Sunday, September 02, 2007

A Labor Day Memory

In honor of the Labor Day holiday, I am taking the weekend off and rerunning a column that first ran on September 4, 2006. In the meantime, don't forget the latest Friday Challenge.


Way back before the dawn of recorded time, my home town had a jobs program for disadvantaged youth that provided minimum-wage entry-level summer jobs in the city parks department. Despite our city's rather alarming poverty stats, though, they could never find enough disadvantaged youth to fill all the budgeted positions, and so every June they'd issue a second frantic call for any high-school-aged guys willing to work in their local neighborhood park, which is how I wound up in the program.

It was, I must admit, a pleasantly stupid way to earn a few bucks over the summer. (This was before the advent of the ubiquitous "Would you like fries with that?" job.) My crew worked outdoors most days, from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., schlepping hoses, watering lawns, picking up litter, moving picnic tables around, and otherwise performing similarly arduous and intellectually demanding tasks.

One morning when we clocked in, though, our foreman told us we had a new challenge. The park had a bandshell, and our job was to assemble the temporary stage risers needed for the concert that night. He drove over to the bandshell -- and I do mean he drove, while we trotted along behind; I don't think I ever saw him set foot outside of that golf cart or without a cigarette in his mouth -- pointed to the backstage door, and told us the riser parts were inside and being a bunch of smart kids, we should be able to figure out how to put it together. Someone asked how long the job should take.

He said, "The union work rules say it takes a full crew four hours to assemble those risers." Then he putt-putted off.

Four hours? Of course we took that as a challenge! We dove into it, figured out how to assemble the thing -- it was no mystery to anyone who'd ever played with Tinkertoys or an Erector Set -- whipped it together in under an hour, and were just smug as could be when our foreman came back to check on our progress.

He took one look at it and said, "You did it wrong. Tear it down and do it over." Somebody protested that there was no possible way we could have put it together wrong, but he repeated, "The union work rules say it takes a full crew four hours to assemble those risers. You obviously did it wrong. Now tear it down and do it over." Then he putted off again.

Okay, maybe, just maybe, we might have missed something. So we disassembled the risers, and then, working carefully and double-checking every step of the instructions, we reassembled them again in about two hours.

When our foreman came back at lunch time to check on us, he was furious. "You dumb @#&$^#s! Didn't you @#($*&ing LISTEN? You did it wrong AGAIN!" Somebody tried to explain to him that we were sure we'd done it right this ti --

"Listen to me! The union work rules say it takes a full crew FOUR hours to assemble those risers! Now you will @*&^ing well TAKE four @#*&ing hours to put those @#*&ing things together or I will @#@(#$*&ing @#(*& your @#^&*$ @#(*&es!"

Oh. Well, when you explain it that way...

Somebody had a Frisbee. We threw that around for a while. Those that smoked, did. Me, I found a trashy pulp novel that somebody had left on top of an electrical box backstage, and read most of it. Along about 2:30 or so, some overachiever decided it was time to get going on the risers again, and we did -- slowly -- such that we were just finishing it up when our foreman came back to check on us at about five minutes before quitting time.

This time when he looked at it, he was smiling. "Good job. I hope you boys learned something today."

As a matter of fact, I believe I did.