Real Work

Joseph Bathanti


All the sons of the Church should remember that their exalted status is to be attributed not to their own merits but to the special grace of Christ.

- The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium)

We should be mixing cement on some open plain …

- Biff from Death of a Salesman

- Arthur Miller

The summer of 1976, the bicentennial year – the year I left my home town of Pittsburgh for good to trek to North Carolina to work in a prison as a VISTA Volunteer – I was employed as a laborer, a hod carrier to be precise, for my Uncle Leo, one of my mother’s brothers, a successful, wealthy brick contractor. A millionaire, the family whispered. My pay was $2.75 an hour, by far the highest wage I had ever earned.

On my VISTA application, I had pinpointed Montana as my number one choice for a gig – simply because Montana struck me as a grand and unfathomable. However, because I fit the generalist rubric – meaning that unlike plumbers, electricians, physicians, etc., I had no specific skill in anything – I fetched an assignment at Huntersville Prison, in deep country, twelve miles north of Charlotte.

I had applied to VISTA not because I knew what I wanted to do, but because the list of what I couldn’t stomach doing was so ponderously long. Smoldering in me, as well, was the desire to leave Pittsburgh. Not because I felt trapped or nursed a grudge against it – on the contrary – but because I was sure that leaving was the right thing you do. As if I had received a spiritual imprimatur. Had I been rejected by VISTA, my friend David Friday and I planned to buy brand new Harleys, throttle them cross-country to California, sell them there in the Golden State for a grubstake and see what happened. I also had half a dozen law school applications stacked on my bedroom desk – from places like Yale, Dickinson, Suffolk and Tufts – that made my mother salivate.

That summer I was also taking my last three hours of course work one evening a week toward completion of a Master’s degree in English Literature from the University of Pittsburgh where I had a mere twelve months earlier completed my undergraduate degree in English Literature. The class was Latin American Literature, taught by Harry Mooney, my advisor, the high priest of literature, whom I idolized. He was a graduate in 1951 of Pittsburgh Central Catholic High School – three blocks away from Pitt on the same street, Fifth Avenue – where I had also graduated, twenty years after Dr. Mooney, in 1971.

In 1976, Latin American Literature was esoteric. The world had not yet been hyphenated. My family was still Italian, though soon, without realizing it, we would become Italian-Americans, a benefit I’m still not sure I’ve realized. I had never heard of the canonical Latin American writers: Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortazar, Carlos Fuentes, Manuel Puig et al. – household literary names these days. Until that course, no one had told me One Hundred Years of Solitude, which I had never heard of either, a mere nine years old at the time, was considered by many the greatest novel of the twentieth century. I was three credits shy of a Master’s Degree in Literature and I had never heard of the greatest novel of the 20th century. That was just the tip of the iceberg of my ignorance.

Prior to laboring for my uncle, I had been fired from my previous two jobs: driving a delivery truck for a flower shop, and as a drone at a toy warehouse. The jobs I had had prior to those positions, I had quit, or perhaps been fired (the distinction was ever-blurring back then): as a night-watchman at an apartment building, and as a busboy. By the summer of ’76, I had decided I wanted to be a writer. But of course I hadn’t known what that was, what it entailed, how you arranged to be one. I had taken one undergraduate creative writing class at Pitt – Advanced Poetry Workshop – and emerged from it with a sheaf of benighted verse that my professor, Ed Ochester, an important American poet, had been very kind about, though I imagine him alone in his office rolling his eyes over it, and perhaps even reading a couplet or two of it aloud to his colleagues, my other professors, just for laughs. Nevertheless, I had fabricated for myself, at least internally, an identity as writer, though it would be years before I fully understood what being a writer, what writing, really meant.

More than anything, I wanted to read, and I wanted someone to pay me to do this – to remunerate me for simply sitting around and reading. That was the position I was looking for. In fact, I had lost my job at the toy warehouse because I had built a hideout from enormous toy boxes in the top rack of shelves, against the torrid warehouse ceiling, and perched all day five stories above four acres of concrete reading Dostoevsky (I made it all the way through The Idiot before the axe fell), eating junior mints, and deviled crab from Munch’s Lunch truck until it was time to punch out and head for beer at Sam and Ann’s Bar.

