I worked construction to pay my way through depression. It was August of 1977, picture this: my mother had already died of breast cancer at the age of 52, my sister had just died of cervical cancer at the age of 30—a victim of the drugs her mother had taken to avoid miscarriage—and my wife had left me at the age, also mine, of 27.
I was done with the course work for a PhD in History, so there was nothing left between me and the degree except the mental labor I didn’t want to do, like, write the dissertation. I had already passed “the comps,” one of the ornate rituals that graduate education imposes on every supplicant, even today—a written and then oral exam, testing your knowledge of, well, of everything, including your knowledge of the examiners. And yeah, I had a huge cardboard box of notes on the dissertation topic.
Full speed ahead, what’s the big deal? Well, my wife had left me. Not just my mother and my sister, the significant females of my life now gone without volition, but her, too, the wife. the one I had chosen to stand in for the others. Abandonment is the primal fear of all human beings. No one can be a motherless child.
The marriage was doomed, anyway. It was a shotgun wedding in reverse—I married her out of guilt, she married me out of shame (the perfect match!). What bound us to each other was the knowledge, not the physical actuality, of the bastard son we had conceived and given up for adoption in 1968 (yeah, he’d be 50 years old by now). We, she and I, had nothing else in common, except a love of Broadway musicals. He—the little bastard—has always haunted me, and no, not and we have pointless conversations. Like this.
“Dad, what are you doing?”
“I’m not your father. Right now I’m thinking.”
“You are my father, and I’m thinking about you. Actually, I’m worried about you. Can’t you lay off the booze for a while, I mean, like, for a week or something?”
“No, that’s not gonna happen. What else do you want?”
“I don’t want anything.”
“That’s what dead people say, or live Buddhists. Leave me alone.”
But look, all marriages were doomed in those days. Women were finding that their ambitions couldn’t be contained within monogamous partnerships and men were finding that the so-called sexual revolution could be a pick-up line. In my circle of friends, only one couple survived the 70s.
So there I was, a single, hapless graduate student, wondering how I’d get through, asking why I wanted to finish in the middle of nowhere, in DeKalb, Illinois, home of Northern Illinois University. My friend Bob, a fellow grad student who drove a Pontiac so out-sized we called it The Boat, made the difference—he said, “You want a job?”
The job was hod carrier, working for Mike Long the masonry contractor who paid $9.33 an hour. Laborer, in other words. You pour concrete by the acre, you mix mortar, you lift brick and block, you carry these heavy items to the masons, the bricklayers, the incredibly skilled men who build those walls you take for granted, brick by brick. And then you drink with them. Before that, you learn to let the outside go first—if you have to drop something, make sure that what you’re carrying in the other hand pulls you onto the Morgan scaffold (the kind you ratchet up with foot pedals). Otherwise you die.
They called Bob “Doc,” they called me “The Student Prince,” just like John Phillips had, “they” meaning the bricklayers who were the core of the crew. One Friday Mike says to me, as he hands out the checks, “You gotta be careful. You’re not careful, and you’re a college boy. You gotta be careful.” This from the guy who, later that night, put a man my size through the drywall in the men’ s room of The Shamrock, the bar we shared, “we” meaning us effete students and the construction workers we were, too.
I’m not exaggerating. I’m taking a piss and suddenly these two huge objects move through my peripheral vision, breaking down the wall just to my right. I’m zipping up, I say, “Jesus, Mike, what the fuck was that about?” He’s heaving and sweating, hands on his knees, got a lot on his mind, he’s the boss, after all. I look over at the unconscious guy encased in the drywall—he looks like a Renaissance fresco so he’s got me thinking—and then Mike says, “Get the fuck out of my way.” I was between him and the urinal.
Now the bricklayers I usually worked with, Donnie and Junie, looked down on the guy everybody called The Fireman, because he was only a part-time mason, and a lousy one at that. He had another paying job as a fireman in Sycamore, Illinois, just north of DeKalb. Nobody knew what his given name was. Nobody ever asked. His nickname announced that he was an outsider and an inferior, just as “Doc” and “Student Prince” announced that us college boys were tourists on the scaffold, just passing through. Everybody else had a real name.
