Interview with a Bean Sprout Proprietor

IMG_20150818_165826600.jpgRandy – Co-Owner of Spring Valley Farms, Xenia, Ohio – interview conducted August 2015

Randy has been growing bean sprouts for more than thirty years. I helped him with some roofing on one of the buildings on his farm, not knowing what kind of operation he had going. When he told me he grew nine thousand pounds of bean sprouts per week, I was floored. How does someone grow four and half tons of sprouts per week? What kind of operation is needed to grow such an niche product? How would one even get into the sprouts business? He was kind enough to let me interrogate him about the business of sprouts, and this is what he had to say:

In 1982 I was just getting out of the Peace Corps. My dad had bought a farm wanted to do something with property. So we decided to go into business together. He bought the farm originally to grow grapes but that didn’t pan out. At the time, we thought that to really promote your wines you had to have a festival, and that would mean you had to bring thousands of people here for a wine tasting. It was a major thing that we didn’t want to do. So we built a greenhouse and started growing herbs, tomatoes, watercress, European cucumbers. There was an emerging market for hydroponic lettuce so we started growing lettuce hydroponically. Every year we added a greenhouse and pretty soon we had 20,000 square feet of produce.

We sold produce wholesale. There’s a big produce market around, especially in Cincinnati because of the river. There’s an established warehouse district there. We knocked on doors and did cold calls. We were supplying the Meijer chain for a while. And then one of our alfalfa sprout growers lost their supplier and wanted a replacement and asked if we knew how to grow alfalfa sprouts. We didn’t but of course we said yes anyway. (Laughs)

We tried to build our own equipment and grow sprouts in the greenhouse, but it just didn’t work out. Months later we bought the right equipment and did it the way it really needs to be done. The alfalfa sprouts are grown in a large rotating drum. You add water and light, and they green up after a few hours. You load in about 80 pounds per drum, and you get about a 10- 15:1 ratio after about five days. They were used primarily for salad bars, sandwich shops.

The green sprouts (alfalfa) business declined. A lot of the chain grocery stores dropped green sprouts – the green alfalfa sprout has an inherent problem with salmonella and E.coli. The structure of the seed has more crevices for bacteria to hide. We got out of alfalfa ten years ago but alfalfa sprouts led to us see the market for bean sprouts. The bean sprout market is pretty good – a lot of Asian markets and grocery stores.

Bean sprouts are a highly perishable product so there aren’t a lot of growers around. They can’t bring a decent bean sprout in from another state without paying huge shipping costs, so it favors the local grower. You want to get them sold within two days of harvest, and they need to be consumed within 10 to 14 days. I think the distributors we use ship in some sprouts from Chicago and I know there’s a grower in Columbus, but he only has a few sales in Dayton.

The process we use is unique to bean sprouts. The equipment we have is specifically for growing them. We’ll load up 110 pounds of seeds in a 3’ x 4’ x 4’ bin. The bean seeds themselves come from China. I don’t know why – maybe they grow the best beans? The bins are in a dark room and we spray them with water every two hours. We do a test and send it to a lab in Cincinnati twice a week to test for E.coli and salmonella to make sure the product is safe. We have a recycling system that cleans 80 percent of the water we use. The beans sprout on the bottom and push successive layers to the top. Kind of like they’re in dirt. On the sixth day of the process, we process them, package them, and put them in a cooler. We ship them on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. We sell about 9000 pounds per week. It’s an amazingly big market. (Laughs) And that’s just the Dayton and Cincinnati area.

(Let me interject and say that a bin full of fully sprouted sprouts is totally surreal – the bins are four feet tall and are completely, completely packed with sprouts. You can reach your hand in and it’s this weird tangle of dense but loose sprouts with seemingly no end. They are so dense that you could probably walk on them. The bins are in a dark, damp room, and standing on a bucket and peering over the top into a bin and seeing an ocean of yellow-green fibers makes for a really odd sight. Not to mention that if you opened the vertical door on one of the bins, a few hundred pounds of sprouts would avalanche out and cover you in their watery, earthy essence. Maybe I’m just used to seeing them in small cartons in grocery stores, so the sheer amount of sprouts in one place is hard to process, not to mention that this is just one of seven bins.)

It’s been a nice business. It’s profitable, the market’s consistent, and it grows. But it takes a lot of commitment. Someone has to be here every day to check on them. We have alarms for malfunctioning pumps In fact, the most catastrophic event we experienced was when the computer that controls the watering cycle broke down last winter. I had to come in every two hours for a whole week and push the watering server bar over the bins by hand. I had help doing it during the day but I had to stay overnight every night and get up every two hours to do it. That’s the thing about small businesses – you make enough to survive, but a lot of times you don’t make enough to pay a manager to take responsibility for things. (Laughs) The responsibility comes back to me.

