Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Plaintive Cry Of A Working Man

David Johannsen--"We Gotta Get Outta This Place/Don't Bring Me Down/It's My Life (live)" (mp3)

I wasn't supposed to be in the house.

But I had left the garage door open so that I could come back in, check on the dog, get some things, maybe change out the laundry or put away some groceries.

We didn't expect to be ordered out of our house this late in the game, and certainly not on the 4th of July, but such is the nature of the home renovation business that when you get offered a "good thing," you take the pain and inconvenience. And we decided that another coat of polyeurethane on the wood floors was a good thing, even though it necessitated moving all of the furniture off of the first floor (again!) and our being out of our house for that most patriotic of holidays.

We were ready for them at 7:45AM. They arrived closer to 11AM, after a number of calls from me to my contractor. When I stopped at home the first time, I could hear the high pitch of the sanders and buffers inside. I saw the guy we had consulted with on Friday walking out to his blue truck.

"There you are," he said. "Sorry about not being here earlier. If you only knew the stuff that's been going on since I last saw you."
"No problem," I said. "We appreciate you being here on the 4th."
He continued toward his truck. "In fact, if you want to take a ten-minute ride with me, I'll show you."
"No, my family's coming to pick me up. We're killing time today."
"Where ya goin'?"
"Oh, Costco. Wow."

You never know what might or might not happen if you don't take that ride. I didn't. And Costco was closed for the 4th.

So there I was back at my house with a bag of groceries and ice and beer for a minimalist cookout. Just the blue truck was still there, the rest of the floor guys off to pursue their holiday. I walked around back, laden with my stuff, to the garage door.

Upstairs, I could hear the music playing while he worked as I started put my groceries in the downstairs refrigerator. But for some reason the overhead light was out, and then I noticed the refrigerator light was out, too, so I headed for the new switch box in the laundry.

And that's when I realized that there was no radio. He was up there singing as he swabbed the decks with potent chemicals. And so I stood there in the dark and listened. This guy, this floor refinisher, had one of the finest voices I have ever heard, probably a tenor, rich and strong. I couldn't recognize what he was singing, but it was a complex melody. There was even something lilting, Harry Belafonte-ish about it, as if it was kind of a call and response, but there was no response. So I stepped closer to the bottom of the stairs to see if I could hear better.

Oh, yes. The words I could make out were things like "those fucking assholes" and "they don't realize" and "full of shit" and "why don't they." I was a little shocked, not by the words so much as by the fact that they fit so perfectly into the melody and that there was no rhyme or pattern to it and he was making it up as he was going along. And it was beautiful. You'll have to trust me on that--an excellent voice singing a song of rage, but in beautiful, measured, thought out tones.

My human tendency, hearing that, was to wonder if he was talking about me, but that passed quickly when I remembered that he asked if he could come finish the job that day. That was everyone else's tendency to, when I told them the story, from my family to my contractor. But I don't think so. And that's not a bad thing, to wonder if you've heaped misery on what must be a difficult life. One of the other guys on the floor team lives in a motel because he has no family and no reason to have a house.

But it had to be bigger than that. This man had been singing for a long time. These were neither tentative notes nor tentative thoughts. He was drawing musical water from a deep well. I had intruded upon one of those rare moments of complete honesty, the things we do and say when we are certain that no one else is listening. I believe I stumbled upon the Monotonous-Job-With-Chemical-Fumes-And-I-Can't-Even-Believe-The-Shit-I'm-Dealing-With-And-How-Did-I-Get-To-This-Place Blues, a poignant variation on the song that we all have inside of us, at least some of the time.

I didn't write about the 4th of July this year. This is why. I keep trying to remember this song instead.

1 comment:

troutking said...

Great post, Bob. A thought--so that something good comes out this guy's talent and hardship, how about if the Strut musical committee puts him together with that old toothless blues man playing on MLK and hires them next year instead of the no-soul parade of has-beens, never-weres and sons-of they've been hiring.