This is part II of Matt Micheli’s ‘Temping in America’. You can read the first part ‘From Telemarketer to Manual Labourer’ here
I stopped off and looked for the cheapest pair of steel-toed boots I could find and after an almost-scrupulous search, I found some for $34.99. I tried them on. They fit. Done. I spotted a bin of boot socks for $1.99. Done. I did not want to be the reason the workforce didn’t get that hot dog lunch, because of a careless injury I could’ve easily prevented.
I grabbed a Red Bull and Gatorade, entered the jobsite address into my GPS, and I was on my way.
After circling around for about twenty minutes, my GPS sending me to every location except the address I was going to, I called the temp service.
“I can’t find this place.”
They said others were having the same problem and gave me the number to the superintendent. The jobsite was across the street from the Chili’s that I had been driving in front of for too long.
I pulled into the gravel parking lot and got out. There were two skinny black guys—young, late teens or early twenties—standing up at the front of an older Buick with chrome after-market rims. The sun was shining down from a clear sky—not a cloud in sight. There was a very light breeze coming from the north keeping the temperature a comfortable seventy degrees.
“You guys with the temp service?”
“Do we just wait here?” I didn’t know the procedure. This was my first temp job.
One guy did the talking. The other had his head in his phone. Neither seemed too thrilled about being here.
A big four-door Ford diesel truck bulldozed up, grumbling—glug, glug, glug, glug, glug, glug, glug, glug—the gravel stirred up by the tires emitting a white dust cloud. The driver-side window lowered exposing a wiry dilapidated rosy face with red hair and a Yosemite-Sam mustache.
“Y’all ready?” the face asked.
“Sure,” I said, eager to earn some money.
“Yeah,” said the one guy who did the communicating who—so far—only spoke in monosyllable words meaning yes.
“Hop in,” the man in the truck instructed and gestured to the pickup bed.
We jumped in, along with two other Hispanic guys who had just arrived. We all had tattoos, only mine were covered.
The man drove us down a big hill into the heart of the new high-end apartment complex that was right now only three stories high of plywood and two-by-fours. The complex was massive. There were men everywhere hammering, sawing, working.
The truck stopped and we jumped out. Several versions of Tejano music blared from multiple directions. There were whistles. I deduced that whistling was the preferred method of communication at a noisy jobsite and this workforce had created a whole language of whistles with different pitches and intonation. They had progressed beyond the alphabet to improve their efficiency. The driver got out—tall and lanky, wearing wranglers and starched shirt, and those cowboy boots with the tassels over the top that can either be dressy or for work—and addressed us. “Well, the windows aren’t here, yet.” He seemed flustered. “They were supposed to be here at one. Uh…” he surveyed the area contemplating his next statement, spotting something. “Follow me.” He started walking, talking at us along the way. “Until they get here…” We followed him into a soon-to-be garage. There were boards and trash and tar-paper rolls—common evidence of new construction. Some of the boards were splintered. Some had nails that had been hammered over instead of pulled out. The interior walls of the apartment were only two-by-fours not yet covered with sheetrock. You could see through the entire building.
“I’ma get you guys to clear out some space for the windows. Put all the scraps and materials to one side.” He gestured toward the left of the garage.
“You got it.” I said.
“Clean out garages one, two, three, four.” He pointed to each one. “Let me go see where these jack-asses are, stupid mumble mumbles.”
We got the first garage cleared and ready in about five minutes. Everyone pitched in. We made our way to the second one. Me and two of the other guys got at it.
“Man, we paid by the hour. I’ma take my time,” said one of the young guys. Two of them kind of tinkered around, kicking stuff, occasionally picking something up and tossing it to the side, helping… but not really. The other guys worked hard, one of which was overweight and breathing hard, all of us beginning to perspire, using our forearms to wipe the sweat from our brows.
“Dang, dog… this nine dollars an hour shit sucks,” said one of the guys.
“Is that low for a temp service job?” I asked, honestly curious.
“Yeah. They got some factory jobs that pay good—eleven or twelve dollars an hour.”
“Hey,” the heavyset guy interjected. “Did you work over at the DB warehouse?”
“Yeah. I was there.”
“That’s where I know you from.” He said excitedly, walked up to the other guy and they did the man-shake/hug.
“You guys been with the temp service for a while?” I asked.
One said he had been there for six months, the other: three years.
