It’s 5:30am, Monday morning. The clock’s alarm goes off with its annoying, high pitched beep, which disrupts sleep not from the volume of its sound, but from its frequency which produces the most irritating sensation. I get up from bed, and immediately get dressed. I put on my rugged, washed out, blue Wrangler jeans with permanent brown rust stains on the bottom of the seams, and olive green “Fred Smith Plumbing & Heating Co.” t-shirt. I walk to the bathroom located right behind my bedroom wall, splash my face, brush my teeth, and fit my green bandana with the diamond from the paisley design centered on the forehead. I double-check my hand tools and college books in the brown book bag, grab the bag, and tiptoe over to the kitchen. I open the fridge door, and grab the aluminum foiled ham and cheese sandwich. I put the bag on, take one last look in the mirror, and head for the apartment door. Silent as a mouse, I unlock the door, and close it behind me. I silently turn the key and cringe with uneasiness as the lock makes the inevitable locking sound, afraid to wake my sleeping baby sister and parents in the living room.
It’s January. The dirty snow melted from previous days of above 0C weather, and has frozen over by current freezing temperatures, creating mounds of disgusting ice that holds black street residue splashed by cars, yellow dog piss, and varieties of mud carried over by people from all over the city. The freezing wind is shoving ice picks into people’s faces, which only strengthens the frustration of every “Oh my fucking god.” uttered taken with every step over the dangerous, slippery ice, which hasn’t been salted over yet by superintendents and managers of stores. New York City’s metro system is slowed down, and cars cruise at walking speed. People outside at this time are headed for work. Nobody enjoys the gray, dirty winter of NYC, which expresses its deep, cold soul.
The heavy, metallic M train rocks the outside subway station as it approaches Fresh Pond Road. The doors open, I venture in, and find my favorite corner seat. Since I live by the end of the M line, I’m fortunate enough that the train is fairly empty at the beginning of the ride. Later on, it fills up with more worker ants as it approaches Manhattan, the moneymaking hub of Earth. I finish writing off some of the homework for my Speech class, and I get off the M train after a 35-minute ride to transfer for the higher elevated 6-subway line. I walk across the Broadway Lafayette station along with the human traffic, feeling like I’m part of a school of fish swimming in the ocean. The 6-train approaches, and as always, is crowded to the very bone. I take off my bag, hold it in my hands, and squeeze myself in. I balance between working class people dressed in suits, with no access to a rail. The painful ride lasts an excruciating 25 minutes, from downtown to the Upper East Side. Eventually, the relief arrives through the form of the doors opening up to my final work destination on 86thstreet. Freedom.
The sun is just beginning to rise at 7:00am. The sky is light blue mixed with a shade of orange on the horizon, splattered with wisps of light clouds. My heavy breath fogs the crispy air, as I walk towards the main office. I walk by a few construction sites with Union workers cracking jokes, taking it nice and easy, while across the block, the private contractors and company laborers wear frowns as they are already doing the grind. Eventually, I see the dreaded army of ex-convicts, dumb shitheads, and few regular guys, standing outside the Fred Smith main office, waiting for their destiny, issued by the elder, millionaire Jewish CEO of Fred Smith Plumbing sitting inside, behind the desk. As I walk by, I exchange a few greetings.
“Good morning Earl.”
“Hey, how you doing baby.” Earl’s raspy voice cuts through, and he puts out his fist. We dab. Earl’s a strong, older, African American man with short and white curly hair from South Carolina. He was a professional boxer in the 1970s and 1980s, who claims to have kicked Sylvester Stallone’s ass. Now, he’s one of the company drivers delivering plumbers around the city. I continue walking.
“Yo, what’s up Paul?” Danny is an Albanian guy in his late 20s. He has an obsession with several things, such as hookers, cocaine, weight lifting, Dominican people, and the word “nigga.” We’ve had a few verbal scruffs and disagreements while I was his helper, but as guys, we got past it. Eventually, I see my mechanic, Nicky, another Albanian, in his 30s. He turns around to look at me, and shouts “PAULIE!!!!!” I smirk at him, and finish walking across the 30 ugly plumbers. I bend down to the cellar doors, and pull them upwards, opening the entrance to the basement, where all the plumbing supplies are stored. I walk down the steep steps, careful not to bang my head against the bottom of the sidewalk, and greet Billy who runs the basement. He is a very short man, with a complexion and personality that reminds me of a mole; an expert on all plumbing parts, hence his position of supervising all the distribution of material to the plumbers; quiet disposition, with a tendency to look down on everybody, despite his meager size.
