It Happened to Me: I Was a Female Construction Worker

I was young, I was untrained, I was a girl, and I think I was expected to fail.

Sep 27, 2011 at 3:00pm | Leave a comment

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I hadn't expected to spend the summer I turned 21 half-asleep in dirty jeans, following my father — literally and figuratively -- into New York City.

I had recently come home from a semester abroad in France, broke, anxious about my forthcoming senior year of college and the depressing summer at home I had to get through first. My hometown on Long Island is not without its charms, but lacks a certain excitement. My dad, a lifelong electrician, had called around March to tell me he could try and get me into his union's college helper program, wherein children of union members could work as material-haulers and coffee gofers on active construction sites for the months they were home from college.

I had normally resisted, holding out for job opportunities "in my field," although I never really decided what that field was. When his call came through on my 20-euro pay-as-you-go phone that spring, something changed. Namely, my bank account. I could sacrifice one overtired summer for the end to that knot in the pit of my stomach.

"Do you think I'll get to wear a hard hat?"

I was in.

Just after Memorial Day, I was waiting for the 5:17 am train into the city in clunky, unbroken-in construction boots, the overstuffed bag that had once belonged to my grandfather at my side. Dad had filled it the night before, tossing the equipment list I was given aside and supplying me with rusty tools I had often seen in his basement workshop, but rarely held: a hack saw, wire cutters, pliers.

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My older brother and sister had both been summer construction workers, too, but it was only my brother who received brand-new tools and a bag, under the assumption, I guess, that he would use them beyond his summer gig. I resented that, slightly. Then again, my father isn't big on keepsakes -- I figured this was the closest thing to a grandmother's weathered ring or faded wedding photo I was going to get.

The big construction job where I spent the majority of my summer was a large condominium project on the Williamsburg waterfront, what would become a sleek, overpriced sore thumb against the otherwise industrial, understated skyline.

I was late for my first morning, having gotten lost going from the women's "shanty" to the building where I was supposed to work. Out of four buildings, there were only two full-time women electricians, and a smattering in other trades such as carpentry and elevator operation.

I was young, I was untrained, I was a girl, and I think I was expected to fail.

I was thrust into my first responsibility -- taking coffee orders (burly, blunt construction dudes can be oddly particular about their brew, I found), handling everyone's money, hauling ass to the deli four blocks away and carting their muffins and egg sandwiches back in time for morning break. The electricians, curt and cranky in the morning, were more amicable once I came back with nourishment and their change in singles and fives.

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I ended up on the roof, where someone had helpfully scrawled, "No Shit!" next to the sign that said ROOF, cracking open the lid on my to-go coffee and getting to know my partner. My partners, the guys I spent most of the day with, changed by day and by project, but it was always an adventure: going on a wild hunt through the skeletal floors for a power tool or material locker, shooting the shit with the freight elevator operator, who taped his favorite articles from the Post and lotto numbers inside the car, taking note of the small, human traces I found in the graffiti all over the building, from the perplexing ("Friday is for the MEN!") to the sentimental ("Wish I Was In Queens").

I found myself really enjoying the job.

I felt new muscles growing in places I didn't know they could. I readily volunteered to carry ladders up flights of stairs, push waist-high spools of wire around the bare, cement floors of the building. I showed off the bruises on my arms that bloomed from the heavier and heavier breakfast orders I had to carry each morning in plastic bags. I loved them.

I constantly barraged my friends with stories about my days -- and when their eyes glazed over, I would keep going. It seemed like there was something almost magical in building buildings for a living.

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Despite the brutally early commuting hours, I enjoyed a sunrise over train tracks every day, made it just in time to work to smell the morning summer air and take in the views of Manhattan across the river. The younger electricians invited me to the bar for lunch one day and I never paid for lunch again.

"You're the youngest. Someone paid our way when we were apprentices, so it's only right."

We read each others' horoscopes with the bartender until it was time to go back, grabbing extra french fries and pouring gin and tonics into to-go cups.

Before taking that position, I never would have entertained notions like I did that summer: of growing older, staying fit and renting an apartment in the city with my union pay. I would collect characters and stories like baseball cards, keep a closet full of dresses at home and know I could really be whoever I wanted: tough, yet soft. Physical and brainy.

Back in real life, a man behind the counter at the deli where I was buying lunch saw my hard hat -- sky-blue and decorated with my safety training sticker and some skulls from a fellow electrician -- and said, "A woman in the workforce. I like that." I gave him a nod and decided not to correct him, not to mention that I would be leaving this behind in a few weeks for school.

I had paid the deposit on my off-campus house with my best friends. I had invested three years toward an English degree. I couldn't stay. But, still, I wondered.

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Anyway, construction was only nearly the ideal job. It wasn't the easiest place for a lady -- Most everyone seemed to like me, but understand that in some sense I would cause trouble: I got the "if anyone messes with you, bring them to me," speech from nearly everyone I met, men and women alike.

The elevator guy asked if the new bruises on my arms were from my boyfriend, as if the chance that I could have gotten them from my very hands-on, physical job was a distant possibility. I had to stand by while one co-worker took in views of sunbathers at the neighboring park with a pair of binoculars he kept in his toolbag (also an apt word to describe said co-worker).

When I called him out on it, all he said was, "We all have to do whatever we have to do to get by, Jillian." Not condescendingly, like I was too naive to know better, but like he had already given up. Somehow, this allowed me to accept more -- maybe because I was temporary, because I could tell hundreds of other electricians were doing the same thing elsewhere.

Maybe I should have spoken up then, but I didn't, because even during the shitty parts, I felt more comfortable there than I ever did ordering café au laits, poring over guidebooks or French grammar lessons. I saw so much of my family in my co-workers: the drinking, the dogged work ethic and the perpetually sad eyes of knowing nobody actually gave a shit if you built the Empire State Building or not.

Our names can't be found on that property anywhere. No matter what happened, the hilarious graffiti would be covered up by sheet rock and muted paint colors. The condos where I spent coffee breaks slouched on metal lockers with the other guys would be sold for exorbitant amounts of money, and that view would never be ours again.

I've thought about that job more than any other I've had.

I found my pliers from that summer in my drawer the other day, the handles tattooed by one of my favorite co-workers in permanent marker. I'm going to leave them there -- who knows when I'll need to use them again.