Pushing Boundaries / Breaking Barriers

“What Can I Tell You”

by Darryl Graff

  BOUNDARIES Home  |  Contents  |  Authors  Wordrunner eChapbooks  | March 2017  |  echapbook.com      


The construction unions of New York City are a subculture in themselves—a deeply unique and secular world—with their own language, their own dress code, and their own sense of right and wrong.

I belong, or I should say, belonged to a small, dying union; even with the support of the AFL-CIO and the greater New York City building trades council, my union is going out of business. There’s no future there; the writing’s on the wall, the ship is going down.

I needed to let go of the past, to move on. It was time to jump into some choppy waters, to non-union construction management. That life ring, the red and white one that says U.S.S. Union, wasn’t going to save me; I needed to swim to shore, and that’s what I did.

I have been hired as a project manager for a non-union company that does high-end residential construction in Manhattan. I’ve gone, head-on, into my new career, and, just like my new sobriety, not only have I accepted change, I’m embracing it.

The first thing I needed to change was the way I speak: From now on, when something looks bad, I have to say, “It looks bad,” not, “it looks like cock.” When something is difficult, I have to say, “It’s difficult,” not, “it’s a pain in the cock.” When I’m right about something, I have to say, “I’m right,” not, “balls on.” Prostate cancer is not “cancer of the cock;” colon cancer is not “ass cancer.” Having a drink in a bar is not “going for the cure.” Being shortchanged is not “getting cock.” A “dick” is now a “jerk”… a “prick” is now a “savvy businessman.” “What can I tell you” is, well, what I can tell you.

Once, after “going for the cure,” I was “busting for a piss,” and a cop caught me. The judge started to lecture me about public urination. “I thought I could make it home, but I couldn’t, Your Honor,” I said, followed with “What can I tell you.” As soon as I said, what can I tell you, the judge stopped talking. He looked afraid, like he knew I was part of a subculture—that I belonged to a family that, if he kept talking, he was going to wake up with a bloody horse head in his bed. I paid the fine and left.

It’s not just my language that’s changing. I’m changing the way I dress. The “Live Better—Work Union” t-shirt has been replaced with a pinstriped, button-down long-sleeved shirt. Baggy work pants are now snug-fitting chinos, and my scuffed, heavy work boots are now black dress shoes. I’d gone fifty-three years without owning a suit—to funerals and weddings, Sure, I own suit jackets, usually vintage, from places like Cheap Jack’s on First Avenue or Alice Underground on Broadway.

But it came time to go shopping for a suit, and I did as I often do, turning to Regina, my wife of twenty-five years, for advice. We got off the subway together at Herald Square and walked up Fifth Avenue to Lord and Taylor, and after a few minutes on the narrow escalator, we reached the 10th floor “Fine Menswear.” I picked out a grey Italian wool suit, one I felt would be worthy of a project manager position, or “PM,” as it’s sometimes called.

I stepped out of the dressing room, and my wife smiled and winked. “Very handsome.”

I may never actually wear my new suit; it’s good just knowing it’s there, hanging in my closet in case I need it. Like the four-inch knife I no longer keep tucked into the small of my back.

When you’re a union man, on the Friday before a major holiday weekend as you’re leaving the job site, the custom is to shake hands with all the guys. A firm double handshake, and then, you say: “Have a healthy and happy holiday weekend. Best to you and your family.” That’s the one union tradition I’m going to miss the most.

My first major holiday weekend as a non-union manager was, ironically, Labor Day weekend.

I went up to a group of guys who were waiting for the elevator, and I held out my hand and began to say, “Have a happy holiday” … they all looked suspiciously at me and my outstretched hand as if I was playing a trick or, somehow, trying to fool them. They all stared down at the floor, in silence.

I stood all the way home in the last car of the Lexington Avenue Local.

It’s a whole new world out there. I’ve got a lot to learn and, maybe, some things to forget.

Things are all different now.

You understand.

Don’t you?

Or, as I used to say,

“What can I tell you?”

end of story

© 2017, Darryl Graff Go to top ^
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