Bubbling Drama: The Theater of Teams, Tools and Material

Yesterday was my last day on this project. The thinning of the crew started a couple days ago – as evidenced by the shop manager showing up and “talking with the guys.” Chet was stressed. It was unclear whether he’d have to catch a new job via the union hall or whether our company would keep him and dispatch him to a different job site. During our break, he earnestly asked Marge what she’d heard and whether she thought the company was busy enough to keep him. I never got my “talk with the guys” when the manager came in looking for Chet. He’d arrived right as I was seven feet up, finishing another fluorescent fixture. My upper body was grubby because I’d completely swabbed the top of a duct with my arms and my shirt. Sometimes reaching these ridiculously tight access points demand a convincing impression of a q-tip with crab claws. He did not call me down from my ladder; instead he flashed me a cheesy grin when he walked in to our loud, hot and dimly lit work space. I interpreted his grin to mean something like, “Hey – good job hanging in there; especially with Marge! Isn’t this fun? Don’t sweat your review. You’ll be fine.” I never found out whether they kept Chet or not, and I hope he hangs in there; although, I worry because he’s starting to pick up Marge’s brusque mannerisms in dealing with new apprentices.

 At the end of our work day, I packed up all my tools and bid ciao to my coworkers. It was not a sappy goodbye, just an exchange of, “Good luck. See ya around!” Marge surprised me by telling me (twice!) that I’d done a good job. Later, she admitted that if I’d put up with her for the last eight and a half weeks, I’ll have a breeze with the next journeyman I work with. She threw some story bits and advice to me throughout the day: I should be willing to get dirty (check); women can do just as fine as men in this trade (ok); I need to remember to use my core muscles and my legs muscles and not solely arm strength (check). She even smiled and cracked a couple jokes. Our day was a strange blend of tension, drama and giddiness.

 This end phase reminds me of a theater production. Here, our small cast of characters had been thrown together for an intense period of time. We bonded because we had to look out for each other and learn each other’s quirks and communication styles. Soon, we’ll all drift to our next project and we won’t be the same team anymore. We may or may not work with each other again. Everybody was asking each other, “What are you doing when this is over?” An undercurrent of nostalgia was blending with the satisfaction of a job well done. Most electricians I’ve met so far have been intelligent and detail oriented, with a wide streak of risk taking and adventure seeking. Yet not knowing the details of the next project is unnerving. The work ethic seems to be “work your ass of so you’ll get laid off” and this contradicts society’s prescription of “stay safe! find security!” No job lasts forever in this trade: that’s the whole point. We’re there to install, improve or fix something and then leave. Security is a folly and it takes trust and composure to believe the manager when he says he’ll call with the details of the next job. This is called “being on the hook” and when several of our team accept they’ll be on the hook, the resulting tension is tangible.

 Add some drama to your tension and what do you get? Sheer silliness! Our drama stemmed mainly from convoluted searches for material we needed. I remember a journeyman saying, “Material and information – that’s all we need! Material and information. It’s that simple.” He’s absolutely right. Since we had almost completed our job, some materials were getting harder to find. These materials may seem insignificant on their own: a bolt here, a strap there – yet they’re crucial because some parts just cannot be improvised or created. What ends up happening when seemingly insignificant parts go missing is that a section of conduit is left hanging in the air because it doesn’t have its bolt, or sections of conduit cannot be joined together because there is not a coupling to be found anywhere. And this is when the drama starts bubbling. (We had a close call in an electrical panel because we were missing zip ties, for crying out loud!)

 Marge probably never realized this, but I made it my job to look at – and sometimes organize – the main material carts every chance I got. As the new apprentice, I’m the first one people ask, “Where is…?” before they tell me to go fetch it. Therefore, it’s in my best interests to know exactly what is where. I have a good memory for objects and their places; yet when something is missing, I must have either eaten it or buried it by the way Marge reacts. I suppose it’s a form of flattery when another person thinks you alone are responsible for the conjuring or cloaking of material. This would make me a bad ass physicist instead of an electrician, wouldn’t it? They could double my title as Physicist/Stage Manager/Electrician Apprentice and it wouldn’t be a far stretch from the truth.

 Later in the day, one of the guys hid behind a stairwell door, then jumped out with a loud “Bah-ha!” when I walked by. My startled scream was great amusement for the team and it echoed up the concrete industrial stairwell. Yeah, they’re not going to say it – but they’ll miss me and I’m not going to say it but I’ll miss them. My tool bag is less overwhelming for me now. It doesn’t feel as heavy as it did when I packed it into the site and some of my tools have lost their brand new shininess. They look well used because they were well used. My supervising journeywoman never said it, but she doesn’t need to: I know that I’ve come a long way in the last eight weeks. Let the next adventure begin.

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