I graduated from college with a degree in Zoology. I had never even tasted sprouts before we started. In the Peace Corps I was raising fish – it was a kind of farming, but I really had no experience with growing. I learned my business sense along the way. Raising sprouts isn’t something I ever saw myself doing, but isn’t that how most people end up in life – not really doing what they thought they were going to do?

 

 

 

 

 

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Out of Something, Nothing: My Summer as a Professional Mover, part VI

VI.

That I complain a lot about my fairly trouble-free life notwithstanding, what did I ultimately learn from my summer as a mover? I’m not sure. Maybe to make sure you tip your movers but know that they probably said things so offensive that you’d weep if you heard them? My thoughts on the default goodness or evil of human nature tilted in favor of the latter after seeing that verbal and physical violence can be so easily provoked, but in reality people are prone to be jerks regardless of job or lot in life. Moving is just another stage on which the often sketchy human drama plays out.

Relatedly, however, also came to learn that sometimes a job is just a job. A job doesn’t always yield some sort of fascinating insight. You get up, you go to work, and you to do what you’re told. Sometimes there isn’t much room for a job to be much more than the duties that comprise it, especially in a let’s-get-this-done-as-fast-as-possible profession like moving. My assignment as an embedded writer made me want to take up a different hobby.

And it’s precisely because of these sorts of demands that workers are so demoralized and psychotic. It was depressing to see yet again the utterly impersonal nature of business. Most of the employees were considered totally replaceable and treated accordingly. How much dissatisfaction and struggling to get by does it take before a person does something outrageous in an attempt to combat the drudgery? How much dignity can be taken away from someone before he bullies his coworkers in an attempt to feel he has power as a human being? And what if you are bound to stay in such an environment by necessity? In short, how much moving can one man take?

To me, the essays in Studs Terkel’s books function as a kind of vindication for situations that seem to be devoid of hope. The books convey the tenuous hope that there is a reason you spend years doing an ostensibly unglamorous job, that your story deserves to be recorded. You have to try to make work meaningful to contend with the fact that you are forced to do something you might not like for the majority of your life.

I tried keep this rationale in mind while working as a mover and toxic mold remover and factory line-worker. It wasn’t about trying to work my way up a ladder but to try to carve out a work-life free from boredom and resignation. The unpleasant misadventures of moving were the price I figured I had to pay to stave off becoming a part of the regular nine-to-five society. At least the jobs would be something to talk about, something to make it feel like I wasn’t compromising my mobility, my spontaneity, my sense of adventure just to abide by the lifestyle dictated by the Man.

But I’d also worry that I was constantly reassuring myself I was doing a good thing. Yes, I was trying new things, but after a day of moving I would often be grumpy and unhappy and have to completely zone out to decompress, and I wasn’t sure that I wanted that bitterness to be a consistent part of my life.

About a year after I quit moving I found myself working in a run-of-the-mill office. Every day I went to my cubicle where I did the same few things. Truthfully, it was a step up from moving. I could take breaks whenever I wanted, I had a set schedule, I had three weeks of paid vacation and inexpensive health insurance.I was trusted to work by myself, and my unit’s boss even bought us a French press when I complained about the coffee at every meeting. (The “coffee” was the discharge of a machine that pumped boiling water through a can of coffee-flavored syrup.) My coworkers weren’t violent muscleheads; a disagreement we had about global warming ended peacefully when a coworker suggested in earnest that instead of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, money would be better spent on developing nuclear-powered cars.

The office was entertaining and weird and eye-opening for a while, but it too quickly grew stale. One day we were called to a meeting where my boss’s boss’s boss’s boss – no joke about the ladder of bosses – flat out told my department that our position at the company would never change. We would never be given more challenging work and we would certainly never earn more money. I appreciated their honesty but I was shocked that they were so sure of our immobility that they had nothing to lose by telling us we would be staying put.

Point made. I’d always wanted to do maintenance, and fortunately a job came available in that field right at the height of my desperation to leave the office. (My desperation was such that I even called the moving company to see if they were hiring.) I was introduced to the atmosphere of my new workplace when a coworker told me he didn’t have headache from drinking but from “eating too much pussy.” His tasteless non-sequiturs encapsulated the obnoxious yet strangely compelling madness that would be the next eight months of my life. Onwards and upwards!

Have I doomed myself to a life without professional fulfillment by not focusing on something I really like, or am I livin’ free by seeing the world, employment-wise? Did the complex emotional turmoil of my summer as professional a mover help answer this question? I still haven’t come to a definitive answer, but I’m sure insight will come with the next job, or the one after that.

Out of Something, Nothing: My Summer as a Professional Mover, part V

V.

