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Blue Collar, Blue Scrubs
The Making of a Surgeon
By Michael J. Collins
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2009 Michael J. Collins, M.D.
All rights reserved.
In the final stirrings of the night, the door opens and I'm back in the hole, throwing rocks. I've filled another truck with them. But Angelo isn't taking them to the dump. Instead, they're going somewhere else....
I roll over and flail again at the alarm clock. It's 5:00 A.M. I'm late and I know it. I groan, push myself up, and run a hand across my face.
I throw off the blanket, struggle to my feet, yank on my jeans, and throw a T-shirt over my shoulder. I sleep on the floor in the attic of my parents' house, and as I pad downstairs in my bare feet, the house is quiet. My parents and seven younger brothers won't be up for another hour or two. As I pass Tim's room, I bump open the door with my hip and flip on the light. Tim is lying on his right side, sheets twisted around him. I call his name and tell him I had fun with Diane last night. Diane is Tim's girlfriend.
"I think I finally convinced her she is going out with the wrong brother," I tell him.
Tim yawns, pulls the sheets over his head, and tells me to keep dreaming. "What girl in her right mind would go out with you?" he asks.
I scratch my head, realize Tim is probably right, and turn off the light.
Down in the kitchen, Shannon is curled up in the corner. She gets slowly to her feet, stretches, and dutifully shuffles over. I bend down, scratch her behind the ears, and tell her she is beautiful. Shannon yawns and goes back to the corner.
I wolf down a couple bananas and pour a glass of orange juice. As I am drinking the juice, I grab eight slices of bread, lather four with peanut butter, four with jelly, then fold them into sandwiches and toss them in a paper bag. In the corner of the icebox I find a boiled potato, two apples, and a plastic bowl of macaroni and cheese. I throw them in the bag, too. I fill my old, quart-glass Coke bottle with water, grab my boots from the back door, and trot out to the car. I toss my boots and lunch on the seat next to my hard hat, plop down into the driver's seat, and start the ignition. Blue-gray smoke belches from the exhaust as the old Pontiac rumbles into life.
It is ten to six when I jam on the brakes outside the ten-foot-high chain-link fence that surrounds the Vittorio Scalese Construction Company. The morning sun is streaming down Grand Avenue. Bakery trucks and newspaper vans are dragging long shadows behind them as they head east into the city. I grab my hard hat and lunch bag, slam the door of the Pontiac, and sprint through the gates past the large pile of wooden stakes that dominates the center of the yard. Behind the stakes, a thirty-foot-high shed with a corrugated iron roof shelters a table saw, more stakes, and two enormous piles of black dirt.
Fred is standing at the door of his office. He looks at his watch and says, "Good afternoon, Senator. Where the hell you been? Your crew left half an hour ago."
I tell Fred I'm sorry I'm late.
"Save the bullshit," he says. "Now take The Rat and get your ass out with your crew. You're lucky I didn't send Vito in your place and let you spend a couple a days workin' here in the yard."
Working in the yard is easy, but it's punishment. The yard is for guys who are too old or too incompetent to go out on the jobs. Yardbirds, we call them. They pull nails, load trucks, and cut stakes. No one ever worked himself to death in the yard.
As I turn to leave, Fred says, "By the way, you look like shit."
So does The Rat. The Rat is Scalese's oldest piece of equipment: a battered old stake truck, its original shiny red finish bleached to a tired brown from years of baking under scorching summer suns. Its windshield is cracked and dirty. Its body is splattered with rock-hard gobs of mud and concrete. Its doors are creased and dented from collisions with backhoes, compressors, and scoops. The two white rod racks sticking up on either side of the hood list drunkenly inward. The running board on the driver's side is loose and hangs at a forty-five-degree angle.