Donnie and Junie were Mike’s most valuable assets—the best bricklayers in the county. They were also legendary drunkards, and they believed in a strong correlation between these different reputations. They could finish off four beers and a couple of shots in five minutes at the bowling alley next door to the site we were building that summer, where I would later become a bartender because Jimmy Brennan said so: hire this guy or he dies, that was the pitch. The owner said OK.
Junie sniffed around me every morning like some kind of affectionate primate, and pronounced on what I had eaten and drunk the night before. “Lot of garlic there,” he’d say, “and a lot of beer, that shit’s oozing out of you, why don’t you try vodka? No whiskey, clear liquids only.” Or, “What is that, potato salad? I can smell the celery! You don’t spend enough time outdoors, you’re going on picnics now?”
And then he’d measure, ounce for ounce, what he drank the night before, a list—no, a litany—of shots and beers in the shower, wine at dinner, then a nightcap.
You might think this recitation would become boring or irritating at 7:30 AM every day, but I found it fascinating, because Junie was obviously in love with something that wasn’t an alcoholic stupor. He wasn’t addicted, he was besotted. He loved the idea of being drunk, being something beside himself, outside himself, like an opium eater from another century. Junie taught me to get used to this self, the one in flight from everyday life, and to ask not why but how I wanted out of the life I lived, how to become something I wasn’t—a student prince.
Mike Long was 5 foot 10 inches, and weighed about 280 pounds. He wasn’t fat. He was light on his feet, in fact, always moving quickly to the eye of the storm he had created with his own commands. “Nice day to work,” he’d say when the weather was good. I hated him for that.
“Everybody who works for me, get the fuck over here and make this happen,” he’d say at the end of our morning break (no afternoon break on this job), and he said it with glee on the days we poured concrete when it was 97 degrees. I lost eleven pounds one day building a silo pad out there on the farmer’s last frontier, all water weight (my ex-wife had left the bathroom scale behind). I know, that sounds impossible. But I made up for the dehydration in the bars after work. We all did, by means of vodka and grapefruit juice.
Donnie and Junie were the stars, the leads in the drama that was Mike Long’s masonry business. They got the inside jobs, commercial and residential. The other two to five bricklayers—depending on the scale of the job—were typically consigned to the scaffolds outside, laying block. They were understudies, as it were, and Mike treated them as if they were animals off the leash, out of the cage. He’d bark at them, shove them, even lift them off the ground when he was particularly displeased by the pace of the wall building. The Fireman was the locus of his abuse.
One day Donnie and Junie were assigned to a rare residential job, and they brought me along to deliver the brick and the mortar they’d need to repair a bathroom in a distant “suburb” of DeKalb. Not that I was any good at mixing mortar. They thought I was amusing because I was always talking about shit they’d never heard of. Like Doc, I was a “college boy.”
The house was a McMansion set on a slight rise, an island in an ocean of corn. The stalks even moved like water, waving and bending to the wind. But all of it was feed for cattle, so there was no point in diving in. The high ground was the place to be.
The repair of the bathroom is no big deal, we’re supposed to knock out some tile, replace some brick, maybe tuckpoint the contiguous masonry, tie it together, and we’re done by noon. Then we find a bar and get serious. But no.
Donnie and Junie and I hustle into the delinquent bathroom of this architectural maroon, laughing about The Fireman’s latest idiocy, then skid to a halt as if we’re all three in a cartoon, each of us Wiley E. Coyote reaching another precipice. Whoa! They’ve been on hundreds of construction sites, but they can’t understand what they’re looking at.
“Whadda we got here, two commodes?” Junie says.
Donnie follows up, he says, “Yeah, but that one’s got no seat. Fuck me, it’s a urinal!”
“It’s a bidet,” I say, as quietly as possible.
They whirl around and say, in unison, “A what?”
