They certainly don’t make them like that anymore

16 08 2013

Yesterday I finally got off my butt and picked up a canister in which to store my compost-ables until I could take them to the Grand Army Plaza greenmarket for real composting.

On my way back from the dollar store—yes, I went all out on the container—I stopped momentarily to watch the road construction crew lay down a layer of red concrete. That moment lasted, oh, half-an-hour.

The city and various utilities have been upgrading the lines running under half of Nostrand, then building out pedestrian bulges as they reconstruct the torn-up lanes. During the day, what is normally 2-3 lanes of traffic is funnelled into a single eastside lane, as the lane closest to the western curb is worked on and a middle lane reserved for the construction equipment.

I wasn’t the only one leaning on the fencing, watching some of the men run their brushes and floaters over the concrete, while others shoveled the mix into a trench alongside the old roadway. I waited for the mixer to drop more of the sludge onto the prepared lane, but the only guy who wasn’t wearing the yellow safety vest, after yelling back and forth with a goateed man in, mm, his forties or fifties, sent the mixer away.

A dump truck and an excavator crept in where the mixer had been, and one of the workers directed the excavator driver to deposit dirt from the truck on the far side of lane. The goateed man flung a half-brick with a string tied around across the barrier at the edge of the trench, then, carried that string to the curb, roughing out a height. The dump truck and excavator reversed in tandem down the street, pausing to deposit dirt in the road bed (I’m assuming to create a slight slope down toward the curb). Later guy with a walk-behind compactor came through and tamped down the dirt.

The mixer returned, and as the drum rolled, I recalled a piece I had read somewhere (probably in the New Yorker, probably by John McPhee), on the time constraints on concrete mixing. The aggregate, cement, and water need to mix enough to integrate all of the components, but since it begins to set almost immediately, it needs to be disgorged tout suite (within 90 minutes, according to Wikipedia). It was around lunchtime, but it was clear that as long as the mixer was on the scene, the men would be shoveling, troweling, and smoothing instead of eating.

The drum rolled and rolled, the men standing around, rinsing off boots and equipment, and attaching extenders to the chute. (Given that one man could easily lift the 5-foot or so long chute, it was probably a composite plastic material, or maybe aluminum. Lightweight, in other words.) Then a couple of the guys signaled to the driver, and the red concrete began sliding down the chute. Immediately they began shoveling and troweling and brushing the concrete, and as the compactor finished its last run in the road bed, the mixer slowly moved south, pausing as the men swung the chute in an arc from curb to trench.

That was my cue to leave—I’d said to myself I would stay until the concrete began flowing again—but, honestly, I could hung on that fence and watched these men build that road to the end.

I don’t do physical work now—wielding chalk against a board doesn’t count—but I have in the past. My only summer home from college I got a second shift job at a foundry, working the punch press for lawnmower parts, leak-checking oil pans and oil-pan covers, and running the mill-and-tap machine for Pontiac power-steering plug brackets.

I hated that job, not least because, as a non-union gig, the pay was shit and the safety conditions somewhat less than desirable. That it was second shift also meant that when I was getting out of work all of my first-shift friends were at home in bed; while I got along fine with my co-workers (after a brief period of coolness toward the “college kid”, they allowed me to lunch with them), we didn’t socialize outside of work.

Still, near the end of my time there, I understood something of why, beyond just a paycheck, people might appreciate a job like that. There was a certain rhythm to the work. Here’s where you lined up to punch in, here’s where you lined up to punch out, here’s where you picked up your gloves and here’s where you tossed them. Head nod to these folks, a joke with those, and off to the machines. While I’m not much good with regularity, I got a glimpse of its pleasures, and why some might be reassured rather than boxed in by it.

There was also the pleasure at having a part in making something you can hold in your hand. I milled and tapped hundreds, maybe (tho’ probably not: I wasn’t the fastest on this machine) thousands of Pontiac power-steering plug brackets, with damn near each one of which ended up in a car. It was a thing I worked on, which was now working for someone else.

I like teaching and I’m glad to have a job which requires me to be so much in my head, but as much satisfaction I get from my time in the classroom or with my books, I can’t hold the thing I make in my hand.

When Matt Yglesias wonders why so many people bang on about manufacturing, when he suggests that food service (in which I’ve also put my time) be considered a part of the manufacturing sector, he misses the central point of manufacture: that you end up with a thing you can hold in your hand. Maybe he doesn’t get that, or maybe he doesn’t see why that’s important, but if you’re going to stand on a line year after year after year, the routine itself won’t be enough.

If you’re going to do the job, take pride—such an outdated concept—in the job, it helps to be able to pick a thing up and say, without irony or ideology, “I built that.”

That’s why I and so many of my neighbors were hanging on that fence, watching those men build a road. It was something we could see, something we would walk across or bike or drive on, something which had disappeared, and now, finally, was there.