Inside, a dirty piece of burlap and an old Chicago Yellow Pages phone book cover the worn foam rubber and springs where the driver's seat used to be. The floor is covered with cigarette butts, beer cans, hamburger wrappers, expansion joints, form tools, pick heads, oilcans, and a ragged copy of the Sun-Times ("33 Die in French Quarter Fire"). The dashboard is littered with nails, old lunch bags, and toll tickets. In the center of the steering wheel someone has scratched his name: Steve. Under it, someone else has written "blows."
I climb into The Rat, adjust the phone book, fire up the engine, and highball it out of the yard. From the doorway, Fred shouts at me to slow down. "What do you think this is, the Indy Five Hunnert?"
Even though it's late, I stop the truck outside Mary's Grill at Cumberland and Grand. It's not even six yet, so there aren't many cars on the road. I click on the hazard lights, leave The Rat in the right-hand lane, and jump out of the truck.
Bill is sitting on the steps outside the grill. He is bent forward, knees drawn up, hands and arms clenched in front of his chest. At least he's not passed out in the bushes again. I touch him on the shoulder.
"Hey, Bill, you okay?"
Bill lifts his head, cocks it, and looks at me out of his right eye. His left eye is swollen shut. "Hello, Tommy," he says. I've told Bill a million times my name is Mike, but he still thinks I am his nephew Tommy.
"What happened to your eye, Bill?"
Bill frowns, feels his eye for several seconds, then shakes his head. "Dunno," he says. "Dunno." He rubs his scraggly beard. "Hate to ask, Tommy, but could you —"
"Sure, Bill," I say. I reach into my pocket and hand him a five. "Now come in and get some breakfast."
"Thanks. Thanks a lot, Tommy."
Inside, four other Scalese guys are at the counter, hunched over coffee and eggs.
"The hell you lookin' at?" Vito asks as I enter. "Am I the first Italian movie star you ever seen?"
Brother-in-Law, sitting next to him, grunts. "Huh. They don't show no faces in the kind of movies you be in," he says.
I ignore them both and tell Mary she looks beautiful this morning. Mary wipes the hair back from her forehead, rolls her eyes, and says she doesn't know why in the name of God she ever went into this business.
"Sweet-talkin' bullshit," she says. "That's all I ever hear in this place. Sweet-talkin' bullshit from guys who tell me I'm beautiful and can they pay me later?" She squirts a little grease on the griddle. "You gonna order somethin' or what?"
"Bacon and egg sandwich and a carton of milk."
Vito snickers. "Put it in a bottle with a nipple on it," he tells Mary.
Mary tells him to shut up. She says if Vito drank more milk maybe he wouldn't look like such a broken-down lowlife. Three minutes later she rips off a piece of grease paper, wraps my sandwich, and slides it across to me.
"Two twenty-five," she says.
I give her three bucks and tell her to keep the change.
"Better hurry, boys," I say to the other Scalese guys as I'm leaving. "You don't want to be late. Your uncle Fred misses his little yardbirds."
Brother-in-Law pounds his fist on the counter. "Uncle Fred can kiss my black ass!" he shouts as I hustle out the door.
Outside, Bill is still slumped against the wall. I look at my watch, hesitate, then help Bill to his feet and walk him inside. He's too wobbly for a chair at the counter this morning, so I sit him in one of the booths. I take the five-dollar bill from his right hand, raise it up, and show it to Mary. "Could you bring Bill some bacon and eggs and maybe a cup of coffee?" I ask her.
Mary never says no when it comes to Bill. She waves me out the door. "Get out of here. You leave Bill to me."
I shake Bill's shoulder "Mary's gonna bring you some breakfast, Bill," I tell him.
"Thanks, Tommy," he mumbles.
I tear out the door, hop into the truck, honk the horn, slam The Rat into first, and swing her left toward the Eisenhower.
It's almost 6:30 when I pull up at the job site. We don't officially start work until 7:00, but there is a tradition at Scalese called working for the church. This means that although we don't get paid till 7:00, we start working at 6:30 — or 6:00 or sometimes 5:30.