I hang my bag, and brown, suede jacket in the rear of the basement. The returned canvas bags with leftover plumbing material that haven’t been used in Friday’s jobs, wait for me on the floor in the center of the basement; the aisle between the shelves on both sides of the basement. I hastily open them up, and put various copper, brass, and galvanized fittings, valves, rubber jackets, wick, tape, to its proper places on the shelves both downstairs and upstairs. After organizing the material, I walk up the cellar back outside in the freezing weather, wearing just the Fred Smith t-shirt, and stride over to the Ferguson Plumbing Supplies truck parked on the street. We have a shipment of new copper and galvanized pipes, 100lb gate valves, and canvas bags full of heavy pipefittings. Several helpers grab what they can at one time, to minimize the amount of trips back and forth from the truck to the basement. I pull out the 6 inch galvanized pipe, 10 feet long, onto my right shoulder, and carefully step off the rear of the truck onto the street. I walk down the steps of the basement, trying not to bang the 7 feet of pipe behind me, and direct the 3 feet of pipe right in front. I slide the pipe into the section with other 6-inch pipes, and push as hard as I can. Great…ten more to go.
Once I finish unloading the truck with the helpers, I head back downstairs. Every plumber mechanic has received his job ticket in the meantime, with the necessary material listed for their job of the day, and are now waiting for the few guys who work in the basement, to load their canvas bags and prepare the required length of pipe. On my way in, I grab a mechanic’s ticket, glance at it, and immediately begin packing the reset kit. This mechanic will reset a toilet at a residential building on 98thstreet and 2ndavenue. He will need a flange, wax ring, plaster, latex gloves, plastic bags, and a simple cloth. I load him his material into the bag with the job ticket inside, and move on to another mechanic who’s sticking his hand out towards me, while shouting demeaning obscenities to his helper. I grab his ticket, glance, and silently swear to myself, “Oh my fucking god.” I pull out a 3 inch copper pipe, 10 feet long, and manually begin cutting a 4 foot piece, using a pipe cutter with a round blade. Next, I take out the 2 inch copper pipe and cut off several 3 foot pieces. I load the bag with a bunch of different copper fittings, to join the copper pipes together, along with solder. I throw his ticket inside the bag, grab a fresh gas tank, and walk to the front. This guy now has everything he needs, to do the water line for somebody’s sink, as there is a leak underneath the resident’s apartment, dripping onto the neighbors downstairs.
“Paulie, here’s the ticket. Load our shit and let’s go! We’ve got a shut down on the West side.” “Whose van are we in?” “Earl’s.” I carefully pull out a full-length 6-inch pipe, walk up onto the sidewalk on the street, and carry it into our designated van. The guys already sitting in the van, open the back doors, and help me slide the pipe in down the middle, all the way to the front of the van, splitting the passenger and driver seats. Nicky climbs up onto the van, and holds the handles of our 250lb hand truck, loaded with hand tools and plumbing material. “Alright. Ready?” “One, two, three.” As I lift the bottom of the hand truck, Nicky pulls back, and we load it onto the van. I climb up, bang the doors behind me, and sit next to Ralf.
“What’s up boyyy.”
“Yoo nigga. You got a shut down?”
“That sucks. George and me got another leak. Motherfuckers always give him the same shit. We gotta close off the area by taping plastic all around, break the fuckin’ wall, find where the stupid leak’s coming from, cut the damn pipe, measure how much new pipe we need, cut it, clean it, fit it, solder it, run the water to check if it doesn’t leak, clean the whole mess up, load the tools back into the hand truck, bring all that shit downstairs, then, we load the hand truck back into the van, and drive back to the office. If we’re lucky, we can leave our shit at the building if the super lets us. Then, we can just pick up our tools the next morning, on our way to the next job.”
“Yeah, word, I know.”
We drive with 10 other mechanics and helpers, all touching legs and cursing at each other with the tight space full of hand trucks, pipes, and bags, to the corner bodega a few blocks down. “Paulie, get me a sausage, egg and cheese on a roll, and a coffee.” Nicky hands me a 5-dollar bill. I open the back door, and the 4 of us helpers jump off. The run to the bodega’s always a nice start to the workday. You get to relax, not rush, crack some jokes with the other guys, drink a coffee, and discuss politics with completely incompetent people. We walk back towards the van, carrying our breakfasts from the bodega in brown paper bags, attracting coy glances from office workers, who are curious about the intimidating profession in which we’re involved.
Mike, a married old man of Irish descent wearing small round glasses, with a moderate hunch in his back that pushes his neck forward, giving him a perverted appearance, takes out his cell phone to show a photo for the mechanic sitting across from him.
“Yo, check out this Chinese bitch.”
“Yeah, who’s that?”
“I fucked her last night. Great Hooker.”
“Ha. Yeah? For how much?”
“$120, one hour. Did whatever I wanted to do with her.”
“Yeah, not bad.”