I don’t suppose I wanted the job laboring for my uncle, but among my male cousins, and my uncles, carrying a hod for Leo at least one summer of your life was the measure of your backbone, a family rite of passage, the spurs of manhood. Even my father had labored on a few occasions for Uncle Leo when he was on strike from the mill. So I cobbled together for myself a durable tale, something to mythologize what was sure to be agony: that the kind of work I was about to enter into – carrying a hod, whatever a hod was – was noble and honest. In truth, keenly romantic. Working construction was men’s work: outside, under the sun, no shirt, khakis, clodhoppers, and a Pirates baseball cap. I had been an athlete all my life, and was in terrific physical shape.

What’s more, I was 22 years old, a grown man, by anyone’s calculation, a man who could handle whatever hardship a day’s wages blew his way, one of Kerouac’s exulted fellaheen, a chap who fit clearly the Hemingway code. I might be suffering internally, but I would never cry out. Hubris and ignorance, not to mention falsehood, are often all we have; and, as Camus points out in “The Myth of Sisyphus,” “there is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.” Camus also reminds us in that perfect little essay that the Gods “had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.” Something that rang so witheringly true, even the first time I read it as a sixteen year old high school junior, and what I sought to escape by leaving Pittsburgh.

My first day on the job was unbearable – much worse than I could have imagined. A day filled with shame, a textbook lesson in humility. My strength, my stamina, my intelligence, what I regarded as my superiority, ended up not being worth a bent nail. Before I stepped on that construction site that first day at 6:45 a.m., I had no idea what a hod was. Nevertheless, my entire life the word had been embedded in the family lexicon, a redolent symbol, seared into my collective unconscious. These days, I’m certain, hods are for the most part obsolete.

According to Webster’s, a hod is "an open box attached to a long pole in which bricks or mortar are carried on the shoulder." I find this an oversimplified definition, but adequate. The box is really a wedge one loads with bricks or mortar, then assumes on one’s trapezoid the sharp weighted angle of the V, balancing the entire affair with a pole the length of a hoe handle, and totters across the pocked and littered site toward the bricklayers screaming at you to hurry the fuck up.

I loaded my first hod full of oozing mortar, situated myself at the hod stand as if assuming a brace of barbells to press, and stepped away with it on my shoulder. It was precisely like having a hundred pounds of concrete loaded into your skull, and a giraffe’s center of gravity. Like a drunkard, I staggered for a moment, a slurry of mortar spilling over my face and torso, then managed before I toppled to get it racked back in the stand. I took a few more cracks at the hod, the bricklayers yapping unmercifully for me to hustle, but I just couldn’t finesse it. The physics, not to mention the necessary Herculean strength, were too befuddling. I found a couple of five gallon metal buckets, shoveled them full of mortar and, one in each hand, humped mud like that all day. My attempt to transport bricks in the hod was equally pathetic, so I ended up using brick tongs, a clamped span of ten bricks in each hand.

Of course, the bricklayers and the other laborers made fun of me – Leo’s nephew, some sissy college kid. The day was sheer misery, a horrifying soul-searing workout. By 3:30, quitting time, I was a mess, like I had been worked over under the hot blistering sun by a squad of nuns. More than anything, I was terrified I’d have to quit, simply give up, the kind of admission I don’t think I ever could have come to grips with. I didn’t know how I’d be able to last the summer. The disgrace of it all, the death blow to my early manhood, would have been too much to bear. But, day by day, lurch by lurch, I got the hang of it, and became a tolerable laborer, and even developed the kind of masochistic affection for it that one sometimes feels upon finishing a race that nearly kills you.

After going steady all day with the hod, I drove home; and, still in my sodden work clothes, jumped on a borrowed ten speed, and pedaled miles through the city streets, took a shower, and ate supper with my parents – one notch less in the numbered days we had left together under the same roof. My father, a millwright on the open hearth at Edgar Thomson Steel Works, in Braddock, PA, the first steel mill Andrew Carnegie had opened in America, arrived home by 4:30. A swell cook, he had supper on the table when my mother, a seamstress, downtown, in Brooks Brothers tailor shop, barged in from the bus stop, laden with packages and a chip on her shoulder. Like me, she bristled at authority.