The other members of my crew are gathered around the compressor laughing and drinking coffee from white Styrofoam cups. Johnny Battaglia, our foreman, is sitting on the tailgate of his pickup reading the Trib. I pull up next to him. He looks up from his paper and says it's nice of me to stop by. Then he tells me to "park that piece-of-shit Rat and go help JT with the hoses."
JT is a thirty-five-year-old black man, father of six. He runs the gun on Johnny's crew. JT's forearms are each as big as a caveman's club. By the time I get over to him he already has the hoses laid out.
"Mike," he says, "the hell you been, man? Sippin' tea with the yardbirds?"
"Naw, I just slept late, that's all."
"Old Fred, he don't like that shit."
"Yeah. He let me know."
As I am pulling the gloves from my back pocket, Joe Roselli flings the dregs of his coffee onto the ground, crushes his cup, and throws it in the gutter. Then he slaps my belly with the back of his left hand. "Hey, man, I was starting to get worried," he says.
Rosie is a twenty-year-old kid who played linebacker at Eastern Illinois until he flunked out last year. He is built like a chunk of granite. Johnny Battaglia stole him from Pappy Cirrincione's crew back in April and won't give him back because he works so hard. Rosie, JT, and I have been working together on the breakout gang all year.
Scalese is in the concrete construction business. What we construct is mostly curbs and gutters. But before the new ones can be put in, the old ones have to be broken out. That's where the breakout gang comes in. First the gun runner breaks the old gutters into jagged hundred-pound hunks of concrete. Then the rock thrower bends down, his face inches from the pounding jackhammer, lifts the piece, or "rock," and throws it onto the back of a truck — rock after rock, hour after hour, day after day. Throwing rocks: the toughest job at the toughest construction company in Chicago. When people ask me what I'm doing with my Notre Dame education and I tell them I throw rocks, they say, "Your parents must be very proud."
The sun is knifing between the warehouses and factories, laying long bars of light across Western Avenue. There was rain during the night and the sidewalks are glistening and fresh. The morning wind is ruffling the burlap on the back of The Rat. Far to the north I can hear the rumble of the el. Johnny Battaglia looks at his watch. It's 6:30. He folds his paper, throws it in the cab, and slaps his hands together. "Aw right, aw right," he says. "We ain't got all day. Get that Sullair goin' and let's get to work."
JT swings the air hammer off the back of the truck and fits it with a bit. Rosie and I grab pick heads from under the seat and slide the heads down worn ash shafts. Jesse climbs onto the back of The Rat and throws off a couple shovels. Then JT fires up the compressor. He lugs his gun over to the first section, looks at me and Rosie, grins, and squeezes the trigger.
Suddenly the morning silence is shattered by the roar of the compressor, the thunder of the jackhammer, the bellowing of the foreman, and the rumble of the big trucks jockeying into position.
"Now bend down and lift those rocks," Johnny shouts. "Asses and elbows! That's all I want to see for the next twelve hours: asses and elbows."
"Asses and elbows!" JT bellows as he hammers away at the concrete, chips flying everywhere. "Asses and elbows!" Rosie roars as he lifts the first piece, walks it over, and heaves it onto the back of The Rat. "Asses and elbows!" Angelo shouts as he revs up his truck and backs it next to the compressor.
In an hour The Rat is loaded and ready for the dump. Even though I'm the one who drives The Rat every day, I'm a laborer, not a driver. Our driver is a forty-two-year-old guy named Angelo Sansonetti. We need two trucks on the job every day, so Angelo brings one truck, I bring the other. When he was young, Angelo used to throw rocks, too. "Until I finally got brains and became a driver," he says.
Ange pulls his truck up behind mine, hops into The Rat, and heads for the dump. Rosie and I then begin loading Angelo's truck.
The final member of our crew is Jesse Perkins. Jesse is a short, stocky black guy who, according to Angelo, has been with Scalese "since Jesus was a corporal."
