-law, and neighbors were not guaranteed membership but if they had potential, and passed the entrance exams, there was a pretty damn good chance that they could become an apprentice and learn a trade that would last a lifetime.

The year that I applied happened to be the first one to seat two first year classes. The first class was full and the second one needed to fill the last dozen open spots when I applied. It was sheer, blind, dumb luck that I happened along at just the right time.

My new job was located two blocks away from the Yerba Buena project. In fact, I could see my old workplace from my new digs.

There were many stormy days that Winter and I felt sad for the guys I left behind in the cold wet rain, more so for the one who took my place. I was in a nice dry office tower working on tenant improvement work and they were outside in some terrible conditions humping pipe and doing their best to stay ahead of the layers of rebar that the Ironworkers were laying down.

The person who took my place actually came off the job that I was now working on. He was a young African-American first-year apprentice and his education was growing by the day.

So was mine.

That nice, dry job eventually ended and 20 of us were laid-off and sent back to the Union Hall. Over the course of the next year and a half I worked for several different shops and eventually caught a call for my former employer, the electrical contractor on the now almost-complete, Yerba Buena Children’s Garden. My old foreman, Paul, was still in charge and I had a chance to catch up with a few of the co-workers from my previous time on the job.

I talked to several of the guys from my original crew about the young man who took my place. From what they said he was a fine worker and had a good attitude about the situation that the two of us were in. Sometimes following the rules and enforcing them can lead to strange solutions. The Greater Good can sometimes outweigh personal comfort and common sense.

Call it Affirmative Action, Racial Quotas, or Minority Representation, the fact is that I get it. Everyone, regardless of the color of their skin or their gender/sexual orientation, deserves an equal chance to participate in society. I saw enough of discrimination as a child in the South during the ‘50s & ‘60s to last the rest of my life.

“The labor movement was the principle force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress. Out of its bold struggles, economic and self reform gave birth to unemployment insurance, old age pensions, government relief for the destitute, and, above all, new wage levels that meant not mere survival but a tolerable life.” —Martin Luther King Jr.

The 18-month gap between my two times on the job was a real eye-opener. It’s one thing to be installing conduit in what will be a concrete slab for a building. A construction worker can look at a set of prints and visualize what is going to happen and how a structure is going to look when complete, but it is a different experience to walk around that same structure as it is finishing up. I am moved when I see the results of many hands working together. It matters not if it is a 12th century cathedral in Paris, or a 20th century public space in downtown San Francisco.

I lucked out and got put on a crew of guys that was a “fire brigade”. We helped out other crews that needed to meet a deadline, or inspection. For me, work is work and I do believe that what goes around comes around. “Head down, elbows up,” is what a foreman used to tell me when I was an apprentice. “It all pays the same, and all of the work needs to be done.”

Little by little we paid our dues and did what we were asked to do. As a result of our efforts, we got to the point where some good jobs started coming our way. One in particular stands out to me to this day.

There is an ice rink located in the YBCC on the Folsom Street side of the project. It was about 98% complete and waiting on a delivery of Life Safety speaker/strobe lights to arrive and get installed so that the Fire Marshall and the Electrical Inspector could sign off on the Building Inspection.

When the equipment finally arrived, I got the job to remove the temporary speakers and install the correct devices. I was in heaven for two reasons: the temperature inside the ice rink was so much cooler than outside, and they had some nice music playing on the public address system.

I had a six-foot ladder and a little push cart that was big enough to store all of the speaker/strobes, various connectors and screws, plus my hand tools.

Life was good.

Out on the ice there were a few kids skating laps alongside the perimeter wall of the rink and out in the middle a young woman was coaching a pre-teen girl who was leaping and spinning across the ice. The music on the loudspeakers began stopping and replaying the same short passage over and over again. I looked over my shoulder and watched the dynamic between teacher and student. The patience exhibited by each of them was a testament to the trust and strength of their relationship.

Again, and again, the young student worked on a spinning jump move that she landed on one foot. Again, and again, the teacher helped her improve her body posture and the mechanics of her movement. Over and over again, the music would start and stop, start and stop, playing the same fifteen second musical passage. I tuned out the repetitive musical segments and continued installing devices. The more I concentrated on what I was doing, the less I heard the background noise.