Wednesday evenings I showed up in my dusty, mortar-encrusted laborer’s clothes at Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning for my three-hour seminar. Dr. Mooney, “the knight of the rueful figure,” the high priest of literature, bought his pristine shirts, his suits and blazers at Brooks Brothers. My mother might have basted his cuffs or taken in his trousers. His club ties matched his argyles. His wing-tips were blinding. Half-glasses sat at the tip of his long nose. Unabashedly wed to literature, he fulminated and sighed and theatrically read long passages from the texts – “miracles of compression,” “marvels of economy” – to the class. Six-foot-five, willowy as Prince Myshkin, he often shot his French cuffs like a pool shark or hitman, but he was gentle, a purist, a dead ringer for Walter Matthau. It seems obvious now that Dr. Mooney was my inspiration for teaching – though sitting in his class, back then, clad in the honest filth of my peasant forbears, imagining myself in his robes, or possessing even a jot of his intellect, was as fantastic as the books on my syllabus.

The other grad students, much older than I, PhD candidates among whom I felt inferior – their vocabularies were exquisitely superior, inanely intoxicating – stared at me, I imagined, cowled in a cloud of brick and mortar dust, like I was a janitor instead of a working class hero. I never felt I belonged among them. The same way I felt among those bricklayers and carpenters, plumbers and electricians.

Occasional evenings, I hung out with my best friends (still my best friends), like brothers, neighborhood kids I’d known all my life, and gone through Catholic school and played ball with. Even then, my love for them was complete. Finally old enough to drink legally, after all those years of fake IDs, and Pittsburgh dives in the University district that served toddlers if they were tall enough to plunk their pennies on the bar, we’d split a cheap pitcher at Lou’s Lounge or Taylor’s. I can’t remember a thing we said, just the scraps of their voices I embellish in fictive dialogue I invent in stories and poems, and it is often there within those pages that they live for me most poignantly. Or if I was feeling maudlin and profound, if the muse was teasing me – along with the fact then, as always, I was secretly in love and tongue-tied and jilted in the bargain – I’d drive to the dark smoky Mardi Gras, play sad songs by Graham Nash and Joni Mitchell on its kaleidoscopic jukebox and drink – at the bar, of course (the booths were for others) – exactly two very cold bottles of Schmidt’s of Philadelphia. Laboring kept me in a state of constant thirst. Beer never tasted so good.

Sunday mornings, I played a softball double-header in an industrial league in played-out steel neighborhoods across the Allegheny River. I had put together a team – the Deer, just Deer – comprised of those same old friends, some of whom knew the game and played it well, and some who didn’t. The team was a lark, a kind of absurdist flourish to my last summer in Pittsburgh where playing ball – baseball above all – had meant more to me than anything else. Baseball, even before books, had been my first dream. But, that summer I was about to turn twenty-three, it all began to fade on those treacherous oily fields grouted with glass and gravel, playing against guys who looked more like hung-over nose-guards than baseball players. They grunted when they rocketed their boozy homers over rusted two story chain link into the dingy cobblestone streets of Beechview and Carrick. They beat us to death and talked shit in the bargain: Deer. Whatever the hell that meant. And our foppish too-nice uniforms. We won three games and laughed our asses off. Egotistically orchestrating my own swan song, I kept stats and played as if my life depended on it.

Most nights I stayed home. My father read the newspaper. My mother with needle and thread. She had taken up quilting. The TV would be on. Eventually, it put them to sleep. Jimmy Carter was running for president. Ford was a good guy. Nixon, deposed and disgraced, in the words of my mother, was “a sneaky bastard.” I’d sit and have ice cream with them, a cup of tea – already I’d begun to despise television – then climb the stairs to my bedroom, still decked with the prizes of my boyhood: trophies and pennants, the mammoth poster of Babe Ruth above my bed, orbiting it small cameos of Muhammad Ali, Roberto Clemente, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, the “romantic egoist.” The requisite crucifix lent the room a churchy air. Congregated atop my dresser were statues of the Blessed Mother, the Sacred Heart, Saints Joseph, Francis and Anthony, scapulars and Easter palm.

