All of the houses full of garbage, the surprise addition of an industrial-sized refrigerator to the day’s itinerary, almost dislocating your shoulder carrying a wardrobe up narrow stairs – the emotional impact of everything that happens on the job is intensified by the presence of your coworkers. When you’re able to laugh with someone about the ridiculous thing that just happened, a frustrating day will seem a little less so. But when the soundtrack to an already exhausting day is a series of bizarre racist rants or impatient mockery of your need to get some water (and it’s only 9:30 AM!), you’ll begin fantasizing about not just your escape but where you’ll hide the bodies.
I worked with a semi-pro indoor football player, a film student working on a documentary, and a very outspoken born again Christian. There were numerous ex-cons and a lackey that rode the coattails of tougher dudes, freely and happily mocking from under their protection. There were a handful of grumpy old-timers and an arrogant mechanic with a disarming resemblance to Matthew McConaughey. There were some serious chess players, a handful of family men, and a few sets of siblings. There were quiet guys who kept to themselves and one guy that was so loud and had such an intense, wild-eyed stare that you never knew if he was laughing with you or if you’d just gotten on his bad side, either of which would result in something totally unpredictable.
There were a lot ‘one guys,’ guys who, to their chagrin or pride, were forever defined by their actions. There was the guy that always ruined trucks. In the span of a month, he hit a car on the highway, side-swiped another moving van in the company parking lot (shredding its fiberglass shell in the process), and somehow bent the front axle of a third truck. Another guy was always vigorously scratching his back on any corner he could find. Porch post, brick wall, tree – anything helped. He had itches so profound that he began his scratches began from a squatting position to maximize force.
And like most jobs, the world of moving had its own subculture, its own in-jokes and complaints, its routines and difficulties that two movers from opposite ends of the country could immediately bro-down on. But the job was about the only thing my coworkers allowed themselves to have in common. Lives outside of work were mysteries, even between people that had worked together for a long time. Very little was shared or asked about because it didn’t seem to matter. (Everything mentioned above was gleaned through observation, the rare disclosure, or unusually persistent questioning. It’s not for the sake of entertainment that I reduce people to their idiosyncrasies; they were seriously the only things we knew about each other.) Maybe it was easier to move literally tons of stuff every day if you focused only on the job. Moving was a mentally and physically exhausting vocation, and its demands left little energy for getting to know someone.
But there was another reason for this distance, as the following example illustrates:
One day, towards the end of a move, I made the mistake of soliciting a coworker’s attention with a ‘psst psst!’-sound instead of calling his name. Maybe I was trying to be funny or cute or something; I don’t really know why I did it but it almost resulted in me getting punched in the face. He stomped over, fists clenched, eyes crazy, asking how dare I call him like a dog, and warning me to never fuckin’ hiss at him again. It was especially scary because his anger came out of nowhere. We had been chatting amicably all day but he turned on me in an instant. “But I thought we were friends!” I wanted to say. The crew leader standing nearby didn’t make any move to intervene. Instead of trying to chill the guy out (to say nothing of preventing a fight from breaking out on a client’s lawn), he simply laughed and awaited with malignant glee the threatened blow.
The situation was distressing and disappointing, and not just because I was almost attacked. It reflected the outlook that governed every aspect of life as a mover. Making sure everyone knew you were tough was the only thing that mattered, and that’s why nobody really got to know one another. Real friendships, or even any unguarded, genuine interaction, were almost nonexistent since the point of communication was to transmit that you were better in every way than everyone else.
People seized any opportunity to distinguish themselves as superior to others. You exaggerated perceived differences or made them up. Hence the ingrained, serious (though always irrational) racism of the sort I didn’t think still existed. Hence the very real, very creepy pathological misogyny: women were not people but trophies to prove you were a man. Violence (or at least the threat of it) was the go-to response to solve any problem, since it provided an immediate answer to any dispute. People were either directly at odds with one another or at best wary, laughing on the surface but always keeping watch out of the corner of their eye. The same trivialities that have inspired millennia of conflict were on display at the moving company, so petty but accorded so much weight, and thus so much potential to damage.
Not everyone was like this, of course. Some people were very friendly and talkative, and some people just kept their heads down and worked hard with no offense intended by their disinterest. The problem was that you might not be able to avoid getting sucked in to the fray. Some people thought that because you had the slightly above-average level of toughness necessary to be a mover, then toughness must be the most important thing in your life. It was assumed that because you worked there you were willing to play by the same rules as the most aggro mover.
