Becoming a varnish worker isn’t difficult. With a vehicle to serve as a combined company headquarters, warehouse, and service fleet, about $200 to invest in sandpaper, varnish, and brushes, and a wardrobe of stylish, second-hand tees, you could start today.
Things will go even more smoothly if you already possess some important personal qualities: infinite patience, a tolerance for frustration, and a sense of humor. The humor’s especially important. It helps to keep things in perspective when fresh varnish is ruined by fog, pollen, wind, rain, insects, or The Yard Crew From Hell: that charming band of brothers given to revving up their leaf blowers just as you’re putting away your brush.
If you’re especially lucky, you’ve already internalized “The Rule of Good Enough.” No matter how glossy, how reflective, how beautifully deep the shine, something — a gnat, a bristle, a patch of dust, a sliver of unvarnished wood – will tempt you toward perfection. Perfection, of course, is illusory. Getting rid of a gnat inevitably leads to the discovery that a determined spider has schlepped across your work. Eliminate the spider tracks, and you’re a sitting duck for errant, floating feathers. Better to look at a job that’s very nearly perfect and say, “That’s good enough.”
Why someone would choose to varnish is an intresting question. Despite the beauty of the finished product, the work of stripping and sanding is boring and repetitive. Unpredictable weather wreaks havoc with schedules, not to mention cash flow. I happen to like the isolation and solitude, but not everyone does. And it is, after all, physical labor. There’s enough climbing, stretching, leaning, and lifting in the course of a day to keep anyone flexible and strong.
Still, I continue. When someone asks why, I often say, “For the perks, of course.” The easy camaraderie of the docks, the shoes-optional dress code, an assortment of quirky characters to work with, and the absence of office politics — all are delightful. I take my coffee breaks with mallards and coots, while osprey and pelicans supervise from above: leaving the jellyfish and crabs to signal the changing seasons.
Best of all, sandwiched between the sweet bloom of sunrise and sunset’s poignant glow, my solitude allows time for thought: even as I devote physical energy to creating a different sort of beauty.
In truth, the positives balance the negatives rather nicely: at least, until summer arrives. For most people, summer means a little laziness, a bit of travel, the pleasures of indolence. On the docks, summer means scorching decks, burning eyes, and suffocating, stultifying air. From time to time, Gulf Coast heat and humidity become so intense that sweat drips from foreheads and chins onto freshly-laid varnish: doubly frustrating because it means unplanned for, and uncompensated, work.
Even worse, summer heat drains away energy. By the end of the day, it can be a struggle to do more than shower, plop into a chair, and stare into the middle distance. A friend calls summer the cereal season, since cereal for supper takes the least effort to prepare. At the height of summer, a certain slovenliness begins to develop as dust collects, laundry baskets fill up, and drooping plants beg for their own drink of water. Good intentions abound, but the longer days and unrelenting heat produce an unshakable lethargy.
Physical tasks aren’t the only chores to be put off. Creativity and imagination suffer from heat exhaustion, too. Rising temperatures bring a decline in the ability to focus over long periods of time. While thoughts continue to swirl and the impulse to shape words into coherence still stirs, actually sitting down to write is another matter.
I’ve been thinking about this a good bit. Certainly, I’m one of the lucky ones. I have the freedom to rearrange my schedule: to begin work early or continue into the evening as I seek respite from the afternoon heat.
Not everyone enjoys such luxury. The world is filled with people who spend their days in manual labor: farm workers, construction crews, roofers, garden and lawn care teams. Constrained by the realities of employment by others, they lack even minimal control over their days, and they, too, come home exhausted.
Because their stories are less often told, some believe such people have no stories to tell: that they are dull and uninspired, or by nature lacking in creativity. Some years ago, I learned of an English teacher who required her Anglo students to write essays each week, but required no essays from Hispanic students. Confronted on the issue, she seemed genuinely astonished. “But what would they write about?” she asked.
It’s an old attitude, neatly summed up in the assertion that certain people are better equipped for creativity — by education, by natural sensitivity, by intellect, training or talent — while the masses are mute by necessity. D.H. Lawrence gives voice to this attitude in Phoenix II. He writes:
Life is more vivid in the dandelion than in the green fern, or than in the palm tree.
Life is more vivid in the snake than in the butterfly.
Life is more vivid in the wren than in the alligator.
Life is more vivid in me than in the Mexican who drives the wagon for me.
What is vivid here is the worst kind of prejudice, and a particularly offensive literary elitism. In fact, the people who tend our lawns, build our roads, harvest our crops and roof our homes might have delightful stories to tell, if only they weren’t so exhausted, and by necessity focused on the basic requirements for life.
In the world of “just folks,” hints of wonderfully creative communication abound. Yarn-spinners in cafes, musicians in bars and juke joints, story-telling mothers with children gathered around: each has something to offer, and not all are as uneducated or unsophisticated as we sometimes assume.
Not long ago, I pulled up behind a lawn-care trailer at a stoplight. A little rickety, a bit rusty, its apparently hand-made sign assured potential customers that the crew was eager and trustworthy, competent and willing to do both commercial and residential work. There was the expected phone number and website address, but just below the sign, there was another, smaller sign that gave pause. It said, “My Name is Ismael. Call Me.”
After I stopped laughing, I thought about Ismael, wondering what story he might tell had he the time, the freedom, and the energy. For that matter, what stories would any of our construction workers, roofers, farm laborers, or truckers tell if they had the time, the freedom, and the energy?
Day Laborers at Hopson Plantation ~ Clarksdale, Mississippi, 1940
Whenever I see a mother walking her children home in the heat; a housekeeper washing windows in full afternoon sun; a woman struggling toward a laundromat with an unwieldy bundle, I find myself wondering: “What verse might she write, had she her own solitude, silence, and rest?”
Out on the docks, the summer heat continues to rise. As silent birds tuck themselves ever more deeply into the dappled shade of their trees, they begin, ever so tentatively, to sing. Watching and listening, remembering Ismael and all of the unnamed co-workers who surround him, I wonder again: given respite from their labors and some freedom to rest in the shade, what songs might our hidden birds sing?