Ode to Construction Workers
September 18, 2003
My back aches and a tearing numbness pains
The backs of my legs, my hands, as though a fist had beaten me flat
Or emptied my will to walk with one short day of labor.
At three in the afternoon, one minute passed, on a Sunday
‘Twas my lot to envy my own soft-muscled life
The happy lot of my usual day inside the still brown walls of my cubicle
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And on Monday, being happy in my own happiness
That me and mine sit in adjustable chairs,
Moving only fingertips to keys and ear to phone.
That I am not thou, bending backs and hammering nails
Hot sun, hardened flesh, and the numberless rotation of songs on the radio.
Thus it was for us on Sunday, a swaying crew of volunteers.
O for drought of skill, the ground was a carpet of bent and broken nails,
As the newsroom staff swung hammers like blindfolded children.
O soft-muscled arms and legs, soft from office sitting,
Making a house, somehow getting one nail pounded, one in eight.
With beaded bubbles of sweat winking at our foreheads, our backs.
And cracked-lipped mouths;
And always the chance to sneak away from labor for a drink of water
Or to jump at the chance to drive to True Value,
For nails, for being unseen and unworked.
And fading away for a long time, until we began to wonder how far away is the long way
There and back.
Fading far away, dissolved, and quite forgotten
When she returned with a bucket of nails. Better ones, we said.
We would be better ones, we said, with the new nails. No more bending.
Alas, the weariness, the fever and the fret
Where men and women hear each other groan as hammers swing slower.
Where a few decide it is time to leave, keeping their few hairs of pride in tact.
Where not even the bag of licorice, brought back with the nails, brings joy.
Where now it has been sitting in the hot sun, getting soft and unhappy warm licorice taste.
Away! Away! It was noon and time for a brief escape.
To burritos and water and afternoon football in a leather couch living room.
Through dull brains we watched the clock, to ticking hands our gaze.
Already with thee! It was time too fast to return our tender hands to labor.
We return, tired this time, from too much burrito.
Our skill was still lacking and also our tongues
As heat and exhaustion and discouraging bent nails kept us quiet and quieter.
Darkly I listen, and for many a time,
To the echo of our pounding — 10 hammers now, more.
The sound of so many things bouncing off the new walls of West End Village.
Each pound a new nail in a new home,
The family with us, building their own
Living room and bedrooms and kitchen and back door.
And the sound of so many hammers for a moment forgets my pain and unskill.
And thinks of community and old time barn raising
And spending Sunday building houses for strangers.
(As I was saying, the Steamboat Pilot & Today news staff volunteered to build the walls of a new Habitat for Humanity house in West End Village. We were terrible carpenters and thanked our good fortune to have soft, wussy, inside jobs. Most of us were sore the next day, and doubly thankful for our desks, but happy to have volunteered for a good cause. Anyone interested in swinging a hammer for Habitat can show up on the worksite in West End Village, off Downhill Drive, between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.)