Saturday, January 26, 2013

365 Jobs: The Mojo of Concrete

Like most beginning carpenters, I thought I would cut boards and whack nails into them.  I might even use a hand plane to shave a smooth curl from a plank.  Those are the symbols of carpentry: the hammer, the saw, the plane.

What a load of crap.  As a beginning carpenter on a small construction crew, I spent most of my time digging holes, mixing concrete, stapling insulation, hanging drywall, cleaning up garbage.  If I touched lumber, it was to carry toxic rasty pressure-treated two-by-twelves from one pile to another, load by muscle-weary load.  As for hand planes, entire houses got built without the use of one.

On a small crew, you do everything.  You learn to like it, or at least to tolerate.  Except insulation.  Does anybody enjoy handling fiberglass batts?  I accept digging holes or gathering garbage as part of the job.  Drywall can be pleasant in a mindless, big-muscle way, and you get immediate, large results.

One surprise, though, was my changing relationship to concrete.  Slowly over the years concrete is something I've learned to respect.  Perhaps even love.

In my novel Clear Heart I wrote about my education through the character of Abe, a high school graduate who takes a job as a beginner on a construction crew to earn some money — and, his mother hopes, to learn some discipline — before starting college at Princeton in the Fall.  Abe is me.  (Actually, most of the carpenters in that novel are some aspect of me at different ages and stages of my career.)  (Though I never went to Princeton.)  (But then, Abe isn't too sure he wants to go to Princeton, either.)

Here is Abe's first task on a construction site, guided by an old carpenter named Steamboat:
“You need to know,” Steamboat said. “What looks simple, ain’t.”
And what could look simpler than building a rectangle out of two-by-sixes, then filling it with concrete? Abe noted the care Steamboat gave to all the details: He shoveled the ground flat, a little deeper around the perimeter, and then tamped it firm with his flat-soled boots. He made sure the form was square and exactly the right distance from the edge of the deck, measuring not once but twice. He leveled the boards with his fingers by pushing dirt under one corner, scooping some away from another, eye to the earth, butt to the air.

A little later, after pouring the concrete:

Steamboat showed Abe how to strike off the top with a screed board, which was just a regular old two-by-four, pulling it back and forth along the top of the form in a sawing motion, cutting off the high spots, backing and filling the low spots. With a running commentary all the while, Steamboat seemed quite happy to be slopping concrete in dirt, practicing a skill that until this moment Abe had never given a thought, much less any respect.

Steamboat showed Abe how to swing a wooden floater in circles, working all the stone into the mix so they dropped below the surface, holding the leading edge of the tool up slightly to keep it from plowing. The wet concrete had an odd quality under Abe’s hands, feeling both solid in its mass and grudgingly liquid on its surface, sort of bouncy, as the tool swept over. There was magic the way the pebbles disappeared, as if the floater was sucking smoothness from the mix.

That's right: magic.  I was surprised when I first wrote that word, but I knew instantly that it was right.  You can feel the mojo when you run a floater over concrete.  At least, if you have a certain personality.  Which I seem to have.

Steamboat nodded toward the landing. “Lookin’ good,” he said.

“Yes, sir.”

Abe liked saying sir. He knew he didn’t have to, it was a joke, but he didn’t want to stop. He liked the ache in his muscles that would grow into strength. He liked the smell of wet concrete. He liked this work—so solid, so basic, so real.

On another day, Abe is involved in a larger pour of an entire raised foundation:

Abe lugged rebar. Without asking questions, he listened and absorbed the meaning and use of a doughboy, waler, pier cage, stirrup. He discovered—with stunning tension in his shoulders, fingers, and back—the difference in weight and stiffness between grade 40 #4 rebar and grade 60 #5. He saw the meticulous and muscle-straining preparation for what would become invisible, unbeautiful, mostly buried, and taken for granted. As Steamboat had said—and he seemed to mean it as an essential Law of Life and Human Development—Don’t fork up the foundation.

One of the forms breaks, and for a few minutes Abe is nearly Hoffaed, as they call it — drowned under concrete.  He washes himself off with a hose and then is told he can go home for the rest of the day, but instead he returns to help the crew:

All the while, amidst the hard work and the pain and shock of nearly being buried alive, with heightened senses Abe was keenly aware of the smell of curing concrete. It was a wet and yet oddly dusty odor. It was a scent of possibility, of something you could briefly shape with tools, of impending permanence. Abe loved that smell: a magic force, so solid and quiet and strong. Concrete, he realized, has dignity. Maybe Abe had a law, his first, his very own: Honor concrete. Honor it, at least, until you come at it with a demo hammer.

There, I used that word again: magic.  Maybe I'm alone in this.  Or maybe you've felt it, too.  Maybe you've run a floater over concrete; maybe you, too, have sensed the mojo under your fingertips as the fragrance of cement — wet and yet oddly dusty — embeds in your memory like the bouquet of a fine wine.

Or maybe I'm weird.

Note:  I borrowed the picture from a useful web site called

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