It wasn’t uncommon for homeowners to give away outrageous stuff that didn’t have a place in the new house. 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 cancelled out any question about 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 one’s knowledge of furniture. The same can be said of the irascibility of the average mover relative to time worked. Essentially, the longer someone was a mover, the grumpier he’ll be.

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 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 weren’t going to pull their weight.

On my first day, I was shown that the proper way to work is to pick something up and move it as quickly as you can to the truck. Like, run-with-it quickly. You’d then 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 to run right back out to the truck. Running was the routine all day, every day.

When I worked with a couple of veterans 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 the 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.[1]

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 at the sight of a guy frantically running around the property with a series of large boxes.

One coworker was unphased by the work of a house mover because he had just transferred from an outfit that exclusively moved pianos. We were (un)lucky if we moved a piano once every couple of weeks, but this guy dealt with multiple pianos on a daily basis. Working with pianos every day definitely 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 legitimately appreciated that he was now moving a variety of things.[2]

One guy I actually really liked was from Boston, and I had the good fortune of being assigned to work with him pretty frequently. I liked working with him because he didn’t care about what anybody thought, not in an overly tough kind of 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 his rough n’ tumble mug was 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 this in a way that was free of bluster or yearning for credibility. Being in prison was a life experience just like any other. He was a pretty matter-of-fact guy.

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 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 workin’ man, I smoked a few packs that summer.) He told me about prison smuggling operations, work-release programs, and inmate cliques. He told me that he had briefly taken up writing in prison and had 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 the manuscript was stashed somewhere in his house.

BUT there is the possibility that he wasn’t in jail at all. Some of the things he said were prison stereotypes of the kind that can be picked up from any TV show. For example: prison chess matches. He said he watched the archetypical bookish prisoner play against ten people at once, and he’d 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. 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 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 as 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 up without actually doing so. I was always on guard that I was getting on his nerves. I 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 talk but then he’d bring up the aggravating traits of a coworker, and we’d bond again over our mutual annoyance.

****

[1] 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 broke 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?)

[2] How moving a piano works: For small pianos, like the kind in your grandparents’ 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! – carried down the stairs.

Electrician, New England, Fall 2013

A few years ago, I got a job as a laborer on a four-man carpentry crew. It was my first time working in the construction field and so the way in which projects come together was new to me. Most construction crews do not handle all aspects of a project, and usually contract out the various trade-specific aspects (plumbing, electrical work, etc.) to people they know and trust.

I met the interviewee on a job where both she and my crew were contracted for specific kinds of work. My boss had also worked with her on a number of his own projects. Thus our paths crossed somewhat frequently, and she and I would talk over lunch. I was stunned to learn that she was relatively new to the profession – I had always assumed that anybody skilled in trade had been doing it in some form or another since they were a kid – and she explained that her foray into electrical work was the successful result of a mid-life career change.

This knowledge explained the beatific look of pleasure as she went about her work. Honing in on what you really want, even if it takes you a while to find it, inspires a deeply personal relationship with your profession; she had found her calling and was thrilled to be doing it. Her projects were assessed and undertaken with a meticulous attention to detail that bespoke curiosity and respect, punctuated as her corner of the jobsite was by the occasional outburst of swears in response to the difficulties of her line of work. But as she explains, those frustrations, as dangerous as they are, are part of the reason why the job is so appealing – only you are responsible for figuring out the problem, and in a profession fraught with a million of these challenges, it’s incredible to be able to trust yourself.

How did you get into this profession in the first place? What led you to seek out a career change?

I had no idea that I would ever end up as an electrician. It never crossed my mind. I taught high school English for three years and then I went to grad school in New York City. My degree was going to be in medieval lit. I was pretty much on the road to be an academic, a college professor of English. But over the years I realized I was not fully satisfied with what I was doing.

But I was plodding away at my PHD – at ten years in (laughs) I passed my orals and was facing my dissertation. At the rate I was going, it was going to take me the rest of my life. In the mean time I was teaching freshman college English, but I stopped that and worked as a secretary at a law firm. It was just a job to earn money and I finally realized that I needed to drop out of grad school and figure out what I really wanted to do. I knew that even if I finished my dissertation I was facing a lifetime of this kind of academic work, which I would just procrastinate doing and then cram and then procrastinate again. My problem with literature – even though I loved it – was that it was so intangible, so amorphous, so open to interpretation and you didn’t ever really see (or it took a long time for you to see) concrete results to your work. I liked teaching, I really liked teaching the high school age group, but the problem I had with teaching was that I felt like I wasn’t creating anything. I was helping others create. I wanted to do something where I could see the result of what I did in a tangible form at the end of the day.