Their daily conversation is impossible to block out from overhearing it, sickening the mind with explicate details. Danny overhears their disgusting exchange, and decides to ride on the wagon with his jokes that the entire van laughs at, “Yo nigga. Fuck bitches. I spent all of my paycheck on cocaine last night. I’m a broke ass nigga right now, but at least I’m still fucking high!” Everyone in the van cracks up, while Ralf and I look at each other with straight faces. Earl shouts out “Eyy baby. We on 95thand 2nd!” Ralf’s mechanic, George, shouts out “Ralfy let’s go!” The two get their hand truck off the van, and grab their copper pipes. “See ya man.” Ralf dabs and slides shut the van door from the side.
Sweat is running off my forehead, as I’m holding the hammer in the radiating heat, banging the chisel into the crumbling wall. Bang bang bang bang. With every hit, my forearm explodes with fireflies. My grip is weakening, my fingers start to let go off the handle, and I switch hands. The dust envelopes the closed off bathroom. My facemask and eyes are dark gray with powdered drywall and asbestos. My breathing becomes shallow, as the heat from my breath hits my mask and bounces back to my mouth. The dust chokes my throat and nostrils, peering through the concealment. I pull down my mask, and blow my nose, just to see the usual black residue coming out onto the tissue. “I am fucking killing myself.” After breaking the bathroom wall for an hour, accessing the leaking waste line with shit, piss, roaches, and shower run off from all 8 neighbors living above the 2nd floor apartment in this 10-story building, I begin to break the hard cemented tiles in the floor. This is where the real agony begins. Fred Smith ran out of electric drills for easy breaking, and therefore, we have to break manually with our hands. Bang bang bang. Two hours of hitting the iron end of the chisel with a dreaded hammer, with raging jerks to shake off roaches off my body. I fly off with my thoughts as I stare into an infinitely small spot in the universe, and bang it. Life has come down to banging metal in a stranger’s home, so that they can peacefully expose their bodily waste, without ruining the apartment ceiling downstairs; the meaning of life.
“I can’t do a shut down for you guys. You’re going to have to do it live.” The super of the building refuses to close off the water, since the residents will complain that they’ve haven’t been notified of no running water in advance. “Fucking asshole.” Nicky curses him out, as he measures the distance between the top of the old pipe from the floor, and the bottom of the old pipe from the ceiling. We need to connect a piece of new pipe in the bathroom wall, after removing the cracked section where the leak was occurring. Therefore, after removing the 7-foot piece of old pipe, we now have to measure 7 feet of new pipe waiting for us outside the building behind the gate, and cut it. I wrap the chain from the pipe cutter around the pipe, after marking the 7-foot length with chalk, and pull down on the handle. The chain that’s wrapped around the pipe tightens, and tightens, squeezing, and squeezing as the pressure builds up. It is absolutely necessary to make sure the chain is wrapped around perfectly straight. Otherwise, the pipe will break crooked, and completely ruin the pipe piece. The handle is pulling down harder and harder, until the loud *SNAP* breaks it free. Perfect cut.
I climb up the ladder, and hold the top of the new piece underneath the old, open pipe that is running with toilet water mixed with shit, and cockroaches. The super supposedly told all residents not to flush their toilets after using them. The run off is soaking my gloves and arms, as I’m fitting the two ends of pipe together with a rubber clamp that will seal the deal. Nicky fits the bottom, and we finish the shitty job. It was an amazingly smooth job, without any complications. We make the phone call.
“Yeah Mike, we finished over here. You got a job for us?” Nicky and I pray to God for no more upcoming work. We hope to just relax in the building basement at the Superintendent’s office for the rest of the day, a beautiful four hours.
“Yeah we’ve got a gate valve for you to replace at a water tank on the roof. The address is 75thand 3rd.” FUCK!
(Some plumber mechanics are assigned exclusively to waste lines and toilets, which are the simplest and dirtiest jobs. Others have it easier, because they’ve built a reputation of performing clean jobs for copper water lines and other bathroom work which is cleaner, called “finish work”. They are sent to install and repair sinks, showers, bathtubs, etc. Then, you’ve got the best mechanics like Nicky, who are sent to do absolutely fucking everything. They’re sent to do high steam pressure, install 100lb gate valves, execute brute work, finish work, and scrub the bottom of water tanks from which residents get their water. These mechanics need the best helpers.)
It’s 8:00pm. I load my wooden pipe with weed, in my dirty, damp clothes. My lighter hits the herb, and I welcome the relaxation that follows. I exhale the blue smoke, and allow for the University 8thfloor bathroom to reek. The school at this time is quite entirely empty. The warming sensation hits me. I hide my things. I wash myself in the sink. I change my shirt. I head for my Math class full of future nurses. I sing to myself, “Life’s a gas.”