It didn’t occur to my near-assailant that since nothing about our interaction throughout the day set the stage for conflict, I probably wasn’t insulting him. The context of the misguided hiss-sound didn’t matter. In his eyes I had disrespected him, end of story. The issue was never really about what someone said but that someone had the audacity to insult you in the first place. Toughness defines your character, which determines your social standing, which determines the respect you’re given by the world. An insult has to be taken seriously because it basically degrades your place in the Universe. And everything was considered an insult. The most volatile dudes were dealing with this dilemma every waking second of their lives. Merely existing must have been exhausting when every comment and glance has to been thoroughly analyzed.
(To be fair, they left me out of most nonsense. I tried to be friendly or at least unobtrusive, so I don’t think I was subject to the same rituals of manhood that others took part in. The only public insult I had to endure was occasionally being called Harry Potter, and (I think) that was only because I wear glasses.)
But the craziest part of it all was that when a day of insults became unendurable, employees were allowed to fight on company ground. I guess it was understood by the management that fights were inevitable. Fights usually got stopped before they got too out of hand but there weren’t any repercussions for the people involved. One day this guy accused the crew leader of shorting him on tips, and they argued about it for the rest of the day. When everyone was back at the warehouse clocking out, the offended party jumped out of his car as the crew leader was walking inside. They exchanged a few punches and then the guy jumped back in his car and drove away, with both returning to work the next morning as if nothing had happened. At least it was better than the conflict resolution technique a guy said they used at the moving company he used to work for: two guys were shut in the back of a moving truck; the doors were opened when the pounding stopped.
Oddly enough, people were surprisingly understanding of your physical limits. While you were expected to work hard, it wasn’t often that you’d hear people being mocked for not being able to carry as much as the strongest guys. Word certainly got around if you did things like take bathroom breaks to hide from carrying heavy pieces (“He is the peeing-est motherfucker!”), but most of the mockery was directed at people who had already proven they could lift heavy stuff, more like encouragement than derision. There were even moments of sympathy and times when you were allowed to carry light pieces for a little while, as everyone knew how difficult moving can be.
Trying to understand these dynamics and where/how I fit in was a perplexing and dissonant exercise. The work was difficult but I was proud of myself for doing it; I didn’t like the impulse to aggressively out-dude one another but I wanted people to recognize that I could pull my weight on a move. I didn’t want to fit in but I wanted to be accepted. Why?
Earning their respect was a way for me to live up to the perception I had of myself. I wanted to be work hardened; I wanted to exude blue-collar honesty. Sometimes I felt like the job was a romantic exercise that reinforced the fantasies I had of my ability to withstand hardship. I didn’t have any interest in forcing people to recognize my toughness, but I secretly wanted people to acknowledge it. Earning the respect of people who had seen it all on the job was a serious matter; if you got it, you knew you had earned it.
This is why it was so satisfying to be told I was a better worker than the football player-sized guy who started working when I did. Everyone was thrilled when he started since he was gigantic, but his attempts to avoid the hardest parts of the job – by offering to be the recipient of goods at the top of the stairs instead of unloading and carrying them up, as if he were taking one for the team – severely disappointed my bosses and coworkers, and a few weeks later he was gone. Considerable strength turned out to be less desirable than a commitment to work and to being an equal on a job; I apparently demonstrated this and was thus more highly valued.
I also secretly felt that if I was physically capable of doing hard labor, then I could also be capable of physically confronting my coworkers. I would be tough enough to put my foot down against their racist bullshit: it wouldn’t be some wimp calling them out for abstract ideological transgressions but an angry guy who could fight as well as they could. His complaints deserved to be listened to (and even heeded) if everyone knew he could back them up.
Sometimes, a day was almost tolerable. People would be laughing and getting along well enough while working in the sun – it was almost like enlisting the help of a few friends of friends to install a cumbersome but ultimately awesome accessory to your house. The work was hard and annoying, but the payoff would definitely be worth the effort.
In fact, sometimes this exact scenario was a by-product of the job. It wasn’t uncommon for homeowners to give away appliances or furniture that didn’t have a place in their new house. There was always the chance that you’d score something outrageous on the job. One family gave away not one but two enormous old-school big-screen televisions (“Big Boys,” in mover parlance). Customers gave away gaming tables; others gave grills, chairs, desks; others gave away furniture whose sheer size made up for any question of its quality. As a result, a lot of the movers had become de facto experts on home furnishings. It was hilarious to hear curse-ridden debates about the merits of one brand of easy chair versus another. Tough dudes were constantly bragging that their houses were better furnished than yours.