I thought I wanted to do some more tech stuff. I tried web design and some computer programming, but I didn’t like the idea of sitting in front of a screen all the time. I didn’t want to be sitting down. I was looking through the help wanted ads, and I realized I wanted to do something more physical. I was thinking about carpentry so I was looking through all these help wanted ads for a period of time, and there was this one ad for electrical apprentices. It planted a seed, and about a year later I decided to try it. And I really liked it. And it’s actually the most enjoyable work I’ve done my whole life.

I hope to continue working at this as long as I am physically able — at least 10 or 15 more years.  However, it would be great if I can arrange my work schedule so that my work hours are not so long and intense, and so that I can take some more time off every year.

Do you think the job is suited to your demeanor or the way your mind works specifically and that’s why you enjoy it so much? You said you were interested things like that in the past – did you do anything like it growing up?

A little bit, for my dad. My dad was an academic and an intellectual but he also liked farming and building, and he did a lot of stuff on his own. So I liked helping him with that kind of thing. But suited to my demeanor? I really like this physical part. I like being able to haul stuff around and crawling through spaces and climbing up high in attics and stuff like that. It’s also a mental challenge. If it was only physical, I don’t think it would satisfy me. I like that I have to figure things out and do calculations. It’s like a puzzle.

Was there an a-ha moment when you realized you made the right choice, when it all clicked?

It was an after-the-fact thing. I had no idea if I would really like it, and I never do things that way. Usually I’m the kind of person that pre-plans everything. I guess because I was willing to try it that…

Was there an element of desperation?

No, not desperation. It was sort of like I was wondering…I’d spent so many years doing things I really didn’t like and it was coming to a point where I needed to find something or else I’d be really unfulfilled. And then when I started becoming an electrician, it was clear that I really liked it.

I started this at 42, and I’m 54 now. So it’s been almost twelve years. And that’s very late in life to start a trade like this. But I wasn’t scared. I felt like it was something I needed to do and I was going to do it. I didn’t have many choices. I wasn’t going to do anything else because it was clear I didn’t like anything else that I had tried. So I was willing to try. The only thing I really didn’t want to do was go back to school. But I did have to go back to school [trade school] but I could keep working during the day and get paid for it. That’s why I like the idea of apprenticeships. I think it’s a great structure because you get to do the work even though you have to do some school at night. You don’t have to wait until you’re finished and have a degree to do the work.

In fact, I was very frustrated with the instruction I received as part of my electrical training.  I often found that the instructors were not well qualified to teach the subject, and weren’t able to answer some of my questions or explain things fully, in detail and in depth.  I had to seek out other sources for learning what I needed to know — extra books, other licensed electricians.  I like to understand something as completely as I can — and maybe men who grow up tinkering with this stuff have some sort of intuitive understanding of it and don’t need it explained — but most of the time it seemed as if very few students or instructors cared about really understanding.  I had one instructor who read to us from the textbook — that was how he ran the class!

What do you think you best at? Where could you improve?

I’m constantly learning. That’s one of the things I like about what I do. I always have to get a better understanding of how certain things work. Or there are certain kinds of electrical components that I don’t know and I have to learn about them. I really like working in old houses, which many people don’t. I love old houses and I have a pretty good understanding of the building structure and what the walls are made of and what to look for when I have to I dig into a wall.

Everything, I could improve. I was pretty slow in the beginning. I wanted to make sure I did everything really, really well. And I still do, but that [fastidiousness] slowed me down. And I have been able to speed up a little more, but I probably could be faster. I do things more carefully than most, but then I know when it’s done right. And I never rush. Because you start rushing and then you’re stapling into your wire… To me, it’s just worth it to do it slower than to not know if you tore something or nicked a wire or something like that.

Has entering this profession changed how you see or carry yourself?

Definitely, definitely. Confidence is a big thing. Confidence is something I did not have much of when I started. It’s something I’m still struggling with. I was very confident before I started this. I felt confident as an intellectual and with literature and that I could teach, but when I started this, it was completely new for me. I didn’t know if I was doing things right. There was so much to learn and understand and so I was always unsure if I was doing something right or not. But that has changed. It used to be that I would never try to do something unless I knew exactly how to do it right off. There are so many things I needed to do at home that I would have never even tried – carpentry projects, painting – and doing this work has given me the confidence to try to do something even if I don’t how to do it.  I now realize that even if I don’t know how something should be done, I can probably figure it out. “Figuring out on my own” is something I had no concept of until after I started doing electrical work.

What’s a typically good and typically nightmarish day in the profession?

A good day is when I am able to figure out why something isn’t working. And when I do it pretty efficiently, without having to open every box. A bad day is when I’m working and I have to add something to an existing circuit and the device boxes are just crammed full. It’s really hard to work on top of someone else’s work when it’s really poorly done. Basically, I have to undo everything and redo it and try to cram things into a box where they won’t fit. And that’s painstaking. It’s just painstaking. A lot of hobbyist electricians will do really dangerous things that I have to work around.