Jesse is a little more specific. "Shee-it," he says. "I started with this company the day after old Abe Lincoln got hisself shot."
Night or day, rain or shine, Jesse wears a pair of black wraparound sunglasses and baggy blue overalls in which he keeps a half-pint of VO and three or four cans of Schlitz. He is missing three of his upper teeth and five of his lower. Jesse likes to talk and he's got a few years on him, but Rosie and I like him. We let him do the grading while we throw the rocks.
About nine o'clock, the little kids and the old men start coming out of their houses to watch us. The kids stand on the edge of the sidewalk, eyes wide, hands at their sides, afraid to get too close, but fascinated by the roar of the machines and the grunts of the laborers. The old men sit on their porches, saying nothing, watching us from under straw fedoras as we hurl rock after rock onto the bed of the truck. Sometimes we can almost see the longing in their creased faces.
An hour later, the coffee truck pulls up. JT wedges his jackhammer in a crack, and we stop for a break. As we drink our coffee, Angelo starts in again on JT.
"JT, you must really want that foreman job," he says. "Look how much you've broken out already. Fer Chrissake, you're killin' the job. We coulda stretched this section into half a day at least. Keep it up, big guy. Next thing you know they'll be giving you twenty blocks a day to break out."
Rosie is sitting on the back of The Rat, his hard hat pushed back on his head and his legs swinging free. "Hey, JT," he says, "when you make foreman, you gonna have any white guys on your crew?"
JT, whose black skin is glistening with sweat, wipes his mouth with the back of his hand and nods. "Damn right," he says. "But not just white. They all gonna be Eyetalians. You the only ones stupid enough to work like this."
JT looks over and sees me smiling. "What you laughin' at, Shit-for-brains?" he asks. "You gonna be there, too. Mmm-hmm. That's right. Throwin' rocks is all you dumb Irish motherfucks is good for."
"And eating potatoes," Angelo says. "You ever see people who eat as many potatoes as those damn Irish? Fer Chrissake, they inhale the damn things."
Johnny Battaglia says he doesn't care who eats what as long as they work. He turns to JT. "Now get that gun running. I want the rest of this block broken out by noon." I stuff one more donut in my mouth; then Rosie and I heave ourselves to our feet and slip our gloves back on. JT starts the compressor, swings the air hammer around like a toothpick, and begins slamming away at more concrete. We spend the rest of the morning slowly moving north: JT breaking out the rocks, Rosie and I throwing them on the trucks, Jesse trailing behind us with the scoop shovel, and Angelo shuttling back and forth to the dump.
When noon comes, JT leans his air hammer against the Sullair and shuts it down. Rosie and I climb out of the hole and go back to The Rat, where we left our lunches. Jesse and Angelo grab their lunch boxes and the five of us find a spot of shade next to a fence.
Angelo picked up a couple six-packs of Old Style on his way back from the dump. We lean against the fence, legs extended, eating sandwiches and drinking beer. We are quiet until a rat sticks its nose out of the sewer. Since we spend so much time breaking out curbs and gutters we are always running across rats. Jesse throws an empty beer can at it and says he hates the fucking things.
He wipes his red bandana across his forehead and says that the rat reminds him of a young girl who used to live down the street from him. Rosie looks at me over his can of Old Style and shrugs. It looks like we're in for another one of Jesse's stories.
"She be livin' over there on Homan Avenue, up on the fourth floor," he says. "She gets her welfare check one Friday, then splits, leavin' her five-year-old to watch the baby. She come home that night and she sees that baby is awful quiet. She pulls back the covers and five rats jump out at her. Those rats had eaten that baby clean up to the chest."
I groan and look at Jesse in disbelief, but he swears it's true.
"Yeah, babe. The police took the other child away from her and hauled that woman's ass off to jail."
Excerpted from Blue Collar, Blue Scrubs by Michael J. Collins. Copyright © 2009 Michael J. Collins, M.D.. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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