Questions From The Ninth Floor

Since I have been working on the construction job, I have gotten some unusual reactions and questions from people. I hope that sharing them does not come across as prejudice or as a attitude of privilege. I share them as a part of the learning experience that I am going through as a white, middle-aged man with two degrees who is working  on a construction site on the clean-up crew.

One day I was working with my fellow clean-up man and had to made a quick move to avoid a board that was being tossed into the trash dumpster. My co-worker made the comment that I have pretty quick reactions for a man of my age. (Did he call me old?)

Later that day, at lunch, a man who has spent time in state custody, asked me how old I was. When I told the man I was 57 he then asked me if I was retired. I said “No” and that I will probably work at a job until the day that I die. He then asked me what I considered to be a very strange question. “Did you just get out of prison?”

When I thought about it later I thought that the man’s question may not really have been that unusual a question for either him or the job site. You, see,  the man that I clean up with has been incarcerated in the past. The man at lunch who asked me how old I am has also been in prison. Three other men on the job that I know of have been incarcerated as well.

Maybe the man at lunch thought it was unusual for an older white guy to be working  53 hours a week on the clean-up crew of a construction project for $8.oo an hour. In his mind, what other reason could there be except that I had just gotten out of prison? Did his question reflect his experiences in life with people, at work or the racial prejudices that still exist in society? I don’t know; I’m just asking.

These thoughts have been furthered by the reactions and questions that I have gotten from other guys, men with the company that I am employed by as well as men with out-of-town sub-contractors working on the job. It seems that my presence on the job site has been the cause for some discussion among some folks.

For example, when a Hispanic man asked me how long I had been working on this job, he said, “You’re working with a lot of Mexicans.” Was he telling me that construction work is only for Mexican men, or was he expressing amusement that a white guy would work where most of the other men are either Mexican-American or Mexican?

In the elevator the other day, a supervisor with a window company from out of town (a man that I had never seen or spoken with before) said, “So, I understand that you’re a teacher.” It was like, “I’ve heard that you have a ‘white collar’ job as a teacher; what are doing working here?” So, I had to explain to him about being a substitute teacher who doesn’t work during the summer months, doesn’t get paid when he isn’t working and still has a family to feed and care for.

I am sure that the questions that these men asked were honest questions, but do these men, any of these men, think that color, age and background are lines that divide other men into certain job categories, skills or abilities, and income levels? Were any of the questions based on prejudice? I am pretty confident, though, that the questions reflect their individual and personal-experience perspectives from living life and working “on the job”.

I don’t know. I’m just asking.

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