I call these non-licensed tinkerers “Joe Homeowner.”  One of the most dangerous things that I have found that these average Joe Homeowner-types do is to put oversized breakers on circuits with small gauge wire — this mainly occurs where a circuit keeps tripping, so the uninformed person thinks that they can solve the problem simply by putting in a bigger breaker (a 30 amp breaker instead of a 15 amp breaker). The real problem is that there is too big a load on that one circuit.  Putting a bigger breaker on small gauge wire is a real fire hazard because if the circuit is overloaded, it will heat up the wire, but the larger breaker won’t trip to protect the wire because it is set to handle bigger amperage.

I once responded to a service call for a light fixture that kept tripping the breaker.  What I found when I got there was that someone had put a penny in the bottom of the light socket which kept shorting between the base of the socket (“hot”) and the screw shell (“neutral”) part of the socket.  I can’t imagine why someone would even think of doing that — except perhaps if the bulb wasn’t screwing all the way down into the socket and they thought they needed to put something in there to bridge the gap.  Thank goodness the breaker was doing its job by tripping!

Several times I’ve come upon old wires whose insulation had dried up and flaked off — so there was several feet of bare wire visible!  Those situations were pretty scary. Another thing I have seen a lot of is what I call “flying splices.”  Those are splices made between wires without using a box to enclose the splice.  One might see wires hanging across a ceiling with a splice made in mid-air.  Sometimes these might be hidden in walls so one doesn’t even know they exist and cannot gain access to them.  A splice is potentially one of the weak points in an electrical circuit, and if there is not a good connection made between the wires, there can be arcing and sparking.  Enclosing splices in boxes is a safety measure that can contain some arcing if it occurs.  And if the splices are buried inside walls, there is no way of knowing that a potential problem exists.  I once saw a metal box completely blackened from a poorly made splice — luckily that box saved that house from burning down. It’s amazing how more places haven’t burned down with some of the issues I’ve come across.

I’ve gotten shocked a few times, nothing terrible, thank goodness. The couple of times I got pretty bad shocks occurred when someone had left uncapped live wires exposed.  One time occurred when I put my hand up into a ceiling to try to grab something but didn’t check carefully what else was up there, and I hit an exposed wire with my hand.  My arm hurt for a while, but that was it.  I was lucky that was all it was.

I’ve been in really spider-webby basements and attics, but I don’t mind spiders. But I haven’t encountered anything really weird. I have come across some hazardous substances. I hate when people use mouse poison because I have to crawl in it and it gets into my clothes. And it’s such a cruel method for killing rodents. I’m sure I’ve inhaled a lot of really bad stuff. Especially PVC glue. And I’ve been in some asbestos, so we’ll see.

One of the pleasantest perks of my work occurs when homeowners have pets and farm animals around.  I always enjoy seeing and talking with animals on the job.  I’ve had curious cows hover around me while I was working on the outside of a house.  They were really funny.  They tried to pull out tools from my tool belt with their mouths.  There were also some llamas in a barn that wouldn’t let me pet them, but as soon as I stopped paying attention to them and focused on my work, they would sneak up behind me and nibble on my clothes.  I’ve met lots of great cats and dogs who were great fun to be around.

Is it bad form to talk about on the job injuries? (Is it considered bad luck? If not, are there things specific to the job that are said to carry some mystical weight?)

No, it’s not. Most electricians swap horror stories. Mostly about things that have blown up. (Laughs) People talk about what electrical installations used to be like. “He’s an old-timer, he knows it from experience.” I respect the old timers, and many times people talk about them testing wires with their fingers and having such deep, thick calluses that they couldn’t feel the shocks.

Electricity is mystical to begin with. Electricians have a healthy respect for its unpredictability. But nobody talks about mystical stuff, at least not that I can recall. The only time I can think of is when I myself made a joke about it – use this Sharpie marker to identify wires and stuff like that, and it smudges if you don’t let it dry. So I blow on it to dry it. Somebody asked me why I blow on it, and I said I was warding off a spell. (Laughs)

What percentage of customers has an interest in what you are doing? Or have so much interest that it’s annoying, like they check your work or examine your credentials?

Nobody’s really examined my credentials. Maybe fifteen percent are curious or interested and I like those customers because I love to talk about what I do, show what I know. So I don’t mind if people are watching over my shoulder, if they’re interested. Maybe five percent hover around me, and that’s a pain but it’s not very frequent.

Do people who hover around generally know what they are talking about?

No. (Laughs) But I should say that sometimes a customer has a good question or good idea, and sometimes it comes from someone who is hovering over me and doubting. Sometimes they say good things. I’m probably more tolerant than most [when it comes to be open to people watching or offering suggestions].