The next time that I paid attention to the music I heard a much different tune. It was a deep resonate score with drums, violins and horns. I turned to look at the ice and a man spun past me from right to left. This guy was flying through the air, spinning around and he was eye-level with me as I sat on top of a six-foot ladder.

He landed his jump and skated off in a series of serpentine moves, gliding across the ice like he was flying just above the surface. I had never seen anything like it before except on television. This guy was good enough for ABC’s Wide World of Sports and he, too, had a coach with him on the ice. I caught short glimpses of his routine as I finished installing the last of my speaker/strobes.

When I got ready to leave the Ice Rink I stopped by to see the manager, John. We had a friendly working relationship and I let him know that the fire alarm system was ready for us to test the next day and then have it inspected and signed off by the City.

John said, “So, what do you think of the place?”

“Nice. It is a very nice facility and I love the temperature in here.”

“Yeah, it’s comfortable for me, too.”

I turned to leave and stopped. “I don’t know anything about ice skating, but that guy out there looks pretty damn talented to me.”

“Which guy?”

I turned and pointed, “Him. The guy in the leotards, with the sleeves cut off his sweatshirt.”

John burst out laughing. “You don’t know who that is?”

“No. He’s just some guy to me. A good skater for sure.”

“Does the name Brian Boitano ring a bell for you?”

“The Olympic Gold Medal guy?”

“And now, United States Figure Skating Hall of Fame member?”

“THAT guy?”

“That guy.”

“Wow. When you’re good, you’re good.”

The 2018 Winter Olympics are winding down and so is this post but not without tying up one loose end: the whereabouts of the young man who replaced me at the beginning of my job at the YBCG.

A few weeks after my encounter with Brian Boitano, the work on the YBCG slowed down and I got moved to another job site that was starting up. I got tooled up with another Journeyman who was out of Albuquerque, NM and by the end of the week I had an apprentice assigned to work with me.

Mike was a personable young African-American man in his third year of apprenticeship. We hit it off and had a good time working together. I have always enjoyed working with apprentices. They kept me young and up-to-date on the latest news in the industry and the local grapevine.

Lunchtime on our second day together found us playing the where-have-you-worked-and-who-do-we-both-know game. It turned out that Mike was the person who replaced me a few years before at the Children’s Garden.

I explained to him how badly I felt over the fact that he had to leave a nice dry job and go work in the rain while I got to go inside and stay dry for the winter.  I also told him about how I felt a sense of guilt about White Privilege, about getting the better end of the deal. We made it possible to meet a quota and balance some numbers on a form that neither one of us would ever see.

As is often the case, wisdom comes from the young among us. Mike’s attitude about the incident was that, as an apprentice, he had no say in what happened as far as where, or with whom, he worked. He understood the dilemma we were in and the seeming senselessness of the solution. He used it as a learning opportunity; an opportunity to be a part of a job from it’s very start, fair weather or foul.

I felt much better about what happened to us after talking it over with Mike and he seemed to feel the same way. The lesson that I learned was that the White Guilt that I felt had more to do with how I thought I was perceived by others. On the one hand I understood the problem and on the other hand I felt like I was the face of the problem, the reason that it was necessary to have quotas to begin with.

The events of the past year in Charlottesville and elsewhere have unsettled me and stirred up old memories. It is my fervent belief that we have two hands for a reason. We can reach out for help with one hand and reach back to help the next person with the other.

None of us gets out of this life alive, so we might as well learn to live together.

“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” —Rumi



  2 comments for “Grey Days

  1. Mike Cornelius
    February 25, 2018 at 7:00 PM

    A very personal and very, very thoughtful post, Allan. I share the sentiment of your concluding words, though I do wonder if in these intensely divided times in our country it is attainable. The derision directed at Lindsey Vonn by Trump supporters when she failed to win gold comes immediately to mind, and I’m sure I wouldn’t have to think long to come up with an equivalent example from the other side. But we can still hope. Thanks again, M-

    Liked by 1 person

    • February 26, 2018 at 7:18 AM

      Thanks for your comment, Mike. We are all examples, good or bad, in life. My hope is that the good outweighs the bad.


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