It makes sense that the amount of time working around furniture is proportional to the breadth of knowledge about furniture. The same can be said of the irascibility of the average mover relative to time worked. As such, an extremely irksome character was the ultra-veteran. There were a handful of people that had been with the company for at least eight years and had earned the right to act like it. They weren’t totally unfriendly but approached everything you did with an extremely critical eye. They’d worked with every kind of employee, and they were justified in not wanting to work with people who aren’t going to pull their weight.
On my first day, I was shown that the proper way to work was to pick up a box/chair/appliance/whatever and move as quickly as you could to the truck. You’d hand it to the guy packing the truck (if your crew was big enough to have a packer) or stash it yourself, and then run back into the house to grab more stuff and run right back out to the truck.
I was able to practice this method my first day without too much difficulty, since I was primarily tasked with carrying a lot of boxes and stuff that you could one-man. But when I worked with a couple of vets for the first time, I learned that you move the largest, heaviest, most unwieldy pieces with the same speed. I was practically pushed backwards down some stairs carrying a bookshelf and I tripped over my feet as I was driven along by a washing machine shoved into my chest. That was just the way they worked, and if you didn’t want to get on their bad side, you had to learn to move as quickly and nimbly as they did.
This approach served me well later when I moved myself or helped a friend. Picking up a box and running with it was reflexive. My brother’s roommate still talks appreciatively about how quickly her move went when I was there to help, though she also still laughs remembering the sight of some guy frantically running around the property with a large box.
(Side note: new people were told that anything they broke came out of their paycheck. You were encouraged to be careful by the possibility that your entire week’s wages could vanish in a second if you accidently dropped a TV. In reality this wasn’t true. The company’s insurance paid for any damages. Good thing because at what we were paid, compensating someone for something expensive would have taken months. The only thing I ever had a hand in breaking was a huge mirror that I propped up poorly inside a truck. The client brushed it off as a no big deal but his mom made sure that it was replaced by the company, not that it was especially valuable but why wouldn’t you want to get a free replacement or a small check?)
One guy I actually really liked was from Boston, and I had the good fortune of being assigned to work with him fairly frequently. I liked working with him because he didn’t care about what anybody thought, not in a tough I-don’t-give-a-fuck-fuck-you way but because he couldn’t be bothered to be bothered by anything he didn’t want to bother him. He was short and thick and had a crew cut. He boasted a few scars and a rough n’ tumble mug made handsome by his bad boy charm. His speech was peppered with a bunch of New England slang and he said he’d been to prison, but he mentioned it in a way that was free of bluster or yearning for credibility. Being in prison was a life experience just like any other and it was matter-of-factly discussed as such.
Having someone open up to me about the fact that he was at one point in – gasp! – jail was flattering for its implied trust and because it also satisfied my voyeuristic interest in the prison experience. Feelings of my own toughness were made a little more tangible by the fact that we were driving around in a truck talking about it and smoking cigarettes. He noted that I smoked “rollies,” as I was rolling my own. I silently freaked out in delight over the term, and I immediately began using the term among my friends, really casually like I’d always called them that. (I’m not a smoker, but in keeping with my obsession with being a real working man, I smoked a few packs that summer.) He told me about prison smuggling operations, work-release programs, and cliques. He told me that he had briefly taken up writing in prison. He wrote for a week straight and produced forty pages of a crime novel. He hadn’t picked it up after that and didn’t seem to have much interest in doing so, but he kept the manuscript and had it stashed somewhere in his house.
BUT there is the possibility that he wasn’t in jail at all. As odd as it sounds, some of the things he said were prison stereotypes that could be picked up from any TV show. For example: prison chess matches. He said he watched one person play against ten, the archetypical bookish prisoner who would inevitably win all the games. He also told me with a straight face about the dinners he and his fellow inmates cooked, which were apparently the stuff of legend. The meals were a beautiful show of camaraderie as everyone had a specific function – one guy took care of the pasta, one guy cooked the sausage, and the guy in charge of the sauce had this technique where he would shave the garlic into paper-thin slices with a razor blade so they would dissolve in oil. I was quite familiar with this scene as it appears exactly how he described in the movie Goodfellas, which was released in 1990 to widespread acclaim. I don’t know if he thought I hadn’t seen the movie or if he was somehow “testing” me to see if I would call his bluff, but I acted like it was true.