Does being a woman in a traditionally male dominated field factor into customers’ perceptions and expectations? Does it factor into yours? Do you find that people are happy to give a woman business? Are you sick of thinking about what it means to be a woman in this field and would prefer just to be left alone to do your work?

People are interested in my story, but I’m getting kind of tired of telling it. There’s not that much to tell.

Me being a woman does factor into peoples’ expectations. I’ve generally had a very positive experience. Other electricians, other tradespeople on jobs have mostly been very accepting. And I’m very grateful for that. When I go into a new job, I’m always nervous. I think I have to prove myself, not make a mistake. But it’s getting easier. I think people are aware that it’s a little unexpected – they don’t always say something but they’re probably wondering. A couple of customers have tested me out, trying to see if I know what I’m talking about.

I just take it in stride and see if there was anything I couldn’t have done better or known better, and I try to use that for next time. I just try to gain more knowledge and experience as I go. And most of the time now I can walk into a place with confidence, know I that I don’t have all the answers but know enough to do a pretty good job. It hasn’t changed the way I approach things; it just won’t discourage me. It just makes me want to get better.

Every once in a while someone, especially a female client, will say, “Hey I think it’s great you are a woman!” That makes me feel good. I’m not sick of that yet. But what I really want to do is just be able to do the work. And for the most part I do. This other stuff doesn’t get in the way at all; it’s a miniscule part of what I do. It might be because of the part of the country we’re in. If I had to deal with hostility and harassment, I don’t know what I’d do.

One of the things I’m really interested in is why there aren’t more women in the trade. There actually have been several pushes by educational institutions, schools, and government programs that encourage women to go into the trades. There have been quite a few training programs over the past four or five decades, especially since the 70s. So there have been more women coming to these programs, but they just don’t stay. They just don’t build up enough numbers to stay. I’m trying to figure out why that is, because I really miss having more women around. I’d love to see more women working in the trades.

I guess I just feel more comfortable around women.  And I get tired of hearing talk only about sports and hunting.  There are also other limitations to some men — they’re not flexible enough, or open enough to certain things, or comfortable with certain things.  I just can’t be fully myself around them.  Don’t get me wrong — I like most men, and enjoy joking around with them.  I should probably clarify that it’s not just any women I’d like to have around.  I’d like to be around strong women who are serious about their work and like to work hard.  That would be the best scenario.

I came up with my own theory that [the lack of women in the trade] is partly because there isn’t much of support system, and it’s really hard to stick it out in a predominantly male environment unless you really, really love the work. I came from a place where I did enough work I didn’t like that I was going to keep at [electrical work]. It’s hard to come into that environment on your own, so it’s good to have a critical mass, but how do you build that up? Women have a lot of different obligations that make it hard to work in the trades – if you have kids, if you are taking care of somebody, married. I think that with men, there are those situations too. Men have life obstacles that get in the way and they have to drop out, but there are enough men that keep coming into the trade that you don’t notice the turnover as much. The problem is that women come into the trade but don’t stay. There’s a really good program in Vermont called Vermont Works for Women. They train adults but also focus on high school girls, to get them involved in the trades from an early age. I think that’s the way to do it.

Do you feel like people censor themselves in front of you? Or do they not care? Or do they become more aggressive?

It’s mostly in what a lot of my male coworkers talk about. If they talked about other things besides sports and hunting, it would be better. I don’t think they become more outlandishly masculine. A lot of times they apologize for using foul language, which doesn’t bother me at all. They probably do censor themselves a little, but it’s mostly only a few topics of discussion that interest people anyway. If someone brings up something different, you’d be an odd person out. You have to have a pretty strong personality to talk about stuff that isn’t commonly accepted [conversation topics]. Being a woman gives me a little bit of an advantage: as a woman, I’m the odd one to begin with, so it gives me license to say certain things or bring up certain subjects. I think it would be a lot harder for a gay man. I’ve been very open about being a lesbian. Interestingly, all the men I’ve worked with, even the most conservative, are totally fine with it, but they would not be fine with it if I were a gay man. And that’s very hard to think about. It’s been interesting for me in the sense that most of the tradespeople I work with are very conservative politically. I still don’t understand why they think the way they do. And it’s weird because I like them. They think completely differently from me but I like them. They’re nice people; they’re good people. They know what they’re doing and they look out for each other and for me. That’s the hardest part – how can they be nice people and think that way?

****

A little bit about certifications, as quoted from the State of New Hampshire Electrician’s Board website:

“The Electrician’s Board licenses or registers those who are performing electrical installations…for heat, light and power purposes regardless of the voltage. Therefore, it is not the voltage of the circuit that determines the requirements of licensure, it is the type of circuit. For example, no license is currently required for fire alarm installations as these are signaling circuits. Signaling circuits by definition are not considered circuits for heat, light or power purposes.