I slipped between the immaculate sheets – my mother still made my bed – and read about the boiling heat of Garcia-Marquez’s Macondo, where characters thrived on meals of damp soil, spat butterflies, levitated. Where a “very old man” with “enormous wings,” a “flesh-and-blood angel,” plummets to earth one day and is locked in a chicken coop. Where the unearthly inexplicable is married to the mundane and wholly unastonished by it. I was forced to stop reading Carlos Fuentes’ The Death of Artemio Cruz. It made me feel, I swear, like jagged pieces of metal were grinding inside me.

Latin American Literature was like acid: disorienting, inebriating, spiriting me off to the realm of magical realism – a term (whatever it means), as I remember, yet to be coined in 1976. Literary hallucinogens that made me lust to write. Though I never wrote. Maybe a scribble on a bar napkin that never made it out of my pocket. In the main, I read the Latin Americans and fell asleep early, sometimes chancing a cigarette in the candlelight of my boyhood, though my mother would give me hell about it the next day. What was this VISTA bullshit anyway? She was brokenhearted that I was leaving. My father too, though he said nothing, Thank God, as was his wont. I had to be up at 5:30 every morning and drive to the site in my black VW bug with no reverse and work under the merciless sun carrying hods of brick and mortar. Real work.

That summer, I was preparing, I thought, to walk away from my past. I was leaving for VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) and glad about it, and that pleasure, the joyous anticipation, at contemplating my escape from home and my family filled me with guilt. And my dear parents? How odd I must have seemed to them, in the last days of my life as an only child – my older sister, Marie, had married six years earlier – the first person with my surname to ever walk in a college classroom. I was now, by God, getting a Master’s Degree in English Literature – whatever that was – then traipsing off to work in a prison 500 miles away.

Fridays, after work, I drove straight home and left my battered work boots at the back door with the three other pairs queued on the stoop and walked in the kitchen. Around the table were my dad, then only 61; my Godfather, Paul Pagano (my dad was Paul’s Godfather); and my cousin-through-marriage, Paul’s son-in-law, Ronnie Villani.

Paul was a cement finisher, the son of a cement finisher who had emigrated from Napoli. Paul looked like Tyrone Power. A few months after his eighteenth birthday he had hurtled across the Pacific on the U.S.S. North Carolina, Battleboat 55, the most decorated sea-faring vessel during World World II, to take part in the invasion of Japan – though the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki while he was en route.

Ronnie had grown up on Lenora Street, behind Larimer Field. He’d played for Pete D’Imperio’s famous ’64 City League single-wing champs at Westinghouse High. The only white kid on the all-black team. The only white kid in his all-black graduating class. All-City tackle. Stronger than Samson. Big and hairy and beneficent. Beautiful teeth. He worked heavy construction. Sheetrock up and down eighty stories, all day, with his bare hands.

Quiet, steady, my dad rose daily in the dark, packed my lunch – and my mother’s – still scribbled in pencil my name on the little brown bag, brewed a thermos of coffee for me, often left a few bucks under my stash or in the front seat of my VW. By the time I stepped on the site at 6:45 – wearing his boots and gloves, his hat, his name – he’d been long punched in, sweltering at the mouth of a blast furnace, or belted to a boom crane gantry high above the Monongahela.

They were the men I wanted to be like. Dr. Mooney too.

The four of us were shirtless and brown. Crosses on chains glinted on our tanned chests. Along with his cross, Ronnie sported the tribal horn to ward off the malocchio, the evil eye. On the table gleamed the bottle of Black Velvet, twinkling amber in the late afternoon sun like an icon itself at quitting time. Squat sweating bottles of cold Iron City in front of each of them to chase the shots, canted neatly in cordial glasses. Piled in a platter were provolone and salami, olives and tomatoes, fresh Sicilian bread my dad had purchased at dawn at Rimini’s down on Larimer Avenue. A cast iron vat of hot sausage and peppers, my dad’s specialty, simmered on the stove. The screen door was open. The summer birds sang in Italian.

When I disappeared from that kitchen thirty-five years ago, and walked onto a North Carolina prison yard, into the wildly new, unlikely life awaiting me – and later into a college classroom where I would make my living and vocation – I left behind the harrowing necessity, the tradition of my family as far back as anyone can reckon, of literally sweating and dangerously punishing my body in crud and abysmal weather to score a paycheck. I became a teacher and writer, a man with soft hands, pressed shirts, clean shoes I no longer had to check at the back door. The dream of my ancestors when they hobbled onto those ships along Italy’s impoverished coast, possessed of tools, bread, and the clothes on their backs, was that I and my ilk would never know what William Faulkner calls, in “A Rose for Emily,” “the old thrill and the old despair of a penny more or less.” I don’t even know how to be thankful enough that I stumbled into this life of books, this “last good job in America.” It is a catechism lesson in the undeserved gift of grace, in all its lustrous numen.