“A bidet. It’s for women to wash out their vaginas, before or after sex. Or for a guy to clean his ass after taking a shit. You know?”
Donnie and Junie look at each other in wonder. They look down at the porcelain in question, then turn slowly to me.
“Bidday!” Donnie exclaims, as if it were a slogan or a greeting, and starts laughing uncontrollably, coughing and bending to the stomach pain this condition typically causes. Junie has turned his attention back to the device, he’s not yet in on the joke. But he finally gets it, and yells “Bidday!” Both are now doubled over, incapable of getting the job done.
They just can’t let it go. Every ninety seconds or so—I actually counted it out—they’d look at each other and sing, with varying accents, “Bidday!”, then laugh hysterically, which meant yet another pause in the proceedings.
We spent the whole goddamn day there.
The Fireman was the worst bricklayer on Mike Long’s regular crew. He never figured out how to lay block and brick without wasting a hundred pounds of mortar per course. Even I, the least skilled of all Mike’s employees, even I was embarrassed by this ineptitude. On the scaffold, you could tell where The Fireman was stationed because in his latitude the piles of mortar to avoid were so many that you felt like you were following a row of horses down a city street.
He smoked cigars, or rather he bit into them. Because there was always one held hostage by his yellow teeth, there was no way to gauge his facial expression. Was he grinning or grimacing? Only the cigar could tell. He wore too many layers of clothes, no matter what the weather, so he was constantly stripping down, meanwhile wondering why three T-shirts were too much, even in winter.
The Fireman weighed as much as Mike Long, but their personalities were different sizes. Mike was an Extra-Large, The Fireman was a Small. Everything seemed to confuse him, including his job as a bricklayer. He was always misplacing his hammer and his level, or somehow fouling the plumb line, making someone else responsible for restaking it. You had to wonder what he was like as a firefighter. Did he forget the ladders on his way to the fire?
Sycamore, Illinois, had a fire department that, like almost all small towns, relied on volunteers, guys who love the romance of saving people, living the strenuous life in real time. The Fireman was one of two paid employees in the Sycamore department. But he was part-time, so he could work for Mike Long in his off hours, typically 30 a week.
Unlike Donnie and Junie, The Fireman rarely spoke, not even when they made merciless fun of his skills. Even more odd for a man of the building trades, he didn’t go straight to the bar with us at 4:30. He went home, he told me one day, or he stopped by the fire department to clean up whatever paperwork the chief hadn’t handled.
Even on that day, the only day we spoke in sentences to each other, I never bothered to ask him his real name. He was The Fireman. But on that day, he went to the bar with us after work, and he kept up with Donnie and Junie and all the rest of us, Stony and Tommy and Doc and me. The cigar came out from the grip of those bad teeth, and he actually lit the thing up, waved it around, made it seem more like a prop than a bodily part—that new partition is probably what encouraged me to ask him what his deal was.
“There’s no deal,” he said. “This is work. The rest is my life. These guys are work. That’s all they are.”
“But you’re a fireman, you rescue people.”
“Not these people. They can burn alive as far as I’m concerned.”
“Jesus. You’re The Fireman, c’mon man.”
“Fuck ‘em.” He waved the cigar at them.
“What are you doin’ here, then? You know, these guys are just doing their jobs. Like you. Like me.”
“Not like you, don’t gimme that shit.” Now he waved the cigar at me. “You and Doc, you’re college boys, you’re not gonna be here the rest of your lives. Donnie and Junie, they’ll be here, and Mike will be, too. Don’t fucking kid yourself. You gotta understand this thing better than they do.”
“I don’t, I’m sorry. What thing?”
“What happened yesterday?”
“Three people died in a fire. In Sycamore.”
“Ah, half the population,” I said, laughing. He stuck the cigar between his teeth and bit down, now leaning toward me, grinning or grimacing, I couldn’t tell through the smoke.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean that,” I said. “But you’re not responsible for the fire. You’re The Fireman. . . I mean, c’mon, man.”