The categories for licensing are Master, Journeyman and High/Medium Voltage electricians. The Electricians’ Board registers apprentice electricians and high/medium voltage trainees.”

As the interviewee works on the border of two small states, she often works in both. But like the licenses and certifications of many other professions, an electrician’s credentials do not apply nationally.

“The Electrical Safety Section currently has active reciprocal agreements for the master and journeyman license with the States of Maine, and Vermont and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. These are long standing agreements that recognize the master and journeyman licenses of these areas as being substantially equal to those of New Hampshire.

New Hampshire Electricians wishing to reciprocate their license with any of these states or the Commonwealth should contact the reciprocating agency directly for the necessary application and fees. A certified letter can be obtained from the Electrical Safety Section which will be necessary at the time of application as verification of licensure and the applicant is in good standing with the State of New Hampshire.

Applicants applying to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for a reciprocal master license will be required to reciprocate their journeyman license as well as the masters. If have you let your journeyman license lapse due licensure as a master electrician, it can be reinstated for reciprocity purposes by filing the proper application and paying the normal fee for licensure.

In the Fall of 2005 the State of New Hampshire became a member of the Multi-State Reciprocal Licensing Group, now known as National Electrical Reciprocal Alliance (NERA) and therefore has reciprocal licensing agreements, for the journeyman license only, with the States of: Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, Maine, North Dakota, Utah and Wyoming.

New Hampshire electricians wishing to apply for a reciprocal license with a participating state under the NERA agreement must contact that state for the specific requirements, applications and fees.  Applicants applying for a reciprocal license with a participating state must:

  1. Hold a current journeyman license from the State of New Hampshire for at least one year.
  2. Be active and in good standing with the State of New Hampshire.
  3. Have passed the New Hampshire journeyman examination with a minimum grade of 70%.
  4. Have successfully completed a minimum of 8000 hours of practical experience in an apprenticeship program or equivalent.

Applicants holding “grandfather” licenses or who have not passed the New Hampshire journeyman examination are not eligible for reciprocity under the NERA agreement.

Once the application is submitted the reciprocating state with all applicable forms and fees, the reciprocating state will contact the State of New Hampshire electronically for verification of Items 1 – 4 above. Once the verification process has taken place, the reciprocating state should issue the journeyman license…”

Out of Something, Nothing: My Summer as a Professional Mover, part IV

IV.

All of the houses full of garbage, the horror of the surprise addition of an industrial-sized refrigerator to the move, 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. Some of the guys knew how to make the time pass as pleasantly as it could, but when the soundtrack to an already exhausting day is a series of bizarre racist rants or the impatient mockery of your need to get some water, you’ll begin fantasizing about 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 mocking from under their protection. There were grumpy old-timers, quiet guys, 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 was one guy that was so loud and had such an intense, wild-eyed stare that you never knew if he was laughing or if you’d just gotten on his bad side, either of which would result in some totally unpredictable behavior.

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 a moving van in the company parking lot (shredding its 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 pointed and hard. He had itches so profound that his scratches began in a squatting position for maximum force.

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. (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.

It was more than that, though. People were either directly at odds with one another or at best wary, laughing on the surface but always keeping watch. The same trivialities that have inspired millennia of conflict were on display at the moving company. Making sure everyone knew you were tough was the only thing that mattered.

One day I made the mistake of soliciting a coworker’s attention with a ‘psst psst!’-sound instead of calling his name. I really don’t know why I did it but I almost got punched in the face as a result. He stomped over, fists clenched, eyes ablaze, asking how dare I call him like a dog, warning me to never fuckin’ hiss at him again. It was especially scary because his anger came out of nowhere. We had been chatting agreeably all day but he turned on me in an instant. The crew leader standing nearby didn’t make any move to intervene, he simply laughed and awaited the threatened blow.

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. It was assumed that because you worked there you were willing to play by the same rules as the most aggro mover.

(To be fair, I was left 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 involved themselves 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. Fights usually got stopped before they got out of hand but there weren’t any repercussions for the people involved. I guess it was understood by the management that fights were inevitable. 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 when he saw the crew leader walking inside. They exchanged a few punches and then the guy jumped back in his car and drove away, with both returning the next morning as if nothing had happened. This was at least it was better than the conflict resolution technique a guy said they used at the moving company where he used to work: two guys were shut in the back of a moving truck, and the doors were re-opened when the pounding stopped.

But sometimes people were surprisingly understanding of your physical limits. While you were always expected to work hard, it wasn’t often 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 on the job!”), but most of the mockery was more encouragement than derision. There were even times when you were allowed to carry light pieces for a little while, as everyone who worked there knew how difficult moving could be.

Trying to understand these dynamics and where/how I fit in was a perplexing and dissonant exercise. 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.

