A Lesson from a Construction Site

Have you ever been on a construction site from start to finish? Or wait, have you ever seen a building start from a hole in the ground and build from the foundation to the top? Sometimes life in the eyes of our mind is moving in the clips of elapsed frames or in stages, like a science film of a blossoming of a flower. 

Blooming Flower GIF - BloomingFlower GIFs

I can say that I have seen buildings come down and watched as crews returned to build something newer, bigger and faster than the building that was there before. I can say that I’ve learned a lot from this process. I can also say that yes, I have been on construction sites from the beginning to the end. I have seen the different phases of construction. I was there for the arguments between the architect and the builder and between the builder and the carpenters, the electricians and the tin-knockers. I have seen jobs move smoothly and yet, I have been part of small projects that were more detailed and painstaking than jobs that were three times its size. 

I have seen some funny things and sad things. I’ve also seen what happens when safety precautions go unaddressed but more. I have learned about the way people work together. The one thing I have noticed is the quiet person is usually the most comfortable with himself on the job. This person has been around so, therefore, they understand that the need to prove themselves is moot and unnecessary. Therefore, the person who is loudest and boasts the most about themselves is seldom the leader they claim to be. 

I have learned one thing beyond others, which is that from crisis can come redemption. Downfalls and arguments can bring lessons of growth and improvement. Oftentimes, politics plays its role in any workplace. Rivalries and bickering and put simply, the destructive habits and culture can affect the progress of any job. This is not limited to construction by any means.

I suppose I was somewhere around 28 years-old at the time. I was an apprentice in the engineering department of a commercial office building. I was young enough to still have some fight left in me but old enough to understand that some fights are less than worthwhile.

Admittedly, my view of the world was ignorant and immature. Then again, I myself was ignorant and immature at the time. I was on the verge of different uncertainties. I was still “Green” as they say or “Wet behind the ears.” I was in the stages of learning the difference between confidence and arrogance. I was also in the building with old-timers who swore they knew everything and would never listen to a “Newbie” or someone like me.

I worked here during a project that began with the demolition of an entire floor. This started with the demo and then the plans for the rebuild. I learned about the different planning phases, which needed attention. Otherwise, something goes amiss. 

The building is what’s known as a post-tension cable building. This means there are cables in the floor, pulled tightly to a certain magnitude, which means to open a floor for a new internal stairwell to connect to the floor below is a process. The floor needs to be x-rayed and the cables need to be identified.  There were meetings and plans and people who started to collaborate before the workers came in to start the job. So many details go into a job. There is more to this than what we see. I was there for this.

I was there to meet the supervisor and the foreman. I was there to meet the laborer who cleaned the entire job, each day, without complaint. In fact, I became friends with the laborer. He was a short man. Not too old but he was closing in on the discussions of retirement. He had stone-like hands. He was not exceptionally tall by any means nor did he appear to be exceptionally strong. However, appearances can often be misleading. He was short, smelled from cigarettes, salt and pepper hair, and mainly quiet unless he enjoyed his company. Safe to say he was friendly to who he wanted to be friendly with. As for me, I was fortunate to be one of the laborer’s friends. 

There was a crew of electricians on the job that were somewhat young and somewhat loud. One of which was louder than them all. Of course, he had some political pull so no one wanted to tangle with him. There was also a young woman on the job. She was kind and very pleasant to work with. She was in the apprentice school to be an electrician. The other electricians were very respectful, except for the loud one. He was a wise ass.

This project in particular was difficult because there were too many internal conflicts. The carpenters were clashing with the electricians. The sheet metal workers were arguing with the plumbers. And the laborer had to clean up after all of them. There were too many practical jokes. The main culprit was the loud electrician. He was told that one day, a time will come when his political pull will run thin and someone was going to respond. The young electrician laughed.
He was warned several times to stop playing around on the job. He was told to stop arguing and told to do his work. Plain and simple. Stop playing and get your work done. This was a good warning that went unheeded.

The job went this way with common problems, arguments and silly mistakes that could’ve been avoided if there was a better synergy on the jobsite. Eventually, the job was coming to an end. The carpet was about to come in and the floor was both leveled and prepared so that the carpet layers could come in that night. 

My friend, the laborer, swept the floor and cleaned the entire space. The young electrician was on the job and loud as usual. He was working on the light fixtures with last-minute touch-ups and after months of poking and prodding the rest of the crew, no one could stand him. The young electrician was tall and thin, baby-faced and somewhat of a greasy looking kid. He was making a good living, especially for his age and though he was an electrician, he was far from experienced with life.

Meanwhile, the laborer had swept the entire floor. A box of small parts fell from the top of the electrician’s ladder and rolled across the cleaned floor. The electrician laughed. He was standing on the bottom rung of the ladder. He joked, “I guess you’re gonna have to sweep this up too.” The old-school laborer walked calmly towards the electrician with a broom in hand. The ladder was close to a doorway of a brand new office. The nearby walls were freshly painted. The tenant was looking to move into their new office suite within a few days from this. The project was nearly finished.

As the laborer approached the electrician, he leaned his broom against the nearby wall. He quickly reached out, snagging the electrician by the neck. He literally picked up and pulled the electrician from the ladder by the throat. The laborer slammed the young man’s back to the wall. And then he said something I never forgot.

The laborer said, “In my life, I have three takes.”
Counting on his fingers with the other hand that was not wrapped around the electrician’s throat, he said, “I take my time,” and noted this by counting this with his thumb.
“I take my breaks,” he said while extending his pointer finger.
With his thumb and pointer finger exposed from a closed fist, the laborer extended a third finger to finish with “And I take no shit. Now clean it up your fucking self.”

One, I learned never to play with a man that works for a living. I learned that from a crisis will come an outcome and sometimes the outcomes will not be desirable but you know what? That young electrician learned his lesson. He never worked in my building again. He was not allowed on any jobs that were run by that construction crew and his political connection was not only upset, they were ashamed by the behavior of the young man who claimed to be their family. 

Either way, we learn.
It’s best to heed warnings before the outcomes happen.

By the way, I was there to see all of this. I was there when the laborer choke-slammed this man against the wall. All I can say was after the laborer released his grip from the young man’s throat, he smiled. He walked away.
As for the electrician, he didn’t smile so much.
No, he just swept up his mess and shamefully walked away. 

It was pretty damned glorious,, to be honest.

PS: I didn’t like the electrician either.

2 thoughts on “A Lesson from a Construction Site

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