I possess a special dispensation that allows me to sit down and rest on a concrete block in the narrow bar of shade beneath a warehouse while the laborers dig. It’s called gender. And it does feel good to take a rest at about 10 am, three hours into the contractors’ New York City work day, with the temperature already spiking to the high 80s. The men rake gravel over the flat site of the new sidewalk, their faces boil red, they work unceasingly except when they take swigs from pint bottles of water – That’s not enough water! Not nearly enough! I want to call out to them. Hydrate. Because I am a schoolmarm, and I want to tell people to drink in the sun.
But I don’t. My lips are sealed. As an arborist, one who happens to be female, I am mostly ignored, except for the few occasions I have to bring my four sweetgum trees to someone’s attention. We’re on West Street, on the Brooklyn waterfront, a place that’s getting a total facelift as Greenpoint unceasingly gentrifies. These four trees are the living remainder of dozens that got taken down earlier this year because they stood in the way of construction.
All the man stuff seems like a cliché — the bonhomie, lots of hand shaking, especially first thing in the morning, the fights, half serious, yelling that doesn’t come to blows, crotch scratching galore. I knew this was a place of men going in, but now I’m acutely aware of of being the only antelope among a herd of water buffalo. They talk behind my back (sometimes in Portuguese), but so surreptitiously I never catch them at it. We have conversations once in a while, but I feel I have to keep my guard up, not be too cheerful or chatty, lest I become “the girl” and lose their respect. Some girl, I’m twice most these men’s age.
We share an experience. Here is what we have at eleven o’clock. It’s simple. Three men digging an enormous hole, a backhoe hauling up tons of dirt and lumber, massive rocks and pipes, while four inspectors stand at the edge, peering solemnly into the trench. Meanwhile, a truck from King’s Building Supplies rumbles by, loaded with bags of material like king-size loaves of bread. I feel as though I am the only woman for blocks around.
The sun has broiled us all, and now the clouds roll in. Over the green painted plywood fence to the west you can see the crenellated Manhattan skyline, from the Freedom Tower to the Empire State Building. Soon a real estate mogul will erect an urban village here, where every tenant will have a river view. At 2:30, Elite Concrete pulls up with its churning mixer and its cobalt cab, and the workers start in with rakes and floaters, knee deep in the chocolate-pudding-like cement.
The crew heckles the new guy, who works twice as hard as anyone, a goofy smile on his face. They can be mean or sweet, emotions are high. All the older guys are beer bellied, their guts distending their safety vests, while the young ones stay tendon-thin. The project supervisor chain smokes, his face the color of pastrami. I stand beside a laborer watching a guy welding, he tells me not to look and holds his fingers up to his eyes to pantomime crying. Never look at the light of a welding torch, it’s as bright as the sun. I feel ashamed of my ignorance of these most basic man-matters. An 18-wheeler drives by with a load of crushed cars. West Street is a work site but also a thoroughfare, a speedway for tractor trailers to bang through Brooklyn carrying lumber and sheetrock and rebar.
I have to be here – the city requires an arborist to be present whenever a construction site has trees. I’m a pain in the neck of this crew. That I lack a Y chromosome is an added perplexity. I’m a high-pitched gnat in someone’s ear: Will you build the tree pit forms today? When will you install the steel-faced curbs? Yes, yes, Jean, you’ll just have to wait until we get the real work done.