This is why it was so satisfying to be told I was a better worker than the football player-sized guy who started a week or two after I did. Everyone was thrilled to have him around 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 an equitable division of labor; I apparently demonstrated I could work this way and was thus more valued.

Out of Something, Nothing: My Summer as a Professional Mover, part III

III.

My first move, with all of its horrifying racist ignorance and the homeowner’s unusually large collection of appliances, ranked relatively low on the ladder of weirdness. It was definitely weird, but all things considered, it was a pretty average day for a mover.

The most commonly weird thing I encountered as a mover was a gross house. I have firsthand knowledge and experience

  • …going to a fancy neighborhood to move the huge house of a neurosurgeon and a pediatrician. It had never been cleaned. Not once. It wasn’t just messy but a completely unhealthy dump. There was random trash everywhere, animal waste and perishable food under every piece of furniture and grimy bottles of old makeup spilled in every room, to say nothing of the piles of newspaper, stained carpets, and dirty towels that clogged the entirety of the house.
  • …lifting a couch and seeing that my face was six inches away from an entire side of greasy streaks and crunchy brown objects. “Looks like you got the booger side!” the homeowner laughed.
  • …moving the unburned portion of a house that had been damaged by fire and seeing that there were guns and piles of unknown pills laying around every usable room. One mover’s claim that he stole a guns remains thankfully unverified.
  • …going to a house so full of old diapers and insects that the move was cancelled. The boss was called by coworkers, who explained that they didn’t give a fuck’ but they weren’t fuckin’ going in that fuckin’ house.

But your days didn’t have to be unsanitary or totally racist to be weird. Sometimes the days were unusual in the best way possible.

Imagine you are moving a big box up some stairs, muscles straining, a manly pack of cigarettes evident in your shirt pocket. At the top of the stairs is the beautiful homeowner, clad in lingerie, looking at you with undisguised desire.

If movers are to be believed, seduction by homeowner is par for the course. Everyone I worked with had a story about this happening on the job. But nothing about these claims struck me as true, especially since everyone basically had the same story. It felt like an urban legend, but maybe something about men lifting stuff really induced random sex.

I asked one pretty levelheaded guy about it, imagining he’d laugh with me about the ubiquity of the story:

“A lot of guys have been saying that seduction on the job is pretty common. Has this ever really happened?”

“Yeah, it’s definitely happened: they were probably talking about me.”

His response confirmed that this almost never happens, if it ever happened at all.

Sometimes the weirdness quotient was fulfilled by the amount of work a move required. One day a crew was sent to move a law office from one building to another. There was the usual amount of desks and file cabinets and equipment associated with an office, but there were also at least two thousand boxes of documents. Every one of their files had to be moved. As any mover will tell you, moving boxes is the worst. It’s not that they are universally heavy (except boxes of books, which are really heavy) but that are they usually come in such great amount that the tedium of moving them would gladly be exchanged for the challenge of moving a few really heavy things. A normal house move would have at most fifty to seventy-five boxes, and moving even that many takes a surprisingly long time. Moving two thousand boxes meant that the movers were there until 2:30am. They were all scheduled to work the next day at 8.

One move started at a fairly small house. The living room had floor to ceiling bookshelves that, while claustrophobia-inducing and heavy, weren’t unusual or too troublesome. There was some heavy wooden furniture upstairs, which had to be dismantled to move down the narrow staircase. OK, a huge pain but still not that unusual. Then the homeowner took us down to the basement. With a glint in his eye and no small amount of pride in his voice, he showed us his antique computer collection.

Our professional demeanor prevented us from yelling “oh FUCK!” like we wanted to. Everything – everything – in an old NASA reel or an old submarine was present in his basement. He had enormous old monitors, CPUs, radars, cooling units, circuit boards lining his basement walls, all of which were in nuclear-proof housing. The metal shelves that held some of his collection were from an industrial storage building on an Air Force base and proved to be insanely heavy in their own right. The majority of the pieces, however, were not on the shelves but placed around the basement, in front of or on top of things that we had to move to access to other things. In short, it was a tiny house with a tiny basement with a tiny stairwell, filled with bulky, sharped-edged machines that weighed hundreds of pounds each. Laughing, he said that his wife and kids were always telling him to get rid of it. Why don’t you start right now? I wanted to ask. But he wanted to keep it – “I’ll get it all working someday” – so we had to move it. It was already almost dark when we finished loading the truck. We still had to unload everything but fortunately his museum could be offloaded right through the garage into the basement of the new place.

Unloading a truck is a million times easier and faster than loading it, and we took care of business as quickly as possible. This was the job that awarded me a crisp $100 tip. I also had the chance to drink a cold beer with the homeowners, but not knowing if my coworker/crew leader would approve (it was prohibited to drink on the job), I had to decline.