July 22, 2007

“'You know what’d make a great movie…?'”

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Mel was short and leathery and his long beard connected directly with the hair encircling his bald spot as if his head was wreathed in a wiry black bird’s nest. He had ridden a bicycle to the day labor office, so when we were paired up and sent off to a housing development with a couple of shovels, I drove. He had that sort of crisp, stinging smell that you’ll often find on somebody without a home and I was grateful that it was still just cool enough outside that my request to drive with the windows down met with no objection. We arrived at our destination as the sun was still just rising. I’d spent the last month since graduating high school working as an electrician’s assistant and had done my share of digging ditches and hauling away heavy bits of metal, but that work had gotten ensnared in a legal battle and after a few weeks of unemployment and an expensive year of school looming ahead, my father’s exhortation that I get a job had led me to day labor. I figured I could handle labor and I only had another month’s worth of days to do it in.

Once Mel and I arrived, we met up with the foreman in charge of us and he laid out our instructions. We were to go up and down the streets of this larval subdivision and shovel the dirt that the big earth movers had pushed into the gutters back up off the street and into the lots. We got to work, wondering idly if we’d make it around the entire place before our eight hours were up for the day. As we plodded along, scooping up the dirt and squinting away from the rising sun, Mel did his best to make time pass. He told a few colorful stories about the trip to Las Vegas he claimed to have just returned from. His stints as a day laborer apparently supported his embarking on adventures across the southwest. I had begun enjoying myself despite the increasing heat and the disappearance of our cloud cover. We’d cleared a few blocks and seemed to be making decent time when we met our first earth mover. As they graded the ground where a house would be erected sometime in the near future, dirt that we’d just shoveled up was pushed right back into the street. My guts churned in horror as I realized the Sisyphean nature of the task we’d been assigned. Mel just grumbled some swear words and hated the foreman a little more.

It was afternoon, and I knew my liberal application of sunblock had begun to fail me, by the time Mel found out that I was headed off to film school in New York in a month’s time. This led immediately to that statement that few can resist saying after they’ve heard such news.

“You know what’d make a great movie…?”

Except this time it wasn’t followed by an anecdote about something that had happened to a person he knew. Instead he launched into a speech that was something less than a story but was related with intense conviction that he knew exactly how it would work as a movie. It turned out that his ambition was to make a documentary about how aliens had built the pyramids and that there were secret messages embedded in their proportions and the shadows they cast. As my head throbbed and my skin ached from the radiation it was absorbing from the Arizona sun, I began to feel like I was becoming delirious. I reeled, feeling more and more fevered until finally—our eight hours were up! We sought out the foreman and he angrily informed us that he still had us for another two hours. This was the first that Mel or I had heard of a ten hour day, but the foreman assured us that this was what he’d paid for, so we trudged back to our gutters. For one hundred and twenty more minutes, each of them keenly felt, Mel and I shoveled on, chatting about the Bermuda Triangle and watching our progress obliterated behind us as we worked.

contributed by Nathaniel Wharton

1 comment:

Nick said...

I cannot imagine doing this type of labor, especially in the Arizona sun. This reminded me of what it was like to work at a grocery store as a teenager. No matter how fast you worked, no matter how quickly you restocked and reordered the shelves, there would always be someone there to mess it all up. It was a never end battle of product vs. consumer.