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Construction: A Short Story

W. David Marx presents a work of short fiction about the pitfalls of amazing menswear.

"Hey you, get up and help me with this girder."


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Girder? Me? What in the world was this guy talking about? When I’m standing next to a construction site I’m not suddenly part of a work crew. This was at 4th and Main, on the northwest side. I had parked my car across the street in front of the slightly fancy bodega that sells grilled cheese sandwiches made from real Danish maribo and perched on someone’s stoop, waiting for Spencer to show up so we could go to that loft party, when this random construction worker came charging over to bark orders.

"Get up, buddy. What are you waiting for? It’s time to do this."

And then I got why this guy was so confused: my boots.

And then I got why this guy was so confused: my boots. Just a week before, I won an online auction for a killer pair of 1970s American steel-toe Red Wings with a beautiful patina of small scratches and subtle variations in the leather grain that you only get with age. This was my first time wearing them out, and yeah, if you just saw my feet, especially paired with my ultra-rigid, shuttle-loom Okayama denim work dungarees, I kind of looked like I belonged on a construction site.

"Are you deaf, asshole? Get up and hold this girder."

"Hey, man." At this point he had already turned his back, just assuming I was following him. "Hey! Listen — I’m not part of this crew. I’m waiting here for my friend."

"Yeah right. I guess you’re wearing that hard hat to hide your bald spot. Get over here. I can’t carry this by myself."

Why did this guy know so little about workwear when that was basically his job? I was not wearing some standard issue "hard hat." This was a piece of rare, vintage headgear hand cast in Japanese aluminum. Very limited production run, with each hat completely unique from the others, meant for guys who fight fires on oil rigs. The thing was a little too big when I bought it but I had a milliner downtown make some adjustments and now it fit perfectly. My favorite thing about it was that if you held the hat up to the light, you could still kind of make out the name of the oil rig. Not sure where it was located though. The guy at the store told me Oklahoma but my gut said Texas. You couldn’t really see much of anything at night though, so to this construction worker, it probably just looked like a regular hard hat.

I tried to explain, "This hard hat isn’t like a real hard hat." I knocked on it. "It’s not even up to modern regulations, like OSHA 1910.135." The little I knew about OSHA — the law on Occupational Safety and Health Administration — I picked up a few days before when shopping online for some other hats.

"Chatterbox, get over here. We’ve got three other girders to put in place before the other guys can even start the main job."

I finally realized what was going on: we were wearing the exact same neon orange safety vest.

He headed to the far end of the steel beam and waited for me. I got up from the stoop to go discuss this matter man-to-man, but when I moved directly under the glow of the street lamp, I finally realized what was going on: we were wearing the exact same neon orange safety vest. The only difference was that the back of mine said CONSTRUCTION — the name of the underground British streetwear brand that made it.

"Glad to see you off your ass, buddy. You know you have to actually do some work to get paid, right?"

"No, no, you don’t understand. I’m not a construction worker. I’m just waiting for my friend."

"Look, I don’t know what kind of practical joke you are pulling here, but you got me. It was hilarious. Now can we get to work? I don’t know how many goddamn times I have to say it but we gotta get these girders set up before the rest of the crew arrives."

I attempted a different angle: "Hey man, I want you to know that I’m not properly unionized."

"Who is these days? Go over there and help me lift this."

I finally just decided to help the guy. I had time. I left my bag on the stoop and pulled out a pair of oil-resistant, Nitrile Grip gloves with PVC coating. I mostly use them when I ride my bike in the rain but I thought they would do the job here too. In hindsight I can’t believe I didn’t have my Kevlar Ansell Cut Protection gloves with me. I had left them at home because the color clashed with the orange in my vest.

I picked up the girder only to have the guy start barking at me again.

"What in the world are you doing? You wanna kill us? You can’t grip it like that."

"I told you, I’m not a construction worker." This was exasperating. There was just no getting to him.

"I told you, I’m not a construction worker." This was exasperating. There was just no getting to him.

We finally got the first girder in place and went over to get the second one. I decided that I needed to make peace with this guy in order to get the job done. "Hey, so what’s your name?"

"Spencer."

Something loud crashed in the background right as he said it. "Sorry, I didn’t catch that."

"Spencer. Hold the girder higher goddamit."

Now this was getting weird. This guy also happened to be named Spencer? What were the chances of that? This Spencer and my Spencer even had the same moustache. For a split second I thought I had been teleported to a parallel world where I was actually a construction worker and Spencer was middle-aged and forty pounds overweight. Or maybe I had warped into the future. A really bleak future.

But then the real Spencer showed up: "Mike, what the hell are you doing?"

"You mean with this prestressed steel I-beam? I’ve been helping this guy out a bit while waiting on you."

The construction Spencer shouted at my Spencer, "Hey buddy, get out of the way. We’re working here."

"Mike, let’s go, we’re already late."

"Okay, let me just put this thing in place."

Once I had firmly secured the beam, I went back over to the stoop to get my bag. But then construction Spencer started screaming at me again, "Hey where d’you think you’re going, hot shot?"

"Construction Spencer, I’m really honored that I was able to contribute to this project but I have to get going." "We gotta get two more girders in place. Get over here."

"Construction Spencer, I’m really honored that I was able to contribute to this project but I have to get going."

I didn’t really have a choice. I headed over to help with the third girder, when suddenly the construction site manager showed up, totally deus ex machina, and said to me, "Who the hell are you? You’re not on the crew today. I don’t have you down on this list."

"I’ve been trying to explain that to Spencer for the last fifteen minutes."

"Then get out of here. You know the rules. City makes us register names on site in advance. We can’t just have people show up and expect to get work. There’s a process. We’re not the unemployment office."

"I’m really sorry for the confusion."

"Okay, well, leave your gear in the tent over there before you take off." "Oh, no, this is all my own personal clothing."

"Funny. Just leave it in the tent. You don’t have to sign out or anything."

The Walk sign flashed on across 4th and Spencer headed over to the bodega. "Come on, Mike, let’s just go. I want to pick up a grilled cheese. You liked the Danish maribo?"

"Sorry again for the confusion, everyone," I hollered back as I also crossed the street. Waiting for Spencer, I went ahead and got in my car. But as I cranked on the ignition, Construction Spencer and the site manager stopped their work and slowly started lunging towards me. They were screaming something yet again, only I couldn’t hear under all the engine noise. Before they could get too close Spencer thankfully came out and hopped in. I put the thing in first gear and zoomed out. Spencer said the workers were all yelling something like "Come back with that bulldozer!" — as if my first-edition John Deere 450 series from 1965 would be useful for that kind of roadwork. I almost felt like going back and giving these guys a history lesson, but we had a party to get to.



W. David Marx is the author of nonfiction narrative,
Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style (Basic Books, 2015), on the rise of Japanese menswear on the global stage. He lives in Tokyo, Japan.

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