I had been working at the same site for nearly fifteen years, which is a long time. However, I say this yet, there were people who had worked at this same location for 40 years which upon my arrival, was longer than I was alive. We will call this person Louie. He began his tour at my job site before I was even born. To put this clearly, my position is blue collar. I have held several jobs throughout my life but this one is my longest stint. I am a union worker with a skilled trade and collective bargaining agreement that supports my life. I have been a member of this outfit since 1998.
During this journey, I have met people who I would otherwise never had the pleasure to know. I met good people and bad people as well. I’ve met UPS carriers and mailmen, like Clyde, and more. My job description is mainly to conduct routine and preventative maintenance on commercial building equipment. I work on heating, ventilation and air conditioning. I’ve done plumbing jobs. I’ve worked on steam stations and handled minor to moderate building responsibilities. I’ve seen my share of clogged drains, which in fairness and in all decency, I will remove any description of the nastiness and simply say – people flush crazy things down toilets. One of which was part of a weave or hair piece and, of course, the office manager being the bitch that she was, demanded that we retrieve this, put this in a plastic bag and return it to her. And we did. And she took it.
She also approached every woman on the floor who wore weaves or extensions and asked, “Is this yours?”
Let’s just be honest for a second here. The weave was flushed down the toilet so . . . it wasn’t a pretty sight. Disgusting? Perhaps. Classless and indelicate? Certainly.
Perhaps the most interesting of all parts of my job were the times when I had to break open walls and columns that had not seen an opening since their time of completion, which dates back to 1927. I have found old beer cans and old whiskey bottles. I’ve found old newspaper articles with the real estate section – and this was back when the cost of buying an apartment on Park Avenue was only a few thousand dollars.
I have found old wooden boxes from 1946 and old signs that were left behind old plaster walls.
Most of this happens during renovations which begin with demolition.
Most of these discoveries happen when the old is to become new again – and we strip everything down, which is how we find these little gems. For example, there was a modification that took place where a bank was removed and a cell phone carrier was put in place.
Everything was dismantled. Stairs were removed and sheetrock walls were stripped down to the core. And there it was, a sign from the original elevator company. This sign dates back to when the original loading dock was facing outwards on Lexington Avenue. This was before most of the tall buildings and the great structures towered over the little island, which we call Manhattan, New York City. This was around the time when The Chrysler Building went up in 1929 and before the Empire State Building made its way in 1931.
I found a butterfly once. . .
I found this in an empty space when I was here to ride out a hurricane. The butterfly was black with specks of white near the rims of its wings. The storm had moved on but our City had taken damage which meant that as one of the building’s stationary engineers, I had to stick around. I found this beautiful specimen inside a vacant floor, which had been demoed and emptied. There was nothing here but the dusty grayness of a concrete floor and bare walls, bare ceilings, and a few markings of spray paint on the beams.
I was able to bring the butterfly to the window and let it go. There was something nice about this. There was something relatable about this too because at the time, I certainly knew what it felt like to be at the wrong place and at the wrong time. I set the butterfly free and yes, there was a piece of me that felt good; as if what I had done was somewhat symbolic to me.
More to the point, I am writing this about a typical night. I worked. Nothing special. Nothing different. I worked my first job or my “day job” as I call it. I worked my second job too, which is partly this, which is partly to come here and speak with you and then I worked my other job, which is partly a means to my great escape and partly my dream to create my passion as a business. This way, my workplace is not so much of a job as it is a means to achieve my optionality.
I say this because I do not work for a living. I do not wake up between 3:30 am and 4:30 am on a daily basis because this is work to me or because there is a time clock that says I “have” to get up and get out of bed.
No, I get up because I want to provide options for myself. I don’t want to leave my life in the hands of someone else. I don’t want to worry about my health or my future, which is why I work the way I do. This is not for money. No, this is so that I will not have to endure poor healthcare or retirement systems that are beyond my control. This is to keep from being at the mercy of a doctor that doesn’t want to help me because I have bad insurance.
Although my days are not always easy, it is safe to say that I have met great people. One of which is a woman who has terminal cancer. She is a walking miracle to me; although, I know there’s no secret here. I know that time is limited. But don’t tell her this. She won’t listen to you.
Instead, she smiles at people. She says hello. She remains a good friend but more, she remains approachable – as if to say, “It’s okay to talk to me. I’m not going to die in front of you.”
She is the face of bravery and dare I say this; she is a face of beauty because aside from her current condition, you would never look at her and “see” death.
From what I heard, she decided to live each day, as best as she can for however long she has left. I think this is heroic. I think that above all, I am a better person because I know her. I think about her and the people who I’ve met in my life.
For example, it was years back when I was living on a farm. I received a letter from a man who knew me while I was working for my Father’s company. I was a little kid. Didn’t know much. But if you asked me, I swore that I knew everything – which in fairness, I think this is how most people are.
We will call this man Kenny and like me, Kenny had his share of dependency and substance abuse issues. In fact, Kenny contracted AIDS from his intravenous drug use. At the time of the letter, both Kenny and myself were in treatment for the same things.
The letter I received was originally sent to my Mother. This was after my Father passed. Kenny was liked by my Father and I suppose my Father wanted to help him. Maybe Kenny touched something in my Father’s paternal instinct. Maybe. But who knows?
Kenny could no longer outrun his addiction or himself and eventually, just like me, Kenny found himself in in-patient treatment.
We had our similarities. One of which was our taste in music and our long hair, which was cut short for the both of us.
His letter said, “Tell Benny I think he’s doing the right thing. Tell him my hair is shorter than ever and tell him to listen to whatever they tell him to do. Tell him it took my finding I was dying to learn how to live.”
I never forgot this (or Kenny) but sometimes, we find ourselves in a common routine. Sometimes we forget what it means to live. We forget what it means to eat the rice or not worry about the carbs in our diet. We forget to live. And I mean to truly live, out loud, and as boldly and beautifully as possible.
Sometimes we wake up and we find out that we wasted our greatest capacities on meaningless things and meaningless arguments. Sometimes we forget that time is finite. And sometimes, we find ourselves in the company of people who inspire us and motivate us to live. We wake up and just like that, our eyes are opened.
Sometimes life is scaled back to the bare minimum and we come across these great finds. But lastly, sometimes we need to strip down so that we can rebuild. Other times, it takes us losing something to find out what it means to have it.
So, live every minute. Be mindful of our little treasures. Be mindful of our friends and loved ones and be aware of the lessons from those we meet.
They teach us so much more than we think.