“You’re dumber than I thought, college boy. I’m a go now, to the firehouse, and then straight home.” He stood up, surveyed the room, shook his head. “See you tomorrow.”
I never spoke to The Fireman again, although we saw each other on the job every day for the next two years. He got more and more quiet, to the point of silence, no matter what the provocation from Donnie and Junie, or Mike. He got more and more sloppy, too, slinging mortar as if he were an abstract expressionist working in three dimensions.
The word was that he got divorced, went through a nasty legal bout for custody of the kids. Not that we discussed the case with him. It was all hearsay. But we watched him, in wonder, as he retreated in silence from what we took to be the real world—the construction sites and the bars, the work and its compensations. Like the lonely scrivener, he somehow abstained, preferring not to inhabit a world where he couldn’t put out all the fires. He finally wore even Donnie and Junie and Mike down. They stopped badgering him, they just left him alone on the job. Me, too, except for the block and the brick and the mortar I had to deliver to his station.
The last time I saw The Fireman was in a bar, though. By then I was back in grad school, trying to finish that fucking dissertation, working part-time for Mike Long. It was a Saturday night at Bill and Rog’s, the place where the hooligans and the building trades congregated after work and on the weekends. He was alone at the end of the bar where he belonged, hunched over a Budweiser. I bought him a drink from where I was, at the other end, with my date, a woman who loved country music enough to risk the rowdies—Patsy Cline was the presiding spirit of the jukebox, and the unvarnished wood floor was for dancing to the slow tunes. The Fireman never looked up. I didn’t expect him to.
Bill was long gone, but Rog was always there, always drunk. He had such an infectious, invasive personality that you could say he was a sentient virus—he seemed to be having such a good time, no matter what time of day, that you wanted to be as loaded as he was. He’d buy you a drink just because you walked in the door, looking exhausted from a long day working for Mike Long. He’d listen to you whine about anything. And he would cash your check on Friday from the secret drawer behind the bar, where the real money was. Also where the loaded gun was stowed.
Now everybody knew that Rog was dying of cirrhosis, and so was his best friend, Doc’s older brother, a brilliant guy who helped devise what we now call magnetic resonance imaging. (He was a faculty member in the chemistry department at Northern Illinois University.) They understood their condition—both knew they were committing slow motion suicide—and they kept drinking.
Imagine that. Who wants to die? They did. In view of my drinking habits, then as now, I suppose you could say that I do, too. But what’s a death wish except a desire to remove yourself from the life you actually live—to get outside yourself, to become something you’re not? Junie had the answer.
That night, when I saw The Fireman for the last time, Rog wasn’t behind the bar because he and Doc’s brother had flown to Las Vegas, there to consecrate their commitment to death by drinking. The conversation in the bar was mostly speculation about when they would return—or if. The plaintive sounds in the background, coming from that
jukebox crowded with country music songs, were musical accompaniment to a farewell, a funeral before the fact.
They were both dead within two years.
I hope The Fireman is still alive, still abstaining from this life. I hope he remembers what he said to me. But now that I think about it, what does remembering mean—or require? What if you remember everything because you know there is no future, because all you’ve got is the past? When I was 28 years old, then merely bewildered by the death or the absence of my mother, my wife, and my sister—in that order—I knew I wouldn’t last very long. I had no reason to believe in a future. I still don’t. And yet here I am, forty years later, still hoping, and still drinking.
I played a lot of pool in those days. I was pretty good, having grown up in a house with a genuine slate table in the basement. In The Shamrock, like most places, you wrote your name on a chalkboard and waited your turn. You played alone, or, if the winning guys before you were doubles, you found a partner and you hoped for the best.
It was like picking someone out of the lineup in the police station, or on the basketball court, because in that space it was mostly strangers to choose from—my friends were more interested in getting laid than betting on eight ball, so they stayed close to the bar, where the ladies were.
Me, I liked the competition and the isolation. Pool is like golf, it’s not a team sport—it’s just you and the angles. And the pace of the game is up to you. You deliberate because if you’re not thinking about the next shot and beyond, you can’t win unless you have preternatural talent or skills. I had neither.