When a good conversation was underway, I could tell he knew it. The occasional look of appreciation would be exchanged, quickly followed by the sarcasm typical to male bonding. Sometimes it was hard to tell if his sarcasm was friendly or a way to tell me to shut the fuck up without actually doing so. I was always on guard that I was getting on his nerves. I sort of had a good thing going with someone and I didn’t want to blow it. Sometimes we’d ride in silence for a while and I’d wonder if I’d been too eager to appreciate but then he’d bring up the aggravating traits of a coworker, for example, and we’d bond again over our mutual annoyance.
One person we both complained about was the aforementioned born again Christian. The bit about people keeping their lives to themselves didn’t apply to this guy, as we learned a lot about him whether we wanted to or not. He was recently born again and told us how happy he was to have left behind a life of drug dealing, sex having, gun carrying, etc. etc. etc. It was the stock transformation, though he at least tossed around some obscure biblical references to spice up his otherwise predictable story.
One day he and I were on a move together and began talking about the history of Christianity, hoping as I was that my dazzling logic would knock loose the pillars of his faith. We carried boxes and moved tables as we chatted about the Council of Nicea and other important events. In addition to doing my duty as an antitheist, I appreciated the scene on behalf of the clients. I figured that the wealthy owners of the house must have been fascinated that these tough blue-collar types were casually talking about such interesting and intellectual topics. (In reality the homeowners looked amused and then annoyed, as if one subject were as bad as any when it came to slowing down the pace of work.) I enjoyed debating with him, especially in public, for the same narcissistic reason I celebrated earning my coworkers’ respect. I fancied myself a well-rounded, worldly chap, and recognition as a blue-collar semi-scholar further confirmed exactly how I pictured myself.
But this joy was short-lived. I realized that the intellectual sparring I was doing with the guy wasn’t as meaningful as I’d thought since it was just as much a pissing contest as every other attempt at one-upmanship I experienced that summer.
He was arrogant and judgmental and thought nothing of manipulating things for his benefit, acting afterwards (or maybe truly believing) that nothing untoward had happened. I worked with him a lot, and if we both knew he had acted questionably, a threatening “do not mention it” glance was shot my way. A lot of little lies and cut corners and selfish behaviors belied the vanity of his faith. The threat to anyone that noticed his errors was necessary because he knew he had done wrong and wanted to bury it: he wasn’t upset because he had strayed in thought and deed but that he had been caught doing it. He was exactly the same person as he was before he was saved, but now he had the forgiving/redeeming power of faith behind him. My friend the Bostonian recognized this and his no-bullshit approach to life elevated what was initially a bemused, sarcastic way of relating to the guy to a relationship of serious antagonism. They’d been working together for a while and their dynamic was much more nuanced than the caveman-like chest-thumping that characterized most workplace rivalries. It seemed to me like it would eventually lead to something explosive, but it would be a blow-up somehow more significant and more valid given the complicated personalities at play.
Speaking yet again of toughness, another coworker was unphased by the work of a house/office mover because he had just transferred from an outfit that moved pianos exclusively. Only pianos, all day, every day. We were (un)lucky if we moved a piano once every couple of weeks but this guy dealt with music stores, piano tuners, instrument refurbishers, and schools on a daily basis. Working with pianos every day didn’t make it easier, he explained, shuddering. Pianos were pianos. He was a nice guy by nature, but his good moods and enthusiasm were endearing because he seemed legitimately appreciative of his luck that he was now moving a variety of things.
(Here’s how moving a piano works, by the way: For small pianos, like the kind in your grandma’s house, you bring in a four-wheeled piece of plastic or wood to sit the piano on. You have to pick up the piano to set it on the dolly, but you can at least wheel it once it is secured. Sometimes we’d make a ramp and wheel the piano on the board down the steps, but this was only if the steps weren’t steep. A lot of times people had pianos on their second floor, where the only way to move it was to pick it up and carry it down the steps. (You’d have to take care not to let the spindly legs sticking off of the keyboard get caught on anything.) For grand and baby grand pianos, you’d bring in a padded board that looks appropriately like the backboards used by ambulance crews. You unscrew the piano’s legs – one person unscrews while two tilt the piano – and then flip the piano ninety degrees onto the piano board. The piano is strapped down and then lifted onto a dolly or – surprise, surprise – carried down stairs.)
Carrying pianos and other stuff all day certainly taught me the value of a cold beer when I got home. (Or, if the day was especially rough, that of a cold beer in the shower.) One or two beers was reward enough for me, though it didn’t hold a candle to the beer appreciation felt by a mover who was said to be able to drink an entire six pack in a matter of minutes.