“Wow.” I couldn’t imagine being on an on-call type income permanently. There’s a reason it’s called a “temp” service. But I guess you have to do what you have to do, which sometimes means taking what you can get.
We finished clearing out the second garage and walked up the hill to the third and then the fourth. The windows were still not here.
The reputed superintendent came back over. “Well… those jack-asses are on their way, dumb mumble mumbles.” He instructed us to clear a path for a backhoe on the side of one of the buildings. Neither of the younger dudes did much of anything by now, standing off to the side, smoking cigarettes, while the other three of us completed the task as asked. I figured three of five from a temp service actually working hard was probably a good number.
It had been an hour and now there was nothing to do but wait. The Ford came down the hill, followed by a freightliner. “Red” hurriedly got out and slammed his door shut. He jogged up to the truck driver. We couldn’t hear the conversation but only saw flailing arms and pointing. He jogged from the rig over to us. He pointed at me. “Help back that truck up. Park him right here.”
I did as he instructed. The tight drive area in the complex didn’t make for easy manoeuvring for a truck of that length. The driver had a problem turning around—backing up, pulling forward, cutting the wheel, backing up, pulling forward, repeat, repeat, repeat—each attempt only gaining a few feet of progress.
“What the hell’s going on? These guys can’t drive,” the superintendent proclaimed, talking to someone on his cell phone, standing at his trailer with a peeved look, shaking his head. “Dumb ass mumble mumbles.”
We finally got the truck to the designated area. The driver hopped down and walked to the back, letting out, “These damn complexes aren’t easy.” His face bled irritation. He opened the back revealing an intimidating four-hundred square feet of various sizes of windows.
The superintendent came back over and climbed into the back of the truck. “The windows are numbered. Stack numbers one through four in this garage, numbers five through nine in this one, ten through fourteen in garage three and the rest in four.” He hopped back down. “Well, this is what you’re here for. Get after it.”
I hopped up along with the heavier of the guys. We started handing windows down to the other guys, calling out the numbers. This went on for a while until we offered to switch with the guys on the ground. The boss man was standing off to the side bull-shitting with another employee. There was small laughter. Some of the windows were easy—your little two-by-threes and two-by-fours but some larger ones were a total bitch. After a while, we were all gassed, sweating. The dust stirred by the in-and-out of pickup trucks and the sawdust from continuous sawing of boards adhered to the sweat on our bodies making us feel dry, chalky. I could only imagine what this was doing to our lungs. My forearms were burning. I placed my hands atop my knees and tried to catch my breath. I was thirsty. I’m sure we all were.
I walked over to the two guys carrying on—the closer I got the clearer their conversation became, both laughing about how people can’t do nothin’ right. “Sir, can we get some water?”
“Oh, sure. Let me a… I’ll call some down for y’all.” He dialed someone and asked the other end to bring down some water bottles. “The temp service is supposed to provide you with water.” He shook his head in disappointment before muttering, “Dumb sumbitches.”
The water arrived via a golf cart speeding down the hill. We all drank a bottle and leaned up against whatever we could to stay standing. Exhausted isn’t nearly a strong enough word.
After our short break, the inevitable came. There were more windows—half a truck’s worth—that needed unloading. We got back at it. Looking at the stacks of windows that were becoming heavier by the minute, I couldn’t help but feeling that the windows themselves were mocking us, sitting there with that smug look on their glass panel faces.
We worked and worked, everyone contributing, having delusions of an empty desert with circling buzzards overhead, heat waves blurring the distance. By now, the rest of my body had caught up with my stinging forearms but the end was near. We could see the end of the truck and the few remaining stacks.
The wiry rosy-faced man hastily came back over. We were told to pull the truck to another location and instructed where to put the remaining windows.
“Back him up,” his inflection conveyed a constant agitation.
As the big-rig pulled forward preparing to back in, a pickup truck sped down the hill and pulled in front and around the truck, parking where we were trying to park. The superintendent rushed over. “What the hell are you doing, goddamn it?” Get your ass out of here!” His arms thrashing about. “Can’t you see not to park there? Get the hell outta there!” His rosy face had turned to a fiery red, matching his mustache and hair. “Andale! Andale! Goddamn it!” The guy in the truck finally pulled away.
There was a consensus with all of us temp workers, beaten and bushed: this sucked. Actually, this sucked worse than any work I had ever done and we were only getting paid nine-dollars an hour. So for only four exhausting hours of intensive hard labor, we were going to make a whopping thirty-six dollars. Fuck.