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I was one of those kids with perpetually grass-stained knees who reveled in the acquisition of new scrapes and bruises and the accumulation of mud under my fingernails. Being dirty was an accomplishment. My big brothers were always dirty when they got home from work, always covered in sawdust or mortar and stinking of sweat and construction site dust. They were two of the coolest people I knew and I wanted nothing more than to be dirty, just like them.
With age came invitations to accompany them on jobs, which was inevitable. It was a family flooring installation business, and it belonged to all of us, even me. At “work” during my preteen years, I wore whatever clothes I owned that were too old or ill-fitting for school. I was fragile and spindly back then and did not look the part of a construction worker, but I took pleasure in dressing up (or down, as it were). I liked fetching tools and earning the rips in my pants and pulling splinters from my palms. I liked the fatherly banter from strange men on job sites, pointing out how I was really something and shouldn’t my parents be proud.
At school, I experimented with different kinds of clothing. I’d always loved reading The Baby-sitter’s Club, a series in which a main character crafts outlandish outfits, so I figured it would be fun for me to do the same. Homemade jewelry, oversized sweaters with leggings, vibrant skirt-and-tights combos. My creations weren’t well-received. Once, a classmate asked me out on a date as a joke while his friends stood nearby and snickered. Another poured a pile of outdoor debris, literally sticks and stones, into my backpack when I wasn’t looking. As a middle-schooler, these moments felt excruciating. I retreated into my books and spent most of my time in the library, the second safest place in the world — after my beloved construction sites.
At 16, I worked after school as an actual, paid flooring installer. I nailed hardwood and built tile showers and eventually started directing crews of men twice my age. I made decent money and bought work clothes that were practical and made me feel attractive. Low-cut, flare-legged jeans that looked good with a leather belt and tool pouch. Tees slim enough to show off my figure but loose enough for me to stick my hand under and fold them up to wipe the sweat off my forehead.
I felt confident in those clothes. I liked that I could walk into a hardware store or lumber yard and be taken seriously. I liked how the strange men had started looking at me with intrigue, as if I was really something but in a way that was different than before. By my junior year of high school, I had figured out how to dress for the acceptance of my peers: polos with logos, denim skirts, overpriced leather sandals. I made friends and even dated a couple of the more popular boys — but I clung to the edges of their world with difficulty. It was only after the bell rang, after I slipped out of my itchy teenage skin and back into my grimy work one, that I felt comfortable. Everything else was just pretending.
Homecoming was in October. I’d stopped by a little mall boutique after school, on my way to help one of my brothers install porcelain tile in a kitchen, and I had a small selection of dresses draped over my arm. I approached a saleswoman.
“Hi, can I try these on?”
She evaluated me slowly. Her gaze cascaded from the top of my head (ponytail tucked under a baseball cap speckled with dried thin-set mortar) to my T-shirt and jeans, which were technically clean but had seen better days, and on down to my crusted-over work boots. She cocked her head to the side and gifted me with a pitying smile that was somehow also a frown.
“Aww, honey,” she whispered. “Of course you can.”
She thought I couldn’t afford them.
Another time I walked into the restroom of a busy lunch joint. A little girl was sitting on the edge of the counter waiting for her mother, who was in a stall. I smiled at the girl and took to washing my dirt-caked hands at the sink. The girl stared at me, her eyes wide with concern.
“Mommy!? There's a man in here.”
These moments didn’t hurt my feelings the way the rocks had years before, but I do remember them. I remember thinking about my brothers, how I’d been to restaurants and clothing stores with them at their grimiest, and I’d never seen them on the receiving end of a pitying smile. And while I can't confirm this, I would bet their degree of cleanliness (or lack thereof) never caused onlookers to mistake them for women.
I installed full-time for a few more years and then quit. I didn’t stop enjoying it, but tides do change and I’m the type who can get tired of anything. I worked in retail for a while, then transitioned to office life, where, like in high school, I learned how to dress for acceptance. Cardigans, dresses, flats, funky accessories that doubled as conversation starters. Now I work from home as a writer and am pleased to once again have the rare luxury to wear only what is needed. Because I live in Florida, that means shorts and tank tops.
Somewhere along the way, I tossed my dirty old work clothes. I miss them at times.
I miss them on nights when a gang of blue-collar workers are laughing over a round of beers at the bar. I miss them on mornings when I’m feeling particularly nostalgic, when I stop at a gas station and crews are fueling up, chugging cheap coffee, and icing down coolers of bottled water. I've missed them on so many occasions when looking like a man — or at least like a member of the men’s club — would be more beneficial than looking like a woman.
I could always get some more clothes like the ones I used to wear, rub dirt on them, maybe pull a few threads loose at the seams. But of course, it's not really about the fabric. I miss the camaraderie of my crew, the weight of a tool pouch against my left hip, and how unbreakable I felt wearing outfits meant to be broken in. I miss being a dirty woman who made clean people uncomfortable. I miss using my jeans as napkins.
I could dress for the reactions I want, but there’s no practical reason for me to wear a pair of crusty work boots out to the bar or mall. And if there’s one lesson I learned from my roots, one thing about myself I’ve come to terms with once and for all, it’s that I just like practicality — no pretending.
Recently, I decided to install a backsplash in my kitchen. It had been years since I’d used any of my tile tools, and when I dug them out of storage, I realized my sawblades were dull. I drove to a home improvement store to buy replacements.
There are multiple ways to cut tile. You can use a wet saw, which looks like someone flipped a table saw upside down and stuck it in a tiny bathtub. You can use a tool called a scorer. Or you can use nearly any small, handheld dry saw as long as you switch the toothed blade out for a smooth diamond blade. (Teeth are for cutting wood.) I prefer the last option, though it works best if the tile isn’t too dense — otherwise it will heat up and chip all to hell.
At the store, I asked an employee where to find their diamond blades. I was wearing a floral tank top, nice shorts, and a pair of Vans. He must have misheard me. He must have thought I’d asked not for blades, but for a long-winded lecture about how they work and how tile can only be cut with a wet saw, no exceptions. After 10 minutes of this I went off to find the blades myself.
The backsplash looks great, by the way.