Yet the instinct toward manual labor, that Calvinist bent of mortifying the flesh – nailed to my psche, to my very soul, by a brace of galvanized ten-pennies – till nags me. I find myself addled with a sense of unworthiness if I do not submit daily to a ritual of self-imposed physical hardship. Other than the usual house maintenance – the occasional coat of paint, habitual grass-cutting, weed-eating, snow-shoveling, keeping the cars roadworthy, animal husbandry, etc. – how does the garden-variety English Professor-Writer sublimate such a compulsion? A kind of guilt arising from the suspicion that a life of the mind exclusively, unleavened by blue collar toil, is not quite enough? That it leads, perhaps, to a spiritual quandary?

I run a lot of miles, every day, regardless of geography or weather, and I pray as I log them, reflexively, as if storing up the kinds of indulgences – as instructed by the nuns who savagely taught me – that will whittle time off my de rigueur jolt in Purgatory. Running is no-nonsense work without a whit of glamor – often punishing, most of the time uncomfortable, glorious in not very obvious ways, but glorious nonetheless. Ever the poet, Saint Paul said it nicely in II Corinthians: Wherefore we labour, that, whether present or absent, we may be accepted of Him. The worst indictment I ever heard from my father was when he would say of another man, “He’s so lazy he stinks.”

My dad, Paul and Ronnie: they smiled when I appeared at the threshold. These were my people, and on Friday afternoons, strolling into my parents’ kitchen, as if out of the boiling shimmer of Macondo, grimy and happy that my week with the hod and the grad students was over, I had become a manovale, a real worker, like the men of my family. My dad jumped up and fetched me a beer. Paul poured me a shot. Ronnie clapped me on the back – like being smacked with a sack of mortar – and proclaimed, “My man.”

They laughed. How the hell was I going to make out on the two grand a year I’d be making as a VISTA, and food stamps? I couldn’t have learned too much with all that college. Then they really laughed. I laughed too. I didn’t know how the hell I’d make out. In just a few weeks I’d be on a prison yard. I’d have a Cuban room-mate whose father was locked in Castro’s jail. I’d tour Death Row, then the gas chamber. I’d fall precipitously in love with a woman from Georgia and marry her fourteen months later. I’d engage for the rest of my life the habitual sustained toil, the real work, of writing. Traipsing out of one world, through a secret portal, and lurching into another.

Together we lifted the shots – Saluto – threw them back and chased them with an Iron.

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Joseph Bathanti is former Poet Laureate of North Carolina(2012-14) and recipient of the 2016 North Carolina Award for Literature. He is the author of ten books of poetry, including Communion Partners; Anson County; The Feast of All Saints; This Metal, nominated for the National Book Award, and winner of the Oscar Arnold Young Award; Land of Amnesia; Restoring Sacred Art, winner of the 2010 Roanoke Chowan Prize, awarded annually by the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association for best book of poetry in a given year; Sonnets of the Cross; Concertina, winner of the 2014 Roanoke Chowan Prize; and The 13th Sunday after Pentecost, released by LSU Press in 2016. His novel, East Liberty, won the 2001 Carolina Novel Award. His novel, Coventry, won the 2006 Novello Literary Award. His book of stories, The High Heart, won the 2006 Spokane Prize. They Changed the State: The Legacy of North Carolina’s Visiting Artists, 1971-1995, his book of nonfiction, was published in early 2007. His recent book of personal essays, Half of What I Say Is Meaningless, winner of the Will D. Campbell Award for Creative Nonfiction, is from Mercer University Press. A new novel, The Life of the World to Come, was released from University of South Carolina Press in late 2014. Bathanti is Professor of Creative Writing at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC, and the University’s Watauga Residential College Writer-in-Residence. He served as the 2016 Charles George VA Medical Center Writer-in-Residence in Asheville, NC.