The guy that hired me as a bartender at the bowling alley, according to Jimmy Brennan’s dictate, was known as “The Closer” because he had that kind of talent. He could make any shot, so you never knew when the game would end. The rest of us plodded through, planning ahead, plotting the angles.
One Friday night I’m just watching, I haven’t even written my name on the board, and a stranger says, “You’re my partner next round. These guys want to play doubles.” He gestures toward two large men, arms folded, leaning against the wall, staring at me. “Big money.”
“I haven’t got ‘big money,’ friend, I work construction. And why me?”
“I seen you play. We’ll beat ‘em. Guaranteed.”
“How much money?”
“Like, fifty. A game.“
This is long before ATMs spit out dollars, but I had already cashed my check at Bill and Rog’s, so I’m carrying almost $300.
“We lose, I’m gone.“
“OK. But we ain’t gonna lose.”
We win the first game, no problem, now I got enough money in my pocket to buy a round for the whole fucking bar, but my partner says, “I gotta go do some business. We open the table, but when I get back, it’s ours again. OK with you?”
I know better than to bet on a complete stranger. But I’m slightly past drunk, so I say, “Yeah, I guess. I mean, what’s going on? These fucking guys want another shot, look at ‘em. Hungry animals over there.”
“Yeah, don’t worry about it, I’ll be back in a half hour.”
A half hour later, he’s back, but he’s bent over, side-to-side, as if he’s carrying too much weight with one hand—he hasn’t yet figured out the rules of the scaffold—and he’s breathing hard.
“You all right?”
“Yeah, I’m good. Where’s that cue I was using?”
We’re the winners so it’s our break. I sink the two ball, but I haven’t got a shot. I try a safety, and botch it, now the table is theirs. So we’re still looking at our five remaining balls by the time the stranger steps up—the more talented animal has cleared his side of everything except the eight ball. My partner leans over, he’s got an easy shot, four ball in the side pocket, and it’s smooth sailing from there to the eight ball in the corner.
He puts his hand on the green felt, but not to set up the bridge for the cue. He’s holding himself up, like the man who grips the railing as he climbs out of the subway. That’s when I notice he’s bleeding out his back, just above the beltline, lumbar territory, and the stain is still moving, getting bigger.
“What the fuck is this, man, you’re bleeding,” I say.
“Yeah, he got to me.” He’s breathing harder now.
“Who the fuck is he?”
“That business, earlier. Guy I know, I owe him money. He wanted it right then, I said gimme a couple hours and I got it. We were gonna beat these animals at eight-ball, right? He fucked me up.”
“All right, fuck this shit, we’re goin’ to a hospital. We’re gonna forfeit this round of the US Open at the fucking Shamrock. How did this happen? C’mon, man, why are you bleeding out your back? ”
“It’s a knife fight, what are you, stupid, Jimmy? I lost. He ran.”
I drive him to the emergency room on Route 23 in Sycamore, right past the firehouse, thinking all the while about how these declarations could go together, hoping I would replicate his experiment without losing any blood. No chance of that, but I still get a laugh out of it because I ‘m still on both sides of the knife fight—I keep losing, and I keep running.
Having delivered the wounded stranger to the proper medical authorities, I read some People magazines and think about the future, well, not “the” future, but my future. Am I headed once again to the emergency room from yet another bar or construction site? When can I give up on this melancholy, thinking that I’m the one who lost the fight. When can I start mourning for those who did?
“No damage to the kidneys,” the doctor says, waking me from this dream. “That’s a miracle in itself. He bled a lot, though, so we’re going to keep him overnight. He’s sleeping now, why don’t you come back tomorrow?”
“OK. What’s his name?”
“Let’s see,” she says. She looks at the clipboard, and says, “James Livingston. You don’t know him?”
James Livingston is a professor of History at Rutgers, the author of No More Work: Why Full Employment Is a Bad Idea, and other works. This is the next-to-last chapter in his memoir