Soliloquy 31


This column does not pay for my living. The editor of this e-rag earns no money by its monthly production and so has nothing to share with me. Writing is my vocation. Working for AT&T as a Communications Technician is how I earn a living.

It has been a quiet night here at the office of AT&T. I work the graveyard shift. The morning is now bright enough that the world is becoming visible through the tinted glass. It is a damp place outside, as we have been having days of rain and it looks like it is ready to rain again. I can see a field belonging to Princeton Nursery on the other side of U.S. Route One. It is lush with grasses and weeds, unrestrained bushes, and a phalanx of young trees that appear crammed too close together. The view is hampered by a couple of dozen power lines and phone lines, but I've grown accustomed to seeing right though them and forgetting they are there, until the crows come awake and take their positions on those lines. The crows always face west, their backsides towards me. I won't be able to hear them, yet I will see them bobbing furiously and know they are cawing.

I have been with AT&T for over twenty years - a short-timer in this office. I try to work hard and feel a certain loyalty to the company, being content with what they pay me and impressed with the benefits. Of course, I must divide that gratitude to include the powerful union that fought for fair wages and benefits. Sadly, this loyalty is unilateral and AT&T feels no such loyalty towards me. I am expendable for the (short-term) good of our stockholders. I have little trouble living with this insecurity as I am not sure I even deserve this good luck. I am always afraid I'll be found out, that someone will discover I don't belong in the middle class and they will kick me out.

How is it I have come to be a house owner in suburbia? I have never aimed for this goal, never hoped, never wanted the foibles and characteristics that designate the middle class. I didn't want a job that would interfere with my notions of being a writer. It was never my intentions, yet here I reside with the many accoutrements of that class.

I certainly did not show promise in school. I hated school. The classes bored me. I had to negotiate the bullies and the absurd rules of the administration, learning their subjects at their speed and never using the Men's room, but always the Boy's room. My mother instilled in me a fear of the future, that further schooling would be awful, that a job would be awful, but that these things were necessary. My father asserted if schooling brought me a job earning good money, I would be happy. No one spoke about finding happiness in my work. I resisted going to college, thinking it would be more of the same, but once in college, I discovered how wonderful the learning experience could be. I wanted to remain the perennial student, but then the money ran out and I went to work.

Like many of my peers, in my youth I had many jobs, a different one each summer when I was in school. After school petered out, I went from one job to the next. The best job I ever had was as Assistant Children's Librarian in Boulder, Colorado, but when my rent went up, I could no longer afford that job.

The worst job I ever had was with Strescon Industries in Morrisville, Pennsylvania. Our product was hollow-core pre-stressed concrete plank. A good friend, Jim, who had lost the tip of his thumb working for this company, got me the job. Jim even got me on his tour, which was the graveyard shift.

In a building large enough to enclose a football field, were several molds that ran nearly the entire length of the building. When this immense room was sealed, a siliceous fog would form, so dense that the far end of the interior could not be seen. The inside atmosphere caused me to have regular sore throats until I learned from my colleagues to smoke. I took up Lucky Strikes. Why smoking should help is beyond my science, but it was effective most of the time.

Although it was summer, my colleagues taught me to wear long johns under my jeans to protect my legs. It reduced the number of pimples caused by contact with the wet cement. The cement quickly ate through our leather boots.

In the south end of the great room, cement was mixed and poured into bins. At the north end were tall hanging garage-type doors. They were opened and small gantries were driven in from the yard, riding tracks that straddle each of the long molds. The different gantries had separate functions. One filled the beds with concrete. Another gantry laid rows of gravel that would later be poured out to form the hollows. Yet another dragged steel cables from giant spools the length of the molds. When the slabs were dry, there was a gantry with a saw to cut out sections, then two gantries with cranes would come and lift the piece away.

At some point while the slab of concrete was still wet, I would walk the length of the uncut form and, using a diagram, insert bent rods. These would later allow the crane to lift the various pieces. I got this job because others proved less accurate at reading diagrams.

It was also while the concrete was wet that we would stress the cable. This then was the most immediately dangerous part of the business. Attaching an hydraulic device, the cable was pulled, the idea was to hold the cable stretched until the concrete dried. It was in this bit of machinery that my friend lost the tip of his thumb. But the real danger was during those rare occurrences when the cable would break. Our instructions were to never stand behind the machine and if the cable should break, to run for our lives. Off to one side was a storage space protected by pillars and looking somewhat like catacombs. Repeatedly we were reminded to use this area for refuge.

Only once was I witness to a cable breaking. It shot out the back of the hydraulic device with such force as to punch a hole in the hanging doors, which were closed at the time. We had all made the mad dash to the safety of the catacombs, then turned around to watch. The thick steel cable came racing out of the concrete form with tremendous force. It began to twist and arch in the narrow space between the end of the platform molds and the hanging doors. The cable was whipping about like fly-casting. It was appealing to watch, but I am told it could cut a person in half. And on this occasion, one of our colleagues still stood by the hydraulic device, high on dope, watching the swirling snake's angry dance. We shouted to him. He came to his senses and hurried to join us. He was lucky.

I have the most wonderful memory of how my time was spent before going into work at Strescon. I would pick up Jim en route to our job. He lived in an attic apartment and was invariably asleep when I arrived. The entire floor under the gabled roof was his. The room would be dark except for an aquarium holding his snapping turtle. The aquarium cast a dim, wavering light that softened the room and made it peaceful, and the radio would be playing soft jazz. I'd arrive early, just in time for the music to stop and the man on the radio would pick up where he had left off reading the night before. It was a science fiction book. It told the story of scientists listening for intelligent life in the Universe and we listened in that watery lit room, while every night the story's tension grew. Would they hear something? When the signal from space arrived, it was my last night on the job. I didn't come back the next night. I never heard the rest of that story. I cannot now remember the title of that book. But I remember most how comfortable was that room before we had to leave for work.

It was the family doctor, examining me because of frequent sore throats, that finally ordered me out of this line of work. His concern was with the air inside the plant. He assured me it was only a matter of time before I developed silicosis. After several jobs in manufacturing, industry, and even the occasional kitchen, I decided I would feel the most comfortable doing clerical work.

In time I found myself working for AT&T as a clerk. But then, one day, I tumbled into an uncommon love. She turned out to be a package deal. So it was, when finally I had the courage to present myself for middle-class employment, with no apparent qualifications, yet something in the way I presented myself, probably bred into me by my caste, that and good test grades, landed me the position of technician. I reluctantly joined the middle class so that I might better raise the two kids. I bled true to my class; I could not imagine my children growing up in anything other than the safety and security of middle class luxury, what my spouse calls the bourgeoisie, and perhaps it is the petite bourgeoisie at best. Was that being born of middle-class parents and raised in a middle-class culture? I could not escape my destiny. I never thought I would make it this far.

Bruce Bentzman

This is the thirty-second in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any comments or suggestions, the writer would be pleased to hear from you.