I’ve been in the construction business for almost thirty years.
I’ve held different positions: as a fabricator, a carpenter, an ornamental plasterer – and different titles: contractor; foreman; super, and most recently, project manager.
Through it all, there has been one common thread: dust. Construction dust.
Construction dust is made up of many types of dust, from the most basic dust – sawdust– to more complex dust, like steel dust, which is fine dust that is created when steel is cut with a torch. Then, there’s plaster dust, cement dust, brick dust, and the worst dust of all, demolition dust– filthy, black and toxic.
I’ve been covered in construction dust for the past thirty years. It’s on my skin, in my clothes, my hair, my lungs. When I cough and spit, I spit dust. Most of all, it’s on my boots, and it follows me wherever I go; it’s with me at lunch, on the subway, and on the steps when I reach the front door of my house. Everywhere my boots go, the dust goes.
Now that I’m a project manager, I get to wear nice boots and nice clothes. Although my clothes stay relatively dust- free, my boots stay covered in a grey- white film of dust. No matter what I try or do, my boots are always covered in dust.
Over Christmas, I got caught up in the holiday spirit and decided to buy the people at my office a present. I went over to La Maison du Chocolat boutique on Madison Avenue where a box of chocolates can cost more than three hundred dollars.
As I pulled open the store’s heavy glass door, I caught a glance at my reflection in the glass; in my cap , my scarf and my long black jacket, I thought I looked like a French architect, or maybe a composer of contemporary Italian opera. Then I looked down at my feet, at my black Ralph Lauren boots, and there it was: a grey- white film of construction dust. The guy in the store was wearing a tuxedo. Behind him was a woman, dressed in black, who was dusting the display case with a feather duster.
Lately, on the subway on my way to work, I’ve been studying the Macy’s advertising circulars that are sometimes folded into my morning newspaper: “2 DAY SALE 30% to 70 % OFF Storewide.” I study closely the men in the circular. They are so well- dressed, so clean- looking. Maybe that’s the key to it all: a trip to Macys! I could be like that white guy on Page 3 with the salt- and- pepper hair, the one who’s smiling and wearing a Van Heusen shirt: “Regularly $45, On Sale- $19.99.” Not a speck of dust on him. Or, maybe a “$500 Stainless Steel Watch- 20% OFF.”
Nothing says dust- free like a five hundred dollar stainless steel Bulova watch?
No. That won’t work. A watch will make me think of time and time reminds me of death and death means funerals and at funerals there is always some guy standing near a hole in the ground saying:
“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
How about a tie, like the nifty blue- and- silver striped one the clean cut black guy is wearing on Page 7? “50% off original price.”
I got married right after I started in the construction business. We were young and didn’t have any money and even if we had, we never would have bought gold wedding bands. Gold is not our style– too square, too normal. As we passed a folding table on the Bowery, we noticed silver rings, $6 each; when I told the guy we were getting married, he said, “Congratulations. In that case, the rings are $6 each, or 2 for $12.” It was the bohemian thing to do, buy our rings on the street and get married the next day at City Hall. I wore that $6 ring for more than twenty-five years, and it broke and fell apart so many times, I probably spent a hundred and fifty dollars over the years, repairing it. One day, my left hand didn’t feel right. I looked down, and my ring was gone; it had fallen apart, disintegrated–turned to dust. I went back to the Bowery to look for the ring guy and his folding table. Half the block had been torn down to make room for a 40- story hotel. Just like my $6 wedding ring, Mr. “2 for $12” would never be again.
“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
Recently, we had a meeting at my job site on Park Avenue. It seems the co-op board president had found dusty footprints in the common areas of the building. He told me at the meeting that it’s my responsibility to maintain a dust- free environment. As I listened to him, I sat there, looking down at my feet, at the grey-white film on my black Ralph Lauren boots. Thinking to myself, all the while,
Dust- free, indeed.